Primoris Lacuna: First Sentence Blues

Thursday’s Children, 16 May 2013

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Sometimes my inspiration gets blocked but the worst is when it happens at the very beginning of a new novel. I have real trouble starting a new project without having:

a) all of the character’s names figured out

b) the title of the book (it’s KILLING me that I’m still using a ‘place holder’ name for my current WIP) and

c) the first sentence. A perfect, wonderful first sentence.

This is all, of course, after the outline etc has been completed (read my blog “My Muse Moonlights as an Accountant” for more on outlines).

Why the mental block when it comes to first sentences? Sure, they ARE the first thing a reader sees and they’ve got to grab the reader by the and persuade her/him that the next sentence is worth reading too. And the next. But do we stress about the second sentence? Write the first sentence and then stop, stuck, unable to go any further for lack of a second sentence? Or third? Not so much. The dumb thing is, I KNOW that my first draft is going to be torn apart and built up all over again. My characters may grow stronger or cease to exist and indulgent writing will be slapped down. So why am I so cool with the fact that most of my words are replaceable but can’t start to write until the first sentence is perfect?

I call it ‘Primoris Lacuna’ phobia, which is very bad Latin for ‘fear of first words’. And no wonder so many of us seem to suffer from it! First sentences ARE important, if they weren’t, there wouldn’t be so many websites with literary ‘test yourself’ challenges, daring you to name the source of as many of the first lines as possible. Just google ‘Famous First Lines of Novels’ and you’ll get 73,400,000 hits. Okay, I know this number isn’t accurate but it makes my point. (Just for fun, let’s include some of the most famous, go ahead, test yourself!):

“All this happened, more or less.”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

“It was a cold day in early April, and a million radios were striking thirteen. Winston Smith pushed open the glass door of Victory Mansions, turned to the right down the passage-way and pressed the button of the lift.” (From my absolute favourite book ever!)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” EVERYONE must know this one by now!

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

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Might it be a small fear of commitment? In writing that first line you’ve committed yourself to, depending on your project, months of isolation, frustration, joy, anger, elation and, sometimes, depression. Suddenly your social life is non-existent and your children ask their father who that person working on the laptop in the kitchen is. Your inner writer emerges and you’re fighting procrastination, along with the guilt over the procrastination, both of which block the heck out of your inspiration.

Letting the stress of getting those words just right stop us from getting on with the story is, well, silly. So here are some suggestions for conquering fear of Primoris Lacuna:

1. Just write the frickin’ words! Get ’em down, you can make them better later!

2. Write your second sentence first. Yes, you heard me. By doing this, you’ve taken the pressure off and sometimes you’ll find that the second sentence was actually the first sentence in disguise. (I recently started writing a new novel and found that my 23rd sentence was actually my first sentence). Put anything in place of that opening line, XXXXXXs, dashes, any placeholder (see item 3)

3. Put something completely ridiculous as your first sentence. Then go on with the story. This should probably be item 2a, it’s pretty much the same except when you write something silly for your first line, there’ll be a good laugh waiting for you when you edit.

4. If you’re like my hubby, start in the middle of the novel. He starts his stories half-way through and expands out from there.

Conquer the fear and allow your inspiration back in, she’s been peeking in the window and it’s cold outside. Now go get your ass on a seat and write something!

PS I found my first line, it exposed itself *ahem* in the tenth paragraph of the first chapter: “In the water was a seagull, enjoying the contents of Maurice’s stomach.” My original first sentence was just silly.

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11 comments on “Primoris Lacuna: First Sentence Blues

  1. sugaropal says:

    I try not to stress too much about the first sentence until the last revision. As you said, by then, I might even have decided the whole first chapter needs to be killed. I do agree about naming characters, because for me they often have symbolic meaning that reflects character traits or backstory or something. As for titles, I HATE thinking them up, and in traditional publishing, the title gets changed from the original fairly often.

  2. I love the term Primoris Lacuna! Brilliant! The first line of every manuscript I’ve ever drafted has ended up changing, even the ones I was really proud of at the time. Now I don’t think of the first line as *the* first line. I think of it as the beginning of a conversation with the character’s voice that I know will change as I get to know my POV better.

    Thanks so much for joining us on Thursday’s Children! Kristina x

  3. folioroad says:

    That’s a great first line, btw. Not one you’d soon forget! Personally, I don’t worry about first lines as much as I probably should…

  4. AmberR says:

    I’m the worst at titles and usually talk my boyfriend into thinking one up for me – taking the easy/lazy way out, I guess. But I completely agree with you about naming characters because I feel like you can really get a vibe from someone’s name. I usually don’t worry about the first sentence being great until I’m about halfway through the novel, then I rework it several times there for whatever reason. Other times, I feel like the perfect sentence just appears out of nowhere. I have a running list that I’m hoping to use one day.

  5. For me it’s not just the first sentence I worry about, but the whole first chapter, since I’m afraid of starting the story in the wrong place! So I try to write ‘scenes’ from later in the novel, then go back to create the first chapter. I would say that the first chapter (and the first page and first sentence) probably change more than anything else!

  6. Mia Celeste says:

    Oh, firsts are so hard. I really struggle with them too.

    http://www.miaceleste.com/?p=323

  7. I’m really not so bad with opening lines. That is to say I can write them OK it’s just that when I go back to them I can think ‘not so great’. What I find really hard is ending a story. How do you tie up all the loose ends and end the story at the right place without it seeming contrived? For me that’s more of a problem than the beginning.

  8. absolutely love this! JUST WRITE! I’m struggling with the whole “bash your inner editor over the head” thing. I’m slowly learning that first drafts aren’t going to be perfect. So JUST WRITE! 🙂
    I haven’t moved on to the stage of revisions yet…that’s a-whole-nother ball park that scares the dickens out of me.

    • kellyewrites says:

      It’s a very strange mindset! I find that I procrastinate like crazy and then when I DO sit and write, the first few sentences may be pretty bad but once I get into the flow the words start coming and they’re good! The hard part, stupidly, is the ‘just write!’ I’m glad someone else feels it too!

  9. I usually don’t worry too much about the first line, because it almost always changes anyway. Love your first line – poor Maurice! 🙂

  10. Kate Michael says:

    How many first lines does it take to find the first line, lol! And not just the first first, but the first of each chapter as well. Yours is great, btw 🙂

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