Monday, June 20, 2011

The Dreaded First Paragraph

by Susan Berger

I know someone, perhaps at Writer’s Day, mentioned that they often completely rewrite the first chapter after they have read their manuscript in its entirety. The comment stuck in my head because I was still not satisfied with the first paragraph of Tasha, the Magnificent which is the mid grade novel I am working on. 

I rewrote Chapter One again last month and took the first five pages to the West Side Schmooze for middle grade critique night. I got some very helpful input but I still didn’t think I had the right place to start the story. 

I decided to format Tasha as an ePub and put it on my iPad. I thought this would force me to read the book as a reader. It worked. (I kept a pad next to me for short notes.)

My conclusion? Under the aegis of Pen and Ink, the book had become good, EXCEPT for the first chapter. However reading it as a reader made me see what I needed to do to fix it. I like my first paragraph much better now.

Here's what I have now. I think it give a better sense of who Tasha is.

“I don’t know. Karate’s not really my thing.” Tasha aimed the paper plane she’d made out of her math homework toward the lunch counter. It soared over three tables and dived bombed the meatloaf. “How bout you come to my house and I’ll show you my magic collection? I got Half Magic for my birthday.”

How do you like your current first paragraph?

For your entertainment and edification, here are ten first paragraphs.  Some from books that have won awards.

1. The statue has got to go. That's my first thought as I prep the living room for Dustin's visit later
tonight. I know I'm the only one who would notice the discriminating eyes of Mom's four-inch Jesus staring down from the mantle. Dustin probably wouldn't look away from my breasts if the room were two feet deep in holy water. Still, I reach for it.

 2. Benny Imura couldn’t hold a job so he took to killing.
It was the family business.  He barely liked his family-and by family he meant his older brother Tom-and he definitely didn’t like the idea of “business.” Or work.  The only part of the deal that sounded like it might be fun was the actual killing.
3.  Now I have to start lying.
While I stare through the windshield at the building my brother lives in. I try to think up a good lie, but nothing comes to mind.  “I was in the neighborhood”? Yeah.  Right.  It’s nineteen hours from Chicago to Albuquerque.  If you drive all night.  If you only stop for Mountain dews and KFC extra crispy.  By the way, KFC closes way too early in Oklahoma.

Sometimes I just know things.
Like when Lou asked me to go on that walk
Down by the reservoir last year
on the last day of eighth grade.
I knew he was going to say
He wanted to break up with me.

5.  There were only two kinds of people in our town.  “The stupid and the stuck,” my father had affectionately classified our neighbors.  “The ones who are bound to stay or too dumb to go.  Everyone else finds a way out.”  There was no question which one he was, but I’d never had the courage to ask why.  My father was a writer and we lived in Gaitlin, South Carolina because the Wates always had, since my great-great-great-great-grand-dad, Ellis Wate, fought and died on the other side of the Santee River during the Civil War. 

 6.  If Sarah hadn’t put the monkey in the bathtub, we might never have to help the monsters get big.  But she did, so we did, which given the way things worked out was probably just as well for everyone on the planet – especially the dead people.

 7.  My dad used to be Abraham Lincoln.  When I was six and learning to read, I saw his initials were A.B.E.  Albert Baruch Edelman.  ABE.  That’s when I knew.
8.  May 1, 1910 Seventeen days till the End of the World.
Earth Will Pass Through Comet’s 24-Million-Mile-Long Tail on May 18

9.  A light breeze blew plumes of sand across the empty schoolyard.  On the other side of a low wall the flat desert stretched out against the horizon.  Over the course of the morning, the dark rectangle this side of the wall would shrink, and by recess would provide just enough shade for children like Akash who didn’t care to play cricket or run after a ball. From his seat by the open window Akash scanned the sky for signs of a rainstorm, for the swollen monsoon clouds that usually built up this time of year before they exploded with thunder and lightning to unleash sheets of rain.  But the breeze only dies and Akash resigned himself to another day of relentless heat.

10. Dusk creeps in and day is done.
      The last few rays of stubborn sun
      Cling to the hilltop, tree and town.
      We wish that we could push it down.

Do You Speak Query


  1. I always just put pen to paper and write whatever comes to mind. Half the time it's garbage. Half the time chapter one is garbage, but if I worry about it the story never gets written.
    I try to find a hook, but if one isn't there in my mind I leave it to the second draft. In the second draft, I start in the middle of some action. My whole intent is to get the reader invested in the story.
    J. Aday Kennedy
    The Differently-Abled Writer & Speaker
    Children's Author of Stella the Fire Farting Dragon (April 2011)

  2. Great post. I've learned to just write and edit later too. It took me awhile to realize that. Thanks for sharing and for the examples, quite enjoyable.


  3. I really like your first paragraph -- and it's helpful to read these other examples of strong openings. I'm not thrilled with my current opening but I'm not even halfway through the first draft of my WIP yet.

    Great idea to format your novel for the Kindle and read it like a reader. How clever! I may try that at some point.

  4. Whenever I begin my first paragraph, I start with a selection from the following words:


    Senor Indent

  5. Great post. I like your first paragraph. I'm working on mine.

    And, that's a great idea to put your ms into a pdf and read it on your ereader - I'm sure you have to see it differently.

    I do this for my own nonfiction ebooks I'm self-editing before selfpubbing on Kindle or Smashwords.

  6. Oh yeah. Rewriting that first paragraph is an ongoing thing for me. I am never happy with how mine sound, feel or look.

    Of your samples I like #2 and #7 They paint a mental picture I want to read more about.

    Margot’s Magic Carpet
    Kids Books With a WOW Factor!

  7. Thanks for the comments. I appreciate them. Putting the latest draft of my WIP in a reading device really helped me. It forced me to read more like a reader. Megan, Donna, Jess Karen and Margot, Glad you enjoyed the paragraphs.

  8. I love the sentence about the paper plane dive-bombing into the meatloaf - but I think it should be "dive-bombed" (you have "dived bombed").

    My only other note is that we don't who the first line of dialogue is attributed to. (Or should I say - to whom the first line of dialogue is attributed?)

    I know you like dialogue without tags but I think you should maybe use one if it's the first line of your book.

    Best of luck with it. I can't wait to read it!!



We love hearing from you.