When I was about to start my senior year of high school, I sat down with my school counselor and went through some possible electives that I could fill out my schedule with. I was stunned and delighted to come across one titled Creative Writing. The thought of getting a grade for something I did for fun had never occurred to me. (And the thought of getting paid for it wouldn’t occur for another several years yet.)
My teacher was a sarcastic old man just another couple more semesters away from retirement, constantly demanding more of his students and openly mocking those who wouldn’t give it. He had a bird skull rattle that would shake whenever someone said something ridiculous that would help “keep the stupid away.” He shook that rattle a lot.
I adored him. He was the perfect kind of snarky, clever art connoisseur for me to worship and I regularly crucified myself to impress him. I remained firmly at the top of his class, my grade never once dipping below 110%, and spent most of my time working on extra projects in the hall or the library, well away from the rattle of the bird skull.
One of those assignments, dreamed up because of my need for a little polish on my opening lines, took me to the library with a very brief set of instructions that went something like this:
Pick three books you know nothing about. Read only the first line and choose your favorite one. Then write a short story using that line as your own first sentence.
Now I was only given this assignment once (and over the course of the 45 minutes of class, I read far more than three first lines, and a lot of second and third and fourth lines too). But it’s stuck with me over the years. In fact, I even found and entered a writing competition with a similar premise, where a short story was written recycling the first and last lines of famous stories. So my teacher wasn’t the only one with this notion!
Writing first lines can be difficult. Sometimes it helps to see others who do it well. I think that’s what makes this exercise so fun for me—getting to boogie board off of someone else’s genius when my own is flagging.
Want to try it out for yourself? Awesome! There are a couple ways you can go about this. You could pick from books in the genres you work in (or want to work in). This works best for me when I want to work on something, but am writer blocked and looking for inspiration, rather than actual lines. Another way is to get really wild and pick first lines from genres you don’t write. It probably isn’t like anything you would normally write, so this is more a writing exercise for fun (and falls more in line with what my teacher had me doing). It works best for things you would never ever plan to publish, because, of course, we would never just steal someone’s ideas without proper permission and attribution, right? Right.
In the era of COVID, getting your hands on all these lesser known books can be tricky, since you can’t just rove through the stacks at your local library looking for stories you’ve never heard of. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it!
Do you read e-books? Wherever you get them, odds are you can read the first bit of all kinds of books without actually purchasing the full book. (And maybe you’ll like it and want to purchase it anyway. Don’t fight the feeling!) Even if you don’t regularly read e-books and you’re not sure where people get them all that newfangled stuff, just a quick Amazon search will bring up thousands of books, nearly all of which will let you sneak peek at the first pages.
Don’t even know what an “E book” or a “compooter” is? (How are you reading this again?) Get social about it—from a distance! Call up your friends and ask them to share the first line of their current read—whether that’s a traditional book, a graphic novel, or even a podcast transcript. Anything goes!
The idea is to get the creativity flowing, with a little brain juice injection from established pros. (Or even less established ones—I bet your up-and-coming writer friends would be flattered if you asked for the first line of their current project, just for funsies.) And who knows? Maybe all this literary exercising will inspire something a little deeper. You won’t know until you try. And if you do, let me know how it turns out- extra digital cookies for any short stories or killer first lines in the comments!
Until next week, happy writing!