First Lines (again)

Last week I started my long-term artist residency at Roosevelt High school, and it has been awesome. The kids are engaged, the teachers are passionate – it’s all you can hope for in a writers residency.

I’m here today. It continues to be awesome.

One of my favorite things to do with a school group is an exercise in writing opening lines – the initial breath of a story that hasn’t been written yet, but that the student themselves would like to read some day. What interests me most in these workshops is to get kids to engage with the kind of stories that hook them individually as readers. Now, I have a selfish ulterior motive in this – I am an omnivoratious reader, and find myself personally grooving on lots and lots of different kinds of stories. One thing I tell my students all the time is the simple fact that writers, in the end, are selfish. We write to entertain ourselves. We read to entertain ourselves. It’s one of the few perks of this lonely, lonely job.

So whatever. I’m super selfish. Sue me.

Anyway, the problem with coming into a classroom to do a writer’s workshop is hesitation. We have a limited amount of time, and the kids are naturally hesitant. Well, of course they are!  I’m a complete stranger, after all, and I’m asking them to remove all pretense and self-consciousness and to sit down and write stuff. Madness!

So, we start with first lines. First lines are fun because they shine a light onto the story as it can be while still being a story all on its own. And that’s exciting. And it tricks the kids into engaging their imaginations, their what-if muscles, and it tricks them into writing even when they aren’t writing.

Here’s some of what they came up with:

  • I was used to waking up to the smell of burnt bacon.
  • I’m only eighteen, and I haven’t seen the world.
  • A rush of cool breeze crawled up my arms.
  • Not just darkness, but the silent kind.
  • She opened the book, and then she disappeared.
  • The sun set at the far end of the dusty road.
  • He was the child of no one.
  • We were happy. That’s when everything changed.
  • The wind of the world washed everything away.
  • Damn him and his luck.
  • I wasn’t anyone worth knowing. That’s what made me special.
  • When I woke up, I was already dead. That’s what they told me, anyway.
  • I heard a voice whisper in my ear, but when I turned, only the wind was there.
  • Night was scary, but I was scarier.
  • Don’t believe anything I’m about to say.
  • His face was the perfect frame for the bright red outline of my fist.
  • I told her to stop, and she didn’t. I told her to run, and she wouldn’t.
  • Whatever you do, don’t read to the end.
  • Her wedding dress lay on the street, wet and muddy.
  • They emerged from the burning tree.

And, of course, my favorite, “Once upon a f***ing time.”


7 thoughts on “First Lines (again)

  1. This is such a great exercise. IIRC you’ve talked about this before with elementary aged kids and it really struck a nerve with me. First lines are so wonderfully wide upon, and the good ones totally suck you in. At least they do for me. Then again I am a reading addict.

    Have you read John Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War”? It has one of the best opening lines EVR.

    My own favorite, so far, is: The dog lives in the end. And on the novel I’m slowly carving: You probably don’t want to read this book.

    Congratulations on getting the artist residency. How lucky for you. May their voices polish your work ever brighter.

    • You know, I haven’t read it yet, though I’m an admirer of Mr. Scalzi.

      And I really am having a lovely time. It’s been a bit since I was last in a high school setting, and I’m enjoying the heck out of it.

  2. Kids have great imaginations.

    I do this too! Whenever I get an idea I write it down like it was the first lines of a book and then see if I can take it anywhere. My favorite so far: “The aliens have conquered Earth. That was their first mistake.”

    My favorite first line from an existing book is “It’s hard to be a larva.” (Nor Crystal Tears, by Alan Dean Foster)

      • Just an idea. I haven’t managed to get much down yet, but here’s the gist of it:

        The aliens evolved in a pack-like social structure, like wolves, so the weaker members always submit to the stronger. Early on that meant literal strength, but later it became more complex as they developed intelligence. But military might was still the strongest factor in their minds. Their home planet had only a single continent, so they were all united under one ruler by the time they reached somewhere around the late steam age. There wasn’t really any fighting at all until they reached space and started expanding to other planets. Even then, it was only the occasional primitive tribe. Because of this, their military tactics and ideas are all designed around two scenarios: people with bows and spears, or people who developed the same way they did.

        When they find Earth, they use their standard plan of attacking without warning, making a show of overwhelming force so we will immediately recognize our inferiority and submit to their strength. They had detected our radio emissions and thought our communications net would make it easier, since anyone who didn’t see their initial attack could be informed of humanity’s defeat by their peers.

        Humans being humans, of course, they were wrong. About pretty much everything. They couldn’t have misjudged the situation more if they tried.

        For instance, all their experience fighting has been on the ground. Their shuttles for landing troops and supplies are big, slow, unarmored, and have transponders that broadcast their locations to avoid collisions. Compare that to something like the American F-22 Raptor, with a top speed of around twice the speed of sound and a radar profile the size of a marble. Also consider the number of places on earth with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft guns.

        The rest of their technology, while more advanced, is similarly inferior, though I have yet to actually research the stuff we humans have available. Most of my information so far comes from PopSci magazine. 🙂

        On a different not, I just re-read The Mostly True Story of Jack. I always think it’s interesting how much stuff you notice the second time you read something that you missed the first time.

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