Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Opening Line

That pesky first line of a book. It has to capture the reader's attention without being so over the top that it turns them off. 

My current work in progress is 15+ years in the making. It was a story I started writing when I was ten that I just can't let go. Over the years the story has grown and matured with me. Being an elementary teacher, editing for Fantasy Island Book Publishing, and also studying psychology and counseling has given me the unique position to analyze my own writing.

Most importantly, I have saved every version of Flight Moon that I have ever written. On this post I will lay it all out for you to see, my worst and youngest writing. I will be using a model similar to stages of reading ability that are used in elementary school: emergent, strategic, and proficient ability.

By examining these versions, with their many errors and changes, one can distinctly see the development of writing style, voice, and purpose. I chose to include each version in its entirety, spelling errors and all.

The First Draft, Written in 1994
Ten Years Old

A pour family lived in Opilnycad, a village beside a small river. The family was treated as if they were slaves though they were loyal pesents. The family contained of six people, the grandmother’s name was Folashia, wich meant grace and the grandfather’s name was Apaylios. 

In this version I classify my writing as emergent. The entire story reads like a summary or journal entry of events that have happened. At very few points does the action slow down and make the reader feel like they are "there". However, the basis for the main characters, the world, and the central plot is established.

The First Revision 1995-1996
Twelve Years Old

“Speaking of stories, I am fond of a story that I would enjoy if I told you……

This story begins in a timely kingdom on a short platue where lays a beautiful town full of market places flocked with people. The royal trumpets blew for the arrival of his majesty King Oman Ophilnycad Ploun the first. He was a generous individual but he always kept to himself. 

In the kingdom, there were nine small towns that made up Oman’s part of the world. In most of these tows everybody knew everybody and every one would invite their neighbors to have tea or some kind of drink.

So from that most every one knew that the Remese family was expecting babies

Again, I classify this version as emergent. There is still very little action throughout the story. Important events are given brief one-sentence explanations. Yes, there is more attention paid to descriptions in the version, but to be completely honest I was giving little or no thought to the importance of including them. The plateau, the description of the king, the make up of the kingdom, all these were thrown into the introduction because they "sounded cool". A narrator is also added, who is important to the plot, but later I decided to cut him completely.

The Second Revision 1998
Fourteen Years Old

“Speaking of stories, I am fond of a story that I would enjoy if I told you…
The desiccate cry of a mother giving birth raised around the paltry crowd of commonalty. The cold air stung their skin and the soft snow falling seeped through their hard-worn clothes. On the one old mare they had, they carried Dornata. She wore a soft brown blanket over her shoulders and her pail arms and fair ivory hair took a gentle radiance from the moonlight. No one talked. They just huddled around the horse and quickly strided beside it. Dornata screamed as if trying to release herself from the pain. Philip tried to comfort her, but his efforts were no help.

This version I would classify as strategic. In education, we use the term strategic when referring to students who are on the verge of mastering a subject, but just need some guidance in order to reach that level. This version the sequence of events slows down, and an actual "story" is being told. Also, this version demonstrates a common mistake of beginning writers. I call it the "throw in" where a writer takes a very uncommon word and puts it in for a synonym for the word that would have worked just as well. My fourteen year old attempts at this are pretty obvious. With some tweaking and attention to detail, this version would become more interesting.

Third Revision 2003
Eighteen Years Old

The old man lets out a slow, accepting breath as he stares into the boy’s eyes. With a nod, he begins,

“Well yes, I do know of a good story. This one begins a long, long time ago, back on your home planet… It was a place unlike what we know today, and full of things of wonder and mystery. It’s hard to understand this, looking back, how it could be so different from this world. It’s hard to imagine it with its mysterious customs. With its people, some of which held the threads of the mystery and knew the weight of its power, and some who could only fear it. With its magic, fantastical creatures soaring the skies, and terrible beasts lurking the forests. The story begins with one such being, whose power would be one to change the destiny of the universe...

She clenched the reigns tighter, so tight her hands began to feel numb, and she wished that the numbness would take her completely. She felt the cool wind of dusk on her face, and watched as the last signs of day faded to the west. She felt it coming, and her vision saw a blurry wall of dark trees and stones. The cry echoed around her again. Maybe it came from the dark shadows beyond the trees or from above or behind… no, it came from herself. It came from her and rose and fell on the people huddling around her. The air she gasped stung her, and she shivered, too weary to shake off the collecting snow that seeped through her worn clothes.

Yes, I am aware the excerpts are getting longer, but I am still rather fond of this version. At this point I believe I was in the proficient stage, although there would still be one major plot change that would cut this scene completely. The narrative opening still exists and has become a detailed explanation, which I didn't cut out for many years. Still sticking with the narrator opening the story, it made sense that he would explain the world to the two children he was telling the story to. Later, I decided to cut the narrator and tell the story more directly.

Fourth Revision 2005
Twenty Years Old

(same preface as above)
A cold numbness. A sweet, cold numbness, filling her hands. At first her fingers prickled with sensation, but soon they submitted and the cold received them. She wished the numbness would take her completely. Let her sink into its depths, its empty, cold depths… Her hands clenched the reins tighter, and slowly the numbness began to spread up her forearms, up to her tight chest where her breath, shallow and weak, fought for room. She felt the pain yielding to its emptiness. A long breath dared to raise her chest and then let it fall, slowly, causing a flush of forgetfulness up her neck to her head. Her thoughts were sinking from the horse, the pain, to the coldness… where they could fade away. A weakness weighed on her, and slowly all she was aware of was the darkness…

Again, I believe this qualifies for the proficient stage, with some improvements on the previous version. This version made the woman's experiences more personal and direct. One of my editors once explained that using "she felt" and "she heard" filtered the story through a character's perspective, and made it less intense for the reader. I enjoyed writing this scene, although it was about a woman giving birth (which at the time I had not experienced and now do not wish to remember.)

Current Revision

“They are coming!”
The door to the cottage slammed shut with a gust of winter air.
“They have come for the children!”
Commotion swept through the house. Bodies rose from their rest and began gathering supplies.
“We have to get them out of here,” a cloaked man stated, wrapping one of the infants in a blanket.
“Where will we take them? The babies will freeze in this cold.”
“We have to take the chance,” the cloaked man said, casting his gaze on the second infant, still asleep in her mother's arms. “They are claiming it is a curse.”
The rustling of cloth and supplies ceased. With sorrow on her face the new mother looked down to the sleeping babe.
“We need to split up. Gifij and I will take her, Dornata and Philip can...”
“Dornata isn't well enough to travel,” an elder woman interrupted.
“You must take our child, Philip,” the mother's weak voice vibrated in the silence. “It is she they are after.” Tears came to her eyes and she held the infant close. Soft breaths in her ear, she pressed warm skin against hers. “Sleep now, brave one. Let no trouble find you.”

Not any better or worse than the previous version, this revision was a necessary for the plot. I decided to start the story after the babies were already born, actually returning to how it was written in the original version. This version does start the story in mid-action, which is quite a change from previous attempts. I made the decision to write the first lines of the book like I would any other line from any chapter. Some authors begin their story with an initial set-up, which several of my all-time favorite novels do, but personally I don't believe it is necessary to have a successful start to your book.

There you have it, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Return for other lessons I have learned on my journey as an author.

More to come! Please comment below with your own thoughts or questions - I would love to hear from you. Also find me on Facebook:

Danielle Raver |


  1. I rewrite and tweak opening lines, paragraphs, pages right up to the day I send it off. And after I send it off. Especially after it comes back soiled from rejection!

  2. Revising is my curse - but at least I've learned to let go a novel. I hope you didn't take it personally when it was given back Stephen, so many places are so overloaded they can't recognize a good novel when it comes their way.

  3. I love the fact you have continued this story 15+ years and it just shows your determination. I can't wait to read more excerpts.

    I also rewrite constantly LOL.

  4. Thanks Nina,
    I've gotten better about not rewriting so much, but it makes me write slower :)