I adored Karen Harrington’s first novels, Sure Signs of Crazy (Little Brown), and Courage for Beginners (Little Brown) and was lucky enough to spend some time with her at the Blue Willow Bookshop-sponsored Tween Book Festival in 2014. She is sweet as pie and writes a darned good story. Don’t miss her latest: Mayday (Little Brown).
FIRST THINGS FIRST
My writer friend, Anne, isn’t a fan of reading first sentences aloud. I once had to chase her through a Barnes and Noble so I could recite an exemplary sentence. It was “My wound is my geography.” (from The Prince of Tides by the late, great Pat Conroy.) That remains one of my favorite openings, second only to Louis Sachar’s opening to Holes, “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”
So I’m a bit of a first sentence junkie. First lines are like meeting a new person and forming an agreement to have a conversation. Sometime during the early drafting stages of my latest novel, MAYDAY, I read this quote from the great Stephen King:
“It’s like finding a good friend who has information to share.” (Read the full article “Why Stephen King spends ‘months and even years’ writing opening sentences” here)
King put into words what I wanted to do. When the main character, Wayne Kovok, first appeared to me as a minor character in a previous novel (COURAGE FOR BEGINNERS), I felt like I already knew him. So when he took center stage in MAYDAY, I wanted to invite readers into that friendship with immediacy. He’s a nice kid, but he’s having a hard time finding his place between a deadbeat dad and a super patriotic, military grandfather. He really doesn’t know how he’ll turn out in life, but these two men have plenty of opinions about who and what Wayne should be. Things don’t get any better for Wayne following a plane crash that leaves him without the ability to speak. It’s only then that he realizes how much he doesn’t say.
So, how to introduce the reader to Wayne?
My first attempt was what all first drafts have in common: throwing words at the page so you will have something to edit.
My name is Wayne Kovok.
I like this kind of opening. You might introduce yourself at a party in this way.
The second first sentence draft included an object that is threaded throughout Mayday. Poinsettias. Because Wayne is a fact-loving nerd, he spits out a fact when he gets nervous or uncomfortable. Chapter One opens with him sharing a meal with his soon to be deployed uncle. He’s worried. He’s also thinking about his crush, Sandy, from whom he just purchased poinsettias to support her band fundraiser. He’s about to unleash poinsettia facts. So the opening is:
I didn’t want to talk about poinsettias.
This sentence survived five drafts. By chapter four, Wayne loses his voice following the plane crash. The word “talk” is super important.
Next, my attempt to amuse myself.
One day before my Uncle Reed was deployed to Iraq, he took me out for a cheeseburger.
Gong! This was the stage in which I’d read the manuscript seventeen thousand times and the first paragraph and/or chapter no longer excited or intrigued. (My wise editor has confirmed that many writers start messing with their work unnecessarily at this stage. I’ve learned!) I recalled King’s advice – create a sentence that is coming from a friend who has information to share.
Wayne has a lot of information to share.
Here, the actual, published first sentence:
Listen, I didn’t want to talk about poinsettias in the first place.
The words ‘listen” and “talk” in this sentence are satisfying to me. Though Wayne often issues trivial facts, his deepest desire is that people will listen. And by the end of the story, Wayne will really turn up the volume on that idea as he demands to be heard.
I looked to another established author for advice on last sentences.
(Read the full article “Forward Thinking, Writing Backwards” here)
I’d always wanted to apply that advice to a novel. This novel was the perfect candidate because it was the first time I’d even written a piece, having a sense of the ending. (I’m more of a free-range writer than a plotter.) But remarkably, my last sentence remained the same from draft to draft and earned me the comment from my editor: “I’m obsessed with this line!” I won’t spoil that line for you here. I’ll just say this. If you, like me, find yourself rooting for Wayne Kovok, you may close the book with a smile on your face.
I’d love to know: what’s YOUR favorite first sentence?
Thank you, Kirby, for inviting me to Friend Friday!
Karen Harrington is an author and former speechwriter. Her books include Sure Signs of Crazy (2013), Courage For Beginners (2014) and Mayday (2016) all from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Her books have appeared on nine state reading lists. Sure Signs of Crazy was also a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the year, a 2014 Notable Children’s Book selection from the Children’s Literature Assembly and a 2014 Bank Street Children’s Book Committee Best Book of the Year.
Karen lives in Dallas, TX with her family, where she enjoys reading, writing, cooking and walks with her rescue dog, Sam.
Visit her at Karenharringtonbooks.com or @KA_Harrington
Fun post! I look forward to checking out “Mayday,” and meeting Wayne. Being much more of a reader than a writer, I’ve never given much thought to first sentences in novels before, but I’m sure I’ll start paying more attention to them now. I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but I really like the first sentence of “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett. “When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.” I’m guessing I’m going to go back to some of my other favorite books now to see how they start.
Loved seeing all your first sentences! My favorite (I hope I have it right) is “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” (Charlotte’s Web)
Karen Harrington is a new author to me. I look forward to reading “Mayday” with a first line that was revised until it was just perfect. It makes sense that the first line of a book holds great importance. It often introduces the main character or takes the reader right into the setting of the story. It may be time to start collecting “first lines”.
One of my favorite first sentences comes from Kathleen Krull’s “Wilma Unlimited,” “No one expected such a tiny girl to have a first birthday.” Thank you for sharing a part of your writing process, Karen. Looking forward to reading “Mayday.”