My “First” Line: 5 Years, Countless Drafts & Thousands of Lines in the Making

First lines of books are a lot like debut novels. Just because they come first in a narrative doesn’t mean they were the first written. There are many authors whose “first novels” are actually the second, third, or tenth they ever wrote. And I won’t bother trying to think of how many lines of Chasing the Sun I actually wrote before scribbling what would eventually become the first line. Suffice it to say, five years passed between the time I started writing this book and the day I wrote the final first line.

What the hell took so long?

Well, revision happened. Perspectives shifted. I decided to start the story at a different moment, from a different character’s point of view. In November of 2011, I’d just finished a complete rewrite of the book (it was such a complete rewrite that I think of it as a rough draft, version 2.0). I always take a few weeks off from the page between drafts. But I have this journal I keep, where I scribble random thoughts about my characters. And I couldn’t stop thinking about Andres, about the things that worry him, the things that haunt his thoughts…

So I wrote what I thought was just a note to myself:

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He always ran through the last words they’d said to each other—see you soon, I’ll be home late, rarely an I love you—as if they were one of those status reports at work, an update on how his marriage was coming along.

But something about this stuck with me. When it came time to keep revising my draft, I rewrote the beginning with a more refined version of this line:

He is always thinking of the last words he said to her—thank you, see you at dinner, rarely a simple I love you—as if the words are one of the status reports from work, a quick memo to see where they stand.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start. And more importantly, it felt like the right place to start: a peek into what Andres thinks is his greatest fear, right in the moments before he realizes his wife, Marabela, has been kidnapped.

But again, it needed some work, some clarity, some specificity. First lines are quite the multi-taskers, and we don’t often know their true purpose until we’ve started writing them, editing them, molding them. What I realized is that I wanted the first line to drop the reader into a place, not necessarily in time and space, but in a state of mind. I wanted to show that although they were having problems, Andres still very much cares about his marriage. And I wanted to hint a bit at the kind of person he is, what he occupies his days with.

Five years, and countless edits later, I had my “first” line:

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He is always thinking of the last words he said to her—thank you, see you at dinner, rarely a simple I love you—as if they were status reports to a colleague, a quick memo to see where they stand.

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Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at nataliasylvester.com

22 thoughts on “My “First” Line: 5 Years, Countless Drafts & Thousands of Lines in the Making

  1. What an amazing first line, Natalia! I loved reading about your revision process, too. I don’t keep a journal like yours, but after reading this, I wish I’d been doing it for years — what a good idea! And for me, too, the first line (and first chapter) always seems to be one of the last ones I write or at least tweak.

    • Thank you, Julia! I’ve kept journals since I was nine and somehow stopped a few years ago. I’m so glad I started back up again, around the beginning of 2011. It’s never too late 😉

    • Thank you, Kerry Ann! It was fun to write this; I knew I had the beginnings of that first line somewhere in my journal, but it wasn’t until I went looking for it that I realized how much it’d evolved over time.

  2. Hello, fellow Austinite! Ah, first lines, opening scenes, switching points of view. I lost count of how many first lines I created, then destroyed. Female MC third person, Female MC first person. Male MC third person. From a scene in the last chapter to the opening scene of the book. Until I finally felt at peace with it. Even if it never sees the publishing light of day, I’m happy with it. Mine “only” took 4 1/2 years!

    Awesome first line, BTW. It tells a whole story in itself.

    • Hi Densie! Lovely to meet another ATXer 🙂

      Your process sounds very familiar…funny how many starts & stops we have to go through before it all feels right.

  3. Natalia, I love this post! It’s wonderful to get this inside glimpse to your private, creative process. I love that you called first lines “multi-taskers.” It’s true, just never thought about the heavy pressure we all put on them. Keep these great posts coming!

    • Thank you so much, Frankie! I think the pressure we put on them is a large part of the reason why we write them last…we can’t really know where the story should begin until we know the full story.

  4. Natalia, your first line is stunning! It is wonderful to see how it evolved, as did your thinking on it. Thanks for sharing. I see from the comments I’m not the only person you inspired today. 🙂

    • Thanks, Lisa. I need to take more time to read through that journal. As I was looking for this entry, I found a bunch of stuff I’d completely forgotten I’d written. And I was like, “how come I never kept going with THAT idea?”

  5. People (including writers) often look at a word count to evaluate how much work was done. It would be interesting to count all the words in all the different versions of that first line. That would tell a lot more, I think.

    That moment you love from your favorite movie? There may be twenty or thirty (or fifty or more) other takes on the cutting room floor. That’s what it took to get there.

    • (Catching up on comments a little late here 😉

      But you’re so right. My husband studied film in college and he’d often tell me the same thing about the cutting room floor, how much “coverage” they have to get for one scene, how many times they have to shoot the same lines from different angles, that we often take for granted. So much of any creative process requires starting over from scratch…but it’s necessary to get to the final version.

  6. Great post as always, Natalia. I enjoyed reading about your creative process and the evolution of your first line. It is a great first line. Thank you for sharing.

  7. I keep a journal, too. Though it’s a little worse for wear, being toted all over the place, it helps me keep track of those moments you mentioned–the bright shining somethings that become everything.

  8. Great post, Natalia (LOVE getting a peek at your first line!) I always fall in love with my first lines and don’t want to give them up. But on my second novel, I ended up scratching the entire BEGINNING, and am happy for it, as I think the revised version did end up being so much better. That tweaking and simmer time really does make a difference.

    • So true about the tweaking and simmer time! I used to obsess over first lines—I couldn’t get anything else written until the first line had been perfected—until I realized that the book rarely ends up starting where we think it will, so the real first line might be somewhere in chapter 3, or in paragraph 5 or page 7!

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