How my first line came to be

Macro shot on an old documentEvery first line of a novel is a promise. It’s establishes a contract between the author and the writer about what kind of novel the reader is getting invested in. So much rides on its shoulders. It sets the tone. It lets readers know what sort of narrator they are entering a relationship with. Literally and figuratively, everything begins with the first line.

The first line of my novel, THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING, goes like this:

Books don’t change people’s lives, not like everything thinks they do.

But it didn’t start out that way. In the first draft of my novel, this was the first line:

I wonder sometimes what would have happened if Hugo had found another copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover for me, one that was virginally new with sharp corners, a stiff steady spine, and pages that smelled of printer’s ink. 

I still like it. It’s romantic and Maggie, the main character of my novel, is a romantic. But she’s also a cynic and in the course of the novel, these two sides of Maggie battle it out. Eventually, I felt like I wanted the romantic side to win out, so starting it with a more romantic tone wasn’t the way to go. She would be starting out where I wanted her to end. So I changed it…many times!

This is what my first line was when I got my agent and she sold the novel to Grand Central Publishing.

I have a habit of not finishing books I love.

My character Maggie has a difficult time forming attachments and part of her journey is to let herself risk the pain that can come from saying good-bye to those she allows herself to love. I thought this first line would be a good way to show that. She doesn’t finish book she loves because she can’t bring herself to reach the end and say good-bye. So why change it? It kept tripping up early readers of my novel. Just the reality of never finishing books she loved seemed difficult for people to swallow. I didn’t want to get readers tangled up in the first paragraph! So I changed it.

Books don’t change people’s lives, not like everything thinks they do.

I chose this line for several reasons. I wanted to set up the character, Maggie, right off the bat. Maggie challenges everything around her. She’s a cynic and a romantic at the same time. She loves books, but she’s also realistic about them. Also, I wanted to play with the cliché of someone reading a book and declaring, “This book changed my life.” I’ve always bristled at this phrase. I do think that books have the capacity to change our lives, but we have to be ready for the change, even long for it. The old saying goes, “When the student is ready to learn, the teacher appears.” This was definitely the case in many ways for my Maggie. A book appears as her teacher, but it’s not the novel the author has written that paves the path on her journey. It’s the notes Maggie finds in the book. So a book does change her life, but not the way everything thinks books change us.

So that’s the journey of my first line.

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Shelly is the author of THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING, story of love and books in Silicon Valley. She lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband, two big dogs, and a disapproving cat.

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