Monday, January 16, 2012

January Theme: Firsts (Stephanie Burgis)

Everyone knows how important first lines are in novels...so maybe it's not surprising that I agonize a lot over them as a writer.

Every so often, a first line comes to me like a gift from the writing gods. That happened with my book Kat, Incorrigible, where the first two lines ("I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin. I made it almost to the end of my front garden...") popped into my head out of nowhere one day, and gave me the whole novel.

Wow, I love it when it happens that way. But I have to say, it doesn't happen often for me.

With my second book, Renegade Magic, I struggled for ages to find the right first line. First of all, once I'd finished the first draft, I realized I was going to have to rewrite the whole opening of the novel. Sigh. That does happen a lot for me, unfortunately! Being an organic writer, I usually do have to write the whole book before I can figure out how it really should have started in the first place.

Here was the original first line, back when I was starting the book with Kat feeling antsy about her oldest sister's upcoming wedding:
It’s one thing to know for an absolute fact that your oldest sister is the prissiest female in all England. But it’s quite another thing to be left behind by her.


Well. Kat is an incredibly proactive girl. She's extremely physical, she's impulsive, and she does not sit around angsting, ever. She's the kind of girl who always DOES something when she feels upset (even if it's the wrong thing) to relieve that emotional discomfort. It was completely wrong for her to start the book by sitting around feeling ambivalent. That's so not Kat! So that whole opening was trashed, without regrets.

Luckily, I finally figured out the right opening. Instead of sitting around thinking about her feelings, she does something about them: she gets up before the crack of dawn, drags her older brother out of bed, and forces him to give her a secret (forbidden and unladylike) wrestling lesson, to give her a physical outlet and distraction from her feelings. That is very Kat!



But what about the first line?

Well, here's where it gets complicated. The book is being published in two different countries, the US and the UK. In the UK, it was published last August as A Tangle of Magicks; in the US, it's being published this April as Renegade Magic. So, it's got different titles, different covers...



...and, as it turns out, different first lines. They were both first lines that I thought up and wrote myself in different drafts of the book, but each of my two editors picked a different favorite version. In the UK, the opening paragraph is:
My brother Charles was a hopeless gamester, a ridiculous over-sleeper and the one sibling too lazy to take part in any family arguments, no matter how exasperating our sisters might have been (and usually were). But he had one shining virtue as an older brother: he was infinitely persuadable.


Whereas in the US, it's:
It was a truth universally acknowledged that my brother, Charles was a hopeless gamester, a ridiculous oversleeper, and the one sibling too lazy to take part in any family arguments, no matter how exasperating our sisters might have been (and usually were).

But he had one shining virtue as an older brother: He was infinitely persuadable.


Both of my editors are really smart women whose opinions I deeply respect - and they know their target audiences very well, in the two different countries. My US editor felt strongly that the Jane Austen overtone at the beginning was a definite positive for my Regency-era fantasy; my UK editor felt it was safer to do without that because so many ten-year-olds wouldn't recognize the line I was referencing.

What do you think? Which version do you prefer?

And what's your favorite first line in a book?

(Note: if you want to read the final version of the opening of Renegade Magic - with the UK version of the first line! - you can read the full first three chapters on my website.)

15 comments:

  1. I love the US version (I think it's the one in the version I read) precisely because of its resonance and also elegance; but I do see your UK editor's point that younger readers couldn't be expected to pick up on it.

    Still, I think I like the US one better. I must be wearing my American socks today :)

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    1. Interesting! So far, the feedback I'm starting to get is definitely falling into national lines in exactly the same way that my editors reacted. I wonder if it'll stay that way?

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  2. Yep. I'm going with the US version.
    But it's not the first sentence that resonates with me, it's the second.

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    1. Oh, that's interesting! Thanks for weighing in.

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  3. So interesting to see the differences! I also prefer the US version...

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    1. Thanks, Deva! So far the responses here and over at my LJ are absolutely falling into national lines - which makes me really happy about the differences in the different editions!

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  4. I actually prefer the UK opening. (But I'm in the US.) Never fear, I'd be happy with either.

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    1. Oh that is interesting! Thanks for telling me, Robin.

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  5. Sigh. Jane Austen overtone. You had me from the start. (But I especially love that the responses you're getting are "falling into national lines"!)

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    1. Oh, thank you for telling me that, Holly! :) (And it's so interesting to see the different responses! There have been a couple exceptions on both sides, but so far, the trend definitely follows my editors' different tastes!)

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  6. I've only just found this. I'm going to go with the UK one... and I'm in the UK. :)

    This is fascinating!

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    1. Thanks for the feedback, Luisa! And HOORAY for my editors both being proven right.

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  7. I love that you have two different first lines! :) I love both, but I prefer the UK one (and am in the US). Go figure!

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    1. Thanks so much for the feedback, Lisa!

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  8. I prefer the US opening precisely because of the Austen resonance. :)

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