Book Done Yet?: Second Sentence Submission

So why is this —

“At one AM on the morning of her thirty-third birthday, Detective Nita Dodd walked past two dead bodies and her ex-lover to enter Hell, where she met the Devil.”

–a lousy first sentence?

Because after the first sentence comes the second sentence.

Let’s go back to my MFA classes with Lee for a moment. So I’m workshopping the first scene from Tell Me Lies which is still in draft form at that point.

And Lee says, “About this first sentence.”

At that draft stage, the first sentence was “The crotchless black lace bikini underpants lay on the yellow formica counter like a bat in butter.”

“Terrific sentence,” he says, and I brace myself because I know there’s a kicker coming.

“Now where are you going to go?”

Oh, just hell.

The problem with a KILLER first sentence is that you have to follow it. And if the first sentence is really killer, the second sentence is going to be explaining all the crap you put in your first sentence. Like whose underpants and whose Formica counter and why it matters, which means instead of hitting the ground running and moving headlong into my story, I was hitting the ground with a splat and then having to pick myself up and doing the fiction-writing equivalent of dusting myself off: explaining my first sentence.

Yeah, that got rewritten.

So here’s the first sentence I brainstormed yesterday and immediately rejected:

“At one AM on the morning of her thirty-third birthday, Detective Nita Dodd walked past two dead bodies and her ex-lover to enter Hell, where she met the Devil.”

Great, right? Not even close. Because the second sentence is going to have to explain that Hell is just a bar and the Devil is this guy who got shot but not really and the ex-lover isn’t that important and neither is one of the two dead bodies and . . .

That first sentence is a splat that’s going to take me at least another half dozen sentences to pick up and dust off. It’s a terrible first sentence.

But as the first move in trying to brainstorm the disaster of the previous first sentence–

“Detective Nita Dodd spotted her brother as soon as she got out of the car.”

–it’s progress, moving to the opposite end of the first line spectrum. I need to be somewhere in between there. So I’m cogitating.

Which brings us to that second line, the one you can submit to the editor if she likes your first line. It has to keep going. It cannot stop to explain anything, you hit the ground running, now keep running:

Tell Me Lies: “One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace bikini underpants.They weren’t hers.

Fast Women: “The man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she’d been going to hell for a year and a half anyway. Meeting Gabriel McKenna just meant she’d arrived.

Faking It: “Matilda Goodnight stepped back from her latest mural and realized that of all the crimes she’d committed in her thirty-four years, painting the floor-to-ceiling reproduction of van Gogh’s sunflowers on Clarissa Donnelly’s dining room wall was the one that was going to send her to hell. God might forgive her the Botticelli Venus she’d painted in the bathroom in Iowa, the Uccello battle scene she’d done for the boardroom in New Jersey, even the Bosch orgy she’d painted in the bedroom in Utah, but these giant, glaring sunflowers were going to be His Last Straw.

Maybe This Time: “Andie Miller sat in the reception room of her ex-husband’s law office, holding on to ten years of uncashed alimony checks and a lot of unresolved rage. This is why I never came back here, she thought.”

First sentence plants the story, second sentence moves it along.

No splatting.

27 thoughts on “Book Done Yet?: Second Sentence Submission

    1. Excellent. I added it to my Nita bookmarks. Thank you!
      And now I must go mow my grass. Thinking seriously about getting a goat . . .

      1. Do you still have bears?

        Because livestock & bears don’t always go well together.

        (Not all goats are Charlie)

  1. At one AM on the morning of her thirty-third birthday, Detective Nita Dodd walked past two dead bodies and her ex-lover to enter Hell, where she met the Devil. The happy hour special chalked on the sidewalk blackboard was [I don’t know drinks very well]. [Third sentence making wordplay on happy hour and death?]

    1. Basically, the first sentence is fine to be followed by imagery descriptions of what Nita is seeing, which establishes the bar setting, and then her brother is the last thing she sees in her scan.

      1. The first sentence might be fine for your book, but it’s death for mine.
        There’s too much stuff to be explained. (Hell has a happy hour? Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised.)
        If she’s really on a mission she’s not stopping to read a blackboard.
        A wordplay on happy hour and death would just be me showing off, not what Nita would think.
        She’s just seen Joey lying in a huge pool of his own blood and she liked Joey. She’s mad and upset and somebody’s gonna pay. Which actually is what the first sentence should cover. Not written like that, but that’s the info I need in there.

        1. Fair enough. That first sentence definitely evokes a certain type of book and authorial voice, but perhaps not the kind you’re going for.

          1. The clue there is “authorial voice.” If you’re writing omniscient, then authorial voice is important. If you’re writing third limited, then you write in protagonist voice. I write almost entirely in third limited (Liz is first person) because when I write in omniscient, my authorial voice is overwhelming (have you ever heard me speak? yeah, like that); I need the boundaries of third person.

  2. From the Susan Elizabeth Phillips beginning I like so much (in LADY BE GOOD):
    1. Kenny Travelers was lazy.
    2. That explained why he’d fallen asleep in TWA’s Ambassador Club at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport instead of promptly meeting British Airways Flight 2193 at the gate.

    They just work so nicely together (and the third sentence is brilliant too, building on the first two sentences, so by the end of all three, the reader has some great insight into an unreliable narrator). And it’s a nice reminder that first sentences don’t need to be terribly complicated. (Although, of course, simple is not = easy.)

    1. SEP is terrific at first lines. Well, at all lines, but she writes really good openings in particular.

  3. YESSSSSS! This explains so much. I’m actually not half-bad at coming up with catchy first lines, but then … I stare at the cursor. The second sentence can end up being this tortured concoction with the feel of explaining a joke. I assumed I just hadn’t found the right way to bend the words to make sentence two work as a link to the rest of the first page. I can be stubborn about hanging on to a good turn-of-phrase, and this diagnostic makes it way easier to recognize it for the story-stopper it is and let it go. Liberating! Thanks to you (and Lee) for the Monday-morning epiphany.

  4. I am interested to see that you rewrite and tighten a lot of your story before the whole book is conceived. Is that common? Does it help drive the rest of the book or do you do it only when you have a pause in your ideas for subsequent chapters?

    1. Keep in mind you’re only seeing a small part of the process, which is not chronological because I write it as the scenes come to me, not in chapters or acts. (Chapters are worthless as narrative units, so I don’t put them in until the end.)

      I know what the end of the book is and have some of it written.

      I have the rest of the first act written (over 30,000 words) but it’s in very rough form, just holding pages until I can get the scope of it, but I also have stuff from the middle of the book.

      I have pages of plot diagrams and notes and timelines.

      And of course I have collages that change all the time.

      This part of the process is really fluid, and you’re seeing the first 20,000 words, about a quarter of which will be cut. I decided to stick to only showing the first act of the WiPs I have (if I have that) because it’s easier to understand what’s going on if you start from the beginning, but I don’t write in chronological order.

      And I have a lot of plot points to juggle. Like the Daglas and Daphne subplot which is minor but important. Like Witherspoon’s new partner. Like what happened to Sadie, and why mutant goats keep turning up in conversations and the mayor and that street lamp, and the nature preserve, and Button and her gun, and Nita’s ancestry and . . .

      I have a ton of stuff in there, and it’s like gears; if I shift one, everything else moves. So I keep all the parts going and jump back and forth in the story as new scenes come to me. Which means you’ve seen about 20,000 words of a first draft that’s going to be about 120,000, about 20,000 of which will be cut.

      Think of the WiPs as tastes, not the entire dish being cooked.

      1. Ah, it makes so much more sense now. I am so excited about these WIP worlds! The amount of work you put into each book explains why they are so much fun to read over and over again.

  5. Dear Jenny,
    You make me feel ashamed. I read your books [for the first time] in a gulp then go back and read them [many times] more slowly. I am obviously Not A Writer, and have never really thought about the work and effort that goes into writing. I promise your next book I will read slowly the first [but not only] time


  6. Dick Francis “Straight”
    I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress.

  7. Coming briefly out of lurking because
    a) today and yesterday’s posts are so helpful. Lightbulb moment. Needed to say thanks.
    b) Goats with laser eyes. You may not have paid any attention to New Zealand’s recent referendum on changing our flag. We didn’t, but the process involved crowdsourcing some alternatives, from which the powers that be selected four very boring options for us to vote on. This was a popular choice (the NZ flag version, perhaps, of Boaty McBoatface).

    1. I’m glad all Kiwis don’t shoot laser beams out their eyes, just the birds. It would make rugby games with the All Blacks very, very different. I mean, the Haka is intimidating but it’s not laser beams. “And in other news, the All Blacks have a perfect record this year and won their umpteendozenth rubgy World Cup by default because none of the other teams will leave their dressing rooms. In their home countries. “

  8. This is the kind of thing that could drive me to drink. Because of course the first sentence must be a stunner. Followed by a worthy second sentence. But it’s just got to be followed by a super third sentence, and it keeps going and going and going until the last gorgeous, brilliant, shining sentence is written.

    Thank god I decided to focus on short stories for awhile. But I’ve still got too many less-than-good sentences to deal with . . . .

    OK, packing this in a very small box and putting it in the attic until I need it.

    1. I have an awesome idea for a first sentence, and I could do a second or third to justify it, but I will probably never be able to do anything with it because (a) I generally suck at writing fiction and my brain just does not bake that way no matter how much I read and my writing group told me I can’t write plots and it’s true, and (b) it’s a pun off of my name and I can’t exactly write a book with a Jennifer in it without it being super weird/meta.

      And yet, I won’t tell anyone else what it is so they can put it to good use either.


  9. I never before realised that your first sentences mention hell so often until you set them out one after the other.
    This new story is obviously the right one for you!

    1. I never realized how much I used it until I started writing a story about Hell and it made me conscious of it. I’ll be deleting a lot of those if I ever get to the copy edit stage.

  10. This is fantastically helpful advice about writing. I have always thought you were the best first-page writer I have read. You pack in character, voice, conflict, and motivation, all wrapped up in succinct, lively language. “Tell Me Lies” has an amazing first page. Thanks for sharing your process and your thinking.


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