Thursday, October 8, 2009

Killing The Babies & Captivating First Sentences

"Few good works, if any, spring fully formed in first draft."

~ Tom Jenks ~

A captivating first sentence and killing the babies are necessities of good story writing. So what are killing the babies and good first sentences? I'll use my recent article for Randy Seaver's Saturday Night GeneaFun titled, The Hearse, Frozen Goldfish, and Twins as an example of the two strategies.

I received the following comment from Kay of Kay B's Place - "From the first sentence you drew me in." Thanks for noticing Kay, because that was my intention. The first sentence in any story or article should captivate the readers attention.

My sentence was, "We had only been at my Grandmother's house an hour when the hearse came and took my Mother away." Short, not complex, setting a mood, making you want to know what my Mother was doing in a hearse. Was she dead?

That was not the first sentence in my first draft. That sentence wasn't even in the first or second paragraph. What was the process that convinced me it should be the first sentence of this story?

I had written the first draft as if I was pouring memories from a bucket. I wrote everything that flowed from my mind about the event, but started with the snowstorm and then an explanation of Mrs. Mary.

I stepped back to look at the article objectively. Did the first sentence in the first draft grab me? No, it didn't. So, if the first sentence didn't grab me it certainly wouldn't grab others. Did it flow? No, it didn't. The best word to describe the article's flow was choppy.

If you start with a bang, you won’t end with a whimper.

~ T. S. Eliot ~

I went through my first draft and determined that the first sentence of the third paragraph was the most compelling and directed the reader to the heart of my story. That was the sentence I was looking for, so I moved the first paragraph to a point later in the story. This is what I call "rocker writing;" present versus past.

Although I liked my second paragraph, it was completely unnecessary to the story and disrupted the flow, so I hit the delete button. Editing something that you have painstakingly written for your story, that you love, but that is unnecessary or disruptive to the flow of your story is tantamount to murder. These are your babies, but if it isn't working, good-bye baby. This is lovingly referred to as "killing the babies." It will hurt much less if you place that work of art you've killed in a word document to be used later in a more appropriate setting.

Good writing comes from educated reading. By that I mean you must pay attention to what you read with an eye toward your own writing. I'm reading Heyday by Kurt Andersen. It is filled with writing inspiration. Andersen's first sentence in the first paragraph of this book is a perfect example of captivating the reader.

"Benjamin Knowles wobbled into the new world."

I love this sentence. It got my attention and I wanted to know why - why did he wobble? Was he drunk? The writing in this book is excellent, so I won't keep you in suspense. Here is the paragraph that was set up by the above sentence:

He hadn't stood on solid ground for nearly two weeks, and as he stepped from the gangway onto the Cunard pier he felt shaky. The adventure continued! Albeit for the moment in a place called New Jersey. Until an hour before, he had never heard of New Jersey.

Now go look at what you're reading, what you enjoy reading. Study the first sentence and the flow. Unfortunately, we'll never see the babies the author has killed, but we will get a fine example of a finished product.

Good writing also comes from practice, practice, practice. Go back and evaluate your own first sentences. Are they compelling, do they captivate? If not, rewrite them. Do you need to kill some babies? I know it hurts, but give it a try. Your writing will be better for this exercise.

I'd love to know some of your favorite first sentences, whether written by you or an author you admire. Leave them in the comments as inspiration for us all.


Blogger Jasia said...

"The missing ingredients have been discovered! And oh our stew will be all the richer for it."

I apologize that the first sentence isn't more catchy. I'm still a bit off my game. But I'll work to improve it! It's my own line, written to introduce this comment. I'm referring to your article about blog writing of course... as you say, we need to capture interest and direct it with flow. Those would be the ingredients we should be sure to include in our blog writing. And if we do include them, the stew pot that is the genea-blogosphere will be all the richer for it. Excellent article dear friend. I hope everyone reading it will improve their writing as a result. (Myself included!) Thank you!

October 8, 2009 at 5:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went back and re-read several of mine and in fact, re-wrote several. I've been trying to make my titles a bit more enticing as you've suggested and now I'll work on my opening sentences. I continue blogging with the hope that with much practice my writing will become easier to read and enjoy. Thank you for the advice. I hope others post a favorite opening sentence as I'd like to hear what others like.

October 8, 2009 at 6:00 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...


Great opening sentence and equally great segue to your comment. You have tied it all together in one neat package.

Got to share those writing classes I've taken. Hope it helps and hope you're on the mend BBF.


October 8, 2009 at 6:11 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...


I read and enjoy your writing. Half the battle is confidence and that has taken the most time for me. And don't forget to kill the babies.

I'm hoping we see some favorite first sentences too!


October 8, 2009 at 6:13 PM  
Blogger BeNotForgot said...

Once in a while I remember that I really want to write stories about my family that are not just a boring litany of names and dates, but are actually enjoyable to read. I've made a few attempts, but they are far from what I dream of being able to do.

This is from one of my reunion write-ups a few years ago. I opened it with a quote from the 1992 bestseller "Colony," in which the granddaughter, Darcy, says that --

"There should be, in every life, a place . . . where you could come and visit your past, and the past of your people, and know that whatever happened outside, here timelessness lived."

After that quote, I continued with, "A cozy room on a rainy Saturday was just that sort of gathering spot . . . as the family members arrived they were beckoned into the past of 'their' people by a large display of their family history spread out on quilt-covered tables."

Those opening words do still give me a warm fuzzy feeling. :) V. . . .

October 9, 2009 at 11:23 AM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...


Love your quote and resulting paragraph. Way to go. I completely understand the type of story you want to write for your family. As my favorite Aunt would say "Tell me the stories!"

You are well on your way to a brilliant family history.


October 9, 2009 at 2:25 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

I meant Vicki, but had just answered an email from my friend Val. Please forgive me, Vicki.

The mind trips and falls.


October 9, 2009 at 3:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You killed me with your Hearse story, and you are dead-on (really, no pun intended) with these instructions on how to improve our writing. I agree wholeheartedly. The problem is that my blogging rarely has the luxury of time that real writing - and the re-writing that goes with it - should have. I have planned ahead though, and I already have an idea for 1st sentence of my future autobiography: "My mother died on the day I was born - she told me about it years later." True story...she died "on the table" and had a NDE before people had NDEs if you know what I mean.

As far as openers go, it's really hard to beat George Orwell in 1984: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Here's a link to what one site thinks are the 100 best first lines in novels.


October 9, 2009 at 4:42 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...


What an "opener!" I'm hooked. Just tell me when and where to buy.

Yes, there is rarely an abundance of time with blogs, but our family histories deserve the best we have to offer. You, my friend, have the talent that most of us must work really hard to emulate. You have the gift.

Thank you so much for the '100 best first line" links. I am a sucker for a good first line and they all seem to be here. Most are genius.


October 9, 2009 at 5:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I need some constructive feedback in order to improve. Here are some opening lines I updated plus my recent post. My email is for a non-public way to give me feedback. Note: I'm not digging for positive feedback, I truly am soliciting for a critique.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for a 9 year old who was immigrating to the U.S.

My Grandpa weighed 14lbs at birth!

Watching the OU football game tonight reminded me of our Siamese cat who was a football fan.

Somehow their eyes are all sad yet I like the photo of the beautiful brothers.

Then, here's my latest post, entitled "Her Whimsical Nature?" Playfulness must have been part of my great grandmother’s personality.

October 11, 2009 at 5:46 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Here are a few first lines that I've enjoyed:

1. "They murdered him." ~"The Chocolate War" by Robert Cormier
2. "Selden paused in surprise." ~"The House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton
3. "Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board." ~"Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston
4. "We didn't always live on Mango Street." ~by Sandra Cisneros
5. "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." ~"The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger
6. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,..." ~"A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens
7. "There are some men that enter a woman's life and screw it up forever." ~"One For the Money" by Janet Evanovich

**Warning: the next one might be offensive to some, but it's funny as all get out and is the sole reason I bought the book [well, it and the title].
8. "So we're sitting there at dinner, and I'm thinking I could get over his Elmer Fudd voice, when he says, 'I'd go pay the check, but I have an erection.'" ~"The Sexiest Dead Man Alive" by Jane Blackwood

As you can tell, I have an eclectic taste in reading materials. Actually, I'll read anything, but I know that the ones that have a very interesting beginning, will truly be an enjoyment to read.


October 11, 2009 at 6:18 PM  

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