I just read a great new article by Stephen King. It’s one of those things that can make you think the universe has its eye on you. It’s about first lines, and how it can take a lot of work to write one that you know will hook the reader. He’s talking about fiction, of course, but it seems like more than chance that I woke up way too early this morning, my brain full of ideas that pushed me out of bed to work on the first chapter of Set Me Free.
As it happens, I did have an opening already, but I got stuck going beyond it. I couldn’t just skip the opening paragraphs and go on to the rest of the chapter, because those first paragraphs would set the tone for the rest, and make clear exactly what the book is about. That blockade has been going on for weeks now, and it was getting pretty frustrating. Suddenly, there it was; I broke through the wall and the way is clear.
I didn’t come across King’s article until after the breakthrough, so I can’t say he had anything to do with it. It was just nice to see that, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, a writer has the same problems. King said, “When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.”
It’s that last sentence that’s important. It isn’t just the fact of being stuck, of wondering how in the world you can write a book if you can’t even get it started. It’s knowing that there’s a right way to start it, and you have to find that way in order for the whole thing to come out right.
So here’s how it finally came out, after the first line and the Shakespeare quote.
Murder most foul.
Hamlet Alas, poor ghost!
Ghost Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold.
Hamlet Speak; I am bound to hear.
Ghost So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.
Murderer. Killer. Monster! A life has been taken and it must be avenged. For centuries, that has been the law, whether commonly understood or written into a legal code. Vengeance almost seems to be written in human DNA, and it’s only recently that another idea has taken hold. The idea of mercy, of punishment that acknowledges the humanity of the killer and doesn’t require more killing, in the name of justice.
The wording isn’t final, but that isn’t important right now. As King says, “You try to find something that’s going to offer that crucial way in, any way in, whatever it is as long as it works.”