Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Materena's advice for writers 2

The first line has to make Madame Colette Dumonnier exclaim, "I don't need to interview twenty-five people, I've found my professional cleaner!"
Celestine Vaite, Frangipani

Materena Mahi, as we left her a couple of days ago, is still trying to get that job as a "professional cleaner," which means having to write the first letter she has ever written in her life. She may not know much about writing letters or anything else, but she recognizes that the first line is the key. She quickly dismisses such openers as "I'm a cleaner" and "How are you today?" She wants something that will make Madame Dumonnier want to hire her on the spot, or least make her want to read the rest of the letter..

Materena's search for the perfect first line takes up nearly four pages of Celestine Vaite's novel. Finally she finds it: "I've been cleaning houses since I was eight years old to help my mother." That line gets straight to the point and gives Materena's qualifications for the job in a nutshell. Furthermore, Vaite writes, "That first line, the magical line, unleashes the rest of the letter."

I have often found that to be true, especially during my career as a journalist. Once you find the right opening line, the rest practically writes itself. Yet finding that first line can be a struggle, even for experienced writers.

I recall the time as a student reporter at Ohio University I was given the assignment of covering a lecture by Paul Tillich, the theologian. I filled several pages of my notebook, but frankly I had understood very little of what Tillich said. How was I to build a story out of this assortment of quotes and paraphrases that made so little sense to me? It took me a long time to come up with that opening line, but once I did the story somehow came together. It was printed on the front page of The Post the next day, and it probably appeared cogent to everyone who read it, with the possible exception of Tillich himself.

Sometimes, unable to find a good first line, I would cheat by writing a bad first line, something that was the equivalent of "How are you today?" The right opening line may not become apparent until after the last line has been written. The important thing, especially for a reporter on deadline, is to get started. Often your editors will rewrite your opening paragraph anyway.

Whatever one is writing, whether it's a letter, a news story, a term paper or a novel, a good opening line is key. You want the reader to get interested from the start and to want to read the second line and the one after that. Browsers in bookshops sometimes will pick up a book and read the first line. If it doesn't capture their imaginations, they will put it down and pick up another book.

So what about the first line of Celestine Vaite's novel? Here it is: "When a woman doesn't collect her man's pay she gets zero francs because her man goes to the bar with his colleagues to celebrate the end of the week and you know how it is, eh?" That line makes you want to keep reading, eh? It also gives us a clue as to why Materena is so determined to write the perfect letter so she can get that job.

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