first paragraphs

An email came with this very good question:

What makes a first paragraph feel “right” to you?

Now, this is one of those questions I’d like to be able to answer, but probably whatever I say will sound vague and touchy feel-y. To start with the obvious: as I read the paragraph to myself (not aloud, in my head) the rhythm of it either works, or it doesn’t. The images and associations evoked are enough, or they aren’t. It’s a wholly subjective process, based on years of experience and experimentation, and dependent on a hundred very subtle cues that I couldn’t articulate for any money.

This isn’t exclusive to writing. Anybody who paints, or sculpts or does anything creative from cooking to dress design goes through the same process; you feel your way there, and you know if you’ve lost your way, or overshot. You know when you get there. Sometimes you come to the conclusion that you just can’t get there from where you are.

Often you have to walk away from the work in process because you’ve lost perspective. Some writers will tell you to take a finished story or novel and put it in a drawer for six months before going over it one last time. This isn’t bad advice, if you can spare the time. Time, distance, perspective are important because — this does need to be said — sometimes your instincts will lie to you. You’ll convince yourself that opening paragraph is as good as it’s going to get because please dog you can’t look at it one more time. And clearly what feels right to one person may read like dreck to another.

See? subjective.

The good news : This is a skill that can be learned. It takes a lot of close reading and thinking and (if at all possible) discussion.