The Rule of Firsts

  William P. Bahlke hoiding his first grandchild, Kimber Rose. 

William P. Bahlke hoiding his first grandchild, Kimber Rose. 

The next time you find yourself in a bookstore – yes, there are still a few of those around – grab a cup of that wonderful hot chocolate, and find a comfy chair with a clear view of the display holding the current top ten best-selling books. You are here to observe.

There are three types of people who frequent bookstores. There is the over-achiever who will come into the store knowing exactly what book he or she wants to buy. Watch them as they beeline their way to the help desk or head directly to their subject section of interest. They spot their book, grab it off the shelf, glance at the price, proceed to the cashier, and then out the door they go. This entire process can take less than a few minutes.

Next, there is the browser. Typically, the browser saunters in, pauses at the bargain rack, scratches his ear, and then will mosey over to the best seller table.

Now, watch this person (I’ll call him Bob) carefully keeping the title of this blog in mind. There will be a test.

The first thing that catches Bob’s eye is the book cover. You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you won’t sell your book without a great looking cover.

The next thing Bob ponders is the title of the book. Catchy titles with a hook will sell a book more often than not.

Bob will then take note of the author’s name. We’ll ignore this observation and pretend it never happened. Let’s face it, unless your birth name happens to be Stephen King or John Grisham, your name at this point in your career isn’t going to help you sell many books.

Next, Bob will turn the book over and read the back cover copy (the tease). Somewhere down the road someone will ask you to take your three-hundred-page novel and condense it down to two or three make-or-break paragraphs. Trust me, this assignment can be as painstaking as writing the book itself.

Bob is now smiling. (We’ve almost sold a book!) Here comes the final test. While standing in line at the cash register, Bob opens the book and reads the first line. Bingo! We got ‘em . . . right? We wrote a killer first line . . . didn’t we? Of course, we did!

By the way, the other people who hang out in bookstores are those who, just like you, have read this blog and are doing exactly what you are doing. It might be the guy sitting to your right or the girl at the table across the room. They’re both sipping on hot chocolate. Just smile and wave. They feel as silly as you do.

I will talk in later blogs about book covers, backstory, titles, and, yes, even author names. What I want to hit on now before I give you your homework (yes, I said homework) is the first line of your novel.

Now, you’ve always wanted to write a book. You have an idea for it, and you’ve probably written down the first line a time or two before stuffing the piece of paper into a drawer next to your old black book and slide rule. Did he just say slide rule?

So, how do you get started with YOUR novel? I’m not the brightest icon on the screen, but even I can answer that question. You begin with the first line. And remember, the first line is the most important line in the book. Bob didn’t turn to chapter six to make a final decision on buying that book. He did so after reading the first line.

Now, here’s your assignment. Get out your computer or a pad of paper and a pencil. (Yes, I said pencil. It’s the leaded device with the delete button on the end closest to you.) If that fails, just grab a crayon and the old pizza box, the one still on your kitchen counter from three days ago. Close your eyes. Think about what you’re getting ready to do, and write the first line of your book. Wow! Excellent job! Very few people have done what you just did. You’ve just started your novel. Congratulations!

Next, work on this line for a day or two until you are completely satisfied with how it reads. Ask yourself, will someone who reads this first line be intrigued enough to buy my book? Feel free to send me your first line at We’ll chat about it and have some fun.

Now, I wouldn’t ask you to jump off the bridge unless I was willing to jump with you. Here’s the first line from a book I’m working on. It’s raw and unedited so be kind with any comments, but I would love your thoughts.

Terrance Cleaver, Trans World Life and Casualty Corporation’s newest and youngest-ever director felt nauseous, disgusted by what he had just been a party to, and repulsed at having willing participated in the board’s unanimous decision.