Wednesday, August 14, 2013

First Impressions

I have been thinking a lot about first impressions lately. How does the saying go? 

My Own Experience
I haven’t always made a “good” impression, I’m sure. But at least I have made some memorable ones. I am thinking of my first year in graduate school. Actually, the first class when I drove myself to the University of Cincinnati for an evening course. I got lost on the campus, parked in unfamiliar territory, and wound up climbing a hill to find the classroom. I looked at my watch. I would be late but I pressed on. I found the assigned room only to discover the class had moved to a different building.
“Come on in,” the bearded professor beckoned, when I arrived at the door ten minutes late.
Of course the only available seat was near the front on the other side of the room. Somewhat embarrassed by my tardiness, but relieved to have found my class, I made my way to the small, old student desk.
“I just asked everyone to tell us their name and why they are here,” the professor explained to me. He turned back to the student who had just finished speaking as I arrived.
I found comfort in the fact they were just finishing introductions on the first row. I wasn’t that late. I sat. I listened.
“My name is Joe Smith. Dr. So-and-so recommended I take this course.”
“Hi, my name is Linda Jones. My research is called Dissonance in Urban Communities: Cultural Differences in Communication.”  Must be a doctoral student. They title everything with a colon.
What I Didn’t Know
What I didn’t know was that prior to my arrival our revered professor had delivered a mini-lecture about who should be in the class and who should not. He wanted to make sure everyone had signed up for the “right reasons and with the right educational foundational background.”
I am sitting in row six, third chair back, waiting my turn. When it finally comes, I open my mouth and speak.
“Hi, my name is Rebecca Waters and I am taking this class because it is on Monday nights.”
If not a great first impression, it was at least an honest proclamation. I had a husband and three little girls. I taught first grade and was active in my church. Monday evenings were free. I didn’t even choose my class. My husband chose it for me one day at work. He worked for the university. I was taking the course on the tuition remission program so not only were my Mondays free, so was the course.
It gets worse.  And better. After class I asked the professor to help me find my car. He did. We became friends. Jeff encouraged me to seek a degree in Educational Foundations and became both my advisor and mentor. We later laughed about my first class with him. It was at least memorable.

First Impressions in Writing
What does this have to do with my writing? I am currently working with an editor to refine my first novel, Breathing on Her Own. Bethany is helping me get it in shape for its release next March. She is more than an editor. She is a writing coach.

When she took on my project, Bethany warned me via email she is “always the toughest on the “firsts”—first sentence, first paragraph, first page, first chapter—because so many readers decide whether or not they’ll invest time in reading your novel…”

She’s right. You only have once chance to make a good first impression. Or at least a memorable one.

So here is your challenge. Pick up your own writing and take a long hard look at the first sentence. Or, if you prefer, look back at your all time favorite books and read the first sentence or first paragraph there. What is it that grabs your attention? Action? Dialogue? One powerful word? What makes that first impression powerful for you?

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