The Importance of the Second Line

Whilst I was ill, I read The Plague, by Albert Camus (probably not the best choice of book for someone who is unwell, I now realise). In this book is a character who is writing a book. He wants the book to be so good that when the publisher reads it, he stands up and says ‘Gentlemen, hats off!’ (It is pointed out to him that publishers don’t wear hats in the office). He has started to write – but has never got beyond the first line.

He is man who has never been able to find the right words, all his life. He is in a temporary, low paid job. A permanent, high paid job is his by right, but he has been overlooked by some accident. If he only wrote a letter pointing this out, he could get the better job, but he can never find exactly the right words to tell them.

It’s like this for his book. He has a first line, but he is never satisfied with it. He alters and primps at it, changing every word over and over. When he is dying, he hands his manuscript to his friend. It is fifty pages long, and every line is a re-working of the same line.

The silly thing is, it’s not even that impressive a line in the first place. It’s very ordinary. But he cannot work past it.

I think what Camus is saying is that we have to have the courage to move beyond the first line. We cannot polish and polish the words at the expense of the story. We can never move on and achieve if we don’t stop worrying about the first line and move onto the second, and the third and so on.

Obviously the right word in the right place is important, but worry too much about the words and we lose the story. We have to always be moving onto the next line. But anyway, I recommend the book. There’s something for every author in that man’s story, as well as several other good characters in the book. (But not when you’re ill)


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