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Buying Time with First Lines

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For writers, words are our medium, our passion, and—especially for those of us hoping to turn our hobby into a profession, our currency. Whether it involves the agent or editor whose eye we hope to grab, the product our words purchase is time. Yes, time translates to money, but let’s ignore that for now.

Agents receive countless queries a day, and most, in this day of e-submissions, request pages pasted into the email in addition to the query. If you’re on twitter and follow agents such as @Ginger_Clark or @bradfordlit you’ll read their posts where they discuss the crazy amount of time they spend going through contracts and negotiating for clients—clients that come first. Not that they and other agents don’t care about writers in the slush pile, but there are just so many. Translation: our writing better be special for the agent to make it to the last line of our submission much less request additional material.

Enter the opening line. The first line is your opportunity to show the agent or editor you have the ability to engage, to capture, and to entice. What goes for people goes for writing—you never get a second chance… Once he or she opens your query, you’re on the clock.

Let’s examine some lines that work well and why.

It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die. Wow. This is the opening line from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. Great lines create intrigue, questions in a reader’s mind that need to be answered, and this one is loaded. What happens on the first of November? Why is someone going to die? Why is the narrator so sure that someone is going to die? With the promise in hand that someone will die, the reader is fixated not only on who it will be but why and how. Further, without ever speaking of the weather, the reference to November provides a flavor of autumn. When combined with someone dying, you really can’t help but think of the day that comes just before November 1—Halloween. These thirteen words are doing a lot of work.

There is one mirror in my house. Short and sweet from Veronica Roth’s mega best seller, Divergent. In only seven words, she has created a great deal of intrigue and set the stage. The most pressing question is why one mirror? Is there something that makes mirrors dangerous? Is there something wrong with the characters that make looking in a mirror frightening? That alone is enough to make a reader curious, but the line does the same double duty as Stiefvater’s above—a setting is established. With such a simple line, the image of a sparse, dystopian world has been created.

They always screamed. I’m not trying to reduce the word count for each pick on purpose, but it does prove that in just a few words intrigue and atmosphere can be created. This line from Amy Tintera’s Reboot uses three words to do some serious heavy lifting. Surprisingly, the most powerful word in this sentence isn’t the verb or even how often they do it. It’s the pronoun, the most non-descript word. Just who are “They”? Are they good, bad, and why do they scream? Who or what makes them scream? There’s something that creates in us a curiosity to explore horror. A scream invokes a sense of terror, and we have an innate desire to learn what invokes this fear.

I first discovered I was trash three days before my ninth birthday— one year after my father lost his job and moved to Secaucus to live with a woman named Crystal and four years before my mother had the car accident, started taking pills, and began exclusively wearing bedroom slippers instead of normal shoes. Ta-Da! No short blurb here. This opening from Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die paints a thorough picture that includes character, setting, style, and tone. In this intro, the author has focused on creating sympathy for the main character, but she still manages to create intrigue. Unlike those openings above, however, she doesn’t intrigue us in the mystery of simplicity, but through the abundance of description. You already know from the title and cover copy that this story is about a return to Oz, so now as a reader you are intrigued to find out how this self-described “trash” finds her way to the magical Land of Oz.

The take away for me when I work on my own opening lines is to use words necessary to create intrigue and convey style or voice while introducing setting without ever purposely focusing on doing so. Most times I will write the opening and move on, but later come back to that part and write it again and again and again. Those words may be the most important you write if only because if they fail to create the proper momentum, a reader may never reach any of the words that follow because an agent or editor didn’t either.

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