Currently Browsing: First Lines

Buying Time with First Lines

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... read more

First Line Poetry

“One day the Nouns were clustered in the street. An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty. The Nouns were struck, moved, changed. The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.” –Permanently, 1st Stanza, By Kenneth Koch             I have learned that first lines don’t come first. Yes in the technical sense they do, they are the first words read after the title, but they aren’t written first. With all they are expected to accomplish, how could they be? One has to choose each noun, adjective, and verb carefully. First lines set the tone, voice, point of view, and pace. They provide the essence, the theme, and the setting. They introduce the character, conflict, and tension (Kole, Mary. Writing Irresistible Kidlit. Writer’s Digest Books, OH, 2012). The first lines invite the reader on a journey by stimulating delight, curiosity, horror or empathy (Rogers, Cindy. Word Magic for Writers. Writer’s Institute Publications, CT, 2013). Instead the first line is cut, polished, and perfected after many drafts. Like the poet who uses few words to accomplish an emotion, so too must the writer. The writer needs to know her story inside and out to attempt these words properly. I decided to combine my enjoyment of both children’s novels and poetry to help show what works to excite readers’ emotions and hook them. There is horror in the first line of T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherised upon a table:” This line always gives me chills, but I can’t wait to follow. The same is true of the suspense of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard book, “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” Lois Lowry’s The Giver has foreboding, main character, and setting, “It was almost December and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.” Maya Angelou certainly gets my empathy in Still I Rise, “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies, you may trod me in the very dirt but still, like dust, I’ll rise.” I instantly root for her. The reader may not be familiar with Rick Riordan’s world but they get a hint of it and the main character’s frustration in The Lightning Thief’s first line, “Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.” I feel the injustice immediately in Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of... read more

Classic First Line Perfection

When you think of classic first lines, I bet that at least one of these three comes to mind: “Call me Ismael.” -Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851) “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” -Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859) “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” -Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813) What makes these first lines so memorable? Within the first sentence of Melville’s Moby Dick, you already know the main character. Not only does Ishmael speak directly to the reader, the way he introduces himself leaves a touch of mystery. Melville could have written, “My name is Ishmael,” which solidifies the character’s name, however he chose to create suspicion in the reader’s mind. “Call me Ishmael.” Is Ishmael his real name? Is it a nickname? Can we trust this character? The choice of name also stands out. Had Melville chosen the name Bob, the line wouldn’t have the same punch. The first line in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities instantly creates tension. His use of rhythm and anaphora sets up the theme of duality that runs all throughout A Tale of Two Cities– hope and despair, love and hate, London and Paris, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay etc. Jane Austen is a personal favorite. The first line of Pride in Prejudice summarizes the entire plot of the story – the pursuit of beneficial marriage in 19th century England. Austen explores both sides of the equation. If a single, wealthy man needs a wife, then a single woman needs a wealthy husband. With five daughters, the Bennett’s are desperate. How can writers construct first lines like the classics? First, don’t steal the classics. I’ve read so many books that take the classic lines and twist them. How many “It’s a dark and stormy nights,” do we really need? Even the best-overused phrase becomes cliché. Instead, try to come up with something fresh. Second, don’t be afraid to get creative. Let your crazy juice flow. You can always edit later on. Lastly, make your first line... read more

Overthinking the First Line – An Author’s Dilemma

It is true an author needs to consider what will grab a reader in the first few pages, but what about the very first sentence? Do you stop reading if the first sentence isn’t interesting? Probably not, but if you’re a writer, you need to consider your prospective audience, especially if they’re twelve and younger. Here are a few first lines to ponder: “It was a dark and stormy night.” After reading this line, what do you think the story will be about? Vampires? Zombies? Pirates? Or maybe it’s a tragic love story. Basically we have no idea unless we were coherent enough to look on the front cover and see this is the first line of A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle. In 1962, when A Wrinkle in Time was published, first lines were probably not as important as they seem to be today, at least for those of us who are trying to get published. It would be rare indeed to see a book published today that starts with just a comment about the weather. But I have to admit this line sets the perfect scene for what happens next and has become a classic for children and adults. “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.” This line was published in 1964 in The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. It gives us a more insightful view of the coming story. From this one sentence we know the basic information about the main character—he wants to be a hero, but has to do boring work instead. What middle school boy couldn’t relate to that? “I was seven and living in Los Angeles when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, and my first vivid memories are of how happy and excited everyone was.” This line comes from Malie Maloy’s, The Apothecary, published in 2011. First, I want to say I loved this book. Any story with magical realism set in another decade is a hit with me. But I think this first line gives us an excellent example of the author’s dilemma. In this sentence we get a hint of time and place, but not much else. The majority of the book is set when the main character is a teenager in England, so this first part of the book is pretty much backstory. It is needed backstory, but I would’ve liked... read more

First Lines

What is fiction? It’s a variety of subject matter, themes, and techniques and could become so broad as human experience itself. Is the nature of your fiction dramatic, concrete and specific, generally representative, instructs and entertains, related to life, or creative and imaginative? With any approach to writing a novel, there must be a first line out there for you to create. How important is the first line of a novel? Is it more important than the first page? The first chapter? What about the rest of the novel? Is the ending important? Character arch? There is so much more to consider. I can understand that a first line is what a reader finds after the title and becomes the first thing… the first impression. The blind date analogy: what is she wearing, hair style, and makeup. Do I always notice these things? Not specifically. Is this the real person? Is she styled like this all day and every day? Or is this a special occasion. Some people don’t date often and this is special. Is the first line like some sort of veil of decoration? Are you hiding your flaws and putting your best foot forward? What about the rest of the novel? Once you get to know someone, hair and makeup become trivial. One sentence can certainly display point of view and tense. It can show tone, style, theme and subject matter. You really can’t do too much with just the one line. Introducing character, plot and setting might be too much to ask. I think that’s why the work of art is called a novel. The most important single line should be located within the text where it has impact on story, plot and character. My theory is that all lines are important. The first is just that: first. If this first impression is important to you, then your first line is probably rewritten 38 different times with 12 different meanings. Could you leave your first first line in place? Sure, but by the time you complete the novel and you know what it is about and what it says, the first line can then be crafted to fit. A lot of writers “by the seat of their pants” and without a strict outline… might have no idea where they are going. They start writing. What does the first line mean on Day #1 and then what does it mean months or years later when the... read more

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