Author Topic: First Lines/Last Chances  (Read 20853 times)

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Offline lydap

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First Lines/Last Chances
« on: April 09, 2007, 12:19 PM »
How important is the first line of a novel, especially an unsold novel that’s going out to agents in a few weeks?

Here are the first lines of some of the books I’ve read this year:

Esther Crummey foresaw the accident as it unfolded." The Fugitive Wife by Peter C. Brown

"FOR more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town." Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman

“Be careful what you wish for. I know that for a fact. Wishes are brutal, unforgiving things,” The Ice Queen, Alice Hoffman.

"THE WEEK BEFORE I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party." Looking for Alaska, John Greene

“I write this sitting in the sink.” I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

“Mom, you’ve been fighting again.” Blood and Chocolate, Annette Curtis Klause 

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Gee, wonder who?

When I started revising my WIP this past weekend, I was shocked by how bad my first paragraph sucked. My limping first line is, “Robert Reilly tried to empty his mind.” I say this with my face literally burning with embarrassment. Pu-leeze. It’s in the same dank category as, “Susie swam up out of a deep sleep.” Talk about wanting to make your reader put the book down to catch some zzzs.


So, first lines anyone?


Feel free to also share any first line blues (or brainstorms) you're having now. And to talk about the importance of first lines in general. What should they do?
« Last Edit: April 10, 2007, 05:55 AM by lydap »

Offline Susan

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #1 on: April 12, 2007, 04:50 PM »
With the number of novels offered to readers, purchasers, and editors today--I think the first sentence can make or break a book.

What should a first sentence do? It should make the reader desperate to read the next sentence. And so on, to the end of the novel.

There are many ways to lure us into a story. Your sample first sentences offer useful examples.

A first sentence can tantalize us with a mystery. (What careless wish was made?)
It can offer a glimpse of a character we want to learn more about. (Who writes in the sink, and why?) (What makes Esther able to foresee things?) (Are these Dursleys as ordinary as they claim?)
It can do both of the above. (Who are the Owens women, and what did they do to make everybody blame them?)
It can make us curious about a world different from every-day. (What kind of mom fights all the time, and why is the child scolding the parent, instead of the other way around?)
It can start to lay out the MC's problem. (Why does Mom insist on a going-away party, and why doesn't the narrator want one?)

As for your own current first sentence--why does Robert have to try to empty his mind? Sounds like there's a crisis, or a problem, in Robert's life. Maybe your first sentence could give us a hint about that crisis, and make us curious to learn more about it. (In other words, you might need to write only one new sentence, or simply shift the order of the sentences on your first page.)
Here are some examples, remembering that I know nothing about your WIP:
"'Tell us the formula,' Igor growled, giving the thumb-screws another twist. Robert Reilly tried to empty his mind."
"The Principal stared into Robert's eyes, seeking a flicker of guilty knowledge. Robert tried to empty his mind."
"Today of all days, the Spell wasn't working! Robert Reilly tried to empty his mind."

Have fun! Let us know how it goes!





02

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #2 on: April 12, 2007, 05:07 PM »
I don't think the first sentence is nearly as important as the last sentence in a query, if you're not sending a full mss. The agent has to be wanting more – leave them on a cliff hanger!

Having said that, your opening should definetly begin in the middle of something (which it seems to). I wouldn't frett over it too much, but I like Susan's suggestions, also.

lizlane

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #3 on: June 19, 2007, 10:45 AM »
I realize this is an old thread but I too pay attention to first lines whenever I'm in the library or the bookstore.

My favorite of all time is Stephen King's first line in The Gunslinger.

"The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed."  It's perfect.  Action, conflict, plot and characters all rolled into one sentence.

Interestingly enough, it's how he ends the last book in the Dark Tower series.  My husband hated the last book until he read the last line.

I think beginnings and endings are extremely important.  Endings more so because the last thought you leave the reader with will determine if they stand in line to buy your book the day it's released or if they grab a beverage to eliminate the bad taste you left in their mouth.

Offline Stephanie J. Blake

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #4 on: June 19, 2007, 11:10 AM »
Here's one of mine:

"Last night, my parents destroyed my life—on purpose."
Stephanie J. Blake
MY ROTTEN FRIEND (Albert Whitman, coming 2015)
THE MARBLE QUEEN (Two Lions, 2012)

lizlane

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #5 on: June 20, 2007, 07:04 AM »
That's good, Steph!  I definitely want to know more!

Offline Stephanie J. Blake

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #6 on: June 20, 2007, 07:47 AM »
It’s more embarrassing than the time my mother wore pigtails to my third grade spelling bee. It’s worse than the time she ran over Megan Nelson’s cat when I was eight. Worse than anything that has ever happened in my eleven years on this planet. And now, I can’t even eat tuna salad anymore, especially if my mom is around to smell it.
Stephanie J. Blake
MY ROTTEN FRIEND (Albert Whitman, coming 2015)
THE MARBLE QUEEN (Two Lions, 2012)

Offline Petoskey

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #7 on: June 20, 2007, 11:31 AM »
Love it.

Offline DixiesMom

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #8 on: June 20, 2007, 01:38 PM »
I stood over yet another body as blood seeped into the once white floor.
"I didn't mean to kill him," Mom said.
That's what she always said.

Offline Thomas Kingsley Troupe (TKT)

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #9 on: June 21, 2007, 01:06 PM »
Wow.  Wow, wow.  Wow.

I wanna read it!

Here's my opening lines for my current work in progress Goodhalo

It was the first time he'd seen a dead person brought back to life.  Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the last.

- Thomas
Furry & Flo #1 - The Big Hairy Secret (Capstone - August 2013)
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Offline Debs

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #10 on: June 21, 2007, 08:25 PM »
Steph,

Love your first line! I would certainly read on! 

Blessings,
Deb in OK
Blessings!

DebS
(Granny Deb)

Lin

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #11 on: June 27, 2007, 01:33 PM »
I am also one who reads first lines.  I'm a children's librarian and read the first couple of pages of all my new novels to get a feel for what them and whether the beginnning will draw a kid in.  Some beginnings are amazing like "The first time I touched a baseball card, I felt a strange tingling sensation all over my body." from Dan Gutman's Honus and Me. Why the tingling? What's going to happen? Others really stink.  I know if I can't take the time to get into a book a child with a short attention span certainly won't.
Lin

thirtycats

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #12 on: June 27, 2007, 05:11 PM »
I stood over yet another body as blood seeped into the once white floor.
"I didn't mean to kill him," Mom said.
That's what she always said.


I love that!!!!

I definitely want to know more.   

Offline C.K.

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #13 on: June 27, 2007, 05:28 PM »
The theme song for this thread should be The Frames tune Perfect Opening Line. You guys are all awesome! Dixie's Mom, I definitely want to know more!

Here's one of mine:
Things don’t always change with a bang. Sometimes they change so gradually that you can’t clearly pinpoint the last moment they were truly the same.
I Know It's Over
One Lonely Degree
The Lighter Side of Life and Death
My Beating Teenage Heart
Yesterday
The Sweetest Thing You Can Sing (Sept 2014)

Offline hazelnut

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #14 on: June 28, 2007, 06:29 AM »
Fantastic first lines, everyone! Here are four more great lines from books (published since the 90's):

"[12th Day of September] I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family." Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

"That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me. She meant to bestow a gift." Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

"If your teacher has to die, August isn't a bad time of year for it." The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts by Richard Peck

"If you asked the kids and the teachers at Lincoln Elementary School to make three lists--all the really bad kids, all the really smart kids, and all the really good kids--Nick Allen would not be on any of them. Nick deserved a list all his own, and everyone knew it." Frindle by Andrew Clements

Offline Traci @ITD

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #15 on: June 28, 2007, 12:26 PM »
Wow, there are some amazing first lines here. Real attention grabbers. Here's one of mine:

What I had done today, I had never done before. And boy, was I gonna get it!

Playfully,

Traci
Anything Can Happen, Puddle Duck
Jack and the Beanstalk, You Tell Me
Candy Canes in Bethlehem, Pauline Books
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Offline Karen K

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #16 on: July 13, 2007, 07:57 AM »
This reminds me of the "What's Your First Paragraph?" thread I started over at SCBWI awhile ago. It grew to be huge. I definitely think first paragraphs are really important, but so are all the paragraphs that follow. Try to make it all just as good, that's what I keep telling myself.Here's the first paragraph from my novel Other:

I am Other. I don’t usually tell strangers. Sure, there’s all this talk of tolerance, but why come out to people who might hate you? Most days I’m fine just being myself, but today I’m definitely leaning toward bitter angst.

Karen
Out now: DEADLY DELICIOUS

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thirtycats

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #17 on: July 13, 2007, 08:19 AM »
I love your first paragraph, Karen.

I think most teenagers can relate.  [Satan's home], I bet most HUMANS can relate.  I can relate--that struggle between Hey, I'm me.  Accept me for who I am.  I'm not going to hide....and I'm just going to keep my identity secret.  No one out there can understand or accept me.

thirtycats

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #18 on: July 13, 2007, 08:22 AM »
Here's my first paragraph.


The three lit red candles gave the bedroom a rather romantic feel.  The dim light made it hard to notice the overflowing laundry basket, the overcrowded bookshelf, and the collection of decade-old Happy Meal toys scattered on the put-together-wrong-but-still-standing IKEA dresser.

Offline lynnek

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #19 on: July 13, 2007, 09:09 PM »
There's a thread like this on the mid-grade board too. Here are my favorite first lines I posted there:

"There are no lakes at Camp Green Lake." --Holes, Louis Sachar

"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." --Ahab's Wife, Sena Jeter Naslund

"Simon Glass was easy to hate, I never knew exactly why, there was too much to pick from. I guess, really, we each hated him for a different reason, but we didn’t realize it until the day we killed him." --Shattering Glass, by Gail Giles

"Things had been getting a little better until I got a letter from my dead sister.
That more or less ruined my day." -- Dead Girls Don't Write Letters, also by Gail Giles

"They shoot the white girl first." -- Paradise, Toni Morrison

Right now I'm reading Pig Island by Mo Hayder. It starts out:
"The alarms first went off in my head when the landlord and the lobsterman showed me what had been washed up on the beach."

I highly recommend Les Edgerton's new book Hooked to help write the perfect beginnings for your books. Here are just a couple of great first lines mentioned in that book:

"When I got there they were burying the lion in the backyard again." -- from Richard Brautigan's short story, "A Need for Gardens."

"My earliest memories involve fire."  -- Dennis Lehane, A Drink Before the War




« Last Edit: July 19, 2007, 09:11 PM by lynnek »

Offline Karen K

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #20 on: July 13, 2007, 09:29 PM »
I love your first paragraph, Karen.

I think most teenagers can relate.  (word censored), I bet most HUMANS can relate.  I can relate--that struggle between Hey, I'm me.  Accept me for who I am.  I'm not going to hide....and I'm just going to keep my identity secret.  No one out there can understand or accept me.

Thanks! I'm happy you think so, because I'm definitely going for that feel for the whole manuscript.

Karen
Out now: DEADLY DELICIOUS

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Offline Jaclyn Dolamore

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #21 on: July 14, 2007, 07:44 AM »
I love opening lines...  You guys have some good ones, although DixiesMom's definitely made me want to know what the next paragraph would be...  The opening line to my current WIP (well, we'll see if it remains my current WIP, fickle as I've been) is:

Dear Syri,

     If you could come into the city on December the 12th, I'll perform the amputation that afternoon. 
Author of the Magic Under Glass duology
& Between the Sea and Sky
Dark Metropolis, 6/14
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Offline Karen K

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #22 on: July 15, 2007, 06:42 PM »
I love opening lines...  You guys have some good ones, although DixiesMom's definitely made me want to know what the next paragraph would be...  The opening line to my current WIP (well, we'll see if it remains my current WIP, fickle as I've been) is:

Dear Syri,

     If you could come into the city on December the 12th, I'll perform the amputation that afternoon. 

You already know I love it, Jackie. :)
Karen
Out now: DEADLY DELICIOUS

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Jean

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #23 on: July 16, 2007, 12:54 PM »
I'm new here - may as well jump in with both feet, huh?

The first line of my WIP (midgrade) is:  "Mama is dead.  And that’s just the way things are."

We have a crisis and a character responding to the crisis. Is that enough?

Jean

Offline Angela Ackerman (aka MOMZILLA)

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #24 on: July 16, 2007, 01:18 PM »
Two years ago I attended a editor/agent panel of first page readings at the Surrey International Writer's Conference. It was BRUTAL.  The openings were read aloud, and hardly any went on past the first paragraph.  Many openings were stopped after the first sentence or two.

One was cut after the first word was read--ONE WORD!  :z:

Ever since then, I saw how important that first para and first line is.  It must stand out. I heard openings for all genres, and after 20 minutes, they all started to sound similar.  Only one MS of the bunch was told, 'Yes, I'd want to read more of this.'  Unfortunately, it wasn't my ms... :'(

Here's one of my first lines:

Beth saw it as she reached for a ribbon to tie her hair up: a tiny black mark on the back of her hand, next to her ruby soulstone. (Taken, YA Fantasy)

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Offline lynnek

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #25 on: July 16, 2007, 04:17 PM »

One was cut after the first word was read--ONE WORD!  :z:


I've got to know what that one word was! That's awful!

Offline DanetteFromOrlando

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #26 on: July 16, 2007, 08:58 PM »
I'm new here - may as well jump in with both feet, huh?

The first line of my WIP (midgrade) is:  "Mama is dead.  And that’s just the way things are."

We have a crisis and a character responding to the crisis. Is that enough?

Jean
u

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Offline Laura Manivong

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #27 on: July 16, 2007, 10:51 PM »
Vonlai's father roused him in the middle of a moonless night.


From my just finished, I-mean-like-seriously-a-half-hour-ago-just-finished, historical novel. I need a rooftop from which to shout...I'M DONE, BABY!!!
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Jean

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #28 on: July 17, 2007, 07:30 PM »
Thanks, Dannette.  :momkid:

LRM - I like that first line. Why, oh why did he waken him?  Have to read on to find out!   :o

Jean

Offline Angela Ackerman (aka MOMZILLA)

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Re: First Lines/Last Chances
« Reply #29 on: July 17, 2007, 08:52 PM »
The one word was actually a sound. I can't remember what it was exactly, but be warned--don't start out with a sound!

Lots and lots were axed because they started out with a MC being startled awake, having a dream, or a weather report (setting description).  Fires, too I remember. That one was weird, but several MS's started out in the midst of a fire.  :z:
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