Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Killer First Lines

The first line in a novel has to be killer--at least it does for me. In one simple sentence, it should convey emotion, a sense of place, a mood, even a hint about the protagonist and his story. It should definitely make me want to keep reading to find out more.

Sometimes the first lines of my own books come at me fast--like that Allstate Insurance commercial. I've lost count how many times I've bolted upright at 2 o'clock in the morning from a dead sleep with the first line of a book staring at me in the face, almost laughing at me, saying, "What took you so long? Why didn't you see me before?" Other times, I might agonize over that first sentence for weeks, even months, while I continue to write the rest of a novel. But I always come back to that first sentence, making sure it's just right. Like the porridge.

I've already broken my cardinal rule about August. Usually I take a break from book writing in August and focus on other stuff like spending time with family and friends, catching up on my TBR pile, cleaning out a closet, or something productive like that. Unfortunately I have a book idea that's already toying cruelly at the edges of my brain. It won't leave me, so I'm compelled to at least jot down an outline, even play with a few lines of dialogue, do a little research. Before I know it, a whole day passes and I'm doing exactly what I vowed not to do during August. So this week I'm not fighting it. I'm going with the flow.  Next week I'll focus on closets.

I have two books that I want to write in the next 12 months: a sequel to CAPTIVE SPIRIT and another historical, although I'm not certain at this point whether that second historical will be a YA or women's fiction. It will be loosely based on a retelling of a Native American legend from the late 1800's, it will be set in Globe, Arizona, and there will be a love story. Guaranteed.

Here's the first line of my latest WIP:

People lined both sides of the dusty street for a good look at the prisoner.

Now the big question is this:  Does that have you (1) Scratching your head in confusion; (2) Yawning uncontrollably; or (3) Wanting to see more?  No doubt I'll rewrite it 20 more times.

Anyway, does the first line of a novel have to be killer for you to keep reading? As readers, how much time do you give a book to put its hooks in you--the first sentence? The first paragraph? A few chapters?

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Other stuff: I'm guest blogging at The Long And Short Reviews today, talking about my experience with Carina Press and "The Call."  Stop by if you've got time!

27 comments:

Dru said...

The first line will entice me to keep reading and the books has a couple of chapters to keep me interested.

Your first line sparks my curiosity.

Have a good Wednesday.

Donna Cummings said...

I like first lines to draw me in, to make me wonder what's gonna happen next. Your first line made me want to know why there's a prisoner, and hoping he's not REALLY a prisoner. LOL

Happy "not writing" in August. I think that's the trick to making a manuscript flow -- but telling your brain, "we're taking a break". It can be so contrary! LOL

Liz Fichera said...

Thanks, Dru! Glad to hear from an avid reader that I might be onto something. :-)

Liz Fichera said...

Hi Donna! Thanks for stopping by! I haven't been able to find the "off" switch for my brain. It seems to be malfunctioning!

Susan said...

Oh, I agree... my favorite first line and first paragraph is from "A Christmas Carol", by Charles Dickens: "Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

Liz Fichera said...

oooh, Susan! That is such a classic. I love that passage too!

Lia Bal said...

First lines are very important to me. It needs to intrigue me and make me ask questions. I myself spend hours re-writing first lines. One of my favorite first lines comes from Nora Roberts “Midnight Bayou” (Death, with all its cruel beauty, lived in the bayou). It’s such a simple yet poetic line.

Your first line is interesting. It makes me ask who the prisoner is and why? Also, did the person actually commit the crime or was framed for it?

Liz Fichera said...

That is a gorgeous and intriguing first line, Lia! Great example! I'd want to learn more.

Talli Roland said...

I love that first line! I can see it straight away in my head.

I don't usually pay much attention to first lines (as a reader). As long as I'm hooked within the first few pages, I'll keep reading.

Liz Fichera said...

Oh, good! So glad to hear that Talli and thanks!

I usually give a book a chapter or two but I must say that my interest is always piqued by a cool first line.

Susanna said...

I like your first line. Nice cadence. Intriguing. Sets the mood. Yours is a fabulous first line. That said, I'm usually forgiving of first lines. Not a make or break for me.

Liz Fichera said...

Hi Susanna! Glad you like it. I will probably change it about 106 more times, though.

Sherri said...

Great first line!

I'm generally a first page, first couple paragraphs, reader. If that first page doesn't hook me I won't bring the book home, unless someone has recommended it to me. Then the book has about 50 pages to keep me.

Liz Fichera said...

Thanks, Sherri!

I'm kind of an emotional reader. Something's got to affect me on some level to keep me going, to keep me interested. Maybe that's why my fuse is so short? Who knows...

Sherri said...

I'm an emotional reader, too, Liz. I've got a huge TBR pile but none are speaking to me right now, so no reading, but that may have more to do with the story simmering in my brain *g*

Maria Zannini said...

First lines are critical for me. The author has one whole page to capture my interest. The only thing that might make me read longer is if the back cover blurb is super interesting.

Who me? Hard to please? :laughs maniacally:

Liz Fichera said...

Hi Maria, back cover blurb (and sometimes cover) get me to open to the first page. So critical, especially when you're leisurely browsing online or at a bookstore.

Laura Kaye said...

I say two thumbs up on your first line. It has action, setting, a hint of characterization, and tone.

Of my books/WIPs, my favorite first line is this one:

We’d been having sex for approximately six minutes, according to the alarm clock on my nightstand, which meant it would soon be over.

hehe

Talina Perkins said...

As a writer, I feel just as compelled to get that first line write. I have clocked hours writing and rewriting my first line (this goes for all manuscripts) to set the tone. From there I can continue. I can't seem to move on if I do not have that beginning nailed. Quirky much?!

As a reader, I want the same quality that I work so hard to accomplish in my own writing. I like to be captivated from the very first sentence.

Your first line, in my humble opinion, really struck that tone and made me wonder so many things. It would make me want to read on for sure. Great job!

Talina Perkins said...

GROAN...you would think I might be able to spell better!

Liz Fichera said...

Laura, you have my attention with that first line!! :-)

Liz Fichera said...

Talina, thanks so much! Glad you liked it! When I'm having difficulty with that first line, I still force myself to keep writing the rest of the chapter, the rest of the novel. My thinking is that it'll hit me when I least expect it. Like at 2 a.m.! At least that is the hope...

Georgina Dollface said...

Without knowing anything about the book, I found this line very intriguing. It could go off in so many directions, justice, crime, mystery, racism and oppression. I think it also speaks to the closet voyeur in us all - the part of us that wants to see the suspect's face. So yes, I'd definitely keep reading. - G

Liz Fichera said...

Thanks, Georgina. And you hit on something important: the importance of raising story questions immediately to keep the reader intrigued and turning pages. I think that's true across genres.

notesfromnadir said...

Couldn't agree w/ you more -- you want to grab the reader.

You've done so, I like short sentences at the beginning of a book.

Here's a great example to an opening to a classic by Sinclair Lewis: "Elmer Gantry was drunk." This has always inspired me w/ its sheer simplicity.

Liz Fichera said...

Nadir, I usually go with very short opening lines. And that Sinclair Lewis example is a definite grabber! So nice you dropped by - have a great weekend!

Marianne Arkins said...

I'll give a book a try past the first line, but I did have one I stopped reading at the first line, when they used a wrong word (homonym) in it. I figured if the editing was so bad they missed something in the FIRST line, then the rest of the book would be intolerable.