12.12.2006

Perfect first lines

Dearest Miss Snark,

I am doing the final polish on my novel before sending it out. I keep being told that the first line is absolutely crucial. I know people who have spent two hours in a workshop just reading first lines and saying whether or not they'd read on.

Is this really the state of the industry today? If my first line doesn't grab an agent by the throat, am I really doomed to failure? My metaphorical dead body arrives early in page two, so the story gets going quickly. (And no, I cannot start with the dead body, for several reasons not germane to the discussion.)

Is the current obsession with the 'perfect first line' really necessary?

Thank you so much for all you do for us. My nitwit rating has gone down considerably since I began reading your blog.


Nitwit rating! I love it.

And no, you don't need a perfect first line. You just need a first line that doesn't make me think "this sux".

We set things down when they're bad, not when they're not good enough.
There's a big distinction. It's hard to describe. Two days in my slush pile and you'd see it clearly.

If you read the first page crapometer entries one after another, you'll see it there too.

Try not to worry any more than is required by law.

23 comments:

Linda Adams said...

The same person must have talked to me. He said, because I'd used a particular word in the first line, that an agent would reject it on the spot for being too "writerly" (the word was 'edging,' by the way).

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of Albert Camus' character Joseph Grand from The Plague who toiled away every night at writing the perfect novel, never getting past the opening line.

To this day I'm always hoping someone says, "Hats off!" to something I do.

iago said...

Well, I've been looking at most of the popular blogs and sites for writers, and most experts seem to say that nobody reads the first line anyway, and its the second line that has to sing.

Don't put too much effort into the first line - it's a throw-away. Craft the second line. In fact, most good writers don't have a first line at all, they just start straight in with the second and their books are all the better for it.

YMMV.

LadyBronco said...

Good Lord, I would hate to hear what that person would say about my WiP.

I've heard about getting the reader hooked within the first couple of pages, but never in the first sentence.

And I thought I was OCD.

katiesandwich said...

Okay, I agree that a perfect first line isn't vital, but I HAVE purchased a book before based on the first line. I read the jacket copy; it sounded interesting, so I opened it up. The first line was so freaking awesome that I read no further, just snapped the cover shut and took it to the register. But this is the exception to the rule, I think. However, in my opinion, first lines that indicate that there's a person somewhere in the story are more effective at pulling me in.

Could I be a nitwit? Maybe. Sure wouldn't be the first time!

michaelgav said...

Did anyone else picture the Billy Crystal character from "Throw Mama From the Train" after reading this post?

"The night was... moist."

Zany Mom said...

I just start the story. I don't think about the first line. Chances are, that whole first chapter is a goner anyway. Maybe the story really starts in chapter 3. I hope the story hooks the reader. And yes, I do know the opening lines of both of my novels. ;) And the few that were cut. But I didn't obsess over them.

Anonymous said...

im gonna answer for you snark-


YES!! if your first line doesn't grab you ARE DOOOOOOOOMMMEEDD to failure for eternity.


jeez, get some balls people.

e

Annie said...

I'm not in the industry at all. I'm just a reader, but I do read a LOT. I will say that when shopping for books that aren't recommendations from friends, I buy books based on first lines. Cover art, blurbs, author quotes... don't pay any attention to those. I open a book and read the first line and if it grabs me, I buy it.

If you don't have a kick-ass first line, will I never read your book? Not necessarily. But if I don't recognize your name or someone hasn't said to me, "go read this book", then chances are I'm not picking it up if that first line doesn't grab me.

kitty said...

michaelgav said...
Did anyone else picture the Billy Crystal character from "Throw Mama From the Train" after reading this post?

"The night was... moist."


OMG. My husband and I still quote that movie and laugh!

Bernita said...

Now some claim it's down to the first line?
Are people's lips moving?
It takes like five seconds to read a standard length paragraph, and most people do.

Zany Mom said...

I watched that movie about a decade before I ever even thought about writing. 'A writer writes!' And I remember thinking, who would want to be a writer? Why subject myself to 'The night was...' for months on end?

Until a story gripped my brain and wouldn't let go. I figured, maybe if I write it down, these damn people will shut the hell up! And it worked. ;)

I didn't choose to write; I was chosen, LOL. Whether my stuff is any good or not remains to be seen.

Maria said...

Linda Adams said...
The same person must have talked to me. He said, because I'd used a particular word in the first line, that an agent would reject it on the spot for being too "writerly" (the word was 'edging,' by the way).


Oh, my God. I hope you're kidding.

Rei said...

Miss Snark, you absolutely should have a color-coded nitwit rating system! Here's one possibility:

0: Bombay Sapphire: Not a nitwit. If anything, you risk earning nitwit points for thinking that you might be a nitwit.
1: Green Dragon: Nitwit tendancies. Take the time to remove mentions of the difficulties of being a computer programmer from the query for your 18th century romatic comedy.
2: Gin Sour: Borderline nitwit. Pursue your hairbrained notions a bit further, and you'll be on the receiving end of shots from a clue gun.
3: Opal Martini: Nitwit. Your fears are true. Think about what you've been doing, and do the opposite.
4: Sloe Red: Nitwit with resolve. You're a nitwit, yet seem to have trouble believing that you're not. Please take my advice and stop calling agents to see if they got your glitter-filled envelope.
5: Pink Lady: Barbara Bauer's bread and butter.

Anonymous said...

:reader hat on:

I tend to judge by first lines whether I'll buy a book. Sometimes the line was great and the rest of the book sucked, but the line did its job and sold the book.

:editor hat on:

I like a good hook first line or at least a good hook for a first paragraph.

:writer hat on:

I craft the best first line possible just to prove to the editor and reader that I CAN do it.

Every single one of my titles has effort put into that first line, paragraph, page. (Oh, yeah, the rest of the book gets that, too.)

Read some first lines by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, Fred Saberhagan, Jim Butcher or Dick Francis. Go forth, sell likewise.

michaelgav said...

How about this one:

"Dive! Dive!" yelled the Captain through the thing! So the man who makes it dive pressed a button, or something, and it dove. And, the enemy was foiled again. "Looks like we foiled them again," said Dave. "Yeah," said the Captain. "We foiled those bastards again. Didn't we, Dave." "Yeah," said Dave. The End.

(I think someone used this quote as his or her entire comment on a post in Miss Snark's last Crapometer, which I thought was wickedly understated snarking of the highest order.)

Ryan Field said...

Anne Tyler wrote, "Evie Decker was not musical," as the first line in A SLIPPING DOWN LIFE.(I hope I got that right...think so)

Nothing truly spectacular about that line on its own, but after you read the entire book you then realize just how magical the line is.

Emmy Voter said...

I had the same thing happen to me as happened to Katie Sandwich. Although to be honest I think I read three or four lines to be sure. The book was Dean Koontz's Velocity, and I was in an airport bookshop, looking for something that would keep me entertained in flight. I wasn't disappointed -- and I noticed that each of his chapters started with an equally grabby hook that would also have carried me to the cash register if I'd flipped to it.

I might well buy a book that started with Anonymous 1's first line above: To this day I'm always hoping someone says, "Hats off!" to something I do.

merlinsmuse said...

Hmmm, interesting. Does anyone open the book to the middle somewhere and start reading? That's how I determine whether to buy the book or not. Of course, it takes a catchy cover and compelling blurb to hook me, but the final decision is based on reading a page from the middle of the book.

Cathy

Anonymous said...

"A writer writes...always." - I believe the quote goes. "The night was moist." - Classic.

Well, I feel slightly relieved by what I've read here. Slightly. Admittedly, I am somewhat a newbie but (and I'll be specific so that it doesn't sound like 'this one time at band camp...') at the 2006 Southern California Writers' Conference a panel of agents all nodded their heads in unison when one of them responded verbally to a question of how far do you read before you need to be hooked?
- "I read the first line. If I like it I go onto the second line. If it's still okay I read the second line, then the first paragraph. If the first paragraph captures my attention, I read the first page."

The whole panel continued nodding. No objections.

If what I'm getting from Miss Snark's response is accurate, as long as the first line doesn't suck she'll continue reading. I guess I'll know in a few days...

Steve Prosapio said...

Cathy,
I read the first line, paragraph (sometimes page) and then I'll open randomly in the middle and read too! Fortunately I am able to weed out quite a few books that way. One in particular had "she was" six times on one page. I just threw it and ran away.

katiesandwich said...

Michaelgav:

WHERE did that quote come from? I know I have the book that's in, but I can't remember which one it is. (Understandable considering that I own at least twenty writing books.) I remember laughing hysterically when I read that for the first time.

Rei said...

Katie:

Mrs. Hazeltine, a student in Billy Crystal's writing class in "Throw Momma From The Train"