What’s In a First Line?

I’m not sure there’s any part of a manuscript that’s harder to write and leave alone than the beginning. There’s a lot of pressure on an author for the first few pages – and especially that first line. How many times have agents, editors, and readers admitted that they have stopped reading a book because the beginning simply didn’t hook them? (Answer: lots of times.)

For instance, in Thursday’s Writer’s Digest newsletter, literary agent Barbara Poelle writes that, “Sometimes…a first line can close it down for me (e.g., the one I got that opened with, ‘What if it was your job to kill babies?’)”. She’s not the only one – editors and agents are looking for reasons to put a book down, and judging the beginning is a great way to find one.

And it’s true for me, too. The first line can make me love a book. It can also make me debate whether it’s worth my time. For instance, when I opened Feed, by Mira Grant, it begins like this:

Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.

Feed-by-Mira-Grant

How can I not want to read more? It’s funny, it sets the tone of the narrator, and it gives you tons of information about the setting – all wrapped up in one neat, little (okay, big) sentence.

At this point, I’ve spent over two weeks tweaking the opening scene of my first Avery Bennett novel. My husband read it last night, and, wonder of all wonders, he laughed at the right parts, then turned to me and said, “It’s good!”. Music to my ears.

Wanna read it? Here are the first few paragraphs:

     For an oracle, there are times when I’m awfully bad at remembering things. The irony of this fact wasn’t lost on me as I shoved my arm through the sleeve of my t-shirt and swept into the kitchen. My roommate, Jenna, was lying on her stomach in the middle of the tile floor, pouring over this month’s Cosmopolitan. She didn’t even look up as I entered.
     “Have you seen my keys?” I asked, my eyes scanning the counters and the kitchen table. There was no sign of them amid the papers and utensils scattered across most of the surfaces that weren’t taken up by unopened moving boxes. Despite the seconds ticking by, I grabbed the Costco-sized bottle of aspirin from the island and tipped a couple pills into my palm, tossing them into my mouth and swallowing them with ease. Practice makes perfect, and I always fared better when I went out into the world with a little preventative care. No matter how good my mental shield is, headaches are inevitable when I’m around people for a prolonged period of time. Lately, I could barely manage an hour before the migraine hit.
     Jenna ignored my question as I shuffled papers aside and rifled through the clothes draped over the living room furniture. “Did you know that Taylor Swift is back together with that drummer from her ex-boyfriend’s band?” she asked.
     I stopped rifling through the papers on the kitchen table for a moment and forced my face into a confused frown. “I thought she was dating that actor from Twilight.”
     Jenna’s head shot up and she stared at me in shock. Or, at least, I think it was shock. My roommate’s face is hard to read, mostly because she’s a human ghost stuck in a dog’s body. A Westie’s body, to be specific. Many of our expressions aren’t meant for canine features. Trust me. After living with Jenna for almost two months now, there were some faces that she was simply no longer allowed to make.
     They were just too creepy.
     “You. Can’t. Be. Serious.” She over-enunciated each word, sounding more like a Valley Girl with each syllable.
     A grin crept across my face. “Of course not,” I said. “She broke up with the actor guy last fall – everyone knows that. I just had to get your attention.” Jenna sighed, the noise sounding unnatural coming from her muzzle, and I tried to stifle my smile. “Have you seen my keys anywhere?”

And now, I promised myself that I’d get back to work after this post. Any thoughts on my opener? Leave ’em in the comments, and I will definitely respond. Any other tricks to a good hook in your manuscript? I’d love to hear those, too.

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