Format: e-Book; Length: 28k
Sunday, July 31, 2011
Today I'd like to welcome R. Ann Siracusa, who is writing about first lines.
“Common Wisdom” in the writing world claims the opening line sells your book and the closing line sells your next book. Whether that wisdom is accurate or not, most writers seem to agree the first line of a novel is oh, so very important. It can make or break your novel.
Think about it. A reader wanders through the bookstore (or in this electronically oriented world, wanders through a website), spots a catchy cover, and picks up the book. Or, perhaps, this reader goes directly to the shelves holding the desired genre and studies the titles and author’s names. Next, read the cover blurb. “Hmm. That sounds interesting.” And then…the reader opens the book and skims the first paragraph.
That’s when you have to hit ’em between the eyes. Knock ’em dead. It’s the first thing they read of the story itself, the first impression. You’ve only got a few seconds to sink in your teeth.
It better be good.
If an author doesn’t make the effort to sculpt the words of the first line into a masterpiece, what level of attention has he/she taken with the key moments in the novel when interpretative pressure is at its peak, when capturing a complete fictional world is at its most pressing? As one writer put it, “Screw up the opening; screw up the book.”
What to do and what not to do
So, how does a writer come up with the perfect first line? I wish I knew. If there was a failsafe formula, someone would be out there selling it and making a bundle. Instead, there are a plethora of opinions and guidelines—things an author should and should not do—and those vary to some extent. They all agree it should be intriguing and capture the reader’s interest. It’s the how of it they disagree on. Well, maybe not even the how, but more what is interesting and compels the reader to go on.
The line should:
● Be intriguing,
● Hint of things to come,
● Be compelling,
● Establish an intriguing question that makes the reader want to find out more,
● Set the tone and flavor of the book, show what kind of book it is,
● Incorporate the mood or theme of the story.
It shouldn’t be:
● Bland or trite.
●An overused reference to the elements or time of the year.
If you choose to write about the weather, be careful. You run the risk of inviting comparisons to “It was a dark and stormy night,” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s classic first line from his 1830 novel, PAUL CLIFFORD) and your book won’t stand a chance.
Here’s another version from Suzannah over at Write it Sideways, who lists what to do and not do in your opening lines.
What not to do in your opening line:
● Dialogue. Suzannah feels dialogue is all right somewhere on the first or second page, but not in the first line. She feels the reader won’t know who’s speaking or care.
● Excessive description. Some description is good, but not when it’s long winded. Skip the purple prose and opt for something more powerful.
● Irrelevant information. The first few lines of your story are crucial, so give your reader only important information.
● Introduction of too many characters. (I’m not sure how you introduce too many characters in one line, but I supposed it’s possible.) Suzannah doesn’t like to be bombarded with the names of too many characters at once. How is the reader supposed to keep them straight?
What you should do in your opening line:
● Make your readers wonder. Put a question in your readers’ minds. What do those first lines mean? What’s going to happen? Intrigue with unanswered questions and they’ll keep reading.
● Begin at a pivotal moment. By starting at an important moment in the story, the reader is more likely to want to continue so he or she can discover what will happen next.
● Create an interesting picture. Description is good when it encourages people to paint a picture in their minds. Often, simple is best so it’s the reader who imagines a scene, instead of simply being told by the author.
● Introduce an intriguing character. The promise of reading more about a character you find intriguing will, no doubt, draw you into a story’s narrative. Most often, this is one of the main characters in the book.
● Start with an unusual situation. Show us characters in unusual circumstances, and we’ll definitely be sticking around to see what it’s all about.
● Begin with a compelling narrative voice. Open your story with the voice of a narrator we can instantly identify with, or one that relates things in a fresh way.
Best First Lines of Novels
It’s always interesting to compare advice to actual first lines. Below, I’ve listed a sampling of the first lines I’ve collected over the years; some good, some not-so-good. There is quite a variety, and several are first paragraphs rather than first lines. You’ll note quite a few were penned by mystery writer Dick Francis who, in my opinion, is one of the Masters of the First Line.
At the end, I’ve provided a link to the American Book Review List of the One Hundred Best First Lines in American literature. I can’t say that a lot of those resonate with me. Quite a few break one or two of Suzannah’s rules for what not to do. Others, while they are first lines from great works of literature, aren’t exactly catchy as stand-alone opening lines.
I believe the first lines considered good and great may vary depending both time and location. For example, in my opinion, British readers are generally much more tolerant of lengthy sentences and difficult words than American readers. Although I haven’t really studied this topic in detail or done extensive research, it seems there are differences in “best first lines” in books written in earlier centuries (such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe written in 1719) and more recent works, as well as differences between literary fiction and popular fiction.
The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
I have often recalled the morning when the first of the anonymous letters came.
Gone For Good by Harlan Coben
Three days before her death, my mother told me—they weren’t her last words but they were pretty close—that my brother was still alive.
Berg by Ann Quin
A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.
Murder Is A Girl’s Best Friend by Amanda Matetsky (2004)
What’s black and white and red all over? A blood-soaked newspaper—like the Monday, December 20, 1954 edition of The Daily Mirror I was reading that fateful morning.
Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler (2001)
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
Ten Big Ones by Janet Evanovich (2004)
The way I see it, life is a jelly doughnut. You don’t really know what it’s about until you bite into it. And then, just when you decide it’s good, you drop a big glob of jelly on your best T-shirt.
A Frolic Of His Own by William Gaddis (1994)
You get justice in the next world; in this world you have the law.
Space by James Michener (1982)
On 24 October 1944 Planet Earth was following its orbit about the sun as it had obediently done for nearly five billion years. It moved at the stunning speed of sixty-six thousand miles an hour, and in doing so, created the seasons. In the northern hemisphere it was a burnished autumn; in the southern, a burgeoning spring.
Death In A Sunny Climate by Diane Shalet (1994)
I sat at Michael’s desk, buried under a mountain of third-class mail. October 7, 1983. The second plea from Newsweek: YOU HAVE NOT RENEWED. PLEASE TELL US WHY. I answered for him: Because I died. Then I signed his name.
Unnatural Causes by P. D. James (1967)
The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy just within sight of the Suffolk coast.
A Certain Justice by P. D. James (1997)
Murderers do not usually give their victim notice.
“R” Is For Ricochet by Sue Grafton (2004)
The basic question is this: given human nature, are any of us really capable of change? The mistakes other people make are usually patently obvious. Our own are tougher to recognize.
The First Eagle by Tony Hillerman (1998)
The body of Anderson Nez lay under a sheet on the gurney, waiting.
The Medusa Game by Cindy Dees (2006)
The bus the terrorists had demanded was just pulling up in front of the Olympic village apartment building. The casual observer wouldn’t see the dozen German army snipers lying in wait around the street, but Isabella Torres was no casual observer.
The Reef by Nora Robers (1998)
James Lassiter was forty years old, a well-built, ruggedly handsome man in the prime of his life, in the best of health. In an hour he’d be dead.
Agnes And The Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer (2007)
One fine August evening in South Carolina, Agnes Crandall stirred raspberries and sugar in her heavy nonstick frying pan and defended her fiancé to the only man she’s ever trusted. It wasn’t easy.
Risk by Dick Francis
Thursday, March 17, I spent the morning in anxiety, the afternoon in ecstasy, and the evening unconscious.
Fear No Evil by Allison Brennan (2007)
The sick and depraved had voted: death by stabbing.
Kate Donovan’s whisper became a cry as she pocketed her cell phone, unable to respond to the text message her only remaining friend in the FBI had sent.
The Spiral Path by Mary Jo Putney (2002)
The trouble with reality was that it was so dammed real.
Articles on First Lines
First Line Literary Journal
How to write the first chapter of a novel
She appeared out of nowhere, blown into Red Gulch, a decaying mining town, on the crest of a desert breeze like the ever-present tumbleweeds that filled the empty streets in the blink of an eye. Except everyone knew where tumbleweeds came from.
Brandon O’Donnell never figured out where Melody came from, but she captured his heart with her flaming red hair, hypnotic light-grey eyes, and intense but distant way of speaking. As though, Brandon had thought for years, she knew a lot more than she let on. Now, Brandon is about to find out how much more that really is.
ISBN # 978-1-934657-70-6
Format: e-Book; Length: 28k
Format: e-Book; Length: 28k
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Today I'm hosting Allison Knight as she interviews the heroine from "Heartsong" the first of her 'song' books. These Medieval Romances take place during the reign of Edward the First of England.
AK: Hello there. Aren't you Rhianna ab Brynn Ffrydd of the novel Heartsong?
Rhianna: Aye, I am she. And who might you be?
AK: My name is Allison Knight. May I ask you some questions?
She nods her head and a lock of red-gold hair slips from her crispin to fall over her shoulder. Aye, I suppose so, but my little daughter will soon need my attention. I cannot tarry long.
AK: I heard you were captured by an English Baron. It that the truth?
Rhianna: Aye, he captured me. I thought my life had ended. You see, the English were terrible to my people. Do you know that in the battle with our Prince, they cut off his head and carried it to the king of England on a pike? I did not dare tell him I was related to the Prince. The English also killed the man I was to marry. All through Wales, they created destruction, raping and pillaging our people. Aye, I carried great fear for this baron. You can see why I feared for my life.
AK: He held you captive?
Rhianna: Aye, he did. Rhianna smiles However, he was not the evil man I thought. I did marry him.
AK: Why did you think he was an evil man? Was he responsible for killing the man you were to marry?
Rhianna: Nay, but his men killed my father. 'Twas an awful time. He said he intended to take me to his castle, Knockin, and he would use me as a man uses a woman—as if I was no more than the lowest servant. But, he did not take me to his bed. In fact, when the woman his sister wanted him to marry came to visit I acted a wanton, yet he did not bed me.
AK: While you were at Knockin you were also named a witch. What happened?
Rhianna: 'Twas my doing. When first I was captured I cursed all the English. When my baron seemed to enjoy my company, his people said I cast a spell on him. They told his half-brother, Colvin who was a jealous man, and would do almost anything to hurt his half-brother. He claimed I had to be a witch, therefore I had to be punished. He knew such action would hurt his half-brother.
AK: What happened?
Rhianna: 'Twas a terrifying time for me. Colvin convinced the servants to say I cast spells, to offer proof to the priest judging me. I knew not what would happen when they came forward to name me a witch, to tell about the spells they said I cast. They were most convincing. I was condemned; my punishment—to be burned at the stake. On the day I was led to the pyre, my baron's friend, an abbot, stepped forward and proved I was not a witch. In fact he caught the soldier whose task was to light the wood. The soldier confessed, naming Colvin as the one who planned the deed. When a judgment of innocence came I collapsed. I cannot say what happened then.
AK: How is your life now?
Rhianna beams. As I said, I married my baron. I have a beautiful little girl. Our king has come to visit and all my brothers are now pledged to Edward. Arthur is squire to our king's friend and will be soon be knighted.
AK: All your brothers? How many do you have?
Rhianna: There are five brothers. She giggles. Each of them carry a first name which starts with the letter 'a'. My father, who was called Alwyn Brynn Ffrydd wanted to call me Anna, but my mother said enough. She added the 'RHI' so I would not also bear a first name beginning with the letter 'a'.
AK: So, what are they called?
Rhianna: Angor is the oldest, then there is Alwyn (he bears our father's name), and Anwyl, Arvel and finally Arthur.
AK: Where do you fit in?
Rhianna: I am between Arvel and Arthur.
AK: Do they all sing? I understand you have a fantastic voice.
Rhianna: Aye, they are all musical, but 'tis truth that most of those with Welsh heritage sing. Oh, nay! Can you not hear an example of my daughter's Welsh heritage? The entire castle will hear her soon, so I must tend to her now. I bid you good day.
About Allison Knight
Award winning author, Allison Knight began her writing career like many other authors. She read a book she didn’t like and knew she could do a better job. Since that time, Allison has written and published seventeen romances for both paperback and digital publishers. Her third medieval romance from her 'song' series is at the publisher awaiting approval. A digital short story is scheduled for release in December 2011.
Because she loves to share her knowledge and her love of romance novels she often blogs with other authors. She also loves to talk about the growing digital market.
You can find her at:
She blogs once a month for The Writers' Vineyard, http://thewritersvineyard.com
Posted by Rochelle Weber at 12:01 AM