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Category Archives: First Lines

The Subjectivity of First Lines

Image by cellar_door_films

In April last year I blogged about setting tone and the first line. As part of our workshop month, I want to take a look at what makes a good first line.

I’m not an expert. I don’t give writing advice. I make suggestions. And something I always suggest to death when critiquing it, is the first line of a manuscript.

I want to share with you guys the best piece of advice I read about writing first lines. I can’t remember who gave it or where I read it, but it stuck with me enough that I share it whenever I can.

If your first line can be the first line of any story, think about rewriting it.

I think at the end of the day, first lines are as subjective as an entire novel. But there will always be opinions, and opinions will always be subjective. That’s why they’re called opinions.

I’m going to take a popular example and give you my opinion on it. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

First line: When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.

It’s a fantastic book, I devoured it, but that first line could just as well be me on a winter’s morning. Or you. There’s nothing special about it. And that’s what I want. Special. I didn’t stop me from reading and loving the novel. It just didn’t make me think ‘Now here’s something I’m looking forward to reading’. It’s the kind of thing I read and then forget as the rest of the story pulls me in.

I went to the room I put all my books in and began pulling out novels and reading their first lines. I had a surprisingly difficult time finding lines that agreed with the abovementioned advice, or jumped out at me as special. Here’s a few of what I loved, with reasons why I like/love them so much:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. – Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones.

This. This right here is what I’m talking about. You wouldn’t ever be able to put this first sentence with any other novel. Ever. It stands out. It makes me wonder. I want to know what seven-league boots are and what kind of misfortune it is to be born the first of three.

It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected the cure. – Delirium, Lauren Oliver.

Another great example for the same reason as above. This first line wouldn’t be able to start any other novel than this one.

Only when the tip of the knife started to shave against the white of his eye like a scalpel about to pierce a boil, did I realise that I was the one holding it. – Hunting Lila, Sarah Alderson.

I love the imagery here. It also does a fantastic job at making me wonder just what the heck is going on here.

There are many perks to living for twenty-one centuries, and foremost among them is bearing witness to the rare birth of genius.  – Hounded, Kevin Hearne.

I don’t know why I like this line so much, but it works. It’s that subjective thing again.

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 would happen. – Feed, Mira Grant.

I’ve had this book on my tbr for months now. The first line made me laugh out loud. Guess what? I’m moving it up and will be reading it soon. First line, job well done.

In doing a bit of research for this post, I read that some of the best opening lines are usually short and snappy. For some, yeah I guess that works. If you look at my examples above, I like my lines with personality, and often that requires more than a short sentence. When I look at Feed’s first line, I already get a proper sense of who the main character is. From that alone I’m excited to meet her.

If you’re interested in reading a few more first lines, here’s a post with links to quite a few of them: Links to First Line Posts by Susan Berger

Keep in mind that the kind of books I read are probably different from the kind some of you read. I look at some of the lines other people quote and think ‘I don’t see it’. I know there are a few of you that will look at the lines I quoted and think the exact same thing. That’s okay.

I’ll say it again. First lines are as subjective as entire novels are.

If you’re not entirely happy with your first line, if you feel it needs something different, think about that piece of advice I mentioned at the start of this post. Rewrite if you think it’s necessary.

Need an extra opinion? Please drop your lines into the comment section and either myself of one of the other ladies will comment. Other commenters are welcome to chime in as well.

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Posted by on February 13, 2013 in First Lines, Subjectivity, Writing

 

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Help!

008NaNoWriMo is done for another year. How did you all do? I didn’t participate, but had fun watching the updates fly by. Congratulations to all the winners!!

This is going to be a short post this week, because I need feedback – from you. I’ve asked the other Hugs and Chocolate writers if this is something they’d be interested in doing and the majority of the response has been extremely positive and exciting. I’m going to list a few questions and would look forward to reading your answers. We’ll discuss them and see what we can do to best help you.

Now that NaNo is over, we know you’ve got a ton of words, but it may not be ready for publication. However, we also know that it’s December, which means it’s crazy busy with Christmas and New Year’s coming up and you probably don’t have a lot of time to devote to writing this month. So…

1. If the Hugs and Chocolate writers were to offer workshops and critiques via the website, would you be interested in participating?

2. What subjects would you like to see covered? Revisions and editing are difficult. Some of us have done them or are doing them as I write this. What, in particular, would you like to know more about?

3. We were thinking of offering a critique workshop also. Would you be willing to submit the first 500 words of your story in a comment and have it critiqued? Or perhaps your one sentence description? Tell us what you need and how we can best help you.

4. Are you in need of a critique partner? Perhaps, via comments, you can find someone else who’s looking.

5. Timing. Because December is so busy for everyone, when would you like to see this happen? We want to create a community that helps you succeed and we’re looking for feedback about what our readers want and need.

 

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2012 in Critique, Editing, Feedback, First Lines, NaNoWriMo, Revision

 

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Writing in Past Perfect Tense

Naturally occurring iron springs in Telluride, Colorado.

First off, look at the gorgeous picture. I took that a few weeks ago in Telluride, Colorado. It’s naturally occurring iron springs. Stunning.

Okay, now we get into the fun stuff.

Regardless if your book is written in present tense or past tense (also referred to as simple past), there are times in your story when you’ll probably refer to something that has already happened. Sometimes a flashback is necessary to the story. When going into a flashback, or describing something that has already happened in the past, you’ll want to use the past perfect tense.

Well, when/how do you use past perfect?

Believe it or not, there’s a formula for past perfect: (had + past participle = past perfect). I’m not sure about you, but I learn better when I have an example in front of me, so here we go. I’m going to start off in past tense, go into a past perfect to describe something that has already happened, and then transition back to simple past.

Sebastian meowed over and over, trying to get my attention. He either wanted food or love. (Notice this first sentence is in simple past. The reader knows it’s in past tense, all the events that are happening in the story are told in the past.) I’d just graduated from college when I’d made the decision to get my very own cat. I’d always wanted a pound kitty. (Going into a flashback, switch to past perfect. Make sure your reader knows you’re talking about something that has already happened.)

Sebastian picked me as much as I picked him. (Here’s where it gets fun. When you go into past perfect, once you establish that it’s in the past, you switch from past perfect to simple past tense, because the word “had” becomes quite cumbersome, even when used in a contraction. The thing to remember is, when we come out of the flashback, make sure the reader is aware by, and the transition to “now” is clear.) He was such an energetic kitten. He played with my roommate’s cat and loved sitting in my window seat. Now (I’m establishing that the flashback is over, making the transition from past perfect to simple past tense), he’s (notice this is in present tense. That’s because it’s an absolute. Sebastian is still alive and kicking, therefore we use the present tense. I’ll have to do another blog post on absolutes, if you’re interested) fat and lazy, but full of personality. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hopefully that wasn’t too painful, and yes, I do love my animals an absurd amount.

The key to using past perfect is transition. You have to clue your reader in on the timeline. Make sure it’s smooth. This will eliminate confusion, and it allows you to tell more aspects of your story by using things from a character’s past.

If you have any questions, ask away, and I’ll answer in the comments.

Useful links:

This is a great article about writing effective flashbacks.

Visit this page for more past perfect examples.

 

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Don’t take that tone with me. Oh wait…

Confession time(I like these, you’ll get used to them).

When I start a new novel I give absolutely no thought as to what tone I want to set. I never have and I never will.  You know what decides my tone?

Who my main character is as a person and the kind of challenges I’ll be throwing at her.

All my novels so far have been first person character driven because I like getting into my MCs head and figuring out her motivations, her reasons for doing anything. Even a thing as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator. She likes the exercise.

I did a little bit of research, aka searched my Google reader, and saw somebody mention that you can set the tone of a novel with the very first line. I know it does but I’ve never really thought about it.  This made me think back, and look through, all my previous novels and the first lines I gifted them with.

It’s kind of spot on. That first line sets some kind of standard that we as the writer of our story have to be true to.  While book shopping, some readers will look at a first line and judge the entire novel on what they read. I’ve seen contests where writers had to enter their first lines and were judged solely by that one sentence. Most of those poor writers’ first lines were torn to shreds by other writers and I’m sure some of the entrants still carry the scars from that experience. I just went back to that contest and scanned some of the comments on the first lines. Harsh. (a post about that at a later date)

It’s insane when you think how much weight one string of words carry. Insane! You will either grab a reader’s attention, or they will toss your work aside as being not compelling enough, not good enough, not worthy of their time. Those people disregarding a novel based on a first line will most likely miss out on a wonderful story, but it’s their loss, right? Yes, it is.

I once said, and will say it again, I will never judge a book by its first line, first page, or first chapter. And definitely not by its cover. NEVER. I’m a writer. I know what kind of work and effort, blood, sweat, and tears go into writing a novel. You put everything you have into that story, and I’m sure you leave a part of your soul there when you’re done. I will give the author and the story they wrote the respect they deserve and read at least five or six chapters. After that, if I put the novel down, it’s only because it just might not be the kind of thing I’m into, or what I expected. It doesn’t happen a lot, I can count the number of times on one hand. I’m well aware that, if I get published one day, some people might do the same with my novel, and I’m okay with it.

And I’m getting away from the reason of this post. Setting tone.

Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert in the field of tone and the setting of it, not at all. But I thought I’d share with you guys my experience with it.

A few years ago I wrote an urban fantasy, which I still love and will one day fix. It started with one of those borderline no-no beginnings. My MC was on her bed, trying to fall asleep. I know. I know. But that was only the second novel I wrote and I was still learning about the finder intricacies of opening pages and their dos and don’ts. That MC got annoyed with whatever it was that kept her awake and stormed out of her house to confront the noisemakers.

That first few pages set a tone of casualness that isn’t reflected in the rest of the novel, and I didn’t even realize it until I wanted to start querying that novel.  Somebody critiqued the first pages of that novel and told me that, even though the start is well and good, maybe it isn’t the right place to start the novel.  I sat back, mulled it over, and wrote a whole new first chapter.

It made such a difference!

The new chapter started out with a completely different tone and it amazed me. Where the previous opening had more of a casual intro and one annoyed MC, the new one showed me a whole different side to that MC. The serious one dealing with something so life changing that she has trouble thinking straight. And best of all, it reflected the tone of the rest of the manuscript. It added a whole different kind or urgency.

Since then I’ve learned my lesson and improved/adjusted the tone of each manuscript to fit what I have in mind for that story and its MC.  The first line, paragraph, page, and chapter plays such an important role, even if you remove the thought that all the abovementioned have to catch the agent’s, publisher’s, and reader’s attention.  It prepares whoever will pick up your novel for what is in store, and most of the time they don’t even know it. It’s like a personal joke between you and a friend, or a secret that you tell only your most trusted confidant.

I think this post morphed from being about tone into something about first sentences.

So tell me this, because I love reading how others go to work, how do you decide tone? Is it reflected in your first line? Have you ever had to rewrite or add a first chapter to fit the idea you originally had?

PS: Here’s my current wip’s first line.

Sebastian said he found me in a hole.

 
21 Comments

Posted by on April 11, 2012 in First Lines, Personal Experience, Tone, Writing

 

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