Angie Azur is a YA Sci-fi Writer.
Writer for PALEO Magazine.
Former Intern at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
SCBWI & COWG Member.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Examining First Lines

I've had many great teachers with many great ideas to help writers. But the one that stuck with me the most may be the easiest to do. Go to a library or bookstore and research first lines. 

Sit your bottom down in front of the genre of books that you write, and start pulling them off the shelves. Record the first lines. Star the ones you love. Record the titles too and/or authors. Keep going until your hand hurts from writing, or your fingertips numb from typing. 

Novels take time and talent to write well. The first line of your novel is the lure, like a wiggling worm on a hook to a fish. The fish will first inspect the worm. Is it real or one of those cheap imitations? Does it move right or is it almost dead? What color is it? Does it make sense? If the fish takes the bait, you got yourself dinner. If a child devours your first line, you've got yourself a reader. 

If your first line presents no action, falls flat, contains too much backstory, and does not draw the reader in, then  your book won't sell. No matter how great the next chapter is, no matter your awesome plot, amazing characters, unbelievable ending - the first line will ruin it all, if it's not perfectly exciting! 

Here are some first lines of some books I pulled while researching for my book: REDWOOD BLOOD

  • "On a Thursday afternoon, just after tea, Charlie Bone saw smoke." 
  • "Alvin stood at the window and looked through the bars."
  • The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. 
  • Lessa woke, cold. 
  • I lay on my back, watching the little patches of blue sky that I could see through the jungle canopy.
  • In the 7th grade you grow backwards.
  • Hermux Tantamoq closed his eyes and listened.
  • The temperature in the room dropped fast, ice formed on the curtains, and crusted thickly around the lights in the ceiling.
  • The assassins dropped into the palace grounds at midnight, four feet shadows dark against the wall.
  • "Kolly, you are thirteen and growing everyday," Maa said to me. "It's time for you to have a husband."
  • There is not lake at camp Green Lake.
  • Maniac MaGee was not born in a dump.
  • A boy stood on the path of the mountain, overlooking the sea.
  • The day after my mother died, the priest and I wrapped her body in a grey shroud and carried her to the village church...her name had been Asta.
  • "I don't want to stay here. Please don't leave me here."
  • I got off to a bad start at camp cold lake.
  • "They're coming!" the servant cried from the path.
  • It isn't everyday you meet a tiger.
  • If Mistral, the dragon, and monkey could have had their way, they would have left San Francisco the next instant for the dragon kingdom, but Mr. Hu would not be hurried with his packing. 
  • I stopped when I smelled the magic, it was strong magic, old magic and it carried the faint scent of the sea.
  • A bamboo bowl flew through the air, aimed at the slave girls head.
  • In the green water, among the rushing bubbles, he is looking at me still.
Have you guessed any of the titles of these books? If not, and you'd like to know, comment and I will tell you. 

You can see that some of them are must reads, but some of them are so-so. What draws you to the ones you want to read more about? What don't you like about the others? 

Now look at your first line in your book. Are you wanting more, or does it leave you less excited than these? 

My novel is now in its last revision stage. I started it almost two years ago. I have been revising and playing around with each chapter since then. I have cut 7 chapters out of the beginning. I have changed the ending twice. I have started with a female MC, switched her to a male, and then switched him back to female. I have had children in my age range read it and give feedback. (They are my harshest readers, but I've had break throughs from their critiques.) I have had my critique group read chapters. I have had help from a professional editor. And with each read, each critique, each change, the novel has become stronger....and yet...the first line eludes me. 
Here is my current first line:

A black present placed on my pillow surprised me. I didn't expect anything today, even though it was my birthday. 

**This does not work. I am not eager to read's a downer.

Here are a few other ones I've been working on:

"The transformation begins and ends with the sun rising on the first and setting on the third day of your tenth year plus three." The writing looked vaguely familiar. 

I don't know if it was his face, the blood, the way he chomped his gum, or the dad comment, but I charged.

I peeked out of the bushes scared that Mom would be searching for me.

Where are you??? Fuchs is bloody Mrs Crowne bruised They r talking cops!!! The text made my hands shake. 

Which one makes you want to read more? It's back to the drawing board for me, but I'm getting closer...

My advice to you is to play around with your first lines. Look at paragraphs deeper in your first chapter and choose some that make you want to read more. By doing this, you may realize that you have started your book too soon. 

Another way of saying this is: Cut, Cut, Cut It's tough to do, but you will see that your manuscript tightens up the closer you start at your true beginning....the place that makes you want to read more.

Good luck, and please feel free to share your first lines.


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