With #Pitchmadness submission date being a little over a week away (if you don’t know what #pitchmadness is, refer to Brenda Drake’s Blog), and #nestpitch less than a month away, I thought I’d talk about first lines.
Yes the 35-word pitch is important, vital even, because it demonstrates to an agent how clearly you can summarize your manuscript. If the first line of your manuscript is strong but your pitch weak, this may cost you your spot on a blogger’s post. However, not matter how great (and seriously make it great) your 35-word pitch is, if that first line, that first paragraph and those first 250-300 words fail to impress, you’ll not get the attention of an agent.
There is a lot of talk about what makes a first line good, great or indifferent. Much of it revolves around two perceived ideas. (1) start your first line/paragraph with activity. (2) never start your first line/paragraph with a dream sequence, a weather scene, looking in the mirror etc. And I’m here to say, if you can follow the above, do so, however if you cannot, for instance, your story starts in the middle of a tornado therefore weather is pretty important, then make the above work for you, break the rules if you know how to break them well, make up new rules, change the rules; but make it good, great, extraordinary!
a) a unique concept; even if the story-line has been done before, and lets face it, they all have, an extraordinary author will find a unique twist/take on a story that makes the old look fresh. This is why agents say NO to weather/shower/mirror/dreaming scenes. Not because they cannot work but because most are already done to death. If it’s not unique, it’s a fail.
b) a voice that sounds credible & authentic; voice is so hard to define because it is something innate in the writing, an intangible entity that allows the reader to suspend disbelief and to trust the author and the characters the author has created will take them on a journey they long to travel.
c) fluid flow; this is as vital as the previous two. If a novel does not flow, either through poor grammar, poor word selection, too much or not enough exposition, unfathomable world-building, less than credible/likable/connectable characters, etc. the reader simply stops.
Today I’m going to talk about one part of each three points above.
(i) when agents say YES to done to death scenes
(ii) characters a reader trusts instantly
(iii) breaking grammar rules & making it work for you.
You see, an agent doesn’t care if your novel starts with your main character having fallen asleep in the shower and is in the middle of a dream that’s taking place while there’s a fierce storm outside. What they want you to do is SHOW them why/how the main character got in this position and why they should care. And they want this pretty much in the first line, or first paragraph.
Now, I’m sure there are some people reading this saying, “Hang on! That’s a bit much to ask!” – actually, it’s not. Agents are not mean nasty evil pixies who take pleasure in tormenting aspiring writers. Nor is it a matter of time, not really. Yes, agents are busy and time-poor, but the truth is, they need to sell your novel to a publisher and that publisher needs to sell it to the general public. And the general public, myself included, expect everything now, instantly, give-it-to-me-I-can’t-wait now.
Be honest, how many times have you picked up a novel in a store, or opened the first page on-line, and if that novel’s first paragraph doesn’t capture you, that’s it – over – c’est fini. I know I give a potential novel one page. That’s somewhere between 200-300 words. If page one looks interesting, I’ll flip over and read page two. If I’m still reading, I buy it, if not, I keep browsing. And this is why the first line and the first paragraph are vital. If the first line catches the reader and then there are some 200-words of exposition, the reader WILL allow the author that time, because the author has already proven able to excite the reader.
To help me illustrate, I have taken first lines from successful novels throughout the ages. Note, I have specifically missed some of the more popular novels in modern times, not because I’m not a fan of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but rather to illustrate that writers have been breaking rules and making their own rules for centuries in some cases.
Here are a few examples where weather references works.
- It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
- It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. —Sylvia Plath,The Bell Jar (1963)
In the two examples above weather/season is part of the first line, yet no one cares. Why? Because it’s not about weather or a season it’s all about world-building, atmosphere and creating a desire to know more.
How does a clock strike thirteen? That’s what catches the imagination on George Orwell’s 1984.
Who are THEY and why were the Rosenburg’s electrocuted and does it matter it was summer and what does NEW YORK have to do with it? These are the questions put to the reader of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. And these are the reasons the reader will continue to read.
These work not in spite of the reference to the weather but as part of it. The reader knows the time, the place, and, within a few words, knows there is danger coming.
Here are some examples of first lines that make the reader instantly trust the author and the main character.
- Every summer Lin Kong returned to GooseVillage to divorce his wife, Shuyu. —Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)
- They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)
These are very short sentences yet they tell the reader the author knows what they are doing. Create tension and have the reader’s imagination flutter with possibilities.
How does Lin Kong divorce his wife every year? What white girl? And why is she shot? Who could resist reading the next paragraph, page or chapter to know what is going on?
Having correct grammar and appropriate word selection is vital. Keeping sentences short and crisp is the rule, sentences able to be read without gasping for air is what a author should be aiming at. Yet, for those with exceptional talent, breaking those rules the right way makes their writing outstanding.
- He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. —Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928)
- I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex(2002)
- “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.” – Robert Graves, I, Claudius (1934)
Sentences one and two are just short of forty words and yet they work. They are also full of semi colons, commas and whatnot, and yet they still work. They work because they are stronger by breaking the rules. And sentence three is almost one hundred and twenty words.
And if you don’t believe me that long sentences work, THE LONGEST SENTENCE from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is 823 WORDS — three PAGES. I’m not going to paste a copy of the sentence but I think it’s reasonable to assume Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was a success. And you know what? That doesn’t even hold the world record.
The point of this post is to demonstrate that first sentences/paragraphs are vital. They have always been vital, yet now, in our fast paced want-it-now society, this is even more so the case. I have added several more examples of first sentences below from novels across the board.
If you feel your novel’s first chapter is the weakest and your opening sentence is not really all that strong, do something about it. Do not say to yourself, “Wait for it” because the agent, the editor, the end purchaser simply WILL NOT. Don’t convince yourself that an agent will read all of chapter one and then fall in love with your main character, your world or whatever in chapter’s two and three, because, frankly, assuming they even bother to go that far, they are already subconsciously saying no.
If your manuscript is bright and shiny and crystal clear pretty, but for the first page – do the damn first page again! Don’t just kill your darlings, slaughter them and dump them in a deep pit where no one will ever find them and from their ashes resurrect a killer first line/paragraph. That’s how the truly great have always done it.
Note; I have not mentioned first line/paragraph FLASHBACKS because, frankly, I loathe them. If someone can find me a first sentence/paragraph flashback I will enjoy and that will change my mind, please feel free to post the name of the novel and the author. I also have a fond distaste for prologues and to this day have only ever read prologues under one page.
And with that, I will leave you with a few more examples of successful and extraordinary first lines; and don’t forget to return soon, we have more reveals coming up for #NESTPITCH any day now!
- Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)
- Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. —Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925; trans. Breon Mitchell)
- The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. —Samuel Beckett,Murphy (1938)
- This is the saddest story I have ever heard. —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)
- It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)
- 124 was spiteful. —Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)
- Mother died today. —Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert)
- The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
- —Money . . . in a voice that rustled. —William Gaddis, J R (1975)
- For a long time, I went to bed early. —Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way (1913; trans. LydiaDavis)
- Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. —Anita Brookner, The Debut (1981)
- There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. —C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
- It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road(1992)
- It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
- In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street. —David Markson,Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988)
- “To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” —Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)
- The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. —L. P. Hartley,The Go-Between (1953)
- Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash. —J. G. Ballard, Crash (1973)
- When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. —James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)
- All children, except one, grow up – J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1902)
- It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful – Roald Dahl, Matilda (1988).
- “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation Donna Tartt, The Secret History (1992)