On Wednesday, I sat in on Reedsy’s First Line Frenzy with Martin Cavannagh and Rebecca Heyman. Participants were encouraged to submit the first line of their manuscript; Rebecca would then offer feedback.
My first sentence of The Devil Particle manuscript wasn’t selected, but with over 2,000 lines submitted, I knew the chances it would be picked were slim.
But I wanted some input into what makes that sentence so captivating that it’s impossible for readers to put the book down.
Rebecca said the first line of a book should include the character, the voice, a conflict, and, if at all possible, the setting. I would add that the first line should hint at the genre and foreshadow the ending. Seems impossible, doesn’t it?
First Lines of My Novels
How have I done with my books? Carpe Diem, Illinois, begins:
At the corner of Tiger Whip Road and Highway 20, Patrick Holden slumped over the handlebars of his idling Harley.
I’ve got the character (Patrick Holden), an indistinct third person voice, a conflict (why is he slumped?), and the setting. It’s not completely clear what the genre is (Mystery/Thriller/Suspense) and it doesn’t foreshadow the ending, but still, it’s not bad.
My second novel, God on Mayhem Street begins:
Leo Townsend clenched the flowers in his hand when he spotted his father hunched over a grave a dozen yards away.
Right away you’ve got the name of the character and the conflict between him and his father. We also know Leo’s in a cemetery and that this book is in third person. Plus, without giving too much away, it foreshadows the ending. Good!
First Lines of Famous Novels
In addition to attending First Line Frenzy, I read the first lines of famous novels for inspiration. For instance, this opening in The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is a master in conveying character, conflict, and most especially voice:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Charles Portis nails all the major requirements in these first lines of his novel True Grit:
People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.
And for pure shock value, it’s hard to match the opening of 1984 by George Orwell:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
But while you’re taken aback by the strange clocks, what’s missing is the character. Would you read on?
Contrarialy, Franz Kafka’s first line of his short story The Metamorphosis has great shock value and all the other elements:
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
Yikes! Honestly, that story still haunts me.
First Lines of My Works in Progress
Okay, so here are the first lines of books one, three, and four in my soon-to-be released series The Devil Particle (I can’t include the first line of book two, The Vessel, my favorite opening, because it includes a spoiler). Keep in mind, they’re still works in progress:
The Devil Particle – The city guard watching me from the street corner has an AK-47 slung over his shoulder and is fingering the Bowie knife in his belt. He’s paid to guard law-abiding citizens, guys like me, from creepers, night prowlers, bodysnatchers, and assorted other crazy people. Even so, I try to make my nothing-to-see-here movements as non-threatening as possible.
The Runner – I know what it feels like to melt.
The Renegade – A smear of blood stains the tattoo which wraps around President Stark Cicero’s ear and slithers down her neck.
What do you think? Do they work? Would you continue reading?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
What’s happening in June and July:
I’m very close to finishing the first draft of The Renegade — the fourth book in The Devil Particle Series. I’ve written 76,602 words (299 pages). I’ll finish it in the next few days and then it’s on to revising. I hope to get a polished third or fourth draft to my editor Tim Storm by early July.
In the meantime, I sent Tim a structural outline of The Renegade and another one for the whole series. Creating the an outline expanding four books was trippy–it messed with my head, but I think it worked. I hope Tim thinks so, too.
Hi Kristin, Great cover for The Devil Particle! Let me know when you have the launch party for the series, and I’ll come to Madison! I just had three good days there with other US-CMS physicists, looking forward to more data coming.
I’m so glad you like the cover! I’ll be sure to keep you posted on the book’s launch plans.
P.S. I’m glad to hear you had a good, productive time in Madison with your fellow physicists.
The most revised sentence in any book is probably the first one. I write something down but it always changed. Best advice I’ve heard is to write one, leave it and move on, and when the entire first draft is done, go back and revise it, knowing what you now know about the novel in its entirety.
First sentence of my WIP “Murder trials are sexy, I’ll give you that.” got the location, the genre, and voice, although the character won’t be revealed until 1-2 sentence further along. (an assistant district attorney) – but it is dropping you in the action. Without the last phrase, it would be more ordinary, although still thought-provoking, but by adding the additional phrase, in my opinion, you get voice.
I totally agree with your analysis of your first line. “Murder trials are sexy” by itself is intriguing and tells the genre plus a little bit about the narrator. Adding the second phrase makes me ask why the narrator makes that concession which adds to to the intrigue and, yes, includes the narrator’s voice. Nicely done!
P.S. For our next books, it might be interesting to keep track of how many times we revise that first line.
Once again you bring us golden nuggets! I checked my first sentence against Reedsy’s rule – and OMG! It turned out to be an ez fix (will I ever finish tweaking that mss???). But how many first page/chapter workshops, critiques, articles have we done without anyone ever telling us the “magic formula”? THANK YOU for sharing!
You’re welcome, Kate. I’d love to read your first line!
I rally appreciated this post, Kristen–especially the examples. Thank you!
I’m glad it was helpful!