Happy Birthday, Seekerville!!!! I’m honored to be invited to share it with you. For those of you who don’t know, I received a partial request from Emily Rodmell, and editor at Love Inspired, during Seekerville’s 4th birthday party. Exactly one year ago today, I received an email asking me to call Emily because she wanted to buy my story! My story!!!! So, take advantage of every opportunity, before and after you're published.
Now, on to my blog post.
“Weak first lines greet us like limp handshakes.”
Donald Maass ~ Writing the Breakout Novel (workbook)
If you’ve entered or judged a contest you know the importance of first lines being great. As writers we need to hook because the reader wants to be hooked. From the moment I began writing I understood this whole hooking thing. However, it took me a little longer to understand that my opinion of a great first line was just that, my opinion. An opinion which often differs from other readers.
Take a look at my original first lines from my yet to be contracted book Love at Twenty Paces.
At the age of eleven, Darbigal O'Donnell never thought she’d grow to be anything other than what her parents had formed her to be, a God-fearing wife and a diligent mother. But all that changed when her parents fell from their pulpit in search of gold.
I absolutely loved those words. Yes, I was married to them. Married to them through nine contests where almost every judge commented on how those words weren’t as lovely as I had thought they were. I still love that beginning, but I finally caved.
A low rumble rolled through the stillness of the hot afternoon and vibrated Darbigal O’Donnell’s frayed nerves.
Those judges weren’t being mean in their criticism. They weren’t trying to sabotage my dreams of being published.
It wasn’t until after I received the call with an offer to buy The Guardian’s Promise and sailed off Unpubbed Island that I actually began studying what industry professionals were saying about first lines.
According to Mahesh Grossman, coined a ghostwriting guru by Fox News, your submission is about one of two hundred in a week. Yes, I said a week, and if you write in one of the hottest genres like romance, a 1.438 billion dollar industry in 2012 (RWA), you can probably double that number. Grossman goes on to say that, “Agents have a different mission: rule out as many manuscripts as possible so they can spend more time reading the best stuff.”
When it’s put that way, it makes this author want to try harder to write great beginnings, especially if I want to hook my readers (assistants, agents, editors and fans).
To add to the importance of why great beginnings are, well, important let’s look at what author Kaye Dacus says, “Most editors I’ve talked to or heard speak on panels say that they usually know by the end of the first paragraph of a submission whether or not they’re going to want to see more or automatically put it on the “rejections” pile.”
That doesn’t give a writer much time, does it?
And here is what my editor, Emily Rodmell has to say, “The best way to hook an editor or agent or, more importantly, a reader is to have a great opening line, paragraph and scene. Don’t bore them with backstory. Hook them with great action or dialogue.”
Here are some examples of what she’s talking about.
The only thing Hannah Hart hated more than mirrors was the spotlight. (From Her Family Wish by Betsy St. Amant)
Police Detective Austin Black glanced at the illuminated numbers on the dashboard clock as he raced up Oak Drive. Two in the morning. Not a good time to get a call about a missing child. (From Tracking Justice by Shirlee McCoy)
“Who are you and what are you doing in my house?” (From His Mountain Miss by Karen Kirst)
“They are three completely different genres, but the one thing they have in common is that the opening makes you want to read on to see what happens. The characters aren’t ruminating about their past as they drive back into their hometown (the biggest cliché in romance novels). Instead, the reader is thrust into the action of the story.”
I love Emily; smart and spot on. Just look at Emily’s first example from Betsy St. Amant's Her Family Wish. It’s short and to the point. The reader is immediately pulled into the story because we want to know why she hates mirrors and what she’s doing in the spotlight. And wow, with Shirlee McCoy's opening lines, how can you not continue reading?
Ehhh, maybe, maybe not. I'm thinking that those first lines could use some work. ;)
Sol Stein has a pretty good formula for writing first lines. He states in his book, Stein on Writing, that every opening paragraph has three goals.
1. To excite the reader’s curiosity, preferably about a character or a relationship.
2. To introduce a setting.
3. To lend resonance to the story
If you look back at the two different lines from Love at Twenty Paces, only one of them accomplishes these three goals, and it’s not the first one. So I guess the judges were right. And now that I’ve learned a bit I can look back at it and agree that yes, that original first line was kind of like a limp handshake. I’m hoping that’s not the case with my soon to be published book. Let’s take a look at it:
Ari’s heart hammered in his chest as the horses thundered toward the groves.
—The Guardian’s Promise (March 2014)
1. Does it excite your interest about Ari?
2. Does it introduce a setting?
3. Does it resonate?
Given it’s only one line and not the entire paragraph, having one out of three isn’t bad. Here’s the paragraph in its entirety.
Ari’s heart hammered in his chest as the horses thundered toward the groves. Instinct had him reaching for where his sword should have been, a sword he had discarded years ago when he’d traded his life of a warrior for that of a bond servant. He’d been a fool to leave his weapons hidden away when danger lurked close at hand, but he could not very well play the servant dressed as a soldier.
The second line does a better job of introducing the setting, and the third sets the hook that I started in line one.
Here are the first lines from my contemporary work in progress Rescuing the Fireman, a story I’m falling head over heels in love with.
The wheels on the old fire truck propelled chunks of gravel into the fresh coat of paint as Levi Turner barreled down the road. Saving Myrtle Johnson’s home was much more important than ruining years of restoration and fundraising at Groverton’s fall festivals.
And now for some GREAT beginnings from some GREAT authors.
The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse rode into the schoolroom. Late as usual.
—Christy nominated Calico Canyon
That wasn't some cute saying. It was a plain bald fact. She would probably be pounded to death any minute now.
–Rita nominated Doctor in Petticoats
—Carol Award Winning Golden Days
Sophie heard God in every explosion of thunder as she listened to the awesome power of the approaching storm. But there was more. There was something coming—something more than rain.
Belle Tanner pitched dirt right on Anthony's handsome, worthless face.
—The Husband Tree
The sharp crack of a cocking pistol brought Luke Stone's head around.
Connor O’Shea braced his booted feet against the auction block and glared at the crowd gathered on the landing. Vultures. Ever’ last one o’ them
—Terms of Indenturement (Yet to be published)
Elizabeth Manning had examined every option open to her. But in the end she had only one. Her heart lurched.
She had to run.
—The Substitute Bride
Men. The bane of Elise Langley’s life.
—“Last Minute Bride” from the anthology, Brides of the West
The wrong man showed up to collect Hannah Parrish at the train station. And he was late.
—The Bride Wore Spurs
Sisters are overrated, she decided. Not all of them, of course, only the beautiful ones who never let you forget it
—A Passion Most Pure
Now this is how love should be -- nice and neat!
—A Hope Undaunted
Sweet thunderation -- deliver me from pretty men!
—Love at Any CostMerciful Providence … I smell a rat!
—Dare to Love Again
Close your mouth, Devin Caldwell, you'll swallow a fly.
—Dare to Hope (working title)
"The gathering dark clouds had mirrored Stephanie Upton's mood since she'd returned home to Freemont, Georgia, two days earlier.
—The Soldier’s Sister
“Dummy, dummy, dummy.” Skye Larsen dove for the ground and covered her head.
—Love’s Refuge (November 2013)
—Untitled, yet to be published
At precisely one o’clock on a sunny September Saturday afternoon, Megan McGuire spied the pirate.
—Dreaming of Home
If there was one thing Josie Miller knew, it was the smell of a rich man. And whoever had just walked into the diner smelled like Fort Knox.
—Her Unlikely Family
“I’m in trouble, Kip.”
—A Horseman’s Hope
Now it’s your turn, if you’re feeling brave. Post your first lines/opening paragraph in the comments and let’s see if you’ve accomplished Stein’s three goals. For you readers, you can post first lines from your favorite books. I'll be giving away two 5 page critiques. Just let me know you would like to be entered. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.
Her debut, The Guardian's Promise, releases from Love Inspired Historical March 2014.
You can find her at:
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