Wednesday, September 12, 2012

KILLER FIRST LINES


by Lois Winston

I'm a firm believer in books needing killer first lines. No, I don't mean the killer should appear in the first line of a mystery, nor that the murder should occur at the very beginning of the book. I'm talking about first lines that grab hold of a reader and don't let go, the kind of first lines that pique a reader's curiosity and make him or her want to keep reading.

I learned the importance of killer first lines years ago when I attended a workshop given by a literary agent. He spoke about the importance of the first few pages of a book, how it's your one and only chance to impress editors and agents. Because if they're not impressed after a page or two, they're not going to keep reading.

From that day on, I decided that not only would my opening pages be free of back-story, unimportant details, filler, and boring descriptions, I'd make sure that I hooked the reader with my opening sentence. And I developed a philosophy about first chapters:

The first sentence of a novel should make the reader want to read the second sentence. And that second sentence should make the reader want to read the third. And so on, until you have a paragraph that becomes a hook that grabs the reader and won’t let go.  That first paragraph should do for the first page what the first sentence did for the first paragraph, and the first page should do for the subsequent pages in the chapter what the first paragraph did for the first page.

Of course, not all readers are going to be hooked by what I write. Taste is subjective, after all. However, once I went back and revised my first chapters, based on this agent's talk, I began receiving more requests for full manuscripts from editors and agents and less rejections. Eventually, those requests led to offers of publication.

I recently proofed the galleys for Revenge of the Crafty Corpse, the third book in my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries. The first line is:

"If that damn woman doesn't shut up, I'm going to strangle her!"

Have I hooked you?  

Award-winning author Lois Winston writes the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries series featuring magazine crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, a January 2011 release, is the first book in the series and received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Kirkus Reviews dubbed it, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum” Death By Killer Mop Doll was released this past January. Revenge of the Crafty Corpse will be a January 2013 release.

Lois has also recently embarked on an indie publishing career, releasing some of her earlier romance, romantic suspense, and chick lit books under the pen name Emma Carlyle. Now through the end of October, Lois is donating $500 to breast cancer research for every 1,000 Emma Carlyle books sold. Visit Lois at http://www.loiswinston.com , visit Emma at http://www.emmacarlyle.com , and visit Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers character blog, www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com.

26 comments:

Shannon Baker said...

Nice first line. This post is so appropriate to my morning since I popped over here because I'm avoiding that first line dilemma. I have "Not everyone can carry off a tiara." Which got some nice comments. But a thriller reader said, "not a good way to start a medium boiled book." First lines and first chapters are so important, they stymie me.

Lois Winston said...

Shannon, I have to agree with the thriller reader. It's a great opening sentence, but not for a medium boiled book. Would be great for a romance or chick lit book, though.

Stephanie Queen said...

Shannon--I love that first line, but you're right, the tiara doesn't place the story in medium boiled range. Then again, it does give a nice insight into your protagonist and sets the tone/voice of the story very well--IMHO!

Stephanie Queen

Stephanie Queen said...

Lois, I knew there was a reason you had so many great lines for my recent First Lines contest!! I'll have to follow your advice as a master.

Sheila Webster Boneham said...

You got me, Lois! I love great first lines, and not just in mysteries/thrillers. One of my own favs is from a short story featuring the main characters from Drop Dead on Recall. "Tracks" appeared in Racing Can Be Murder, and anthology of the Speed City (Indianapolis) Sisters in Crime, and begings, "It all started when Alberta Shofelter asked me to shoot her dog."

Can't wait to find out WHY that strangulation is needed!

M.C. Grant said...

Great stuff, Lois. Here's the first line from my just-launched MI mystery, Angel With A Bullet:

Before the blood, the raw canvas cost twenty dollars.

M.C.Grant
http://www.mcgrant.net

Lois Winston said...

Thanks, Stephanie. Glad to see you here.

Sheila, that's a great first line, except that I have an aversion to beginning sentences, especially first sentences with 'it.'

M.C., great opening line! I'm wondering what the canvas cost after the blood.

Polly said...

I've had a great first line for a book for years. Only problem is I don't have the story. I agonize over mine, sometimes spending more time on that first line or series of lines than I do the first chapter. That's how much I agree with you.

Tiffany N. York said...

I think it's especially important in this day and age of short attention spans that one hook the reader with the first sentence.

Great post, Lois!

Sheila Webster Boneham said...

Lois, you'll be surprised to know that normally I, too, dislike "it" as a first word. But there are always exceptions to rules & policies! :-)

M.C. Grant said...

Thanks, Lois. The second line answers your question:

With the squeeze of a trigger, the artist would make it priceless.

Marni said...

Such true stuff, Lois. Those first pages as the ones I find myself revising the most! Who can forget "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again ..."

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

This is a great post! Good reminder to all of us.

Kathleen Kaska said...

Great post, Lois. The first line has to grab me. Here's one by a bestselling mystery writer who has at least 20 books in this series. "I never meant to marry." I wonder how many people can identify this protagonist simply by reading this line.

Lois Winston said...

Polly, I can't start writing without that first line.

Thanks, Tiffany. That's so true about short attention spans.

M.C., great second line to go with your first!

Sheila, so true about exceptions to rules. Who knows? Someday I may start a sentence with 'it.' Or maybe not. ;-)

Marni and Marilyn, thanks for stopping by.

Kathleen, I'm afraid you've stumped me. The line sounds familiar, but I can't place it.

DirtyMartini said...

Good advice...btw, did that woman ever shut up?

Cheers,
Alan.

Dru said...

Yes you have and I can't wait to see what's going on in that household.

L. L. said...

I've had nice comments about the opening lines of two of my mysteries (both out of print now). Cat's-Paw, Inc.'s first line is: Someone was trying to take my gun away. Dogsbody, Inc.'s is: I watched myself get shot three times.

Diane Schultz said...

Still, you have to admit that the one that started "It all started when..." is a great first line given how the author ended that sentence. Maybe this was a format from before? The one about Manderley (sp) is memorable, but I am also stumped by the third one and hope we find out soon who it was who "never meant to marry." Twenty books? And married? I can think of one who's not married, but the line doesn't seem right for that series quite. But, twenty books would have started quite a few years ago. Great post, Lois!

L. L. said...

I know what book "I never meant to marry" is from. Should I tell, or would that spoil the fun?

Deborah Sharp said...

Great line, and so true ... I've always been amazed by how many beginning writers will ask me to critique, and then say, "It gets much better in the second chapter.'' Sorry, if you don't hook me up front, you've lost me.

Lois Winston said...

LOL, Dirty Martini! You'll have to read the book to find out.

Thanks, Dru! I hope you enjoy it.

L.L., those are both great opening lines!

Thanks, Diane! And L.L., spill the beans! What book is that line from? At first I thought it might be from Emma, but i checked, and it's not.

Deborah, I'm doing critiques at a conference next week. The authors taking part had to email me their pages ahead of time. Most make the same mistake -- deadly first pages.

Yves Fey said...

I disagree about the tiara line. The reader already knows the genre they are reading, so I think a strong opening line/paragraph is more important than a reaffirmation of hard/soft/medium boiled. But if you can do both, great. Great post overall. I can't tell you how many books I've put down in bookstores because the first sentence didn't grab me. However, the reason they do can be subtle rather than obvious, a certain assurance that makes me believe the world will come alive. My first line of Floats the Dark Shadow went for creepy mood and letting the reader know there was darkness ahead (but so did the title). "Gilles unlocked the scorched oak door and raised his lantern, illuminating the staircase that coiled down to the dungeons of the chateau."

Lois Winston said...

Yves, that first sentence definitely sets a certain mood!

L. L. said...

Spoiler warning. Stop reading if you don't want to know what book starts with "I never meant to marry."





It's from The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters.

Lois Winston said...

Hmm...should have guessed that, L.L., especially after seeing Elizabeth feted at Malice last spring.