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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

First Lines

Please welcome guest blogger Susan Meier

Writer’s drive themselves crazy trying to find the absolute perfect first lines for their books. Pundits say short, powerful lines are the best.

He was going to die.

I’m pregnant.

Mother knows best.

I don’t think anyone could read “He was going to die” without wondering who he is or why he was going to die. A woman’s world doesn’t change much more than when she’s pregnant. So most of us would realize there was change coming if we read “I’m pregnant”. And mother knows best? Some people would read that and shudder.

Other pundits say that lines filled with ambiance that draw readers into your special world work best.

Flowers lined the newly washed sidewalk that led to the front door of the neat-as-a-pin Cape Code house. (Neat freak in a small town!)

Or how about: Wind whipped the sail into a frenzy. You certainly get a sense of place from both of those.

But I’m not a first line freak. I think the biggest, most important job of a first line is to get you to read the second line!

For the first book in my maid’s duet MAID FOR THE MILLIONAIRE I chose a very straightforward, simple opening to the book.

Pink underwear.

My hero, Cain Nestor, has been without a housekeeper for weeks. He also travels a lot. Put those two things together and you have a rich guy who runs out of basic-necessity clothing without realizing. Obviously out of his element, he turns his underwear pink by washing them with a red shirt.

But there’s a bright spot. He hears his kitchen door open and when he eagerly rushes out to see who’s coming in (only someone with a code can enter) it’s a maid from the local housekeeping service: Happy Maids. But his relief that underwear help has arrived is short-lived. When the maid turns to face him he sees it’s his ex-wife.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

Odd first line, followed by a sense of relief, followed by real trouble. Ex-wife in the house.

Surprise turns to chagrin when he remembers he’s only wearing a towel. But chagrin quickly becomes regret when he realizes the woman he’d once loved so desperately is now a maid. He’s absolutely positive he’s ruined her life.

Just a tad self-important! LOL

My silly first line, which is really only two words, Pink underwear, quickly leads readers on an emotional journey. Disgust that his laundry is pink leads to relief over seeing a housekeeping service has arrived, that leads to shock when the housekeeper is identified as his ex-wife, which instantly takes him down a road of regret.

One line quickly leads to the next until the reader is so far into the book, she’s not only immersed in the story, I’m hoping she’s forgotten she’s reading and that these people aren’t real.

Sometimes I think we get so concerned with finding the “perfect” first line for our books that we forget that that line’s primary function really is just to lead us to the second line. The second line should lead us to the third, the third to the fourth, etc. etc.

In book two of this summer’s maid duet, MAID FOR THE SINGLE DAD, the line is equally simple:

Ellie Swanson had not signed up for this.

Readers immediately know Ellie’s not having a good day.

And as with MAID FOR THE MILLIONAIRE, they are led down a quick journey that doesn’t just explain the trouble, it shows Ellie’s emotion and a good bit of her personality.

She’s generously running her friend’s maid service company while her friend Liz (heroine from book 1) is on her honeymoon and who shows up on the very first day? A friend of Liz’s new husband. And not just any friend, a friend who wants her to send a nanny to his house.

Well, of course, a maid service isn’t a nanny service, but Cain’s friend, Mac, plays dumb. He needs someone he can trust. He wants someone to keep his secrets.

Ellie is in trouble. Should she turn away a man who isn’t just a friend of her boss’s husband, he’s also the very wealthy man Cain has been wooing for years, trying to get some of his business? With a few well placed hints, Mac lets Ellie know that if she does him this favor, he’ll reciprocate by giving Cain the work his company wants.

The first lines in both of these books stir up the readers’ imaginations but they also lead them down a well-constructed path.

Take a look at your first line. Salt and sea air, blooming flowers, newly washed sidewalks, and even I’m pregnant are all wonderful. Just remember things should be leading readers down the path they need to follow to fall into your story.

So how are your first lines? Post ‘em! There’s nothing more fun than reading first lines.

Susan Meier is the author of 40 books for Harlequin and Silhouette and one of Guideposts' Grace Chapel Inn series books, The Kindness of Strangers. Her books have been finalists for Reviewers Choice Awards, National Reader's Choice Awards and Cataromance.com Reviewer's Choice Awards and nominated for Romantic Times awards. They have been published in over twenty countries, touching the hearts of readers of many cultures and ethnicities.
Susan loves to teach as much as she loves to write. Can This Manuscript Be Saved? and Journey Steps, Taking the Train to Somewhere! are her most requested workshops. Her article “How to Write a Category Romance” appeared in 2003 Writer’s Digest Novel and Short Story Markets. Susan also gives online workshops for various groups and her articles regularly appear in RWA chapter newsletters.

Her most recent release was MAID IN MONTANA, Harlequin Romance (6/09) Her next release is THE MAGIC OF A FAMILY CHRISTMAS, Harlequin Romance coming November 2009.

Story, Theme and Vehicle, presented by Susan Meier, runs from October 4, 2010 - October 31, 2010


Cindy Carroll said...

I love first lines! The first line of my WIP (I've received a request for the first chapter from an agent based on the first line, last line and blurb) is:

If she’d been a bad girl when she had the chance, she probably wouldn’t be dying right now.

Susan said...

Oh, what a great first line! I love it.


Marlo said...

Hi Susan,
Coming from the airport, you and I had a great chat about my ms! (Read that as: I talked her ear off!) Here's my first line:
Michael could feel the warm blood running down his face.
I actually have a question about it. In a recent contest, a judge commented that the sentence was passive - it is, but that's kind of the way I wanted it because my mc is just regaining consciousness and it's actually that sensation that makes him realize he's becoming conscious and instinct tells him it's blood - he doesn't need to see it - somehow you just know when you're bleeding - IMO blood has a particular feel to it. I guess I could change it to felt but I never thought it sounded as good. Opinion?

Anonymous said...

Great post. First lines are a lot of fun. They can either grab ya or make ya think, "Huh?" LOL.

I'm still tweaking it, but here's the start to my latest project, "Death would have been easier to accept had I known I would be going to heaven."

Thanks for this post. What fun!

Unknown said...

Marlo: For what it's worth, I think you could make it active, just by tweaking it to something like "Michael felt warm blood running down his cheek." It's still a good first line.

Here's the first line from my WIP (edited for cursing):

“Not the face, you stupid shifter-sh*t! I’ve got a wedding to get to,” Chris snarled as she stopped a clawed hand from ripping across her cheek.

Susan said...

First of all, Marlo, I totally get your first line and I'd leave it.

Use of the word "could" ushers in what comes after...

i.e. He could feel the blood running down his face. So he knew he was alive.

I get it!

This is one of the problems I have with contests. A lot of judges are maried to certain rules and there are some times when you don't necessarily want to break the rule but you do need to bend it.

I'd leave it as is...if only because I understand its purpose!


Oh, and, Marlo didn't talk off my ear! she has a great, very interesting concept for a YA series that was fun to hear about!

Susan said...

You know, Lynn, I think a lot of us think that death would be easier if we were sure we were going to heaven!

I love it. Great buzz word in "death". That always piques our interest.

But the construction of the sentence also lets us know more is going on. It leads us to line two!


Susan said...

Wow, Tory! That certainly drops us right into the action. And what a fun thing to add about the wedding.

You packed a lot into that first line. There's action, physical conflict and a sense of fun.

Good job.


Marlo said...

Thanks for the advice and the compliment, Susan! Great to talk to you again!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad people are posting their first lines. This is great learning. Thanks for the feedback. I love reading these lines!

Linda Leszczuk said...

These are the opening lines of my WIP. I was going for a scene setter (the next line has my main character pushing her way through the crowd) but I'm not sure there's enough "grab" effect.

The crowd that had gathered seemed large, even for a nice messy murder. Especially so early in the morning, in the bitter cold, in a neighborhood where murder was an all too common event.

Susan said...

I'm looking at the first lines for some of my older titles and I have some doozies...

Like Baby on Board has the first line of...

It went without saying that any woman in Wilburn, Pennsylvania over the age of twenty-five hated Max Riley.

In Marrying Money...the first line is...

I can't believe I'm doing this!

Prince baby...Roaring thunder from a severe mid-September storm shook the windows of Seth's Bryant's brown brick house, but that didn't prevent him from hearing the scream coming from his driveway.

that one's a little long for my taste but it sure does the job! LOL


Susan said...

I don't know, Linda, I sort of like it. It reminds me of the mysteries I read when I was a kid, where the author sort of "talks down" to the murder.

Murder is such a loud, enormous thing that sometimes the best way to give it importance is to talk about it in a different way...

Which you did!


Linda Leszczuk said...

Well, that make sense. I'm probably old enough to have been writing mysteries when you were a kid. But would it fly with today's readers (agents, publishers)?

Susan said...

I think it's one of those opposites things, Linda.

They're expecting loud and noisy...you give them calm and rational

It's the shakeup that gives it weight!


Linda Leszczuk said...

Thanks, Susan. Always good to get a bit of positive reinforcement.

Keena Kincaid said...

I love first lines, too. They are the first thing I write in a new WIP and the last thing I stop tweaking.

amy kennedy said...

Oh, I love first lines -- I like all of them so far. Here's mine:

When the dead man walked in The Gypsy Moon Shop, Devra Kallin had enough.

Pamela K. Kinney said...

Yes, the right first lines can be so cool, then again, not so cool. Here's the first line to my YA urban fantasy:

Burning. Flames licking my skin, hungry for me.

Anonymous said...

Try this one on for size--first line to my WIP sequel to Being Familiar With a Witch:

Not all demons were created equal for a witch to vanquish.

Susan said...

You're like me, Keena! I don't pronounce any part of the book done until the whole book is done.

Until them everything's open for improvement!


Anonymous said...

Some pretty good first lines here. :-D

Susan said...

when the dead man walked in Gypsy Moon Shop...I laughed! That's excellent!


Susan said...

Ah, Pamela! That's a good one too!

Talk about leading you from the first line to the second!


Susan said...

Sapphire! That's a great first line!

I think paranormal books give us an opportunity to really be creative with things like first lines!


amy kennedy said...

Pamela, your first line sounds like poetry. And what makes it powerful for me is the beauty of the cadence with the horror of the imagery.