I've been very fortunate to find an editor who likes what I write and who is patient enough to read through my manuscripts, then offer suggestions that will shape them into publishable pieces. But getting to this point has been the most difficult job I've ever tackled and that includes trying to land a Marlin a few years back.
There are many good statements, chapters, books about how to become a published author (and, for now, I'm not including self-publishing as an option and sticking with the traditional route). When I boiled down most of this advice, I came up with a rule for myself.
After three rejections of the same manuscript, I take a hard look at those opening lines to see if I can find out what's wrong--why agents and editors aren't asking me to read more of my "brilliant" work. What I've decided is that ten to one the problem is in those first lines, that first paragraph, those first 1 to 3 chapters.
I start by deleting that first line when:
it doesn't sufficiently set the tone for my book.
it's more gimmicky than intense, interesting, fresh.
it has anything that even smells like a cliche.
it's standoffish from what follows next.
it's overblown for what follows next.
In this post I'll deal with tone.
So what is tone? It's your voice that should start at the beginning and continue all the way through your book. Do you want your book to be humorous? How about intimate? Scary? Here are some examples of what I think are strong opening lines to books that sustain the tone these lines establish immediately.
"Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water." Choldenko, Al Capone Does My Shirts
It's her word choice, her pov and the sentence structure that plunks the reader on Alcatraz as seen from her kid's eyes. If you've read her story, you know that's exactly the tone through out--youthful, a touch sarcastic, but with a heap of charm.
"The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say." Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go
Notice, "yer" and "don't got nothing." Ness has set up the language and the sarcastic tone for his MC, then he lures us into a futuristic world immediately, a one where dogs learn to talk. One line, folks. One perfect line.
Next post I'll be dealing with gimmicky first lines and why they just don't work--IMHMO. Want to share other notable first lines that set the tone and make you read on? How about sharing one of your own? You've labored over it, maybe someone will learn from what you've created or be able to offer a suggestion that will catch that next agent's or editor's eye.