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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Rejection or Learning From Those First Line Mistakes-l

If any of you authors visiting here today has never been rejected, stop reading now and go something useful, like wash the dishes or vacuum the car. But if you have suffered that heart-stinging, stomach-wrenching, "Thank you for considering us for your manuscript. Unfortunately,  blah-blah-blah," then read on.

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. 


  1. Lee, this is a great idea for a blog post. Those first few lines, well, they are like daybreak -- !! They must shed a bit of light in a way that draws us into that light. So, now, I'll be doing some editing! Thanks for the nudge. --Daisy :)

  2. Well, guess you know what I'm doing as well, Daisy. Will this re-writing never be done?

  3. Okay, going to take another look at my first line. Thanks for the reminder of how important they are.

  4. You're spot on, Lee! At last year's Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference, agent Andrea Hurst held a fantastic seminar on how important "firsts" were: first sentence, first paragraph, first page, and first chapter.

    (Then of course, all you have to do is make the rest of your story be as good as the "firsts".)

  5. A good set of first line "rules".
    I've also heard again and again not to start with a dream.

  6. Great post Lee! In future I think I'm going to keep a little journal of first lines with a note about what it is that hooked me. Good for inspiration and learning how to write one.

  7. Yes, Catherine. Dreams, arriving at a destination or heading that way, waking up . . . all of these have been overused or not well executed. Of course, they also say you're not supposed to start out with dialog, but . . .

    "Where's Pa going with that axe?"

    That seemed to work. I guess if you break the rules well, you are free to do so.

  8. That first liner is a biggy. I'll never forget the first line from the book (remake of Peter Pan) The Child Thief

  9. Excellent post!! I have a thing about sharing anything form actual manuscripts online. :( But everything you said is dead on! One of my favorites for tone? "Where's Papa going with that axe?" -Charlotte's Web

  10. First lines and first pages are really that important! Great post.

  11. I've written my opening lines so much I can't see straight! Your points are excellent. Those lines do set the tone for the whole book, and need to present lots of information without being loaded down.

    My favorite first line is from Pride & Prejudice, along the lines of a man with a fortune must be in want of a wife. Love it.

  12. I participated in a first lines contest, and I made it to line four before I got rejected. I completely rewrote the opening after that. I was trying too hard with the first lines and while they got attention, they didn't work for the story. It was a great experience doing that contest.

  13. great post, Lee. I can't tell you how many different opening lines I've had for my first novel, and I still don't think it's right. *sigh*
    but here's another point for aspiring novelists out there on first lines (b/c I actually did this): don't send out requested work when you've misspelled one of the words in your first sentence. (Transposed shudders and shutters - *face-palm*)

  14. Wonderful observations, Lee. I think stepping back after a few rejections and looking at those first 30 or 50 pages is a priceless act that will improve the current ms and future ones a writer will create. I've recently just down that. Now let's wait and see if it helped. lol

  15. Wonderful post! I would love to run my new first lines by you. Anne

  16. Great info Lee. Thanks for posting. I'll be sure to share it.

  17. Great info Lee. Thanks for posting. I'll be sure to share it.

  18. Awesome post Lee. I gave you the irresistibly sweet blog award today.

  19. I love reading first lines of books to see what works and what doesn't. Looking forward to seeing what doesn't work!

  20. Great post!! I like the first lines you've chosen.

  21. Excellent post, C.Lee. We gotta keep working on those first lines. Thanks for sharing.


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