The Elusive First Line

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I judge books by their first lines. Well, if I’m being completely honest, first I judge them by their covers. Then by their titles. And then by their first lines.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one who does this. (Right?)

To be fair, the first line doesn’t determine whether or not I’ll read the book; but it does impact my enthusiasm for the book.

Take, for example, The Knife of Never Letting Go. My friend Amy Sundberg recommended this book to me a while back (Thanks, Amy!). I finally picked it up the last time I was at the store. I read the first line, and I knew I had to read the book. Great first line.

You can imagine, then, the pressure I put on myself to write good first lines. Because I know there’s someone else out there like me who is going to weigh in on the stamina of my story based solely on the first line. Eek.

This weekend while working on novel revisions, I finally found my first line. I mean, I’ve had a first line for a while, but it wasn’t THE first line, if you know what I mean. I knew it would change, but I hadn’t known yet to what. And this weekend I think I found it. The line that is worthy to launch the story. The line that hopefully has enough weight (and intrigue…and voice…) to make a reader keep reading.

Oh, I’m not kidding myself. I know it could easily change. And probably will.

But for now, I’ve found the elusive first line.

(Tell me I’m not the only one who goes through this, please.)

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12 thoughts on “The Elusive First Line

    kelvin m knight said:
    March 29, 2011 at 12:27 am

    I share your pain, Amy, and I commend your
    integrity and honesty. I suffer similar literary
    pains, stretching from first line to first para
    first page to first chapter. Oh how we suffer
    for our art.

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      March 30, 2011 at 9:56 am

      Thanks, Kelvin. I’m glad I’m not alone. 🙂

    Suzanne said:
    March 29, 2011 at 1:47 am

    So far, 6000 words is my longest effort, so I have quite a sample of much shorter pieces to draw on. And no, you’re not alone. That first sentence is crucial – next to the title, I think. I agonise over both, and once upended the whole thing because the beginning of the very last paragraph was a better opener than the one I had!

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      March 30, 2011 at 9:58 am

      Isn’t that the kicker, Suzanne? When I get to the end, I always have to go back and change the beginning again. Richard Peck once said that the end is the beginning, and he’s a genius. So we must be doing something right, right? LOL!

        Suzanne said:
        March 30, 2011 at 10:02 am

        Oh well, of course I knew that…
        (Ha! I said HA!)

    tahliaN said:
    March 29, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    No it’s not just you. I suspect every writer has a certain amount of angst over that first line. I’d never considered that it should give a feel for the whole book though, so thanks for that point.

    As I went through draft after draft, I kept asking myself, is this the best I can do? I’ve lost sight of how many times I rewrote it before settling on this one.

    ‘A half-seen shadow flittered past the window, something hooded silhouetted in the streetlight.’

    It’s quite different to the variations I had before and this one does give the feel of the overall book.

    What do you think of it?

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      March 30, 2011 at 10:00 am

      That first sentence is so evocative! Made me instantly wonder A) where/when we are, and B) who saw the shadow. Nice. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your first line. I’m glad to know I’m not alone! 🙂

        tahliaN said:
        March 30, 2011 at 4:49 pm

        Glad you like it. It’s taken 3 years to get that one. Sigh!

    Lisa Nowak said:
    March 29, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    The Knife of Never Letting Go does have a great first line. The end ticked me off, though. 🙂

    Most of my books don’t have an awesome first line–not the contest winning kind–but they don’t suck, either. The book I’m working on now probably has the best one: “He’s dead when they pull him outta the car.”

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      March 30, 2011 at 10:01 am

      Uh oh. Now you’ve got me curious what happens at the end. I’ll have to let you know if it ticks me off, too.

      And hey, great first line you’ve got there! 🙂

      tahliaN said:
      March 30, 2011 at 4:56 pm

      I agree about the end of The Knife of Never letting go. It made the whole book totally pointless for me. I get so annoyed with poor endings that I don’t want to read more in the series. They kill my enjoyment of a book totally.

      I wasn’t as impressed with the book as a lot of people were. I think they got mesmerised by the strong voice of the character.

      I got sick of the characters fighting the same characters over and over again. The story was very repetitive – run, fight, get beaten up, find a safe haven, then have to leave and repeat the same over again.

        Lisa Nowak said:
        April 2, 2011 at 11:10 pm

        tahliaN, I liked the first half of the book, but then it started feeling repetitive to me. Also, Todd did something that really pissed me off, and I didn’t believe he’d do it. I can conceivably see that it was within his character to do it, but I didn’t believe at that time he actually would. And it really disappointed me.

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