synthroid kidney

First Line Winner Analysis

Thank you all so much for your patience as I break down some first lines from the comments and critique exercise we did the other day. Whew! Almost 200 comments and entries, from PB first lines to YA fantasy and everything in between. Here is a selection of my favorite ones, with comments from me, and then a crowning of the winners. That’s right! This contest has two winning first lines.

First, though, the Honorable Mentions:

So let’s go through them in the order they were posted. First up is Crystal:

I never got the Bloodlust.

Some of my favorite first lines are the ones that plant the kernel of a question in a reader’s head. Here, there’s the question raised of “What is the Bloodlust?” but also some implied tension. Whoever this character is, I’m betting s/he either will get the Bloodlust soon or is one of the very few who never got this mysterious Bloodlust, which makes her an outcast, and there’s conflict in that. So we raise a juicy question and also imply that something is going to be fraught about this Bloodlust situation.

Here’s Silvia:

When Misha started seeing holes in people, she told her mother.

I’m not sure I’m crazy about this as a first line, because it’s telling (I’d rather see this instance in scene) and because of the use of the dry, more old-fashioned word “mother,” but the shock value of it can’t be denied, as you can see from the comments. The image certainly is arresting, and it starts with punch. You don’t want to make these kinds of “stunt” first lines a habit, but this one works because I want to read more.

Here’s Lyla:

On the night that Gabriel Durante harvested his one hundredth soul, he bought himself a pack of cigarettes and a drink.

This line cracks me up in a bit of a dark way. There’s a lot going on — this is our longest chosen line — but it’s very specific. There’s clearly something important about the one hundredth soul. There’s a reward for Gabriel here, or a release, but it’s a self-destructive one, hence the dark appeal. I immediately want to know what the one hundredth soul means and what’s waiting for Gabriel after…and that’s the perfect introduction to a book that, I assume, is going to be about just that. This feels like just the right first line for what I can imagine this story will be about. If the story is not about what happens after the one hundredth soul, this writer isn’t setting expectations correctly!

Here’s Stephanie:

People used to smile at me a lot more than they do now.

There’s some good first person pain in this line, which speaks to good voice. And not only do I want to know what happened to make them stop smiling as much, I want to know what it was like before and what it’s like now. Lots of good questions in this line. (Are we seeing a common theme?)

Here’s Amy:

Everything Sophie drew came to life.

This, just like the hole-people line, caught my eye because it’s a unique premise. Again, though, it does suffer from a bit of the telling. It’s a rather dry way of expressing your premise…showing this magic in action would be a much more active choice. You can, of course, use telling to reinforce key ideas occasionally (see good telling vs. bad telling) but I wouldn’t recommend as the first line. Still, I would keep reading this.

Here’s Kayla:

Siven smiles at me as she tightens her fingers around my neck.

This is a great example of starting in medias res (“in the middle of things” in Greek). We jump right into the action. There’s also the great tension of the smile as it clashes against the violent act of the fingers around the neck. This first line has lots of punch (bad pun fully intended)!

Here’s Kalen:

It kinda sucks being a mind-reader when everyone hates your guts and wishes you were dead.

I haven’t written a blog post about setting expectations, but it’s something I discuss a lot when I speak at conferences. Before I do my longer post on it, let me just say that setting expectations is something you have to do in the first 5 pages of your book. From those first 5 pages, an image will bloom in your readers’ minds about what the rest of the story will be like. From the premise presented here — with good voice, might I add — I don’t know exactly what to expect from the rest of the book, but my imagination is already whirring, going in a million different directions, imagining all the painful (and, let’s face it, pretty funny…a tone set by the voice) moments that this character will experience. There is, of course, the question of what this character did to incur such wrath, as well as the introduction of the paranormal element, all in one fell swoop. Great work!

Here’s Kait:

I was thirteen when I found out why my mother left me.

This is another one of those telling lines, but there is a haunting tone to it that hints at good voice down the road. The question is so big and so ache-inducing that it begs the reader to keep going. An emotional connection in a first line is important.

Here’s Ashley:

“What do you want your name to be this time?”

Normally I tell writers to not start their novels with unattributed lines of dialogue. It’s too disorienting right off the bat. This line is a good one, though! It sparks a lot, a lot of questions! If you’re going to do it, make sure it’s something electric like this, and not, say, “Did you finish your cereal?” or whatever.

Finally, for the Honorable Mentions, Miles:

Camilla Bradford counted to ten, then walked out into the street.

There’s tension involved in counting to ten — she’s either doing it in anticipation of something or in anger, as a way to quiet her reaction. By setting up the suspense in this one line, Miles makes us want to keep reading. That’s good, because this project is apparently a YA thriller!

And now, The Winners:

Here’s the unveiling of our first one, Kathryn:

Bea had broken at least six of the Ten Commandments.

The voice here is great! Plus, I want to know more about this character. There’s tension in the breaking of the Commandments…clearly the Commandments matter to the character, because she references them, but not enough to keep from breaking them. This line is tongue-in-cheek and voice-y, also. Overall, just very appealing. The obvious question is, of course: Which Commandments, and how?

And here’s our second winner, Kalen:

It kinda sucks being a mind-reader when everyone hates your guts and wishes you were dead.

I haven’t written a blog post about setting expectations, but it’s something I discuss a lot when I speak at conferences. Before I do my longer post on it, let me just say that setting expectations is something you have to do in the first 5 pages of your book. From those first 5 pages, an image will bloom in your readers’ minds about what the rest of the story will be like. From the premise presented here — with good voice, might I add — I don’t know exactly what to expect from the rest of the book, but my imagination is already whirring, going in a million different directions, imagining all the painful (and, let’s face it, pretty funny…a tone set by the voice) moments that this character will experience. There is, of course, the question of what this character did to incur such wrath, as well as the introduction of the paranormal element, all in one fell swoop. Great work!

Kathryn and Kalen both get a critique of their first 250 words (email me, winners, at mary at kidlit dot com with the subject line: First Line Critique). Thanks for playing along, everyone!

Tags:

  1. LeanneT’s avatar

    Thanks Mary! This is a great exercise and super interesting to see other writers’ first lines. I’m going to open my doc and check out mine right….now!

  2. Genn Albin’s avatar

    WOO HOO! Go Kalen!

    Congrats everyone!

  3. Kalen O'Donnell’s avatar

    Ack! Thanks so much, this has been an awesome exercise. Congrats to everyone else and thank you to everyone who commented on my entry. And I want to read like all of these books, btw. #whyistherenotmoretimeintheday #whyamItweetingthisisablog

  4. Stephanie Garber’s avatar

    Thanks Mary for doing this. This was so interesting and helpful!

    Congratulations Kathryn and Kalen!

  5. Crystal’s avatar

    Congrats to the winners! And thanks for the feedback, Mary :)

  6. amychristineparker’s avatar

    Congratulations to the first line winners. It was great to see what you thought about each one, Mary. Thanks for doing this in the midst of all of your business. Hope the conference went well.

  7. Lyla’s avatar

    Thanks for doing this (and working through all those comments while also going to that conference–phew!), Mary. We all really appreciate it. On a more personal level, thank you for the feedback. It made me smile to read that my first line made you crack up in dark way. :)

    Congrats to the winners! I wish you lots of luck.

  8. Kayla Olson’s avatar

    Yay! Congrats to Kalen and Kathryn! And, thank you for your thoughts on my line, Mary (thanks also to those of you who took the time to give feedback the other day)! :)

  9. Miles’s avatar

    Thanks so much, Mary! Your comment was much appreciated and I’m glad my first line made you want to keep reading. :) Congrats to Kalen and Kathryn, and to my fellow honorable mentions! I wish everyone the best of luck!

    Also, thanks to all who commented on my first line!

  10. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Congrats winners! There were a lot of great lines, Mary had a tough competition to judge for sure.

  11. Amy D.’s avatar

    Thanks to Mary and all who commented on my line. Love all the helpful feedback!

  12. Shelley’s avatar

    Congratulations to all the winners and thanks to Mary for great feedback. Very helpful and useful.

  13. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Fantastic first lines and great analysis, thanks!

    PS Am I seeing double or did Kalen win and get an honorable mention? That’s got to be one killer first line!

  14. Silvia’s avatar

    Thanks, Mary, for an eye-opening exercise! And thank you everyone for commenting. So many excellent first lines–I hope to see them when I go perusing in a bookstore :)

Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>