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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The First Line Is Everything.

Hi, All.  I'm Julie Johnstone the Marchioness of Mayhem.  I write historical romances littered with action and suspense.  As a romance/suspense writer, I always want to start my books with a bang.  I recently read an interview in the November 13, 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal titled How To Write a Great Novel. 

One particular author Orhan Pamuk said something that caught my full attention.  He said that the first line of the book is the most important line of the whole book.  He was quoted as saying he often re-wrote the first line 50 to 100 times.  I wholeheartedly agree that the first line of the book is the most important.  I once had an agent tell me that if the first line did not capture her attention then she quit reading.  My friends, this is a well respected agent in the industry, and her statement made me gulp, but I also sat up and took notice. 

I labor over the first line of my books.  I edit those suckers until they are so shiny they blind me.  The other day, I was in the shower, and I got an idea for the first line of my new book.  I was so excited that I jumped out of the shower dripping wet and slipped my way through the bathroom to my bedroom where I scrambled to write down the line on paper, so I would not forget it.  By the end of the day, I had re-written that line at least twenty times.  After writing my first line, and thinking about what Pamuk had said in his interview, I started recalling books that had captured me with their first lines.  I wondered what made me love those first lines, and I raced downstairs to pull some books off my shelf and look at their beginnings. 

I can't share all the lines I love with you, but here are four first lines that made me unable to put the book down.
1.  From Gai-Jin by James Clavell (passed away in 1994) - The panic-stricken girl was galloping full speed back towards the coast, half  a mile ahead, along footpaths that led precariously through the rice swapms of paddy fields. 
2.  From Ransom by Julie Garwood - Bad things always happen during the night. http://www.juliegarwood.com/
3.  From Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett - The small boys came early to the hanging.  http://www.ken-follett.com/
4.  From The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory - There was a scream, and then the loud roar of fire enveloping silken hangings, then a mounting crescendo of shouts of panic that spread and spread from one tent to another, running up guy ropes and bursting through muslin doors.  http://www.philippagregory.com/

Each of these first lines had me at the end of the period.  They made me want to read more, they had questions spinning in my mind, and they brought the book to life for me immediately.  With all of this said, I think first lines are crucial to getting an agent, making a sale, and winning readers.  I do not think all agents stop reading after the first line.  I think some do.  But if I were trying to get published, get an agent or just stay hot in this business, I would not be willing to take any chances on losing anyone.  My first line is always going to get some gritty work from me. 

What do you think about the importance of the first line of a book?  Can you recall an unforgettable first line from a book you've read?

Happy Writing My Friends,
The Marchioness of Mayhem


  1. Julie,
    I love a first line that hooks me, although I must be more patient than some agents. (In all fairness, I don't have hundreds of submissions waiting for me to comment either.) When I pulled my favorite books from my shelves, a lot of the first lines didn't grab me, but here are three that did:

    "Sidda is a girl again in the hot heart of Louisiana, the bayou world of Catholic saints and voodoo queens." - Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

    "On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the reaer study carrel, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was aobut to commit would be deemed acceptable." - I Know this Much is True by Wally Lamb

    "OK. DON'T PANIC. Don't panic. It's just a VISA bill." - Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

    I always have my best ideas in the shower, too.

  2. These are great lines! I'm a shower girl as well. What's up with that? I always get new ideas and solve writing problems in the shower, but this never happens in the bath tub. Hmmm...

  3. What is it with showers? That seems to be a really popular place for writers. However, I rarely get ideas in the shower...I usually get them when I doing something I hate...like spinning. Ugh!

    I don't know that I'm a first sentence kind of girl. If I'm looking for a new book, I typically read the first page or two to determine if it's going to be a book I like. I guess the first sentence is in there, too, but I can rarely judge a book that way. Although, I do have to agree with Michelle...the opening line of Confessions of a Shopaholic definitely grabbed me. LOL!

    You make a great point, though...I think most people are looking for that grabber first sentence, so it's something that, as a writer, I must think about. Great post!

  4. Great post, Julie. I'll be looking at my first line, AGAIN, after reading this.

    As to ideas in the shower, I've read the ions in the water stimulate brain activity. Whatever the reason I seem to always get a solution to a writing problem while I'm covered in soap. I need a water proof recorder.

  5. I love shower ideas... they're always the best ones. Whenever I am blocked about something in the story, I go take a shower. Normally it works.

    As for great lines, I know you guys hate me bringing up my favorite book so much but really Ms. Mitchell was way ahead of her time.
    "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."

    Great post Julie!

  6. These are some great examples. I try to write hooky first sentences...but some times I don't. One of the stories I'm struggling with now begins "Have you ever at sex in an elevator". Problem is, that scene is necessary and I don't want to get rid of it...but the agents are passing it over like it was crap. lol It's sooo not crap!


  7. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

    Best first line ever!

  8. I love that line! What story is that from?

  9. love number 1 - hooked me immediately.

  10. One of my favorite opening lines was "Storms bring Death." I liked it because it was short, powerful, and obviously memorable. I think it was from one of your books, Decoding Deception.

  11. I tend to give an author the first couple of pages to hook me. I've loitered in Borders quite a bit, agonizing over which pretty work of fiction I would take home. Its often a touch decision. :o)