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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Hook, First Line. . .or Sinker

We all know the drill when it comes to writing a proposal that will one day sit on an editor’s desk. Since I’m in the middle of writing one, I thought I’d bring up the topic. We have to have a cover letter that will catch the editor’s eye. A first line that works like bait to make them want to read the second sentence and the third and so on. We want an editor to keep turning the pages of our proposal, so in awe at our characterizations, descriptions, and chapter hooks that they offer us that multi-book contract. . .

Okay. Let me reel us back to reality. If an editor doesn’t like the hook or premise of your story found in your cover letter, more than likely they won’t even bother reading the first line of your manuscript. The story will be tossed out with the majority of the others from the slush pile. So, how can we stand out when we’ve only got one chance to impress?

Look at the hook for your current WIP (work in progress). If you write suspense, it’s crucial that your hook reflects your main conflict in a way that pulls in the editor. Ask yourself the following questions.

1. Is the grammar and spelling perfect? (Might seem obvious, but so important)
2. Is the hook for your story concise?
3. Do the words reflect your writing style?
4. Is the conflict strong enough? (there’s nothing more disappointing than a story that doesn’t live up to the hype)
5. Does it make the editor want to read more?

Now let’s look at first lines. I ran across a site the other day called Keepers of the lists. One of their lists is a rundown of some of the worst opening lines from a novel. (I would assume unpublished!)

Here are the first two:

She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.

McMurphy hit the pavement running like a paper bag filled with vegetable soup.

You’re right. Not even worth commenting on. If an editor doesn’t want to read corny lines like that, what WILL catch their attention? I found another site that listed the 100 Best First Lines from Novels (http://www.litline.org/ABR/100bestfirstlines.html) Here are their first two picks.

Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

I love that last one. Now take a look at the first line of your manuscript. What do you want an editor or reader to get out of the first line? Here are some ideas to think about.

1. You want the opening line to grab your reader immediately. This means NO back story up front. (In fact, no back story at all in the first chapter is preferred.)
2. Make the reader ask “What happens next?” If you can’t keep them reading the first few paragraphs you’re sunk.
3. Use straight forward language. This is not the time for the reader to have to pull out the dictionary
4. Use your opening line to set the tone of the story. Is this a mystery, a romance, a thriller? The opening pages, and especially that opening line, is the place to start the feel of the book.

As for the sinker. . .well, we’re not going there. With a great hook, a catching first line (and a manuscript lives up to the hype) an editor will pay attention.

So what are your opening lines? We’d love to read either your own opening line or your favorite opening line from a published book. So leave a comment and tell us your favorite!

Coming next. . .an interview with up and coming South African author Sean Young and his debut novel Violent Sands.



Blogger Ed J. Horton said...

Hi Lisa,

Great post!

My favorite opening line is from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." I spent plenty of time during my sophmore year in high school reading and re-reading this book.

"Stopping his mounting rage was not within his control. Time had proven that." This is the opening in my current wip, my first attempt at writing a Christian suspense novel.


12:08 PM  
Blogger L. Harris said...

I love your hook, Ed, but no fair. It makes me want to read more. :-) A lot said in a dozen words.

Well done!


1:10 PM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

Should I have gone with a millipede? I like funny ones, like this:

If she didn't kill him within the next ten seconds, she risked missing Wheel of Fortune.

2:16 PM  
Blogger L. Harris said...

I love funny ones too! This definitly sets the tone for suspense with a twist of humor.



2:25 PM  

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