Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Choosing the first lines

by Jim

There are several reasons I think the internet is made of magic. First, I put out a call for a first lines contest and ended up with 263 comments on the post (some of them were duplicates, but there’s no way I’m counting to find out the exact number of entries). Regardless, that’s a darned impressive tally. Second, some of them were great. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, when I posted the nine finalists, we got my favorite kind of response: anonymous snarkiness.

No seriously, I love the snarky. That the first comment asked me whether I chose the best or worst nine entries made me smile. Interestingly, someone else took the time to critique all nine entries. And while my first instinct was to rip them a new one, on a second read through, I saw that they actually made some thoughtful points, a few of which I didn’t disagree with. So I thought it would be fun/enlightening to go through and offer their critique along with my response to it as well as the entries themselves.

Before that, I want to take a quick moment to say thank you again to everyone who posted an entry. There were so many to choose from, and some really great ones slipped by. There are three in particular that I’m still mentally rotating with some of the entries I chose. A few commenters yesterday mentioned first lines that they admired: I’d love for you to share which you chose, and I’m sure the folks who penned them will be delighted to be discussed!

Now, on to the main event:

“The next time Hermes brought her back from the Underworld, Persephone wept tears of rage.”

Anonymous says: “Feels too close to pre-existing mythology.”

Jim says: Well…yeah. But I love this sentence. Not only am I a mythology fan, but I think there’s real room in the marketplace for more fiction based in Greek and Roman myths. Beyond that, the language feels nicely in tune with the subject matter but also feels effortless. And even if you know nothing about these gods, you’re left with a tantalizing question: why would someone feel rage for being taken out of hell?

"I saw her do it before she did.”

Anonymous wonders: “What does"it" refer to?”

Jim says: I don’t know. But I want to. This sentence hits a sweet spot between vague and specific that makes me ask a lot of questions. Not only what “it” is (which I assume will be answered in a later sentence), but whether this is about a main character with some sort of psychic ability, or if “she” may lack awareness of what she’s doing, in fact whether the speaker is seeing something that hasn’t happened or whether the subject is doing something without “seeing” it. It’s open ended without feeling clumsy, and it pushes me to want to know more.

“I'm pretty sure my sister had decided to become a pagan or a baptist or something before she offed herself so I don't know why we were having a Catholic funeral.”

Anonymous feels: “"Had decided" versus "decided" and the second "or" with "something" dilutes the power of the sentence.”

Jim feels: I’m going to disagree completely on this one. The “or something” is completely crucial to the success of this sentence. It reinforces the narrator’s indifference to their sister making this seem that much more wrong in so many right ways. As for the “had,” I’d keep it. It feels right for the voice which is key in the first person. This line seems to be giving us a tough yet funny narrator who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. I most definitely want to hear more from him/her.

"Homo sapiens sluttiwhen drunkus. The subspecies to which I apparently belong."

Anonymous asks: “Am I the only one missing a verb?”

Jim says: I’m not going to lie. This is the only entry that I almost edited ever so slightly before posting. I would much rather the period after “drunkus” was a colon, making this one sentence, or really: setting it up as a single definition. A verb? Totally unnecessary. I let the punctuation slide because I laughed out loud when I read it. A lot of people tried to be funny. This represents one of the few who succeeded.

“There are four Captain Stupendous fan clubs in Copperplate City, but ours is the only one that doesn't suck.”

Anonymous states: “Better stated if it didn't start with "There"”

Jim says: Huh? I don’t understand that comment. This was a triumphant entry. I never doubted its place among the finalists because it captures a voice. I can pick out the genre AND identify a likely speaker in under 20 words. I’ve said before that you can teach writing but you can’t teach voice. Happily, this author doesn’t need any help.

"I will never be Lady Hakebourn."

Anonymous offers: “Okay, but classic problem”

Jim says: True. But there’s so much room to re-explore stories that have been told in new and exciting ways. I dig this because it’s simple and straightforward but also sounds as though it will propel the reader right into the story. I saw a lot of entries that touched on a pet peeve of mine: weather writing. I’ve mentioned it before, and I know that people will be able to come up with great examples of when writing about the weather has been employed to brilliant effect. Trouble is, too many people use rainstorms and cloudy days and whistling wind to set the reader up, and 99 times out of 100, it serves only to delay the opening and prevent the reader from being immediately engaged. Here, the author starts with a blunt enough statement that I feel as though I know the next sentence will build on it. It’s not going to be, say: I will never be Lady Hakebourn. It was a sunny day in June, and a warm wind was stirring up a dustcloud by the barn…

"I wondered if the girl sitting at the front desk knew that things like me existed.”

Anonymous queries: “Extraneous "that," what is the "thing"?”

Jim says: I’m going to go 50% with Anonymous on this. I would absolutely agree that “that” is extraneous. Put a mental line through it. And now it’s a brilliant sentence. What is the “thing?” That’s the whole point! We want to know! Is this being narrated by a supernatural creature? Or is the protagonist just so down on him/herself that they identify as less than human? Like the second finalist, I love that this so fabulously nestles in that nexus between specific and vague.

"I've had five husbands; none of them were mine."

Anonymous votes! “The one I voted for, even though it sounds kind of cheesy like Mae West. Best of the bunch.”

Jim says: Whether or not I think it’s the best of the bunch, I’ll never tell…at least until next week. I can’t agree with calling it cheesy, though. It’s tantalizing and vampy and intentionally provocative. Perfect employment of a semi-colon (brava!), and if you don’t want more specifics, you have less prurient interests than me.

"Thomas Buttermore was your typical left-coast college kid, raised on Twinkies and white guilt."

Anonymous said: “This sounds more like a right-coastie to me. I don't know any educated Californians who eat Twinkies.”

Jim says: Okay, Anonymous: that’s damn funny. But I still love this line. It’s got a nice little wink and a nudge going. It walks up to the line of gimmickry without crossing over it. And Thomas Buttermore is SUCH a good name for a character.


  1. I wish you could critique every single entry, both Anonymous and Jim. I'm enjoying your reactions to these! But I'm sure you both have lives...

  2. Wow, Jim! Thanks for taking the time out to explain your picks! That was very cool to read.

  3. Any chance of revealing any others you had difficulty deciding over?

  4. Great post! I agree with most of your disagreements with anonymous! LOL Captain Stupendous got my vote but they were all good in their own way. Thanks for taking the time to let us know your thoughts on these.

    Would love to know what those other three you keep rotating in your mind are!

  5. I didn't get a chance to read them the first time around, but I definitely want to go back now. The reactions to these are fantastic. And I agree; Thomas Buttermore is a great name. :) Thanks for sharing these!

  6. I don't know what is more funny.

    The fact that Jim acted without any ethic in this contest when he didn't inform the participants he desire a specific genre, because I think that the maximum lines in the contest based on this choices would had been 30 at most, and not almost 300, so... satiric claps for you Jim and a reminder for everybody else, he don't really represent this company, Ms. Jane do, so don't think bad about Dystel & Goderich because usually Jim don't evaluate your queries.Or...

    ...the fact that he actually respond a anonymous commentary, that said actually... what we all think about the choices Jim made. What shows he was not even sure about the choices he made, and that in my language is lack of charisma.

    So...in the end what really matters is:

    -If you have any horror story and you trying to publish it, don't chose Dystel & Goderich to represent you because they don't have currently a good employer for you. For the others genres, they are the best.

    Sorry about the hard words Ms. Jane, but I really like you agency, but the black sheep's always mess the white reputation.

  7. In response to Anonymous 11:29: Huhhh???

  8. @anonymous. Jim has given us an opportunity to have our ms read with out any strings attached. I can't believe you can't appreciate that. What you have just written is horrendous in my opinion. Jim has only done us a favour. who ever said he was obligated to take time out of his day to do this for us anyway? I think he deserves applause.

  9. anon 11.29- what are you on about? From where I'm sitting there appear to be several different genres represented among the favourite lines and none of them are horror, or at least the first lines don't indicate whether they are or aren't. Jim offered us a fun competition with a really awesome prize for OUR benefit. I'm sure he has enough work to be getting on with and yet he still gave us this opportunity. How can you be so dismissive of that?

  10. Bitter trees bear bitter fruit.

  11. I'm trying to figure out if Anon 11:29 purposefully used horrid grammar, or if therein lies the reason for his/her bitterness.

    Anyway, here are a couple of my favorites that didn't make the cut.

    -- "I greeted his tombstone the way I always did -- with a swift kick"

    -- "Someone should have cut me off after the 4th Bacardi and Coke."

    -- "Tess Garibaldi wished she believed in miracles, because she sure as shit needed one right now.

    -- "I killed my father with a birthday wish.

    There were others that I liked a lot too, but these were my favorites.

  12. Dear Anonymous: Really, what I see in your post is an emotional reaction to being rejected. Rejection smarts, and I'm so sorry that you're having a rough go of it. But I'm going to give you some advice from a very sincere place in my heart, and this is knowledge I come by the hard way. Also, keep in mind that Jim is my agent - has been for 7 fabulous years - and to say that I ABSOLUTELY ADORE him would be a gross understatement. I can truly say that I consider him one of the best people I know...in other words, I really DO know his character, and I can suggest to you with absolute certainty that he was not motivated by anything other than offering something really cool for burgeoning writers. He acted without prejudice, even though, to you, it seems like he didn't.

    The thing you have to realize is that venting hurts YOU. Jim is very likely unaffected by your comments because he's been in the biz long enough to understand that when people take a verbal swipe at him in reaction to a rejection - it has much more to do with them than him. As you can see from the above, Jim's got some serious fans; not one in you, obviously, but I think you can learn a really valuable lesson from this, and that is; when you are given some criticism - do not react. Do not respond. And above all - do NOT post snark on public blog. If it hurts too much to look at it, set it aside, take a few days, come back to it when you won't feel so wounded, because there are likely some precious pearls of wisdom in there that will help you in the long run. In the meantime, just breathe, sugar, just breathe.

  13. All good calls Tracy! And all near the top of my leader pack. Something about the first one kept needling me. I wasn't sure if it read a little forced--I wanted to read more, but I didn't know for sure that I was 100% on board. I have no real critique of the Bacardi line. It definitely works. It just popped sliiiightly less than some others for me. Tess Garibaldi...how close she came! And the birthday wish...I agonized over that one. It felt spot on, but I wondered if it felt too much like it could come from any number of paranormals. But they are all very good lines.

    All best,
    "The black sheep" :)

  14. I am fascinated by the discussion going on here. Clearly we all see things differently depending on where we sit.

  15. LOL!! As much as I would love to put my first line in here, I won't. :)

    Actually the one line that made me laugh (my absolutely favorite) was (drumroll)

    "I greeted his tombstone the way I always did—with a swift kick."

    I loved the snarkiness of it. I thought it was a great opening to a story that made me want to read more. And I thought it did great at giving a glimpse of the MC's personality.

    Don't worry winners. I liked the others too. :)

    But the line above would have definitely been on my top nine.

    I would like to know if something like the top five runner-ups in this contest. Some one liners that were close but didn't make it for whatever reason. Then I would like to know exactly why they didn't make it.

    Once again...Grats to all the winners. Good luck!!

  16. I loved these two, plus number 4 on your list, Jim.

    "With the exception of the two uniformed police officers on the front steps puking into evidence bags, Ellen LeeAnn Walsh's building looked like a hundred other slightly run-down Italianate Victorians in San Francisco."

    "I greeted his tombstone the way I always did—with a swift kick."

    I do think that it's a momentary decision. If something grabs you at that moment - you'll read more. It could well be that if you go back later and examine what grabbed you, it no longer feels the same way to you. But the grab moment? Priceless :)

  17. This is anonymous 1:09 and 2:08 from your results post, not the one who posted at 11:29 today.

    Thank you for outlining your thought process on what attracts you to these first lines.

    In the end what matters is your opinion, and in fact your opinion will hopefully make you and your clients some big bucks.

    My point of view is from someone who is now line editing a manuscript and trying to get rid of all the cruft – all the it/there/that/had and awkward and passive sentence constructions affecting readability and pacing. These words are essential to writing but their use in a first line is a red flag for overuse and abuse throughout the manuscript. A manuscript with an overabundance of such words is one which often times needs to be liberated from dead weight and can be improved with more descriptive phrasing.

    As Mark Twain once wrote:
    Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very;" your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

    Which perhaps led Nathaniel Hawthorne to follow:
    Easy reading is damn hard writing.

    Anyway, thanks for the contest. Thanks for the blog.

  18. Oh, Jim, I love your "black sheep" sign off. You always make me laugh.

    I also love Victoria Laurie's response. So wonderful and sweet.

    To Anonymous 11:29- Seriously? Please don't. I'm not represented by Jim and never have been, but I have sent him material before and he's always, without fail, been incredibly encouraging, polite and kind about it. Also, as many people have pointed out already, this contest was a lot of fun for most of us, and it was a very generous thing for Jim to do! Sorry about the vent, but your comment kind of ticked me off.

    One of my favourite lines that didn't make it was, like many other people, "I greeted his tombstone the way I always did—with a swift kick." Such a fun line!

  19. to anon 11:29:is amazing how somebody that don't have the decency to show us a name(hey!just like me)can make such a revolt in people.i bet he's just a problematic kid that is now laughing at us in front of his computer.


  20. Dear Anyom 11:29,
    If you feel the need to rant while employing horrific grammar and sentence structure try to do so in a place not littered with word lovers. You know, some place that is not heavily populated by writers, readers, editors and literary agents. Try perhaps your local facebook group or may haps even the neighborhood 7-11.

  21. I'm going to echo The Alliterative Allomorph and ask if you could reveal the "almost" first lines...the ones you liked but just didn't make the top 9?

    Please? So very curious.

  22. Thanks for the insight, Jim! That was really interesting. I'm going to add another vote for you to reveal the runners-up. :)

    I just read all of the entries, and this is the one that jumped out at me:
    "Perhaps the hissing should have tipped me off, but honestly, life so far hadn’t prepared me for feral desk accessories."

  23. Great run-down of your favorites and why. I liked having the comments from Anonymous as well. Would love to see comments on more.

  24. Thanks for posting these! It was illuminating to see where our thought processes ran along parallel lines and where we diverged completely. Even for the entries I would not have picked (only because there were others I liked better), we had some pretty similar critiques. I think this kind of exercise is very useful for future clients of yours; as writers, we want to find agents who will share our vision for our careers, and being able to peek inside that agent's head in advance can help us figure out whether you could be that agent.

  25. "I killed my father with a birthday wish" was one that really stood out for me.

    black-sheep follower.

  26. I also want to say that this contest spurred me to go back and look at the first lines of my favorite books as well as the ones I truly loathe. While I mostly find I love the first lines of those books I liked I also find that I would have voted for some of the opening lines of books I can't stand had they been listed here.

    I was personally intrigued by this line:
    "A lot of people still think I'm a terrible person because I didn't call the police right away."

    I'm a sucker for horrible events and I want to know what horrible thing happened and just exactly why did they not call the police right away?

  27. Excellent post! Thank you.

  28. I don't know how I missed the 'tombstone' one. That I loved (though I had to wonder if the next line was something about it always resulting in stubbed toes).

    My vote for best of your top nine went to "Captain Stupendous fan club" without a doubt. My runner-up was the 'five husbands' line.

    Great contest and very entertaining reading overall.

  29. Anonymous 1:09 and 2:08 likes:

    Jimi Hendrix had a lot of explaining to do. (How do we get the dead to explain something?)

    "Mary Kate Stewart secretly hoped that her Calculus teacher would get hit by a taco truck." (the absurdity and alliteration of a taco truck, although strike "that")

    I've finally figured out my problem: All these years I've wanted - expected - a full moon, every single night." (a romantic idea, a thoughtful protagonist)

    "Perhaps the hissing should have tipped me off, but honestly, life so far hadn’t prepared me for feral desk accessories." (funny, unexpected)

    "Salt. He tasted like salt." (two lines technically but so was one of yours; intriguing - what is the person doing)

    "What size boots you wear?" the old man hacked as he led Nick through the open-air morgue, his hand already hovering close to the feet of the nearest corpse. (irreverant, like the tombstone one mentioned earlier but the protagonist is more sympathetic than one who does the actual kicking)

    Zahra could smell the old ndovu, a great pachyderm; for three suns now, she’d tracked him. (Nice names and unusual word! I search out the dictionary.)

    "I pressed my shoulders into a wooden armchair in Mrs. Wintour’s antechamber, clasping my hands together so they would not tremble with cold and anxiety." (strong tension and mood)

    I swallowed my Altoid the moment the rebel hottie across the reading room drew his attention away from his book and busted me staring at him.
    (the addition of Altoid and rebel make the classic situation more unique)

  30. Thanks for giving us your perspective on all the first lines you chose, Jim! I'm so pleased you laughed out loud at mine (even if it could have used an em dash ; ).

  31. P.S. to Anon 1:09/2:08/6:32--I liked the Jimi Hendrix one, too!

  32. 1) Note to self: Jim likes mythology. *g* I think what throws me off on this one is the sequencing. "Next time" to me implies future tense, but then we get past tense. And weeping jars with rage, IMO. But I'm definitely curious about why, like Jim said.

    2) This comes across as ... not vague so much as tempting. Again, makes me curious. My only quibble is that when I read the sentence, my brain wants to fill in an "it" at the end, which probably changes the meaning!

    3) I'm with Jim on this one. Love it. "Or something" fits with "pretty sure" for a casual voice. I want to know more about this character, who capitalizes "Catholic" but not "pagan" or "baptist," and I want to know how her sister got a Catholic funeral if she committed suicide!

    4) I love the language play here - the fake-Latin, and then the "to which." The character is sharp and snarkish, and I like that a lot.

    5) Absolutely disagree. I love that the sentence starts out in such an ordinary way and gets progressively more zany. This is the one that made me lol! I love the names, I love the voice.

    6) I feel like it should be Hakebourne. (Maybe I should quit reading Ludlum? *g*) I am immediately curious about who would say this and why.

    7) This makes me wonder two things: what kind of thing is this? and the front desk of what?

    8) LOVE this one. Love the brash, confident voice, love the semicolon. Love the setup: she's had other women's husbands, but never one of her own.

    9) I like "left-coast." Is it that common to say "left coast" instead of "west coast?" The sentence seems a bit passive, but Thomas Buttermore is definitely a memorable name. A writer who can come up with that, and with "Twinkies and white guilt," has got my attention for at least a little bit more.

  33. Okay Jim, you asked for it! I went back and reread all the entries, including Facebook. I tried to break it down to just a few favorites, but it was so hard! There were around 40 that I really liked, so you can imagine the difficulty to end up with 7! I didn't want to repeat some of the lines which have already been mentioned and happen to be part of my favorites (I, too, like the swift kick, the full moon, the taco truck, Tess Garibaldi, he tasted like salt, Bacardi, etc.). Here goes in no particular order:

    "Sixteen years ago I left Balmer, Alabama as a black boy. I return today as a white man."
    (I'm hooked. How does a black boy become a white man and why would he want to return to Alabama? No offense to anyone living in Alabama!)

    "Jocelyn stared at the guy sitting across the table from her, wondering how he’d react later – when he was drowning."
    (How does she know that he'll be drowning later and why? It got my interest.)

    "I never wanted my wedding performed by an Elvis impersonator, yet I found myself standing beside my fiancé and looking at the King."
    (I like the "voice" here and the irony of the situation; sometimes you get exactly what you don't want!)

    "The longest journey of my life began with an argument about chips."
    (So true! How many times does something that seems so insignificant becomes a major turning point in one's life? I'll read on.)

    "Catalina Flores de la Peña's tongue got her in more trouble than any other part of her body, even though there were far more likely candidates."
    (I like that it's so descriptive without putting it all down in words. Great name, you just know that this woman is trouble, and yes, I want to know more.)

    "In the many millennia Gabe had spent watching over his mortal charges, not once had he ever thought of breaking the rules."
    (It brings to mind "City of Angels" a film I love so I'm intrigued by the subtlety of what may make Gabe think of breaking the rules.)

    "It was all fun and games, until Ashley fell over the cliff."
    (Yep, that will end the fun and games, but now what? How did she fall, was she pushed? Does she survive....is she hanging to a tree limb? I'm interested.)

  34. Thanks for this, Jim! It's just fun to read the lines, even if (like me) you didn't take part in the contest.

    One that nobody mentioned that intrigued me: "He awoke in the dark to the screams again. His hands were automatic spiders for the gun."

  35. Hiya black sheep!

    I just wanted to say thanks for the great contest! My entry was the "Okay but classic problem". I remember I posted my first line without reading the others only to be dismayed when I DID read the comments and saw how amazing everyone's first lines were. I knew mines was too simple, plain, and boring. I actually didn't even check back at the results because I knew I didn't have a chance.

    So the point of this is just to say a big thanks to you! You've definitely perked up my week!


    Besides, it's more fun being the black sheep anyway :)

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