Showing posts with label first lines. Show all posts
Showing posts with label first lines. Show all posts

23 January 2024

I Have First-Line Envy

I've written before about a Facebook group I belong to in which we celebrate good first lines (sometimes first paragraphs) in books and stories, often crime stories. A first line can be a thing of beauty, with lyrical language that draws you in. It can have suspense, leading you to need to know what comes next. It can portray a setting that's so beautiful you yearn to live there. It can showcase a character's voice, one that's edgy or interesting or downright funny--someone you can't wait to spend 300 pages with.

I've read a lot of good first lines over the years and some that didn't draw me in. Interestingly, some of the ones I thought weren't great received raves from others, which just goes to show how subjective writing can be.

But before today, I can recall only once reading a first line that made me wish I had written it myself. (More on that other book below.) I haven't read this book (it's coming out next week), but damn, this sentence makes me want to:

It is a sad day, indeed, when even an orgy does not interest me.

That's the first sentence in Of Hoaxes and Homicide by Anastasia Hastings, coming out on January 30th. Why do I love this opening line? To quote Shakespeare, let me count the ways.

First and foremost, this sentence makes me laugh. The voice tells me this is a character I'll enjoy reading about. The sentence is also attention-grabbing. Do I want to learn more about what is going on in this book? Oh yes, I do, especially because the author's word choices let the reader know this isn't a hardboiled book; it's softer, slower-paced, making the mention of an "orgy" all the more interesting and surprising--in the best way. The writing also is lyrical. Imagine the sentence without the word "even." It wouldn't have the same flow, the same punch. The author's words have a wonderful rhythm.

That's a whole lot to accomplish in a first sentence. Anastasia Hastings, I tip my hat to you.

What's the other great first line I wish I'd written? The first sentence in Julia Spencer-Fleming's wonderful first novel, In the Bleak Midwinter:

It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.

I read that sentence, and I was all in. Thankfully, the book lived up to the promise of its first line. Will Of Hoaxes and Homicide do the same? I sure hope so.

Do you have a favorite first line you'd like to share, dear reader? Please do.

Before I go, the Malice Domestic board of directors would like to remind you that this year's convention will run from April 26-28th, and registration is open. If you're not familiar with Malice, it's a fan convention that celebrates the traditional mystery, though you will find attending authors write lighter and darker books too. The convention is held each year in North Bethesda, Maryland. You can learn more at the Malice website: Due to technical difficulties, the registration link on the website isn't working, but you can register by clicking here. (And no, I'm not on the Malice board. Just spreading the word for them.)

18 October 2022

I'm in the mood for stories that open with the weather

Elmore Leonard had ten famous rules for writing. The first one: "Never open a book with the weather." I've long agreed with this advice, with an exception: If the weather is pertinent to what's happening at the start--if it's part of the plot--use it. Still, even with that caveat, the times you'll need to use the weather at the start of a book or story are probably few.

If you're sitting there thinking, Barb, you've written about using the weather in stories, even starting with the weather, before. Come up with something new. Yeah, yeah. The column you're thinking about ran in 2016. I just reread it, and I think my advice is solid. You can read that post here:

Today, I'm going to come at this topic from a different angle. I belong to a Facebook group whose members post each Monday the first lines of books and stories they read the prior week. The intent is to showcase good or great first lines. Sometimes people share more than the first sentence of a story. Sometimes they share the first paragraph. (I've been guilty of this myself.) I enjoy reading more than a sentence because the additional words can help me to get a much better feel for the work at hand. And reading first lines and first paragraphs that don't grab me is also helpful. It helps me understand what works and what doesn't and why.

Here's where the weather comes in. To my surprise, the openings that catch my attention the most each week, the ones that make me eager to read a book or story, use the weather. I find this is especially true if I have the opportunity to read a first paragraph rather than just a first sentence. Those extra words can enable an author to truly set the scene--or more to the point, to set the mood. Mood, more than anything, is what pulls me into a story, and few things can truly set mood better than the weather.

Raymond Chandler famously made this point about weather and mood in the opening to his story "Red Wind":

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."

Maybe you'd want to read Chandler's story because of his exquisite way with words. Maybe he could have been talking about dog grooming and still draw you in. But he was talking about the weather--in this case, the wind--and how it affects people. And that's the point: the weather can affect people. Characters are people, but so are readers.

Here's another great example from Julia Spencer-Fleming, from her first book, In the Bleak Midwinter. (I also think this is one of the best first sentences ever.):

"It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby. The cold pinched at Russ Van Alstyne's nose and made him jam his hands deep into his coat pockets, grateful that the Washington County hospital had a police parking spot just a few years from the ER doors."

Spencer-Fleming is another author who knows how to lure the reader in. Is it a coincidence that she used the weather to do it in her first book, which won a string of awards? I don't think so.

So, maybe Leonard's advice about openings and weather deserves a second caveat: 

Never open a book with the weather--except (1) if the weather is pertinent to the plot in that opening scene or (2) if you want to use the weather to set the mood. If either exception applies, shine that opening until it glistens like a desert highway on a brutal summer day and you're praying the sea of melted tar you're approaching is but a mirage.

14 May 2012

Worst of the First

Regular SS readers are aware that first lines fascinate me.  Today I'm sharing something that may be old news to you, but is new to me.

It's too late!! I am so sorry that the deadline shown at the top of the website for this year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction
Contest is April 15, 2012, but I want to make you aware of this writers' competition so you can be preparing for next year's event.

Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, sponsored by San Jose State University challenges writers to produce the worst possible first sentence for a novel. They've been doing this since 1983. The contest is named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (pictured at left) who penned this famous first line in the novel Paul Clifford in 1830:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled againsgt the darkness."

Have you ever noticed that sitting atop his doghouse, beginning his novel on that old typewriter, Snoopy never gives Bulwer-Lytton credit for those first seven words?

The 2011 winner was Sue Fondrie, Oshkosh, WI, with this entry:

Cheryl's mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.


Molly Ringle, Seattle, WA, won in 2010 with this interesting comparison:

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity's affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss--a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity's mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world's thirstiest gerbil.


Going back to the first years of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, Steven Garman, Pensecola, Florida, won with this bit of ridiculousness in 1984:

The lovely woman-child Kaa was mercilessly chained to the cruel post of the warrior-chief Beast, with his barbarous tribe now stacking wood at her nubile feet, when the strong, clear voice of the poetic and heroic Handsomas roared, "Flick your Bic, crisp that chick, and you'll feel my steel through your last meal.


In 1993, William W. "Buddy" Ocheltree, Port Townsend, WA, demonstrated his knowledge of ordinal numbers in this prize winner:

She wasn't really my type, a hard-looking but untalented reporter from the local cat box liner, but the first second that the third-rate representative of the fourth estate cracked open a new fifth of old Scotch, my sixth sense said seventh heaven was as close as an eighth note from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, so, nervous as a tenth grader drowning in eleventh-hour cramming for a physics exam, I swept her into my longing arms, and, humming "The Twelfth of Never," I got lucky on Friday the Thirteenth.


My last example, and favorite of these, was the 2004 winner, Dave Zobel, Manhattan Beach, California:

She resolved to end the love affair with Ramon tonight--summarily like Martha Stewart ripping the sand vein out of a shrimp's tale--though the term "love affair" now struck her as a ridicuolous euphemism--not unlike "sand vein," which is, after all, an intestine, not a vein--and that tarry substance inside certainly isn't sand--and that brought her back to Ramon.

There are winners in a multitude of categories, but the ones I've quoted are grand prize recipients.
For more of the worst of the first as well as the rules, origin, prizes and an entertaining webpage which advertises itself as, "Where WWW means 'Wretched Writers Welcome,'" go to


BTW, if you've read this to the bottom, you'll learn what I learned at the end of the home page regarding the 2012 deadline.
Directly quoted:

"The official deadline is April 15 (a date that Americans associate with painful submissions and making up bad stories.)  THE ACTUAL DEADLINE IS JUNE 30."

How about you? Got any horrible opening lines lurking in your brain?
Until we meet again, take care of . . .YOU!