Friday, March 2, 2012

Friday Fricassee

So, what's the verdict -- more First Line Grabbers or thumbs down?

Seems to me, overall, that it was a positive experience.  I was impressed with the bluntness-without-insensitivity that went on in the comment boxes.  The Round One yeses and nos were particularly sharp and clear in their reasons, pulling no punches.

What I found most fascinating was the way that adding the next two sentences had the power to completely change my perception of the first sentence.  Which points to the probability that, while a strong first sentence is definitely important, it's not stand-alone.

I'm sure we all knew that.  But it was interesting to watch it in action.

When I explained the First Line Grabber to Mr. A, he smarmily suggested I enter the original first line of my now-shelved MG fantasy.  Because he knows how dumb it was, and he delights in quoting it to me whenever he feels so inspired.

You're dying to read it, aren't you?

*Hem.* Here it is:

“I caaaannffgggghhhh…”

Yes, that's right.  My main character was slipping under the water in the opening scene.  I thought it would be catchy to, yanno, jump right into that near-drowning and kick things off.

I can imagine the comments I would have gotten in the First Line Grabber.

NO.  This means absolutely nothing to me.

NO.  Not only do I hate opening novel with dialogue, I don't even understand this.

NO.  Utter nonsense.

NO.  We don't even know who's talking or what the heck is going on.

NO.  Just no.

NO.  Who's your agent again?

After several drafts of clinging to my beloved first line (and even taking out a few vowels and consonants to make it a little shorter), I finally backed up my story a little bit and opened it prior to the moment when Kate falls in the water.

To wit:

Kate Raddish lived on an island and could not swim, which made her an anomaly from the start.

You may or may not like it, but you've got to admit it's better than the first one.

At any rate, it's water under the bridge, and I think (I hope!) my more recent first lines are stronger.  I enjoyed the First Line Grabber and will happily run more of the same if the majority of you would enjoy that.  Today's your day to offer direct feedback, so fire away.

Oh, and one more thing.  This contest/crit was one of my spur-of-the-moment ideas, and as such it was only announced a few hours before submissions opened, and by the time the subscriber emails went out, submissions had closed.  I did, however, tweet about it a lot that morning.  So if you are not following me on Twitter, PLEASE TAKE A MOMENT TO FOLLOW ME NOW: @AUTHORESSANON  You will often get announcements on Twitter before you'll see them here.

Happy first-weekend-of-March!


  1. I really enjoyed the contest. Like others, I was really floored by how the sentences that came after changed everything. It certainly made me more aware of the first sentence in my own works. I learned a lot. For anyone who is interested, I thought people may like to check out this link. It lists the best 100 first lines as judged by the American Book Review.

    I thought an idea for a future contest could be to include your first 2-3 sentences (first paragraph whatever) and you have to guess the genre and category. That could be interesting. Anyway, really enjoyed it and hope there will be more to come.

  2. I enjoyed it a lot. It's definitely interesting to see what a first line does alone versus with follow-up sentences.

  3. I *really* enjoyed this contest, however I'm a little concerned about putting too much emphasis on first lines. Obviously, it's great if they're fabulous, however there were times when it seemed like the first line was trying too hard to be a first line. I definitely preferred to see the first three lines (first paragraph is even better!)

  4. I loved this little exercise! The best part was seeing what the first lines morphed into, and I can't wait to see the first 500 of the winners. :)

  5. I think I would have just responded with a LOL.

  6. I really enjoyed this contest, and I would be interested in participating again. For starters, it was a lot easier to critique each entry, so I felt like I actually had the time to participate as a community member. But in addition to that, I found it immensely illuminating.

    I think we can all see how important the first line is in creating an instant feeling for the story to come. At the same time, though, we're now well aware of how perception changes with the addition of lines.

    Some of the lines that weren't chosen from the first round might very well have satisfied all the voter complaints in the next couple of lines; we just didn't get to see them. Similarly, some of the winners from the first round didn't follow through with the promise the first line showed.

    I think it's important to emphasize that (imo) just because a first line didn't make it through round one (for being too vague, not grounding a reader, or not revealing what the story is), that doesn't mean the *whole opening* sucked.

    I sort of looked at this exercise as a huge exaggeration of what's important in an opening. (In a good way). Some opening lines just *did* have that special something, whether it was tension, a story question, great voice, scene anchoring... and some just didn't.

    While dissecting such a short piece, taken out of context from a much bigger story might seem like a futile exercise to some, for me, it was very useful. It was so much easier to target one sentence, acknowledge what was there, identify what might have compelled me to read further, and to offer suggestions.

    But still, it's one line, and I think we should remember that it was one line and shouldn't be the end-all, be-all of what makes a "proper" opening. What's important is that we now take all those comments; figure out the secret recipe (what all the "winners" had in common) in making a crisp, clear, compelling opening; and apply those lessons to opening page. The first line contest was really a microcosm for what works and what doesn't that should now be expanded to each work as a whole.

    I think the more contests we have like this, the better we'll all get at being clear, being concise, establishing a good rhythm, leading with story questions, creating tension, and establishing voice all in those first, few crucial lines.

  7. I really enjoyed this, not only because it was easy to get involved without taking too much time, but because it made me think a lot more about opening lines and how they need to fit in with opening paragraphs. Not just be catchy on their own, because I think a lot of times I'll read first lines/pages in contests and think they're trying way too hard and it shows.

    It's actually inspired me to pick up a stack of my favourite books off the shelf and read the first paragraph or page of each. These are all by successful authors who've gone on to write series or several other successful books.

    I discovered some of these paragraphs, if placed in a contest like this, I personally think would garner a lot of the, "And I care because?" type responses. The introduction to a story is hugely important to hooking an agent and a publisher, as well as a reader. But I found in every single one of my favourites, the first page is not something that stands out in my mind as to WHY I am so in love with it. Half of them I didn't even necessarily remember, when reading them again (for the 8th or 9th time!)

    Thanks again for running another interesting contest!

  8. I enjoyed this contest! It was shocking to see how the next couple lines totally changed my opinions. First lines I thought weren't the best turned out to be amazing when put in context and first lines I thought were great fell flat.

    I would definitely like to see this contest again!

  9. I really liked this contest. It was interesting to analyze the smallest bits of a novel (sentences) and see what they inferred about the rest of the MS in terms of voice and story. Also, it was easier to go through all of the entries and comment. During the SA contests I usually only have time to read through a few.

    Agreeing with the above, I think for the next one it would be better to cut out the first line portion and go straight into the first three sentences. If I had submitted my WIP first line, "My name is Cole Adams," I probably would've been the first to give it a big, fat, "No." My second line, however, grounds the reader in the story and incites the intrigue we're looking for. Just something to think about.

    Thanks for having this though. It was really interesting!

  10. Re: Cheyenne Hills post above. I've also noticed that the first line of some of my most beloved books are not exactly awe-inspiring. It might be fun if someday we had an exercise like this, but all the "entries" were first lines from popular novels, which we could then dissect and discuss as though we were critiquing each other and see how published works (which obviously caught an agent's/publisher's attention) fair.

  11. I'd love to see this again, maybe with adjustments, maybe not. Seeing the next three sentences definitely switched my votes in a few of the cases.

    I'd never set down a book based on its first sentence alone...unless, perhaps, it was, "I caaaannffgggghhhh…" (I love you for sharing that). But the first paragraph would definitely move me one way or the other.

  12. Yes, (to stick with a format). This was a really great contest for me to watch progress (found out too late to get my entry in) because I'm the queen of the corndog first lines, and it's really good to run those by other people to filter out the truly crazy.

  13. My own first sentence is short and NEEDS the next two, so I didn't enter thinking it would be mostly No's. If the contest had been the first 20 words, or 20+ to the end of the sentence, I would have entered. But it was fun to read and critique!

  14. Yes, please, let's do this again! I really wanted to get my line/lines in there although I have my guesses! But it was fun to participate in the voting too and looking forward to seeing the winners first 500.

  15. Yes, I would love another contest like this!
    It was so informative and I learned so much from it that I don't even care if I ever get in on it. It's just fun to read other people's first lines and why they did or did not work.
    I found myself entering the contest and finding it REALLY hard to only submit the first sentence. Forcing myself to focus on only that helped me realize what goes through a reader's mind when they start to read something.
    VERY helpful! Thank you!

  16. I love first lines. I'd like to see this contest again since it gives the WIP crowd like me a chance to participate.

  17. Yes, great exercise and wonderful participation. I say keep it as a one-liner contest. There are other opportunities for entering longer excerpts, and it's not like we need to be "fair" to the first line by giving it backup, right? (At least not in the environment of helpful critiques). It makes our first impression for us, after all.

    And thanks Authoress for sharing your first first line. Made me laugh and appreciate you even more.

  18. When you pose all those questions, yes, the "I cannnggghh." doesn't work, but I have never ever read just the first line in a book and made a decision. I at least make it to line three.

    I do like the second one better. Sets the tone for the story.

  19. This was a fun! While I don't want to put too much emphasis on the first line, it was an eye-opening exercise and great learning experience. I would definitely like to see it happen again, although maybe a First Three would be better, as others suggested.

    I also liked Happy Dolphin's idea of guessing the genre, that'd be truly interesting! Can you really guess a book's genre/category by the opening lines? And thanks, too, H. Dolphin, for the Best Lines link. Verrrry interesting!

    And Miss A, thank you for including your waterlogged first line! I don't think it entirely sucks, because it does make a reader wonder what's happening, right? And it helped you get into the story, which is what counts. First lines are easy to go back and change. And change, and change again!

  20. I agree with JL Dannor above about why it should remain a first-line contest. There are other contests specifically to see whether the first 250 words make you want to read more and to offer suggestions for the whole opening. But a contest about whether the first line grabs you is very specific and offers a different kind of insight. If it were the first three or so, then it'd really just be a short version of the SA contest.

  21. It was a great contest. And yes, the second and third lines made a huge difference. I don't think a first line has ever made me put a book down, but it can really set a tone.

    As for your original first line, you know out of all those No's, you would have gotten at least one:

    YES! It's gripping! Tell me more!

  22. I loved the contest. It was fun to read all the comments.

    My only request is that the submission window go a little later. I was at work during the submission window time and couldn't submit.

    I hope you do it again!

  23. You are most welcome DJ. I sure found the 100 best first lines interesting. I wonder how many "No" votes 'Call me Ishmael' would have garnered )

  24. Thumbs up! Loved the contest and hope you can fit it in the busy critiquing season again.

    Mr. A must love the doghouse if he keeps bringing up "caaaannffgggghhh."


  25. Definitely, please, do this contest again. It was extremely insightful into what makes the opening of a novel work, along with being a lot of fun!

  26. This was so fun and informative! Please do it again. (It's useful whether you're critting or being critted.)

  27. Yes, yes, yes! This was super helpful, especially to someone like me who is new to writing. It was great to each line critiqued, and fascinating to see how opinions changed when you added the next two sentences.

    I think it was a brilliant contest, and you should keep it.

  28. Awesome contest. Please keep it in your repertoire.

    It was interesting to see how many Yes responses turned into Nos with the next two sentences added on.

    Here's an idea...what about having a Biggest Loser contest from the 15 that didn't make it? Have them submit their next 2 lines to see if any Nos turn to Yes answers. It might be even more interesting, or it might prove a no is a no is a no. Either way it might be interesting.

  29. I really enjoyed this! I'd even go as far as saying I like it better than the regular contests because it didn't take that much time to blast through all of them.

    I LOVE the idea above of a "Biggest Loser" type contest. I'd definitely be interested in that

  30. Yes, I would be interested in another contest. I found out too late. But that was good because as I read my opening lines after reading the wonderful entries, I saw just how lame it was.

    So, a week later, it was much more in fighting form. And I added a second and third sentence that never existed that punches it up a notch as well. So much better.

    And just in time - before I send in my first few pages for a SCBWI conference critique. Yay!

  31. I would love to see it run again - and now that I'm keeping up on this blog, I'll even participate.

    This will be fun!