Where’s Papa Going With That Axe?

18 Sep

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” – first line of Charlotte’s Web

This is the last post of a rolling blog tour on the topic of Favorite First Lines. To read previous blog tours, check out Favorite Settings, Writing Rituals and Favorite Websites for Authors. At the bottom of this post you’ll find the other participants in today’s tour, and a link to the next article in the series.

Urban legend has it that some editors only read the first few lines of a novel submission to decide whether or not to ask for more. Which means your window of opportunity to ‘hook’ the editor with your fabulous writing talent is infinitesimally small. So don’t waste time with meandering set ups. Plunge into your story headfirst, into the deep end.

Back in the day, I sent the first three chapters of my very first manuscript (which I thought was fabulous, by the way) to a contest. I received feedback from three judges. The first told me to take a writing craft course. (Ouch. Maybe I’m not so fabulous). The second was kinder, but didn’t offer anything constructive. The third took the time to tell me this: “Chop off the first two chapters. Your story begins on page thirty.”

But what about all the important details at the beginning, I thought? Doesn’t the reader need to know about that to understand what’s going on?

I learned that day that the answer is, no, they don’t. They only need to be hooked by what’s happening in the immediate moment. You want them to keep turning the page because they’re dying to know what’s going to happen next. Save your explanations, details and backstory and sprinkle them in later. Give them just enough information to whet their appetite, and no more.

New York Agent Donald Maass says he doesn’t like to see any backstory in the first fifty pages. First fifty! Now, I’ve read many books by some great authors who have lots of backstory at the beginning, so it’s not a deal breaker. But maybe it’s a goal you should aspire to. Because backstory slows the pace and takes the reader out of the ‘now’ and into the ‘yesterday’. Too much backstory will kill your momentum and potentially bore your reader.

What makes a great first line? One that pulls the reader into the story immediately. Conflict, action, compelling dialogue, or interesting character reflection are all great ways to begin.

Here are some examples of great first lines:

“For the past five minutes I’ve been parked outside my cousin Vinnie’s bail bonds office in my crapolla car, debating whether to continue on with my day, or to return to my apartment and crawl back into bed.” Lean Mean Thirteen by Janet Evanovich

“The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old.” Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen

“Jogging is great exercise. Running for my life—even better.” Fanged and Fabulous by Michelle Rowen

“In the hour before sunrise, a blackbird slammed into Maria Colson’s bedroom window, jolting her awake, its wings flapping in panic against the glass before it vanished.” Every Fear by Rick Mofina

And my all time favorite, the reason I was hooked by E.B.White’s novel at the age of ten:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” – Charlotte’s Web

Here are four things you can do to make your first line stronger:

  1. Shorten your first line.
  2. Audition your second line for the first line spot.
  3. Combine elements from your first paragraph into one short, strong, sentence.
  4. Search the first few pages of your manuscript to see if there is a super charged piece of dialogue or narrative that can be moved to the first line position.

Does anyone else have tips or tricks to create fabulous first lines?

To learn about favorite first lines of other mystery authors, check out the other stops on the blog tour:

Kathleen Kaska http://kathleenkaskawrites.blogspot.com
Ryder Islington http://www.ryderislington.wordpress.com/

Mystery Ink Blog Tours returns next Monday, on the topic of ‘World Building’ at Ryder Islington’s Blog.

6 Responses to “Where’s Papa Going With That Axe?”

  1. Kathleen Kaska September 19, 2011 at 8:58 am #

    Another Janet Evanovich fan!
    You’ve provided valuable writing advise in this article, Nancy. Although I’ve written several books, I needed to be reminded of how important a first line is. It hooks the reader and sets the story.
    On my “favorite-book shelf” is E. B. White’s “Essays of E. B. White.”
    Thanks for your insight. Great blog.

    • nancyelizabethlauzon September 19, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

      Thanks for your comments, Kathleen. I’ll have to check out that book of essays!

  2. Selena Robins Musings September 19, 2011 at 10:01 am #

    Great blog, Nancy! I think the first and last line of each chapter is also important. Doesn’t have to start with a bang or end with one, but as the first line of the book, needs to draw the reader in and the last line, needs to have the reader flip that page and keep on flipping.

    I find that when authors end a chapter with the character going to sleep, I end up closing the book, giving them their nap time. LOL

    • nancyelizabethlauzon September 19, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

      So true, about the character’s going to sleep. And I’ve read so many books that do that. For shame!


  1. Funny Mystery Novels « The Chick Dick Mysteries - October 2, 2011

    […] post of a rolling blog tour on the topic of Funny Mysteries. To read previous blog tours, check out Where’s Papa Going With That Axe?, Favorite Settings, and Writing Rituals.  At the bottom of this post you’ll find a link to the […]

  2. Plot vs. Character « The Chick Dick Mysteries - October 17, 2011

    […] the topic of Plot vs. Character. To read previous blog tours, check out Funny Mystery Novels,  and Where’s Papa Going With That Ax? At the bottom of this post you’ll find the other participants in today’s tour, and a link to […]

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