Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The first few words

There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor.

Brilliant, eh? How about:

When I wake up the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.
Simpson fumbled getting the tape into the VCR. She was all, Which button is it? And I was like, How old are you and you can’t even work a friggin’ VCR?
Three books, three openings. The first - from Neil Gaiman’s superlative The Graveyard Book – has it all. Stylish thrilling writing, immediacy, scene-setting. You’re on the edge of your seat in 30 words.
The second is a slow start to a book full of high drama and extreme violence - The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It introduces the main character, Katniss, and it emphasises her gentler side - a side it’s easy to lose sight of in parts of the book. Her sister’s name, Prim, hints at a dystopian world.
The third comes from C J Skuse’s vastly enjoyable debut novel Pretty Bad Things, and does a great job of establishing voice - laconic, teenage, contemporary - and attitude – disrespectful, impatient, funny.

Authoress McNonymous has been running a first 25 words critique exercise on her blog. Writers sent in the first 25 words of their WiP for anyone to comment on. I found it fascinating – how some first sentences grabbed the attention and others repelled or bored the reader.

As the Suzanne Collins example shows your first sentences don’t have to be action-packed. But, for new writers in particular, they do need to stand out. If your submission is going onto a big pile in an agent’s office then no one is going to read past a dull beginning. You need to spend time on those first words to get noticed.

This might all seem very simple and obvious, but it's not. My first version of When I Was Joe had a slow, scene-setting start. I wanted to create an atmosphere full of questions - who was this boy? Why was he lying?
My original first chapter - which went out to quite a few agents - started thus:

When I come home from school after that first long day of kids whose names I didn’t know and stuffy classrooms I would never be able to find again; he’s there. Doug. Drinking black coffee and smoking, ash speckled all over the scratched white Formica of the kitchen table.

Result: several swift rejections.

Then I had some good advice and changed the beginning. My new first lines read:

It’s one thing watching someone get killed. It’s quite another talking about it.

Result: Three offers from agents.

PS Some of you kind readers have nominated me for the Author Book Blog awards. Now I need more nominations to get on the shortlist! Click here to vote.


  1. My first par of the Laura Tait book involved the character waiting for a girl to turn up on a date. I'm incorporating the pigeon poo line used previously on the blog.
    *Plentymorefishoutofwater - One Man's Dating Diary*

  2. Thanks for encouraging me to think about first lines/beginnings. I find it very interesting that you got such a different response from agents once you changed the beginning of your novel. I am going to hurry away and review the beginning of mine. Thanks a lot and good luck with your blog award.

  3. Great tips..and you have my vote! x

  4. Fascinating post. Three such different voices/ openings but all great.

  5. Very interesting. It goes to show every word counts :)

  6. Very Interesting Post.