Monday, August 16, 2010

Break-out-box-worthy Lines

When I first started writing novels and reading agent blogs, the rage was: You have to hook us in the first five pages. Then it quickly became, You have to hook us in the first page, or we won't turn it. Then someone sponsored a contest and discovered reading a million page-long entries was too much, so it became, You really need to hook us in a paragraph. But turns out reading a whole paragraph was too long for contests, too.

So the paragraph became the first sentence.

You now have one sentence to catch someone's - especially an agent's - attention. I've seen readers do that too, though. Open a book and read the first sentence and close the book and put it back on the books shelf. "Too boring." Really? Is that the length of our attention span??

So I thought it was funny when right about this time, Entertainment Weekly magazine added a feature to their book reviews: highlighting opening lines.

I wondered if that was the magazine's criteria now for picking a book to review. I mean, what if a book had a lousy first sentence? That wouldn't look good in the black break-out box, would it?

Well, apparently they ended up with a book they liked that didn't have a break-out-box-worthy first sentence, because now instead of first lines, they often highlight a "Memorable Line" instead.

For some reason, this makes me laugh hysterically every time I see it. Wow, that book must have a really lame first sentence for them to have to pick another sentence out of random!

But I digress.

The point is - well, I don't really have a point. Other than maybe to say I have favorite lines in my books too - and they aren't always my first line. I think some lines - the really great ones - have to be set up in some way. Given a context.

When I was writing Some Kind of Normal, I posted a few of my favorite lines as I'd write them:

I watch him trot down the halls, all legs and arms and purple fringe. I am ashamed that I wonder, if Ashley dies, will he be enough? 

And then there was this one:

"Which one of you is the patient?"
“The one who looks like her arm is a helium balloon,” I say. I get a look for that. “Ashley Babcock.” I think of SAT week 5: acquiesce.

“And what is she here for?”
I point to her bloated arm and neck. “I’m afraid she got in Willy Wonka’s secret stash of gum last night and things went terribly wrong when it came to the cherry pie part.” Ashley giggles, but the nurse gives me a look to kill. Clearly there is no sense of humor in the ER. 

Ha ha! I still laugh when I read that. I wrote in my blog post that I knew that last paragraph would end up being taken out by an editor, but it turns out my editor loved the line, and when a reader writes me to tell me what they loved about the book, 4 out of 5 times, they mention this line. I love that!

In the new book I'm now revising, my favorite line so far is this:

"She’d been cut out, from the time she was three, to be the girl guys wanted to have but not to keep."

So all of you readers and writers: do you have lines that have stuck out to you in books you've read? Are there lines you've written that you want to show up in that black box as EWs memorable line when they review your book someday?


  1. Thank you for sharing part of your book here--reason? I haven't read it yet--will someday when it is in my library or I get a job--and now I know that you write the way I love! I love your lines too!

  2. Totally. There are lines I've written that I just love and I know I've just read a good book when I find myself quoting part of it to my husband.

  3. Oh yeah, those lines stood out to me when I read them. Those and a lot more - you created a character who cracked me up on a regular basis!

    I do have a few I hope will be memorable.

    As for the attention grabbing issue: I'd like to say my whole book will be attention grabbing. We'll see...

  4. Oh, I love your lines. I truly cannot think of any specific lines of mine that are very memorable right off the bat but there are several scenes that I adore. Thanks for sharing!

  5. i have always loved...
    "we are all savages, covered by a this veneer of civilization" - Lord of the Flies

    and from your book I have clung to..
    ""I think we all ain't nothing but spiders, spinning a web across a doorway. All we see is the living we're building for ourselves, not realizing that at any minute the world might throw open it's door and walk right over us. And all we've made is lost."

    and there is the one
    "it won't get any greener if you water it"

  6. There are lines I've written that I re-read when I feel like an especially TERRIBLE writer to remind myself I'm not that bad. I love your lines. They made me want to re-read your book.

  7. When I glance through a book, I'm reading for style, rather than content, if that makes any sense. It's an author's style that grips me. In A Farewell To Arms, Hemmingways first sentence is "In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the plain to the mountains." A nice first line but gripping?? Kind of boring? Would it have been rejected today? Makes me wonder!

  8. H--You know your book is sitting in my TBR pile beside my bed just waiting it's turn. :) I'm studying a pile of picture books right now and will have to save it for after I get back from SCBWI-KC...I hope a few of the lines in my hf pb are memorable. :)