(Been thinking about first lines today. Here's a tip I thought I'd share for aspiring writers, taken from a craft course taught at the 2011 Writers League of Texas' Agents Conference)
Question #1: What's the most important part of a manuscript you want to sell?
Answer: the first five pages.
And really, the first page.
And really, the first paragraph.
And really, the first sentence.
That sounds crazy, but let's just admit that this whole writing and publishing thing IS crazy. (Now. Feel better?) So, how's your hook? When was the last time you took a second look at the first page of your manuscript? Let's put this another way:
Question #2: In a bookstore, having never heard of the new books/authors in front of you, how do you choose one to buy?
What if you didn't have any of the above? What if you barely had a synopsis, if that? If so you could be an agent…or a first reader for an agent. The writing has to hook from the 1st line. Knowing that your strongest stuff is in Chapter 2 or even Chapter 50 isn't going to help you unless you get them there.
(One of the best little articles I've found on this is a blog entry by an anonymous editor blogging under "Editorial Ass" Go ahead. Check it out. I'll wait for you:
Why the first page of your manuscript so dang important
Question #3: Are you in love with your first sentence? If not you, who will be?
And while we're asking so many questions: How do you know that your first sentence is the sentence that should be your first sentence?
Sometimes your perfect first sentence is what comes to you first and then using it as a first line is a no-brainer. Sometimes you have to look for it after you've gotten down whatever came into your head during first draft. Sometimes you can spend too much time explaining when you should be grabbing them...hooking them. Sometimes that great opening sentence is in the 2/th-3rd paragraph. Sometimes it's a few pages in. Sometimes you need to make up a new one after you know what your book's about. But if you train yourself to think in first sentences, you make creating your hook and ultimately our entire book, much easier.
And don't get me wrong. When I say "hook," I don't mean some action-packed Hollywood opening (unless that's what you're going for.) I just mean something that keeps a reader (and in this case, someone who might publish you) reading to page 2. Slow starts that build are great if you keep them reading. How can a slow start be a good hook? By being beautiful, of course. A reader keeps reading for one of three things: language, plot, or character. Which is your opening's strength? All's fair in love, war, and opening sentences...if it keeps the reader reading.
Hook 'em Trick: Not convinced your opening sentence is your best? Write a one sentence synopsis of your book. Then jazz it up as if it were the opening sentence. Put it all in the first sentence and see if it hooks YOU. By the way, the famous opening sentence of Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities" (you know the one: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times") is only the first words of a boffo paragraph-long sentence (or almost). What we remember, though, are those first two phrases. It's a gorgeous opening paragraph, though. Go check it out if you haven't lately.
Query Letter: How do you start a query? You start with your strongest stuff, of course. Use that strong first sentence at top of query letter. Not only are you hooking your agent to read the rest, you're showing what a good writer you are by being aware of your "audience" and how best to sell your work to a reader.
I did my due diligence when I began crafting my very first query letter. I knew I should some do my research on each agent. I knew to show that I knew her clients and her preferences. I knew to drop names and places if I could. But nothing felt comfortably, solidly, "me" until I started my query letter with the first line of the book. I had confidence that was my strongest chance. To wit:
Dear Wonderful Agent:
"On the last day of the millennium, after a midnight revelation from God, Faith Bass Darling had a garage sale...." That's the first sentence of my novel Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale. [Add 3-4 sentence synopsis here]. Might I talk you into reading more? [Insert who I am here, writing credentials, etc.] I noticed your inclusion in Poets & Writers "20 Agents to Watch" article, and I'm a fan of your client Mark Twain and Jane Eyre. I'm looking forward to your response. Thanks for your time. [etc. etc.]
Some First Page Guidelines
What's a first page supposed to do? Some rules exist that can all be broken by the pro writer, but like grammar, you should know the rules before you break them.
--Point of view is established.
--Major player-protagonist first person seen or discussed.
--Setting is established.
--Ages are established.
--Some character description established. If not, the readers will imagine them any ol' which way that will stick.
--Have a weird premise? State at opening, matter of factly.
--Want to start lyrically? Poetically? Descriptively? Consider a preface. One allows you to set up your reader with all the needed hook info; the reader then relaxes into your more creative opening. (Or other way around: Creative opening is preface and hook is first page, but make sure preface is still "hook-worthy.")
--Think about "in media res"-a literary term for starting in the middle. Why not jump into the action, then back up later to explain. It's worked for centuries.
What else can you do?
READ. Can you name books that have opened in all these different ways? If not, you may not be reading enough. All successful writers learn best by having their brains awash in other stories and styles until they're all second nature. Until you just know. Because you've experienced all these myriad of ways a story can be told—as a reader. So: Study openings. You'll "get" it quickly. You really will.