Crashing Through Brick Walls: First Lines that Sold

On one of my writing loops (sending a shout out to my friends from PASIC) we've been sharing first lines from our own novels, specifically our first novels published. It's been so much fun reading the openings of books that snagged an editor's or agent's attention that I thought I'd carry it over to the blog today and see if I could entice any of you to share.

But first, a little about the rumored "rules" for openings. I've been hearing them for years: Don't start with the weather. Or a funeral. Or a woman sipping tea. Don't begin with a long sentence (some rule-spouters are so specific, they give an exact word count you mustn't exceed). Avoid prologues at all cost. Start with dialogue. Begin in the middle of things. Set off at the moment everything changes. Never start with a description. Eschew backstory.

I could go on, but I won't. Because I think it's all a load of bunkum. First lines aren't meant to be paint-by-number prescriptions. They're meant to engage the reader on some level, to transport us or raise some question that keeps you reading to the next line... then the next. To establish the author's voice and give the reader faith she is in good hands.

Truth to be told, a lot of really great books don't start with great first lines, but those that do definitely have a competitive advantage. Or at least they do if the story can live up to those first words.

To show how different successful beginnings can be, please share the opening line or lines (no more than a paragraph, please) of the first piece of fiction that netted you a contest win, an agent, or a contract.

I'll start off with the first paragraph from my 1999 historical romance debut, Touched by Fire (written as Gwyneth Atlee and published by Kensington). From the prologue:

The hardest part was stealing the fresh blood. True, the shabby boardinghouse where Hannah Shelton now resided was just around the corner from the butcher's, and often the smell of death loomed large. Truer still, the old meat dealer was a drunkard, but even so, he normally locked the slaughterhouse.

Big surprise I later ended up switching to suspense, huh? ;)

Now don't leave me swinging in the wind here, please. How about sharing some openings of your own?


Eve Silver said…
The first line from my November 2005 debut, DARK DESIRES: "A thick gray wall of fog hovered over the damp stones of Hanbury Street, carrying the stink of old blood and rotting entrails."

I guess I broke the rules about weather and dialogue and sentence length ;-)
Between your opening and mine, I see a distinctly-yucky theme emerging.

And I love it. ;)

Thanks for playing!
Anonymous said…
I'm cheating due to my first book is in a box somewhere in the house and the file long gone on my old crashed lap top. This is from His Keeper, my 2nd book which comes out this week. “Oh my goodness, look who just strode into the room,” Suzanne whispered, her voice filled with awe.

Christy Janisse - aka Brandy Jordan (which I hope to get rid of if I can ever get my b-hind in chair to finish next project)
Carrie Lofty said…
I've been loving that thread on PASIC. This is from my 12/08 Kensy Debut, WHAT A SCOUNDREL WANTS:

Will Scarlet hated trees.

I guess you could say I did it short and sweet, and slightly tongue-in-cheek!
Michelle Rowen said…
First line from my January 2006 debut, Bitten & Smitten:

For a dead woman, I felt surprisingly good.

I still think it started what was essentially a paranormal chick-lit off on the right foot. Or grave. :)
These are *great*! Thanks so much for sharing!
Linda Warren said…
It's fun to see what catches an editor's eye. I blew the weather and funeral rule in my first book. (Didn't know there were rules and that's probably good)

Here's the first line from the book that sold in 1999, THE TRUTH ABOUT JANE DOE.
A crisp March wind tugged at the tall, stately cedars that stood guard over the Coberville cemetery. Their fan-like branches swayed with faint sighs, befitting the arrival of another funeral.

Thanks for the fun.
That's just more proof that when something works, it works. It's all in the execution.
Teri Thackston said…
I LOVE reading good first lines. Here are the first lines from my romantic suspense DEADLY CLIMB. I got a lot of fun feedback on it:

“Is that guy naked?” Leaning on the windowsill, Laura Killen glanced back at her partner. “On a Manhattan window ledge? In February?”
I *love* that one, Teri! The naked guy out on the ledge in February has everything. Sex (sort of), the threat of violence (splat!), humor...
Mr. Cogito said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joni Rodgers said…
From my first novel, Crazy For Trying:
"Something made Tulsa Bitters sit bolt up straight and realize she'd been asleep, or something like it, for a very long time."
Joyce Henderson said…
First paragraph of my Native American historical, first published book, WALKS IN SHADOW:

Walks in Shadow stood amid the oaks, shrouded in the darkness for which he had been named. Overhead, tree limbs bent and groaned. Their leaves rattled in the slicing rain of a blue norther. Dawn, dreary and icy, would creep over the land before long.

I broke two so-called rules with that paragraph: Romances shouldn't begin with prologues, and horrors, the weather! ☺

WALKS IN SHADOW finaled in the Maggie prior to publication. Then it finaled in the National Readers' Choice Award, and as first published.

I'll add my second because I broke a couple more "rules" in WRITTEN ON THE WIND.

"We got ever' last one of them red varmints," a voice drawled.
White Fawn caught back a gasp. The man with the disembodied voice thought she was dead. She lay still. It made no difference. She could not move, felt as though a log lay on her chest.

I began with dialogue, and "told" rather than "show" when I used the word "felt."

Colleen, thanks for sharing our first lines that we in PASIC have so enjoyed reading the past few days.
I'm loving these. Every one would keep me reading.

And the first lines I posted were from a prologue, too. I do try to avoid writing them anymore, but my current WIP absolutely demanded one.
And story trumps rules every time.
Jo Anne said…
Fun blog, Colleen. I do love some of the openers posted here.

Here's the first line from one I have submitted to Silhouette from a Launching A Star contest final last year. Fingers crossed it becomes a first sale. :-)

"Jenna McAllen willingly returned to hell. Not with a smile on her face, but she came."
Christie Craig said…
What a fun post, Colleen.

My first line in Weddings Can Be Murder: Yesterday, Carl Hades had been shot at by a man wearing a black thong and pink silk nightie.

My first line in Divorced, Desperate and Dating: The worst part about murdering someone was planning exactly how to do it.
Kimberly Frost said…
From my debut novel, WOULD-BE WITCH:

"Jenna Reitgarten is awfully lucky that my witch genes are dormant, or I’d have hexed her with hiccups for the rest of her natural born life."
These are like potato chips. I can't stop reading. And they're all so indicative of each author's voice!

Thanks for sharing. Keep 'em comin'.

Meanwhile, I just rec'd my edits, so that'll be my nose you hear buzzing against the grindstone!
Judi Fennell said…
Yep, totally enjoying these on the loop. Thanks for posting this. Here are mine from my Mer trilogy.

IN OVER HER HEAD (June 2009):
IF Erica Peck were a gambler she would have bet good money nothing could ever get her in the waters of the North Atlantic again.

The .38 special now aimed at her would have lost her that bet.

“So you’re really going to give up your tail and leave the sea? On purpose? First your brother, now you… What is wrong with this family?”


There was a naked woman on his boat.

Logan Hardington shook his head and rubbed his eyes, but the picture didn’t change. Lady Godiva was sprawled over a pillow on his deck, a navy blue blanket draped over the bottom half of the curviest ass he’d seen in a long while.
Virginia Kantra said…
"The cabbage had worms."
My first published book, The Reforming of Matthew Dunn, Silhouette Intimate Moments, 1998

The first line of the first book of my new series, The Children of the Sea?

"If she didn't have sex with something soon, she would burst out of her skin." - Sea Witch, Berkley, 2008

Great game, Colleen!
Suzan Harden said…
Dang, now I've got to put Virginia's book at the top of the TBR pile.

My first book that ever finaled in a contest:

The bang of the auctioneer’s gavel sealed the fate of Grandma Petrov’s wardrobe. “Sold! To Bidder 665!”

The current ms making the query rounds:

My transformation to the undead started with a pregnancy test stick. A used pregnancy test stick. Not mine, thank you very much.

The current wip:

“Sam, get your mother out of my face, or I’m going to stake her.”
Oh, my gosh. These are fun! So glad you contributed, Virginia (love the "sex with something" line especially and Suzan (the pregnancy test line had me laughing out loud)!
TJ Bennett said…
First line of my debut novel, THE LEGACY:

Baronesse Sabina von Ziegler lay on the floor and listend to the sound of scampering feet in the darkness, bolting upright when her shadowed enemy scurried closer.

First line of the follow-on novel, THE PROMISE:

Alonsa Garcia de Aranjuez jolted awake in her bed, heart pounding in the dark.
(Hmmmmm....I'm sensing a pattern here)
First line of my WIP:
Death had courted me most of my adult life, but I was not prepared to make his formal acquaintance just yet.
Well, at least I stopped with the long foreign names...

Suzan Harden said…
Ooooo! I like that last one, T.J.!
First lines from my debut novel (WWII love story/women's fiction) LETTERS FROM HOME, coming from Kensington Feb. 2011:

Chapter One (as it sold):
"Silence in the idling Cadillac grew as stale as the gunpowder in the air."

Prologue (which I just added):
"The envelope lay before her, demanding to be opened, a lure back into the charade."

Thanks for all the fun!
I stand in awe of your talent. All of you.

It's interesting. Today I received edits for my upcoming romantic suspense. Which begins with the weather, in a cleverly disguised prologue. :)

Here's the para, from my upcoming TOUCH OF EVIL:
The fog slips in on death’s feet, then stoops to drink at the water’s mirrored surface. In the eerie lakeside stillness, the silvery layers mute everything, from the outraged caws of disturbed crows to huge cypress trees grown shaggy with wiry, gray-green moss.

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