Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Let's Play -- The First Five Lines

By Pat Remick

When you open a new book, what makes you continue reading it?

Where do you make your decision that the book is worth the investment of your time -- first line, first five lines, first page, first chapter? Are you the type of reader who will keep going until you reach the end, no matter what? Or do you stop reading when you become bored, confused, disgusted, etc.?

As you know, the answers to these questions are important to book publishers, literary agents, bookstores and, of course, we authors because we want people to keep reading -- and buying -- our books.

I recently entered a blog contest judged by author Sophie Littlefield on the basis of a manuscript's first five lines. As I was typing in mine, I realized I needed a bit more punch in those first sentences -- something I hadn't been able to see as clearly while I was working on the entire manuscript, but important if my potential agent/publisher/reader makes decisions based as quickly as five lines.

Sophie ("Bad Day for Sorry" and "Bad Day for Pretty") Littlefield received a number of entries for the contest (grand prize -- her agent will read the winner's first 30 pages) and it was fascinating to see how much you could learn about a book -- and what piques your interest -- from just the first five sentences.

Want to see what I mean? Look at the first five sentences of the works below by the Sisters in Crime New England members joining me to discuss "Beach Read" recommendations at a July 29 event at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, NH --and see if you can match them with these mystery titles:

"Drive Time" (Hank Phillippi Ryan)

"Red Delicious Death" (Sheila Connolly)

"Under the Eye of Kali" (Susan Oleksiw)

"Who Wrote the Book of Death?" (Steve Liskow)

"Murder Most Municipal" (Pat Remick)

Now here are the first five sentences of each author's work:

A."They're all dead."

"What?" Meg Corey dragged her gaze from the orderly row of apple trees that marched over the hill. Almost all were past bloom now, and some of them had what even a novice farmer like Meg could identify as apples. Small, maybe, but it was a start. She turned her attention to Carl Frederickson, her beekeeper.
B. I can't wait to tell our secret. And I'll get to do it if we're not all killed first.

We're 10 minutes away from Channel 3 when suddenly the Boston skyline disappears. Murky slush spatters across our windshield, kicked up from the tires of the rattletrap big rig that just swerved in front of us on the now slick highway. Eighteen wheels of obstacle, stubbornly obeying the Massachusetts turnpike speed limit.
C. KC Dunham pointed toward the large erasable white board announcing the Question of the Day in precise black lettering: “Who invented peanut butter? Winner gets a free muffin.”

“The Incas, although most people think it was George Washington Carver,” she said without hesitation. “You can keep the muffin."

The woman holding a steaming pot of coffee behind the cracked Formica counter laughed. “I was beginning to think I'd never find anyone in this town who appreciates the long and glorious history of my favorite food, after chocolate that is, though they're damn fine together too."
D. No way in Hell her real name is Taliesyn Holroyd.

Everything else about her strikes Greg Nines as unreal, too, from her energy level—which could eclipse a heavy metal band even if she were unplugged—to her clothes, Sex And The City meets Pirates of The Caribbean.

"I need to do this,” Taliesyn—“call me ‘Tally’”—says. Her stiletto boots make her Nines’s six-one. He’s offered her a chair twice, but she keeps pacing, her strut turning her calf-length leather skirt into a major event. 
E. Guests from various foreign countries began filling up the Hotel Delite dining room, taking every seat at the main table--this was a small hotel,only eight rooms, with the owner's, Meena Nayar's, suite on the top floor, and that of her niece, Anita Ray, above a separate garage.
Tired after being woken in the middle of the night by festival drumming from a nearby temple, Anita sat at a small table along the wall and only half-listened to the guests placing their orders and asking the usual questions. "What is this?" "What does it taste like?"
To see the answers, click here: Did the first five sentences give you enough information to make the correct choices? Is it important that they reflect the title? Does some word related to death need to be in the first five lines? And most of all, does an exercise like this make you want to go back and review the first five sentences of your latest work?

To learn more about the authors, visit:



Annette said...

Interesting post, Pat.

A great first five lines might make me pick up the book and start to read, but if the bright promise of those opening lines aren't carried out in the chapters that follow, I'll put the book down.

If I'm forcing myself to keep going by page 50, I usually put the book aside and move on to another one. Sometimes I know I'm just too tired or not in the mood, so I might put it back on my to-be-read shelf and come back to it another day. But sometimes I know full well I will never pick that book up again.

Unknown said...

This is a very interesting post. I know as a mystery writer, I have to keep my first few sentences interesting.

Currently, I'm working on something a bit different but even then, my first few sentences are powerful



Joyce Tremel said...

I liked to be grabbed by voice right away. If the voice is great, I'll keep reading for awhile.

PatRemick said...

Last night I went to a book event with Justin Cronin, author of The Passage -- which already some are comparing with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter for how big of a book and movie the eventual trilogy will be. Here is the first sentence from The Passage...
"Before she became The Girl From Nowhere -- The One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only who lived a thousand years -- she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy."
Wow, huh? I know it makes me want to keep reading!

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Pat, perhaps I would go with the first five lines if it were a new author, but for authors I've come to know tell a great story, I give them a whole heck of a lot more leeway. It would take more than five lines for me to put the book down.

For a new author, depends on how much the back cover blurb draws me in. I don't go by a book's opening necessarily. I might think that's not the best opening I've read.

Now if I'm not engaged after 30 pages I'll put the book down.

Gina said...

Interestingly enough, the first five sentences of the first Harry Potter book don't mention magic or Harry and, unlike most of the rest of the series, are not written from Harry's perspective. Still, they caught my fancy right away:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.
Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blond and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors.

Jenna said...

When I pick up a book and decide whether to buy it or not, I give it less than five lines. If the first sentence doesn't do it, I'm probably outta there. Once it's mine, bought or borrowed from the library, I give it a few chapters, usually. There was a time when I'd slog through to the end of any book I started just because I felt I had to, but those days are over. By now I've realized that there are more books published every year than I'll be able to read in a lifetime, so if I'm not having a good time, I'm putting it down and starting something else. As I get older, the more picky I get about what I'll waste my time reading, too.

I recognized several of the entries, and had to guess based on the others. It wasn't too terribly hard, as someone else pointed out. And I have to say that there's only one or two I'd take a chance on buying based on the opening lines. Of course, we're not all taken in by the same things, either, so one person's boring opening line can be another person's throat-grabber.

Patg said...

The blurb on the back of the book has to convince me I'm interested. Rarely to I open the book and read the first 5 sentences, I just open the book to get an idea of the style. Present tense usually makes me quit no matter what. First person makes me read a little further, but I reeeaaaalllly have to be interested to buy.