Thursday, August 11, 2011

First Sentences……And a Giveaway!


According to some, it’s dangerous for my brain to start turning……

Regardless of what they say, I did start thinking. This week it was about first sentences…..mainly due to an article posted last week on Writer Unboxed (and #2 in “My Week in Favs” post last Friday): “The First Sentence as an Amuse-Bouche.”

I’m not talking about just any first sentence like those that begin a new chapter – though I personally believe the first and last sentence of every chapter should be grand and enticing. That’s for another post.

I’m talking about the very first sentence of a book.

Whether in the prologue or the first chapter, a first sentence should catch the reader’s attention. Yeah, yeah…most readers give us an entire page before they’re putting the book back on the shelf, but……

…what if one sentence was all you had?

For the sake of ‘research’, my sister, Elizabeth, and I took a trip to Barnes and Noble this week. We spent around 3 hours perusing through several different genres.

Based on the covers – since we know that a lot of readers tend to pick up or ignore books based on their covers – we methodically picked 4 books from each genre and wrote down their first sentence (some were covers we liked, others not so much). We even made it a point to not read the back cover blurbs until after we read the first sentence (I know, a little backwards, but a lot of fun).

So let’s take a look at these first sentences, shall we?

There were 28 books in total, but I’ll shave it down to 14 for you:

*Note: Each first sentence will be followed by the first comment that was made by either Elizabeth or myself.


“Blue planet Earth and its seven billion beings lay 440,000 kilometers below – or, given the arbitrary terminology of orientation in space, off to one side.” - Heaven’s Shadow by David S. Goyer & Michael Cassutt
*”A little too science-ey for me, but alright. I think you may have me a bit longer.” – Me

“Francesca Thayer sat at her desk until the figures started to blur before her eyes.” - 44 Charles Street by Danielle Steele
*”I’ve done that before.” – Elizabeth

“”You’re my lucky piece,” Grandma says.” - The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
*”Hmmmm…..I need more on that one.” – Me

”Graf Milieu, my fiancé, stands in the sunlight filtering through sheers of the bedroom window.” - Bones of a Feather by Carolyn Haines
*”Oooookay……” – Elizabeth

“We came home because we were failures.” - The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
*Me: “Is she writing about us?” Elizabeth: “It sounds like it, huh?”

“Jack Holloway set the skimmer to HOVER, swiveled his seat around, and looked at Carl.” – Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
*silence….more silence…. *Elizabeth closes the book and silently puts it back on the shelf*

“I’ll say one thing about walking around with a rubber band up your asscrack – it helps you train for torture.”The Deadliest Bite by Jennifer Rardin
*”Amen to that….wait – what torture?” – Me

“My life fell apart when I was sixteen.” - Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
*”More please.” – Elizabeth

“Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me and the fry cook.”Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
*”I wanna know what you were doing there.” – Me

“Everyone has a secret.”The Tudor Secret by C.W. Gortner
*”And I wanna know yours.” – Me

“I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.”Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
*”That sounds interesting…..” – Elizabeth

“Jimmy Cornett, the leader of Black Briar, paced the length of the room, eleven strides before turning and making the return trip.” Honeyed Words by J.A. Pitts
*”Uh-oh….it’s the second book in a series and I don’t know who Jimmy is.” – Me

“French is a sexy language.”The Whole Package by Cynthia Ellingsen
*”Yes it is!” – Elizabeth

“The shovel has to meet certain requirements.” Bad Things Happen by Harry Doland
*”I must know more.” – Me

**BONUS FIRST SENTENCE**

“I am Josephine Darly, and I intend to live forever.” - Blood Magic by Tessa Gratton
*”Now THAT is awesome….it’s the first sentence and literally the first chapter.” – Me

**Note: These were our opinions as readers. They’re not intended to offend any of the wonderful authors or their work.

I bet you can guess which books I *may* have walked out with that night or added to my TBR list, huh?

Bottom line:

First sentences are important. There was a chance for me, as a reader, to buy – or add to my TBR list – 28 books. Instead, I only decided upon 15. It makes me wonder if some of those first sentences that failed to intrigue were the original first sentences that kicked off the first draft?

HOWEVER…..

Just because there’s a great first sentence, doesn’t mean the book lives up to its intriguing promise. This means that as writers we should:
  • Concentrate on finishing the story and editing and polishing it up FIRST.
  • Once the story’s written: Put it on a shelf for a bit then you can go forth and do some editing. Sometime during the editing process, first lines will flow through your brain. I can almost guarantee it! At times, the first sentence will come to you the moment you finished the first draft!
  • Take the idea of your first sentence and sit on it for a few days. If several possibilities popped into your head, write them all down then come back to them every once in a while over the course of a few days. Remember: the best possible first sentence for your story takes time. Let is stew while you enjoy a new book or something.
    • Why do that? Because you want to make sure you don’t fly a bunch of people over to Jurassic Park and promise they’ll *see* dinosaurs only to either have the exhibits pull a no-show on you or have your guests eaten alive by the carnivores. You want a happy medium in your first sentence that will entice and deliver.
  • Take that fabulously awesome first sentence and build it into the beginning of your MS. Re-work the first chapter if needed. Re-writing is *almost* as fun as writing that first draft (for me it’s a little more fun than editing also).
And the research continues……


Giveaway Details:

I will be giving away 2 books this week. One has a great first sentence and lived up to its promise. The other didn’t have *too* great of a first sentence, but the story completely blew me away and left me craving more – and ton of other readers felt the same throughout the world:

Marked (House of Night Series #1) by P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast


Marked (House of Night Series #1) by P. C. Cast: Book Cover 

&


The Hunger Games (Hunger Games Series #1) by Suzanne Collins: Book Cover
 

How to Enter:

Crack open a book on your shelf – doesn’t matter if you’ve read it or not – and leave a comment that includes the title, author, the first sentence of that book, your name and your email address.

Then, answer one of the following questions ß Remember, this is for research :)


1. How important is the first sentence to you?

2. Does your purchasing a book hinge on that first sentence OR is it a combo of the back cover blurb and the first sentence (or the first page)?

3. If you’re a writer, what is your process for writing and/or selecting the perfect first sentence?

Get your comments entered by 8pm on Wednesday, August 17th …..please :)

*You must have at least listed a book title, the author, the first sentence and your email address in order to be entered. You can also specify which book you would *prefer* to receive. 

Two winners will be selected by drawing names out of a hat – yeah, we’re goin’ old school on this one – and announced in next Thursday’s post (8/18/11).
**Contest is open for US residents only**


Happy Reading and Writing Everyone!!!!

Melinda

8 comments:

Shain Brown said...

I enjoyed reading the various first sentences you listed. Without making anyone feel bad, I can see how some would grab the reader's attention much quicker.

Jami Gold said...

From "Torn" by Erica O'Rourke:
I woke up to the smell of Lysol and the end of the world.

I love this first sentence (which is why this book is at the top of my scary TBR pile) and I can't wait to read more. However, I don't generally pick books based on first sentences. I look more for an intriguing premise and then check a sample (usually the first page) to make sure the writing is up to snuff.

And I'd pick "Marked" because I already have "Hunger Games" (haven't read it yet because of that TBR pile, but I know it's around here somewhere :) ). Thanks!

Charissa Weaks said...

OMG I love this sooo much! Ok...the book I chose was one that I bought simply because of the first line alone. A friend had recommended it but I was skeptical...it was about faeries...but then I picked it up at a bookstore & read that first sentence.

Title: Darkfever
Author:Karen Marie Moning
First Line: My philosophy is pretty simple - any day nobody's trying to kill me is a good day in my opinion.

1. The first sentence is extremely important. It needs to hook me.

2. The first sentence is usually how I gauge whether to buy a book or not, unless I know the author or have read rave reviews. The cover draws my attention to a book I'm unfamiliar with, then first line either makes or breaks the deal.

3.In my writing, I try to craft a first line that makes the reader say, "OMG. Why?" If a writer can make the reader question (why, what, where, how)in the first line, then the reader already wants to read further because they want more information.

And...I already own both books :) But this was fun!

Charissa Weaks
cweaksblog@gmail.com

August 12, 2011 11:57 AM

wosushi said...

This post made me laugh, particularly:

"*Me: “Is she writing about us?” Elizabeth: “It sounds like it, huh?” "

Title: The Flanders Panel
Author: Arturo Perez-Reverte

First line: A sealed envelope is an enigma containing further enigmas.

1. The first sentence is kind of important to me as a reader. If it is boring and my time is limited, it may mean grabbing the next book in my pile.

2. I'm a back of the book girl when it comes to purchasing. I rarely read the first sentence until the book makes it home.

3. I like to keep the first sentence brief and not too flowery. And I like it to leave the reader asking something.


If selected, I think I'd like Hunger Games :)

ambernwest @ gmail . com

SP Sipal said...

On a completely irrelevant note, but inspired by your first pic, I wonder how many children Snoopy inspired to become authors?! :-)

That is some wonderful research you did and so nice to be able to look at that many opening sentences all in one place!

Thanks! :-)

Melinda S. Collins said...

Jami: I like that first sentence! "...the small of Lysol and the end of the world." I believe I may be adding that to my TBR list! :) I normally don't hang my buying decision on the first sentence, but it's definitely a good experiment to see just what I *would* buy if I read only that. Thank you for sharing! I've got you entered for the drawing. :)

Charissa: I would have to agree with that first sentence - any day you're not trying to be killed is definitely a good one :) I'm the same way...the cover draws me to a book. That's why we made sure to pick a few books whose covers weren't very enticing. I agree with you: the first sentence should hook the reader. There are some books where that doesn't happen, but I'll get them anyway because of their premise. Sometimes it was a good decision...sometimes not. Your answer to #3 is spot on! If you can make them question on the first sentence, then you've got 'em hooked! Thank you for commenting! :)

Amber: LOL! We had a blast doing this research.
Ooohhh..... that's a good one. That may be another book to add to my TBR list (which, by the way, is now about 5ft high!). I like the simple answer you gave in regards to your own first sentences and I agree - keep it brief but leave them asking questions. Love it! Thank you for sharing and I've got you entered for next week's drawing! :)

Susan: What a great thought! Now I wonder how many children Snoopy did inspire to write. Hmmm....my brain is turning again. LOL! Thank you so much! The research was super fun! :)

Koala Bear Writer said...

Great post! I did this once (though I think I looked at first paragraphs instead: http://www.suite101.com/content/beginning-a-story-a95353). I just finished reading a biography, and I found myself looking at the very first sentence twice. After all, when you pick up a biography, you already have an idea about the person you are going to read about, so how do you start such a biography in a fresh way? In this case, Mark Horne began his biography of J.R.R. Tolkien by saying, "The first nightmarishly large spider Tolkien ever encountered was not imaginary, but a real creature of the African wild." Bravo! Gives us some action, makes us think of Tolkien's books, and makes us curious -- why Africa? Wasn't Tolkien a British author? So I thought that was a great start for a biography about a very popular, well-known writer (who's already had lots of biographies written about him).

Melinda S. Collins said...

Hi Bonnie! Thank you for the comment! I also enjoyed your post on 'Beginning a Story' :)
That is a GREAT first sentence to a J.R.R. Tolkien biography! Definitely makes you start thinking and leaves you wanting to know more!

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