That Devil of a First Line

Sitting at dinner a month or so ago, a writer asked us "But don't you want a great first line?" Most of the group nodded and someone else changed the subject.

So how much rides on the first line?

I love to read. When I am writing, I tend to read things that are not in the same genre. I am always afraid of "picking" up someone's language or rhythms of writing. I read too fast for most authors. That means I use the samples of books on my kindle to help me decide to buy a new to me author.

I looked in my history to find books I bought after a sample and books I didn't. None of the books I didn't buy had a great first line. In fact, several of them had first lines so bad I closed the books after a page. Books I bought didn't have great first lines either. So what leads me to buy a book?

This is what every author is searching for. What's the secret sauce?

I buy books in a series. I like trilogy's best. At the moment I love aliens, cyborgs and general space opera. I like a strong man and a woman learning strength doesn't have to mean brittle.

I don't like mean men. I don't like infidelity. I don't like first person.

Here are some first lines that hooked me.

I wouldn’t have known about the dead man if I hadn’t walked into the kitchen at the exact moment my one and only lodger was about to warm up an eyeball in the wave-cooker.
— Anne Bishop from Lake Silence

I had my guy read it and asked if he would continue past the first line. He said, "yes." When I asked him why he said, "Well, why is someone warming up an eyeball?"

A book I bought despite the first line being a snoozer.

Dawn bloomed, pink as a rose, tinting the snow-drenched mountains with delicate color.
— Nora Roberts from Come Sundown

Long first lines. Not a fan, but I still bought this book and the other two in the series.

Almost as if the elements, too, mourned the death of the gentle old Harper, a southeaster blew for three days, locking even the burial barge in the safety of the Dock Cavern.
— Anne McCaffrey from Dragonsong

Here is a book I didn't buy. It's title says Louisiana charming. I wasn't feeling it on the first page.

Fluorescent lights charged the short hallway with a buzzing hum that vibrated beneath my skin.
— Hailey Edwards from Bayou Born

I have read many books by this author. This one, however, didn’t speak to me. Too over the top for my reading pleasure.

Darbis Martin is a dead man if I get my hands on that lying, two-faced son of a bitch.
— Laurann Dohner from Loving Defiant

So you can see it's hit or miss. There is nothing wrong with the first lines for the books I didn't buy. And there again, there is nothing spectacular about the ones I bought.

I always read past the first line. But if a book doesn't interest me in the first line, there probably won't be much to turn my initial impression. And it is all about interest.

Conclusions? While the first line doesn't have to be witty and spectacular, it better show off the beat of your writing as well as the genre you write in. A guy cursing a blue streak doesn't attract me. A book on the bayou better sound like it's in the bayou.

Our mothers warned us about first impressions. Turns out mom was right.  Happens quite often much to my chagrin.

So work on your first lines. Besides the synopsis, first lines maybe the best marketing your book will get. 

Good Luck!