Saturday, August 17, 2013

It was the best of lines, it was the worst of lines . . .

Today we have Carolyn J. Rose joining Writers Who Kill as our guest blogger on Salad Bowl Saturdays. Her guest blog got me wondering exactly how important that first line is. What do you think?

Your opinion counts and when you leave a comment, we’ll put your name in the drawing for a copy of No Substitute for Money.

~ Jim


If you’re an avid reader, especially one with a to-be-read pile leaning like the Tower of Pisa, you’re probably well aware of the significance of a first line. It can draw you in to another world, set the scene, and establish what’s at stake. Or it can prompt you to look again at the TBR pile, consider how time is fleeting, and set that book aside in favor of another.

If you’re a writer, I’ll bet my lunch money (Roughly $4.67. What can I say? I’m frugal.) that you’ve come awake in the heart of the night with an all-time great first line flashing in your brain. It’s a line on a par with the greatest first lines of any list on the Internet. It’s right up there with: “It was the best of times . . .” “It was the day my grandmother exploded. . .” “I was born twice . . .” “The past is a foreign country . . .”

You might switch on the lamp, scrabble in the nightstand for a pencil or a pen that actually works, and scrawl that line on a bookmark, tissue, or even your arm. On rare occasions, you might be able to read that line in the morning. Sometimes you even think it’s still a darn good line—or at least not a darn bad line.

But now, what do you do with it?

Sure, the first step is to type it out and add it to your collection of other all-time great lines. But after that?

Do you carry it like a sacrificial lamb to your critique group and watch them shear it? Or even slaughter it? Do you save it for a day when writers’ block has you paralyzed and use it as a springboard for a couple of stream-of-consciousness pages to break the mental logjam? Do you stuff it in a drawer for a day when the power goes out and you need something to get a fire going? Do you enter it in the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest? Or do you commit yourself to writing hundreds of great lines to follow?

Here’s a line that came to me recently: Only by reminding myself that my knitting needles could be lethal weapons was I able to get through an afternoon with my aunt.

It won’t lead off my next book or the one after that—those are all planned out—but it might have a long career as a writing prompt for a workshop presentation.

Writers: If you have some all-time great—or even not-so-great—first lines you’ve penned, share them and tell us what you have planned for them.

Readers: If there’s a first line that hooked you and made you read on or is stuck in your mind because it’s so good—or so bad—please share that.

Leave a comment and we’ll put your name in the drawing for a copy of No Substitute for Money.


Carolyn J. Rose is the author of several novels, including Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, No Substitute for Murder, and No Substitute for Money. She penned a young-adult fantasy, Drum Warrior, with her husband, Mike Nettleton.

She grew up in New York's Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She founded the Vancouver Writers' Mixers and is an active supporter of her local bookstore, Cover to Cover. Her interests are reading, gardening, and not cooking.

You can find copies of No Substitute for Money at Amazon and Barnes & Noble


  1. Nice topic. Welcome to Writers Who Kill.

    I'm an avid reader so it's hard to remember all the first lines that snagged me. However, I picked out two authors I particularly love and looked at first lines from their books. Jane Langton in THE MEMORIAL HALL MURDER "The biggest noise wasn't the muffled sound of the explosion." I've lent out a lot of her books and haven't gotten them back yet. Louise Penny is another favorite author. In THE CRUELEST MONTH it starts with "Kneeling in the fragrant moist grass of the village green Clara Morrow carefully hid the Easter egg and thought about raising the dead, which she planned to do right after supper."

    One night before I fell asleep, the spring peepers in my small goldfish pond outside my house stopped suddenly. I looked at the clock and wondered what caused their sudden silence. I wrote down this line "The spring peepers fell silent at eleven-thirty." It was several years before I used it as the opening for a short story which was accepted for the Guppy FISH NETS anthology.

  2. I wrote a blog titled "The Opening Six-pack" and recently expanded that to an essay. In the expansion I looked at first lines. The one that strikes me as doing the most in a single sentence comes from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar.

    "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York."

    It sets time, place and mood in such a way that you have to read sentence number two.

    ~ Jim

  3. Interesting topic, Carolyn. Some opening lines really do make you want to read the next, and the next...

    Here's the opening line of my short story, Tug-of-War: "There it was again; wide grin, raspy voice, something akin to a lisp; the Carol Channing voice."

    Marlana, a therapist, is trying to help her client, Robert, remember events involving a murder that occurred when he was in his stage persona, Carol. Trouble is, he always appears and acts as Carol.

  4. Claire and Gloria - terrific first lines - they'll get me thinking. I always get a creepy feeling on summer nights when there's a sudden stillness.

  5. One of my favorite first lines is the following.

    "There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood."

    This opens Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers.

  6. Great blog, Carolyn. My favorite first line is from Jan Burke's Goodnight Irene, "He loved to watch fat women dance."

  7. I love dreaming up first lines. It's the ones that come after that give me grief. I've tried to write a whole novel to follow, "I lost my virginity in the back seat of a 1957 Chevy convertible." So far I have two more sentences, three on a good day with a strong tail-wind. I guess I need to write the story and then go back and rewrite the first line, huh?

  8. Pam, I have to admit that when I write a mystery novel, I almost always trash my original first line - perhaps not the sense of it, but the words. I find that when I'm finished I know what the story is really about and I can go back and sow the seeds of it in the first few paragraphs.

  9. What a fun topic this is! I'm going to take the plunge and divulge the opening line of the second book (unfinished) in my Apple Mariani cozy mystery series:

    “Aunt Tressa, if that little scrap of gauze were any flimsier, it would be positively invisible.”

    What follows is the description of the lacy black camisole Aunt Tressa received as a shower gift.

    Sylvia Plath's opening line from The Bell Jar is brilliant. The word "electrocuted" draws you in.

    Great post. Thank you Jim and Carolyn.

  10. Linda, I feel ripped off. All I ever got at a shower was new kitchenware.

  11. I actually did have this rummaging through my brain in the first of dawn haze before you wake up:

    Sam was like splotches of memory squeezed out onto an artist’s palette.

    Waiting for the next string of words to flow by so I'll know where this is headed.