Great First Lines

Okay, so here’s the contest I mentioned last week.

Have you all entered this first line contest? Even thought about it?

Well, I’ve decided to try right here. Right now, off the top of my head. Giving myself five minutes, I’m going to write as many first lines as I can.

1. Jimmy Frombey carried the hand axe as a concealed weapon.

2. Before the car had completely stopped, I saw the passenger door open and a girl, a young girl, fell to the pavement.

3. “You owe me lunch money,” Daddy said.

(Think of something happy. Think of something happy.)

4. Carolina stood at the top of the hill and looked down at her destination–the softball diamond.

5. All my life I knew something wasn’t right just because of his stories.

6. “Bring the hamster,” Ralphie said.

7.  I pried off the belly button of the piggy bank and poured a pile of change and wrinkled dollar bills onto the bedspread.

8. If your sister tells you shouldn’t, she might just be right.

9. I’d never realized just how heavy a gun is.

10. I stood on the window ledge, wondering if the wings would hold me.

Okay–so there. I thought that I would just be able to throw words together but I found, knowing that these were all going to be first lines, that I needed to think about this.

That was an interesting exercise. You should all try that. Yes. Now. Five minutes.


Please send in your results.

Anyway, I could see writing first lines as an exercise for a few minutes each day and maybe getting good at it.

So last week, at some point, somewhere (it might have been here), I talked about how I know an editor who set a novel aside after reading just one sentence. One. One! I had a lot of respect for that editor. She worked at a house where strong writing was important. It’s  something that’s stuck in the back of my brain for many years. Especially when I couple that talk to one I heard from Richard Peck who said, “You are no better than your first line.” He then gave a marvelous, marvelous speech about writing well and talked about ways to not start your story, including never with description. That editor I just mentioned, she said to never start with a dream. And yes, I’ve started books both ways and I still agree with Richard and the editor.

What I know about first lines is that if I don’t find a good one when I open a book, and if the next paragraph doesn’t pick up, and then when I turn to the middle of the novel if the writing doesn’t prove pretty darn good (according to my standards), I’m done. Our first line is sort of a promise of things to come for the book.

Here are some great first lines (and everyone should be able to guess what my first terrific line will be!):

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” FEED by MT Anderson

“I was born with a light covering of fur.” LIAR by Justine Larbalestier

“On my street.” EVERYTHING IS FINE by Ann Dee Ellis

“I wake up barefoot, standing on cold slate tiles.” WHITE CAT by Holly Black

“Milo wasn’t the first boy to kiss me but he was the first one to bite me.” A DANCE FOR THREE by Louise Plummer

“I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.” One of my favorite editors  worked on this book, SHIVER, by Maggie Stiefvater.

“They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that’s not how it happened to me.” BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver

“Sometimes magic turns up in unexpected places.” ONE SQUARE INCH by Claudia Mills.

There’s a question raised by each sentence. You wonder ‘why’ or ‘what’ or ‘are you kidding me’ or you think ‘I don’t get it.’ Good writing makes us wonder.

So I used to read like crazy and now I feel like I work like crazy and I’m too tired to read like I used to. A fine first line makes me believe the time I will spend with the book will be worth it.

Okay, so here are the first three lines to my last three novels:

“If I was going to kill the prophet,” I say, not even keeping my voice low, “I’d do it in Africa.” THE CHOSEN ONE

“In one moment it is over.” GLIMPSE

“There are mice.” MILES FROM ORDINARY

Another thing. At the book signing on Saturday when the very nice man named Mark asked me what my main character’s last name was in MILES FROM ORDINARY, I couldn’t remember. “I’m working on two other novels right now,” I told him. “I’ve already forgotten.”

It’s kind of like, when I finish a book I don’t want to look back a lot. I so love (and hate) the writing process, and it feels so right (or horrible) when the words are going down on the page. But when I look at what I’ve written I feel a bit uncomfortable. Like, I could have done better.


So go start your own first lines.


I mean it.


Why are you still reading??????


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7 responses to “Great First Lines

  1. Those first sentences were amazing, Carol. Seriously. I was like: Wow!

    I think I shall steal them all and put them all on my first page. It’ll be such a winner…

  2. Random thoughts I like to call, First Lines:

    “Tell the stupid Dr. he can’t have my blood.”

    If I were an artist I would’ve painted his death.

    She told me to do it, that’s why.

    There are six houses on my street.

    Grandma always said I was the fat one.

    I shoved a chunk of wadded paper towel into the jam of the door.

    • CLW

      My fave is the last one, I think.
      She told me
      and I shoved a chunk of wadded paper towel.

      Watch out for Chersti. She’s stealing first lines.

      • I did shove a wadded paper towel in the door jam. In sixth grade. So I could get back into the classroom. After school got out. When no one was there. But me. That was a very naughty year for me. One of them.

        Also, she did tell me to do it.
        And also, grandma did say i was the fat one. But ha ha on her because now I’m the smallest – well – for now.

        I always knew Chersti was the stealering type of first lines.

        And p.s. Carol, I’m still scared from your awesome book. I was telling Brendan about it and it scared me to tell him. I’m a chicken. Who beats people up.

  3. Pretty sure her last name is Mills. It’s AMAZING, btw, and I’m already recommending it all over the place. 🙂


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