Agency Lessons: nailing the first line

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

Nothing seems to send authors into a tail spin more than the first line of their novel. There are too many horror stories out there of agents who will stop reading after the first sentence if I doesn't scream brilliance.

So let me start by saying that those are rare agents (though they do exist). Most of us will at least read the first several paragraphs before we give up on something. However, that first line is still a big one. It has to encompass the tone you've already set with the blurb and cover, and prepare the reader for the story you're about to tell. It's all too easy for a bad first sentence to derail everything and have readers quickly reaching for a different book.

The talented folks at Adventures in YA Publishing are running a first line contest right now and asked me to be one of their judges. Even though I see first lines on a daily basis, there was something about reading 100 of them in a row that made patterns easier to see. So I figured I'd let you guys know the good, bad and ugly of first lines.

1. No semi-colons
So this isn't a hard and fast rule, but in general, when a first sentence has a semi-colon it is way too long. If I have to stop and think about how the sentence started by the time I get to the end, I'm a lot less likely to keep reading. You don't want to make your reader work too hard to get started.

2. Stop waking up
Okay, this one has been a cliche for forever and you can point to plenty of books that start this way (hello, Hunger Games), but at this point I'm completely over it and I know I'm not alone. Even waking up lines that include other engaging aspects are turn-offs now. You can do better.

3. Be profound
I found myself drawn to the opening lines that had something important to long as the author kept their insight clear and concise. This is where it is important to know what you want to say and figure out how to say it in as few words as possible. The authors that try to do this and fall in love with their own words lose their readers.

4. Avoid jargon
An opening sentence introduces your reader to the world of your novel. But you'll lose your reader if that introduction is convoluted with new phrases that don't hold any meaning yet. You don't have to wait until chapter two to world-build, but I think you should avoid unknown words or phrases in the first sentence.

5. Be unexpected
Creating a juxtaposition in your opening sentence is a fast way to get me engaged. When so many novels start out with 'the usual', I love when the start makes me do a double-take. Keep in mind this is different than a shock effect and should only be used if it matches the tone and content of your story. But when done well, this can be an amazing opening line.

6. Ah, the cliches
Traveling in a car, discussing the weather, arriving at a new location, and the list goes on. Guys, just don't. I can't imagine a scenario in which the only way to open your novel is with one of these cliches. Everyone assumes they are the exception to the rule, and yet the opposite is almost always true. As an agent and a reader, I'm looking for something more.

7. Say something
Maybe this is a simplistic way to think about it, but for me, your opening line should say something. This is the first thing your reader will see, and that automatically makes it important. So make it important. If your opening line describes your character's outfit, then that outfit had better be important. Don't waste your opening line to tell us that your 17-yr-old main character is wearing jeans and a t-shirt to school. That doesn't say anything. 98% of high schoolers are wearing jeans and a t-shirt (I made that stat up, but you get the idea). Your opening sentence should be on purpose and not just because you had to start somewhere.

Regardless of who your audience is, the goal of your first sentence should be to convince the reader to read the second sentence. So on and so forth. It doesn't have to be literary gold, but it should make your book shine.