Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Hookers

We all know how important cover art and decent copy is to catch the attention of a book buyer, but I think the opening line of your novel can also make or break a sale. How many times have you seen a browsing book buyer open a novel and read, then put it back on the shelf? I don't think it wasn't because the title page had a lame font, do you?

Like decent endings, good, solid opening lines are elusive things. They don't want to pop into your head. They don't like to cooperate, can't be forced, and often silently beg C'mon, rewrite me, rewrite me. I know authors who won't write their opening lines until the book is finished, and others who agonize or brood over them more than any other part of the book.

The healthier approach is to be casual and have a good time with opening lines. Yes, the beginning of any story is important, and you should pay attention to how you write it, but endlessly rewriting in search of The Perfect Hook takes time you can spend writing other things. You know, like the novel.

I don't think we ever become experts at opening lines, either. I've written them for the last thirty years, and yet out of all those dozens of novels and hundreds of stories, I've only been (nearly) satisfied with these three openers:

All I was trying to do when they caught me was bury my mother in an unmarked grave. -- Blade Dancer

A carpenter who falls and impales himself on a two-by-four isn’t supposed to burst into flame, but there he was: construction worker kabob. -- Infusion

I don’t like waking up with a three hundred pound merc sitting on me and holding a knife to my throat. -- Red Branch


Obviously I like a lot of drama and excitement -- not to mention criminal activity -- in my opening lines. Other quirks: all three of these stories, like most of my work, feature female protagonists who are very different from Yours Truly. All three stories open with a death or imminent death (my favorite alternative to the weather report.) They're a bit shocking but they're also funny. If I can rattle your cage while I make you laugh, then I'm a happy girl. Great opening lines may have a lot to do with our storytelling styles as well as our individual voices, and how true we are to them.

What do you think goes into the making of a great opener? If you've got some examples of your own or another writer's you'd like to share, post them in comments.

42 comments:

  1. I agree that the opening lines are the deciding factor when choosing a new writer. Well, here's the first lines of a few of my books:

    A noise from outside caught his attention.
    At first, he thought it was his father returning home late from work, but that couldn’t be. It would never be. Suddenly he felt the usual heart sinking emptiness at the memory of his father, who had died violently at the jaws of a rabid dog and was never coming home again. Died saving his life. -- Shadow of the Moon

    Something was wrong--deadly wrong.
    Phillip McKenzie started at his PC screen with the motherboard connected directly to the server. It sat on a desk in his small workstation located in the building of Cam-Games in Opera Sands. Something was wrong. He wasn’t sure exactly what the problem was, only that the damn game was getting out of control. The characters wouldn’t do as programmed and holographic glitches were everywhere. This was added stress he did not need. He had six hours to fix the problem before the game was released online, and he already had over a hundred thousand paid customers and sales were going to boom in the next few hours. If he couldn’t deliver by eight tonight that would be the end of Cam-Games Inc. He would lose everything and he wasn’t about to be a loser for the adult half of his life.
    --Gonzo Girls (coming out around May/June)

    Summer 2363
    The Devil tucked his baby girl in bed and kissed her goodnight. He stretched as she snuggled under the covers and curled into a fetal position.
    -- The last church

    Wearing a human mask, the Reynox approached the eleven-year-old boy. He towered over the child, but the boy showed no fear. The Reynox scientists had poked and probed him, taken blood samples and DNA samples. All the tests had the same results. They had been wrong, again. Scar worried his constant mistakes were adding up and soon he would lose his position, his status.
    He stared coldly at the boy. Death was coming.
    -- Sixth Dimension bk 1

    Screaming the man fell to the floor. His withering body lashed out and kicked the coffee table, knocking magazines to the floor. A cup of hot coffee skidded but did not tip off the table. Hands grabbed at the old man. Two pins connected to wires led to a phaser, were lodged into his chest. He tried to stand, but, hands forced him onto his back. The cold steel of a gun was pushed hard against his temple.
    It had to escape.
    His mouth gaped open. A shadow rose from the parted lips. A soaking wet leather strap pushed it down. It couldn’t pass through water, so it moved to the eyes and was pushed back there also. It tried the nose but that entry was also blocked.
    Agent Baxter had done his homework this time.
    -- Darkness

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  2. cherylp1:39 AM

    Obvious one:
    "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."
    Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities

    Not so obvious one:
    "He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad."
    Rafael Sabatini's Scaramouche

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  3. One that appeared to me as an opening line and developed it's own story....

    "Death. It didn't need to be easy but couldn't it be a little cheaper?"

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  4. If you stand in one place long enough, your shadow with move on without you.
    Back Roads-Susan Crandall

    It seemd like a good idea at the time.
    Oath of Seduction-Marly Chance

    Sylvie had an amazing life, but she didn't get to live it very often.
    The Great Good Thing-Roderick Townley

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  5. "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."

    Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

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  6. Most of mine do appear with a 'pop' and then spark the whole story. I keep a book of them by the side of the bed, random phrases I think make good jumping off points. And rewriting them only ever seems to make them worse, so I leave them well alone now.

    Rosie Williams died the way she lived -- ugly. -- Dying Light
    This didn't end up being the opening line as I decided I needed a short intro chapter before this about another case, but I still love it. It was the first thing I thought of when I began pondering the book.

    But my favourite has to be from a book that hasn't been published yet:

    There's nothing quite like the smell of dead children. -- Styx and Stones

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  7. James5:01 AM

    Hey, if I wake up and there ISN'T a 300 pound merc on my chest with a knife to my throat, I go back to sleep. I like a bit of excitement in life.

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  8. It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all
    England, and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall
    that held war against him long time.
    ---Malory, Le Morte De Arthur

    Sends a shiver up my spine just reading it on the screen.

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  9. I have a few:

    Willy Mccoy had been a jerk before he died. His being dead didn't change that. Laurel K. Hamilton's Guilty Pleasures before she went overboard with... you know.

    Lucifer - Puissant Lord of Evil, Utmost Originator of All Things Foul, Master of the Netherworld, Purveyor of Anguish - glanced up from his newspaper to stare thoughtfully over the miles of open office space that made up the central nervous system of Hell. Holly Lisle's Sympathy for the Devil and one of my faves.

    She is as beautiful as on the day I killed her mother. From the tentatively titled Deception, mine, as yet unpublished.

    Inches from her face, the heat and fetid breath coming from the creature was thick enough to choke on. From Aislinn's Archer, again, mine and unpublished.

    I could take one, just a small one; no one would miss one, I mused as I crouched above the human city, stared down at the walking meat sacks. Umm... from Demonesque and, you guessed it, mine, unpublished.

    Of course, I love the opening of Blade Dancer; it sucked me right in.

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  10. To speak frankly - I think yours are brilliant, delicious.

    Mine? Well...Ha.

    "Tres chic, he thought, but she walks like a warrior."

    And:
    "Is that Fiends Fell there in the distance?"

    I can see the difference, believe me.

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  11. Anonymous7:08 AM

    Oh I like yours, PBW! Umm memorable first lines. Gosh.

    A bad one of my own, for a laugh: (First person somewhat neurotic, naive young woman) "I want to be a writer, the literary kind, but so far all I've written is genre because that's what sells, but I haven't sold anything yet, only because I haven't submitted it." Her name is Trina, and I love her story but I haven't written, um, anything past that opening line because it threw itself at my feet and said, "Hi, I'm your opening line." The rest of it isn't ready to meet me yet. *g*

    Jess

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  12. "I was arrested in Eno's diner. At twelve o'clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee." Lee Child's Killing Floor.

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  13. I spend ages agonizing over the opening lines, and I will not work on the project until I have something I'm satisfied with - which can easily take weeks or even months. *~* I don't aim for the first line to be a "hook," though - I just want something meaningful to the story I'm going to tell. I don't know - maybe that isn't a good way to go about it, but it's my process:

    Gielle Paliter felt a smile teasing her lips as she looked out over the jungles that crept up to the wall of the Marisian Embassy. An emerald ocean seethed outside the window, churning with a gentle rumble of distant thunder while shafts of golden light pierced through the lush depths to sparkle off of tiny jewels in every color imaginable. - from What the Mind Sees (currently in final edits - to start submissions by June). I like this one because it's...well, considering what I do to poor Gielle in the book, it's just plain evil. *-*

    The air crackled with the promise of fury and power to come, vibrating through to the bone. Gielle Paliter closed her eyes and tilted her head back, letting the ocean surge through her senses. The thinnest of smiles touched her lips, and she murmured, "I'm home." It was the first smile to curve her lips in many long months. - from Of the Heart and Mind (WIP).

    "Please don't make me do this!" Blanchette Chabrid twisted her fingers around each other, casting nervous glances at the door. Her cheeks felt cold, which she knew meant her entire face was sheet-white. A quick glance at the metal countertop revealed an expression of absolute terror, and she winced; fear wasn't a favorite emotion. Turning away, she sank down onto her knees, lifting her folded hands. "Please, Mrs. Tidle." She added a sniff of regret. "I thought you liked me!" from Cat's Paw (WIP)

    As a reader, I've actually never opened the book to look at the first line. I decide based on cover art (I know - shameless) and if I think the back copy shows the potential for a good story. I actually can't even think of any opening lines - not even of books I liked. An odd way to think, considering the agony I put myself through writing my own!

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  14. The opening line should introduce a character (preferably, but not necessarily the protagonist) and set up something. If nothing else, it should set up the following sentence.

    There can be too much or too little of anything, though. Balance, balance, balance. Dramatic balance I like to call it. Start too slow, and I'm outta there. Go too fast, and ya lose me.

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  15. For me, opening lines lead into the opening scenes which are the real clinchers for whether I buy a new book by a new author randomly off of a bookstore shelf. If it's a new-to-me author that I've picked up because of buzz I've heard about the book, there's a good chance I'm going to read a lot further and buy the book whether the first line grabs me or not.

    That said, a killer first line resonates. Your construction worker kabob line will stay with me as a great example of setting tone, subject and great writing.

    Gone with the Wind's opening line stays with you. "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when as caught in her charms as the Tarleton twins." Talk about establishing focus and character in one sentence!

    From my book Key of Sea:
    Dora Lee Morrison finally realized her marriage was over the day she experienced a true bonding moment with the dead tarpon mounted on her husband's wall.

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  16. I can't help myself... WHENEVER I think on the topic of opening lines, this one gets stuck in my head for a week:

    "Call me Ishmael."

    from one of my favs, Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

    I don't know if this opening line is particularly ground-breaking, but it is none-the-less memorable.

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  17. When I have time I like to wander around the bookstore picking up books at random, and reading the first lines. After I've done that with a dozen or so books I buy the one with the most intriguing opening sentence. I haven't been disappointed yet.

    As for my own first lines. The first line of my YA, Rules for Life, got the book banned from a teen reading group. "I knew my father had had sex the minute I walked into the kitchen."

    My editor hated the first line of my memoir, A Mother's Adoption Journey, but I refused to change it. (And I'm still glad I didn't.) "I decided I wanted a baby during an episode of Star Trek-The Next Generation."

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  18. While I don't necessarily think of opening lines as "hooks" - that seems secret-handshaky to me - I believe openers set the tone of a book. I fight beginnings, not just openers but the whole first three to five chapters, because I have so much to set up and such a short time to do it in.

    With my first book, I rewrote the beginning scene dozens of times and, for the life of me, couldn't get it to open with action that didn't sound cheesy. Instead, I went with a layered description and, even though it's not "hooky", I think there's more there than might first be apparent.

    Dubric Byerly, castellan of Faldorrah, sat alone at a small table in the castle's kitchen, his mangled breakfast congealing before him.
    ~~Ghosts in the Snow

    Dubric's first ghost is dripping by the bottom of the first page, and that was good enough for me.

    In Threads, I wanted something completely different and, as simple as this opener is - only three words - it still gives me goosebumps.

    Braoin saw strings.
    ~~Threads of Malice

    Now, for Valley, I took a completely different approach. It's just as layered as Ghosts' opening if not more so, it just might not seem like it when it's first read. I think the real shocker comes when the reader recognizes the POV character.

    I stripped Sweeny naked, tied her to the tree, and started a fire as I waited for her to wake.
    ~~Valley of the Soul

    I'm pitching some books soon and here are the opening lines from each. Don't know if they'll ever be published or not.

    Three naked people stumbled out of the corn onto drenched grass.
    ~~Spore

    "We need to take her outside," Aswin said, laying his hand on the little girl's chilly forehead.
    ~~Through the Spider's Eye

    Angie glanced at the last four digits of the VISA debit card then passed a cup of coffee through the drive up window.
    ~~Anonymity

    Castellan Dubric cried out and rolled aside, covering his head with his arms, but the beating continued, falling like boulders crashing upon his head and back.
    ~~Stain of Corruption

    "Look. An inn," Jess said, pointing. "A real inn."
    ~~Dead Dolls - working title

    "You want to tell me why they're sending a journalist on a routine circuit to SolTwo?"
    ~~Inferno

    Now I just have to finish all those pitch packages. lol ;)

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  19. Finish 'em, quickly, Tambo! I can't wait. I'm saving my copy of Threads of Malice for my next reading slump--and so that it won't such a long wait to the next one.

    "Be kind to dragons, for thou art crunchy when roasted and taste good with ketchup.

    That's from Sherrilyn Kenyon's novella Dragonswan. It's always just clicked for me, this line, a touch of whimsy and a promise of fun--one that is kept.

    One of the titles on my TBR pile is MJ Rose's The Halo Effect, which I can't wait to start.

    "The first thing she saw were the women's feet, so white they looked like the marble feet on the statue of the Virgin Mary with the gold halo that stands in the Catholic church where she attends mass every morning before coming to work at the high-rise hotel on Sixth Avenue. The church where she attended Sunday mass only four hours before. Except these feet oozed black-red blood."

    And I loved the first line of Private Demon:

    Bitch in a Lexus. Awesome.

    Awesome indeed

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  20. Openings from my last (unpublished) book and my current WIP:

    He called himself an angel, but I had my doubts.

    I examined him from head to toe while I considered his claim. Wrinkled black t-shirt, scandalously tight blue jeans, scuffed cowboy boots, and a body my personal trainer would kill to possess (literally). In fact, the rumpled bad boy look seemed far more sinful than celestial. Oh yeah, I most definitely had my doubts. Where Angels Fear to Tread

    ***

    I died for the first time that night.

    The investigation started out normally enough, but when masked men dressed like extras in a Bruce Lee movie burst into the room even an idiot could have predicted that someone was about to meet a Very Bad End. Unfortunately, that someone turned out to be me. --Reborn in Fire

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  21. I tend to like first pages/first few paragraphs rather than just the first lines.

    "Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The climate was unremarkable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show - it had been centuries since a dragon had come east. There were the usual periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, but they were always the sort of thing that could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry that unfortunate child a few years later. All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.

    Cimorene hated it."
    - Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

    Since that kingdom sounded kind of boring to me, I hated it, too. So I immediately connected with Cimorene and settled down to see why she hated it.

    Another one:
    "On his twenty-sixth birthday, Jake Creedmore awoke with the resolve that he'd had enough and it was time to move on. It wasn't a sudden resolve. He had been chewing on the notion for months, off and on ... sometimes avoiding it because no man likes to run away no matter what the situation, other times admitting to himself that there was little reason to stay on. Lately he had come to the conclusion that it just wasn't worth it."
    - Ride the Devil's Trail by Dan Parkinson (it's a western)

    I won't type out the rest of my favorie openings. That would take many web-pages.

    I'll instead share one of my own openings.
    "The cavalry company rode around on the parade ground. Even to an amateur it might have seemed they were doing badly, which was bad enough, but to the expert eyes of the watching Captain and his aide, Sergeant Mattias Viza, they were performing atrociously. Captain Lord Rykard cul Ierwain grimaced as two horses collided, one's nose hitting the other on the flank and causing both to shy away from each other. He heard a smothered laugh from his aide and shot him a warning look. The aide shrugged in apology and Rykard shook his head in resignation. That collision was by no means the worst he'd seen during this parade. To add insult to injury, this was nowhere near the full complement of a properly sized cavalry company. An under strength company ought to have had enough room between horses to clearly avoid collisions. And this company wasn't listed as under strength in spite of there being only half of the regulation 300 troopers on the field."
    from Officer of the Cavalry my current WIP. The reason why I like it is that it introduces the MC, the situation, and the scene in one neat paragraph.

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  22. That should be "the rest of my favorite openings."

    Sheesh.

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  23. I love the opening lines that you use in the Star Doc series. And JD Robb's In Death series. I won't list all of them... but they always catch my attention.

    I think one of my other fave opening lines is a Nora Roberts~ Jewels of the Sun

    Obviously, without questions, she'd lost her mind.

    Being a psychologist, she ought to know




    From my books? ugh.... Probably from Freak of Nature

    Micah Cochran was dead meat.

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  24. From current WIP:

    I visited Everett’s grave today and could not cry. I could only think how my husband was as hideously selfish in death as he had been in life.

    :-)

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  25. Yeah, tambo...get to work! :-) LOL!

    As for first lines...here are a few of my unpublished ones.

    "The oak doors swung open with a groan. Isifaer of Neattan felt a rush of air, and a man filled the doorway." --Eagle's Heart

    "It was there. The bottle sat in the middle of his living space floor. Wayne closed his door and locked it behind him. His briefcase slipped from his fingers and fell to the floor with a thud." --Force To Be Reckoned With

    "Isabelle pushed herself up off the deck. First on her feet, she looked around to check on the condition of her crew. Everyone seemed shocked, but unharmed. The alarm was blaring all around them, and the lights, which had gone out so abruptly a few moments earlier, began to flicker back to life." --Untitled at this time....

    A friend just bought me a copy of Blade Dancer. ^_^ The first line was definitely eye-catching.

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  26. My favorite opening, and this hearkens back to my youth and the first book I ever read, is from The Hobbit:

    'In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.'

    It's simple, and to a seven year old it holds the promise of magical things and adventure.

    In my own books, I like less punch, more atmosphere:

    'In the blue predawn twilight, a mist rose from the Nile’s surface, flowing up the reed-choked banks and into the ruined streets of Leontopolis. Remnants of monumental architecture floated like islands of stone on a calm morning sea. Streamers of moisture swirled around statues of long-dead pharaohs, flowed past stumps of columns broken off like rotted teeth, and coursed down sandstone steps worn paper-thin by the passage of years. As the sky above grew translucent, streaked with amber and gold, a funerary shroud settled over the City of Lions, a mantle that disguised the approach of armed men.' --Men of Bronze


    'The summons delivered to Ariston that damp winter morning was written on the finest vellum, in an elegant hand that suggested a discriminating intellect tempered with the manners only good breeding could engender. Certainly not the handwriting of a mercenary captain or a middling merchant, his two most recent patrons. Nor was the note suggestive of a Hellene; though brief, it had nothing of the brusque tenor so fashionable among the arrogant Macedonians who ruled Ephesus. Ariston read it again.' --Memnon (August 06)

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  27. I know that I've been out of the loop lately. But, could you tell me where to get Infusion and Red Branch?

    I really need some new books!

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  28. My unpublished ones:

    Harold exhaled and reached for the Secure Voice Over Internet Protocol phone. (Twilight)

    Nikki hid beside the garage in the bushes, waiting for the coast to be clear. (Threads and Ties)

    "...pleased to accept your research project proposal. (Polar Bear on the Loose I have a lot of work to do on this one.)

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  29. I'll volunteer one. Here's the first line in my "blook:"

    Just after dark, death grabbed me by the ass.

    I'm bootstrapping a novel, working title "Death Sucks: On being a vampire kitty-cat" at www.vampirekittycat.com

    Ray

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  30. The first line in Blade Dancer is one of my all-time favorites. Another one that just showed up is over on Holly's blog. That's a wild opening.

    I don't have one for my novel, yet, so I'll share one of my favorites from one of my short stories:

    Sometimes, a man just has to drink alone. from "We'll Always Have Paris"

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  31. Opening lines seem more useful to editors and agents than they are to me as a reader. I'm more likely to be swayed by an interesting premise (back cover copy) and the writer's overall skill at wordsmithing than the first sentence, the first paragraph or the first page.

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  32. Anonymous5:20 PM

    One of my favorites is from Dean Koontz's "Frankenstein Book One: Prodigal Son"

    Deucalion seldom slept; but when he did, he dreamed. Every dream was a nightmare. None frightened him. He was the spawn of nightmares, after all; and he had been toughened by a life of terror.

    Wendy

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  33. Jules5:50 PM

    PBW, I love your openings. :)

    Another along similar lines that hooked me right into the book was this:

    Kato died first.

    (David Brin & Gregory Benford, Heart of the Comet).

    It promises a lot, that one does. :)

    Mine pale into insignificance next to these. I think the most attention-grabbing opener I've written is this:

    High Lord Camlik looked over the faces of the Lords' Council with contempt.

    Or perhaps this:

    Petra peered into the shuttle's window, straining to see anything in the darkness outside, but all she saw was the reflection of Valentina Smith staring back at her.

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  34. I absolutely love the opening line of Blade Dancer.

    From my own unpublished WIPs:

    The air was crisp and cold, and it surrounded me like two unseen hands. - Pirouette

    One minute I was walking out of church; the next, someone had grabbed me. With a cold hands and an equally cold blade pressed against my cheek. - Extermination

    I started my third decade of life with the migraine of all migraines. And a hole in my chest the size of Europe. -Thirty


    Cheers,
    Erin K.

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  35. Interesting blog topic, I just started a pb about an hour ago. The opening: "Three times I've fired my weapon. Three times. Twice because I had to. The third time was optional." DARK EYE by William Bernhardt.

    Not claiming it's my all time favourite, but it's pretty darn effective as far as opening hooks go.

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  36. All three of those openings are awesome, PBW and they make me want to know more. I LOVE Infusion's opening line best!

    As much as an opening line can set a mood, evoke an emotional response or make the reader go, huh? such that they just have to read on...that's the goal I strive for in my books.

    A couple from my books...

    “Sheesh, the crazy things people do for money,” , A Taste for Control

    Why must you always arm yourself to the teeth? , Dragon's Heart

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  37. cherylp10:03 PM

    Here are some of mine:

    “Tell me, little man, why should I not freeze you where you stand and add you to my collection?”
    From "The Northwatch" in the anthology Illuminated Manuscripts, Double Dragon Publishing.

    Fifth Street looked dirtier and meaner than last year, if that was possible.
    From Soul Survivor, my WIP, and a novel I have high hopes for.

    The Beast had lived in an enchanted castle at the heart of the enchanted forest for time out of mind, and Beauty's father was a drunkard.
    From "Skin-Deep", an as-yet unpublished short.

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  38. I'm running behind on responding to comments (again) but I just wanted to tell you all that reading this thread was like taking a mini-seminar in great opening lines of all sorts. This after the impressive books post, which added greatly to my personal shopping list.

    I love it when we cover the spectrum of publishing like this, because we can learn so much from each other by what works for us, and what we're trying to do with our own stuff. No, I'm not going to make you hold hands and sing Kumbaya now. It's just cool to see it happen.

    Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to post these.

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  39. This is the opening line I'm proudest of:

    “Might I have your company for the night?”
    - from NIGHT TRAIN ~ Vampire on the Orient Express

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  40. Three favourites:

    "It was Hell's season, and the air smelled of burning children."
    --Robert R. McCammon, Gone South

    "'In five years the penis will be obsolete.'"
    --John Varley, Steel Beach

    "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
    --Stephen King, The Gunslinger

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  41. I have to agree with Patrick. The John Varley opening line was one of the best I've ever seen.

    The rest of Steel Beach ain't bad, either, really.

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  42. The first line of my work-in-progress:
    "Aelwen wasn't sure what it was that woke her. She lay very still, listening to the night. There was a soft rustling- her body stiffened, her mind searched for a defensive spell- and a husky voice whispered, 'Lady Aelwen?'"
    It isn't perfect, but a great improvement over my first choice of first line for this story.

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