Call me Ishmael: First Line Critique

The first line of your story doesn’t have to be good, it has to be great! If it sucks folks won’t want to keep reading your manuscript. You get one chance to make a first impression.  So, send me the first line of your manuscript in the comments section down below and I’ll pick some to critique. I’m not sure how many submissions I’ll get, but I’ll try to respond to as many as I can.  And not to worry, I’ll be kind-ish.

It will look something like this:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. I like this first line. I’d keep reading this manuscript for a number of reasons. This line has me want to know who Mrs. Dalloway is speaking to and why she feels she needs to assert herself here. I mean, if Mrs. Dalloway doesn’t buy the flowers, who will? It has me wonder why she is buying flowers in the first place. Is it for a celebration? A funeral? This one sentence, in its simplicity, poses so many questions that I want answered! There’s a tension here that I love. Yes, I’d keep reading this manuscript if it came into my inbox. Well done, Virginia!

DIRECTIONS: Just write the first line and whether it’s adult or children’s literature. THAT’S IT! No intro, no explaining, no background. Sorry, but if you don’t follow the directions I won’t post your entry. And while you’re here, why don’t you click that little “follow” button in the top left corner?

You may post your first line between 6am and 9pm EST. Please be patient if you don’t see it right away. I’ll approve comments as quickly as I can.

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72 Comments

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72 responses to “Call me Ishmael: First Line Critique

  1. Thank you! Thank you! 🙂

  2. *YA*
    First line:

    My knuckles slam into the head cheerleader’s perfect little nose.

    • Hmmmm… I don’t know why my response never posted. I remember reading and responding to this one. My internet connection was freaking out that night though, so… Sorry! This is what I think (and I think I wrote the first time, too!)

      I’m not a big fan of the present tense, unless there’s a really good reason to use it. So IMHO I’d probably change the slam to slammed. Then I’d lose the “head,” again, unless it’s going to serve a very specific purpose. Of course, opening a book by punching a cheerleader in the face would get my attention, both as a reader and an agent. But making every word count gets my attention even more. Looks good though, and sorry for the lag in response time!

      • I’m curious why you’re not a fan of present tense? I really love the anticipation it creates in a novel and usually write that way myself (though I am dabbling in past tense at the moment).

      • It just feels inauthentic to me, usually. Most people, when they tell a story, don’t tell it as if it’s happening right this second. It’s a device which, if used well and for a purpose, can work well under some circumstances. But not all.

      • That makes sense. My follow up question is- if you got a query from somebody and their manuscript was present tense, is that a make or break it for you? It seems easily fixable by editing, but for the novel I’m currently polishing I definitely enjoy the present tense, although I’d be willing to consider changing it, it seems like a lot of work to do on a whim but at the same time I’m sure everyone thinks they are one of those few circumstances where it works!

      • Stylistic things would never make it or break it for me. It’s just personal preference. If a manuscript is really good I probably wouldn’t even notice the present tense. With just one opening line it was glaringly present tense to me though, you know what I mean? Anyway, you should write your book the way you write your book, not to pander to any agent or editor’s preferences. Even mine.

      • Glad this was posted. I havent found much info on writing in present or past tense on the web. That has been one of my main questions while learning to write.

      • Thanks so much, that was really informative. I wouldn’t pander to anyone but it’s good to know that if I do decide to query I can’t blame my success or failure on the tense of my novel!

  3. Jonathan Morrow had a movie theater in his head; the film ran backward, eating up lives, but he remembered them all.

    Adult Speculative Fiction

  4. Okay, I know you are being way too generous. But I can’t resist sending one more in case you have time. Thank you – this is a gift.

    Justin crouched under the covers so his mother couldn’t see the glow from his cell phone.

    MG

    • That’s true. I am being way too generous. :-/
      First of all, if Justin’s crouching, that means he’s kind of kneeling. Isn’t that a bit odd? Wouldn’t he be scrunched down or something? Second of all, this sentence is kind of boring. (Bet you’re wishing you hadn’t gone for that hat trick of critiques right about now…) After reading that sentence I’m kind of like, “So? Who cares?” It’s just not a very riveting image. I know you can come up with something more interesting than that. Maybe start with the cell phone instead of Justin?

  5. YA contemporary

    Time flies when you’re having fun, but it flies faster when you’re about to be late for class for the eleventh day in a row and you have thirty seconds to get all the way across the building and you’re sprinting through the halls and even the freshmen are looking at you like you’re an idiot and your sneakers are making that revolting wet squeaking noise because it’s pouring outside and you stepped in a puddle that went approximately up to knee level and your sodden backpack is 93.4% ready to slip off your shoulder and you can’t stop thinking about how everyone’s going to stare at you when you run in late for the eleventh day in a row.

    • I’m a big fan of the rant (have you read this blog?) but I’m not loving this as a first line. It’s not really one sentence and the repeat of the “late for the eleventh day in a row” just doesn’t work. And the “time flies when you’re having fun” doesn’t really correspond with the rest of the sentence, which isn’t fun at all. I’d start with something else and work on perfecting the art of the rant. I do like the “sodden backpack 93.4% ready to slip off the shoulder,” though!

  6. Katherine Amabel

    Wow, I thought this would be better because I’m showing, not telling, but I completely see your point. Thanks so much!

  7. Katherine Amabel

    A few people have done two – so here’s the one I should have submitted. Would love it if you get time to look : )

    Serena forced herself to step up to the altar stone.

    YA fantasy

    • I like “Serena wanted to run” much better. Fantasy…altar stone… yeah, yeah, yeah. I think the mark of really good writing is the ability to either tell an amazing story well or tell a regular story amazingly, without relying on the bells and whistles of one’s genre to move the action forward. I’d like to be introduced to Serena and her inner struggle or her dilemma without that altar stone being thrown at me in the first sentence. But that’s just me.

    • Natalie Mines

      Can I try another one?

      Some may say I should have ran for it on the first date.

  8. Natalie

    My grandmother was out jumping rope when she was told she would be married that afternoon.

    Adult fiction

    • I love the anticipation of what’s going to happen next, but I don’t love this sentence. It could be tightened up. Also, depending upon where the narrator will be standing in this story, it might work better to say “when she found out,” rather than “when she was told.” My Grandmother was jumping rope when she found out she would be married that afternoon… (although now I have an image of an old woman jumping rope). Even though this needs work, if I came across it in a slush pile I’d keep reading.

  9. emma

    I had a real family once–mother, father, daughter.
    YA

    • What’s a real family? Why do you need to say mother, father, daughter? This is confusing, in a confusing way. You’re dancing around something. Just say what you mean. It will come across much stronger that way.

  10. No doubt about it, Huff was missing.
    MG fantasy

  11. Mel

    Day 439 began with an aberration: A smile.

    YA

    • You already know this works well as a first line. Change the “a” to lower-case and you’re all set. Nice tension here and lovely word usage. Is this a completed manuscript?

  12. YA contemp
    While Mom isn’t looking I sneak the wedding announcement off the fridge and slide it in that nasty space between the fridge and counter.

    • I like the image you’re trying to convey here, but the sentence itself is kind of passive and sloppy. Too much non-essential information. How about, “I slide the wedding announcement into the nasty space between the fridge and the counter while Mom isn’t looking.” You don’t need the “sneaking” part. It’s obvious. You don’t need the “off the fridge” part because it’s not important to the sentence. Mom may start wondering why the invitation isn’t on the fridge anymore and then we’ll know that’s where it was. Every word should count, from your manuscript’s first sentence through to the last.

  13. I know I didn’t cry.

    narrative non-fiction

  14. Kila stepped into the water, letting the blue of the Pacific dampen the hem of her kapa skirt.
    YA

    I leaned over the edge of the canoe and dipped my hand in the water, tempting the balance of life and death.
    MG

    • If Kila stepped into the water, the water dampened her skirt. She didn’t let it. And it wasn’t the blue that dampened it, unless you’re suggesting her skirt got stained blue? This whole sentence doesn’t work.

      One wouldn’t need to lean over the edge of the canoe to dip one’s hand into the water… and are their sharks or something? Is the water poisonous? This doesn’t work well as a first sentence.

  15. Apparently making a star isn’t that big of a deal.

    YA Contemporary

  16. Never had I felt the sensation of touch.
    YA

    • My first response is, “What’s with the odd sentence structure?” Is this a non-native English speaker? Why not just say, “I had never felt the sensation of touch?” And then I’m left wondering what that even means. Touch isn’t a sensation, it’s one of the five senses. This whole thing doesn’t work for me, as a first line. I’d rework it to convey more clearly what you’re trying to express.

  17. Ooh – somebody else did two. Lovely if you get to this:

    My brother had no name.
    YA

    • Kind of boring. I don’t know why. There’s no tension or oomph to it. Maybe, “My older brother,” or “For years my brother had no name.” Not knowing the story I can’t make appropriate suggestions, but as it stands… nah.

  18. Not in the damn hallway, anywhere but here.
    YA

    • I think this would work better, stronger, as two separate sentences. “Not in the damn hallway. Anywhere but here.” I like it though. I’m immediately on edge. I really want to know who or what shouldn’t be in the hallway; who is speaking; what’s going on. Nice.

  19. Usually people who are reading a book about spirituality have of course asked themselves these questions, or they wouldn’t be reading the book. Starting a manuscript out with a sentence like this is what I call, “throat clearing.” You don’t need to do it. Just jump right in to what you want to say.

  20. vano

    Have you ever asked yourself the questions who am I and what am I doing here?

    Spirituality

  21. The old man had always been pretty out there, hearing voices and what not.

    Adult

  22. Can we do two?

    Life-saving kisses only happened in fairytales.
    YA Fairytale Retelling

    The jagged rocks on the edge of the cliff sliced into my bare feet like razor blades.
    YA Paranormal Romance

    • I don’t know how to explain why this is, but I just want that happened to be happen. Happened reads so passive. Happen has an immediacy to it. And, since it’s a fairy tale re-telling I’m going to guess that the next thing that’s going to happen is a life-saving kiss, right? Kind of predictable, but that’s what’s nice about fairy tales. But if not, even cooler.

      jagged rocks… slicing… razor blades… This is kind of lazy. I’d re-work it.

      • For some reason WordPress ate my other comment!

        First off, thank you for doing this for us! Very helpful!

        Secondly, I agree with you about happen vs. happened. The novel is first person past-tense, and it seemed like starting the first line of the book out in with the present “happen” seemed incorrect?

        As far as what happens next, the character is reading her favorite passage in a book, and is interrupted before the kiss happens. 🙂

  23. Piper hated to hunt at night.
    YA

  24. An

    ^ To clarify, it’s Middle Grade Fantasy.

  25. An

    Hanh had a bad hunch.

    Children’s literature

  26. Wonlar’s apartment was a carefully constructed ruse.
    Adult Fantasy

    • In my mind, usually the word “ruse” is used to describe an action, not an object, so although this might be grammatically correct (or not, I’m not sure) it just lands weird. For me. That’s not the kind of weird you want to start off with. I’d choose another word. This sentence just doesn’t work for me as a first line.

  27. Katherine Amabel

    It’s great thanks, especially to have professional confirmation of something I was worried about. Wish I’d submitted my alternative first line now!

  28. It was the first time the Director had ever interviewed a genius dressed in pie.
    YA

    • Well, this gets a reader’s attention because of the non sequitur of someone being dressed in pie, but I wonder about the grammatical construction. Is the genius dressed in pie or is the Director dressed in pie? That’s not actually the kind of question you want to set up, right off the bat. I’d re-write this to more clearly convey what is actually happening.

  29. Katherine Amabel

    Serena wanted to run.
    YA fantasy.

    • This is beautifully spare and immediately sets up a nice tension and question, much like the Mrs. Dalloway first line. But as soon as I saw that it was YA fantasy I thought to myself, “Of course Serena wanted to run.” That’s neither a bad thing nor a good thing, but is an indicator that you’ve started off kind of predictable. As a reader I’d probably still keep reading, but as an agent reading submissions I’d be surprised if I was surprised.