All this happened, more or less: Adult Fiction First Line Critique

I’ve said it before: The first line of your story can’t just be good, it has to be great! People (and literary agents and editors are people, you know) won’t want to keep reading your story if you bore them with your first sentence. You get one chance to make that first impression.

On Wednesday, January 4th send me the first line of your adult fiction manuscript in the comments section and I will give you my feedback. My plan is to critique all entries, but ultimately this will depend upon how many actually come in. I will try to respond to as many as I can.  And not to worry, I’m nice-ish.

Here’s an example of what to expect:

All this happened, more or less. This first line definitely caught my attention. I love the spareness of it and I immediately want to know what “all this” is. I’m intrigued because I know this is fiction, so which parts might be true and which fabricated? And it’s kind of snarky. I like snarky. So I’d keep reading this manuscript if it came into my inbox because I want to see what happens next. Nice job, Kurt!

DIRECTIONS: Submit the first line of your adult fiction manuscript into the comments section down below. THAT’S IT! NO intro. NO explaining. NO background. Just the first line. Only one entry per person. And sorry, if you don’t follow the directions I won’t post your submission.

You may post your first line on Wednesday, January 4th only 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. Children/YA first line critiques are coming soon!

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99 responses to “All this happened, more or less: Adult Fiction First Line Critique

  1. Dang…
    Sad I missed this!

  2. Great Post Linda! You’re good. Love your blog! 🙂

  3. Liz

    Agnes kneeled on the hardwood floor, cleaning the mud from her boyfriend’s cleats that had fallen in their closet.

    • If she’s cleaning the mud from the cleats, it hasn’t fallen… and did the mud fall? The cleats fall? Grammar, grammar, grammar! Try:Agnes kneeled on the hardwood floor of the closet, cleaning up the mud that had fallen from her boyfriend’s cleats. Although this is now grammatically correct, it’s still not that interesting. As I asked so many of the people who submitted their first lines: Is this how you want to start your whole manuscript?!

  4. “He’s here.” Sadie hissed. “He’s here. Right now. In the hotel.”

  5. Ben Lansing

    The waters surged onward, their hunger insatiable.

    • The water surged, its hunger insatiable. As with so many of the other first lines: be careful with your grammatical choices and word selection. And why would water be hungry?

  6. Monica Prejean

    Don’t worry about the girl; right now Dove Grey is the least of our problems.

    • Starting your entire manuscript with a sentence with a semi-colon?! Okaaaaay… But, why? Why not two sentences? Two strong sentences: Don’t worry about the girl. Right now, Dove Grey is the least of our problems.

  7. When M arrived late Christmas night and handed Luna the small tan Kay Jewelers bag, she didn’t expect jewelry inside.

    • Ok. There are two things going on. One is that M arrived late on Christmas night. Two is that Luna didn’t expect jewelry even though she was getting something in a bag from a jewelry store. Are both of these things equally important? The way this sentence is constructed waters down both things. I recommend rewriting.

  8. Josie slumped in a threadbare beanbag in the attic she wasn’t allowed to visit.

    • I don’t think slumped is a good word. There’s kind of no other way to be in a beanbag chair. And why is the beanbag threadbare? That’s kind of weird. I mean, if it’s old and been up there a long time, it’s probably dusty, but threadbare is an odd choice. Mostly though, I’m just not drawn in here. There’s no tension. Nothing at stake. Try revisiting why you’re writing this first line.

  9. Her clothes were strewn all over the room, Alex bent down to pick up the pencil skirt, and then her bra laying a few feet away tossed over an armchair.

    • Sentence one: Her clothes were strewn all over the room. Sentence two: Alex bent down to pick up the pencil skirt, and then her bra (insert comma) (take out laying) a few feet away (insert comma) tossed over an armchair. You will lose your reader if you don’t a. construct grammatically correct sentences, b. punctuate. And this cleaning up of clothing should be relevant, or why would you start your whole story with it?

  10. Chris Masters had been paralyzed by the fear of death ever since his father passed away from cancer.

    • You have a whole manuscript where you can name character names, give backstory. Your first line needs to be stunning. I like simple, so how about: His fear of death paralyzed him. And remember, you want to show, not tell.

  11. Elizabeth slid from the saddle and stared at the sign above the door of the empty warehouse – Manhattan Merchant Co., Est. 1739.

  12. The pale glow from a Tiffany lamp cast a muted kaleidoscope of color across the barren white walls of the efficiency, broken only by the dim shadow of a man with a burden.

    • Watch this: The pale glow from the lamp cast a kaleidoscope of color across the walls of the efficiency, broken only by the shadow of a man with a burden. Tiffany, muted, barren & white, dim… You’re actually distracting your readers from the image you’re trying to create. Choose with care each and every word you use. Have a good reason for using it. I don’t know what “the shadow of a man with a burden” looks like, but undistracted I’d probably continue reading to find out.

  13. Thomas

    Hinckley and Queen Jody sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G, but it’s me that gets to be with Annabel Leigh, L-M-N-O-P, while she once knew a lad named Nomad that gave all he had, but this still made his best friend sad, but Nomad was always happy and this just made his best friend mad, mad hatter, mad man, mad max, maximum madness, T-U-V, satyrs with tridents and ivory and elephants, thrusting tusks, “singing ring around the pillsies, all out of thepillsies”…Deathdoesnothaveafacethereisnohoodedmanwithsickleinhandyoudontseedeathyoufeelitanditstheonlythingyoufeelwhenitcomeswhetheritssaquicksuprisingdeath,orlonganddrawnoutfromterminalillness,thefeelingisstillallencompassing.apanic.aterror.atrembling.ahorriblefeelingyouwillsee…

  14. Jefferson

    When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one man to dissolve the bands which have connected him with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle him, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that he should declare the causes which impel him to suicide.

    • Yes. It’s difficult to go wrong beginning a ms with borrowed words which have already been proven. The trick is to follow up with something worthwhile. Not knowing what’s to follow, I can’t evaluate this as truly an original first line.

      • Jefferson

        I am concerned some people might not know from where the wording originates. I follow your blog, always peripherally, though, which makes me want to say this while I have you here: Your justifiable profanity always makes me smile. I appreciate your willingness to be yourself. If I was ever happy with my damn query letter, I would send it to you.

      • Don’t wait for happiness to happen to you. It’s over rated. Just send the query and get on with being miserable. And as I’ve stated before, hunger, poverty and meanness are way more profane than an occasional WTF.

  15. Bunbury

    I was born on a Sunday.

  16. The images in Black and White were often played through out the night, the people came to and fro because they had no place to go.

    • First of all this is two sentences, not one. Take out that comma and put the period where it belongs! As a first sentence, I like that first part. But mind your erratic capitalization, unless there’s a reason for it. This does have me asking questions: What’s going on? What images? What people? Pretty good start, Miss Molly!

  17. “What happened to my life?” she thought to herself as she jogged along a row of houses that looked eerily similar.

    As always, thanks for your wisdom and support.

    • Make sure that every word you use is necessary and the best choice you can make. I’d take out “to herself,” and pick a better word than eerily (unless this is going to be a thriller or horror story?). Also, there had better be a really good reason to start your story off with a main character’s musings, ponderings, wonderings and surmisings… otherwise, get to some action pretty quickly. IMHO

  18. Eleanor Tatum

    The morning after her escape from Boston proved to be a blessing.

    • How does a morning prove to be a blessing? This is kind of murky. She escapes from Boston. Then something about the next morning is good, or a blessing. Ok. And? The language isn’t particularly interesting. The syntax is meh. Jump right in. I say just start with the blessing and cut this sentence out.

  19. Katherine Amabel

    The room was an apocalyptic mess.

    • I like this, as a sentence. But as an opening sentence it just doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t really describe anything, but rather makes an assessment. It doesn’t pose a question or invite me to pose one. It doesn’t draw me in. There’s no tension. It’s throat clearing for whatever’s coming next. So just go straight to what’s coming next!

  20. Aaron is walking his tightrope in the nude.

  21. You’re so fucking sexy.

  22. Annie Rains

    If the wedding dress went up in flames, she may as well kiss any hope of ever getting married goodbye.

  23. As he peered into those cold, vacant eyes, doubt crept into Reverend Sonntag’s heart for the first time in his life.

    • This is good. I would switch it though, to, “Doubt crept into Reverent Sonntag’s heart for the first time in his life, as he peered into those cold, vacant eyes.” I think it’s a stronger beginning to your story to start with a word like “doubt” than with a word like “as.”

  24. She’s upstairs, Rain, the recipient of this soup.

    • Is someone speaking? If not, I’m confused. If so, I imagine they are an old Jewish person (or Russian, or someone else whose language does this…), inverting the usual way of saying, “The recipient of this soup is upstairs.” If that’s not your intention, I’m confused. Because I already know you’re a good writer, I trust this will work its way out in the context of what’s coming next. Standing alone, I’m just confused by this sentence.

  25. Carey Rodgers

    Crystal should’ve known today would be no good; she was a psychic after all.

    • This is very flat; “Should’ve” is kind of sloppy; “After all” doesn’t add anything. This sentence needs a facelift. Perhaps pose it as a question: What good was it being a psychic if she couldn’t have seen that today would be no good?

  26. The window smells like sweet vomit with a hint of pine scented ammonia.

    • This doesn’t work for me. Is the smell wafting in from the window? Is it the glass on the window? Is there a better word you can use than “hint,” like “suggestion” or “whisper”? What is sweet vomit, anyway?

  27. Lyndon

    The alarm screeched Koral Waters awake.

  28. Megan

    Carmela Dunn floated into Blue Bar smelling like hot, sweet garbage.

  29. Fangs and blood wrenched me from the nightmare, my body screaming with pain as I jerked against the metal contraption that trapped me.

  30. Jared X

    The first thing that got his attention was the impossibly nubile brunette in the form-hugging gray suit and patent leather three-inch pumps.

    • Try this: The first thing that got his attention was the the form-hugging gray suit and patent leather three-inch pumps. Now carry on… “Impossibly nubile.” Oy. Trust your readers to know what’s impossible and what’s nubile.

  31. Jennie

    “I’ve got my eye on you missy, and I don’t mean the glass one,” Leona growled.

  32. I don’t do birthdays.

  33. Peta

    I despised the gods and could guarantee the feeling was mutual.

    • This would be stronger without “and could guarantee,” which kind of just flops around there on the page like a limp piece of celery. Perhaps: knew, realized, had been informed, suspected, presumed, surmised. But I like what’s underneath! I’d keep reading (after you fix it…)

  34. Black smoke billowed into the air like the aftermath of an atom bomb blast.

    • Black smoke billowed into the air. FULL STOP. An atom bomb blast produces a mushroom cloud, not billowing black smoke. Mind your imagery and only use it when it serves a purpose. Billowing black smoke is a strong enough image on its own.

  35. Nancy

    “It’s been too long,” Leyla-Jo Jared said, her barely audible words tumbling out—escaping into the late afternoon before she could stop them.

    • With an awkward name like Leyla-Jo Jared, I question why it’s necessary to put it right in this first sentence. Also, if the words are barely audible, are they tumbling? Escaping? All that doesn’t jibe for me. “It’s been too long,” she whispered, her words escaping into the late afternoon before she could stop them. Now I’m questioning why she’s whispering, why she needs to stop them, who she is… kapish?

      • Nancy

        Big Smile) … OK, kapish … I’ll ditch the “escaping” … but Leyla-Jo Jared speaks to the southern regional setting and I like that you are left “questioning why she’s whispering, why she needs to stop them, who she is.” Isn’t that what you want with a first sentence? (grin) Thanks for your critique! Love it!

      • Yes, that is what I want with a first sentence. but I was only left that way after I revised it. Also, in my opinion, you don’t need to address the southern regional setting in the very first sentence. The first sentence is the hook to draw the reader in, pique their interest.

  36. The darkness clung to her eyelids, but the day was relentless.

    • This doesn’t do it for me. What does that even mean? The darkness clung to her eyelids? Like bits of sleep in the corners? What was relentless about the day? Was it sunny? If so, how was the darkness clinging? Ummm… sorry, but I would go back and work on this some more. Where is it even going? Are you setting something up? Is it about light and dark? I’ll stop asking questions now…

  37. Kate pressed her face into the pillow and bit back a scream.

  38. He reviewed the resume a third time, as the limosine sped east on I-240 towards Germantown, because he had to be absolutely sure Mark Stanton was the one, the man who could make it all happen.

    • There are too many words in this sentence, for my taste. Why is it important that it’s the third time? Why is it important that the car is going east? Why is it important that it’s on I-240? Do we need to know, in this very first sentence, that the resume is for Mark Stanton? As the limo sped towards Germantown, he reviewed the resume yet again, needing to be absolutely certain that this man was the one who could make it all happen.

  39. If I had known that my thirtieth birthday was my last, I would have done a lot of things differently.

    • This may sound cliche, but this sounds cliche to me. I get it. It’s supposed to be shocking or surprising or something. I have a manuscript that I wrote that begins pretty much the same way (almost verbatim). I don’t think this sets anything up though. It barely has me asking questions or wanting to know what happens next. But I bet that whatever does come next is probably more interesting than this. Axe it. It’s just throat clearing before you really start telling your story.

  40. When Liam took over the body of the railroad worker in Buffalo Gap fifty years ago, he hadn’t realized he’d suffer from caffeine withdrawal every morning until he got his fix.

    • I don’t think “took over” is a strong enough way to say what you’re merely implying here. Is it consequential that Liam’s body is addicted to caffeine? That he’s possessed someone else for 50 years? That he hadn’t thought it through first? That it happened in Buffalo Gap? Focus. This is all over the place. Also, there’s something wonky with your grammar, but I can’t put my finger on what it is.

    • Sarah

      Maybe the grammar fix on this entry is:

      When Liam took over the body of the railroad worker in Buffalo Gap fifty years ago, he DIDN’T REALIZE he’d suffer from caffeine withdrawal every morning until he got his fix.

  41. Sam looked at the library’s wreckage, ignoring the hum of the crime scene techs at work.

    • To my mind, “looked” is so passive. What’s most important here? Introducing Sam? That the library’s wrecked? That it’s a crime scene? That there are techs… who seem to be humming?! You want to draw the reader in but you don’t need to overwhelm or confuse them. I’d simplify this and focus on what’s most important.