Wednesday 13 December 2006

First Lines that Hook: Are We Selling or Writing?

Sorry folks for taking such a long break from note-taking. What can I say? I was busy trying to get published.

Now back to wallowing in the slushpile.

Slushpile survivors spend a lot of brain time worrying about the hooking power of their first chapter, their first page, their first line. For the unpublished, the first chapter is the key to catching the attention of that elusive publisher/agent/editor.

If your first line doesn't hook, are you really doomed?
Hooking is all about the supplicant (you and me) getting the supplicantee (the publisher/editor/agent) to read your manuscript in its entirety and then, hopefully, taking it and you to published glory.

For many of us at this level, it’s not even about engaging the reader, turning on the engine of the story, and all that stuff published writers have the luxury of worrying about.

We just want the editor/publisher/agent to read our work.

I used to get a lot out of manuscript critiques at SCBWI conferences. But I don’t go for them anymore. Most manuscript critiques focus on the first chapter or first three pages of a manuscript. Which can be only so useful. Once you are writing the meat of your story, what you really need is a Middle-of-the-book Critique or even an Ending Critique.

I keep being told that the first line is absolutely crucial. I know people who have spent two hours in a workshop just reading first lines and saying whether or not they'd read on.

Is this really the state of the industry today? If my first line doesn't grab an agent by the throat, am I really doomed to failure?

This from one slushpile loyalist over at Miss Snark’s. The response of the stilleto-wielding literary agent was uncharacteristically kind:

you don't need a perfect first line. You just need a first line that doesn't make me think "this sux".

We (agents) set things down when they're bad, not when they're not good enough.

There's a big distinction. It's hard to describe. Two days in my slush pile and you'd see it clearly.

It's such a preoccupation amongst writers that The Writer's Life blog is offering feedback on first manuscript pages and Miss Snark's 'Crapometer' hooking competition — hugely popular amongst her masochistic followers — snarkily returns this Friday, 15 December, at 8pm (EST).

And yet Imogen Cooper, fiction editor at Chickenhouse, told writers at a SCBWI retreat last summer that first chapters were the first things changed by editors once a manuscript was accepted. She said she would rather writers submit their best chapters as samples rather than the traditional first chapter since, in her experience, this inevitably needed more editing than the rest. So why are we so hung up on first lines?

Published authors have big discussions about the balance that has to be struck between marketing one’s self and focusing on the writer’s job: to write. Check out the discussion about what a writer’s job involves at author Justine Larbalastier’s blog last spring.

I think there is a parallel to be struck between the marketing vs writing debate and the unpublished writer’s first line neurosis.

Selling is the point of writing first lines that hook - in the same way that selling is the point of self-promotion by a published author. You'll never get read if you don't sell.

So sell, sell, by all means. Hook them, land them, get those editors salivating for the rest of your manuscript.

But tread warily.

Does the rest of your manuscript live up to those perfectly honed first lines?


  1. There are certain hooks that when I read them I wish I'd thought of. this is true of the sentence you hang your book on too. Now Buffy meets Pirates of the Carribean, I wish I'd thought of that one. Justin Somper hit a, amazing, good thing with Vampirates.

  2. Interesting dilema - should we submit the first three chapters or three sample chapters to a publisher/ agent? The synopsis presumably fills in the gaps, so maybe 3 sample chapters could be more representative of the book. It has only just occured to me that maybe I don't have to submit the first three. Have you ever tried this?


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