great first lines

Is a GREAT First Line Realistic for Every Novel?

Among several things about the query process that has always left me somewhat bemused is the constant harping by some that every first line in every new novel written must be so spectacular it tops all first lines in every other novel that’s ever been written. Those of you who have spent any time querying literary agents, or reading some of the more sensationalized literary agent blogs, know what I mean.

There’s one agent who gets so excited about great first lines she posts what she considers great lines on her blog with the same highly charged enthusiasm she might display if she were to be invited to a White House dinner, all expenses paid…or if she were to meet Bradley Cooper and get asked out to dinner. But more important, the key phrase here is “what she considers great,” because more than half the time I see these alleged great first lines and I just shrug and wonder what I’m missing. Most look trite to me, at best.

And that’s because great first lines, like everything about fiction, are subjective. What is a great first line and impresses one reader is not always going to impress another. That’s about as plain and simple as it gets. I will admit there have been some stupendously epic great first lines written in some spectacular classic novels. One of them was written by John Irving in A Prayer for Owen Meany.

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

Now that truly is a great first line that I think would make most readers want to continue reading. But how realistic is it to try to top a first line like that? And, what about the people with whom it doesn’t resonate? Not everyone I know has read “Owen Meany” and they aren’t going to run out and read it just because I quoted that first line in this post.

I also find it difficult to take anyone too seriously when they put that kind of pressure on a writer, especially a new writer. Sometimes it’s the first *two* lines that are great. Sometimes it’s the first paragraph or page that’s great. And sometimes you have to wade through anywhere from the first five pages to the first thirty to really sink into a storyline in a great book. Not all of John Irving’s books have great first lines like the one I posted above. In fact, it took me a few chapters to actually get into his novel Last Night In Twisted River. Don’t get me wrong. You have to try to draw the reader into the novel from page one, but you don’t always have to hit them over the head with a two by four. I never thought it was realistic to expect writers to come up with great first lines each time…especially during the query process, which is flawed at best.

In other words, not even a seasoned novelist like John Irving can nail one of these “great” first lines in every novel he’s ever written. But that doesn’t mean Last Night In Twisted River wasn’t as good as A Prayer for Owen Meany. It just means he didn’t get as lucky that time. In fact, I think “Twister River” is every bit the book “Owen Meany” was, if not better. Some novels begin quietly and work into the story line by line. When I crafted my own The Virgin Billionaire, which has been a bestselling e-book on more than one web site, I started with the subtle line, When the taxi dropped Luis off at 95th Street and Riverside Drive, the sun had just begun to rise, and I started building the storyline quietly, on purpose, from there. I actually built the entire 10 book Virgin Billionaire series around that first line. But there’s nothing all that great about it.

So when you read about an agent who is looking for that “great” first line, take it with a proverbial grain of salt and hope for the best. Also take the time to see how many big books this agent has under his or her belt, so to speak. And whatever you do don’t spend days, or weeks, or months, trying to craft the greatest first line of all time unless that’s something you feel personally compelled to do (I did at one time, shame on me). I’ve known authors who did this during the query stages and they are still waiting for that great first line to come to them, and so far they haven’t been published anywhere. And not all literary agents think this way when looking to spot a great book, or to spot clients they might want to represent. They aren’t looking for the unrealistic great first line. Most are looking for well-written books with good stories they think they might be able to sell to publishers. It would be impossible to pin point what each individual agents wants or expects, but you see where I’m going with this post.

And if you are lucky enough to come up with a great first line that tops all the great first lines ever written, good for you. The unfortunate thing here is you might think it’s the greatest first line ever written (we all think that way in the beginning), and your mom might think so ,too, but the opinionated agent who is looking for great first lines might not agree. And wouldn’t that be a waste of your time? 

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