First Line Frenzy #2: An Editor Critiques Your Opening Line

13:00 EST - Feb 06, 2020

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Rebecca Faith Heyman Avatar

Rebecca Faith Heyman

Rebecca Faith Heyman has a BA/MA in English and American Literature from NYU, and has been a freelance editor since 2009. She is the founder and director of The Work Conference, an annual writers' event in New York City. She lives outside of Boston with her husband, two kids, and a precocious Siberian cat.

Editor Rebecca Heyman returns for a second live edition of her #FirstLineFrenzy event on Twitter. If you want to take part in the next one, just follow her on Twitter.

"Do it again, Hannah!"

See, it doesn't even matter what the title of this or what the genre is because dialogue without context is very hard to connect to, right? This could be a lot of things and not all of them are pleasant. Generally, while it can feel at times pithy to start with dialogue, I think you need an especially strong and specific line to pull that off. This, for me, isn't quite strong or specific enough.

What's the book? Tales of the Green Onyx Enfulzi from H.E. Douglas, fantasy.

The buses around my city have a certain life to them, a je ne sais quoi that nobody seems quite able to explain, built up of a thousand beer cans rolling up and down the aisles, pouring questionable contents across the floors already coated in gum.

That's a lot of words. It's a lot to keep track of. I really have to stop and re-read and digest in order to understand what's going on here. By the time we're talking about 1000 beer cans rolling up and down the aisles, the hyperbole has taken over the image so much that I kind of forgot we were on a bus and I thought maybe we had transitioned into some kind of dilapidated quick mart. This is a little too complex for its own good.

I also have a bit of a problem with the phrase "A certain life." If the buses in your city have a personality or if they have something about them that makes them important or different, I want you to come right out and say it. The problem that this sentence is having is that it can't just come right out and say what it means.

What's the book? Heart of the Tempest, an urban fantasy by Shana Wallace.

I've been a kleptomaniac for over one hundred years.

Okay, I'm intrigued by this. I think it's really effective. I think it's a good length. Kleptomaniac is one of those beautifully specific words that only means one thing. For that reason, it brings a certain immediacy and presence to this sentence that I really, really life. Of course, the big question is how can someone have been doing this for over a century. I think this is intriguing and excellent, and I would be eager to keep reading.

What's the book? I Have A Nice Meatloaf in the Oven, Tim Bergstresser

The title is a no for me, but the first line is a yes. You're part of the way there.

Something was about to go down, Pete could tell.

This is actually two sentences. That comma is actually creating a comma splice, which is when a comma stands in for a mark of end punctuation like a semicolon or a period. Something was about to go down is an independent clause. Pete could tell is this, sort of, truncated clause. You could fix this by switching the position of these two halves and say, "Pete could tell something was about to go down." Then it's a little better. You know, you're introducing a tension point when you say something like this, which I find really interesting. You know, I think if you reverse the order here, you have a pretty solid opening sentence.

What's the book? The Tanglewood Twins: Cult of the Raven, a middle grade mystery by James Philips.

[Martin] The comma makes it feel like "Pete could tell" was a dialogue tag in a sense.

Right, this happens a lot. I think some people the narration of their novel like dialogue or almost like a voice-over in a movie. It tends to have the texture of dialogue on paper. The editing process should rinse that out pretty thoroughly.

In the half-hour it took Kit to walk to her nearest neighbor’s place, she passed six abandoned houses, none of them sitting squarely on their foundations.

I love this. I think it's really evocative. The feeling of isolation for Kit is really subtle but it's there. The sense of dilapidation in his or her neighborhood, her, sorry, her neighborhood, is really nicely done. The idea that the houses are abandoned and also creeping toward the ground, returning to the earth. I like where this is going. I think this is great. Not for nothing, this is a long sentence but it's easy to keep track of. The author has organized it really, really well.

What's the book? The House With No Nails, speculative fiction by Rachel Yobs

I was fifty-six when I became an orphan.

That's heartbreaking. Yeah, I mean, there's a confessional feel to this and a tenderness to it that I think is really attractive. I also think this is relatable for a lot of readers in a lot of different ways. You know, the author is giving us their specific experience by activating that age but also speaking to a more universal theme or motif in the sense of losing both parents. I think this is a really good line. Yeah.

What's the book? Pushed off the High Dive Creative, nonfiction memoir by Karen Bowers

Silvano, Commander of the cyborg ship Freedom, cursed as he watched the shuttle escape through an artificial rift in space.

This is a lot of information about Silvano, also about the Freedom. I don't really feel invested in the escaping shuttle. I guess my first question is does this book start in the right place. This might be clarified in the next couple of sentences. In space opera, which this obviously is, we expect to be a little confused at the outset because we know we have to get familiar with the world. I don't dislike this as a first line. I'm not in love with space opera as a genre so, for me, it doesn't leap off the page. I think this is a well organized and well-articulated first line.

What's the book?  Silvano's Redemption, Science Fiction/Fantasy Romance by Denna Holm

In the conversation they wouldn’t be able to have, Ren would apologize for killing him.

I love this line. I like how twisty that first phrase is. In the conversation they wouldn't be able to have. The way that introductory phrase sets up, we know because our reading brains understand grammar even if we can't articulate it. We know that this is a, sort of, cause and effect line. We know that it's an if/then. We understand that there's a fantasy or an imagined reality. Then there is the reality that would occur within that. I love the way that this plays on that inversion of expectations. I think this is great.

What's the book? Eventide Lantern, fantasy by Ellen Liang

[Martin] It's quite nice to have something that's heavily in a genre but you can't quite tell by the first line.

It's funny because my first thought when I read this was the wonderful novel by Karen McManus, One Of Us Is Lying. She just came out with the sequel, One Of Us Is Next, which is on my TBR but I haven't read it yet though I'm really looking forward to it. There's that... All the narrators in that book have an awareness of themselves within the novel and it's really addictive to read. I think this is super successful. I love this.

The translation hit Detective Thom "Rad" Radenauer's computer screen at 8:30am.

I was counting how many, what percentage of words in this sentence were devoted to naming the character. Indeed, it is 40%. That is too high a percentage for something like naming a character. I would like to see the translation activated in sentence one. I think that could help bring some needed specificity to this. Unless Thom thinks of himself as Detective Thom "Rad" Radenauer, I don't think it's necessary to give us his full name. If you want to evoke intimacy with your reader with, which, hint hint, you do, you have to create closeness instead of distance. Using a full name, first name, last name, in an opening sentence suggests that we don't know this person. Even though, obviously, by nature of the fact that we're opening your book for the first time, we want to feel kinship. We want to feel closeness. Using a very formal iteration of the name is a way to undo some of that closeness. I would reorganize this a little bit and I would bring the specificity of the translation into the four.

What's the book? Go Back, Police Procedural by Pat Obermeier

For all Nilam knew, his head could be cracking open.

I think the way that this evokes violence without articulating violence is interesting. I'm not in love with the vagueness of a lot of what's going on here. I'd like to be more myriad in the sensation that Nilam is experiencing. I don't know how your head could be cracking open and you could not know. If the sensation that he has is that he's having some kind of cranial trauma, I think you can be more specific and direct about that. This is a bit coy and I'd like it to be less coy.

[Martin] They way I read it, Nilam was having a terrible headache. It was so bad his head could be cracking open.

Yeah, but even as a little piece of hyperbole, it's more effective as a sensation. Tell me where this frisson of pain is, if that's what it is. Right, if it's a migraine. Bring the sensation alive instead of relying on something that's almost too dramatic to be effective. If you're going to get visceral, I like them to be very visceral and really in the body. If you're starting in the body, be in the body. You know? I think this can be more powerful.

What's the book? A Drop in the Blue, a YA fantasy from Victoria in the UK.

Stepping on a dead man’s face did not reduce Aislinn O’Malley’s interview jitters.

This is upsetting a little. You know, stepping on a dead man's face. I assume this is a picture of someone who is dead, maybe. I'm having trouble connecting the first part of the sentence, the cause and the effect. I'm not sure what stepping on a dead man's face would ever have to do with interview jitters, unless you were interviewing for a position on seal team and you were part of the team that initially, I don't know, captured or killed this person being stepped on, who's image is being stepped on. This just doesn't make me partial to this protagonist in any specific way. I think we want to feel close to a protagonist even if it's someone who's problematic down the road. Yeah, I'm just not sure about this. This makes me go huh. I think we want the questions that are inspired by our first line to draw us in instead of stop us in our tracks.

What's the book? This is a Work in Progress thriller from Alexa Alexa Padgett.

The forbidden note made its presence known in my breast pocket.

That's a lot of agency for a piece of paper. How does a piece of paper make its presence known? I don't know. Again, it draws up some questions of logistics that I'm not sure are totally warranted. I think you could be more effective by getting more specific about the language in the note. Again, focusing not on this inanimate object but of the sensation that this inanimate object inspires in actual embodied experience. Talk to me about the words that feel like they're burning a brand into your chest. I'm more interested in a character's experience than in the circumstances around that character and what a character is wearing, or what's in a character's pocket as part of that character's circumstances. Not the character's personhood. I'm interested in the personhood of whoever I'm reading about.

What's the book? Megan Humphries from Sheffield with Alex and Theo, a queer historical romance. [Martin] Makes me think of Sarah Waters. 

I'm into it. Like, I love the genre. I love a forbidden note. You know? All the illicit letters, but get inside the experience of carrying something dangerous instead of skimming the surface of the dangerous thing itself.

Now I know what you’re thinking.

I mean, probably not. Right? I like the boldness that the narrative persona has possessed. I like the closeness that comes from this character assuming they know what I'm thinking. I also think you, sort of, told a dangerous line when you tell your reader about the assumptions your character is making about them. I don't know. I would give it a solid passing grade, but not an A. I think I'd have to know a little bit more. I would like a little more information.

What's the book? The World Within, Parapsychological sci-fi by Adriana Polito

Last night, while Ghana was sleeping, wicked men shot their way into an orphanage in the city of Takoradi and made away with four girls.

"Last night, while Ghana was sleeping, wicked men shot their way into an orphanage in the city of Takoradi and made away with four girls." I like this. This is very... I like the distance between the narrative persona and Ghana. The narrative persona is aware of what happened in the city. We know that Ghana was sleeping while it all took place. The narrative persona gives us a nice sense of a blanket of awareness about this world. There's a nice authority to the voice. I quite like this. I mean, it's possible that this is Ghana next day and this is actually a third person limited and quite close. This is actually Ghana's thought process. I think I'm right that it's not. That the narrative persona has this slightly wider view of the world at large. Can we ask the author to chime in if they're here.

What's the book? It's a literary thriller and the title is A Month to Remember and Forget by Obed Armah.

I am intrigued by this. I like this a lot.

Speed is my addiction, but my tad says it’s another killer he must curb.

Huh? Speed is my addiction but my tad says it's another killer he must curb. I have no idea what these words mean in this order. I don't know what a tad is. Is this a typo for dad?

[Martin] Potentially. I checked it and this is exactly what was submitted.

Yeah. I think this might be a typo. If it's not a typo, then this is just a lapse in my knowledge of the English language. I don't know what this means.

[Martin] It's a police procedural. Speed is either literally going fast or the drug speed.

You know what, I hadn't quite gotten there yet but you're right. I have no idea what this sentence is about.

[Martin] Someone here has just said: "Tad is Welsh for father." 

My Tad says it's another killer he must curb. Still confusing, still unclear, still vague about whether or not we're talking about road speed, rate of motion, or speed the drug. Yep, if we have this many questions in one sentence, I think the sentence needs to be reexamined, for sure.

What's the book? Fevered Fuse, Mystery/Police Procedural by Roland Clarke

[Martin] Roland Clarke, the author, has got back. Speed is road speed and her dad is a cop.

Okay. Still, I just think because the language brings up so many questions and so many of the words — or rather two very key words — in the sentence can be interpreted in two very different ways, I think to be clear in your intentions requires a little bit of fiddling with the way that sentence is coming through.

No house is ever truly empty, as any child will tell you—in fact, it has to be empty, if it ever hopes to be filled with magic.

No house is ever truly empty as any child will tell you. I love that. That is a delight. I love the first part of this sentence. That em-dash is incorrect, right? I think the mark of punctuation you're looking for here is a semicolon to show contrast. The author is saying, in fact, we start by being told no house is ever truly empty but it has to be empty if it ever hopes to be filled with magic. I think a semicolon instead of the em-dash will make the contrast between these two clauses more clear and more effective. I really like this a lot.

What's the book? The Incredible Adventures of Penelope Liddel, YA/Children’s fantasy novel by Anne Halloin

I love it. I love the title. I find this quite charming. Yeah, just knock a semicolon in there and I think we'll be on far better terms.

Binky Claus had been gipped.

Let's just start a list of words that I'm not familiar with. They're coming up today. I assume that gipped is some kind of slang. Do you know?

[Martin] From my understanding is not really a term that should be used these days. It means swindled or something. It comes from 'gypsy.' 

It's funny, I'm not sure that I've ever seen that word written.

Yeah. I've never seen this end look, which is not to say it can't be spelled this way or that this isn't the correct spelling. It certainly is not something I have ever seen on the page and I think I have seen the word gypped in writing before but maybe not expressed this way. I think there are better words that are perhaps more specific and slightly less crude that might be helpful here. I also feel like this is the, tell me more, situation where it's very concise and we understand that someone's been swindled, Binky Claus as it were. I'm not sure this is drawing anyone in, especially quickly. We might need a little bit more information, and maybe a little more finesse on the diction choices.

What's the book? Binky Claus: Ready to Fly, middle-grade by Tina Raymond

Francis Eddelbutte was ugly.

Okay. Again, this has a lot of subjectivity to it, right? Who's the narrator and who decides and why is this important and what is the context and how is this true? I mean, specificity overall. If there's something about this person that is deemed aesthetically unpleasant, I would rather have you be specific about it instead of using a word that's actually really hurtful to a lot of people. Which isn't to say we can't use words that are difficult, right? I think talking about a specific feature could be really powerful here. If Francis is our POV character, the person we're actually focused on emotionally, I would want to hear about his feelings about that feature, more than I want to hear about a judgment of that feature if I don't even really know what it is. Again, move towards specificity. When you're talking about bodies or embodied experience, get specific. I think that's a big takeaway from tonight.

What's the book? Christopher Columbus, New Adult Fiction by Olivia Heisey

Okay. Here's the thing about New Adult. You are either writing YA or you're writing Adult. The decision about New Adult is in some ways a marketing choice more than a genre determination. New adult is not a genre, it's an audience. Reaching that audience is more a marketing decision than a generic decision. We have certain publishing companies like Wednesday Books that are really focused on telling stories that have similarities to YA in terms of conflict. These conflicts are transposed to slightly order characters in their 20s. I would encourage to decide if you're writing YA or adult, and firmly go in that direction.

"I'll take his brains and heart," I whispered to my sister when the funeral director presented us with the ashes of our father.

Boom. This is a situation where starting with dialogue is actually really great. It's a weird, little snippet of dialogue. It's not expected at all. We're immediately brought into the setting. Funeral director, we know that this person and his or her sister are experiencing this loss. At the same time, there's this kind of gallows humor here, which I find really appealing. I love this and I would totally keep reading. What is this? What is this from?

What's the book? Black Sheep: A True Story of Family Acceptance, a memoir by Lisa Lucca

Okay, all right. I'm in it. Memoir is not always my favorite, I sometimes find them a little unnecessary. This is really a nice entry point and I would be interested in this.

[Martin] It reminds me of one of my favorite opening lines, from Iain Banks' The Crow Road. "It was the day my grandmother exploded." It goes into a scene about how they've forgotten to take her pacemaker out before they cremated her in front of her family. 

That's a great start, yes. That is a great start.

Somewhere in the house a window shattered, spraying glass in a wide arch.

Okay, so the problem I'm having is that the vagueness of somewhere in the house is a direct contrast to seeing how the glass falls. Where is the narrator in relation to this moment of impact? I have that question. When are we in relation to the moment of impact? Is it happening right in this moment, and if so, how can we simultaneously know that the shattering happens somewhere but not right in front of us, but also know how the glass falls. I have a little... There's some logical dissidence here that I would like to see alleviated.

What's the book? Kelly's Con, mystery by Dianne Aynes

The ringing of the ’phone woke Brendan up from the soundest sleep he’d had all month.

The ringing of the 'phone... why is there an apostrophe?

[Martin] Short for 'telephone,' I guess?

Yeah, 'phone' is its own word now. Even though if it's a shortened version of 'telephone,' it's certainly accepted in the general lexicon these days. It has its own entry in the OED. You don't have to show that it was once truncated.

The ringing of the phone woke Brendan up form the soundest sleep he'd had all month. This is a waking up one, which I think anyone who's tuned into First Line Frenzy either here or with me on Twitter knows that I don't like these... It's always a cliché to have your character waking up first thing in your book. I don't care what wakes them up. I don't care what they were dreaming about. Move 10 minutes into the future of this novel and start there.

What's the book? Search and Rescue, Science-Fiction by Trudy Goold

A middle-aged teacher lectured how a guard instructed inmates, but his babble bounced off our zombie ears.

I don't mind this analogy, but it's clunky. The execution here is not great. I'm intrigued about whether or not these are actual zombie ears. Is this a zombie school? Or is this metaphorical zombies, just really tired kids? If so, is that the most effective way to articulate that? I don't think so. I think this one still needs a bit of spit and polish.

What's the book? Everything's Crooked, New Adult from Franco.

If we're students and we're in school, I think it's probably YA. That's just my guess. I mean, unless zombie schools start when you're 18, I don't know. I've never been.

Sophia Kasparadis was feeling optimistic: “Whatever I die of, they’ll find a cure for it the next day.”

Okay. The dialogue itself is awkwardly structured because of the placement of that preposition. There's distance because you're giving us this first name, last name situation. I understand what this is trying to evoke and there's a little bit of a cheeky, if this is her optimism, what's her pessimism? kind of question. I think this needs a little more refinement. Again, this is an execution issue. The idea is good. The execution is not.

What's the book? Murder on Parthanonos, a mystery from Susan Alexander.

Both the horse and the rider presented a pitiful sight.

Okay. I think this can be more specific. I think you can pain this for us with a more nuance to brush. What does it mean to present pitifully both when you're a horse and when you're a rider? I think you can give us more. Do they look wilted? Is the rider slumped in the saddle? Is the horse emaciated? Are they covered in sweat? Is the horse frothing? I mean, there are so many ways to show us this instead of telling. That's what this one comes down to. You're telling us that they're pitiful instead of showing us. Of course, we would always rather see it than be told about it later.

What's the book? Lady Samurai, adventure, historical fiction, and romance by Magdalena Vidgen

To work with Rebecca on your next book, head to her Reedsy Profile.

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