Friday, March 5, 2010

First Impressions

It's my pleasure to welcome my guest, Donna MacMeans. I had the opportunity to not only meet this wonderful historical writer this past September, but I attended a workshop she handled. She made me laugh and giggle more than once. Her workshops are very informative, well there was her fascination with numbers… :-) but other than that, I learned a lot.

Her topic today is timely, because it deals with how to make an impression with our writing, especially if we’re not published.

Let’s face it. We’re all victims of first impressions. When you first meet a stranger, you’ve already made certain assumptions about that person based on their attire, their stance, their hair, their smile. Love at first sight basically means instantaneous attraction (and let me just say, I’m a believer in love at first sight. Thirty–eight years later and I still believe.)

I contend that we do the same thing with books. Maybe we first fall in love with the cover, sometimes it’s the back cover blurb (I no longer trust those blurbs – fodder for another blog), but often it’s the first line. As an author, I have no control over the cover, very limited influence over the blurb, but the first line – yeah, that’s all me.

The first line can lead to love at first read. For an unpublished author, that first line might be the difference between getting a manuscript read by an industry professional, or not. It sets the tone, and expectations, for the rest of the book. A good first line can hook a reader and, if the book holds true to the promise of the first line, a fan.

Here’s a great one: “There are eight thousand nerve endings in the clitoris and this son-of-a-bitch couldn’t find any of them.” Don’t you love it! That’s from TAN LINES by J. J. Salem. You already have expectations for that book, right?

So I’ve been looking at first lines and here’s what I’ve found. You can often tell the gendre of a book by its first line. Big whoop, you might say. You can tell the gendre by the cover. A hunky chest and a wolf most likely means a shape-shifter paranormal, not an historical. However, if you’re unpublished, you don’t have the benefit of a cover.

But if you have a first line like these, the reader/editor/agent knows immediately this is a paranormal.

“Every night, death came slowly, painfully, and every morning Maddox awoke in bed, knowing he’d have to die again later.” Gena Showalter, THE DARKEST NIGHT

“My name is Kate Connor, and I used to be a Demon Hunter.” Julie Kenner, CARPE DEMON

How about mystery/suspense? I’ve noticed that when I ask readers for their favorite first lines, the mystery/suspense ones often foreshadow a dead body will soon make an appearance. Try these:

“Death was not taking a holiday. New York may have been decked out in its glitter and glamour, madly festooned in December 2059, but Santa Claus was dead. And a couple of his elves weren’t looking so good.” J.D. Robb, MEMORY IN DEATH

“My teacher always told me that in order to save a patient you’d have to kill him first. Not the most child-friendly way of explaining his theory of book restoration to his eight-year-old apprentice, but it worked. I grew up determined to save them all.” Kate Carlisle, HOMICIDE IN HARDCOVER (This debut went to straight to the New York Times extended list.)

Here’s a couple of favorite first lines from historicals. Notice the lyrical structure and a quick reference to something from a period. Clues that say “this is an historical”.

“Dangling a man upside down by the ankles outside a London ballroom was not how Maxwell Brooke had anticipated spending his first Thursday night as the Duke of Lyle.” Christine Wells, THE DANGEROUS DUKE

Ice hung from windowsills with a glitter that rivaled glass, and new snow turned sooty streets to rivers of milk. Looking at the city from the bell tower of Saint Germain, the Duke of Fletcher could see candles flaring in store windows, and though he couldn’t smell roasting goose, holly leaves and gleaming berries over doors signaled that all of Paris had turned its mind toward a delicious banquet of gingerbread and spice, of rich wine and sugared cakes.” Eloisa James AN AFFAIR BEFORE CHRISTMAS

And I couldn’t help including one of my own. This from my latest:

“With all the malice she could muster, Francesca Winthrop whacked the wooden croquet ball beneath her foot, sending her mother’s ball careening across the manicured lawn, over the edge of the Newport cliffs, and possibly into the blue gray waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Pity, it wasn’t her mother’s head.” Donna MacMeans, THE SEDUCTION OF A DUKE.

Now it’s your turn. What are your favorite first lines? Help me add to my list. One comment will receive a copy of THE SEDUCTION OF A DUKE.

Back Cover:

William Chambers, Duke of Bedford, ascended to the title upon his father's death, but he also inherited his father's extensive debts. Desperate to avoid scandal and ruin, he is willing to go to any lengths—including marrying, sight unseen, a reclusive American heiress known as Frosty Franny.

Not pleased to be trapped in an arranged marriage, Francesca Winthrop conspires to turn lemons into lemonade with the assistance of a courtesan's journal.


By day, a mild-mannered accountant, I transform at night to an impassioned author of romantic historical novels, paranormals, and suspense. I live outside of Columbus, Ohio with my wonderful husband of many, many years, two adult children, and my canine shadow - a mixed breed mutt named Oreo. When I'm not knee deep in tax returns as a self-employed CPA, or typing away on another manuscript, I'm active in several writing organizations. Every now and then, I break out my paints or pastels for a different creative venue, but of the two, I find writing not quite as messy. I love to cook (but hate to clean up). I have a bit of a reputation with my desserts. They always incorporate chocolate and alcohol in some intoxicating fashion.

In addition to Romance Writers of America, I'm a member and officer (you guessed it - Treasurer) of Central Ohio Fiction Writers. I also belong to The Golden Network, a chapter of Golden Heart Finalists, and Scriptscene, a chapter for scriptwriters. Hey - you never know when Hollywood will come knocking.
Donna's Website


~Sia McKye~ said...

Donna, welcome to Over Coffee.

I have plenty of home made goodies on the coffee bar and plenty of coffee--I even have these nifty miniature coffe pot type cups, lolol!

I have to tell you, I LOVE the cover art on this one. It sparkles. Kudo's to Berkley art department.

VA said...

Love the opener Donna. Off to ferret out a good one for you. Be back, after reading an excerpt and dragging the opener behind me.

Sia I'm snagging a scone, brain food you know.

Mason Canyon said...

I don't have a first line to add, but I want to say I enjoyed the post very much. This sounds like an interesting book and is going on my wish list. I agree with Sia, I love the cover.

Christine Wells said...

Ha! My ears were burning. Hi Sia!

LOVE your first line from THE SEDUCTION OF A DUKE, Donna. You really feel the double punch--there's the surface humor and the more serious question beneath it--why does this girl want to do violence to her mother?

Thanks for including my dangerous duke in such illustrious company!

Judi Fennell said...

Okay, the one from Tan Lines had me heading to amazon (esp. since there's a kindle version). Sadly, according to the reviews, it doesn't look like the opening line kept pace with the rest of the book. I was tempted, however, to give it a shot based on that opening line. I really think that's the best one I've ever read. Read it to Hubs and he started laughing, too.

I'm going with the one from my latest, Catch of a Lifetime:

There was a naked woman on his boat.

It was actually the start of chapter 5 when I handed the book in, but my editor said, "Nope. That's your opening line. Start there." Sigh.

But she was right and I love the story from that perspective.

Kat Sheridan said...

Good morning, Donna and Sia! What fabulous opening lines! Loved all of them! Of course, my favorite ever opening line is "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again." Sigh. I read that line, settle in, and know it's going to be wonderful.

My own opening line(s) are:
Passion killed Lily. Passion and Dashiell Tremayne.

The words repeated in Jessa Palmer’s mind, keeping time with the thundering rhythm of the carriage wheels as she stared out the window into a night black as the devil’s soul.

And Donna, I'm a member of COFW, so I saw the announcement you made yesterday. Care to mention it here? And many congrats!

~Sia McKye~ said...

C'mon Donna, spill.

I'm still mulling over first lines. Two I really liked were already mentioned by Judi and Kat.

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi all - Sorry I'm late! I'm more likely to be posting at midnight than in the morning LOL.

Sia - So glad you like the cover. She has a devilish twinkle in her eye, doesn't she. That corset, BTW, is a replication of a real nineteenth century corset I found in my research. No plain old white for my heroine! I used the corset in the book as part of the heroine's attempt to seduce the Duke. Great Fun!

Donna MacMeans said...

VA - Baby, come back! Yes - share your favorite openers. I really think it's a great learning exercise and so interesting to see what strikes everyone's fancy.

Donna MacMeans said...

Mason -
Thank you so much! If you like Seduction of a Duke, you'll have to track down a copy of The Education of Mrs. Brimley as they share some of the same characters. (You know - you just fall in love with these imaginary people and you just can't let them go - so you write another book!)

Donna MacMeans said...


Well fancy meeting you here (grin). I loved your opening line of The Dangerous Duke - hooked me right from the start. I find a book like that and a smile blossoms on my face and I snuggle down knowing I'm going have a great reading experience.

Did I mention that Christine was nominated for a RITA for this book? Obviously, others felt the same as I did about that opener.

Donna MacMeans said...

Judi -

Oh no! Say it isn't so! I haven't read TAN LINES, but I did love that opening line. I originally heard about it from an RWA workshop. An editor read that opener (and it was a male editor), and said it hooked him immediately enough to make an offer.

You have a wise editor. Love the "relocated" first line - and it works so well with your title. Nice job!

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi Kat!

Okay - get your rotten tomatoes ready but that first line from REBECCA just never did it for me. I mean I appreciated it after I'd read the book - and I loved the book - but that first line, in and of itself, wouldn't do it for me. I'm probably in the minority in that opinion, though. It's often quoted to me as a great opener - that and the MOBY DICK first line..."They call me Ismael" (I think that's the line). High school English teachers quote that as a great opener all the time. Not for me, though.

I like your opener though.

The news Kat is referring to is that my agent called me last night and said that Berkley has offered a two book contract - which is a huge sigh of relief. Now I have to get the book written - and obsess about my first line. LOL

Donna MacMeans said...

Sia - Here's another couple for you -

"Thursday, March 17, I spent the morning in anxiety, the afternoon in ecstasy, and the evening unconscious." That's from RISK by the late Dick Francis. So sad to hear that he recently passed.

Here's another old one that has stuck with me:

"You're a woman, Miss Wainwright. Give me your honest opinion." Sam Stark paused briefly to drink from the glass of brandy in his hand. "Do you think it was the prenuptial agreement that spooked her?" TRUST ME by Jayne Ann Krentz.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Oh I LOVED Trust Me. I've read it a couple of times, even.

Yay on the two book contract. And thank you for mentiioning it here too. :-)

We all need encouragement. I always laugh at the perception that once you have a book pubbed and contract, you no longer have to worry about things b/c you gotta made. LMAO!

Kat Sheridan said...

YAY Donna on the contract!! I love your work and am looking forward to more of it! And I *get* that a lot of people don't like the opening to Rebecca. I think it's just because I DO love the rest of the book that I remember that line. I find it interesting to compare opening lines from "classic" books to opening lines now. These days, books are expected to open up right in the center of the action, with the set up woven around in the later paragraphs. Personally, I find that just a bit unsettling. I like a slower entry, but I know I'm in the minority.

Anna Campbell said...

Hiya Sia! Hiya my fellow Bandita Donna! Donna, brilliant news about the contract! Congratulations.

Sia, I'll have an apple danish and a cappuccino. Thanks.

Actually, Kat, I think that opening of Rebecca really is magical. It sets up all sorts of questions in the reader's mind that she just has to answer.

Got me thinking about classics and first lines. Of course there's the wonderful Pride and Prejudice one that's absolutely pitch perfect:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

I think the delicate, pointed irony of that still packs a major punch.

Another favorite first line is Tolstoy's for Anna Karenina:

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Again, it draws you into the story so superbly.

A line I always envy and wish I'd written (writer envy is always sincere!) is the opening of The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley:

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

Wow! Love it. The phrasing is so strange, it jerks you into paying attention.

Donna MacMeans said...

Anna - You always bring such a literary depth to these discussions (grin). And I was just waiting for someone to mention PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, it is a classic (and that opening I like!). The Tolstoy is wonderful. I want to change the L.P. Hartley line to "They did things differently there" (I mean the past should be past tense, right?) but maybe that's the thing that catches attention.

Like I said - I know I'm in the minority on REBECCA - but hey - I'm an accountant! Our idea of good literature is a well written footnote to a financial statement (grin).

Anna Campbell said...

Ha ha, Donna. You know I'm such a classy chick, LOL! I think it's the strangeness of the Hartley that gets me every time - the past as a country isn't how you usually think about it. And as you say, that present tense 'do' is odd in itself. And yet if you think of the past, it is like a foreign country!

Trish Milburn (Tricia Mills) said...

Wonderful first lines, Donna. I love ones that are so intriguing or laugh-out-loud funny that I simply have to read more of the book.

Donna MacMeans said...

Anna -

I added the Tolstoy line for Anna Karenina to my list - the blog I mentioned her really good first lines do a bit of foreshadowing and suggest the tone of the book...isn't that line sort of sad? All the emphasis on unhappy families. I never read Anna Karenina, but i did see the movie ( here) and it strikes me that the story is a sad story as well.

So for Trish (Hi Trish!) I'm offering another fun opener - which can be sad or funny depending on your point of view -

"Bluuue?"Ginny Bradford shrieked. "No! Don't you dare turn blue. Don't even think about turning blue, you dirty, rotten, miserable, son of a ...biscuit eater."

The indicator stick that had come with the home pregnancy test didn't appear to be the least bit intimidated by threats.

That's THE FOREVER NIGHT by Myrna Temte

Anna Campbell said...

Donna, Anna K is definitely SAD! That's the one where she ends up chucking herself under a train at the end. Not many good places you can go after that ;-)

Beth said...

Those are great first lines, Donna! Here are a couple of my favorites:

"Falling in love with a Catholic Priest was not my smartest move." CATCH OF THE DAY by Kristan Higgins

"It wasn't every day a woman got to see her naked self coated in chocolate and being licked like an ice cream cone by a dozen people. Apparently hot fudge was the syrup of choice for an orgy." GOING DOWN HARD by Tawny Weber

I don't have any examples but I think two masters of the opening line are Jenny Crusie and Janet Evanovich :-)

jo robertson said...

Interesting post, Donna. And these are all great first lines. Loved the beginning of Seduction of a Duke.

One of my faves is from Deanna Raybourne's SILENT IN THE GRAVE:

"To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not exactly accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor."

Isn't that a great first line?

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi Beth -

I'm adding that Kristan Higgins to my list. Tawny's first line is already on it (grin). Tawny writes a sexy book and her first line just exemplifies it.


LOL on the Raybourne line! Love it! Again - it's a mystery isn't it? And there's a reference to death in the first line. It's going on the list. Thanks!

~Sia McKye~ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
~Sia McKye~ said...

An opening line that sold me on a series, because it set a tone I loved:

"Honey, you need to get laid."

Grace Alenandra flinched at Selena's overly loud voice in the small New Orleans cafe where they sat. Unfortunately for her, Selena's voice possessed a lovely octave that would carry plainly through a hurricane. Fantasy Lover Sherrilyn Kenyon

Ilved the first line and the last in the opening paragraph. It said so much, lol!

One that made me laugh, yet gives you a clue to the genre, was this one:

"You know, Talon,killing a soul sucking Daimon without a good fight is like sex without foreplay. A total waste of time and completely un...satisfying." Night Embrace, Sherrilyn Kenyon

Hmmm, I'm seeing a pattern here. I must have sex on my mind, lolol!

Donna MacMeans said...

LOL Sia - or you have Sherrilyn Kenyon on your mind (grin).

I'd forgotten about that Fantasy Lover line - I'm putting it on my list. It has such a universal appeal, it would fit any genre.

You're correct, of course, that the line from Night Embrace immediately clues you to the genre. It goes on the list as well.