Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Killer First Sentence Whiparound notes

These are comments on the posts from today's whiparound on first lines.

Thank you to all the writers who bravely put their work out there for a gnawing. 

Sarah G
Wheelchair-bound Michelle sees the world from a different angle, and is the first to notice her city is slowly disappearing.
As killer first sentences go, this isn't a clean kill. It's set up. The city is disappearing.

I'm also going to flag wheelchair-bound. Wheelchair user is what I've been seeing lately to describe people in chairs.

Susie’s sixteen-year-old son told the school his mother had died.
Our assumption here is that she isn't dead.
A lot is going to depend on the next sentence.

Timothy Lowe
Hit man and part-time alpaca farmer Gabriel Garcia has got problems.
Juxtaposing hit man and alpaca farmer is funny of course, but this is too general to be enticing.

In twelve months, the supercomputer grafted to eighteen-year-old Sil Sarrah’s brain will kill her.

Ok, this works.
We want to find out, instantly, what happens next.


When his father walks out on the family, Ryan assumes it is his fault.
This doesn't make me wonder what happens next.

It's a time of hope and change in France, but for Michel it's a daily struggle to survive on the streets of Paris.

This is exposition. There's no sense of urgency or tension here. Is Michel homeless? Is he broke?
Is he stranded without his passport, money, and doesn't speak French?

c. sciriha

Seventeen-year-old Maia doesn’t remember her past lives.
Why is that a problem?

Claire Luddig needs a makeover--What Not to Wear applied not just to her clothes, but to her life.

This is exposition.
There's no tension.

Aphra Pell
Rebecca Lydney knows the death of her maid will be called a suicide - she fears a murderer is counting on it
This is a start. I'd reorganize it: The death of Rebecca Lydney's maid will be ruled a suicide; the murderer is counting on it.

Lisa Bodenheim
Landscape shutterbug, Addison McDonel, hadn’t counted on having to enter a hospital again.
No tension here. Is Addison going in to shoot photos or cause someone shot him?

Cecilia Ortiz Luna

Miguel sets out to sabotage Emily Dunhill's nomination for the Cascadia Humanitarian Prize.
I'm always interested in nefarious goings on. I want to find out what happens next.

April 1861 and the nation teeters on the brink of war.
This isn't new information.

Bringing in a character and setting up some kind of problem will help: Felix Buttonweezer turned 16 in April 1861; it looked like South Carolina was going to celebrate by seceding from the union.

Obviously Felix is not in this novel (he's not even born yet) but you get the idea.


Professor Peter Wright remembers everything.
But, why is that a problem?


With his Dad in a comma, Francis Carter finds himself reflecting on his own childhood, and the strange events that landed him in New York City.
well, this is more of a synopsis than a killer first sentence.
And I know you're typing text with your thumbs here, but Dad in a comma is really funny.

C. Dan Castro
Trisha Leiferkus read 103 degrees on the “borrowed” thermometer.

Jenn Griffin
Batty Betty finds an abandoned young boy in her woods and takes him home--for keeps.

Kat Waclawik
Ryena wants to go home.

Mister Furkles

Miranda doesn't want to be a witch.

Richelle Elberg

A pile of dead coyotes rotting in the desert is shocking, but it’s the discovery of two bloated human bodies--hidden amidst the carnage--that really gives Detective Em Thayer a jolt.
more of a synopsis than a killer first line

Dena Pawling

The other kids on the bright-white planet call her Smudge.

Elowen smiled as the needle punched her skin.
needles don't punch do they?
I notice those kinds of things right away.

Fearless Reider
The first lie was Cherry’s.


Megan V

If sixteen-year-old theater aficionado Murphy Doherty wants to keep her leprechaun magic, then she must grant three wishes to the next person that captures her heart.
Synopsis not an opening line

A mentally-ill black man dies during a violent arrest, and a city erupts in protest.
This is so unemotional!
Don't be afraid to be vivid.

Felix Buttonweezer thought it was a game until the police officers killed him. 

Being on display in a spiked iron cage on the hottest day of the year is painful and humiliating, but not as serious as his other problem.
Cause who doesn't want to know what that other problem is!

Four lights
Ashley should have been dead already.


Sherryl and Meredith

DS Mal Forrest, on sick leave after being stabbed by an informant, is forced to return to his derelict childhood home to clear up the mess left by his dead father.
This is a synopsis not a compelling first line.

Sharyn Ekbergh 
Gloria was crying when she called to tell me Dana was gone.
this doesn't make me wonder what's going on, or what will happen next.


Complete at 79,875 words, LOSING IT? is a thriller with the flavor of Agatha Christie and Gillian Flynn mixed in equal parts, and topped off with a splash of Stephen King.
If someone asked you about your book, is this what you'd start with?

E.M. Goldsmith
Phaedra damned herself by chasing her murderer straight into Hell.


When a misfit South Dakota farm girl discovers that her mysterious blood disorder is really the result of magic, she decides to attend a supernatural boarding school on Martha’s Vineyard to try to find a cure for her curse, but when the school is attacked by dark forces, she must choose to embrace her true nature so she can save her school and the magical creatures in it that she has grown to love.
this is a synopsis not a killer first sentence

Just Jan
All Cecilia Brown wants is to enjoy Easter dinner with her family.
This doesn't make me wonder what's going on.

french sojourn

When Col. Charles Lockhart saw the fire burning in her eyes, he bought her, forever to be his little Dragonfly.
this doesn't make me wonder what happens next

Kate Higgins
This time she was absolutely, positively going to win, this time she was going to cheat the right way

It’s not that I don’t love the men I sleep with. I just don’t love them after we get out of bed, or off the couch, the rug, or wherever we’ve satisfied ourselves”

At the age of eight I ran away from home – all the way to my backyard.
This doesn't make me wonder why.

Schoolteacher Alison Bountiful has a little problem and he's buried in her backyard.
It says nothing good about me that this feels a little business as usual.

Seventeen-year-old Coralie Jones thought she knew what love was.
You need something more here, something that shows us how wrong she is.

Carmine longs to be swallowed by a black hole; she hasn't reckoned on finding one at the back of a DIY store.

Jennifer Delozier
Dead men tell no tales—unless their photos hang on the walls of Cassie McConnell’s crumbling Philadelphia mansion.

Fearless Reider
Franny knows she can't keep dodging the sheriff.
This needs something more.

Stanton Porter realizes even her latest job with a traveling circus can't help her escape the shadow of her famous artist father when she receives a postcard from him, two weeks after he died.
This doesn't make me wonder what happened, or what's going to happen next.

Autumn wants nothing more than to live a normal life, but that’s hard to do when your dad is the Grim Reaper.

Curt David
Thiago is pushed through a portal to a magical his father
There's no sense of why this is the problem or the start of a story.

Twelve-year-old Calvin Jones speaks to birds.
What's the problem with that?

Margaret S. Hamilton
Widowed Lizzie Christopher is building a new life as an interior design shop manager in Jericho, a small Ohio college town.
This is set up and backstory.


The fate of every child is cast the moment they're born

there's no sense of story here. Nothing that makes me wonder what happens next.

Rebecca wants to be a real detective, but for now, she uses her sleuthing skills for geocaching, following GPS coordinates to hidden treasure.
What's the problem?

Any questions?


Anonymous said...

Why is "the needle punched her skin" bad? I thought it was a fresh, non-cliched way to describe the sensation, possibly also implying that whoever's injecting her isn't doing that careful a job and it's going to cause some bruising.

Anonymous said...

Also, for some of these "why?" ones, isn't it possible that the next sentence or two will tell us?

Timothy Lowe said...

No questions, other than to echo Jennifer. If you keep the first sentence nice and short, the second can clarify and add flavor. Thanks for doing this, Janet -- it's nice to see all the different approaches.

As for the needle line, to me it read more like the first line of a novel, not a query.

Anne said...

My only comment is--how do people get up so early to post these things? I must be a day late and a....whatever.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I love these first line posts. It's fun to see what everyone is working on, and super instructive. Thanks again, your Majesty.

Anonymous said...

Wait ... These are first lines of queries? I thought they were first lines of novels.

This explains a lot.

LynnRodz said...

Very eye-opening, Janet! I had Michel as homeless. (Michel, a homeless man, struggles to survive on the streets of Paris.) I decided to take it out because I thought shorter would be better. Now I see that I can't assume people are going to automatically know he's homeless. And even with that sentence, there's still no tension there.

This exercise has been extremely helpful as I struggle to get a query that works. Thank you so much for doing this. You truly are the QOTKU!

Anne, as you know, Reiders come from all over the globe. Here in Paris, I posted my sentence after 2 in the afternoon and I was one of the first to comment. No getting up early for me.

C. Dan Castro said...

Thanks Janet! These exercises are interesting, useful, and occasionally hilarious. (And for SimonFrancisDowling, my wife wondered if Francis Carter’s dad is actually in an Oxford comma.)

Unknown said...

These posts are so much fun and instructive! Thanks, Janet.

Also, I check this blog while eating breakfast. It's better than the reading the news and then I know if I have to hustle to my computer to take advantage of one of Janet's offers. For what it's worth, by 8:40am EST, there were over 30 first query lines already posted.

PAH said...

lol damn. Somehow I always miss these opportunities. Fun exercise!

Colin Smith said...

Sure, if Sarah G had said "wheelchair user" that might be more in line with current usage. But I think "wheelchair bound" has attitude. It tells me something about how Michelle feels about her circumstances. I'm sure there are wheelchair users who are not reconciled to their situation and feel this way.

Just a thought from a nobody. :)

Well done those who got a "yup!" :D

nightsmusic said...

I don't have a query yet because I don't have a finished story and I'm such a pantser, things could change in it. Writing a query now would be pointless. But this was so helpful and informative and really shows what's needed to start off. I'm not sure I've seen something this specific on QS, but that doesn't mean I have and don't remember either.

Anne. I'm up at 4:30am every morning during the week with hubs since he has to be at work before 6am. This morning, for the first time in a long time, I went back to bed after he left. Usually, I'm here having my cereal when Janet's posts pop up and they're one of the first things I read in my news feeder. :)

KariV said...

I missed the first post inviting authors to submit the first line of their *query*. When I read these, I assumed they were the first lines of novels. Reiders, if Janet said yes to your first line, note that I loved it as a first line of a book and would def read on. If you can work that into your novel, more power to you.

Thanks for doing this Janet! It's so helpful to see what works and what doesn't over such a large sample.

Just Jan said...

Thank you, Janet, for doing this! It's so fun to read what everyone is working on.

Two thoughts:

I agree with Jennifer and Tim. My punch is in the second sentence.

So many of these sound like the first lines of a novel. Guess I will have to up my query game.

Kate Higgins said...

told me everything I needed to know.
Thanks Janet

Theresa said...

This made for very instructive reading on a snowy morning. Thanks for doing this, Janet.

E.M., I really want to read your book.

And SimonFrancisDowling, I'd be all in on a story about a dad in a comma. Sounds very Jasper Fforde.

Heidi Kenyon said...

A few people have commented on the time zone issue...I was certainly still asleep out her in the Pacific Northwest when the invitational post went up. Perhaps alternating the time of the entry window, or giving us a heads-up to set our alarms, would allow different time zone denizens to participate?

Fearless Reider said...

Wow, this was so helpful. I didn't mean to take two bites at the apple -- when my bleary eyes saw "Killer First Sentence Whiparaound", I frantically typed in the first sentence of my novel. Then I realized I'd used the wrong tense, so I deleted it and re-entered, THEN I read that Janet was actually looking for first lines of our queries, so I deleted again and entered once more with my actual query line, but apparently Janet snagged the first entry anyway. I'm thankful she did -- I'm relieved to know the line works, at any rate.

I'm also happy to hear that the first line of my query needs more -- that's the first line of my "safe" query, but it's the second line of the query of my heart. For me, that confirms my instincts are right, and when the time for querying comes at last, I'm going to try the riskier opening.

I want to read so many of these stories. Thank you, Janet!

Kat Waclawik said...

Thank you, thank you! I initially had the same reaction (the "why" is in the second sentence), but then compared my first sentence to the "yup" first sentences. All of those make me want to read the second sentence. Mine does not.

So then the Janet living in my head asks me why I'm not starting with the second sentence. And I point out that the second sentence is where I have all the back story and setup and worldbuilding, actually it's kind of a terrible sentence drowning in clauses. Now that you point it out, Imaginary Janet, I think the purpose of the first sentence was to show that I know how to write a short sentence so the reader doesn't give up halfway through the second.

So where does the query get interesting? Imaginary Janet asks me. The third sentence, I reply. Imaginary Janet just looks at me across the reef through a haze of chum. OH! I say. Ohhhhhh...

Fearless Reider said...

Sarah G's "wheelchair-bound" was also a red flag for me, as many people with disabilities feel it puts the emphasis on their limitations. I wouldn't use "wheelchair user" in this line, as it would stand out as Michelle's defining characteristic. I'd say something like, "From her wheelchair, Michelle sees the world at a different angle..." For me, that places Michelle, not her wheelchair, at center stage, yet includes distinctive information about her and gives the story a great hook. I LOVE the concept of this story and hope I get to read it soon!

Stothers said...

Thank you very much for the feedback. Honestly. :)

I guess I thought (like others, I'm sure) that the rest of my query would generate the tension and stakes, but it seems I have underestimated the value of the very first sentence.

Time to move those word around again.

Lennon Faris said...

Oh, I love these. Thank you, Janet!

I too am always unfashionably late for these sorts of things. Silly work. But I still feel like I learn the most from these. So, thank you all you brave souls.

Kat, your conversation with Imaginary Janet cracked me up!

Kitty said...

Thanks, Janet, for the opportunity. I've had the first part of the query written for at least two years. The inspiration was Query Shark #192. It's the manuscript I've yet to finish.

Sarah G said...

Thanks Janet & Colin Smith & Fearless Reider! I was struggling with how to reveal that the MC is in a wheelchair without it being boring exposition or insensitive, so your feedback is much appreciated!

Fearless Reider said...

Jennifer Mugrage, Janet obviously hasn't met Nurse Vicious, who administered my allergy shots when I was a kid. Allergy shots have to go deep into the muscle, and I'd swear she smuggled in large-gauge veterinary needles and kept up a grueling arm workout routine just so she could really jab it in there. Those needles punched. But when an agent or editor with a different (normal!) frame of reference encounters that word choice and it pulls them out of the moment to wonder, "do needles punch?", then the word choice gets in the way of the sentence's job to be both clear and enticing while also demonstrating that the writer is in complete command of her craft.

I'm struggling with the same dilemma. In the second line of my novel, when Cherry tells that first lie, the words "roll like silk" from her mouth. I know exactly what I'm picturing when I use that simile, but I've lost sleep wondering whether an agent will see that and think, "wait, does silk roll?" That's not the response I'm looking for. So far, my critique partners have not flagged it, but I know this is a darling that might have to die even though it feels so right for the scene. It might not be a struggle worthy of flop sweat if it were halfway through chapter seven, but in paragraph one, it's got to be right.

Kregger said...

"Twelve-year-old Calvin Jones speaks to birds.
What's the problem with that?

Nothing, really. It’s fine when children talk to dead relatives, God, Saints, and/or leprechauns. The problem is when the monolog becomes a two-way conversation.

As other Reiders have echoed, the problem appears with the second sentence.

Great exercise, Ms. Reid.

Megan V said...

Thanks for doing this Janet! And thanks to everyone for sharing!

For all of the commenters saying 'the second sentence has the wow' I feel your pain!

BUT I'd like to pose the following question: What would happen if you only had one sentence to get the reader salivating for the rest?

It's a similar problem to "but my second chapter is where things really start to get interesting".

Obviously, I've got my own problems in that I tried to dump a lot upfront so as to make the conflict apparent and interesting. Instead of summoning an 'I want more' drool fest I wound up with a 'time to snore' drool fest.

It seems to me that one of the things the good'uns have in common is that they give you a taste of the tension/problem, without giving away everything else.

I've already re-hashed my first line a few times (I've still got plenty of work to do though).

Previous version If sixteen-year-old theater aficionado Murphy Doherty wants to keep her leprechaun magic, then she must grant three wishes to the next person that captures her heart.
Current version: Sixteen-year-old leprechaun Murphy Doherty must grant three cursed wishes to the next person who captures her heart.

But using Twelve-year-old Calvin Jones speaks to birds as another example...what happens if you switch it up to something like The birds are speaking to twelve-year-old Calvin Jones?

Mister Furkles said...


I thought it meant "Birds talk to twelve-year-old Calvin." Then maybe a bit more:
"Birds talk to twelve-year-old Calvin and -" finishing with "he wishes they would shut up.", or "not that he wants them to." or "telling him to kill."

Depends on the story. The reason is that we can all talk to birds just as we talk to dogs and cats. But when they talk to us, that's different. Man bites dog kind of thing.

Luralee said...

Thanks Janet! These are fun and so informative. It makes sense the first sentence of a query has to be a grabber. Just like for a novel but more so.

Ellen said...

Fascinating to read your quick and pithy takes on these. You always manage to surprise me!

FWIW, I actually loved the first one (by Sarah G) to pieces.

KDJames said...

Seeing these en masse like this, one after another after another, is so instructive. I could feel the energy and tension of the ones that worked. Definitely need to re-write mine. Again.

Janet, thank you for doing this!

Re timing: I'm in the eastern (US) time zone but am nocturnal and usually just going to bed around 7 AM (give or take an hour). I've entered a sample in at least one of these, maybe two, and I think I learn more when my work is NOT up for consideration. So much easier to "see" when it's completely objective.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

This is great Janet. I learn so much from everybody's entries and your comments. Thank you for doing this.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Of all the days to be off computer, off phone and into 2,3 and 5 year olds.

Rio said...

Great post!! Thank you so much Ms. Reid and all writers who contributed!

As for the talking-to-birds discussion, I’m reminded of Shakespeare:

I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

— King Henry IV, Part 1

I guess when someone makes that kind of claim, you just have to ask.

Fearless Reider said...

Janet, I realized I do have a question about my entry if you're still willing to answer, or if anyone else would like to -- please jump in! Would it help or hinder if I included Franny's age?: "12-year-old Franny knows she can't keep dodging the sheriff." It's MG fiction and if I don't note her age in the first sentence or two, I'll make sure it appears somewhere in the query. I can't decide whether including her age slows momentum or gives the reader a more immediate grasp of her dilemma. Thanks -- sorry to wear out my welcome!

John Davis Frain said...

This one didn't work?

Schoolteacher Alison Bountiful has a little problem and he's buried in her backyard.

Not only gives me insight into this exercise, but also flash contests. One really has to push the envelope around this reef!

You'll have to bury me in a semi-colon just to stand out around here.

This was a joy to read, Janet. Thanks for taking the time. Good luck on your query, Jeanne. Like schoolteacher Alison, you have a little homework to dig into.

John Davis Frain said...


What if you tried something similar to Luralee? (Imitation is the highest form of flattery, Luralee, so feel the flattery!)

So, in your case, you mention WHY Franny side-stepped the sheriff the last time and how dodging her (or him, I guess sheriffs can be male) this time will be even more difficult. Make sense? If not, lemme know and I'll work up an example. Or feel free to just completely disagree, I'm okay with that too.

Of course, I don't know your story, so I may be way off.

Timothy Lowe said...

OT: "The King" on Netflix is worth the time, speaking of Young Hotspur. The language alone makes it a treat.

NLiu said...

Wow, thanks Janet! I was fully expecting to get educationally chomped! This was really informative (and fun guessing what all the queries were about!)

Cheyenne said...

Oh God, I’m an idiot. Was feeding my 6-week old (6 weeks yesterday!) when I did the one-handed open-Scrivener move to copy and paste my query first line and copy and pasted my MS first line instead. Good job, good job. Love reading everyone else’s though, and thanks, Janet, for sharing your thoughts on these so we can all learn.

Fearless Reider said...

John Davis Frain, Franny's avoiding the sheriff because she doesn't want to answer his questions about why her best friend is in the ICU -- the answers will harm her family and her town. Luralee's is masterful! If you want to take a stab at it, I'll say thanks in advance because I'm already over my comment limit.

And I'm dying to know more about schoolteacher Allison Bountiful's little problem, but I'm not as jaded as Janet.

Brian Wells said...

Dang, I'm really sorry I missed this. Thanks for all the instructive feedback. It's always a learning experience.

Joseph S. said...


I guess Janet Reid thought "punched" was meant to be "punctured."

Joseph S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joseph S. said...

This was an excellent blog thread. Thanks, Janet. I hope I can translate it to my own efforts.

On another matter, I think SimonFrancisDowling's "With his Dad in a comma" sentence would be great if the title of his novel was "Hey, Honey, I Shrunk My Dad."

Either way, it's the one entry I can't forget.

NLiu said...

Been thinking about needles punching. I think punch feels wrong because it implies blunt force. Needles are sharp. So you probably want to say punctured, or to say it punched through her skin (like a hole punch punches through your spiffily-shiny-printed MS). Just my thoughts.

KDJames said...

NLiu (and Cheyenne), I agree. I think "punched through" her skin is different from (and better than) "punched" her skin.

Fearless-- I think adding her age makes it WAY more compelling. Who wouldn't want to know more about why a 12-year-old was avoiding a sheriff?

That reminds me of a story my dad told . . . not that it necessarily has anything helpful to add on the topic, but when has that stopped me? Dad was about that age when one night he and a buddy decided to shoot out all the street lights in their tiny ND town. I think there were 10 in total. The goal, of course, was not to get caught. He said, "The first few were easy. The last two were a challenge."

Fearless Reider said...

Thanks, KDJames! That story is hilarious -- reminds me of the tiny IA town I grew up in. But at least I was in town -- my husband is a farm boy, and when he and his brother got bored, they found the blaze orange livestock paint sticks and decided to decorate the interior of the "good" car. Their mom failed to appreciate their aesthetic contribution, but some hides did get marked that day.

Sherryl and Meredith said...

This was so helpful. Especially reading everyone's lines and Janet's comments. I get it. Now to apply it...
Thanks, Janet!

Aphra Pell said...

Thanks Janet! That confirmed my gut feeling that my query probably has roughly the right elements but not necessarily in the right order (or possibly not in the right words).

Luralee's was the one that stood out for me - I definitely want to know more about a problem that outdoes being stuck in a gibbet.

Wheelchairs - I could expound on this for many hundreds of words, but I'll just say that if any able-bodied reef-dweller wants to chat with a wheelchair using writer about language or sensitivity or weird-ass details you don't know unless you've used one, feel free to ping me (email contact is on my website or I hang out on twitter a lot).

Anonymous said...

Yes, I guess I was thinking of "punched through" when reading "punched." Except, maybe, it didn't punch through, but was just an uncomfortable failed first attempt at an injection.

I do think knowing that the sheriff - avoiding Franny is 12 changes my whole mental picture of what's going on and makes it that much scarier.

JulieWeathers said...

Janet Thank you for this.

Jennifer and Timothy I agree.

My query starts out:April 1861 and the nation teeters on the brink of war.
Twenty-year-old Lorena McKenzie would be thankful for an end to slavery, but she has her own battles to fight.

So it gives us time, and who, and there's definitely some conflict on the horizon.

Timothy Lowe said...

Julie -- I'm sure there are different schools of thought, but I would hate to sacrifice voice, mood, and clarity to try to stuff too many things into one sentence.

Not to say we shouldn't get to the point as quickly as we can, without throat-clearing. I've often noted that our Queryshark's first comments come after the first three-sentence paragraph. I think that first paragraph needs to punch, and hard, or you're probably getting an auto-reject.

(If you want more eyes on your query, Weathers, you know where to find me!:)