guest post: YA author C Lee McKenzie on the importance of great first lines in novels. And win a copy of YA novel Sliding on the Edge.

YA author C. Lee McKenzie joins us to talk about the importance of writing great first lines in our novels. C. Lee McKenzie takes on modern issues that today’s teens face in their daily lives. Her first young adult novel, Sliding on the Edge, which dealt with cutting and suicide was published in 2009. Her second, titled The Princess of Las Pulgas, dealt with a family who loses everything and must rebuild their lives; it came out in 2010.

I think it’s important, as writers, to make our work the best we can make it. I’ve always loved reading about writing technique, and I think C. Lee McKenzie has some wise things to say. I love all the writing technique books she quotes from, too. C. Lee McKenzie has also generously offered to send the first person who comments with two out of four correct answers to her questions (at the end of the post) a signed copy of Sliding On The Edge. Read on and enjoy!

The Importance of Great First Lines In Novels
by C Lee McKenzie

In Stein On Writing, Stein describes an informal study made in a mid-Manhattan bookstore. Here’s what he saw. “In the fiction section, the most common pattern was for the browser to read the front flap of the book’s jacket and then go to page one. No browser went beyond page three before either taking the book to the cashier or putting the book down and pickup up another to sample.”

Here’s what Noah Lukeman wrote in The First Five Pages. “Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript . . .” I never forgot his words.

It’s because of these two writers that I spend a lot of time paying close attention to how books start, and I can’t tell you how many times I write the openings to my books. I often just jump into the story somewhere in the middle and then work my way back to the opening lines. These lines aren’t easy for me to get just right, but I since I know how important they are I don’t mind the time and the effort they take.

One thing I did to improve my first lines was to read a lot of good books that everyone seems to agree start with a bang–different bangs, but clearly enticing words.

Here are some openings that I love. Some you’ll recognize, and there’s a reason for that.

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. Charlotte’s Web ( I hardly need cite the book, right?)

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long ear, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” Tuck Everlasting

“Call me Ishmael” Moby Dick

Each one of these is so different, yet they pulled me and thousands of others into their stories. So what do these have in common that made want to read on?

They EXCITED me, INTERESTED me, CAPTURED my attention or PLUCKED A STRING deep inside me, and that’s exactly what an author has to do if he wants to sell his manuscript. Take a look at this great post Absolute Write by Susan Sundwall. She says the same thing only better.

So how do you create these opening lines that catch the reader’s attention? Maybe we can start with what not to do. Don’t bury your verbs and nouns with adverbs and adjectives. Instead, choose strong verbs and precise nouns.

The horse went really fast across the hot, dry desert, carrying the very heavy man. (Close book. Pick up next one on shelf.)
The horse galloped across the searing sand. It bore the weight of two men, but only one straddled his back. (Hmm. More intriguing. The verbs are stronger; the adjectives minimal; I want to know where this story is taking place and why that horse is galloping under the burden of that man. I even feel sorry for the horse already.)

You should also hear those sentences that you write. They should have a rhythm and a melody. Anyone can write a shopping list, only some can write prose that becomes art.

The girls run quickly across the rocks, climb up from the beach until they get to the path and then run away from the man who follows them. (Clunky. Clunky. Clunky.)

The girls scramble over the sheer rock, searching for the path that leads away from the beach and away from the man who follows. (Better. Maybe a touch more panic.)

Scrambling–hand over hand, feet slipping on sheer rock–the girls search for the path to escape the beach, the path to escape the man closing the space behind them. (I might keep reading this one.)

Well, you get the idea. There’s no one way to start a book, but when it starts it had better be with words that make the reader want to keep reading. Want to see the 100 best first lines from novels? Here they are, according to the American Book Review.

Happy First Lines.


So tell me which of these opening lines does one or more of those things for you? Do you recognize any of them? Be the first to comment here with two out of four correct titles and you can win a signed copy of Sliding on the Edge. It would be great if you’d take a moment and give this post a Tweet mention too.

1) My stepfather, Charlie, explained it all to me a long time ago. He was at the kitchen table cracking pecans, and I was making a piece of cheese toast in the microwave. Mom was not home.
“Do you know why I’m mean to you, Ashley?” he gently asked.

2) “ Please tell me that’s not going to be part of my birthday dinner this evening.”
I’m staring into the hissing face of a cobra.

3) I should have known.
I should have known the minute I went to get my favorite White Stripes peppermint tee and found it not in the drawer, but temporarily forgotten in the back of my closet, curled up in a crusty ball. Caked with two-week-old nuked syrup that had shot out of the bottle, bounced off my waffle, and splattered me like a sweet paintball.

4) Jesse’s dying.
The doctors are 96 percent sure of it.

C. Lee McKenzie’s books:

About Cheryl Rainfield

I write the books I needed and couldn't find as a teen. I write teen fiction--paranormal fantasy and gritty realistic fiction. I'm the author of SCARS (WestSide Books, 2010) #1 ALA QuickPicks, and Governor General Literary Award Finalist, HUNTED (WestSide Books, Oct 2011), STAINED (Harcourt, 2013), The Last Dragon (HIP Books, Sept 2009), and Walking Both Sides (HIP Books, 2011). I also enjoy drawing, surfing the web, connecting with people I like, doing crafts, and being with my dog.
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9 Responses to guest post: YA author C Lee McKenzie on the importance of great first lines in novels. And win a copy of YA novel Sliding on the Edge.

  1. I’m not entering the contest because I already have Lee’s book, but I wanted to say this is a great post. First lines are so important. You have to make the reader want to buy your book or continue reading.

  2. Jessie Harrell says:

    Hi Lee — just dropping in to say “great post” — and I recognize the second line as being from A Great and Terribly Beauty by Libba Bray. (right?)

  3. Knowing that agents/editors/readers read only the first couple of pages really makes you realize you have to grab their attention right away. Great post, C Lee. I already have copies of both your books. They’re my favorites. Thanks for the latest. I’ve almost finished reading it.

  4. Eliza Tilton says:

    Great post!

    I have no idea about those first lines…lol

  5. Hi and thanks everyone for hopping on board and saying hi here on Cheryl’s great blog.

    Here’s to reading some of your super first lines!

  6. Cecilia says:

    Great post, Lee! Great opening examples and the advice on using strong verbs, priceless! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  7. I just won one of her books, so I won’t be selfish! I’ll advertise this on Facebook.

  8. And the winner is . . . Jessie! Send me your email and I’ll pop a copy of Sliding on the Edge in the mail.

  9. LM Preston says:

    Oh gosh, I wish I would have signed up first.

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