First Lines Part III: What Can They Do?

Part I: Half a Dozen of My Recent Stories
Part II: from Some of My Favorite Stories

After giving close reading to a dozen first sentences, half mine and half others, I’m ready to make a list of things that a first line can do (although probably no first line should try to do all of them).

  1. Include a mystery the reader wants to solve by reading the next sentence.
  2. Set a fast reading pace.
  3. Foreshadow the story.
  4. Establish the basics the reader needs to move on with the story.
  5. Create relationships between reader, character and narrator.
  6. Quickly encourage readers who are interested, and discourage those who would rather read something else.
  7. Most importantly, the use of A) diction, B) grammar, C) imagery and D) punctuation in order to establish X) character, Y) setting, and Z) mood.

Or, in abbreviated graphic form:

what a first line can do

What else do you think they do?

First Lines Part II: from Some of My Favorite Stories

Part I: Half a Dozen of My Recent Stories

Continuing from yesterday’s post, I’m looking at the first lines from some of my favorite stories to see why they work. I picked stories that aren’t very recent, and are either by people I don’t know or by writers I met after reading the story. If I do it again, I may relax that rule, but it seemed like a good way to start out. I only used stories that are online so you can go see how the story progresses if you wish. Again, if this turns out to be interesting to me or other folks, I may do more.

The Evolution of Trickster Stories among the Dogs of North Park after the Change” by Kij Johson

“North Park is a backwater tucked into a loop of the Kaw River: pale dirt and baked grass, aging playground equipment, silver-leafed cottonwoods, underbrush, mosquitoes and gnats blackening the air at dusk.”

Obviously, this sentence is scene setting. Kij makes it beautiful with her specific details: “pale dirt,” “baked grass,” “aging playground equipment,” “silver-leafed cotton-woods,” “mosquitoes,” “gnats.” Almost all of the details evoke slow decay–“backwater,” “baked grass,” “aging.” Insects don’t gather in the air so much as dirty it–“blackening” the dusk. The evoked colors are washed out–pale, baked, silver–we can possibly also include the old metal and rust of the playground equipment. The silver-leafed cottonwoods are the exception here–the color is on the grey/black spectrum, yes, but the tree still sounds beautiful. This is decay, but not hopeless decay.

The sentence also establishes the academic tone. This is the kind of sentence assembled by someone speaking authoritatively about a subject, not describing their sensory impressions of the world. The phrasing is formal and complex, and the use of the colon an even more significant marker.

Like Daughter” by Tananarive Due

“I got the call in the middle of the week, when I came wheezing home from my uphill late-afternoon run.”

There’s definitely a mystery here — what’s the call?

“Wheezing” gives us a sense of the character’s age, perhaps–at least that she is unlikely to be a very young athlete–since she is still wheezing even though her uphill run is regular enough to be referred to as “my late-afternoon run.” She’s athletic, but in a real-person-exercising sort of way.

Other than that, I don’t have much. It’s fine. It’s an appealing sentence, tightly written, and I’m happy to move on with it.

Fourteen Experiments in Postal Delivery” by John Schoffstall

“I got your voice mail.”

Conversational. Establishes a relationship between the reader and the narrator immediately — “I” and “you” (and also suggests the reader isn’t actually the “you” being addressed. Is there a term for that?). The questions it poses are obvious — who is speaking? Who am “I?” What voicemail?

I suppose, given that it’s the story it is, it also sets up the reader for some irony–that this story about the postal mail begins with a voice mail.

Perfectly reasonable first sentence.

Little Faces” by Vonda McIntyre

“The blood woke Yalnis.”

I really like this sentence. Utterly simple, utterly direct. Again, the mystery is obvious–what is the blood? The fact that Yalnis doesn’t know only makes it more urgent. It drives the reader rapidly to the next line.

There’s not a lot to say about it. It’s just good.

In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Klages

“Once upon a time, the Carnegie Library sat on a wooded bluff on the east side of town: red brick and fieldstone, with turrets and broad windows facing the trees.”

librarians quote pabloAnother setting sentence. We’ve got the titular library, and the reinforcement from this sentence that it is important. Actually, that’s misleading. It’s not a *titular* library–in fact, the library is called a house. Backing up to the title, which the reader has as a cue along with the first sentence, the emphasis is on location. This isn’t the story of the seven librarians, but rather the library–but the library is defined by its relationships. It is the “house” of the librarians; the story is what happens inside it.

So, moving back. Now this sentence is reaffirming what the title suggests–setting is vital here. The story takes place inside; the first sentence tells us about the outside. I suppose, if we want to overextend a metaphor, we could say it’s the cover of the story.

The descriptions are all aligned to evoke the kind of library readers sigh over. “Wooded bluff” “broad windows facing the trees” — a picturesque, beautiful location, which the broad windows suggest is filled with light. Let’s be honest, this is reader fanservice. Personally, I’m good with that.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang

Her name is Ana Alvarado, and she’s having a bad day.

This is a fine sentence. It tells us what we need to know and suggests we get on with things. We have a who (Ana Alvarado) and a what (she’s having a bad day). Next, we’ll get the why. Almost journalistic.

It also sets up a narrator who has a personality separate from that of the characters. It might be another character, or it might just be the narrative perspective from which the story is told, but this sentence creates an immediate distancing effect. The reader is observing, not participating.

From this, I learned a couple things.

  1. It’s a lot easier to do a textual analysis on your own first sentences than other people’s. Although:
  2. It might be easier to do textual analysis on stories I’d read more recently.
  3. I don’t seem to select for first sentences particularly when I’m choosing my favorite stories. These are all good, but only a couple dazzle. That’s not surprising. A good first sentence is a tiny element of a story, nice but unnecessary. I might try tracking really good first sentences, though, if I remember (I won’t).

First Lines Part I: Half a Dozen of My Recent Stories

Through every moment of carving

I decided it might be interesting to look at some of the first lines of my stories. I’m grabbing a half-dozen first lines from some of my recent publications. I’m only looking at stories that are online, so if people want to see how the first line relates to the rest of the story, they can.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at a half-dozen from some of my favorite stories.If this proves interesting (to me or readers), I may do more another time.

Love Is Never Still” in Uncanny Magazine

“Through every moment of carving, I want her as one wants a woman.”

I’m happy with this–which is useful because I essentially just finished it (six months ago). The story begins as a retelling of the myth of Galatea, a statue who is wished to life when her sculptor falls in love. For people who are versed in Greek mythology, this should evoke Galatea as a possibility — carving, want, woman.

Voicewise, the formal language establishes the kind of narrative distance that characterizes the rest of the text. It also suggests a story that may not occur in our place and time, as indeed it doesn’t.

I often try to make my first lines like puzzles–they create a set-up, and then add a disjunctive element, so the reader begins with a small mystery they need to solve. In this sentence, the intended mystery is between “carving” and “woman.” They aren’t the same, but are being treated the same–why? (And for readers of Greek myths, the further question, “Is this a retelling of Galatea?”)

Tea Time” in Lightspeed Magazine

“Begin at the beginning:”

I’m happy with this one, too. “Tea Time” is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland, so beginning with a quote from Carroll seemed the right thing to do. Luckily, Carroll left this wonderful piece of low-hanging fruit.

Having “begin at the beginning” set apart as a phrase gives some signals, too. First, it suggests fairy tale language (once upon a time), although that’s not the only possibility for what it could be doing. Also, it suggests something unusual is going on between the narration and the text. It’s set aside; it has a colon after it which separates it from what follows. It sets the reader on notice to look for something which will explain it, whether that’s metafiction (which it is), or perhaps an interview format or dialogue (which it isn’t).

To the extent there’s a puzzle here, it seems to come from the question of how the phrase will relate to the story. Why a sentence fragment? Why is it set apart? Why does it need to be explicit that it begins at the beginning, when that’s usually the implicit case? It’s not a big mystery, but it’s there.

Grand Jete” in Subterranean Magazine

“As dawn approached, the snow outside Mara’s window slowed, spiky white stars melting into streaks on the pane.”

Where most first lines work to move you quickly into the story, this one deliberately slows the reader down. The sentence is heavy with adjectives and phrases. It actually evokes the word “slowed” before adding a comma and slowing the reader further.

The story is about a young girl, slowly dying, in winter. The emotions in the story are often muted, and there’s a lot of drama, but it plays out over a long clock. It’s about those long moments that compose a tragedy, the ones that aren’t exciting, but you can’t avoid inhabiting. Grief is like that for me–a little plot, and a lot of aching, endless moments.

It also gets across that the story will be heavily influenced by nature–the snow. And a slow and desolate mood–snow, and even the snow is melting. Something hard and spiky and distinct is becoming only a streak. I’m not expecting readers to get any of that, but it’s the sort of thing that prepares me as I’m writing a story.

I don’t think this sentence has any mystery in it. It’s establishing imagery, mood, and pace, and while it isn’t splashy as a first line, I think it serves the story.

Abomination Rises on Filthy Wings” in Apex Magazine

“My cock is throbbing so I pull it out.”

I was going to omit the sexual ones from this entry, but I decided to pull this one in because I think I messed it up.

On the one hand, it’s short, urgent, and attention-grabbing. In terms of moving the reader rapidly to the next sentence, it’s likely to work. (If they are the kind of reader who isn’t put off by “cock” being in the first sentence. If they are that kind of reader, they’re likely to stop, and that’s good, because they probably wouldn’t enjoy the story. Establishing what kind of story you’re writing early on isn’t only good for you and the people who’ll like it, but good for the ones who want to get that hot potato out of their hands as quickly as possible, too.)

It also suits the story pretty well since the story is partially about the sexual aspect of this man’s hatred of his wife. The sentence and phrasing is off-putting and abrasively short, which goes with the point.

On the other hand, not long after I put this out, Haikosoru editor Nick Mamatas complained about the prevalence in horror stories of stories that begin describing male masturbation in negative terms. I think he’s right–I rarely see stories start with female masturbation, or with positive male masturbation. So, while I think this suited the story reasonably well, I would do something else if I were starting the project now. Masturbation is a good and useful thing; there’s no reason to associate it with jerks (pun actually not initially intended). I vaguely intend to write something in the future which would start with a positive depiction of male masturbation and/or female masturbation, but I have a lot of ideas while time insists on continuing to pass, so.

What Lies at the Edge of a Petal Is Love” in The Dark Magazine

After the wedding, Ruth moved into the Victorian mansion on Jack’s vast, rural estate.

Although the story wasn’t published that long ago, I actually wrote it quite a bit before that. The line is okay, but not great.

First, looking back at the story, I can’t tell why Ruth is the main actor in this sentence. (Really, I have no idea why I made that choice.) Jack is the main character and it’s happening from his perspective. Why isn’t it “Jack took her to live in the Victorian mansion…?” That would be a better reflection of the point of view, and it would go with the character dynamics, since Jack is very excited to introduce Ruth to his life, and she in turn is content to follow.

It does give us setting details that are useful for the story. Victorian prepares the reader for an old-fashioned feel, while also making it clear the characters aren’t actually in the Victorian era. “Vast” and “rural” create an impression congenial to the isolation established later in the story. “Rural” also suggests a hint of the plant imagery that is important later.

There’s not really any mystery in the sentence. It just sets up the thing that happened at the beginning of the story — she moved to this place — and prepares to efficiently move on. That’s workable, but not particularly inspiring.

The Girl Who Waited (for the Doctor to Get to His Point)” from Queers Dig Time Lords, reprinted on io9

It will surprise no one who has given the matter any deep consideration that, given the existence of an extremely powerful being who is documented to engage in time travel and have a predilection for messing about with human history, it follows that there would be many individuals – even possibly contemporary ones -who have had experience with the aforesaid entity.

This is a comic piece of non-fiction about the adventures I’ve had with the Guidance Counselor, a figure similar to but distinct from the BBC’s Doctor.

The labored language is meant to establish my character (cynical, academic) and the style of humor (wordy, dry). I think it’s a funny line, and it goes well with the story. It’s how the character (me) would start it.

However, it’s long and a slog to read. While the elaborate language might work later when the character is a bit more established, it’s a lot to deal with all at once in the beginning. The joke is buried.

It works a bit better in its original context, a compilation of essays about Doctor Who, where the reader is primed. They know there’s something about The Doctor in there; they just have to find it. For them, hopefully, the long paragraph works as a mystery–how does this relate to the doctor?–which leads them through the joke, and on from there. (Or not on from there if they are, e.g., annoyed by authorial insertion.) Without that, though, there’s no real guide for the reader about what to expect, or how to parse the joke, or why this is being written at all.

If I were rewriting the piece, I would add another sentence or paragraph ahead of this. A teasery sort of sentence/paragraph, I think–which I could then pull back from into the abstract voice.

Some sentences from some of my favorite stories tomorrow, and thoughts and conclusions after that.

The difference between draft 1 and draft 12ish of “Love Is Never Still”

I thought it might be interesting to look at a passage from my most recent story, “Love Is Never Still,” as it existed in the first and last drafts. By the time I actually publish a story, I’ve often forgotten what the first draft looked like exactly.

Stages of drawing Galatea. Based on this painting:

Stages of drawing Galatea. Based on this painting.

When I sat down to write “Love Is Never Still,” I did it in one unrevised chunk, so I actually have the text I wrote as I wrote it. It is, as I sometimes warn my beta readers, “hot off the brain presses.”


Draft one:

The Sculptor

I should not have wished her living, that lithe creature whose limbs I had freed from their marble enclosures, whose rounds and slopes had shaped beneath my chisel. She was delicately colored, like the palest of women, and when I ran my hand across the plump of her arm, she was smooth and cold.

I thought that, if she were only flesh, we could embrace. I had wanted her that way through every moment of carving. When I put down the tools and regarded those around me, I saw scars and poxes, rotting teeth, and all the other innumerable perfections nature works on even the most fit bodies. I knew I was sculpting perfection that no woman could match who was borne through flesh and not through stone.

A man may design many things in his life—his home, his career, his presence in the world. Yet men are denied the greatest challenge of all, to create the embodiment of his desire.

With every chip, I imagined the woman she would be. Not only the striking features of her face, but the way she would see me, her literal maker, with awe and humility and measureless gratitude. I would be all to her, god and husband, as Zeus and Apollo and the others are to their mortal wives.

Galatea was flawless to my eye. And if, later, I discovered she was flawed, it was I who had to answer for it.

I prayed for her life, and Aphrodite granted it. They say the goddess of love is warm-hearted, but I have not found her to be kind.

Draft twelve of the first section (the draft which appears in Uncanny Magazine):

The Sculptor

Through every moment of carving, I want her as one wants a woman. I want this lithe creature whose limbs I’ve freed from their ivory enclosures, whose rounds and slopes are discovering their shapes beneath my chisel. She is delicately colored like the palest of women, and when I run my fingers across the plump of her arm, she is smooth and cold.

When necessity requires I set down my tools and leave my estate, all I see are marked bodies. Cooks and merchants, sailors and slaves, rich men and prostitutes—all wear scars and wrinkles and poxes and rotting teeth.

I am sculpting perfection no woman born from mortal flesh can match. I lift my hands to her bosom. Her ivory is soft beneath my palms. I fear I would bruise her if I pressed too eagerly.


  • Draft 1 is surprisingly cogent, which is probably because this is the first section. The later stuff, written as I was getting fatigued, is likely much less coherent.
  • Also, the first couple paragraphs were originally a poem I was trying to write, so I did work on the words there (although they had line breaks in).
  • There are a lot of ideas in draft one and they bounce around too fast from one subject to another. I have a tendency to do this. It shows up especially in my poetry where I have trouble slowing down to unpack a single image. It shows up in my first prose drafts, too, and I have to put in some effort to bat it back. I remember what Marilynne Robinson told me: that it’s okay to be slow, and try to let each moment be itself.
  • Although it appears I cut a huge amount, I actually displaced a lot of it. The final draft has a version of the first two paragraphs from the original. The third, fifth, and sixth were shuffled down to later places in the story where they would work better. The only paragraph that went entirely is the fourth, in which the sculptor fantasizes about being godlike, because that wasn’t the character I eventually ended up writing. The sculptor who pictures himself as a god and Galatea as a supplicant is nakedly ambitious and exploitative in a way the sculptor in the story is not.
  • Related to the fact that I had a lot of ideas bouncing around, I note that the original draft is long on shiny abstract statements and short on images and movements. That’s why the paragraphs could be detached and placed elsewhere so easily. They are good emotional turns and character moments to steer the plot and pacing one way or another, but they need anchors so they don’t feel empty.
  • And related to both of those, the problem with the hodgepodge of abstract statements is that there’s no coherence to the narrative beneath them. Why does it flow from one paragraph to another in the way it does? The paragraphs aren’t connected terribly; I can see why one thought led to another while I was writing. But it’s better* when you can make the structure underneath a section like that a strong, moving force–something that goes in a straight line instead of circling itself, repeating incidents, themes, or arguments.
  • The main fix for all of this was to pare down the number of concepts I was trying to get across to just what needed to be in the first impression of the story–he is carving her, and he is obsessed with her. I gave it a through thread (“I want her, and this is why.”). Then I moved from the abstractions into a physical moment when he moves in to touch her. (The bruise thing is from Ovid – “he fears he then may bruise her by his eager pressing.”) That gives me a physical anchor for moving into Galatea’s point of view. Moving into her perspective so quickly also means that I immediately set up the rhythm of multiple points of view, and establish her perspective as being of equal importance to the sculptor’s.
  • There’s a lot of subtler linguistic stuff, cutting words–especially redundancies–and toning down a bit on drama, particularly by cutting that fourth paragraph (“awe and humility and measureless gratitude”–thanks, we get it.). And a lot of reorganizing. My essential philosophy is that prose can be complex and also feel (relatively) easy to read as long as you get it down so that it easily flows from one sentence and concept to the next. I reorganized this piece a *lot* as I revised, particularly because a major component of the revision was attempting to rebalance the strength of the Galatea and Aphrodite arcs.

Writing Advice from Novelists: How to Start Your Second Book

To support SFWA this year, I auctioned off a writing advice article on the topic of the bidder’s choice.

The winner was Mark Tompkins whose debut novel, The Last Days of Magic, is coming out from Viking in March. Unsurprisingly, Mark has a lot of questions about novels and the business of novelling. Since I’m primarily a short story writer, I can’t answer from experience. So, instead, I gathered short responses from some excellent novelists who can answer from experience. My plan was to read all the answers from the writers I contacted and then add a few words of summation, but really, I think the answers are excellent and stand on their own.

Thanks to Mark for supporting SFWA!

Steven Gould, author of Jumper:

There is a saying in writer workshops the world over. You never learn how to write a novel; you only learn how to write this novel. There is an element of truth to this.
Here are two things to keep in mind:


1. Try not to repeat yourself: Don’t make the new characters just like the old, don’t use the same plots twists, do give us new settings and MacGuffins. Let your readers know you’re not a one-trick pony.


2. Try to repeat yourself: Do try and keep the things that worked. What were the things you did that made your characters interesting/sympathetic/flawed? What were your ways of describing setting and place that allowed your readers to be there? How did you get your protagonist(s) committed and out of the beginning and into the middle of your novel.


You will have themes that are conscious and thematic material that is unconscious. Don’t let it drift into propaganda or polemic. Be aware, though, that the things you really care about will emerge/inform/surface in the story. Sometimes you will see this and sometimes you won’t. It’s probably better if you didn’t see them coming.


No matter how your first book did, this is a new thing. Make it count. Take joy in the process.


And most of all, make it something you want to read.

N. K. Jemisin, author of The Inheritance Trilogy:

That’s a surprisingly hard question to answer. 🙂 I think there’s two ways to answer it — philosophical, and practical. The practical is the easy part: open new word file, start writing, same as when you start any new project. You kinda have to do it because a) your book may not sell, b) if it sells (or has sold already) it will need an editor’s notes and those will probably take weeks or months to come, c) if you’ve turned in the final, after-revisions version it’ll be a year or two AT LEAST before the book actually comes out, and d) if the book is successful, your publisher will immediately be after you for your next book, so it’s a good idea to actually *have* one.


The philosophical part matters too, though. Emotionally and psychologically speaking, finishing a novel is (I imagine) equivalent to having a baby: in the immediate and painful aftermath, the last thing you want to think about is doing it again. But as I said, practically speaking you need to do it, so you have to get over the “no mas” reaction. Personally, I’ve never had any trouble doing this; I’ve almost always got another project on the back burner of my mind, and finishing one gets me excited to start the next. But I know that for some people it takes more work to drag your mind back into the wordcount mines. It *is* a good idea to take a brief (put a time limit on it) breather to recover. Write a short story as a palate-cleanser. Go on a vacation, hug your family, etc. Seek inspiration in these things, to remind yourself of why you wanted to be a writer in the first place. Then… butt in chair.

Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings and “The Paper Menagerie:”

As with so many things in writing, there’s no single answer that works for everyone. What I say here is based on my own experience and the experiences of other writers I’ve talked to, but I don’t claim the generalizations here to be universal.


Ideally, when you sold your series, you also pitched an outline for the series along with the manuscript for the first book. You shouldn’t feel that you have to stick to the outline, of course, since no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, but at least you have some landmarks to strive toward. This is both a plus and a minus, as I’ll explain.


The biggest difference in writing the second book in a series compared to the first one is probably one of timing. You likely spent years polishing your first book, and you had the luxury of rounds of beta readers and multiple drafts. With the second book, you’re writing to a deadline, and missing the deadline will have cascading effects on the publisher’s publicity plans and hurt your sales. You have to be prepared to work much harder and faster on the second book than your first one, and you may need to limit the number of drafts you can do.


Somewhat surprisingly, the first book you wrote may turn out to be your biggest obstacle. The worldbuilding you did and the plot of that book will constrain your choices in the sequel. This is why it’s critical to take good notes as you write book one, tracking time lines, locations, character traits, details about the world — by the time you write the sequel, the first book will no longer be fresh in your head. Good notes will save you a lot of time and frustration and
prevent you from violating your own rules.


It’s also really important to maintain a sense of excitement as you work on the sequel. The fact that you’re not creating a world from scratch can drain some of your creative energy, and if you’re not excited by what you’re writing, the reader won’t, either. This is why it’s helpful to plot book two so that it upends the world of book one in some way — welcome the chance to be surprised by your own


Above all, have fun!

Helene Wecker, author of The Golem and the Jinni:

First, celebrate. Turning in your novel is a huge hairy deal. Go out for a fancy dinner with a significant other or something. Give yourself permission to relax for a few days. You’ve probably been holed up for a while, so go talk to some humans. Send a few emails to friends, accept an invitation to coffee. Go for a walk outside.


Ok, now back to work. It’s a good idea to focus on marketing during the pre-pub months, and to that end you’ll want to prep a master Q&A about the book. My publisher sent me one with about a dozen questions (“How did the idea come to you?” “Who were your favorite characters to write?” “Describe your research process,” etc). It took forever to fill out, but it meant I didn’t have to think on the fly during interviews or readings. If your publisher doesn’t do it for you, make one yourself, with what you’d guess are the most likely questions that a reader or interviewer would ask. It might feel tedious, but you won’t regret it.