Thursday, March 3, 2011

The First 13 Lines

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One of the best classes I attended at LTUE was “Lucky 13” presented by Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury (who…may I say, totally knows her stuff—she moderates the Hatrack River Writers Workshop and Orson Scott Card’s website—click here or here and even here).

She had five (very brave) writer’s share the first 13 lines of their work with the class. We then tore it apart. Just kidding! (Did I freak you out a little?) 

But we did analyze the lines.

Just the first 13…because that is all the chance you may have with an agent.

She asked:

Do you understand what is going on (what the story is about? What the character’s problem is?)

Do you care (I mean, really…who wants to read a story when we don’t care about the mc)?

Do you want to keep reading?

As we continued to listen to the five brave souls, I noticed that a great first line hook is every important to a book. Check out a few well written books from the library and just read the first line. (I just finished both Speak & Fahrenheit 451. Great first lines.) What do they promise the reader?

Plus, please no flashbacks or info dumps. That is guaranteed to turn off your reader. (I have a book on my shelf completely devoted to a fantastic info dump in its first chapter. I couldn’t tell you about the rest of the book, because I stopped reading. The info dump was that good.)

Also, please just get to the meat of the story. We need to know why you started where you did. What is different in your character’s life at this moment?  We don’t care about the sunny picnic, we want the picnic ruined with rain and the swarm of ants.

I’m sure there was more to the class, but these were the things that stood out to me. Do you have any other suggestion? 

What do you look for in  the first 13 lines?

25 comments:

t said...

I learned about the first 13 line test when I studied Orson Scott Cards website. I agree with him. The first 13 lines are very important. Those people who had their stuff analyzed were very brave.

Mary Campbell said...

That comment from "t" is from me. Signed into the wrong account again.

Summer Ross said...

good post- I think I will need to go back to my first 13 lines and see what I did.

Melanie Jacobson said...

I, too, am suddenly overcome with the need to go back and read my first 13 on a few pieces just for fun. It's a cool way to assess your beginning. Thanks for sharing the tip.

Jolene Perry said...

For me, a book is all about voice, I can forgive a lot in the first little bits if the language hooks me.

Catherine Denton said...

Ohhh, these are good! I look for a good name. ;) No seriously, I like to connect emotionally with the character. Something human.
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Lynn said...

I'll be keeping in mind "rain and the swarm of ants" whenever I begin a story now! There definitely has to be conflict in the first 13 lines, even if it is just internal.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Off to read my first 13 lines! *hopes they're okay* :-)

Angie said...

Sounds like it was great. I just love Kathleen. She was such a great mentor to me when I was first starting out. Taught me so much about writing and encouraged me along the way.

David Powers King said...

Can't agree more. The first 13 lines are important. Giving the rest of your novel equal treatment is important too. Awesome post, Carolyn :)

Patti said...

Going to read the first 13 lines right now.

Jessica Bell said...

first 13 lines? yikes. What happened to the first page? it's getting harder and harder to snag an agent. Soon it'll be the first word!

L.T. Elliot said...

That class was so brilliant. Really. I learned so much from it! Now...to apply it. =]

Sara B. Larson said...

Sounds like it was a great class. And it's VERY true. You have very few sentences to hook an agent or editor. If you make it to 13, you're doing something right. ;) One of the best ways I've heard it described is "start on the day/event that is different." If you don't, you're starting with backstory.

Jennifer said...

Great idea! Now I have to brave my first 13 lines again.

Bethany Mattingly said...

Loved it when you said, "We don’t care about the sunny picnic, we want the picnic ruined with rain and the swarm of ants." So true. The only thing I have to say is watch out for being gimmicky. For me, having someone reach to grab my attention is as annoying as an info dump.

Medeia Sharif said...

I don't like a beginning focused on setting or info dumping.

roxy said...

Man, do I wish I had gone to LTUE! This class sounds great. I always look for a story that moves forward from the very beginning, and I usually know by the second paragraph if I'll like the MC.

ali said...

(Mary, you're funny!)

This sounds like a great class! And a different take on that first page "rule". Thanks for sharing Carolyn!

Susan Fields said...

Wow, I'm going to have to reread my first thirteen lines and ask myself those questions. Speak's first line is completely awesome.

Elena Jube said...

Somehow I missed that one. Thanks for sharing your notes. So fun meeting you at LTUE, Carolyn. Glad I found your blog. :)

Jackee said...

Hi, Carolyn! How are you? I'm so sad I missed LTUE AGAIN this year.

Thanks for the wonderful advice. It really gets me thinking what all my first 13 lines are. What am I promising the reader?

Now I'm off to check...

Hugs!

Rachel Cotterill said...

I always start writing well before what will ultimately be the beginning of a novel - and then I can choose how much to cut for the best starting point. I don't claim to be graet at it, but I try! :)

Jamie Burch said...

Ooh...thank you for this! I'll keep all of this advice in mind when I begin my revisions.

You rock!

Kathryn Magendie said...

I just went and re-read the first 13 lines from the novel I'm working on now - out of curiosity!

I look for character - do I want to follow the character wherever she/he will lead me? I never give up on a book in the first few pages - I give it at least 50! And there are times, many times, I'm glad I didn't give up on a book before the 50 pages!