Episode 90

Writing a Good First Line

In the last episode we discussed what makes a good opening line in fiction, and in this episode we’re doing the same with nonfiction, some of which overlaps with fiction. I also share some examples of good opening lines from nonfiction.

Music licensed from Storyblocks:

“More Jam Please” by Raighes Factory

"California Blues" by Style da Kid

"Down to Get Up Again" by Humans Win

Rosemi Mederos:

If you have plot bunnies coming out of your plot holes, it’s time for a writing break.

Well, if it isn’t my favorite writer. I would ask you how your current manuscript is going, but you are here to take a break from all of that, are you not? We have our usual show flow today. Last week we discussed what makes a good opening line in fiction, and today we’re doing the same with nonfiction, some of which overlaps with fiction. I will also share some examples of good opening lines from nonfiction.

The Writing Break cafe is open, so let’s head over to our usual table, and I’ll fill you in on some publishing news.

ardcover bestseller stats for:

Simon & Schuster and Macmillan saw minor declines, while HarperCollins and Hachette Book Group faced more significant drops. Penguin Random House, however, increased its share from 34.6% in 2022 to 36.7% in 2023.

Independent publishers like Entangled, Kensington, and Sourcebooks managed to release some impressive bestsellers. The real good news here is that, as indie publishers gain traction, it could open doors for more diverse and creative literary voices.

In a major victory for freedom of speech advocates, the Fifth Circuit of the US Court of Appeals, which is thought to be the most conservative court in all the land, upheld a lower court's decision to block key provisions of HB 900, a controversial Texas law that would have imposed a rating system on books sold to minors.

HB 900 mandated booksellers to label books with "sexually explicit" or "sexually relevant" ratings and restrict their sale to minors without parental consent. Booksellers and publishers argued the law infringed on First Amendment rights and placed an undue burden on bookstores.

The Fifth Circuit Court found the law likely violated First Amendment protections against compelled speech by forcing booksellers to label books with arbitrary ratings.

Amazon has a new invitation-only beta program that allows authors to create audiobooks from their ebooks using virtual narration. Authors can choose from a variety of voices and customize the audiobook before publishing. The price of the audiobook must be set between $3.99 and $14.99, and authors will receive 40% of the royalties. These AI-generated audiobooks will be included in the Audible Plus catalog, and they will be labeled as narrated by a virtual voice.

Check the show notes for a link to join the waiting list and for links to all of today’s stories.

Now, join me on the Overthinking Couch for an old-fashioned rant about newfangled software.

Despite my mother thinking I edit on paper (true story), publishing houses and independent authors send manuscripts to me in Microsoft Word format. I use the heck out of Word. I like using it. I prefer editing in Word to editing in any other software program. But lately Word’s grammar check is making some suggestions that are downright insulting. It began with the phrase “very difficult.” When I saw the blue squiggly line, I thought it was going to make one of two obvious suggestions: (1) remove the word very; or (2) change very difficult to a single word that means very difficult, such as strenuous, laborious, or even backbreaking.

Instead, it suggested that I change very difficult to incredibly difficult. This does not improve the English, and it is not the same thing, is it? If something is incredible, then it is not to be believed, which is certainly not a synonym for very.

It seems like the problem is getting worse. Most recently, Word suggested that “almost always” be changed to “always”, which is not at all equivalent or accurate. And this change was suggested for a scientific text, so it was most certainly a bad suggestion.

These types of suggestions are a disservice to Word users, and I want to know what the heck is going on with the grammar check programming over at Microsoft and if there is anything that can be done to stop the madness.

Let me know if you’ve experienced any such egregious suggestions from Microsoft Word. I just want to feel like I’m not alone out here in the Great Grammar Gap.

OK, rant over. Would you please accompany me to a used bookstore so that I might find my equilibrium once again? I would greatly appreciate it.

Today we are in downtown Montrose, California, visiting Lost Books, which is the sister store to The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles. Eighty percent of the books at Lost Books are used, and they sell vinyl, plants, candles, and other gifts. But the real attraction here is the decor. There are plants everywhere, including on the ceiling, and they are all alive. There is a meticulously tended tunnel of plants you can pass through, a built-in aviary nestled among the bookshelves, and even a couple of aquariums.

It’s just a beautiful place to spend the afternoon, and I’m grateful to my friend and fellow editor Heather for letting me know about it.

Let’s stroll around the store and see what gem we unearth from among the books and plants.

If you take A Court of Thorns and Roses and blend it with The Hunger Games, and then make it spicy, you’ll end up with Fit for the Throne: The Trial of Ten by S. McPherson.

“I’ve been chosen.

On a night when I’m supposed to be making bad decisions with handsome strangers, I find myself pressed against a wall by a man who commands shadows. He’s handsome—painfully so—but he doesn’t want my body. He wants my blood. Spilled in a game of deadly trials to claim a throne I don’t want, in a world I’ve never heard of.

If I couldn’t feel the heat of his breath on my lips or the indent of his fingers at my throat, I’d be convinced this was a dream—a nightmare—but it’s impossibly real. I’m a new contestant on some hit reality show, Fit for the Throne.

I try to tell them I don’t belong here in this twisted world of witches, warlocks and Fae. No one will listen. Least of all, the man of shadows who can't seem to decide if he wants to kill me or keep me.

Running isn’t an option. The only way out of the Games is to play them. However, the more I play, the more I discover that there's more to me and this world than I thought. Maybe I want that throne after all.”

The author notes that the Fit for the Throne series is a spicy, New Adult, enemies-to-lovers romantasy trilogy with mature themes, including dubious consent, violence, and open-door scenes intended for an audience of 18 and over.

All three books in the series are available in ebook and paperback formats. The third and final book releases today, and the entire series is free to read with Kindle Unlimited.

Now how about we take up residence on the tropical-themed couch in front of the aquarium for today’s writing tip?

Last week I told you about three questions to ask your book’s opening if you’re writing fiction. For nonfiction, the first two questions still apply:

Does my book’s opening hook the reader within the first few sentences, sparking curiosity and excitement for what’s to come?

Does the opening establish the tone and atmosphere of the entire book?

The third question just needs to be tweaked a bit.

Does the opening introduce essential elements, like a thread of mystery begging to be unraveled, your unique voice and personality, and the themes and challenges you’ll explore?

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, it’s important to hook readers with your opening. If you’re writing a true crime, you might want to begin with unsettling details. If you’re writing a memoir, you might want to begin with vulnerability and honesty. If you’re writing something philosophical, why not begin with a surprising or controversial statement?

Vivid imagery is necessary for a good opening, no matter what genre you’re writing.

Here are some examples of intriguing opening lines in nonfiction:

From Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham, "When I was nine, I wrote a vow of celibacy on a piece of paper and ate it."

From “How to Live After You Die” by Derek Humphry, “The first time I died, it was a Tuesday."

From The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, "I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster."

From Unweaving The Rainbow by Richard Dawkins, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”

This last one I really like:

From Truth and Logic by Alfred Ayer, “The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful.”

That is all for this writing break. May all who recommend this podcast to others go on to write international bestsellers. Until next time, thank you so much for listening, and remember, you deserved this break.

If you would like us to visit your favorite independent bookstore, feature your favorite independent author (even if it’s you), or discuss something you’re overthinking about, please email me at podcast@writingbreak.com.

Thank you for making space in your mind for The Muse today.

Writing Break is hosted by America’s Editor and produced by Allon Media with technical direction by Gus Aviles. Visit us at writingbreak.com or contact us at podcast@writingbreak.com.

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Rosemi Mederos


Rosemi is the founder of America's Editor, a book editing company.