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Writerly Pickup Lines June 4, 2010

Posted by ninapaules in How 2 Write.

The best pickup line I’ve ever heard was the one my husband tossed out at me, before I became his wife. 

I, however, am not a pickup artist.  When I meet someone new, I am lucky to remember the person’s name along with my own, never mind a witty turn of phrase that bends them to my way of thinking.

But, good — no, make that stellar — pickup lines are a *must* in today’s writerly world. 


The first line sells the book.  To the reader.  To the publisher.  To the agent.  To the contest judge.  The rest of the story must be good, too.  It sells the author’s next book.    But the first line… those few magical words must pluck money from the pocket like a two-fingered Louie.

Luckily, I am blessed with teachers — very good teachers — who are excellent writerly pickup artists.  Here are a few of their pickup lines, and a bit on how they’ve helped me fashion my own.

The Pickup

“War was hell.  Letters from relatives could be worse.”  Never Less Than A Lady by Mary Jo Putney (2010)

“She was willing to die, of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen.”  The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne (2008)

“Then what you’re saying is, I have to sell myself,” the gentleman said.”  A Bride For His Convenience by Edith Layton (2008)

The Lesson

A good pickup line seems to do three things.  Divert.  Contrast.  Elicit emotion. 

Go back and read those pickup lines again, in slow motion.   

I’ll wait.

Still waiting….


You done?

Good.  Now, let’s examine.

Receiving a letter from a relative is worse than enduring war, or even hell.   Most will agree that war is hell. (diversion) Whether you, as a reader, can relate to explosive relatives or not, the contrast between war and relationship intrigues, stirring emotion from empathy to concern to even morbid curiosity.  What in the world, does “that letter” say?

A woman is willing to die, but never imagined it would be at the hands of those she was willing to die for.  And she’s young and in a bad place expecting even worse things to happen.  I am diverted by the compelling contrasts.  Immediately, I want to root for her, help her, make sure she gets her happily ever after. The only way I can do that is to buy & read the book.

A gentleman forced to sell himself.  This line has contrast in spades. Not only is selling one’s self unpalatable in general, it is doubly unpalatable for a [English] gentleman (stirring emotion), and, for a female reader, feels a bit like “just deserts” as it is usually the heroine doing the selling. (diversion)  But, Lady Layton doesn’t leave us there, wanting to “stick it” to her hero.  She elicits our compassion via the gentlemen’s surprise (backhandedly suggesting disappointment) and austere acceptance (because he is after all, a hero).  Now, we must know what went wrong and why our English gentleman must sell himself… and to whom

Did you get all that the first time you read those opening pickup lines?  I know I didn’t.  I just bought the books.

So, what are some of your favorite pickup lines?  Share from your favorite authors, or post your own, unpublished first line. 

(comment button at top of post)



1. Brian - June 6, 2010

I can’t think of one but here’s one I wrote:

The rope around his neck prickled like bugs on his skin, all he wanted was a good scratch; an absurd concern, considering what held the other end of the rope..

ninapaules - June 8, 2010

Great opening line! Distracts (there’s a rope around his neck!), shows a bit of the hero’s dry humor, (he was thinking about scratching) and elicits emotions (what ever did he do to deserve this?) You must tell the rest of the story!

2. Confessions of a Contest Judge: Making Conflict (part 2) « Raw & Dangerous: Just as I am - June 18, 2010

[…] that keeps on giving starts with your opening line.  Here is an earlier post I did on building knockout first lines.  But conflict rarely begins there.  Conflict begins (and ends) with your characters, no matter […]

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