"A good first sentence knows about everything that will follow it and leans forward with great force, taking you with it."
**Stanley Fish in the New York Times
Stanley Fish was in Maureen Dowd's spot in the Times...and had a wonderfully thought-provoking column.
It was about how he can pick a good mystery in the airport bookstore--really fast--as they're calling his flight.
He says: the only "sure fire" method? Not the cover, not the jacket copy, not the blurbs. He says it's to read the first line.
He has a clunker or two--but offered this as the one from the book he bought:
"Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride."
He says "it's efficient, dense, and free of self-preening."
So--you all--what think?
**Does your first line pass the Stanley test?
(I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours...and I must say, after two years of working on my first novel, the first line in the soon-to-be published book never changed.)
**Does your favorite first line pass the Stanley test?
**What book is he quoting, anyway? Anyone know?
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Wait a minute, that's not mine. I must have dreamt I wrote that. That, of course, is the compelling first line of Rebecca. I saw the movie many years before I ever read the book, or even knew who Daphne du Maurier was. How could you not be drawn in by that opening? I have changed the first line to my first book (BSP, Pushing Up Daisies, St. Martins Feb 2008) so many times that I don't exactly remember it - not a good sign, I suppose!! Omigod, just reread it for the first time in months, and it's too late to change so don't say anything mean..
"My first guess was heirloom silver, or maybe the family jewels, buried and forgotten years ago by some light-fingered servant or paranoid ancestor."
Needless to say, the wisecracking amateur sleuth's first guess is wrong.
I think all the rewriting was a good thing, Ro. I really, really like that opening. I'm hoping that everyone adopts Stanley Fish's method for choosing a book. I don't think I've ever had an especially catchy opening line in my previous books, but I'm fond of my opening sentence in Yesterday's Fatal. (May 2007) Short but sweet.
It's not that fatals are beneath me.
That's my protaganist, Hallie, talking. The next graph is more dense, explaining that she's newspaper reporter and that she's talking about fatal car accidents. It sets up some of the changes, attitude and politics in the newsroom, and of course the fatal she's about to stumble upon.
Anyway, I did some rewriting as well. Originally, it was simply, Fatals are beneath me. But this was tongue-in-cheek, and I realized that most readers wouldn't be able to interpret it as such -- especially the ones who had never read Hallie before.
So it evolved, like your opening Ro.
So it's your turn, Hank, let's hear it!
Between the hot flashes, the hangover and all the SPAM on my computer, there’s no way I’ll get anything done before 8 o’clock this morning. I came in early to get ahead, and already I’m behind.
(No, that's not my explanation of why I'm late with this blog entry. That's the first line--two, really--of PRIME TIME.)
And it is pretty fascinating, you have to admit, that you can tell instantly from our three lines exactly what kinds of stories you're about to hear.
In Ro's, someone digs up something sinister, buried long ago. And you're compelled to read on--because what's her second guess? And then, what was reality? And since your main character is a master gardener, that makes "digging" even more meaningful.
Jan's has a more world-weary tone, instantly. And obviously someone is dead.
And "fatals" instantly means reporter. And it instantly sounds like "Reporter who has to do something she doesn't want to do." All in 7 words.
And mine: she's busy. She's crazed. She's of a certain age. She has a job where there's some pressure and tension. Something is at stake. In the next line--you hear about "downstairs in the newsroom...."
Well, I'd love to hear more first lines...and talk about makes them work. Or not...
Funny this should come up - I've just been trolling for great first lines as part of my research for a nonfiction project. My fellow Jungle Reds have great opening lines, sadly mine are fairly pedestrian novel openings (sorry, it's the truth...a problem when you're a writer and a critic). The best I've done is from DELUSION: "I woke up craving watermelon."
Here are some that are choice. Read them and see if you can guess the book...answers at the end of my blogette:
1. When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from his unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
2. There once was a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.
3. If you want to find Cherry Tree Lane, all you have to do is ask the Policeman at the crossroads.
4. Nobody could sleep.
5. My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.
1: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka - 2: Silent Spring by Rachel Carsons - 3: Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers - 4: The Naked and the Dead - Norman Mailer - 5: Liar's Club: Mary Karr