Monday, May 26, 2008

First Impressions

“Did you learn nothing from Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing?”

This question, came from a trusted critique partner on chapter one of my WIP. I winced and slammed my forehead onto the table. Among the many sins committed in the first draft, I began the entire story with a weather report. Not only was it one of Leonard’s “10 Rules”, but “Never open a book with weather” was Rule #1. In such a hurry to get the story down, I didn’t give much thought to how I’d begin.

I forgive myself this rookie blunder because there are plenty of reasons to scrap that first chapter and I had to start somewhere to figure out where I was going. When I began thinking about first lines, I recalled a post called, Once Upon a Time on Electric Epiphytes and Electrophoretic Epigrams, by the enigmatic and fabulous Electric Orchid Hunter. The post is a list of memorable first lines.

Most book selections I make are based on recommendations and reviews, so I don’t pay too much attention to first lines and I never make book buying decisions based on reading the start of a book. But I do realize that first lines are crucial, so I’m sitting up and taking notice.

I wondered about the first lines of books I’d especially enjoyed. Rather than cherry pick to find especially good ones, I decided I’d see what the first lines were for a list of books I posted last week. I’ve adopted The Electric Orchid Hunter’s rules and included the second and third sentences, if I think they’re needed to complete a thought. In the case of the Nabokov, I confess, I just wanted to keep going.

1. “The baloney weighed the raven down, and the shopkeeper almost caught him as he whisked out the delicatessen door.”

A Fine and Private Place, by Peter S. Beagle

2. “Afterward, he tried to reduce it to abstract terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces – the bumper of his car and the frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye – but he wasn’t very successful.”

The Tortilla Curtain, by T. Coraghessan Boyle

3. “Sometimes when you work in advertising you’ll get a product that’s really garbage and you have to make it seem fantastic, something that is essential to the continued quality of life.”
Dry, by Augusten Burroughs

4. “Teeth, straight teeth. The thought surfaced, but he pushed it back into the depths, for this was early morning, when the mind could do such things.”

The Dogs of March, by Ernest Hebert

5. “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

6. “Tonight, I find myself here in a guest house in the city of Salisbury.”
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

7. “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

8. “The play – for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper – was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”
Atonement, by Ian McEwan

9. “Do not set foot in my office. That’s Dad’s rule. But the phone’d run twenty-five times.”
Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell

10. “His first idol was Andrew Jackson. He knew the vertical dart between the brows, the jutting chin, the narrow mouth; he knew the windblown coif that perched atop the great man’s forehead like a bird’s nest on a lonesome crag.”
How the Dead Dream, by Lydia Millet

11. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

12. “Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.”
The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx

13. “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

14. “The sweat was lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. Ah wis jist sitting thair, focusing oan the telly, tryin no tae notice the cunt. He wis bringing me doon. Ah tried tae keep ma attention oan the Jean-Claude Van Damme video.”
Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh

15. “Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election.”
Old School, by Tobias Wolff

This wasn’t supposed to be a contest, but my top three favorites on this list are #11, #13 and #5. Of the books listed you haven't read, do any in particular make you want to keep reading?

John Irving wins the best use of punctuation prize for incorporating both em-dashes and a semi-colon. Lydia Millet also wins a prize for using the semi-colon. Rumors of its demise are apparently premature, but if you are unsure about the uses of the semi-colon, please see this excellent post by Shauna Roberts.

“Call me Ishmael” is the only first line that I can ever remember. I don’t seem to recall any others. Do you? How important are first lines to you as a reader? As writers, we all know they’re a make or break if we’re interested in publication. Is your first line as good as you’d like it to be?

Extra points to anyone who cares to share the first line of a WIP in comments!

One last thought: I ran across an ingenious note on a blog this weekend and I’m afraid I can’t find it again to credit the blogger. The note says something like “if you’ve stopped in and don’t have a comment to leave, leave a stone (o) in the comments section so I know you were here.”

I thought that was a lovely thought, so if you’ve stopped in and don’t have anything you really want to add, please leave a stone – like this: (o) – in the comments so I know you stopped in.


Jess Riley said...

Lisa, Hi! Wanted to thank you for stopping by my blog...and for the kind words about Driving Sideways!

(PS: I too love Aimee Mann!)

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Thanks for the kind words! I did enjoy putting that post together. My blog has never been called enigmatic before. Yet.. there is a kind of assonance there, if you look closely. I like it.

I love the opening lines of The Secret History. And Lolita will always be memorable.

Usman said...

I've never been a believer of first lines. A novel has a few thousand lines and I'd rather enjoy the collective effect.
The lines from Lolita are superb, though.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I've been thinking about this so much since I heard writer Ann Hood talk last Thursday about how much care she gives her first lines (I even blogged about it on Friday). I spend a good deal of time crafting the first few paragraphs. If they don't pull people in, nothing will. I knew this as a teacher and now I also know it as a writer.

And, you asked, so here goes. The first line from my WIP:

"That morning, in the moments before Rosie pulled the trigger, she went over the to-do list in her mind to make sure she hadn’t left out anything. "

Charles Gramlich said...

First lines are very important to me and I remember them quite often. My favorite in this bunch is the boy with the wrecked voice. I "don't" like opening lines that reveal things like "if only I had known what was to happen I'd never have...."

My favorite first line of all time is from Fred Saberhagen, "In what felt to him like the first cold morning of the world, he groped for fire."

The current first line of my WIP is:
"And so we came to Teleur, coastal city of the island kingdom of Nyshphal. We came bloodied and battle-hardened, with arrow and axe, to take the city back from the enemy who had seized it."

Well, that's two lines but sue me.

Travis Erwin said...

Nice post. Many of my recent favorites are on your list. Instead of a stone I'll do as you asked and leave the beginning to my WIP a humorous (or so I hope) modern day pirate tale, titled Plundered Booty.

I know you said first line but I'm a rebel and a wordy one at that so here is the first paragraph.

My tale is one that should not be told. For years, I have protected my secrets the way fathers protect adolescent daughters. But some urges simply cannot be held back. Not those of horny teenage boys, and not my desire to tell this story.

Melissa Marsh said...

Some great lines in there. I love #1 - you just want to keep on reading to find out what the bird was doing in the shop in the first place! Nabokov's beginning for Lolita is good, too. It conveys the obsession perfectly.

Larramie said...

Very rarely does a first sentence pull me me in, though it might back me out. ;)

And FYI, Lisa, A Fine and Private Place, by Peter S. Beagle is now on my TBR pile!

Jennifer said...

Great post, Lisa! This is something I could definitely be more aware of. I usually jump in somewhere near the beginning of the story and go. It's not until revisions that I pay hard attention to the first few pages. The main reason I write this way is because I struggle with perfectionism, and I spent a good 18 months blocked because I couldn't find the "right" way to open my novel. I refuse to let that happen to me again.

While the opening is important, it's not usually how I choose my reading material (I go by recommendations and reviews, too), so I'll keep reading even if it seems lackluster to me. I actually browse through the bookstore, picking up books and opening them to any random page in the middle to see if the writing lures me in. :) Maybe that's because particular care is usually given to the opening and closing, so if the middle hooks me, that's often a good sign. It seems like an arse-backwards way of doing things, I know.

Of the first lines you listed, I'd love to keep reading Boyle and Hebert.

The first line that comes to me--besides the aforementioned "Call me Ishmael"--is Austen's opening to Pride and Prejudice:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

This is the first line of my DC novella:

"Cratchit stared at him across the dressing table, slumped into a swivel chair, his shirt collar cutting into the sides of his neck."

It's satisfactory to me at the moment, but that may change when I've completed the first draft and entered the revision stage. I try not to get too attached, because I never know what's going to end up getting cut. :)

pattinase (abbott) said...

A nice group of book here. I'd say the first page is more important than the first line. Okay, here it is.

Violet Hart was halfway to Belle Isle before it occurred to her that the park might not be open at six in the morning. First sentence from Raising the Dead.

Steve Malley said...

FIrst lines, first paras and first pages are a bit like dress and hairstyle-- they're not the whole substance, but they *are* the first impression.

For me, the most memorable first line is, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

My own WiP:

“Why are you doing this to me?”

The girl’s face was a puffy and tear-streaked mask. A foot and a half above the top of her head, the black shape of Harlan Winters blotted out the moonlight.

steve said...

Another thought-provoking post. There's a section in "Bored of the Rings" By Douglas Kenney and David Beard in which the travelers begin their tales:

Cellophane then rose and greeted each of the travelers in turn, and motioning for them to sit down on the rubber toadstools arranged around the room, bid them tell the tale of their adventures.

Arrowroot cleared his throat. "Once upon a time," he began.

"Call me Ishmael," said Gimlet.

"Whanne in Aprille," started Legolam.

"Hear me, oh Muse," commenced Bromosel

I've got to bring up Madeleine L'Engle again, as she began "A Wrinkle in Time" not only with weather, but with "It was a dark and stormy night."

As for Elmore Leonard: I've read only one of his books, "Freaky Deaky," which I thought was crap. I may have judged him prematurely. I personally like Orwell's last rule where he says, "Break any of these rules rather than saying something outright barbarous."

And here's the opening sentence from "Things Done and Left Undone:"
"I had come to Philadelphia for escape—to flee a failed marriage, a dead-end job, and the memory of a love affair that had doomed both marriage and career."

And now that I've read it, I realize that I'll need to tweak it. As it turned out, the love affair didn't doom anything. Timothy actually leaves Chicago because it's haunted by his memory not of Helena, but of Eileen, whom he loved almost as much as he did Helena. I didn't know that whenI first read it.

Oh, and of the opening lines you gave, I'd say Dry, by Augusten Burroughs.

Lisa said...

Jess, Thank you for stopping by and all the best with DRIVING SIDEWAYS. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Electric Orchid Hunter, I actually called YOU enigmatic. Glad you like it.

Usman, I feel the same way; however, based on how agents sift through queries and manuscripts, they are critical.

Judy, That was a great post! Holy cow -- I'm in. Great way to kick off a story!

Charles, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY is a really superb book and a lot of people didn't recognize that the movie, SIMON BIRCH was an adaptation. Hey, way to start a story off with lots of questions! I think you've got a winning opening.

Travis, Love it! What's better than a tale that should not be told?

Melissa, I do have a weakness for A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE and the story only gets better from there.

Larramie, Oh I can't wait to hear what you think of it. If you don't love it then I am a total failure at judging taste from across the internet. :)

Jennifer, I think you and me both suffer the same proclivity, which is why I'm not bothered that my DC story opening is weak. I would never have found the story if I hadn't started somewhere.

Both of those books were excellent. As a matter of fact, if you email me your address, LET me send you a copy of THE DOGS OF MARCH. I love Hebert's work so much that any chance I get to share it with someone who doesn't live in New Hampshire and know him, I consider it an honor.

I remember being intrigued by the opening you have now, just because the name and the reference to the shirt collar definitely piqued my interest right away.

Patti, Ooh. Another intriguing one that opens up obvious questions. I like it -- I'd definitely keep on reading.

Steve, Argh! I'd have remembered that one too!

"Why are you doing this to me?"

That's great.

Steve, I think the rules are made to be broken, but my weather report isn't all that interesting in hindsight. It's okay, but I'm motivated to approach the start of the story from a different angle now that I'm discovering more who Tracy really is now.

I think you're opening is very good -- but yes, since it's not entirely accurate I can see you'd want to tweak it.

DRY is actually a memoir and not fiction, but I think he's a terrific writer and this memoir, which was a follow on to RUNNING WITH SCISSORS traces his decline into alcoholism and eventually drug abuse and then his resurrection on the other side. I'm not typically a fan of memoir, but I've never read a more honest writer who uses humor to mask a strong undercurrent of pain.

r2 said...

I am writing two crime fictions simultaneously:

Her Prickometer wasn't working. That was what destroyed her.

Hello, my name is Cohiba Hemingway and I am dead.

Lisa said...

r2, Thank you for stopping in. Those are both attention-getters if I ever read them! Out of curiosity, how are you able to juggle two works at once? I can't even imagine...

r2 said...

I get bored with one and then go to the other. Maybe that's why I never finish.

Lisa said...

r2, I was just wondering if you were one of those very unusual people who can pull it off. Timothy Hallinan (link on my sidebar) is actually one person who I think has managed it. He has some great stuff on finishing in a section on his blog called "Writers Resources" -- not that I've finished mine yet either ;)

Heather said...

Oh, I can't just leave a stone... Love reading your stories and your processes of writing them!

Lisa said...

Heather, I'm so glad you commented! I just came from your website and wow! You are a fantastic singer - songwriter! I don't know how you ened up here, but please do come back and I will definitely be checking in with you. You are very talented. Make sure you let me know if you're ever in Colorado, please.

kristenspina said...

Lisa, you do have a knack for getting the internets buzzing. Great post!

Barrie said...

How very interesting! Great post!

The first line from my current wip:

I have an uberwonderful life!

Vesper said...

I like best Nos. 1, 2, 5, 6, and 11, in no particular order.
But a great beginning might sometimes precede a disappointing book...

Mary Ann said...

I pay attention to first lines. I really like Judy Merrill Larsen's listed above.

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf