“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
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.”
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
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
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
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.