Sometimes, you pick up a book and fall immediately, completely, and hopelessly in love:
“They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.” Juno Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“I will not drink more than fifteen alcohol units a week.” Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones Diary
“On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square Apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters Peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl.” Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
“The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through.” Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
A first line is an invitation, a seduction, and when it works we swallow it whole and tumble completely into the story. But as authors, nurturing that kind of attraction is complicated. We want to hook our readers, but if we’re too heavy-handed we can bungle the whole thing and turn them off completely. So we fidget at the bar, pop breath mints, slick our hair, and agonize over every. single. word.
With Vintage, I got to cheat a little and have two openings. Each chapter begins with an epigraph, an inventory entry that briefly describes a vintage item and its source. The entries serve multiple functions by unobtrusively adding significant details, hinting at upcoming events, and allowing me to completely geek out by filling my novel with lovely and interesting odds and ends.
So after a tiny glimpse into the store’s contents (in this case, an ivory tea length wedding gown), the first line:
“Beneath the ash trees on Johnson Street, just east of campus, Hourglass Vintage stood in a weathered brick building, wedged between a fair trade coffee shop and a bike repair business.”
The line went through several permutations but even in the very first draft, it was always a birds eye view of the street that zoomed in on the storefront, beckoning you to look, to come inside, then make yourself comfortable and stay a while…
8 Replies to “First Lines and Falling in Love”
The first lines of The Glass Wives remained the same until the end of my second round of edits with my St. Martin’s editor. My first lines, first page, were the last things to change and those were two elements that had remained since my earliest drafts of that version of the book. I was mortified. It took me two days to rewrite one page. I sat at my desk for hours on end trying to figure out what to do and then I knew. I’ll admit even months past publication and a years after the changes were made, when I think of it I often can’t believe that my original first lines aren’t anywhere in the book. People LOVED those lines, but my editor felt that they pushed the reader into the story instead of lured them in. And I understood that. I still know those lines by heart and always think I’ll use them somewhere, someday. But I probably won’t…
I love your first line–it reads with a tone that’s slightly old-fashioned (in a good way) and classic. There’s something timeless about starting a book by opening the door to a setting, a new world. It definitely makes me want to stay there.
Great post, Susan. The first lines are so important. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I decide whether to read a book only after reading the first line. I may not judge a book by its cover, but certainly judge it based on its first line.
By the way, I like your first line and can’t wait to read your book!
Re: Andrea C’s comment, I’m pretty impressed that she reads the first line of a book! I don’t at all. In fact, I hadn’t thought about this re: my own, either. It’s something I will absolutely consider though now that I’m knee deep in editing. Thank you so much!
Andrea Frazer: I still buy books the old fashioned way. I go to the book store and browse. My poor family puts up with my antics. Sometimes I wander aimlessly throughout the store. I stop and pick up a book or two. I read the first few lines of each and then make a split second decision on whether I want to read it. I continue to wander and do this about a dozen times or more until I finally decide on a book or two or three. I am sure I am missing out on some great books that didn’t grab me with their first few lines. Like I said in my original post…I am ashamed. 😉
Love this, Susan! I like how you describe the first line as a seduction.
As an aside, in my last critique round for KILMOON, I received feedback about how the Chapter 1 opening might do better with a birds-eyes view of my protagonist sitting on a plaza bench. I’d never considered doing this before — had never even thought of it! (I’m a very close-in third kind of writer). What a revelation!
Granted, I have a prologue so that’s not the first line of the novel, but still, it was an important change nonetheless.
A seduction. Rawr.
Can’t wait to read Vintage!
A seduction indeed. I love your opening. It definitely has a sense of pace and a voice. Fun post! I like seeing what all the debs consider as good opening lines. 🙂
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