Monday, June 8, 2009

The Book's the Thing

L.G.C. Smith

First lines. Sometimes I hear them in my head, but I never seem able to work them onto the first page. The first line I heard for the book I’m working on now was “Where the hell is my warlord?”

Not bad. Spoken by a British intelligence bureaucrat who can’t find the Anglo-Saxon warlord he’s spent millions dragging fifteen hundred years out of the past, it’s fairly punchy. Not subtle or nuanced, but this isn’t a subtle novel.

Alas, I’ll be damned if I can get it smack at the beginning. It would be a decent first line if it weren’t on page 11.

I don’t worry about this too much anymore because I realized I don’t remember great first lines from the books I love. I appreciate them when I read them, but they aren’t sticky. Whoosh. Off they go into the blue.

Visual images stay with me: the faded map of Cornwall from a shop in Truro, the name Frenchman’s Creek handwritten alongside a narrow finger leading to the Helford River; Pip in the churchyard on the edge of the tidal marshes, caught by a filthy man in leg irons, threatening to eat him; Ruck on the road to Avignon with a troop of pilgrims, desperately trying to hush his hysterical young wife, Isabelle, before the other travelers turn on them. Stella Hardesty getting ready to plug an old trailer full of bullets.

I know Sophie’s “A Bad Day for Sorry” opens with a killer first line. It would be nice if I could remember it. As for du Maurier’s “Frenchman’s Creek,” Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” and Laura Kinsale’s “For My Lady’s Heart” -- well, none have compelling first lines, but I’ll never forget those opening images. I can’t count how many times I’ve reread them, or measure the enjoyment they’ve brought me.

That said, a zinger of a first line never hurt a reader, especially when followed by a top-notch read. Karen Marie Moning begins “Darkfever,” the first book in her current paranormal series, with the hard to ignore “My philosophy is pretty simple – any day nobody’s trying to kill me is a good day in my book.”

Like my own example, we’re not talking subtlety and nuance here. This is a conk-you-on-the-noggin, you-want-to-buy-this-book-don’t-you first line designed to slam straight into your story-lusting heart. It’s the sprinkle of toasted pecans on a black and tan sundae. Not necessary, but really nice.

That killer first line is always the ideal. In my imperfect reading practice, however, I don’t need one, and I won’t remember the gems I do find. I drive myself crazy searching for them in my own work, but in the end, I reconcile myself to the best I can manage. Then I make sure the book gets better as it goes.

3 comments:

Sophie Littlefield said...

"Where the hell is my Warlord" is *bound* to stick in a reader's mind, Lynn! That one is a keeper for sure!

Adrienne Miller said...

I disagree, Lynn. Those pecans on the Black and Tan are necessary. Totally necessary.

Anonymous said...

You were born to blog Lynn...the site is fantastic...congrats to all of you! (:)Trish)