Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Unrequited Search for a Kick-Ass First Line

"On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all life was hopeless, and that I would eat myself to death.” –Anne Lamott, Plan B.

Great line. Great first line, to be more precise.

I’d like to say that first lines aren’t important; certainly they don’t make or break a book – most of us count amongst our most beloved novels those that start out with a tepid whimper but end with an unforgettable bang.

But like most writers, I’m also a voracious reader. And I do what most readers do upon picking up an unfamiliar novel:I glance at the back cover, then open it to the first page and peruse the first few lines.

I remember standing one summer in Booksmith in the Haight, San Francisco, and looking for the perfect airplane book: Paperback, not too stupid, but not too worthy, either. I don’t like to have to think a lot on airplanes, much less in airports.The young woman standing next to me-- sporting a nose ring, two eyebrow piercings, and an intricate tribal tattoo that ran around her neck-- told me Laurell K. Hamilton’s vampire hunter series was “hecka tight”.

I was skeptical. I’m not really a vampire-hunter kind of gal. I had never watched Buffy, and the last Dracula movie I saw starred Frank Langella as a young and sexy bloodsucker. Now the man plays Nixon.

Still, the young woman was so much cooler than I could ever hope to be that I picked up the book and took a look. The back cover blurb didn’t move me –and I’m far too cynical to be swayed by enthusiastic endorsement quotes-- but I flipped to page 1 and read:

Willie McCoy had been a jerk before he died. His being dead didn’t change that. He sat across from me, wearing a loud plaid sport jacket…He was a slime bucket, but he was an undead slime bucket. – Laurell K. Hamilton, Guilty Pleasures.

I bought the book.

As an author, I’m not sure I have yet managed to write that kind of “gotcha” first few lines, though I do try.

Our eyes met. I tried to keep a poker face. I failed. (Feint of Art)

“Anthony, that body is not part of your exhibit,” I said for the third time, my voice rising in desperation. (Shooting Gallery)

The sweet-faced boy, one arm curled around his cocker spaniel puppy, paid no attention to the swaying and bobbing of the sagging helium balloons near the doorway. (Brush with Death)

And now my latest, but the very first line in a new series:
Witches recognize their own.
(Secondhand Spirits)

Nope. Haven’t written my best opening line yet. I know it's in there somewhere. The sentence that makes you buy the book because you absolutely, positively need to read the next 335 pages. The line that makes you laugh, and recognize yourself, maybe even weep.

Okay, I’ll admit it. The first time I heard this week’s topic, I thought of nothing so much as the lines on my face. The first ones were a bit traumatic. But now they are numerous, and I forget which ones came first. I like to think of them as marks of experience, a well-lived life, and if I’m very lucky, plenty of laughter.

And unless I decide, like Anne Lamott, that life is not worth living and I must eat myself to death, I expect my lines to be with me the rest of my life.

Much like a really kick-ass first line of a book.

--Juliet Blackwell


Unknown said...

Love Anne Lamott's first line. Of course, will only eat myself to death if it can be accomplished with those lovely tiers of cupcakes! :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

sugar, every line on your face has a story, and together they add up to great beauty!