Monday, January 10, 2011

What a Line

In today's marketplace, great significance is placed on the first line of a novel. So I thought I'd bring together first lines from some bestselling authors to see what you think. Did these authors hit a home run with their first lines, or do they need to go back to batting practice?

In no particular order other than the way I pulled them from the shelf - and I tried to pull alternate male/female authors:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.
THE ROAD. Cormac McCarthy

The morning Tony Lucia killed Angelo Coluzzi, he was late to feed his pigeons.
THE VENDETTA DEFENSE. Lisa Scottoline

My name is Odd Thomas, though in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I am not sure why you should care who I am or that I exist.
ODD THOMAS. Dean Koontz

He was coming home.
CHESAPEAKE BLUE. Nora Roberts

I knew this was a really terrific idea, if I didn't say so myself, surprising Paul for lunch at his office down on Pearl Street.
THE QUICKIE. James Patterson

Sometimes you get up in the morning and you know it's going to be one of those days.
PLUM SPOOKY. Janet Evanovich

The first week after Labor Day, after a summer of hot wind and drought that left the cane fields dust blown and spiderwebbed with cracks, rain showers once more danced across the wetlands, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, and the sky turned the hard flawless blue of an inverted ceramic bowl.
LAST CAR TO ELYSIAN FIELDS. James Lee Burke

This was the vacation from hell.
BURN. Linda Howard

Despite the mist, she spent an hour working Chica, and working herself, and she smelled of it, mare-sweat and woman-sweat, with a tingle of Chanel No. 5.
DEAD WATCH. John Sandford

Even though she'd rehearsed the line over and over, it didn't sound at all the way she wanted it to.
OTHER PEOPLE'S SECRETS. Louise Candlish

Do these first lines do it for you? Do they suck you in, tantalize your imagination? Do they pull you forward, entice you to read on?

Or is there one or more that misses the intended mark and leaves you cold?

If you've read any of these books, did the first line fulfill its promise? Or were you pleasantly surprised when you read on? Or worse, did the first-line promise die on the vine?

How much do first lines matter to you - as a writer and as a reader?

36 comments:

The Happy Whisk said...

Great post. Personally, when I'm in search of a new book to read. I go to the bookshop and start reading first pages. If that first page doesn't hold my attention, back on the shelf it goes.

I never read back burbs, or book reviews either. Everything I need to know, is on that first page.

Happy Reading.

C. N. Nevets said...

I did this a while back with much less interesting results. Overall, I would say those first lines are pretty decent.

On the other hand, I have never in my life in any capacity (reader, purchaser, editor, crit partner, whatever) looked at a first line and made a judgment about a book based on that.

So... *shrug*

Mason Canyon said...

As a reader, a large number of these did grab my attention. While a couple didn't, if I read those lines tomorrow they might. For me it's a combination of the first few lines grabbing my attention and the mood I'm in at the time. If I'm in the mood for something light, fluffy, romantic then no matter how intriguing the first lines are of a thriller, they want grab me.

Now I have a couple more books to put on my wish list. Thanks :)

Mason
Thoughts in Progress

Glynis Jolly said...

The wordy ones do nothing for me. It's as if the author is trying to tell half the story in that one sentence or it's full of adjectives that are unnecessary. Nora Roberts had the right idea in CHESAPEAKE BLUE - He was coming home. Wonderful first sentence.

Stephen Tremp said...

I stopped with the first liners. I don't write them or expect to read one in order to judge if this will be a good book or not. Love Odd Thomas by the way. But a book has to hook me quickly. First paragraph, first page, certainly be the end of the first chapter.

Carol Kilgore said...

Happy Whisk - You're much like me. I'll purchase a book based on first page, back blurb, cover...in that order.

C.N. - Good for you. I have. It is what it is some days for me.

Mason - Cool! I've added a lot to mine from reading your blog :)

Glynis - I love how everyone is different. Could be because I'm different from most - LOL.

Stephen - They have to hook me right away, too. I always spend a lot of time on the opening. Odd Thomas taught me a lot.

Lydia K said...

I love reading all these first lines! I wish there was a whole website devoted to it, but until then, your post does a great job!

The Words Crafter said...

You know, this would make a fantastic blogfest! We could have everyone pick say...7 of their favorite books and their worst, and put in the first lines of each and compare....

I thought these were all okay; I don't like wordy ones, either. Odd Thomas is one of my fave books, too.

I'm not thrown off or sucked in by the first lines, but I will put it down if, after a few chapters, I'm not feeling it.

Loved this!

Joanne said...

I always read the first line before I choose a book. It's not really a deciding factor, but more of a gauge to see the tone, style. I'm a little surprised here with your first lines, that a few of them begin with waking up, starting the day. So often I've read the advice never to do this ...

Holly Ruggiero said...

A few of those are really great, but more of them don’t do anything for me. I need a paragraph or a page, which I think paints a better picture of where the author is going.

Hannah Kincade said...

I don't choose simply on first line but first paragraph. That wil tell you what you're getting into. Although I've read many a book that starts off really well and falls flat. I think people are so focused on beginnings that they forget to make every page, every line enticing.

Hannah Kincade said...

Jedi wave

Carol Kilgore said...

Lydia - Great...glad you enjoyed it.

Words Crafter - Feel free to use this to host a blogfest.

Joanne - I noticed that, too. It's different for established authors. Sigh.

Holly - I always read the first page, too. Or as far on it as I can.

Carol Kilgore said...

Hannah - Our posts crossed. Must be the Jedi wave. I'll read the first page, too, unless the first sentence stops me. Waving back :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I liked the one about being late to feed the pigeons.
The first line is something i'm really working on. Think I've nailed it better with my second book than I did with my first.

Talli Roland said...

Ooh, I love this post!

There a few I'm not so fond of, but several that really pull it in. I agree iwth Alex - I like the pigeon one too.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I think most of these first lines are pretty good. A couple don’t really do much for me, but my favorite is the one from The Vendetta Defense.

Arlee Bird said...

I think that first lines are very important in the same way first impressions are. I like the lines that draw me into the story immediately and make me want to read what happens next.

I like most of your examples. Not too impressed with the ones by James Lee Burke (too long and arty), John Sanford (still too long and arty), and Louise Candlish (not intriguing enough for me).

Lee
Tossing It Out

Carol Kilgore said...

Alex - That line makes me smile.

Talli - There's three of us!

Jane - Four :)

Arlee - A little something for everyone. He's painted a picture of the first touch of autumn in South Louisiana.

Clarissa Draper said...

A couple of first lines aren't too remarkable but that's great because then I know that sometimes it's not always necessary.

Personally, I never buy a book by the first line.
CD

Elspeth Antonelli said...

I certainly pay far more attention to first lines now as a reader than I ever did before; but then again, I read entire books with a much different eye than I ever did before! Admittedly, some are better than others; but I don't judge a new book on the basis of its first line. First few chapters? Yes. There's got to be something that pulls me in and makes me want to know what happens next. If that doesn't happen, even if it had the best first line ever written, I'm putting the book aside.

Terry Odell said...

I'm usually willing to give the first page a shot, not judge by the first sentence, but a great hook is definitely a plus. Wish I could write them! My least favorite above was Burke's, (too flowery, don't like those passages, so I skim them when reading) followed by Koontz. (if he didn't care, why should I)

Terry
Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

What fun! Some of these wouldn't keep me reading, but some would.

The first line is important, but I usually judge if I'm going to buy a book by reading the first page.

As an author, I do know the importance of a terrific first line. :)

Carol Kilgore said...

Clarissa - I might not buy a book because of first line.

Elspeth - I'm a more critical reader and definitely harder to please now than ever before. But once I get caught up in the story/characters, I don't pay attention to anything else.

Terry - I think Koontz used a little reverse psychology to pull in readers who didn't want to be caught up in fame.

Kathi - You probably slave over that first line like I do :)

Laura Eno said...

I liked: The Vendetta Defense, Plum Spooky and Burn. The rest didn't do anything for me at all, but then I'm not going to judge a book by its first line...unless it says "It was a dark and stormy night..." ;)

Jennifer Shirk said...

It's funny, I haven't read these books but I have read some of the authors and I think those lines really give you a sense of voice or tone of the kind of stories those authors write.

I usually try to come up with something snappy, that will give readers the overall tone of what kind of story you should expect from me. :) They're not "awesome" but I think they get the job done. LOL
I do pay attnetion to first lines when I'm reading just because I think it's neat to see how different authros decide to start, but it's not a deal breaker for me to stop reading if I don't like it.

Joanna St. James said...

I am a failure as a reader and a writer, when i go on a buying spree I almost don't read the blurbs I'm that bad I just see and i buy

Carol Kilgore said...

Laura - Or maybe 'once upon a time'?

Jennifer - If I boil down what you've said, I think you're saying that the author's voice is there from the get-go. I agree with that. I keep aiming for perfection with the first line, but I haven't attained it yet.

Joanna - I used to be just like you. Now I'm pickier. What can I say - LOL.

VR Barkowski said...

I would never either read or not read a book based on the first line alone. It's more important that the first line go with the second line and the second with the third, etc. Of all the openers, James Lee Burke's is the only one that hooks me - I much prefer tone to action opens - but I've read six of these books. So clearly I'm not basing my reading choices on first lines.

LR said...

My favorite ones here are Cormac's (because it flows) and the pigeon one (because of the subtle humor).

A good first line is clear, flows, maybe has something intriguing or unusual. A clunky first line can indeed put me off reading a novel.It makes me worry that the reading experience will be tiresome.

Hart Johnson said...

Before reading any comments... I think the first two offer intrigue and promise. None of the rest are BAD exactly, but they don't do the same task. That said, I always read farther unless the first sentence is an obnoxious run-on (Last Car probably would put me off, unless it was highly recommended). First line sometimes DOES influence which of my TBR I choose, but that has more to do with 'ease'-- there are times life is chaos and I want a book with short simple sentences.

First line of my book I just turned in? "Incoming!"



Now reading:

Carol Kilgore said...

VR - Since they're all on my shelves, I'm guessing that some lines might appeal to me one day and others on another.

LR - I'm the same about first lines that appear clunky to me.

Hart - I totally understand about 'ease' from the TBR shelf. LOVE your first line!

Jan Morrison said...

I do want to read them all after taking in their first lines. I usually buy books by their cover though! Nice picture and I'm in...!
I'm going to grab a book I'm reading and write the first line back at ya -
"It was as black in the closet as old blood."
Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley

Carol Kilgore said...

Jan - I know that wanna-read-them-all feeling. I love how the first line doesn't match at all with the title.

Linda Kage said...

My favorites were BURN and THE VENDETTA DEFENCE. I'd like to read the next line for those!!

Of course, I've already ready BURN so I know it'd good!

Carol Kilgore said...

For anyone else interested in 'next lines' here they are:

BURN - Jenner Redwine sat frozen on the barstool, trying to remember what Bridget had told her and reconcile it with the nightmare that was actually happening.

THE VENDETTA DEFENSE - As long as Tony had kept pigeons, which was for almost all of his seventy-nine years, he had never been late to feed them, and they began complaining the moment he opened the screen door.

What do those sentences say about the first ones?