The first line of a novel should propel the reader into reading the second line. Why bother with 512 pages of a novel that bores you on the first page? In my younger days I had a rule that if I started a novel I needed to finish it. I've read a lot of dreadful novels.
Then my good sense kicked in and if I couldn't remember the first line of a novel by the end of the first page, I tossed the book into a box for Goodwill. How do you justify rejecting a Pulitzer Prize winning novel?
I tried to like Olive Kitteridge, the trade paperback by Elizabeth Strout published in 2008 by Random House. The first three pages are packed with endorsements from major newspapers. The review in O: The Oprah Magazine, started with the line, "Perceptive, deeply empathetic . . . Olive is the axis around which these thirteen complex, relentlessly human narratives spin themselves into Elizabeth Strout's unforgettable novel in stories."
In addition to a Pulitzer, the book also received a starred Kirkus review. That should have been my first clue. I rarely agree with Kirkus. Olive Kitteridge screamed literary novel. I like many literary novels. One of my recent favorites is Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I bought it for the title. Let's compare the first paragraphs and see which you like best.
Here's Olive's first paragraph in the story titled "Pharmacy":
"For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries show their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorites, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging from the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold."
I fell asleep that night after the first line, but I did persist in reading the entire story convinced that if this book won a Pulitzer, it should deliver the goods. Even though the reviews of "mesmerizing . . . exquisite" and "maserfully wrought collection" impressed me, the passive snooze of the first paragraph left me in the dust, or should I say, stranded on the side of the author's roads: the snowy roads, the rainy roads, the summertime roads, and the wider road, not to mention the fog, the pines, the salt air, and the cold. It was a guy driving to work. Sorry.
Should I keep trying to broaden my horizons? I dropped Olive on the floor (fourteen bucks down the drain) and picked up Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. I knew the book was comprised of a series of letters dated just after World War II in London and on the Island of Guernsey--not a rousing structure for me--but a device that has been used successfully in the past. Here's the beginning of Guernsey:
"Dear Sidney, Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue. If all her literary luncheons are going to achieve these heights, I won't mind touring about the country. Do you suppose that a lavish bonus could spur her on to butter? Let's try it--you may deduct the money from my royalties. Now for my grim news. You asked me how work on my new book is progressing. Sidney, it isn't."
What a clever way to begin a novel by a character who is a novelist: with great humor and the grim news that her latest book is stalled. How could I not keep reading?
Weather and road conditions? Breezy letter. Which would you rather read? I know. Many of you are saying, neither. I don't read literary novels. Well, neither do I, but one of the hallmarks of a great writer or editor is that they read outside their comfort zone. If you're a romance writer, read a few good thrillers or a literary novel. Your writing will improve with cross-pollination.
I looked for a list of the top 100 bad first lines in novels, but I couldn't find one except for the annual contest called The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest in which entrants write their versions of bad first lines. However, no one seems to have compiled a list of real bad first lines. Seems like an easy task.
However, the editors of American Book Review have compiled a list of the 100 Best First Lines of Novels. Perhaps this is the better route. Read great first lines, and it should inspire you to write a great first line for your novel. Following are a few of my favorites:
"Call me Ishmael." Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, 1851.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, 1859.
"They shoot the white girl first." Tony Morrison's Paradise, 1998.
"You better not never tell nobody but God." Alice Walker's The Color Purple, 1982.
What are your favorite first lines? Any genre, any era. I'd love to hear from you.