Since I’m not a creative writer, I can’t dispense writing tips with any authority. As a literary agent though, I have to take beginnings seriously. For me the first line is the most important sentence in the book. Editors are very busy people and receive stacks of manuscripts every day. If they get turned off by a clumsy first line, they are likely to cast a cold eye on the rest of the manuscript.
So here are a few of my random thoughts on this subject focusing on some illustrious examples.
This first line is always at the top of the list. The most famous first line in all of literature. So what’s so great about it, anyway? I thought about that today and decided that it was overrated, that it is one of those things that people think is great because everybody else thinks it’s great. It’s catchy. It’s different. But why would it lead me to read the rest of the book? What if I wrote a book that began: “My name’s Andy”? I don’t think it would make the 100 best list of anything. Why didn’t Melville start with something like: “Ishmael’s my name. Whales are my game.”? Think about it. Tells a whole lot more about the story. It really is a better lead, — wouldn’t you say?
But stay with me on this. Let’s dig a little deeper. Here is the second line in Moby Dick .“Some years ago–never mind how long precisely –having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.” Wow! Now that’s writing. Here we have a book that does more than tell a story. It has the boldness to tackle THE BIG QUESTION; man’s struggle for truth in the face of an indifferent and inscrutable universe. I mean, duh! We are not in “chick lit” territory here. And this second line —- what would the critics call it? Understatement? Ironic foreshadowing? Because whatever this book is going to be about, you know it isn’t going to be about sailing a little to see the watery part of the world. Magnificent!
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