It's true, guys. The Pencils are out to get us...
Hello! Monday again (groan) but only three days until Friday (whee!).
Now, since I never seem to be able to participate in Road Trip Wednesday (the Blog Carnival on YA Highway) I've decided to just start stealing their topics at random. Mwaah-haa-haa! Ahem. No, really, I'm sure they wouldn't mind.
I'm particularly interested in first lines because I never seem to be able to start work on a book until the main character has 'spoken' the first line to me. I know this sounds weird. It IS weird. But that's just the way I roll. I can plan, plot, sketch character's faces, draw maps, use up whole pads of Post-Its, but until I 'hear' the character speak, I can't actually start the writing. For The Swan Kingdom, Alexandra piped up to tell me:
My first memory is of the smell of sunwarmed earth.
That line set the tone for the rest of the story, instantly showing me the dreamy, sensory 'voice' that I needed to get used to. It's a first line that, in a way, encapsulates the important themes of the book - a book about memories, about the earth and feeling a connection to it. And it's a sort of mirror image of the final line too, which is:
In the end, I know all will be well.
Coming up with the first line of Daughter of the Flames was a rather different experience. Having just finished TSK, I was trying to give myself some time off, but Zira (typically for her character, it turned out) was having none of that. She wanted her story told RIGHT NOW. And so she spoke in my ear:
I never knew my mother's name.
I mean, who could resist that? I started writing that day and six months later the book was finished. Once again, I see that in a strange way the first line is twinned with the last one, which is:
The heroine has gone from being lost, not even knowing who she is, to having a perfect sense of her own identity and her place in the world. Looking at the first and last lines of my two upcoming books, I can see this bookend effect is something I apparently do all the time (without actually realising it before now!) but telling the first and last lines of Shadows on the Moon or FrostFire would be rather a spoiler, so I'll move on.
Although my first line is really important to me as a writer, I'm not sure first lines are as all important to the reader as some people seem to think. Very, very rarely do I read a first line and find myself utterly sucked into the narrative. The last time was Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolomore:
The audience didn't understand a word we sang.
I'm not really sure why that worked for me, it just did. However, because I'm aware that authors agonise over their first lines to the point of bleeding from their eyes, most of the time I tend to open books at a random page, somewhere in the middle, just to see what the writing is like when they've relaxed a bit. To me, that's the true test of the story. After all, you're not buying a book for a great first page, you're buying it for a great STORY.
That's not to deny that first lines do seem to make a big impression. Amazing first lines seem to enter the common vocabulary, even among those who've never read the book at all. Most people know the really famous ones, like the first lines of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen ("It is a truth universally acknowledged...") and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier ("Last night I dreamt...") and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens ("It was the best of times..."). But what about some modern YA ones?
Despite my well documented dislike for the Twilight books, I have to admit that the opening line of Stephenie Meyer's saga is pretty darn good:
I'd never given much thought to how I would die - though I'd had reason enough in the last few months - but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
Not PERFECT, mind. I reckon it would be a lot stronger if it just read:
I'd never given much thought to how I would die.
But still compelling, and definitely enough to get me to read on.
Meg Rosoff's debut YA novel How I Live Now, which is one of the most haunting books I've ever read, begins:
My name is Elizabeth, but no one's ever called me that.
A fantastic introduction to the main character's unconventional voice, and a line which tells you more about the story - with it's themes of alienation, loss and identity - than you can possibly realise at first. Another opening line which recently sent a shiver down my spine was:
Mommy forgot to warn the new babysitter about the basement.
*Shudder* That's from The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong, and, again, it warns you exactly what is coming up next. Spookiness. Lots of spookiness.
I personally think that the main purpose of that first line is to do exactly what Kelley Armstrong's line does, which is to make a promise to the reader about what kind of story is coming next. If you raise a question in your opening, you need to be sure that a) you answer it and b) that it's important to the story over all. By which I mean, not that you need to set your main conflict up right there in the first line, but that you need to understand what tone you're creating and what expectation you're raising. Let's say your first line is:
I never knew how much a dead goldfish stank until Mark Hinkey put one down the back of my shirt in biology.
If you story is going to be a snarky and hilarious contemporary story about school bullying, you're fine. If you story is going to be about an teenage outsider who is obsessed with death and figures out she can speak to ghosts, again, you're fine. If your story is going to be about a modern teen who falls in love with the school bully and has to figure out how to make it work, or how to let him go, fine.
If, on the other hand, your story is going to be a historical fantasy? This is a problem. But less obviously, if the story really has nothing to do with the school setting, if bullying is not a theme and never emerges again, if there's no grim, stinky-dead-goldfish undertone to the tale, then this opening line is not right. It's a great first line, but it's not setting up the right expectations for, say, a lyrical, dreamy story about a girl dealing with losing her sister to drowning. Just like:
Emma watched the sea turn to molten copper as the sun rose, the jagged rock spires casting black shadows onto the sand.
Is a nice opening line, but NOT for a hilarious and snarky story about contemporary bullying. Your first line, for me, is not just about trying to draw a reader in. It's about giving them some idea what they are going to get if they read on.
Now, given my title, I really need to 'fess up about my least favourite opening line that I've read recently - and it has to be the first line of Raised By Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
"Bronwyn Alessia St. Vincent Clare!"
I'm not one of those writers who gets all prescriptive about other people's work. I think almost anything can work, so long as it's done well. Open with weather! Open with a dream sequence! Do what makes you happy! But... this - this opening with the main character's name being shouted - is just so overused. And so inefficient. What do we get from it? Only the main character's (overlong, way-too-poetic-to-be-real) name, which could easily have been revealed to us a dozen other ways, and the fact that she's in trouble, in an 'Oh, look how CUTE, he uses her full name when he's cross!' sort of way. It tells us nothing about the book's tone, setting or themes, and it's also misleading in terms of character - the person shouting is NOT cute, for a start. This is a rare case where the opening line nearly put me off reading the book completely.
What are you favourite, or most hated first lines? Or, if you're feeling daring, the first lines of your WIPs?