1. Do you consider the first line to be an important part of a story? If so, why?
After the barriers of an eye-catching book cover followed by some suitably-intriguing blurb have been passed, it’s the first line of the story that browsers usually see. At this point a person is asking themselves, “Is this interesting to me?”
Obviously they’re going to read more than the first sentence, but often not much more beyond three or four paragraphs. There is a lot of decision-making going on as a person dips into a new book, especially if it’s by an author they’re unfamiliar with. They’ll be asking if the story seems their kind of thing and if it looks worth the money. If not, the browser will move on so, yes, it is important – especially now there are a zillion other books just one mouse-click away.
2. Do you find first lines easy to come up with, or challenging? Do you have a technique, or a ritual, that you go by to make it easy?
A mix of both; some of my short stories spring from an idea for a first line. Other first lines take more work, and will be re-written a few times before I’ll settle on the final version.
With Fabian, the novel I’m currently writing – and which is the fourth in my artisan-sorcerer series – I scrapped not only the original first line but the entire first half of the opening chapter after I’d workshopped it at a Riverside Writers meeting and everyone thought the story actually began at the half-way point.
The opening of Rowan consists of three scenes, the first with the main character and his elderly aunt, and then he makes two telephone calls. The phone calls between Rowan and his mother and step-mother form a subplot, and the three scenes introduce not only the main character but his relationships with his family. This is given to the reader not as a lump of data, but via dialogue and Rowan’s reactions to what is said.
When writing, I ask myself what the first chapter needs to achieve. Then I’ll think about the best way to throw the reader right into the story. Waffle and back-story tend to turn people off. I want a reader to feel immediately involved with a scene where something specific is happening. To create that impression with one opening sentence is the aim.
3. What consequences, if any, do you think there are in having a badly written first line?
That’s pretty obvious – a lost audience. A person is likely to think, “If the start of the book’s this bad, how awful is the rest of it?” Then they’ll click on their mouse and be on their way to something which looks more promising. It really is that simple.
4. What’s your favourite first line that you’ve ever read? And can you recall a worst?
These things are entirely subjective, so I won’t snipe. Personal taste is not a measure of anything other than personal taste.
I don’t have an absolute favourite first line, either. I have favourite books, and some of these didn’t necessarily have sparkling openings but I would have bought them because I already knew and liked the author’s work.
Janet Fitch’s White Oleander has a brilliant opening; it’s intensely descriptive but not wordy. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game reveals some of the main character’s ambitions from the outset. Kelley Armstrong opens her novel Bitten with just three words, but it works well in setting the tension of the scene. I could go on, but you’d end up with a huge list.
5. What is one of your own best first lines?
The first novel in my artisan-sorcerer series, Tamsin, begins with:
The elderly guru was waiting for me on the corner of William Brown Street, with his back to St. George’s Hall.
This introduces an arranged meeting between two people, one of whom is described as a guru, at a specific location. It tells the reader that the story is written in first person. It gives a scene in which something is already starting to happen.
6. We’re all sharing here! What’s one of your worst first lines?
Do you imagine they survive the delete button? I edit mercilessly. I don’t keep old versions of stories which aren’t working.
7. What are some things a first line *shouldn’t* be? What are some things that you’ve read in first lines that really rubs you the wrong way?
Indirect, long-winded, irrelevant and clumsy starts to any novel would lose many readers. Poor grammar and incorrect punctuation are probably things which grate for most people, and certainly they’re one of my pet hates. I once came across a book title which had misused punctuation! Oh dear, if they couldn’t even get the title right…!
8. Do you have any suggestions for other authors on how to write a great first line? Have you heard any great advice yourself?
Don’t be too precious about your writing. Edit and re-write until it works.
Adele Cosgrove-Bray is the author of a series of dark urban fantasy novels which follow the lives of a community of artisan-sorcerers based in Liverpool, England. Tamsin and Rowan are available as paperbacks and ebooks, and Bethany Rose will follow soon. Fabian, the fourth in the series, should be ready next year. The series can be read in any order.
She also writes short fiction and poetry, which is featured in several ebooks.
She shares life on the Wirral peninsula with one husband, two dogs, one cat, various chickens, an assortment of hedgehogs and bats, and a large black toad which lives under the patio step.
Learn more at Adele’s website: http://adelecosgrove-bray.blogspot.co.uk/