Indie author Kathryn Guare shares her thoughts on the importance of opening your novel with a memorable, brilliant first line.
Creeping towards the publication of my second novel in a planned series of suspense thrillers, I’d already been obsessing over every comma, every unnecessary occurrence of the word “that” and every instance of throat-clearing phrases my fingers automatically type while I’m puzzling over what I’m really trying to say.
With these details disturbing my sleep, I didn’t need an epic crisis of confidence over the first sentence of my novel, but that’s what I got, once I carelessly clicked my way into a blog post titled The Power of a First Sentence.
I know Mark Rubinstein wasn’t intending to persecute me. He was likely wracking his brain for a blogging topic (as are we all) and thought this would be something fun to share, guaranteed to generate comments. It is fun, in a way, to again read the iconic lines one expects to find on such a list (Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina), and interesting to be introduced to the opening salvos of authors unfamiliar to me. All very entertaining and innocent. It’s when I started to focus on the larger premise of the blog—as it related to me—that I began to sweat.
Was my first sentence good enough? Did it set the right tone? Could it capture the reader and draw them forward with its powerful, irresistible force? What if it didn’t?
Well, if it didn’t, my book would fail—fail miserably according to Mr Stanley Fish, the American literary theorist (I’m not quite sure what that is), who opined in a New York Times column in 2007 that the quality of a first sentence is the single most important criteria for evaluating whether a mystery will be worth reading. Thus, in the time it takes the average reader to absorb the first words on the page—five seconds? less?—my fate would be sealed.
A dark night of the soul indeed, which saw me hunched over the keyboard, my first sentence before me, tinkering away like a pointillist trying to fix a pinprick of color in exactly the right spot. I reached to my bookshelf, looking for reassurance, and at first got none from my random selection:
“The truth is, if Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton Races, Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.” (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)
Sigh. John le Carré. Brilliant, of course, but then I decided to take a more in-depth look at the first sentences in the early works of some of the most successful suspense authors writing today, and the fever began to lift:
“Something was wrong.” (The Bat, Joe Nesbo’s first Harry Hole novel)
“She woke in the dark.” (Naked in Death, J D Robb’s first “In Death” novel)
“It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6.” (Postmortem, Patricia Cornwell’s first Kay Scarpetta novel)
“My name is Kinsey Milhone.” (A is for Alibi, Sue Grafton’s first alphabet novel)
“I was arrested in Eno’s diner.” (Killing Floor, Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel)
I have nothing to say either in favor or against the quality of the books themselves, but it is an established fact that they have all sold extremely well, and I think it is self-evident that these opening sentences are simple, straightforward and workmanlike.
Concluding pep talk to myself: the first sentence of a novel is exactly that—nothing more, and nothing less. It is the building block and the foundation from which to build everything else. It needs to work, but it does not need to be a work of art onto itself. If you like it yourself, then stop obsessing over it.
“The house was still far from empty.”
First line from The Secret Chord, Kathryn Guare’s second labor of love
Calling all indie authors: what’s the favourite first line you’ve ever written? And do you think it made a difference to your book’s sales?