Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Catch them with a Hook

Some would argue that the only line in a book more important than the first is the very last line. I'm not sure I would go that far, but as a reader, I know I've been sold by an opening line in the past. I discussed hooklines about two years ago, but it is a fun subject I'd like to expand upon.

When I'm in a bookstore, browsing, the very first thing that draws me to a book is the cover. They always say not to judge a book by its cover, but marketers aren't stupid so different genres tend to have their own 'look'. By designing covers which look 'the same but different' within a genre, the marketing people have conditioned readers to gravitate to books that display certain visual elements. Once the cover has done its job and urged me to pick up the book, I flip it over and scan the back blurb. Now, you must understand I don't actually read the blurb. I just scan the first couple lines of the blurb. As a whole, I've grown to dislike blurbs because they seem to come in a only a couple flavors: revealing too much about the story, or telling the potential reader absolutely nothing about the story. So, a quick cursory scan of the back--which won't sell me unless it is extremely attention grabbing--then I flip the book open to the first chapter.

Now this, the first line, first paragraph, first page, is where I'm looking for magic to happen. I don't think I've ever read a first line and immediately closed the book and put it back on the shelf, but I have decided to buy a book after reading the first line. While a stunning first line isn't necessary and I've read many a fantastic book which had a rather blah first line, if all other considerations are equal and I can only afford to buy one book, I'm going to buy the one with a good first line. So, with that in mind, let me share some first lines that enticed me recently:

"The fact I had killed a man was really putting a crimp in my love life." --Doppelganster by Laura Resnick

"Two rules I live by: Never admit to being a shapeshifter on a first, second, or third date with a human. And never, ever bring along a zombie apprentice wannabe on a demon kill." --Deadtown by Nancy Holzner

"All I can see through to night-vison goggles are the eyes of the vampire I'm pressed against; the rest of his face is kind of obscured by the large-caliber handgun I have jammed up his nose." -- Death Blows by D D Barant

What do all of these examples have in common? Voice. And a lot of it. Now, it might not be a voice that appeals to everyone, but for me, each of these opening lines were deal-sealers. I needed to read more after those lines.

The first example, the line by Laura Resnick, is actually a book near the top of my TBR, so I have not yet read it. But when I found it in the store, the title and that first line sold me. Beside establishing voice, what is accomplished in this first line? Well, we know the view point character killed someone, and we know they don't sound all that remorseful about it as they are worried about their love life. A deceptively simple line, it is comical and establishes character. I can't wait to read this book.

The second example, which is actually the first two lines from Nancy Holzner's debut novel (but I couldn't resit including both) are much more complicated than the first example, but they immediately establish so much. If I hadn't seen the cover for this book, and I hadn't read the back, I would automatically know from these lines that I was reading fantasy, and most likely urban fantasy from the modern tones (and I would be completely correct). We also learn a lot about the character, and glean a hint of an idea of what kind of trouble is in store for her. That's a lot to do with two lines, and it is well done and comical.

The final example is actually a sequel, and as I enjoyed the first book, I was pretty much guaranteed to read the second, but how can you not love that line? There is a hint of coming action, dark humor, and an extremely interesting situation. There is also a stunning reversal, as I started the sentence expecting a situation totally different from what the end of the sentence revealed.

So why am I talking about first lines today? Well, for starters, it's on my mind. Writers tend to spend a lot of time fretting about their opening lines (sometimes to no success, as those witty first lines are occasionally cut by editors, such as in Twice Dead). I often find that I have to completely finish a book, and then rework the opening after I've written the end. In fact, that is what I'm doing right now. I just tossed out the entire first chapter of my work in progress because it just didn't open the book in and interesting enough way. I don't worry about the opening too much when write my first drafts because the important thing is to get the story on the page, but when I'm polishing, a lot of agony goes into that first chapter. Once a story gets going, I find that like a snowball, it layers and picks up speed, but that bit of kinetic energy to get it going? A lot harder than just pushing a clump of snow.

What opening lines have wowed you recently? What elements do you find really work for you as a reader? Is it the voice? The immediate sense of character? Setting? Action? Any all time favorite openings that have stuck with you?

Have a great Tuesday everyone!


Lexxx said...

OK.. I don't know what the first line was, but I can tell you the best line I've read in a book lately. The book is Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith and he says "I am going to kill every vampire in America." The line just gave me chills while I was lying on the beach. I mean, what a promise in that one statement. It made me want to devour the rest of the book right there. I just can't say enough fabulous things about that book.

As a reader, what grabs me most when I read a first line or last is the character. I have to care about the character in the first couple of lines or the book has lost me. The author should always give some clues about the inner workings of the main character's brain right from the start. Its what makes me want to read.

BTW- congrats on the Fangs, Fur and Fey!

Sorwen said...

See I'm little the opposite in that just as often a good line can lead to a good story it can just as easily mean the author is good at writing only one lines. I've read books like that where one line here is good and there is good, but the overall story just doesn't manage to be good.

Since I don't care about spoilers now I simply try to find out everything I can about a book and if it doesn't have anything in it I don't want to read then I'm willing to read it in spite of anything else. Whether that anything else be someone's opinion of it or how great/poor the first line is.

That is how I picked up your first book. I read everything I could about it and the second which seemed they wouldn't have any of the things that totally turn me off of some books. So I read them and thoroughly enjoyed them and hope they continue to be that way.

Kalayna Price said...

Lexxx, I agree. A good character you immediately identify with always draws me in.

Sorwen, I agree that it is terribly disappointing when a book doesn't live up to the first couple lines. Or when the first couple lines end up not reflecting anything at all about the tone or nature of the book--it's like a cheat.

I confess that I'm shocked you don't worry about spoilers! Of course, I know some people who read the last chapter before they start the book, just to make sure they will like the way the book ends, so everyone is different. For me, spoilers drive me crazy. In a series that several of my CPs and I read, one friend was worried about the direction it was heading and had the other read the book first and let her know if it would upset her. The response: "Well, you're really going to hate chapter 17." Unfortunately, I hadn't read the book either at that point, so I spent the whole book up until 17 going 'chapter 14, well I know something is going to change soon because 17 is almost here." I can usually guess where a book is going from the back or first few chapters, but having someone confirm it before I get to that part just irks me. LOL. Like I said, everyone is different. ^_^

I'm glad you enjoyed the first two Novels of Haven!