Friday, September 21, 2018

Novel Beginnings - a Google Search

I finished writing my first book of 2019 yesterday (which is why I'm late with this post, and I apologize profusely)!! By "finished" I mean I got through second-round edits, filled in the blanks I left on the first pass and started obsessing about my opening pages for real. I know that I have a finite amount of time to "hook" a reader and the first pages can make or break a novel. Hell, the first sentence is sometimes enough for a reader to decide to dive in or jump ship.

So, I took to Google, as you do, for some inspiration on "best novel beginnings." My exact search:

The search results for best novel beginnings start with a list from Bored Panda. On it are books like Anna Karenina, The Martian, 1984 and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. 

The second entry on the page is from The American Book Review. No Douglas Adams or Andy Weir in sight, although lots of Toni Morrison. But the ABR is a list of 100. Bored Panda is only 10.

So, let's compromise at 30, compliments of The Telegraph. George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov are the only authors who made all three lists for 1984, The Great Gatsby and Lolita, respectively. 

"Best novel beginnings ever" brought up a similar list of search results, so I dove further in and took at look at Entertainment Weekly's list. Lots of repeats from the above lists, but some unexpected additions like Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, and (my personal favorite) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling. 

This list on Buzzfeed has the most currently published books of all of the lists, including Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. 

The thing that all of these lists have in common? The first lines are attention-grabbing. Alone on the page, they're even more so and it made me want to go back and re-read some old favorites and add others to my TBR. As a writer looking for answers, though...the thing it proved to me is that what makes a first line resonate with a reader is totally subjective. I vividly remember picking up The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, reading the first page and putting it down again. Only to pick it up a couple of weeks later and devour it, sobbing, in one sitting. The first time I picked it up, it was as simple as not being in the mood for the story, nothing else. The second time, it was exactly what I was looking for. Does that make the beginning any more/less powerful? I don't think so.

But don't take my word for it. These are some famous first lines from the above lists (sans titles to make it fairer, but I'll post the answers in the comments). Which ones appeal to you? Which ones would you pass over completely?

  1. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
  2. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
  3. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” 
  4. “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” 
  5. “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”


Carrie Beckort said...

I'll admit that I don't put a lot of stock into the first line as a reader. Maybe it's because I need more than one sentence to get connected to a story. However, it is fun to look at some of the more famous first lines :) And congrats on finishing the book!

Cheryl Oreglia said...

Congratulations on finishing your novel! Outstanding. I have always been intrigued by first lines of posts and novels. It can pull in readers if done well. Love the examples above of famous first lines! Great post.

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