Sunday, September 24, 2006

First lines: do they really have to make such an impact?

One thing that has been evolving over the past couple of hundred years is the pacing of novels. Go back to nineteenth century books, and the story tends to unfold at a delightfully leisurely pace. You can't read those tomes in a hurry.

We still have big fat books - especially in the fantasy genre - but mostly the pacing is much faster. To match the way we live, perhaps. And there are so many websites or blogs by agents/writers/editors telling us we've got to grab the attention of the reader/agent/editor in the first few lines - or fail to sell. Which is a shame in some ways. I actually prefer a leisurely start when I am reading. I like to get to know the characters before someone tries to kill them in the first paragraph.

Which doesn't mean I don't bow to modern taste in my own writing. Mostly. Sort of. Here are the beginnings of my published novels. Which one would you pick up to buy first??

the tainted cover

The Tainted:

It wasn't easy being a girl sometimes. Especially not when you were just sixteen, and hauling in wet fishing nets over a deck slippery with scales and slime.

The Aware, Glenda Larke



The Aware:

So you want to know what the Isles of Glory were like back then, eh? In the days before the Change, in the years before your people found us - and we found out that we weren't the only islands in the ocean.

gilfeather cover

Gilfeather:

I first met Blaze and Flame the day before I murdered my wife. The evening before, to be exact.

havenstar coveroDie Fährte des Blinden.

Havenstar:

Piers Kaylen drew rein at the top of the rise and looked down on the halt. He sat unmoving in the saddle of his mount, and his emerald eyes missed nothing as he shifted his gaze away from the distant mountains and bordering roughs to the tree-spattered plain, and finally on to the stolid buildings of the halt below.


Heart of the Mirage:

When an emperor laughs about you behind your back, you know you are in trouble.

The Shadow of Tyr:

Temellin stood on the sea wall and watched the Platterfish manoeuvre through the moored fisher boats. In the windless waters of the harbour, four oars stroked in unison from the lower deck, while the sail hung like a rumpled blanket from the top spar. On the upper deck, a woman leaned at the railing, looking back at him.

Song of the Shiver Barrens:

When Kelven was twelve years old, he saw the harbinger of his death. He was fishing for his family’s dinner in the lake at the time, sitting on the bank with his feet dangling over the water, dreaming of nothing more than a good meal of spout-nosed trout.

9 comments:

KarenEMiller said...

For me it's a tie between Gilfeather and Heart of the Mirage, with The Aware close behind.

Those three are *excellent* opening lines.

I agree that too much frenetic action without any kind of context isn't a good way to open. There needs to be a balance between something happening and discovering who these people are so that we *care* when something happens to them.

Kendall said...

My attention span's not so short that I drop a book after 1-2 sentences; I give at least a paragraph or two. (kidding!) Ahem. Anyway, if I had to decide on those openings, then I'm with Karen -- Gilfeather or Heart of the Mirage.

I'm also with Karen re. balance. Plus, it depends on the writing and the novel. Some novels work great with slow openings that build to the action. Some work great starting right in the thick of things. (I prefer not to be too confused when I start a novel, though; a little context goes a long way.)

BTW don't sequels get a break? At least for me -- I don't pick things up mid-series. If I'm buying book x, it's because I liked the previous one. The author gets a lot more leeway with me, since I "know" it'll be good, and I'm fine with taking my time getting back into the swing of things.

Despite what I read in agents' blogs, plenty of books still seem to make it onto the shelf without starting in the middle of X trying to kill Y, so I guess publishing hasn't totally lost its way. ;-)

Cheryl said...

Gilfeather, definitely. Not only does it give you a mystery to hook you in, it also provides an excellent impression to the central character.

By the way, I have a sneaking suspicion that the whole "must hook you from paragraph one" thing has much more to do with editors and slush piles than with the buying public.

Anonymous said...

Fuzzy Goblin (I don't have a blogger account...)

I liked Gilfeather for its matter-of-factness. The way in which the fact that meeting Blaze and Flame were somehow more important than the murder of his wife perks up my interest, and it is strengthened when the second sentence goes one step further to bring the evil act down into the world of the mundane.

I saw similarities in Heart of the Mirage and Song of the Shiver Barrens, but I thought Gilfeather really captured the essence of directing the readers interest. Just my two cents.

I've always though it strange that an editor/publisher places so much on those first sentences compared to when I pick up a book often have to force myself through the first pages to get to the 'good bits'. Of course, I'm not an editor/publisher, but I am an avid reader...

Ted Mahsun said...

I'd have to agree with the rest. Gilfeather and Heart of the Mirage get my money. The Aware too if I like the rest of the page.

Anonymous said...

I vote for Gilfeather as well.

Such a confronting first sentence.

I also have to agree with Cheryl that the need for a 'hook' is an artifact of the agent review process.

Phillberrie from the Purple Zone.

Glenda Larke said...

This is interesting...keep the comments coming! I'd love to say that Gilfeather outsold all the others - but it didn't. It's middle book of a trilogy, and did not sell as well as either book 1 or 3, and I have never worked out why.

Anghara said...

For me, given this range, it's a toss-up between "The Aware" and "Heart of the Mirage" for first place, closely followed by "Gilfeather".

It might be that one or two of the others START with a character's name, and that always makes me stop and go, "who is this, again?" I think I prefer being kind of eased into identity of the protagonist, rather than being whapped over the head with it as I open the book.

Interesting exercise, though. I do wonder how much impact that first sentence has when you're browsing in a bookshop and unsure of what PRECISELY you might want to buy.

Which of those books you quoted HAS actually sold best for you so far, Glenda?...

Glenda Larke said...

I think Havenstar actually sold best in one sense - period available v. sales - it was disappearing off the shelves at a rate of knots, but while that was happening the imprint went bust and they remaindered the book, so ultimately the number sold remained under 4000. It was at 81 on the Amazon.co.uk overall best seller list when it disappeared.

I don't have any figures at all for Heart of the Mirage, so that doesn't enter the equation yet. Of the other 3, The Aware sold best, but then it's also been available longest.