Being Judgmental

It’s raining buckets outside, and for once I’m not out in it. Scout’s asleep, all the lights in the house are off, and I’m wrapped up in a blanket preparing to write away while watching the rain soak the world around me. This is a good moment, folks.

I’ve been thinking about first lines a lot this week. A friend sent me the first line of her novel to critique, which was fabulous and totally made me want to read the rest. But when I went to reciprocate, I didn’t have the guts to send just the first line. I had to give her the whole first page, because I couldn’t bear to place the brunt of judgment on one sentence.

A while ago, I wrote this post about some of the truly fabulous first lines in literature. I will admit that a good first line has a certain magical quality about it, but I sometimes feel like it’s achieved this idolized status as the only standard by which your book will be judged.

When I pick up a book I know nothing about, the cover is the first place I look. Then the flap description, then the first page. Not the first line. I give almost every book the entire first page to draw me in, and more if the flap description presents an intriguing concept.

Not even that much is enough to give me a good idea of whether I’ll like it sometimes. I passed the Ranger’s Apprentice series over for years because I didn’t love the cover, and the flap description didn’t speak to me. I even read the entire first chapter and was unimpressed. But I finally picked it up on my sister’s recommendation, and the second chapter had me hooked. I burned through all twelve books in about two months.

So I’m curious: how do you judge a book? By its cover? By its first line? By its description? By some combination of factors? Does the first line really deserve all the weight of responsibility we place on it?

“How can anything be ‘upon’ a time?!”

So I checked out Joshua Dread by Lee Bacon the other day and got the first line read before my little girl grabbed the skin on either side of my neck and chomped my nose. (This is her preferred method of getting my attention.) So this is the only line of this book that I got to read:

“Our class got out of sixth period early the day my parents tried to flood the earth.”

Well, I’m curious.

Now, I’m not one of those people who condemns a book based on a less-than-stellar first line. Sometimes it takes a few sentences to get into the action. But it doesn’t hurt to have an intriguing opener. So it got me thinking about some of the great openings I’ve encountered throughout my reading adventures.

***

“If I had to do it all over again, I would not have chosen this life. Then again, I’m not sure I ever had a choice.”
The False Prince, Jennifer Nielsen

“How Nobody Came to the Graveyard.”
The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (yes, chapter titles count!)

“First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.”
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

“My dear Wormwood,”
The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis

“They didn’t say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back.”
All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot

“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

“Uns ist in alten maeren wunders vil geseit
von helden lobebaeren, von grôzer arebeit.”
Das Nibelungenlied (Haha, just checking to see if you’re still awake. It actually is a great beginning, it just happens to be in Middle High German.)

“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.”
The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka (Okay, I can’t stand reading Kafka, but you have to admit that’s a good opener. It’s even better in German. There’s just no English word for Ungeziefer.)

“How does one describe Artemis Fowl? Various psychiatrists have tried and failed.”
Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer

“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”
Holes, Louis Sachar

***

So what are some of your favorite openings? Anybody want to share the first sentence of your novel? I’d love to hear them! Here, I’ll even give you one of mine from a side project, but you have to promise that one of you out there will be brave and reciprocate.

“This doorway felt no different than any other Dean had stepped through in his six years of life.”

Your turn!

Also, check out Studio C giving the Grimm Brothers a little literary advice on how to open their stories: