Sunday, June 5, 2011

Great first lines

"I baked a chicken the night I left my wife." These are the first lines of a book I was recently lent, purchased by a friend on the merit of this sentence alone. Needless to say, I too was reeled in and went on to devour the little morsel of a book, aptly named Fried Butter.

Let's face it: the first lines of a book are important, and may be perhaps a writer's only opportunity to capture a reader's attention in an era buzzing with choices. The first lines of my own manuscript are:

"I know you'd rather I was dead. I'm hardly alive. I don't expect an answer to this email. I don't expect anything."

They're not bad. In fact, in my totally unbiased opinion, they absolutely rock. From reading them just now, I am confident your socks have been knocked off. They are on the other side of the room, sliding down the window. Am I right or what? Nonetheless, there are several problems with these first lines.

Firstly, they're a teeny tiny bit on the dark side. You might think that instead of a memoir about a Neapolitan love story, you've just picked up a thriller about a death-row murderer who starts stalking his victim's daughter. Also, the sentences are short and all begin with "I". But the biggest problem with these lines is that I didn't write them.

Instead, they are the actual first words of an email from someone I hadn't heard from in years. And he wasn't at all a murderer but a bright and handsome geologist who also happened to be - despite this initial overuse of the first person singular - an extraordinary writer. To the point where sometimes I think that my own writing pales in comparison.

But, hey wait, I'm the aspiring writer here, not him, and I'd really like to get published before my publicity shots start to look like pictures of my daughter. To do that, I need some good positive energy. I need qi. I need good flow, feng shui. I need the entrance to my book, so to speak, to invite positive energy into my life. In this vein, I'm going to try to breathe deeply and rewrite the first lines of my book, taking inspiration - and only once actually stealing - from some of the classics of literature. Do any of these make your socks stick to the window?

"I have never begun a memoir with more misgiving."

"Signor Pasquali and Signora Ficuciello, on the sixth floor of number one hundred and twenty seven Via delle Fontanelle, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."

"All this happened, more or less."

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. No, it was the best of times. Well, it was actually a bit of both."

"Elio, light of my life, fire of my wood-oven pizza."

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single girl in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a Neapolitan lover."

"Happy couples are all alike; every unhappy couple is unhappy in its own way."

"The Saint Gennaro Festival won't be the Saint Gennaro Festival without any uncongealed blood," grumbled Rebecca, lying on the rug.


  1. oooh, first lines… Would you terribly mind if I gave you my two favourite first lines ever? Here we go.
    #1: "I once had a farm in Africa…" (don't you just hear the famous music from 'Out of Africa'? Don't you just feel absolutely Tania-Blixenish, making a chicken-ass-mouth because you're waiting for Robert Redford to French-kiss you in the presence of three lions, a rhinoceros, a chimpanzee and a friendly elephant?)
    #2 (the best ever because it gives you the feeling of the whole book): "Yesterday, my mother died. Or the day before yesterday, I don't know anymore." (Albert Camus, L'├ętranger)

  2. Dieter, indeed they GREAT first lines. But I love even more YOUR line about French-kissing Robert Redford in the presence of [...] a friendly elephant!