final edits and first lines

Now that my wonderful editor has returned the Sceptre & the Sword manuscript, the last edit begins and I am once again consumed with thoughts on opening sentences.

As synchronicity would have it, in the last few days I have seen a number of online discussions spring up about the very same topic. If you haven't read it yet, this article on the Atlantic covers many of the obvious (Margaret Atwood likes Melville's 'Moby Dick') and some more obscure, (Jonathen Franzen likes Kafka's 'Trial') They all agree, of course, that the opening lines of a story are crucial.

Then I came across this post on reddit, which had a whole lot more to choose from. Even if you browse only the most upvoted, you can't help but be impressed by the efficiency of those few words that the writers chose to start their tale. 

I'd love to know if they struggle as much as I do getting them right. Luckily, Mr King is happy to discuss his process, and in another Atlantic article, he admits that sometimes he spends years getting them right. 

'If I can get that first paragraph right, I'll know I can do the book.'

I hear you, Mr. King. I hear you.

As I look over the markup of my MS, nothing seems as daunting as the absence of any at all on the opening line. From this I can assume my editor considers that what I have now is functional, but as I read it (and read it again), I know it needs to be better. 

If I pick three of my favourite books from the shelf next to me I find even more examples that get it right.

'"Tonight we're going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man."' -- Joe Haldeman, The Forever War

'The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony space-ship and played Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green, saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below.' -- Dan Simmons, Hyperion.

'The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.' -- Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea.

I did not pick these because they stuck out as memorable openings, only as memorable books. Interestingly they each do very different things. Haldeman jumps right in with dialogue of a secondary character, forcing us into a POV of the protagonist we have not yet met. Simmons introduces us to our protagonist, but does so in a way that sets him against the backdrop of a strange land where remnants of our world still linger. Finally Le Guin paints us an epic vista of the location her story will take place.

All three different, and whilst none is perhaps on league with 'Call me Ishmael' they all grab me, even now, drawing me into their world. 

So this is where I am at.

The queen pounced down the empty tunnel.    

I can't tell you how many edits it took to get here, but once again I look at those seven words and find them lacking. As I sit here considering my options it seems that the examples I have just typed out offer my best three ways forward.  

Either I pull away from the character to paint an image of where the story starts, or jump right inside the character's mind with internal dialogue, or I bite the bullet and craft a long compound sentence that tries to do a bit of both. It worked for Simmons right?

At least King offers some consoling words: 

A book won't stand or fall on the very first line of prose -- the story has got to be there, and that's the real work.

If you want even more examples of opening lines, have a look here at a convenient wikiquote page on the subject. 


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