Every story or book has one. Whether your novel is plot driven or character driven, you have to start somewhere. It doesn't matter if, as Ann Patchett suggests, you begin writing at the beginning and finish at the end, or if you write a collection of scenes and then order them in a manner that best suits your story and style. At some point in the process, you have to write that first sentence, first paragraph, first page. And, like it or not, that "first" is your first impression on the reader and, if it doesn't grab them, there's a pretty good chance they won't read any further.
We've all heard about the hook. We have to hook the reader, make them want to turn the page. We have to hook the editor or agent we're submitting to so they'll read more than our first couple of paragraphs. Every time I hear this, I picture myself sitting in a boat, fishing rod in hand, patiently waiting for a nibble at the hook playing along the bottom of the lake, muscles itching to set the hook and reel in the elusive cold water agent/editor/reader. The only problem is, I'm neither patient nor a good angler. Besides, cleaning that sort of catch would be really icky. (Okay, not enough coffee this morning means creepy imagery.)
So, as a writer, I've been aware of the need to find the perfect "hook" for my work. But as an editor, it's something new. I understand now why slush readers -- yes, Matapam, I'm talking abut you ;-p -- say they have to be hooked within a couple of pages of a novel or a couple of paragraphs of a short story. There simply isn't enough time in the day to read everything otherwise. Does that mean some good stories or novels might be rejected? Absolutely. But it is, unfortunately, a way of life. It is also a symptom of what's going on these days. Readers, on the whole, simply don't have the attention span or patience to wade through pages and chapters of what might be beautiful prose before they get to the plot hook. That's one of the reasons "literary" works don't sell as well as genre. There are others, but I'm not going to get into them.
What started me thinking about this was a round of editing yesterday, of my own work as well as submissions to Naked Reader, and then this article. American Book Review has published the "100 Best First Lines from Novels". I read through them, recognizing most of them as books I've read -- or tried to read. Some of the lines are so stuffed with description and various dependent and independent clauses as to make my eyes cross. Others are short and not so sweet. Some make me smile and others leave me scratching my head. But some grab me and make me want to read more.
42. Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. —Anita Brookner, The Debut (1981) -- There were days in college English classes when I knew exactly what Ms. Brookner meant when she wrote this line. Reading it now, I can imagine so many scenarios this line could lead into, each of them more fantastic than the one before it.
49. It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992) -- WHAT? Grandma exploded?!? Now tell me you don't want to read what comes next.
100. The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. —Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895) -- While this doesn't cause that instant "WHAT?!?" the previous line did, it does leave me asking questions and wanting to know what army and why they are there. Are they resting after a march or resting before battle? Again, something that has me wanting more information.
8. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949) -- Thirteen? That alone tells me there is something different to this world and I'll read on to find out what.
These aren't all the good ones on the list. Most of them are, in my opinion, excellent. Sure, there are some I don't think should be on the list and some that should be that aren't. What I'd like you to do is look at the list and then think about your favorite books, preferably books published in the last decade or two. How did they start? Did the book start with a bang or a whimper? If a whimper, why did you keep reading and would you keep reading today if you'd never read the book before?
If you want, you can post your first sentence. One sentence only. We'll let you know if it hooks enough to have us wanting more.