Posted On January 8, 2017 by Print This Post

In the Beginning by Becke Martin Davis

In the course of a would-be writer’s career – and I count myself in that category – we quickly learn our strengths and weaknesses. I learned that I suck at beginnings. I write and rewrite opening sentences and opening chapters more than anything else. All I have to do is come up with one opening sentence (or even one measly paragraph). How hard can it be?

It’s pretty easy to figure out how not to open a story. It’s certainly well documented. I searched Google for “how not to start a novel” and got 155,000,000 hits. Writers Digest topped the list with five Don’ts: Don’t Open with a Dream, Don’t Open with an Alarm Clock Buzzing, Don’t Be Unintentionally Funny, Don’t Open with Too Much or Too Little Dialogue.

Anne R. Allen’s blog came up next, with a post by Janice Hardy called, “Four Things to Avoid in the First Page of Your Manuscript.” Janice stresses that while it’s important to give readers a sense of things going on and engage their curiosity about what’s going to happen next, it’s critical that readers are not left asking (excuse the paraphrasing), “What the heck is going on here?”

Jane Austen nailed it with her opening line to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Another memorable opening line is from Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

I tried to find some of my favorite books so I could record their first lines, but my bookshelves are double and triple-stacked so precariously I couldn’t get all the books I wanted without causing a book landslide. I just started to read a book in Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity series (mystery, not romance) – this book is called AUNT DIMITY AND THE LOST PRINCE. I love the opening:

“I’ve heard it said that when the poet T.S. Eliot was writing The Wasteland [sic], he chose February as the cruelest month, and then changed it to April in revisions. If you ask me, he got it right the first time. As far as I’m concerned, February’s only redeeming feature is its brevity. If it were any longer, I’d tear it from my calendar in protest.”

This doesn’t suck me into the story in the traditional sense, but the author has instantly connected with me because I share her feelings about the shortest month.

The first book I read by Jennifer Crusie was TELL ME LIES.  The opening hooked me in an instant:

“One hot August afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.”

The first book in Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Chicago Stars series is IT HAD TO BE YOU. The first line is a great set-up:

“Phoebe Somerville outraged everyone by bringing a French poodle and a Hungarian lover to her father’s funeral.”

I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book based on its cover, but I can’t even count the number of times I’ve bought books based on their first paragraphs. I remember standing in a Borders store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, browsing through books while my husband was at a business conference. The book that grabbed me was one of Shana Abe’s Drakon series, not the first book. After reading the whole first chapter in the store, I bought the book and finished it the same night. Before we left the next day, I ran back to Borders and bought the rest of the books in that series.

You would think reading all these fabulous first lines, first paragraphs and first chapters would make writing a satisfactory beginning of my own child’s play. Not so much.

I sympathized with Handsome Hansel’s predicament in his recent RU post on getting back into writing. I know I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to making progress. I self-edit to the point of madness, and it makes me completely insane when I can’t come up with a satisfactory first line. (At any rate, not an original one. Even now I’m channeling Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan in the movie French Kiss.)

Taken by itself, I don’t know if this line would have passed my round of edits, but overall, I have to say, it will do. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

Can you name the book this is from?

 

***

What are some of your favorite first lines? If you’re an author, what’s your favorite of your own first lines?

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Bio:

Becke joined the RU team in January 2011. She moderated the Garden Book Club and the Mystery Forum at BN.com until the forums were discontinued. Prior to that, she was a writer and instructor at B&N’s Online University and for two years she wrote a garden blog for B&N. During Becke’s twenty years as a freelance garden writer, she wrote six garden books and over 1,000 published articles. She also wrote one book about ‘N Sync, co-authored with her daughter. Becke used to blog at Michelle Buonfiglio’s Romance Buy the Book blog. Writing as Becke Martin, she has three short stories in the HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS anthology published by the Ohio Valley Romance Writers Chapter. Becke has two adult children, two awesome granddaughters and two cats. She has been married 45 years and lives in Chicago’s Hyde Park.

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14 Responses to “In the Beginning by Becke Martin Davis”

  1. This is definitely one of the things that gives me fits. After 20+ years and 20+ books, I’ve finally learned to just write *something* and come back later to make it better. It feels like you have to nail that first line before you start, but so many times my opening scene contains elements that end up not necessary for the story as a whole that the whole thing gets changed later anyway.

    Whenever I’m struggling, I’ll go grab books from my keeper shelf or to-read shelf to check first lines. They’re almost ALWAYS mundane and uninspiring. LOL So that takes some of the pressure off.

    That line at the end of your post is from the first book in my all-time favorite series that I never read, only listened to on audio about 20+ times. 🙂 And it hooked both my husband and I the first time we heard it.

    Posted by Natalie Damschroder | January 9, 2017, 8:02 am
    • I don’t know whether to be terrified or comforted by the fact that you also have fits over beginnings. I picture you just sitting at the computer with the story complete in your head. I try to force myself to leave my first lines alone, since I know those scenes will be changed later. I’m not all that good at taking my own advice, unfortunately. 😉

      Back in the day, my husband and I lived in Cincinnati and our kids lived where they had gone to college – Chicago for my son and Orlando for my daughter. We did a LOT of road trips. I don’t think Audible was around then, so we used to buy books-on-tape and listen to them on our road trips. Sadly, since our kids live near us now we hardly ever do road trips anymore. On a regular basis, I prefer reading paper books, but it is sometimes fun to have books read to me.

      My husband and I both love the books that kicked off with the last line of my post. I like the tone of the introduction more than what it actually says. I didn’t have a clue what was going on at that point, but it still made me want to read more.

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 9, 2017, 12:20 pm
      • Oh my goodness, you make me blush and laugh at the same time. Every book I’ve read lately, I’ve been all “why can’t it be this easy?” and then I read the author’s notes at the end where she talks about the struggle of making the book as good as it is. So be comforted, for sure. 🙂

        Another issue I have is coming up with an opening line in the shower, and then for some reason feeling that has to be it and I can’t change it, I just have to change everything else. LOL It’s a subconscious thing.

        I listened to those books on cassette during my long work commutes. Now I listen to them once a year on my iPod. I haven’t really listened to any other audiobooks since. Jim Dale has spoiled me forever. 🙂 But they’re great for keeping awake during road trips!

        Posted by Natalie Damschroder | January 9, 2017, 12:40 pm
        • Jim Dale is a great actor, too, if it’s the same Jim Dale I used to see on British TV shows.

          Shower writing is the BEST! If only I could set up a waterproof computer and write in a nice hot, steamy shower, I’d finish a book in no time.

          Shower writing comes second only to sleep writing – those brilliant ideas that come to you, full blown, on waking up in the middle of the night. Even when I keep a notepad and pen next to my bed, it doesn’t help. Apparently I’m bilingual at night, and unable to translate my scribbles in daylight.

          Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 9, 2017, 12:48 pm
  2. I LOVE Dickens, and A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favorites, both in terms of openings and complete novels. So glad to see it here.

    This was a great post. both in terms of struggling (like Handsome Hansel) and of hooking readers. And it’s a nice reminder that while stellar openings are crucial, many of us have trouble with them.

    (And who among us won’t recognize the opening to the Harry Potter series? Even though Rowling didn’t have an active verb or more than a hint of the tension to come, she established tone and voice with her first line. You’re right; it does just fine.)

    Posted by Staci Troilo | January 9, 2017, 8:05 am
    • I fell in love with words back in high school, and the opening lines to A TALE OF TWO CITIES gave me chills. It inspired me to read that book and nearly all of Dickens other books, too.

      And years after reading PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Jane Austen’s brilliant opening line still sticks in my head.

      The first Harry Potter book is definitely my favorite (I think my kids disagree). I love the way J.K. Rowling sets her scenes and introduces us to the characters. I love Diagon Alley, I love the owls, the wands and – of course – everything about Harry himself.

      I don’t know if J.K. Rowling had the series planned out from the start. If she did, I imagine the temptation was strong to pour a lot of foreshadowing into the opening lines. Sometimes simple works best!

      Now if only I can remember that.

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 9, 2017, 12:29 pm
  3. Hi Becke,

    I love the first line of SEP’s It Had to be You. That set the tone for the entire book. For me, one of the most provocative and memorable opening lines is from Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place. (Okay, you know how I am about PP.)

    “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases…”

    Pretty racy stuff for 1956 and OMG, written by a woman! I was ten when I read it. The librarian wouldn’t let me check it out without a note from my mother so, I forged a note and got the book the following week.

    I don’t want to think about how many times I’ve rewritten the first line/paragraph. If I added up the hours it took to complete a manuscript versus the number of hours spent rewriting the first line, I’d probably stop writing.

    While I still agonize over the first sentence, I now know I’ll change it later. I’ve never been a linear writer; I write scenes out of order. Sometimes, I’ll write the ending or the epilogue first because it serves as a placeholder, like this is where I want to end up.

    I’ve discovered it’s easier to rewrite the first line and in some cases, the first chapter, when I’m half-way through or almost done with the story because by then, I have a better idea of where the story should start and why.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 9, 2017, 7:16 pm
    • I remember your fondness for Peyton Place. My scandalous read from my teenage years was Jacqueline Susann’s VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. I don’t have the book anymore, but I was able to find the first line via Google:

      “You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls. It’s a brutal climb to reach that peak. You stand there. Waiting for the rush of exhilaration; but, it doesn’t come. You’re alone and the feeling of loneliness is overpowering.”

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 9, 2017, 7:39 pm
  4. I’ve been looking up other famous first lines. I like this from Dodie Smith’s I CAPTURE THE CASTLE: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

    The first line of Daphne Du Maurier’s REBECCA is a classic: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 9, 2017, 8:13 pm
  5. The first line quoted is, of course, the beginning of Harry Potter. The interesting aspect to me is that it’s the final “thank you very much” that makes this line a winner. And then there’s “Happy Families are all alike; each unhappy family it unhappy in it’s own way.” The opening to Anna Karenina. In a way it breaks all the “rules.” It isn’t even related to the central story or the main character, Anna. It’s a commentary on one of several sub-plots

    Posted by Ruchama | January 9, 2017, 9:40 pm
    • I like that first line, too. And talk about rule-breakers, what about the first line of MOBY DICK? “Call me Ishmael.” Unforgettable, but it doesn’t really tell us anything about the book. Hmmm – or does it?

      I agree, it’s the “thank you very much” that really makes the Harry Potter opening brilliant. I love it!

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 9, 2017, 11:39 pm
  6. Evening Becke!

    I LOVE writing opening lines! I wish I could write an entire book with nothing but opening lines..lol..it’s the rest of the book that causes me fits.

    One of my favorites..
    “THERE ARE SOME men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” (Evanovich – One for the Money) that just sets the tone for the book. =)

    great post becke!!! thanks!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Peters | January 10, 2017, 12:34 am

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