Have you ever picked up a book, started reading it, and been frustrated by how utterly inadequate the beginning is? Conversely, have you ever bought a book because the beginning absolutely affixed itself to your imagination? Anyone who reads has most likely lived both these experiences, and Scarlett Archer’s 1001 First Lines is just the recipe book to reveal your tastes.
“Recipe book?” you say to yourself. “I’m confused.” A cookbook lists ingredients, measures, cook times and temperatures—but it doesn’t actually do the work for you. It can’t tell you how the dish will taste upon your tongue. Based on experience with the ingredients you may have a fair idea of whether or not you’ll like the outcome. But what if you’re in a I’ve-never-tried-this-before mood; you can’t say for certain you’ll like it.
Likewise, Ms. Archer doesn’t do the work for you here. She gives you the tidbits, morsels, seasonings, all the stuff you need to make your own subjective decision.
Ms. Archer’s approach, initially, disappointed me; this because of the almost always dangerous practice of presupposition. I chalked up the book’s title to something metaphorical, hoping the book would be an excursion into analysis of some of the best and worst first lines published. Not so. What Archer has done, however, is given the curious reader a looking glass through which one is able to catch a glimpse of one’s deeper pockets of curiosity, to shed some light on why we are (or are not) captivated by the first words in a book.
I tried the time-tested method of reading: pick the book up and start at the beginning. I quickly found that wasn’t working. Reading 1001 First Lines is an exercise in fun, actually. A highlighter and pen became necessary complements to my journey through its pages. And here’s why . . .
At the outset I was chagrined to see that these first lines were not given the label of “bad” or “good.” But in the absence of those labels lays the beauty of her approach. I got to highlight lines I thought good, then made a note explaining why I thought it deserving. The same held true for those I felt truly bad. Therein lies the key: I don’t read the same way or with the same emotional experiences you do. Having Archer declare a given first line good or bad immediately removes from the experience all the joy or disgust we seek as readers and instead would bring it down to some manner of quantification, requiring some way to measure against a list of criterion or standards . . . and for most reading that simply can’t work. The experience is largely a function of solitude and personal willingness to suspend one’s own conceptions and hitch one’s wagon to the authors words.
For example, here’s one I feel is good:
Are you there God?
My reasons for liking it may differ from yours, but I would bet most people would say this is a good first line. Why? Who among us hasn’t, at one time or another, wondered if God was listening? The next question in a readers mind should be “Why is this character asking that strong a question?” In case you’re wondering that’s from— Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.
Here’s another one I feel is good:
Where’s Papa going with that ax? said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
Papa clearly means to kill something . . . but what? Now you have to read on to find out.
That, in case you didn’t know, is from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.
How about a bad one—and I’m not making this one up:
It was a dark and stormy night.
Most any teacher, instructor, professor, editor, or friend (at least a good friend) will tell you that line is so overused by amateurs it’s evolved to something well past banal and cliché and has arrived at eye-rolling awful. I (and many other kids) read this book in grade school—A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L’Engle.
A book’s cover may draw you in, catch your eye, but the meal begins when you start reading. That first line is, in many cases, a fish-or-cut-bait proposition—it snags you or it falls flat. 1001 First Lines is loaded with examples of both. Kinda fun to see these first lines, isn’t it?
Archer has classified her collection of first lines into 15 categories, from Comedy and Romance to Erotica and Biography. The more you read, the more you begin to see why certain writers are so widely read any why others seem to disappear. Want some more examples, don’t ya?
It is so appropriate to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw.
Flowers In The Attic by V.C. Andrews
My note for this line: Beautiful yet haunting.
After Midnight by Richard Layman
My thought: It’s distractingly cardboard-ish. Surely there’s something more creative to be said.
Another good one:
Nothing ever begins.
Weaveworld by Clive Barker
Me: Cerebral, poetic, and creepy.
Not so good:
It was night again.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rathfuss
As with the lions share of books published now 1001 First Lines is available as an ebook. Here’s a pleasant surprise: I was told it was available digitally but I lean heavily toward “traditional” reading—you might remember it as holding an actual book in your hands and turning physical pages. “If available,” I wrote to the tour coordinator, “I would certainly prefer a hard copy for review.” And I received one. That wasn’t the surprise (although the curmudgeon in me is most grateful).
The cover is striking in its simplicity, yet as a reader its bullseye red circle immediately grabs your attention. I was told how the hard copy was produced but forgot by the time I received the book. It looks like any other professional release from a traditional publisher . . . but this was produced by Amazon’s CreateSpace. Color me surprised!
If you belong to a reading group 1001 First Lines would prove a sensational conversation piece. Part of a critique group? What better way to sharpen your skills than to bandy about some of the best and worst since Gutenberg put ink to paper? Whether reader or writer 1001 First Lines is a fascinating peek at words that grab us, and those that repel.
As readers we all know that many times the first line is long forgotten by the time you get firmly sucked into the story. 1001 First Lines is by no means an indictment of poor writing nor an apotheosis for the better examples. Nor is it a do-it-yourself manual for getting the perfect first line for your story. It’s a lot like the “serving suggestion’ image you see on food packaging—you know when you make the dish it won’t look anything like the image, but it will, ultimately, be your own.
Ready to read it? You can find 1001 First Lines at:
• Scarlett’s blog
A review copy of 1001 First Lines was kindly provided by the author, Scarlett Archer. My thanks to her and Dorothy Thompson for the opportunity to participate in the 1001 First Lines virtual tour.