What is it that encourages readers to enter the unknown world of a new novel? They look at the front cover, read the blurb, as well as the reviews, before comparing these illuminating snippets with the price. The reputation of the author and the hype surrounding the book both play a part, positively or negatively, as does the title. Any of these added extras may persuade a reader that a book will be a portable pleasure island or that they will end up befuddled in an unsettling foreign land. These are external features, the physical and reported packaging of a book; a novel still exists if these colourful suggestions are removed but without them what can readers use to help them decide which unfamiliar territory to explore?
The first line of a book is the most important for attracting the readers attention. Most flip to the front of a book to see if the first paragraph interests them when investigating new material. It is not surprising that the first sentence is now partially used as a marketing tool in modern fiction when there is such an over abundance of new books. Competition is tough. These firework first lines can capture the imagination but reading too many novels that feature this effect can be wearing as authors try to out do each other. New techniques may replace this one as it becomes too common for readers to find its variations intriguing but the opening paragraph will always remain essential in captivating the reader.
The impact of first lines would have more influence on book browsers if all the external clues were removed. No shiny cover designs, blurbed summaries or author names to guide the purse hand. Without these signals to categorise books (pink for chick-lit, black for horror) readers might be inclined to explore more, picking books they would never normally touch because of an attractive first sentence. Don’t worry I’m not suggesting that we storm every publisher’s marketing department and bring it to its knees. I enjoy the look of books that are as colourful outside as they are inside. However it is sometimes refreshing to strip books down to black marks on white pages and really focus on the quality of the writing.
The rest of this column is filled with first lines or openings written by British authors, posted without titles, cover designs or the names of their creators. Hopefully you’ll find some that you’d like to pursue, that distract you from your tasks until you eventually have your own copy to admire. To discover where each excerpt comes watch this space for a link on October 5th. Until then, it's your best guess! I hope you enjoy your explorations.
“ ‘ Bin Laden? A fucking charlatan.’
‘Be serious for a moment,’ Williams told him.”
“ If there is one thing you could say for my father, he never beat his wife.”
“ Everyone knows about Boadicea.”
“ She was sure here suspenders were showing.”
“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink flowering thorn.”
“ In 1704, the presumed heir to the Austen family fortune, John Austen, lay dying of consumption at the age of thirty-four.”
“I am making this staement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”
“According to my mother the first person I ever properly smiled at after I was born was not her but her closest friend at the time, Claire Tinker.”
“Far out in the charted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
“The primroses were over.”