I just taught my first day in a brand new semester, and I feel somewhat disoriented and disheveled, a bit anxious. I drive to work at a new time, the sun glinting off the horizon. I wander the hallway in search of 299A, which does not appear in the list of possible rooms on the maps to the building. That’s exciting. Perhaps I’ll be teaching in an alternate universe this period. I do find it after all and search the faces of new students, wondering how this semester will turn out.
But the beginning of a novel is supposed to create the opposite feeling. The beginning is supposed to pull the reader in, get them hooked and curious. It’s supposed to orient them to your world and characters, but not give away too much too quickly.
That first sentence is supposed to hook that literary agent into signing you up as the next genius or blockbuster writer. It’s supposed to sell the editor, who will sell it to her publishing house, who will take out all the stops and roll out a huge marketing campaign to sell your brilliant book which of course lives up to that first sentence, so then you can make millions and retire to write in your dream house in that dream setting.
No pressure, really.
Once I went to a workshop where an editor read your first page and commented.
Turns out I still had a lot to learn.
The first line I remembered off the top of my head was Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (It doesn’t stop there.) Sometimes good first lines break punctuation rules.
Or Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” a line I quote to students to illustrate the obscurity of the modernists.
I don’t really have an absolute favorite. There are so many good ones.
From Ms. Harris: “I knew my brother would turn into a panther before he did.” Or “’Caucasian vampires should never wear white,’ the television announcer intoned.”
From Hugh Howey: “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.”
From Craig Johnson: “I wanna know what Katrina Walks Nice did to get kicked out of a joint like this for sixty-one days.”
This website lists their 100 best first lines. Melville tops the list with “Call me Ishmael.”
There used to be a worst first sentence contest that I would read out to my students, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Edward George Bulwer-Lytton wrote what is widely considered the worst first sentence ever, “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” (With such a long name, you know he had to write a long sentence.)
And yet this same sentence appears as number 22 on the best first lines website. Go figure.
What’s your worst revising experience with a first sentence or first page? Or your worst rejection or editor/agent response?
What’s your favorite first sentence? Favorite worst first line?