Grand openings

I’ve been mildly obsessed by this article all morning and after scrolling through the readers’ comments realised, to my shame, that I could remember the opening lines of – at best – maybe two of my own books. And one of those was the one I am still working on.

That’s because quite often beginning a book is such a huge, mind-numbing leap of faith that the only way I can get past the terror of the blank white screen is to tell myself it doesn’t matter, that I can come back and alter all my inadequate words at some later date. With probably six of my published novels I have returned and rewritten or replaced the entire first chapter completely.

So I was fascinated to see the impact that first lines have on so many readers. By chance yesterday I happened to listen in on a radio programme on exactly this topic, where writer Joe Dunthorne (Submarine) gave examples of his own attempted first lines and why they had failed. A first line, it was agreed, had to set the tone for the entire book. It had to encapsulate the protagonist’s character. It had to tell you what kind of book this was. No pressure there, then.

I can see the point in all of this. And yes, his eventual first line was infinitely better than the ones he didn’t use. But apart from in a few memorable cases (“It is a truth universally acknowledged…” “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew…”) I really don’t believe the first line is as important as what comes next. If you are moved, or transported by a book, I think you remember it – and judge it – as a whole.

I am currently reading The Somnambulist by Essie Fox, a novel which I am enjoying so much that I was up at six this morning to relish it in the peace of my still-sleeping household. It has taken me to new worlds, is riven with suspense, has made my imagination wander, and my fingers itch to turn to the last page.

Could I tell you what the first line was? Despite having read it not three nights ago?

Not a chance.

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