Mark Terry

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Great Beginnings

September 19, 2006
I'm not a great believer that the first sentence of a novel should be so amazing it sells the book. But first paragraphs? I just grabbed five books off my shelves, generally favorites. How do they open?

Metro Girl by Janet Evanovich
Just because I know how to change a guy's oil doesn't mean I want to spend the rest of my life on my back, staring up his undercarriage.

Comment: Boy, you've just about got the character and her attitude there in one sentence, don't you? Very promising first line.

Voodoo, Ltd. by Ross Thomas
The two-passenger car that raced through Malibu shortly after 5 a.m. on New Year's Day at speeds exceeding 82 miles per hour was an almost new Mercedes-Benz 500SL with an out-the-door price of $101,414.28. It was driven with one hand, the left, by the not quite beautiful hyphenate, Ione Gamble, whose blood alcohol level would later be measured at 0.16, proving her to be quite drunk, legally and otherwise, for the second time in her life.

Comment: The first sentence is a bit strange, although not by Thomas' standards. There's such an amazing amount of quirky detail there that one is inclined to continue reading. And if you get to the second sentence, there are so many questions, like: Not quite beautiful? What's a hyphenate? What was the first time she was drunk?

To The Hilt by Dick Francis
I don't think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn't really his fault.

Comment: I think Francis is the absolute master of the great first line, although this one is only so-so. It's provocative enough. Don't most people mind dying? The second line draws you in. You just known there's a story here.

"I" is for Innocent by Sue Grafton
I feel compelled to report that at the moment of death, my entire life did not pass before my eyes in a flash.

Comment: I don't think Grafton's first lines are all that dazzling, although they aren't bad. This one, however, is terrific. Obviously the narrator's not dead and even just as obvious, there's a story to read coming up.

The Deal by Peter Lefcourt
One of the downside risks of producing your own suicide is that you probably won't get the opportunity to reshoot.

Comment: Leftcourt's "The Deal" is a hilarious look at the movie industry. Probably a little dated now, especially considering the Yugoslavia film production site, but very, very funny. That it starts with a B-movie producer about to commit suicide and his very dry wit about it, is quite captivating. I've always found the tone hilarious, although one friend who read it thought the first part was pretty grim, since it goes on to read:

It's pretty much a one-take business. Barring, of course, a complete disaster, in which case you won't be in any frame of mind to consider the results with any objectivity. You may not, in fact, be in any frame of mind at all. You may be reduced to hanging in there out of pure reflex, your organism metabolizing in spite of your express wishes to the contrary.

Of course, as you read on you find that Charlie Bern has been having money problems, his gardener having cut down his lemon tree so it fell into his pool, and his pool guy patiently picking the lemons out of the pool and piling them up like cannonballs, and complaining about his Mercedes... for some reason, you're pretty sure Charlie's not going to off himself.

Anyway, do they make you want to read them? That's the point, after all.



Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

OK. OK. You've reminded me that the first sentence of the book we've started writing really sucks. I just made a note in the first chapter to change it!

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