Monday, December 21, 2009

The First Line Game

I'm spending the weekend reading Short Circuit, a guide to writing short stories, with chapters written by various award winning short story writers. It has lots of excellent advice. I'll be hosting the editor of the collection, Vanessa Gebbie, here on the 15 of January as part of her blog tour. I hope you'll stop by.

In the part I was reading yesterday, the writer speaks about the importance of first lines. I always hear about agents and publishers who claim that they can pick out a winner from only the first line. I never actually believed this. I tend to be a bit more holistic, I want a good story. A good line does not make a good story. But perhaps I'm wrong; I'd like us to find out.

I thought it might be fun if I put a few first lines below and get my readers' comments. I'm not including from where they come. I'd like to hear some unbiased opinions. Names often cloud our judgement. I'll reveal everything after a few days in the comments section.

A) Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university.

B) When she was eight, Irene Rosen's grandfather told her one day, with the air of confiding a momentous secret, that he was half Sephardi.

C) She goes to their tiny country house in the woods with her daughter, ten days after the sudden death of her husband, and it isn't the silence but the noise, the wind in the trees, the way the leaves whack the window.

D)Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water.

E) This tale begins at the end; McPhineas Lata, the perennial bachelor who made a vocation of troubling married women is dead.

F) The leaves are the color of dried carrots.

So, which do you like best? Which ones catch you and make you want to finish the story? Which ones make you want to move on? Why? Do you think the first line defines the story?


Anonymous said...

B and D but B especially, u have a great story coming there

Miriam said...

What an interesting exercise!

B caught my eye before all the others, due to my personal connection, even though I don't have any Sephardi blood, as far as I know. But the sentence also makes me want to know more. Why is being half Sephardi such a momentous secret?

Of the others, A sounds uninteresting; C has too much in one sentence (although I think you repeated some words at the end?), and two parts that don't seem to fit together; D and F don't give any hint of what's to come; E could be interesting.

I wouldn't chose a book by its first sentence alone, but the first sentence together with the blurb on the back cover could be enough.

bonita said...

B for the content, D and F for the turn of phrase. I'd say C was too long...not too long per se, just too long-winded. I'm not much for checking first sentences, I usually read one or two pages at random. BTW my all time favorite first sentence is "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."

Lauri said...

Thanks Miriam,I corrected that repeat in C.
Bonita- Love that first line!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

A - I wouldnt read on from preference. It feels like a 'women's interest' piece, and I wouldnt choose those to read.

B - Nice. I'd read on. The prose feels well-done, I am intrigued already by the subject matter. The writer gives me confidence.

C - Again, I'd read on. mainly because I enjoy the writing here, at the moment.

D - Yup. I'd read on - there's no fliddle-faddling about setting scenes - writer in charge. The promise of a worthwhile read.

E - Lovely. Id definitiely read on!

F - Not sure. I'd need the next sentence!

Interesting exercise n'est-ce pas?

Ivor W. Hartmann said...

I really like E & C. I do think first sentences are important, and good ones can stick around in your mind forever. Like "I packed my things and left" or "My name is George Franz. Although I am not entirely sure, I suspect that a disastrous fate has just overtaken me." Ok, so the latter is two sentences but what a beginning. My own favourite is "No matter how many times he prayed, pleaded, begged and screamed, Thomas Church could not die."

Lauri said...

I'm already enjoying THIS game!
Ivor- love those first lines esp.- "No matter how many times he prayed, pleaded, begged and screamed, Thomas Church could not die."

Helen Ginger said...

My favorite is B. I have no idea what a Sephardi is; it could be a fantasy creature or something else. I want to know more.

My least favorite is A. It doesn't intrigue me in any way.

Here's one I like:
Unlike Mama, I know the hardest thing to get out of clothes is not red clay. It’s blood.

Straight From Hel

Lauri said...

So where do the lines come from?

A= The Bear Came Over the Mountian by Alice Monroe

B= To the Jew Sense Comes Late in Life by Nita Krevans

C= Early November by Peter Orner

D= Little Things by Raymond Carver

E= In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata by Lauri Kubuitsile

F= Do by Chimamanda Ngozi

Vanessa Gebbie said...

OOOH. Some new names I didn't know. Thank you!
How hilarious, re the Alice M. Just goes to show, doesn't it. When you've made a name for yourself, people read on anyway...but when you haven't, you have to work SO hard to get the things spot on. That first sentence A could have been from a womens mag.

Lauri said...

The Nita Krevans' story I found in an issue of Glimmer Train I have. I don't know her. Peter Orner is one of my favourite writers. This comes from his short story collection- Esther Stories. I highly recommend it.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

How lovely. Peter Orner's 'The Raft' is one of my fave stories.

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