The start of a novel can make or break a book for me. It has to grab my attention with the very first line. As everyone today, I am too time poor to hang around hoping the book will get better. Am I too harsh? If an author has not put everything into their opening sentence then where is the respect to the reader? But here lies the problem, what makes a good first sentence? Every reader has different taste and I know what I like and if the writing is good, I’ll stick around and give the book a fighting chance.
I recently attended a talk by the author Alexander McCall Smith. McCall Smith discussed the importance of a great opening line. He then delighted us with one of his favourites from The Tower of Trebizond by Rose Maccauly.
“Take my camel dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
Has the reader curious. No?
My favourite is a little more subdued, from the master himself, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Whenever I read this I wonder whether Dickens sweated over every word, rearranging, rewriting, putting in a comma and then removing it again or was he hit by inspiration and it flowed in one sitting. Here it is, for your pleasure.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”
My son wanted to add his favourite, it’s the opening line of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit
“In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit”
What is your favourite opening sentence?
“Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own”.
There was one book in my childhood, which shone brighter than all the others it was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I read this book over and over. My mother was the school librarian, and she would exclaim ‘again?’ when I’d place the book on her desk on library day. My mother probably thought my recurrent borrowing was because the library was very small, (actually almost non-existent – one wall of fiction) or because I did not own any books myself. The reason was that this book spoke to me like no other had before it. I believe that there is at least one book in a child’s life, which has such a profound impact that it stays with them for life. I can picture a generation of “Harry Potter” fans nodding their heads at this statement.
Mary Lennox, The Secret Garden’s protagonist, was with me when I was sad, happy or lost in a daydream. I suspect a little part of her creeps into my lead characters in every story I write. I believe we are drawn to someone we identify with or someone who embraces the qualities we wish we had. Mary was stubborn, and I’ve been called that once or twice, okay, I’ve been called that a lot, but she was also brave, tough and adventurous, all qualities I admired.
Let me know what book/character shaped your childhood.
“Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow”- The Secret Garden
Confession – I have an addiction to libraries. In my wallet, amongst the Boost Juice and Gloria Jeans loyalty cards, sits my many library cards. Like inching out the notches on a belt, my wallet needs more room, maybe a separate wallet just for them.
Over the years I’ve had many fine library moments, running around London’s library was pure joy, Sydney University library, had my face pasted with a smile, like the joker, for the entire day. Recently I visited my local library after it had major renovations, and I declared I’d found my utopia. I also have fond memories of visiting the Lands Title’s office and feeling like Alice in Wonderland as I struggled to open the huge record books. The large tomes are the size of a house; well a moped at least – seriously! I still have a world of libraries to conquer. I may start with the one pictured; it’s the Anscient Ursino of rare books in Sicily, Italy, or we could search for the lost books/library of Alexandria. Does anyone want to join me?