Wednesday, 20 June 2012

First Impressions, Opening Lines

New York, New York, so great they... well, you know the rest. And whatever might have been said about the place in the 1970s and 80s, the Big Apple is back and close to its pumping, vibrant peak. So I took the opportunity on a recent research trip to spend a couple of extra days in New York, which meant arriving at JFK rather than a little further down the coast, closer to my final destination. 

Arriving in America is a haphazard affair, you never know quite what to expect. The first time I ever flew anywhere it was to Los Angeles – a place notorious for the queues at the border. But on this occasion despite: a) being so green that I had to ask to find out what check-in was and where you went to do it, and b) a concerted effort by the airline to send my luggage to Tahiti, I was out and on the streets in under an hour. On another occasion I came very close to getting sent back to London, despite holding a resident's and a working permit for the USA (note to self: keep your smart alec thoughts as thoughts). 

This time around, we had just reached the front of the queue when the computers packed up. And so we stood and waited for them to reboot America, or something. The Customs and Border agent's indifference to our plight (my body thought it was 5am on Saturday morning) was total but then, he was reading Nietzsche. 

It started me thinking about first impressions though, what if someone had offered me an immediate return ride – America? You can keep it... But not really, I was never going to turn around and go home. I was going to be patient and wait, and spend my sterling pounds in the US, regardless of a bad first impression.

The same thing cannot be said about books, how often does your gaze flick across the first lines of a novel and you think.... nah. Not for me. Those crucial first sentences will either draw the reader in, or spit them out. And if they don't work, the book is back in the pile or back on the shelf, or deleted off the eReader in a heartbeat.

It’s so easy to get spit out too, here’s a blog by a writing-contest judge on the ways you can foul-out early. But identifying the winning move, the things that draw the reader in, now that's much harder. The American Book Review did a great survey to come up with the Best100 First Lines from Novels, with a slightly more contemporary version put together by Stylist magazine, while for those short of time, the Guardian chose to focus on just the top ten, but did it with pictures and explanations.

When you look at these, the only consistent theme is the obvious one - they all make you want to read on, and they do it in as many different ways as is possible. If I had to choose just one, it would probably be Douglas Adam’s opener for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun."

It makes me smile and it makes me want to read on, I’m immediately transported to a place where the earth finds itself in an unfashionable and unregarded neighbourhood – and you just want to know more about that place.

A second and more serious choice would be, ‘You better not never tell nobody but God.” from Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple. Again, it makes you read on, because you just have to know what’s so awful that it must never be spoken of again.

First lines, first impressions – they all count, except at border crossings... so what’s your favourite opening line?