Great Beginnings

I don't have a lot of time to read (three jobs, three children, two callings) so in order to make me read it, a book really has to grab me from the first paragraph. And once it does, I become what I call a "bad mother reader" - making noodles for the children for tea because it only takes three minutes, and telling the family "I'm going upstairs to sort the washing" when I'm actually hoping to snatch five minutes to read. Generally when they catch me reading the children declare "busted!" because I'm almost certainly supposed to be doing something else. Hoovering, polishing, or putting them to bed.

If a book doesn't grab me from the very beginning then this doesn't happen. I can't make myself read something I don't want to. If I'm going to steal time like this, it needs to be worth it. So as a writer, I know that the first paragraph, the first line, is crucial. It's the hook with which you need to catch the reader, especially if that reader happens to be standing in a bookshop debating whether to buy it or not.

The book which most recently turned me into a bad mother was The Host by Stephenie Meyer, which opens with a scene of alien surgery. It was a great book with lots of dark themes and "What ifs" and fascinating characters and startling twists. I already loved Stephenie Meyer, of course, but now I know that her success isn't just down to luck at having dreamed up (literally) the Twilight Saga phenomenon. She is a great storyteller.

I'm now reading Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger which opens with this line:

"Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup."

It's so intriguing! Who is Elspeth? Is Robert her husband? Why wasn't he at her side when she died? I think it's a wonderful beginning, and although the book hasn't yet turned me into a bad mother, I am at least finding it pleasantly diverting. It was a great first line, and there are plenty of other great lines in there too.

Conversely, I recently picked up a book in the library and found that it began midway through the dialogue between a single father and his new girlfriend being brought home to meet the teenage children for the first time. An intriguing and promising concept, but it started; "Don;t worry, I've told them to be on their best behaviour." Too dull - I didn't worry. There's a lot the writer might have done with such an emotionally fraught beginning, and the fact that she didn't made me suspect that the rest of the book was going to be just as blah.

A good first line, from "It is a truth universally acknowledged" to "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" can set the tone of the rest of the book, so it's vital to get it right. I recently changed the first line of Emon and the Empire, my current work in progress. It's also the same as the last line. Still not sure I got it right, though. What do you think?

I am twenty-five years old, and everything has gone wrong in my life. I’m stuck in a strange place, facing an impossible choice, I can’t be with the woman I love and I have no one to call a friend.


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