Thursday, 10 December 2009

First lines

'It was the day my grandmother exploded.' - Iain Banks, The Crow Road

'When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.' - Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis

'This much I know for sure: My name is Peter Sinclair, I am English and I am, or I was, twenty-nine years old.' - Christopher Priest, The Affirmation

'In spite of all his efforts, Tavenor was unable to remain indoors when it was time for the sky to catch fire.' - Bob Shaw, The Palace of Eternity

It's line like these, particularly the first two, which for so long in my writing inspired and controlled me. Coupled with my longtime inability to proceed with a piece of writing until I had the previous section/chapter perfected, I was desperate to write the perfect opening line. Not just a good opening line. Nearly all novels have those. Not a great opening line; one that suits the tone and themes of the novel perfectly. A lot of novels have those. But a brilliant, punch-in-the-gut, rips you from reality and places you in the world of the novel, line.

I became somewhat obsessed with it and despite all this never succeeded. I believe the best I ever came up with was:
'A dead fish floated in the bay.'
Still working on this same story some time later, I gradually came to the opinion that although a line like Banks's, and Kafka's would be fantastic, they aren't necessary. As long as the first page hooks you, the first line merely has to be not-bad and that's not asking the impossible. So this first line of mine, in some sort of cathartic act finally became:
'A dead fish no longer floated in the bay.'
It was now obtuse and bizarre and acted mainly as a reminder to myself that this first line obsession was mostly pointless and not as important as I had myself believe.
Then, some time later I lost that whole section altogether.
As long as my first line isn't bad, I think I'm happy now. At least that's my excuse.

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