When I pick up a book, I want to know that I’m in for a good long ride, a vacation from the day-to-day grind. And I want the vacation to start from the get-go, not two pages in. So if the beginning doesn’t hook me, I abandon the trip.
What keeps me reading? What compels me to pay money to carry the book home?
The first paragraph.
That’s it. Numero uno on the page. That’s my limit in patience as a reader. Unfair? Probably. Judgmental? Yep. If I was an agent, I’d probably be just as unfair and judgmental. As a bookseller, I give writers a whole page. But as a reader with stacks and stacks of unread books filling my storage shed, my time is limited. So…one paragraph. That’s it.
What hooks me?
The author’s voice. A strong image. The language. Intriguing dialogue. An intriguing character. Take your pick.
If I’m not drawn in by the first few lines, I shelve the book.
So for fun, let’s look at some first lines together. I’m writing this at the library, seated near the fiction section. I’ll mosey down an aisle, close my eyes, and pull three books from the shelves (something I do periodically when I visit the library). Then, since I’m sharing my impressions with you, I’ll open each book without looking at the cover or the author’s name, and type the first paragraph. I’ll let you know if I’m eager to read on. Are you with me? Okay, here I go.
I’m back now.
Opening the first book. Ready? It begins:
Trees thrashed in the storm, their trunks hard and black and rough as stone, their limbs bent beneath the weight of snow. It was dark out, night. Between the trunks, a boy ran and fell and ran again. Snow melted against the heat of his body, soaked his clothing then froze solid. His world was black and white, except where it was red.
I’m in. Willing to read on. Why? Great description in the first sentence: the trees, their trunks, their limbs. The boy…who is he, and what is he running from? Questions I want answered. And I love the poetry of the last line.
What’s the book? Let’s take a look.
Iron House, by John Hart. “If you crave thrillers that are vividly beautiful, graphic, will make you bleed, try John Hart,” says Patricia Cornwell in the quote on the cover. If I had seen the cover and read that quote, I probably wouldn’t have opened the book. I’m not in the mood to bleed.
So…more important than the first paragraph, for me, is the cover of the book. It tells me what kind of vacation to expect.
Ready for book number two? Here goes:
He calls her Sweetheart, Darling, Honey Pie. Martha calls him Reverend. Even now, as she watches him stretch out on the hood of the car, shirtless, smiling to himself, face turned toward the blistering July sun, Martha thinks: The Reverend is so damn young. The pay phone is hot against her ear and she smells someone else’s bad breath emanating from it. Martha is sweaty from heat and humidity, sore from too much acrobatic sex. And she wants a drink. God help her, she wants a cold beer, a chilled white wine, a vodka and tonic. Anything.
Love this! The image of the shirtless Reverend stretched out on the hood of the car, Martha at the pay phone. This has a vintage feel. The writing has a literary vibe. The author engages my senses from the get-go (the smell of the phone, the sweaty heat, chilled wine). I want to know more about the two characters. I want to know why Martha wants a drink. I want to know why she calls the man Reverend. And what’s up with the acrobatic sex? Hmm. Let’s check out the title of this book.
An Ornithologist’s Guide to Life by Ann Hood. A book of stories. Sue Monk Kidd calls the author “an engrossing storyteller.” Well…with Sue Monk Kidd’s blessing, I’m definitely in. I’ll put this on my “for later” shelf. I can learn from this author.
The second most important thing for me, after the cover, is the blurb.
Two good ones so far! Usually I’m not so lucky. Let’s look at the third:
The rain comes all at once when Detective Eddie Frank rolls the woman’s body over a steep cliff on a remote section of the coastal highway, just shy of midnight on a Saturday. The wind rattles his trench coat against his long legs as he watches the body bounce off an outcropping of rock on the way down, flipping head over heels, the green dress ballooning, then plunging into the swirling foam of the Pacific. He stands in the downpour saying “Jesus” over and over as the waves toy with it, hurling it against the cliff wall. He fights the urge to scramble down and rescue it, knowing it’s too late. Wants to drop to his knees and weep, knowing falling apart is worse than dying. He fumbles through a prayer, the sky cracking with lightning, and then drives home haunted by the image. The streetlights slash across his tense face. The windshield wipers work hard. Leaning into the steering wheel of the brown Coupe he wonders how he became a man who disposes of strangers under cover of rain.
Wait, that’s mine! That’s my book! My unfinished detective noir novel! How did that get on the library shelf? Golly, I must have slipped it between two books.
Well, I’ll leave it to you to tell me if you’re eager to read on.