by Bruce Blake
Two things have been weighing on my mind of late: getting older and the first lines of novels.
Let’s look at why I’ve been thinking about these two subjects individually, starting with opening lines.
The issue of first lines is something that often occupies my mind–I check them out when I’m choosing a book to read, I labour over them when I’m writing, and they jump out at me when I least expect it. My most recent instance of being jumped by a great opener came when I took a graphic novel out of the library recently: Stephen King’s Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born. It wasn’t the graphic novel’s first line that jarred me but, about three paragraphs in, we find the opening line Mr. King wrote when he was 19 years old that begins Roland Deschain’s epic journey in The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger.
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Makes you wonder what’s going on, doesn’t it? In a few words, I’m sucked in to wanting to read more. Who is the man in black? Why is he fleeing? Who and what is a gunslinger? Imagine if the sentence had said ‘Pete fled across the desert, and Al followed.’ Would that have had the same impact? Don’t think so.
Let’s look at a few others pulled from my book shelf:
“Do your neighbors burn one another alive?” was how Fraa Orolo began his conversation with Artisan Flec. – Anathem by Neal Stephenson
This is kind of how it would have looked, if you were watching from the outside–and this is how the papers reported it when they finally got hold of the story. – Thicker Than Water by Mike Carey
My suffering left me sad and gloomy. – Life of Pi by Yann Martel
And a contribution from my daughter:
Now that I’ve found the way to fly, which direction should I go into the night? – Matched by Ally Condie
What is the common factor of each of these opening lines? They raise a question, some curiosity, in the reader, don’t they? Why is the narrator in Life of Pi sad, gloomy and suffering? How did the narrator of Matched find a way to fly and which direction will she go? What are her choices, for that matter? And since we’re asking, do Artisan Flec’s neighbors burn one another alive? Why?
I’ve written a couple opening lines myself that I quite like. What do you think?
I stood with my back to the church, much the way I lived my life. – On Unfaithful Wings
It rained fire the day the Small Gods fled. – When Shadows Fall
His dreams were colored the red of blood and anger every night until she came to him. – And Night Descends (coming this spring)
Admittedly, I’ve also written a few openers that could have been more effective (The streetlight overhead flickered and went out. – Secrets of the Hanged Man), but as a self-pubbed author, I still have the opportunity to go back and change them if I want. Sadly, I had to go through a dozen or so books while putting together a list of great opening lines. Too many didn’t say much of anything, or worse, started with a description of weather (Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing rule #1 – Never begin a book with weather). Of course, as I complained about the lack of dazzling opening lines amongst the books in my home library (classics like Tropic of Cancer, Atlas Shrugged, and The English Patient among them), my wife suggested that perhaps this disproved my theory of the importance of the first sentence.
What do you think?
And on to the second part of this post: getting older.
Today (Jan. 20, 2014, for those reading at another time) is my 45th birthday. I have no regrets, for I live a wonderful life, but it seems I just never really considered the possibility of being a 45 year-old man. Mid-forties. Middle age. Older, wiser; more hair in some places, less in others. Better in some areas, less so in others. I don’t run as fast, but I can more easily turn a pretty phrase. All-in-all, my forties have been both the best of my life so far, and the most challenging. Is it likely the two actually go hand-in-hand?
Time goes by faster. Somehow, my children have become nineteen and twelve, seemingly overnight…a man and a young lady. It’s been over two years since I published my first novel, On Unfaithful Wings, and the ideas and the words keep on coming. I’ve lived in beautiful Victoria more than twice as long as anywhere else in my life. Where does the time go?
I look forward to everything that is to come in my life but, to be completely honest, there are almost as many days in which I long for youth as there are I’m happy to be where I am. I wouldn’t change it, though. Everything that’s gone before got me to where I am…older than I might like, but happy and healthy and glad to be able to share with all of you.