Did you know that many publishers won’t read past the first few lines of your manuscript? Harsh but true. Agents may read a page or two. And let’s be honest, if you’re browsing in a bookshop, what makes you pick up a book, and then buy it? For me, and I suspect most other people, what propels me into purchasing a book is if a) I have read and liked the author’s other books; b) someone I respect has recommended it to me; c) the cover looks good (this is 70% of the reason why books get picked up); d) the blurb sounds interesting and intriguing and then e) when I read the first few lines, I know almost instantly whether this book will be for me.
Obviously, there are a whole host of other reasons at play that you may or may not be consciously aware of: for instance, has the publisher been promoting this book (if so, you may have already seen subliminal images and read endorsements by famous authors); has the publisher paid the bookseller to place this particular book on a prominent table or are they paying a supermarket to stock it in prime position; does the author have a name that allows them to be shelved in a good location (and not the bottom shelf at the back of the store)?
In the past, when there was less competition, authors didn’t have to nail their audience in the first two or three sentences and could ease into the story and begin with things like the weather (apparently some agents will chuck your work straight into the slush pile if you start like that now!). However, many classics are notable for their fantastic, and now famous opening lines:
The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like… and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
All of which is quite daunting when one is writing a novel! It’s actually pretty daunting whatever one is writing, and you’re facing a blank computer screen or piece of paper. My solution is not to start at the beginning (and my suggestion to any students and aspiring writers!). I generally have an idea about what should go in the first chapter or the prologue, but to stop myself having jitters, procrastinating or becoming overly angsty, I don’t start there.
I started writing my third thriller, My Mother’s Secret, in October 2016 and I finished the first draft in March 2017, which is when I wrote the prologue. Here’s my first line, written last:
‘Did you know my name means God?’
A year on, and I’ve just completed the first draft of my fourth thriller and this time, I did start at the beginning. I heard the central character’s voice speaking in my head and I wrote down those first two lines straight away:
As far as I know it happened like this. Obviously, I wasn’t there when it mattered.
Let me know what you think! Do you begin at the beginning?