Sunday, July 28, 2013

"It was a dark and stormy night."

.... People come to books looking for something. But they don't come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don't come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice.

A novel's voice is something like a singer's — think of singers like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, who have no musical training but are instantly recognizable. When people pick up a Rolling Stones record, it's because they want access to that distinctive quality. They know that voice, they love that voice, and something in them connects profoundly with it. Well, it's the same way with books. Anyone who's read a lot of John Sanford, for example, knows that wry, sarcastic amusing voice that's his and his alone. Or Elmore Leonard — my god, his writing is like a fingerprint. You'd recognize him anywhere. An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection — a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing.

With really good books, a powerful sense of voice is established in the first line. ....

A book won't stand or fall on the very first line of prose — the story has got to be there, and that's the real work. And yet a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice — it's the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there's incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen. ....
The Atlantic, at King's suggestion then asked over twenty authors what their favorite first lines are, several by writers of crime fiction. For instance:
I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. —Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of the Dancers. —Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed. —Richard Stark, The Outfit

Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost foglike, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance. —Mickey Spillane, One Lonely Night

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. —James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss
I chose these from among the choices because mysteries and thrillers are my favorite recreational reading. I think each of these lines meet King's criteria.

I came to these posts via Judith Levy at Ricochet. Here are some favorite [non-crime writer] first lines from some of the comments on her post:
You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.  That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. — Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn

Marley was dead: to begin with. —Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. —Raymond Chandler, Red Wind

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward named Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band. Here is what happened." —Charles Portis, True Grit
My own favorite beginning:
SQUIRE TRELAWNEY, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof. —Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island