Every so often I hear about these rumors or words of wisdom that get passed from writer to writer. Like, "Don't write in the first person - editors want third person" or "Don't write in present tense - editors don't like it." (Full disclosure: I never used to like present tense, but I bought and published a present-tense book a couple of years ago, it did pretty well, and now I'm more open to it. So, never say never.)
Lately I've been hearing that a manuscript has to have a "killer" opening line, that you "have only one chance to make a first impression." Now everyone seems to think that the first line of a manuscript has to be an exercise in Jane Austen-like perfection.
Yes, it's true that a good opening line is important. But I don't dismiss a manuscript if the first line is less than perfect. I DO need to see something interesting, different, attention-grabbing, odd, off-kilter, unexplained, or unexpected in the first three pages -- AND the writing has to be good.
In other words, a good opening line is important, but it's not ENOUGH. And if it's all downhill after that opening line (I can actually think of several books I've read lately for which that condition holds), the fabulousness of the first sentence doesn't matter much, does it?
Let's look at some opening lines:
GONE GIRL (Gillian Flynn): "When I think of my wife, I always think of her head." -- Decent opening line. Doesn't blow my socks off. But by the third paragraph, I'm hooked. I know something really creepy is going on.
LIFE AFTER LIFE (Kate Atkinson): "A fug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the cafe." - Meh. Most notable for use of the word "fug," which one doesn't hear much. By the end of page 2, though, I want to read more.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (Paula Hawkins): "She's buried beneath a silver birch tree, down toward the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn." -- Pretty good. But this is a mystery/thriller, and this first line can't be considered unexpected or particularly attention grabbing. However, the two mini-prologues get the book off too a good start. In the end, though, the book itself is just OK, marred by undifferentiated characters and a pathetic narrator.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Stieg Larsson): "It happened every year, was almost a ritual." Good. Makes me want to keep reading. Not exactly literary; no humor, wit, word play. Nothing bizarre, no author trying to impress me with an opening line. By the end of the first page, I'm hungry for more.
WHAT THE DEAD KNOW (Laura Lippman): "Her stomach clutched at the sight of the water tower hovering above the still, bare trees, a spaceship come to earth." Perfectly fine but not earth-shattering. But by the end of Chapter 1, I want to know more, and Lippman's superb writing has kept me interested from the start.
I guess this is what I'm saying: If you have to choose between writing a fabulous opening line and a mediocre book (meaning that the rest of your manuscript doesn't fulfill the very high expectations you have set with your opening line) OR writing a good opening line and a good book, choose the latter.