I actually had the opportunity to meet one of today’s great writers–a woman who wrote a book about the kind of exercise I’m about to engage in. I had dinner with Francine Prose, the acclaimed author of Reading like a Writer, right before I would introduce her to an audience of terrified students. She’s a pretty imposing woman—tall and no-nonsensey. “I never teach Creative Writing. It would kill me.” This upset everybody at the dinner table—all of us made our living that way—and endeared her to nobody but me. “The only class I teach is a Reading Class.” Reading is where writers learn.
The opening line is the DNA. Its primary duty: to grab you by the hairy nut sac. Its secondary duty: to transmit all the obsessions—thematic, linguistic, psychological—in as limited a space as possible. Learning how to write an opening line entails learning how to read like a writer: reading closely for detail. It is actually kind of like being a detective—every word, every phrase, every stutter is ripe with meaning.
So today I’m going to dig out my magnifying glass and sleuth through a favorite line and then I’m going to give you a little exercise that will help you think more like a writer. A lot of great writers have done something like this, so I suspect I’m not the first nor will I be the last to engage in this exercise.
To be able to read—even over-read—is at the heart of the art of writing. My favorite opening line of all time is Nabokov’s: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Humbert Humbert, the narrator, is a pedophile who marries a woman in order to seduce her luscious, sexy daughter. Yet somehow, he remains entirely sympathetic, despite some terrible doings. His voice carries the narrative: urgent, weedling, insistent.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
Can you hear the crazy? It’s the crazy of a highly ordered mind—the mind capable of rationalizing all sorts of bad behavior, like child molestation and abduction: someone who can convince the reader that he is actually being manipulated by a young girl, instead of the other way around. We see the crazy in the jumbled sentence, which appears to be both a run-on and a fragment. But we also see a certain kind of system in the crazy, too. Look at the way he organizes the repetition of “L” and “F” sounds. Look at the way the light metaphor runs throughout, transforming into fire: heat. Look at the way he creates a series of parallel structures. You need an organized mind to recreate parallel structures and metaphorical conceits.
There’s a sadness in these lines. We know he desparately adores this Lolita. We also know that he has lost her. How? Just in that one word, a proper name–“Lolita.” Am I over-reading? Well, Nabokov wrote his novels out on flashcards—shoeboxes and shoeboxes of flashcards. Every line was made to be overread. And I’m sure this is especially true of the opening line.
Mystery novels have to be intense that way. There’s no flab. I’m going to list a few selected by Amazon as the best of 2011. Here’s the exercise: pick one and see if you can guess what the novel is about in that one line. When you get good, you should be able to read every first line and be able to instantly know what the novel is about. But to start off, pick one really juicy line and see what it’s conveying to you. Interpreting opening lines is like reading tea leaves!
1) “The Bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar.” Before I Go to Sleep, S.J. Watson.
2) “Richard kept his head down.” Readme: A Novel, Neal Stephenson
3) “Some people said Danny Boy Lorca’s visions came from the mescal that had friend his brains, or the horse-quirt whipping he took around the ears when he served time on Sugar Land Farm, or the fact that he’d been a middleweight club fighter through a string of dust-blown sinkholes where the locals were given a chance to beat up what was called a tomato can, a fighter who leaked blood every place he was hit, in this case a rumdum Indian who ate his pain and never flinched when their opponents broke their hands on his face.” James Lee Burke, Feast Day for Fools
4) “Harry Dunning graduated with flying colors.” 11/12/63: A Novel, Stephen King
5) “Dear Tess, I’d do anything to be with you, right now, right this moment, so I could hold your hand, look at your face, listen to your voice.” Sister: A Novel, Rosamund Lipton
6) “Oh, no, no, no, thought Clara Morrow as she walked toward the closed doors.” A Trick of the Light, Louise Penny
7) “They throw him out when he falls off the barstool.” The Most Dangerous Thing, Laura Lippman
8) “You see the long, wide, perfectly straight strip of asphalt before you, the hangar to your right with the words GREEN MOUNTAIN BOYS painted in billboard-size letters along the side.” The Night Strangers, Chris Bohjalian
9) “Something has happened.” Turn of the Mind, Alice LaPlante
10) “The Pentagon is the world’s largest office building, six and a half million square feet, thirty thousand people, more than seventeen miles of corridors, but it was built with just three street doors, each one of the opening into a guarded pedestrian lobby.” An Affair, Lee Child