Friday, 4 March 2011

First words

What is the most memorable first chapter ever written?

For an author, those first few pages are crucial. Unknown authors in particular need to get them right because they are the hook to capture an agent, an editor, a deal and eventually enough readers to rocket them into the bestseller charts. Get those first pages right and a reader will stick with you through the next 100 pages or so. And by then, if they aren't in love with your story, characters and prose style then all is lost for you anyway.

I picked up Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones yesterday and took it off to read while my daughter took part in her weekly country dancing class. As she skipped around some wooden swords I found myself totally immersed in Sebold's story.

How did I not read this book before? I was being contrary, of course. I'd heard about it, there was a while there when you couldn't move without tripping over great stacks of these books at any and every bookshop. It was on everyone's reading list and recommends list from Richard and Judy out. So I stayed away from it, assuming it to be populist schmaltz.

But that first chapter has got me totally hooked. The girl's voice comes over so clearly. The situation is so stark and awful. And the description of the rape and the murder: well it really does make you gasp a little. But because the narrator is the girl, that she is talking from 'her heaven' (let's not go there this time), it isn't a horror yarn but something far more moving, intelligent and clever.

Thrillers do the first chapter thing very well. Silence of the Lambs & The Ring come to mind. But a good first few pages isn't just the product of the highly competitive modern commercial fiction market. Philip Roth, a literary writer, has the knack. Cormac McCarthy's first few pages in The Road. Anything by Dickens, who had the popular touch.

But some really successful books have terrible first chapters. How many people abandoned Harry Potter while reading that opening about owls and strange goings on?

It is World Book Day. You can tell because their website has already crashed due to huge amounts of traffic. This year's event includes a big book giveaway tomorrow night, which is a cute idea and will make for great marketing for the twenty odd, established writers who are involved.


  1. Excellent choice! I read The Lovely Bones a few years ago and was totally gripped. Wait til you get to the bit with the sister in the house - you'll know it when you get to it! I'll say no more! I also very much recommend Private Peaceful by Michael' book, but fantastic and wonderfully written.
    Dawn x
    PS love to you and Carmen!

  2. Hi Dawn! Morpurgo is a favourite in this house... though I personally find it hard to read any of his books without blubbing, at least at the end. My son did Private Peaceful at school and thought it was 'pretty good'.
    And thanks for reading...

  3. I was given this just after J died. "Oops," said my friend. "Possibly not the best timing." I haven't read it, but perhaps I could cope with it now.

  4. Agreed Geves, not great timing that one...!