Monday, October 11, 2010

Cover me

We all know that in life, one is not supposed to judge a book by its cover.  But those of us who write novels know all too well that people do, in fact, judge books by their covers.  In fact, the cover your book gets could translate into major (or really, really bad) sales.

But not me.  I don’t judge books by their covers (in life or in the bookstore).  For me it’s all about the first line of a book.  Ever since I can remember, I’d just pick up a book and read the first line.  If the first line didn’t do it for me, chances are I’d put the book back on the shelf. 

I think it all started in the eighth grade when I read Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier.  “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”  I can’t think of a better first line for a book.  I was immediately engaged.

I was later entranced by Elinor Lipman in her book, The Inn at Lake Devine. “It was not complicated, and, as my mother pointed out, not even personal:  They had a hotel; they didn’t want Jews; we were Jews.”  Isn’t that a story you want to hear more about?!

And then, there is Jay McInerney’s second person Bright Lights, Big City: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.”  I immediately thought to myself:  I’m not?  Well, then, who am I?  I couldn’t read the rest of the book fast enough.

Or Emily Giffin’s powerful opener for Something Blue:  “I was born beautiful.”  That one always knocks me out.  Immediately sets the voice for the entire book with that tiny little sentence.

And of course, the mother of all first lines, Jane’s Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” 

Covers are great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s the first lines that suck me in.  I remember them; they stay with me long after I’ve finished the book.  I often go back to my favorites and re-read them to figure out just what made them so magical for me.

What draws you into a book?  Is it the cover?  The first line?  The first page?

I'm the author of Scot on the Rocks and Jack with a Twist.  My work has also appeared in Publisher's Weekly and the New York Post.  Please visit me online at


  1. I'm a huge fan of Elinor Lipman too. All her first lines are so good. One of my favorites is from Then She Found Me (love the movie version too!): "My biological mother was seventeen when she had me in 1952, and even that was more than I wanted to know about her."

    Also love this one from Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman: "Momma left her red satin shoes in the middle of the road. That's what three eye-witnesses told the police."

    Mother connections here--interesting! :) Both first lines immediately convey a big, emotionally-complex story to come. Those are always the kind that draw me.

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  3. Fun post! I love first lines too especially when they capture the essense of the novel like your examples.

    Here's a fav of mine from "Member of the Wedding:"

    "It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old"

  4. I too love first lines--you've all listed some great ones here. I will admit that covers often make me pick up a book (or not). Then, I read the back cover copy, and then, if that has pulled me in, I flip to the first page.

    Do any of the rest of you walk around muttering possible first liens to yourself? Or is that just me?

  5. Yikes. I was hoping the cover art would do the job. Now I'm going to have go look at my first lines. Once upon a page...

  6. I also try hard not to judge a book's cover, but the deal for me is that first the title must win me over. If I love the title and am marginal about the jacket design, I'm still in. Perfect example- HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET. I thought the jacket was totally lame and uninspired, but the title? That grabbed me, sold me and I adored the book.

    As for great first lines, the one I will never forget, the one that made me want to become a contemporary novelist was Gail Parent's THE BEST LAID PLANS. The line? Gynecologist's lie. It made me laugh so hard and I knew immediately I was going to love this author's sense of humor, which I did!

    Thanks for a great post!

  7. Melissa, isn't she just a goddess?! All of Elinor's books are total gems.

    Karin, I love that one! And yes, I agree that it's an amazing feat to capture the spirit of the novel with a first line.

    Judy, I, too, think about first lines quite often!! But then you have to write the whole darn thing after, so that's the rub. :)

    Cindy, yes! Go back and look at your first line!!! When my first book came out, my editor and I had many conversations about the first line of the book.

  8. Saralee-- what a great point about titles! I totally love titles, too. I think you just came up with the idea for my next blog post. :)

  9. Great post Brenda, and yes, yes, I'm in the Elinor Lipman true fan club too!

    I'm just taking an online class from the incomparable Mary Buckham about the first five pages of your manuscript. she says people generally look at things in this order: cover, back copy, first line, first page. they can stop and put your book back on the pile if any one of those things doesn't grab. (though I do wonder how this will work will online sales.) We are doing an exercise now where we look at ten first lines and choose the ones that are truly attention-grabbers.

    Sigh, so much to think about....

  10. I want to drop everything I'm doing right now and read (in some cases reread) all the books that have been mentioned so far. I love this post!

  11. I absolutely loved Elinor Lipman's latest novel, The Family Man, although for the life of me I can't tell you the first line.

    Probably my own most notorious first line is, "Have you become a fuckwit, Jane?"

  12. You've all chosen some great first lines. I love the P&P one, of course, and so many from contemporary novels, but one that drew me in long ago was from E.M. Forster's A Room with a View: "The Signora had no business to do it," said Miss Bartlett, "no business at all." I wondered right away -- no business to do what?! ;)

  13. Roberta, I want to take that class with you!! Sounds completely amazing.

    Melissa, thank you so much! I want to re-read all of those books, too. :)

    Lauren, it's so good to find lots of fellow Elinor Lipman lovers here! I recently met her and she is a delight!

    Marilyn, I love that one!! Isn't it amazing how you can remember a first line from so long ago?! I can't believe I remember *anything* from the eighth grade, but there you have it!

  14. Oh, sure, taunt me with fabulous opening sentences when I'm in the fourteen-first-chapters phase of writing my next novel!

  15. I totally judge a book by its cover and I've been burned several times accordingly. But I can't help myself. Something about a really bright, shiny, and appealing cover just sucks me in.

    Otherwise I opin on the synopsis and the opinions of other to help me decide what read next. One of the problems w/ being in the GBC is that I tend to want to read every author on here.

    @Karin, we should think about setting aside a month -- maybe March in honor of Women's History Month, in which we all try to read a book 3-5 books written by someone else in the club. Or something like that...

  16. Therese-- so sorry to distract you! But you totally need a way to procrastinate, right? Now you can go to your local bookstore and not feel guilty because it's all in the name of research!

    Ernessa-- I love what you said about judging a book by its cover, because at first, I wasn't sure if you meant in life or in books. I've been burned in life by judging a book by its cover!! And I LOVE your idea about us dedicating a month to reading each other. Brilliant!!