It is difficult to say what makes a good first line, since I suspect the answer is that it is followed by a good book. So this exercise was, first, one of readerly appreciation (and a very enjoyable and soothing one — I highly recommend it).
But I think (or hope) the closer you read something the more the patterns of it get into your bones and thoughts.
So here I was breaking down some of my favourite first lines to see what I liked about them.
It looks complicated, but that’s because it’s crowded. The process itself (adapted from a style analysis exercise in a grammar course I used to tutor) was simple:
This is not a re-enactment of a painting. This is me getting reference for an illustration (more on which soon, but between this and needing impromptu video-conferencing backgrounds, my undergrad collection of shawls is getting a workout).
(Photos by Liz McKewin)
Not least because they remind me of illustrators’ awkward reference photos, I am enjoying all the recreating of paintings lately. It’s like a 21st-century reinvention of an Edwardian novel, with all those tableaux.
For writers, as well as readers, here’s a great deal to be said for dressing up. Knowing that certain hats cut off your peripheral vision, or the noise of heels on a hardwood floor, or how harsh embroidery can be on the skin is wonderful for sensory detail, while catching the detail of where a seam actually rips or how striped fabrics chevron, or what angle of light causes the shadow of a hat to obscure a face can also add beautiful texture and accuracy to a story.
For writers, learning to really see into a painting can help with visual descriptions. Dorothy Dunnett (who was also a portrait artist) does this magnificently, and in her historical novels describes scenes with visuals that are not only rich but also in the style of painters of the relevant era.
For illustrators, the applications are obvious (for more on using reference more rigorously than I do, I recommend Muddy Colours and Gurney Journey), but I am waiting for someone to start a trend of drawing a photo of someone’s re-enactment of a painting that was based on a photo of someone dressed up (Alphonse Mucha and Norman Rockwell both used photo reference heavily and very well).
A big, brief, catchup post, but here are some Cold Comfort Farm sketches to brighten it up. Also, I’m starting to keep track of books read on Goodreads as well.
Crusade – Peter M Ball (part 3 of the Flotsam Trilogy omnibus)
Bone Swans – C. S. E. Cooney: Such beautiful novellas. I wept. I drew fanart.
Tempting Mr Townsend – Anna Campbell
A Few Right Thinking Men– Sulari Gentill
Madensky Square– Eva Ibbotson: I had not read this Ibbotson and it is enchanting! A romance of pre WWI Vienna.
Winning Lord West – Anna Campbell
Pawn in Frankincense – Dorothy Dunnett
Q’s Legacy – Helene Hanff: So charming! So tiny! The follow-up to 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. Has influenced my driving.
The Ringed Castle – Dorothy Dunnett. Suffocated sounds of distress.
The Foundling – Georgette Heyer: Perhaps a new favourite.
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons: The first time I’ve read it, and I finally read it due to being presented with it at breakfast as a fait accompli by my landlady at a Devon B&B. I read it as a science fiction novel set in the world of The Fantastic Mr Fox, which was certainly memorable. I love her sheer disregard for agriscience.
The Tree – John Fowles
Stranded with the Scottish Earl – Anna Campbell
The Summer Bride – Anne Gracie
A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald – Natasha Lester
[Can’t tell you about it yet but very good]
Cotillion– Georgette Heyer
The Devil’s Delilah – Loretta Chase
Marked for Death: The First War in the Air – James Hamilton-Paterson: Fascinating WWI aviation history.
Movies & theatre
Captain America: Civil War
The Nice Guys
The Hunt for the Wilderpeople: This is really, really good, people, I highly recommend it.
Fun Home(musical): Helpless crying.
Love & Friendship: A remarkable study in telling only the connective tissue between big events, which works because it is all about the main character’s continuous, inventive self-justification and repositioning.
Star Trek: Beyond: Suffered for being seen between Sully and Deepwater Horizon, in both of which people try to actually do a headcount of surviving passengers and crew.
The Archibald Prize travelling exhibition is on at the extremely beautiful Tweed Regional Gallery. Angela Slatter and I drove down this week and I recommend it. Of course, the gallery and in particular the Margaret Olley wing are always worth a visit (the views are like paintings).
Content warning: Snakes.
So the giant carpet snake under our house moved into the neighbour’s tree above their dog kennel, and a couple of times when our neighbour went out at night to empty the bins he felt a light tap against the back of his head. And it turned out it was the snake checking him out.
Whether you’re drawing or describing backgrounds or just want to see how it’s done: Tips for Drawing Backgrounds. As usual, I maintain most illustration advice can be translated for written description and storytelling. Dunnett, for example, uses incredibly painterly light effects in her prose. Tobacco-brown light and single tips of gold light. Rembrandt.
Walking home the other evening I saw a plane, invisible in the dusk save for its lights, fly across the moon, casting the shadow of wings onto a lower cloud.
If you like labelling things: Bat-Labels, a curated and categorised list of labels from Batman
A letter from Dorothy Sayers (hand-copied, not the original) to a former lover, who told her he never wanted to marry, then married another:
I am currently reading c1970 crime: Westlake’s “The Hot Rock” (1970s New York) and Lahlum’s “The Human Flies” (2010, but set in 1968 Oslo). And let me tell you, there is nothing like a vintage crime novel to make you appreciate your mobile phone.
The Magician’s Guild – Trudi Canavan: A long overdue reading, and I don’t have a whole lot to say because it was just so nice to (a) read a classic Canavan and (b) read a traditional fantasy novel with thieves’ guilds and magician’s colleges and dirty city politics and… yes, it was comfortably satisfying. And then I got to go to Continuum and eat a lot of cake with Trudi, which is a highlight of the year.
Beautiful Darkness – Kerascoët and Fabien Vehlmann: Aaargh. Aaaaargh!!! Ughhhhhh! This was a birthday present from Angela Slatter and I understand this was the intended effect. It’s gorgeous but – eeeeep!
This book this boooooook. I cried on the plane and still just kind of want to roll around on the floor chewing on the pages, so I’m not sure I can corral my thoughts into any sort of coherent order.
Quite apart from being the BEST BOOK EVER it is fascinating to read it in a continuum of influences – tracing the echoes of Sayers in Dunnett, and recognising the impact of Dunnett on Kushner. I love these cross-genre family trees: crime to historical to fantasy in this case, or the way Ibbotson and Heyer’s romances show up in science fiction writing (and occasionally in science fiction bookshops).
A rather dashingly designed little novella (kudos to Crime Factory on the presentation, it’s quite delightful in the hand). Weird noir.
Unless there is a clear signal, I don’t usually read the narrator as a character in third-person viewpoints. It isn’t unusual for hardboiled fiction to be in first person, but Double Exposure is in third person, and while it is fairly close third, the fact we are never given the Photographer’s name is distancing. As a result, this novella has given me Thoughts about the role of the observer in weird noir.
I met Kat Clay at Continuum in Melbourne, where she dressed as Furiosa for the Maskobalo, so I had Mad Max in my mind when I read this, particularly recent discussions about the role of Mad Max as observer (i.e., seeing the story through the framework of his presence in it, but not having it actually be about him).
I want to read more about the city of Portview because I’m interested in that observer’s point of view – how they can follow characters through the veils of film, and the fact that they are unfased by it. Perhaps that is part of the charm of weird fiction: the character of the author/narrator and their approach to reality, as much as the world and events.
Devil’s Cub – Georgette Heyer: I was explaining to Angela Slatter why I love the cover art for this novel, and talked myself into needing to read it again right away. Here are Mari Ness’s thoughts on what should be a more problematic book than it is: Refining the Rake as Hero. Importantly, however, it has hands-down my favourite Heyer cover art (and I do love the J. Oval/Ben Ostrick covers: image search his name and you will be rewarded):
Artist: J Oval (Ben Ostrick)
The Ivy Tree – Mary Stewart: I find the pacing of a lot of gothic novels a little trying, but I was reading this on the heels of Dunnett and Heyer, who for all their words keep on a fairly cracking (melo)dramatic pace. Quite interesting to read against Jane Eyre. Some gorgeous description. I’m not sure the type of narrator works with the first person pov here? I chose this on a recommendation but others assure me it is ‘more for the Stewart completist’.
An Infamous Army – Georgette Heyer: I read this because I did not realise it featured more of the family from These Old Shades and Devil’s Cubas well as the characters from Regency Buck. Mari Ness’ reread (A Recreation of War) also introduced me to the Best Wikipedia Article Ever (you’ll have to look at her post to get the link). She took issue with some of the recurring characters, so I am now of course rereading Regency Buck in order to take issue with that (I do in fact see her point, but still…). I have to share the cover for this too, because it is a James E. McConnell and the BEST of all the Infamous Army covers, not least because it stars a young Endora, and because the thought of a book with this cover getting set as reading at a military college charms and delights me (although less than Lord Uxbridge’s leg):
Artist: James E McConnell
Unraveled – Courtney Milan: Assigned reading in my self-imposed, Peter M. Ball guided course of study of How Romance Fiction Is Done. I’m still collating my broader thoughts, but I will just point out that Milan makes law jokes! Yay for law jokes! I understand in another of her novels she even invokes the rule against perpetuities…
Jurassic World: Basically Jumanji crossed with Romancing the Stone with a faint hint of Alien. Also this article from The Toast kept running through my head: If the Velociraptor from Jurassic Park Were your Girlfriend. I won’t say I cried twice, but I will say that I would pay to watch a whole movie of people exploring the ruins of the original Jurassic Park as it is gradually reclaimed by the jungle. (And I’ll give it this: all the dumbest moves were acknowledged in-movie). Also, this remains one of my favourite movie themes (along with the main theme from The Man from Snowy River).
The Woman in Gold: The story of the recovery of ownership of the Klimt painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, stolen in WWII and held in an Austrian art gallery. Restrained, gentle, horrible, beautiful. Mirren and Maslany are a class act, and Maslany glows.