Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Old Beginnings 1

Old Beginnings?

Here are five beginnings of books that got published. Their authors did (or are doing) well in the publishing world. Have at them. Do these beginnings pull you in? What's good or bad about them? Titles and authors are posted at the bottom of the page. Although this is not a competition to guess the sources, some commenters are doing so, so if you wish to guess, don't read the comments first.

1. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.

2. I'm ten years old, my whole life you've called me Vanya. My name is on the school records, on government papers as Ivan Petrovich Smetski. Now you tell me I'm really Itzak Schlomo. What am I, a Jewish secret agent?

3. The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.

4. It was early September, a busy time of year for raising the dead. The pre-Halloween rush seemed to start earlier and earlier every year. Every animator at Animators, Inc. was booked solid. I was no exception; in fact, I'd been offered more work than even my ability to go without sleep could supply.

5. Walking up and down the platform alongside the train in the Pennsylvania Station, having wiped the sweat from my brow, I lit a cigarette with the feeling that after it had calmed my nerves a little, I would be prepared to submit bids to move the Pyramid of Cheops from Egypt to the top of the Empire State Building with my bare hands in a swimming-suit; after what I had just gone through.

Old Beginnings 1

1. One Hundred Years of Solitude....Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2. Enchantment....Orson Scott Card
3. The Turn of the Screw....Henry James
4. Cerulean Sins....Laurell K. Hamilton
5. Too Many Cooks....Rex Stout


Inkmandoo said...

100 Years of Solitude.
I believe someone who was interviewed on NPR voted that the best novel opening ever.
It's not an easy read, but a marvelous work. When Oprah selected it for her book club I thought some of her readers wouldn't get through it.

HawkOwl said...

Funny, they're almost sorted from best to worst.

1 - I like. We know what the problem is: the guy is facing the firing squad. Now we get to go back to some carefree time in a small village (that's always a good read) and work our way from there back to the firing squad. Excellent. I doubt that's what one would think about in front of the firing squad, but eh, it works well enough.

2 - I like the tone. It does sound like a Jewish secret agent (if there is such a thing). And I always enjoy anything Russian/Soviet. Assuming it's done right, and not a narrow-minded outsider's view. No way to tell where this is going, but I'd give it a chance.

3 - Sucks. Way too many commas and the style is all up and down. Plus it's all empty talk about nothing happening. It's not even the ever popular "protagonist thinks about what just happened without divulging anything of what actually happened," it's people talking about people talking about maybe something having happened. Sounds like a bad impression of Charles Dickens writing Gothic romance. Blech.

4 - Meh. Competent writing, but it looks like it's gonna be tongue-in-cheek fantasy, and that's so last season.

5 - Somebody published that??? It's awful. Horrible sentence structure combined with the stereotypical "humour by far-fetched exaggerated analogy" style that's so common in modern writers. I hate that. I have no idea what the story is about, since nothing whatsoever has been presented so far, and I really don't care, 'cause I'm not about to read longer and find out.

December Quinn said...

3, 4, & 5 did, although I recognized 4 so that's a bit of a cheat. 1 & 2 lost me, but not through any fault of their own--firing squads and complex names aren't my cup of tea (but if I picked them up after liking the blurb I would have kept going.)

Kathleen said...

#1 is one of my favorite openings of a novel ever.

I like this feature!

Anonymous said...


Beth said...

1. I think this is the opening to One Hundred Years of Solitude, and is the only part I ever read of that book. I love the writing and the bit about the white stones. Drew me instantly in. One day I must get around to reading the rest of it. It's lying around here somewhere.

2. Interesting character, though I hope it's not always going to be in present tense. But I would read on for a bit.

3. I can usually parse long sentences but that one lost me. It's a complete run-on, incoherent, and would make a fine entry to the Bulwer-Lytton contest.

4. Quirky, intriguing, fun. Count me in.

5. The punctuation is awkward, but I'm interested to find out what he just went through.

Cathy said...

Strangely enough, only one of them draws me in... piques my interest:

I like the nostalgic feel of #1.

I do not know this story, or the author.

BuffySquirrel said...

Interesting that all but one is in first person. Personal preference, coincidence?

Fran said...

I think the first one's first sentence is intriguing, especially the "discovering ice" bit. That beginning's the best one.

But I really don't find any of the excerpts interesting enough to want to keep reading; they're too specific detail-wise and too dull-sounding. I'm a very picky reader....

Probably the best opening line I've ever read:

"Quite like old times," the room says. "Yes? No?"

--from Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Anonymous said...

1. A Hundred Years of Solitude. Also the only part of it I've read; just wasn't in the mood for it that day.

2. Enchantment, by Orson Scott Card. I read it on urging of a friend, and liked it but for the ending.--If you're curious, it's a retelling (sort of) of Sleeping Beauty.

3. I'm curious as to what actually happened, but since it's gruesome it probably wouldn't be my cup of tea. I didn't like the style; it's annoying to be told something is interesting without actually having anything interesting happen. It does end with a decent hook, though.

4. Nothing much either good or bad there; it depends what the general story is.

5. The strange use of the semi-colon threw me, and the whole sentence is rather clunky.

Anonymous said...

1.Recognised the first as a book on my 'should read' list but never got beyond the first chapter. Loved the imagery of the stones/eggs but I'm betting that if this was posted as a 'new beginning' the continuation would be hilarious. He's facing imminent death and he's remembering his childhood?

2. The voice is great. Would read more. I'd be tempted to add a semi-colon after 'old' if I was confident of my nitpicky skills.

3. Ha, too many commas.

4. The first sentence promises spooky stuff ahead and I like animation so I'd read on at least until the end of the page but it's not a nail biting opening.

5. Is this a parody? The last line is deliberately awful - like what I wrote.

Kathleen said...

never mind. I am wrong. Should always remember to use Google BEFORE making a factual assertion.
also, I meant Autumn of the Patriach not Death in the Afternoon.

Revote my Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fan Club card ASAP!

xiqay said...

Interesting experiment, EE.

I've read books #1 & #2. Yes, these openings pulled me in.

Haven't read books #3, #4, or #5. Didn't much like #3 from this opening. Probably would not keep reading #5 either. Liked #4.

jmho (and taste in reading).

mark said...

Oh, and by the way, to the folks who don't recognize #1: it's a good long way into the book before you hear about that firing squad again. And "discover ice" should be taken literally: the village has not yet heard of ice (and a number of other seemingly obvious things). And it only gets odder from there. It's probably small wonder that everyone here seems to like that one--so did the Nobel Prize committee.

As for the others, which I don't recognize (though I'd swear I've read #3 before), all of them actually do do it for me, with the exception of the last one a little. #2 immediately establishes a heck of a voice. It's disarming, in a Holden Caufield sort of way.

#3 feels like I'm fireside with Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe: 19th-century diction, and then needing to wonder what on earth kind of visitation we're talking about that's so horrific. That must have been a hell of a ghost story I just missed. Tell me the next one, O writer from the past!

#4 feels kinda Phillip K. Dick-ish, and I'm wondering what all these robot-makers are up to.

#5 bugs me because the moving-the-pyramids image isn't crisp enough for my taste, but even so, we already have strong elements of character--the guy's hanging out in a train station, pacing, and smoking. And what HAS he been through?

Dave said...

2. Enchantment by Orson Scott Card, 1999

xvtywsnm said...

#3-Turn of the Screw (Henry James). Never read it. It was required in some high school classes (poor kids).

Dave said...

#4 is Cerulean Sins by Laurell K. Hamilton.
It's on one of my read lists somewhere

December Quinn said...

I've even read Enchantment, and didn't recognize it.

I say one of the best opening lines ever (aside from "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again", which I think is the best ever), although it may not be technically all that great, is "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom noticed it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."

Leah said...


I loved Enchantment when I read it, and that opening was part of it. The whole story (which is fantasy) incorporates wry humor while taking a hard look at what would happen if you fell through...THE NEXUS OF TIME TRAVEL ITSELF!

Seriously, it's excellent. Check it out.

mark said...

My favorite opening paragraph, at the moment:

"I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of the telling, like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive."

HawkOwl said...

Hehehe. Mark - you said "doodoo."

xvtywsnm - You didn't miss much. I'm impressed that I was so close with my impression of it, though. :)

Anonymous said...

Do these beginnings pull you in?

Yes! All of them hooked me.

What's good or bad about them?

Er...answering that would be more work than I want to do this evening.

Fran said...

Duh--I should have written "discover ice." Can only plead that I haven't gotten much sleep over the past few days....

Recognizing something you've never read is kind of impossible; I've never read One Hundred Years of Solitude. There are so many books, yet so few hours in the day.

What is "I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination..." from? It sounds Ursula K. Le Guin-ish--or maybe Ray Bradbury-ish....

...Okay, just pulled out my copy of The Left Hand of Darkness, which is where that beginning's from--I thought I recognized it. Haven't read that book in many years; it's a great story, one that I should re-read now that it's been mentioned!

Feisty said...

I liked #2 and #5. They're the only ones I would have kept reading.

osfwtav said...

1. No. The main character ends up in front of a firing squad? No way am I willing to get all emotionally invested in him for THAT payoff. I think I'll go read a Terry Pratchett novel instead.

2. Yes. The smart-ass tone is intriguing, coming from a ten-year old (in books only, not in real-life!). I'd keep reading.

3. This must be Henry James, "The Turn of the Screw." This first, paragraph-long sentence informs the reader fair-and-square that reading further will be Work. And I've done my share of Henry James-related Work. No.

4. Yes, but without getting my hopes up too much. It sounds like it has potential, but it would take a good writer to make something of it.

5. No. It's so awkwardly-constructed, I had to re-read it to make sense of it. The character's voice is not appealing to me.

Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Is 3 really from Henry James? Did anyone TRY to read it aloud? It is so jerky I had wipelash half-way through. James must have heard commas as a much briefer pause. Otherwise, as suggested, it is wonderful one-sentence lesson in how not to punctuate.

Anonymous said...

Can I slap the author of #5 with a wet fish please? It's one big run on sentence and starting the first two clauses with -ing verbs too is one of the easiest ways to jank (sp?) me right out of the narrative.

jrmosher said...

Been having some trouble trying to post this. Hope it works this time ...
For me, 4/5 of these openings work because they raise questions that are interesting enough for me to want to read on to find the answers. Opening lines are a lot of things (character introductions, scene setting, establishment of mood and voice, etc.) but in essence they have to "hook" in the same manner: tease me with interesting questions and promise me that I'll find equally interesting answers if I keep reading.

Take the first one as an example: a man's life is bookended with a scene from his boyhood and the knowledge that he'll die a man in front of a firing squad. What happened in between? I bet it's a great story.

In the second, I want to know who this kid is as much as he does himself. Why does he have multiple names, and why are the names so different? No one changes their name so drastically on a whim; there must be a good (and likely dramatic) reason.

The third promises a gruesome tale by campfire, on Christmas Eve no less, and those are things that strike a chord with many readers (or maybe it's just me; I had an interesting childhood). The word "visitation" suggests a ghost story, and the voice of the author provides the mood to go along with that.

The fourth opening introduces us to a world unlike our own, where the dead are not required to lay still. And yet, the narrator's voice suggests that his life might not be all that different from ours: he has a job to do, and that job can be stressful, especially around the holidays. Working stiffs (pun absolutely intended) make great main characters, when thrust into unusual situations.

Only the fifth opening in this set would not entice me to read on. It's too vague. Yes, it raises a question of exactly what the narrator has gone through, and it sounds like maybe it was quite harrowing, but there just isn't enough detail there for me to care too much. Perhaps if there was just a little bit more detail, some teaser about what it is that he "just went through", I'd care. Unfortunately, there isn't, and it sounds like all the interesting stuff is over with now. Of these five, I'd probably put this one down, unless it got more interesting in the next paragraph or two.


Peter L. Winkler said...

I'd continue reading 4, since the premise is clearly stated right out front. I'd like to see what the author does with it.

I'd also continue with 5. What did he just go through that was so traumatic?

Anonymous said...

Laurell K Hamiliton rocks! Woot!

Anonymous said...

I said #3 had too many commas but obviously, it didn't bother me at the time 'cos I've read 'Turn of the Screw' many moons ago and thought it brilliant in a creepy way. Ah, too quick to criticise.

Yjtdgd lest ye be judged

Zombie Deathfish said...

#3 - The Turn of the Screw. Force-fed to me at university, where I had to read and re-read it again and again, and then analyse it in Marxist terms, gay and lesbian terms and capitalist terms.

The mere thought of that opening sentence sends me into convulsions of fear.

spongey437 said...

1 - So this was the guy who discovered ice, I always wondered who did that.

2 - this one does kind of grab me but I cant figure out why. i would probably read a bit farther to see where he is going with it.

3 - Wow, that is one long sentence. Too hard to read as one sentence. I found myself stopping several times to re-read it, I probably wouldnt go any farther.

4 - Reminds me of Monsters, Inc. but more gruesome. My guess is this is a YA horror and I might read on to see if it got interesting.

5 - Again, one long sentence that I had to read twice to get the gist of. Probably wouldnt go any farther. I like shorter more concise sentences and clearer thoughts.

xiqay said...

Okay. We've identified all but #5.

What book is that from? Please, EE, let us know soon. So curious.

Anonymous said...

I think the point of this exercise is to NOT think about who wrote it or whether we have good feelings about it based on familiarity with the author or having read it in the past. In my view this is most useful if we evaluate these openings exactly the same way we evaluate Joe Schmoe's opening here on the EE site.

Everybody will take something different from this. I think we'll realize that we're being too rigid and demanding in evaluation of unknown minions' work, rather than giving it a fair chance. On the other hand, and I've seen some of this in the comments above, many of us are willing to give these already-published openings much more leeway because it turned out that even if rules were broken, the work was good. That's hypocritical. Schmoe should get the same leeway.

Rules are just guidelines. They're the means, but not the end.

Anonymous said...

It seems like 100 Years of Solitude is one of those books that everyone claims is great and recommends reading, but no one can finish it. Doesn't that make it a lousy read? It's probably just me. I never could figure out what was so great about The Catcher in the Rye. -JTC

braun said...

Apparently I really need to read 100 Years of Solitude!

xiqay said...

I'm not sure I agree, anon 8:35 A.M. --about being rigid and demanding--we're not. We're just giving our opinions on new beginnings (and old). fwiw.

I think these "old beginning" openings also show that times have changed. Tastes in publishing have changed.

And we do have different opinions on these, even knowing they've been published. Not too many votes for #s 3 & 5 (although there are some).

It's good to see variety, to know that we can try it our way and maybe succeed.

I think what we get is a better sense of our own taste and why we like something, so that we can do better (have better mechanics, craft, as well as art) first to satisfy ourselves.

Virginia Miss said...

Only ones I've read are #1 and #3, many years ago but even so I recognized the opening of #1 immediately. Brilliant.
#2 great voice, I'd keep reading
#3 Only if I'm in the mood for a Victorian novel would I keep reading. Although I've read it, I'm ashamed to admit I didn't recognize the opening.
#4 Terrific, the first line grabs me.
#5 I almost gave up halfway through the run-on sentence. The character's situation intrigues me enough that I'd keep reading, but if the rest of the prose is as clunky I'd stop.

HawkOwl said...

jrmosher - The kid in #2 only has two names. "Vanya" is to "Ivan" as "Bill" is to "William." And people do change names on a whim. At least I do. :)

Dan Lewis said...

#1 smelled like magical realism to me. I love Borges and I always read stories like this. Imagine what the opening would have sounded like without the firing squad.

#2 was funny. I find the point-of-view engaging, but I would hope that very soon it is clear who Vanya/Itzak is actually addressing. A funny kid with an identity/ethnicity crisis is a good place to start the story. I had a bad time with the Ender's Shadow sequels, excepting the first one, so I might not have picked this up in the bookstore.

[digression on the second person. There is a Humira commercial going around that opens with an old woman saying, "I know you. You have rheumatoid arthritis." My wife and I giggle at the presumption involved in a commercial like this. This opening is walking close to that line for me.]

#3 was pretty strange to read, an opening about a story that already ended. Boring. A few words popped out at me: gruesome, strange, visitation. For those three words, and the name on the cover, I might read on. However, I do agree that the sentence is clunky and makes me keep track of too much.

#4 was engaging and, like Huck Finn, unintentionally humorous. The animator emphasizes the uninteresting detail, how busy the job is, and nonchalantly refers to raising the dead and going without sleep. It made me think of a Dan Brown story, about resurrectionists. So instead of robots, I thought of necromancers. But like #2, I was underwhelmed by another novel by the same author (Guilty Pleasures, the first Anita Blake story), so I might not have picked it up in the bookstore. This snippet is engaging world-building, which I liked in the first book, but I would worry that the things I disliked in Guilty Pleasures will appear later (infelicitous phrasings, unconvincing emotions).

I liked #5 because the narrator thinks in funny imagery. Even after a success rivaling the psychic exploits of David Blaine, the narrator is still shaken from the effort. Not because the story itself is about to thrill me, but because of the storyteller, I would read on.

kis said...

2,4 and 5 were the best, IMO. Although I'm amazed at how many people were irritated by 5. I could totally see this guy, shaking and smoking on a train platform (a British guy, by his diction), and the imagery of him moving pyramids in his bathing suit was awesome. Led me to realize he's a chronic hyperbolizer and that he's likely whining about something relatively insignificant.

The first sentence of 4 hooked me.

And for 2, it was the Jewish secret agent thing. Just can't picture a superspy named Schlomo-- Itzak Schlomo.

The other two--meh.

shdqp said...

Oh good! I've been thinking of suggesting this.

itxbpj said...

Before reading other responses:

1. No comment - I recognize it

2. Effective - sets up a strong question and an interesting voice.

3. Boring and wordy - not enough specific information

4. Interesting - I'm expecting a book with a touch of dark humor

5. Vague - it could be about anything

Eleanor said...

I knew 1, 2 and 3. Never read the other two.

1: The firing squad doesn't kill him, and even when he does die that isn't the end of the story. The book goes on for 100 years, like the title says. Also, there are several other throwaway references like that to characters facing firing squads. Some of them are named Aureliano Buendia, some aren't. An awful lot of people in that family are named after each other.

2: There should be speech marks around this excerpt, since Ivan is talking to his parents. There's nothing weird about the POV of the book as a whole. Incidentally the book doesn't go at all the way the opening leads you to expect. But it does have the most kickass Baba Yaga I've ever seen.

3: Seems like a perfect example of how literary fashions change. What's the significance of the fact that all those commas are in the first half of the sentence? I'm sure my English teacher would have known.