Call me Ishmael? No, Just Email Me Your Choice Instead!

08/28/2010 09:18 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lately I've been thinking about the novels that I've loved most, and the way they open. I'm about to publish my second novel, Seeing Red, and I am trying to decide whether to start the leisurely way, which is how the book is now, or whether to make a quick and dirty revision, starting with a punchier opening that might grab the reader faster. (You get to vote, just keep reading.)

It might seem like a no-brainer. If you're trying to sell books, obviously you want your first page to do its job: nab the reader's attention and hold it fast. With modern readers deeply mired in information overload, and increasingly comfortable with scanty Twitter posts and bullet-like blogs and instant TV sound bytes, they obviously have little or no patience for the old ways of writing, otherwise known as the classics.

I was reminded of this recently when a woman I know said that she couldn't find anything she wanted to read. This woman is bright, and loves to read, and she has a Kindle, and so I suggested she sample one of my all-time favorite novels, The Mill on the Floss.

Ah, but I'd forgotten George Eliot's languid pace and her lofty language, and I'd certainly forgotten that sturdy first paragraph:

"A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace. On this mighty tide the black ships - laden with the fresh-scented fir-planks, with rounded sacks of oil-bearing seed, or with the dark glitter of coal are borne along to the town of St. Ogg's..."

That second sentence keeps going for another four typed lines!

Uh, well, gee, I said to my friend, it is such a great story. It's really worth the effort, despite the "antiquated" feel. I could tell from my friend's face that she wasn't buying it -- the book, or my attempt to sell it to her.

Why should I be surprised at this reaction, considering the way so many modern best-sellers lure in readers?

Consider the welcoming prologue that invites readers into Anita Diamant's New York Times bestseller, The Red Tent:

"We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust. This is not your fault or mine."

Or more to the point, get a load of Chris Bohjalian's teaser in his national bestseller, Midwives:

"I used the word vulva as a child the way some kids said butt or penis or puke."

How many of us would put the book down after that?So here I sit, perusing great works from the past, as well as a bunch of modern "winners" from the last few years. The more I read, the more I'm confused. Because I am at heart, a purist who wants to try to take the high road.

And then I laugh. The high road is increasingly a very lonely path. Literary fiction is a dying thing. The number of books sold in that category these days is increasingly miniscule. Recently, a prominent New York literary agent - formerly a top executive at Harper Collins -- told my husband (who is writing a non-fiction book) that Farrar, Straus and Giroux now considers it "acceptable" if a work of literary fiction sells a mere 3,500 copies.

The more I think about it, and the more opening lines I read by my literary heroes, the more I'm convinced of one thing: were these great authors querying New York agents today, they might very well just get polite form letters, rejecting their masterpieces.

Consider what I call Steinbeck's "long-term weather report from the Dustbowl" approach, which begins The Grapes of Wrath:

"To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated."

I absolutely love this poetic writing, but I wonder how many busy agents searching for blockbusters like Lovely Bones would give Steinbeck his due?

And then there's the less-than-compelling coal-to-diamonds discourse that Joseph Conrad delivers on page one of his fabulous novel, Victory.

"There is, as every schoolboy knows in this scientific age, a very close chemical relation between coal and diamonds. It is the reason, I believe, why some people allude to coal as 'black diamonds.' Both these commodities represent wealth; but coal is a much less portable form of property. There is, from that point of view, a deplorable lack of concentration in coal."

Holy cow. How did this book get published?

Well, so, here we are clearly living in another era. Recently, at a reading of his work at SUNY Albany, where I teach, author Walter Mosley admitted to the audience that he doesn't buy a book if the first line doesn't grab him.

I thought that was fascinating, because I bought Mosley's wonderful novel, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned after just that experience: I picked up the novel and couldn't put it down. My students adore the book, and I've used it for years.

Curiously, though, after his appearance in Albany, I decided to put his latest book, Known to Evil, to the same test that Mr. Mosley uses on novels. Here are the first lines that he writes:

"Don't you like the food?" Katrina, my wife of twenty-three years, asked.

"It's delicious," I said. "Whatever you make is always great."

Uh, Mr. Mosley, with all due respect, what the heck were you thinking?

Perhaps the point here is that once you are a well-established writer, with lots of books and tons of readers, you don't have to worry so much about the powerful lead. Others of us don't have that luxury.

So here I am, unsure whether to start with the existing Chapter One, or switch it around, and start with Chapter Two.

Some people told me that even thought they adored my first book (Dreaming Maples) they thought it might have worked better not to use such a leisurely opening. "Start here, at the cusp of spring, as the snow is poised to begin melting in the forest. The March fog is lifting through the dark maples like a million delicate spirits."

That's why I've decided, with the second novel, to put it out for a vote. If you care to have some fun, you can weigh in on the matter. How often do you get to comment on novels before they're published?

To read the opening that I'm toying around with, click here

Then cast your vote by emailing

Constructive comments are also appreciated, but please don't be mean-spirited. If you hate both openings, that's fine. I just hope you will buy the book anyway.

Because you know what they say, or, what they should say,

Don't judge a book by its first lines.