Thursday, 22 October 2015

Reading: the first line is your gatekeeper

You know about Sturgeon’s Law. ‘Ninety percent of science fiction is crap.’ Actually that’s the first law. The second law comes in with a (possibly) Pandoran note: ‘Ninety percent of everything is crap.’ I heard it was Ted Sturgeon’s wife who came up with that one. Or maybe I made it up. I suppose if you’re crotchety enough it may sound like consolation.

These days, the universal constants have changed. It’s so easy to publish a book that they may as well have automated the writing process. Faced with the evidence of Wattpad, we might have to adjust the Sturgeon Coefficient to more like ninety-nine percent.

The new books keep coming, thicker and faster every month, every week, and most aren’t going to be worth the time it takes to pick them up, but we still don’t have a formula to know which ones to fling aside. What future masterpieces might we miss amid the clamour? How can we pan for gold in all this muck? There is need, as Descartes said, of a method. So let me offer this…

A few years ago I was laid up in bed with a pole-axing cold. Wait, did I say a cold? This wasn’t just a cold; it was a veritable Fimbulwinter, a Plutonian hibernacle, a blistering absolute zero of a virus. I found it hard to stay awake more than thirty minutes at a stretch. Reading a novel was out of the question. I had a big anthology of short stories, but with a temperature of a hundred and one it was a struggle to get through the bad ones – and there were a lot of bad ones. So I went through the whole book reading only the first sentence of each. If that impressed, the story got marked as to-read.

Who passed? When I went back and looked at who’d earned a tick, it turned out to be the likes of Lawrence, Graves, Steinbeck, Forster – all justifying their reputation on the strength of a dozen words or so. Ah, you want show, not tell. All righty:
Few things have been more beautiful than my note book on the Deist Controversy as it fell downward through the waters of the Mediterranean. It dived, like a piece of black slate, but opened soon, disclosing leaves of pale green, which quivered into blue. Now it had vanished, now it was a piece of magical india-rubber stretching out to infinity, now it was a book again, but bigger than the book of all knowledge. It grew more fantastic as it reached the bottom, where a puff of sand welcomed it and obscured it from view. But it reappeared, quite sane though a little tremulous, lying decently open on its back, while unseen fingers fidgeted among its leaves.
I couldn’t bear not to give you that whole magnificent paragraph (by E.M. Forster by the way) but you only have to look at the first sentence. It’s enough on its own to tell you you’re in safe hands. And that’s my ‘lit-must’ test, if you will. Forget about evaluating the setting, genre, difficulty or even the story itself. If a writer can craft a fine opening line, they’re worthy of your trust. If only Mr and Mrs Sturgeon had known.

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