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Herman Melville (1819-1891): There was a man who knew how to write a first line in a novel.

Novelists can be superstitious ninnies sometimes. The good-luck coffee mug we set next to the keyboard every morning, the song we put on six-hour repeat, the Ideal Reader we summon to mind who kisses the tops of our heads and sends us off on a new day's fabrications. Some of these fixations are helpful, others worrying symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. But no writerly preoccupation is more universally shared – or has been the cause of more agonized hours staring at the blank page – than the First Line.

"As a writer, I attach an inordinate, nearly insane level of importance to that first sentence and feel that if it's not right, the whole book will fail," admits novelist and professor of literature Steven Hayward. "As a scholar I don't think that's actually true. But as a writer, I believe it. It's the literary equivalent of taking three practice swings, and no more than three practice swings, every time I step up to the plate."

How we begin a book is widely considered to be a matter so crucial, so decisive in determining whether a book soars or stalls, so elusive and mysterious, it's often spoken of in terms closer to spell-casting than sentence making. So much is asked of the first line it can sometimes feel like an impossible burden to be carried by a handful of words.

"A first line should hold the spark of tone that is narrative voice, that will hopefully entrance the reader into the magic of the book," says novelist and creative-writing teacher Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. "It should hold the weight of theme and story, even if it should not feel overly weighty. It should generate a kind of propulsion into the next sentence, and so act as a launch pad."

Voice. Theme. Story. Propulsion. Magic. It's unquestionably true that great first lines contain all of these qualities. Even the three-word opener to Melville's Moby-Dick – "Call me Ishmael" – somehow magically achieves it. Marquez, Salinger, Hemingway, Morrison – it's hard to think of an author of a masterpiece who hasn't also mastered the strange alchemy of the first line. But in the workaday realm of our own grease-and-tear-stained desks, the practical question is what, specifically, must the first line achieve?

The most common answer, provided by writer and reader alike, is that it must grab us. Good first lines are metaphorical hands of monstrous strength, often rigged with lacerating claws, reaching out and taking us by the collars, hauling us in. They might be pretty, witty or bawdy. But they are primarily physical engagements between reader and text, a visceral bridge between the two.

There are many different ways a line can get grabby, of course. The set-up of a mystery. Action, or the promise of action to come. Flirtation. Poetry. A sucker punch. A joke. There are no rules as to how to do it, other than one. A first line cannot, under any circumstances, be dull.

"The reader owes the writer nothing," Lynn Coady, author of last year's Giller Prize shortlisted The Antagonist reminds us. "It's the writer's prerogative to start her book slow, to build up to the action and so forth, but it's the reader's prerogative to fling the book aside in a fit of boredom. We owe it to the reader to make the experience worth their while from the get-go – to make every line count."

And no line counts more than the first.

It's the one that, as readers, we test more brutally than any other, the one we will never forgive for the kind of faults we may overlook on page 236, so long as we've been effectively grabbed prior to that. Novelists know that, well before a novel has a chance to even get to readers, it must find favour with agents, with editors, with the marketing department, with booksellers. And in a world of hundreds of new titles appearing each month, of slush piles that could cause serious injury if they collapsed on passersby, of self-published e-books wailing for attention like infants in a Romanian orphanage, what characterizes the sensibility of so-called gatekeepers more than anything else is impatience.

"I've become supremely impatient with writers who begin a story with someone wiping the counter after finishing up the evening's dishes, or locking the horses up in the barn as they listen to the frogs sing in the nearby pond, or pouring themselves a drink and reflecting on their day," Coady says, recalling her past experience as a prize and grant juror. Doing the dishes, in other words, is the anti-grab.

Part of the problem for writers is that we attach ourselves to the initial version of our first lines with a fierce protectiveness we don't show toward any other line. Interviews about the writing process are littered with mystical declarations of how the first line came to the author well before the "idea" for the novel itself, and that it never changed. People like this kind of stuff. I like this kind of stuff. Believing that opening lines can come to our minds, whole and perfect, before our even knowing what they are or where they might lead us, has an appeal as potent as life after death.

Meanwhile, back down here on Planet Mortal Writer, nothing would ever get done if we just waited around for the muse to whisper the first line in our ear. It's up to us to come up with one, maybe a few. Regard our own openings as impatiently as our readers will. Craft the right grab to suit the story at hand.

After that, it's a matter of not letting go.

Andrew Pyper is the author of five novels, including Lost Girls, The Killing Circle and, most recently, The Guardians.

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