Slept nine hours last night, which for me is a massive lie-in; I didn't get up until nine. My body aches from too long horizontal. But I must have needed the rest.
princejvstin: The first line in a book is the second most important line. (The most important line is the last line.) I like the idea you mention, of reading a book with that first sentence as a lens through which the whole thing can be focused.
For me, I have a list of oughtas. (I don't do shoulds, in writing, but I do do oughtas.)
A first line oughta do all these all things:
1) illuminate the theme of the book. This justifies its existence.
2) raise a question. This provides narrative momentum, and brings the reader into the story through the hook of his curiousity. (I theorize that this is the actual mechanism through which a "hook sentence" works. It gets you asking something. Please note, this does not have to be a direct question.
3) begin to develop setting, character, and/or tone.
4) hold the keys to resolution. By which I mean, provide the foundation for circularity or closure.
Poster child in my genre: the first line of Dhalgren which of course is famously also the last line, or a portion thereof.
My pick for the best first line in recent English fiction:
That's from Watership Down, by Richard Adams. It does all of the above--illuminates a primary theme of the book, asks a question (in this case, establishes an ominous air, due to literary associations with primroses and the end thereof, alerts us to the fact that we're in a pastoral setting and what the time of year is and that tiny details of the season and nature will be important to development of the book, and also links up to the end of the book. Boom.
In four words.
Not too shabby.
I'm not nearly that good at it, but here's my collected first lines, so far:
the other fantasy:
The zeppelin Hans Glücker left Calais at 9:15 in the evening on a cold night in March, 1899, bound for New Amsterdam, the jewel of British North America.
(love the name of that airship, man.)
A Companion to Wolves: (with truepenny)
Njall could not stop looking at the wolf.
the unsold YA historical mystery:
The Cobbler's Boy: (also with truepenny)
When I was thirteen, my father beat a boy almost to death.
the Jenny books:
I never sleep if I can help it.
The Montreal has wings.
I've got a starship dreaming.
the stand-alone SF:
Michelangelo Osiris Leary Kusanagi-Jones had been drinking since fourteen hundred.
(I am unreasonably pleased with this sentence.)
The morning after he killed Eugene Shapiro, André Deschênes woke early.
Pinion: (unfinished and unsold)
At the corner of the window, a waxen spider spun.
the Edda of Burdens:
All the Windwracked Stars:
He was born white, until she burned him.
By the Mountain Bound:
Fear. I know the scent of old.
The Sea thy Mistress:
the Promethean Age:
Blood & Iron:
Matthew the Magician leaned against a wrought iron lamp post on 42nd Street, idly picking at the edges of his ten iron rings and listening to his city breathe into the warm September night.
(I kind of think that's a lousy first line, but I never could get this damned book to start right. And it least it sets up a pair of characters and a conflict and a setting, even if it's not pithy.)
Whiskey & Water:
Once upon a time in New York City, there lived a Mage with a crippled right hand.
Patience & Fortitude: (incomplete and unsold, and I am torn between two openings. And leaning towards the second, because the first may give The Wrong Sort Of Idea about what kind of a book this is. A little too Harry Dresden, maybe.)
There was a werewolf on the landing.
Nothing made him hate himself more than waiting for the elevator.
Ink & Pen:
Christofer Marley died as he was born: on the bank of a river, within the sound and stench of slaughterhouses.
Hell & Earth: (This one presents a special problem. Because These Two Books Are One, and I was originally going to break the narrative eighty pages later than I am going to have to. So it ends on a cliffhanger, instead of after the resolution of that crisis and the identification of a new set of problems.)
This is the new opening line:
The road stretched broad and easy before Will and his docile, mannerly, ghost-colored mare.
This is the old opening line:
London had never seemed so gray and chill, but Will was warm enough in the corner by the fire.
One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide King: (unsold)
It's not a straight drop.
(I love this sentence unreasonably. It launches a long description of Hoover Dam, and its everything a first sentence should be. Including containing an egregious and inobvious pun. Yes, setting on the first page ,and lots of it. And it works, baby.)
Posthumous Jonson: (unfinished and unsold, and will have to be retitled to fit the pattern, alas, though I love it so. Also, because I am greedy, have a longer chunk of this one. And yes, this is going to be the saddest book I have ever written, by the time that it is done. And, I hope, the saddest book I will ever write.)
I loved you not.
And having writ, I hear you mock reply: "I was the more deceived." Those words do vouchsafe no revelation, for you loved me no better in your time.
But for the sake of him we buried these score years gone, I write you now.