WHAT I LEARNED THIS WEEK: The importance of first sentences


Bookseller Molly Bolden, author Cherry Adair and I did a critique of manuscript first pages at the Jubilee Jambalaya Writers Conference last weekend in picturesque Houma, Louisiana. Participants (anonymously) handed in the first page of whatever work they had in progress, and American Idol-like we took turns commenting on what was good and bad about each one. Hopes were raised, dreams may have been crushed, but I believe that most attendees gained by listening to others’ work and applying our comments to their own.
“You need a stunning first sentence, or an editor is just going to set your manuscript aside,” seems to be the common wisdom right now among aspiring writers. That’s not necessarily so; it’s also possible, by using an overtly provocative sentence, to come across as trying too hard. In another session at the same conference I spoke about the importance of a strong opening more in terms of the first scene and first chapter, after which one is not allowed to slump, of course, but must continue to hold the reader’s attention as the story continues. As a general rule, I do not care to hear about the prevailing weather conditions as the story begins. If there’s a tornado a block away and the protagonist is heading for the basement stairs, that’s relevant. Otherwise, start with something more revelatory about the characters and their situation.
So what does make a strong opening sentence? Let us look to the work of the masters. Here’s a little quiz to see if you can match the first sentences of these popular Del Rey authors to their prize-winning/bestselling novels. (Answers after the jump.)
1. There was no doubt about it: there was a fox behind the climbing frame. And it was watching.
2. For numberless years a myna had astounded travelers to the caravansary with its ability to spew indecencies in ten languages, and before the fight broke out everyone assumed the old blue-tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the giant African with such foulness and verve.
3. This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.
4. “Send up another, damn you, send them all up, at once if you have to,” Laurence said savagely to poor Calloway, who did not deserve to be sworn at: the gunner was firing off the flares so quickly his hands were scorched black, skin cracking and peeling to bright red where some powder had spilled onto his fingers; he was not stopping to wipe them clean before setting each flare to the match.
5. Questions, always questions. They didn’t wait for the answers, either.
6. Brigadier General Clarence Potter crouched in a muddy trench north of Atlanta. Overhead, U.S. bombers flew through what looked like flak thick enough to walk on.
a. Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark
b. Harry Turtledove, In at the Death
c. China MiƩville, Un Lun Dun
d. William Goldman, The Princess Bride
e. Naomi Novik, Empire of Ivory
f. Michael Chabon, Gentlemen of the Road