Beginning Again

Photo by Jim Barrett
Photo by Jim Barrett

Once a year or so, I teach a lesson in my adult writing classes called Beginnings. (I’ve written about this before, here and here.) I scour bookshelves—my own or the local bookstore’s—in search of excellent opening sentences. It’s not that easy. Many opening sentences, of fiction and nonfiction, are at least good, but too many are ordinary, and few really grab me. So as my fall teaching session rolls around this year, I thought I would do the lesson again, but differently this time. I would see how books that either won prizes or are currently on the New York Times’ bestseller list handle opening sentences.

I was worried I’d find dreadful beginnings, even if the books as a whole deserved their accolades. Fortunately, only a couple (one fiction, one nonfiction) were bland, a few were intriguing, and the rest at least got the book off to a good-enough start. (I write this fully aware that we all have our own tastes, and that what I think is not very good someone else may rate as captivating.)

So I started with the Man Booker prize and the most recent winner: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I enjoyed the first paragraph, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people were put off by it. The first sentence does well enough: “The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.” But then the next sentence, which focuses more closely on these men, with details about their clothes, what some of them are doing, and with an omniscient narrator’s comments, is more than ten lines long, finishing out the paragraph. Anyone who’s not fond of wordy, highly detailed writing would probably put the book down, prestigious award or not. By contrast, the first two sentences of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the Booker winner a few years earlier, is not at all wordy, her use of a semicolon in the second sentence notwithstanding:

 “So now get up.”

Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard.

Catton begins with a certain place and certain characters; Mantel begins with a line of dialogue and the aftereffects of an apparently violent act. Both are good; both will appeal to different people. Or perhaps the same person, depending on what that person is interested in reading at the moment.

From the Times’ bestseller list, dated October 5, 2014, I checked the openings of the top three hardcover novels, by Ken Follett, Lee Child, and Jan Karon. I found the latter two ordinary. If I didn’t already want to read either book, I might not go any further than that. But I was taken by the first sentence of Follett’s Edge of Eternity: “Rebecca Hoffmann was summoned by the secret police on a rainy Monday in 1961.” We know who, we know when, we know what. We do not know why. I would keep reading to find out the why.

For nonfiction, I’ll get the not very good one out of the way first. This is Henry Kissinger’s World Order, number three on the Times’ nonfiction hardcover list. After a lengthy introduction, he opens the first chapter with “The history of most civilizations is a tale of the rise and fall of empires.” Right. But then, strong, compelling writing was probably not Mr. Kissinger’s goal in writing this book.

I found that Gilbert King did much better with the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Devil in the Grove. The prologue begins: “All his life, it seemed, he’d been staring out the windows of trains rumbling toward the unknown. Again, he was seated in the Jim Crow coach, hitched directly behind the engines, where the heavy heat bore the smell of diesel.” Plenty of details, both relevant (the Jim Crow coach) and atmospheric (“heavy heat bore the smell of diesel”); and I want to know what unknown this man is traveling toward.

I consider the opening of both the preface and prologue for Embers of War by Fredrik Logevall (also a Pulitzer Prize winner) serviceable. Not as atmospheric as King’s, but not as flat as Kissinger’s. But I was very taken with the opening of another Pulitzer Prize winner, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, by Dan Fagin:

 Who Tom was, if he ever was, is the first unsolved mystery of Toms River. He may have been an adventurer named Captain William Tom who helped chase the Dutch out of New Amsterdam in 1664 and then prospered as the British Crown’s tax collector in the wildlands to the south, in the newly established province of New Jersey. Or he may have been an ancient Indian named Old Tom who lived on the cliffs near the mouth of the river and spied on merchant ships during the Revolutionary War on behalf of the British or the Americans, depending on which side paid the larger bribe.

Colorful, certainly, and Fagin promises us, right in the first line, more mysteries. I may have to get this book.

And that is the trick you want to pull off with your first sentence, your first paragraph, your first page. You want readers to want to keep reading, to carry to the cash register the book they idly or with intent picked up, and buy it. You want them to read it and tell other people how very good it was. Because, of course, you have to keep up that pace. All of it needs to be that good.

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In which I blog about the days I write and the days I don’t write; about teaching about writing; about reading (which is never enough); and occasionally about music, because sometimes a three-minute song can tell as good a story as a novel.

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