Sunday, March 18, 2012

Beginnings: First Sentence & First Paragraph Madness.

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."--William Gibson, Neuromancer.

I love that first sentence and am immediately hooked when reading it.  I want to know more: where is this place, what characters will we find there?

I've been thinking about first sentences recently, first paragraphs, and how we as writers should hook the readers early; yeah, stating the obvious.  I have a tendency to build, but also like to set a mood, state something vital, with my first sentences or paragraphs--mostly paragraphs, as I go through some samples for this post it became clear I'm a first paragraph(s) kind of writer--yet that vital element may not be obvious until one makes it deep into the story. I wonder, let's look at a few first sentences from projects either completed--the two novels or stories from the collection, The Dark is Light Enough for Me--or stuff in progress--a novel, a handful of other pieces I know I want to complete sooner than later, and see if I have succeeded.  So...without further adeiu:

From The Corner of His Mind, my first novel:

     "It was faint, a whisper more in Trent Alexander’s head than in his ears, a sound reminiscent of so many voices he had known in his life, yet pure and untouched by any memories he could recall.  He thought it had said, “Hello, Trent,” more a mumble, vague and unformed; a muffled introduction.  The voice projected as if from a distance, though it seemed much closer than it would like to let on. 

     As if it had risen from within." 

Now, for me, that works, but it's not a grab you around the scruff of your neck kind of works, it's a hinting at something kind of works.  And, since I know exactly what the novel does, these opening four sentences say So Much More Than It Would Seem, yet as with most of my fiction, the rewards are in the journey and final revelations. 

What do you make of that?  Will you read on, to see where it goes?

With the next example, I remember simply wanting to leap in, write something that just blasts out of the gate with a first line to grab you immediately.  How about this, from the novel in progress, tentatively titled, The Mantra of Metamorphosis.

     "Reverend Bob was naked and on the roof again."

Yeah, okay, what the heck is going on here?  A reverend?  On the roof?  Naked?   Do you want to know more?

My second novel, The Wilderness Within, opens with a prologue; yes, a dreaded prologue--don't shake your head--but it's one that ends up wrapping around to the ending in a most profound way.  Before I knew my agent was an agent--a long, strange internet story that includes poodles, penguins, our dark family history and, more perversion that would make an interesting story in and of itself--I told her, you have to read the whole thing, there's a purpose to Everything and I mean Everything.  She told me afterwards Every Writer says that, says, you have to read the whole thing, blah, blah, but this novel was the first time that it was true: the revelations were worth the build-up and bizarre trip.

     It wasn’t the wind that awakened me.  I’d grown accustomed to its mysterious habits, the fluid rhythms of its rhyme and reason.  It came in waves, surging up to the shore of my house, whistling along the wooden walls and jangling windowpanes.  It would rattle about, only to recede into the emptiness from whence it came.  Not like this other sound.  The sound that awakened me lingered, insistent: Here I am, ready or not.

     I’d been patient.  I was ready.

     This other sound buzzed and crackled and breathed deep as the fathomless space between me and out there--

     The forest.  

Are you curious?  Has that set the mood properly? 

Let's move on to some short fiction, a few from my collection that you all should buy now, especially when you can see via Amazon the print version is on sale for $9.32, while the digital version, hey, it's only $3.99 which calculates to (takes off shoes to assist) about 33 cents a story.

Here's the opening paragraph from I Wish I Was A Pretty Little Girl. 

She is so pretty, thought Leslie. Lean, with just a hint of the woman she would become—if he let her—starting to show in the slight curvature of her tiny hips, and the bud of her nipples gaining uneasy prominence on breasts eager to bloom, jutting forth under the thin fabric of her pink t-shirt. 

Does that make you uncomfortable?  The intent is to do that, yet again, by the end of the story, many people comment how we can feel sympathy for this character who, in essence, is a specified serial killer.  When I wrote that line, I knew I was asking a lot of some readers and that I would probably lose some in the process; at least some for that story.

Hmmm...a couple more, just rolling here.

From The Sunglasses Girl:

The thought of sex with anonymous women had, before the disintegration of marriage and the accompanying mental instability, never ventured into Trane’s rapidly deteriorating psyche. 

I like that.  A curious stage is set, where's the writer going to take it?  And there's sex, something that always seems to attract attention.  Since I write very adult fiction, yeah, this totally draws me in.

A few more sentences, how do they work for you?

From Black Wings:
After only a month, I’d had enough. 

From I Want To Take You Higher:
The knock at the door could only mean one thing: Desi was here, with the drugs no less, not that I could really deal with any more right now, but why stop anything of such mind-numbing, reality altering magnitude when it’s got the pedal jammed to the floor?

From Not Breathing:
When it happened, I remember not feeling anything, just disconnected from the world, or at least from being human. 

Are you intrigued or...?

How about one from a story I completed today?  Here's the first sentence from Ring Finger:

Cammie sucked hard on the rolled cigarette, the smoke threatening to warm her frigid innards, but failing. 

Enough of this.  See, as I go through all of these it's quite clear how it's all a matter of our individual make-up as to what will draw us into a story.  I'm not a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am kind of writer.  Well, not most of the time.  I like many stories that do that, but as many or more that drape me in a mood and crawl under my skin.  A lot of my fiction works in this way.  The reader has to have a willingness to go along for the ride.  Many of the writers I really enjoy do similar things.  They've staked their turf, they've set Their Playing Field and, since they know what they are doing, I will go along for the ride no matter what the beginning is, but even at that, it's usually intriguing. 

I just have to work hard to get to their level so no matter what that first sentence is, the reader will know it's going to lead to some pretty strange places they want to explore with me.

So, not clarifying anything but, as I noted up there with my fiction, I hope it was an amusing ride...

Here's a couple more of my faves, a paragraph from Lucius Shepard's A Handbook of American Prayer, one of my all-time fave novels.  You can access the first pages via the Look Inside feature.  I remember reading the opening paragraphs in Powell's books in Portland, Oregon, and being completely captivated by the intent, the ideas, the writing.  I had to know more.

And a final first sentence here from another of my all-time favorite novels, Crash by J.G. Ballard.
Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.

Which sounds like a final sentence! Egad!

I hope Bill Lee from David Cronenberg's take on William Burrough's Naked Lunch has a perfect first sentence aligned, otherwise, I wouldn't like to witness that typewriter's reaction to his failure.  :-P


  1. excellent blog! i especially like the sentence:
    Reverend Bob was naked and on the roof again.

  2. Thank you, Mimi. Actually, this one may have been influenced by a recent blog you did with first sentences because it got me to thinking about them and my own writing, so I just kind of riffed on it. ;-) BTW, yeah, I think I posted that first sentence about Reverend Bob somewhere, didn't you mention liking it then? Not sure. That one's fun. How about the second paragraph, just for you, which really throws a wrench in what the initial sentence seems to be suggesting:

    Naked except for tattooed brickwork sleeves featuring an array of monsters--Alien, Predator, The Wolf Man--and metal glimmering in blinding sparkles, enough woven into his penis and scrotum to fashion a small cutlery set.

    Oh, boy! And he's a Reverend? Hmmmm, you'll just have to wait and see. hahahaha...