Starting a Book with Panache

Sometimes I think about how I should start the book I’m working on. Right now I have about 23,000 words written, so when I say “start,” I’m not talking about the process. The process of writing a book is separate from the book’s starting point, which is its first sentence.

The first sentence assumes ridiculous importance because it’s ridiculously important. But you can’t always blurt out a great first sentence when you start the actual book. I usually need to get to the end of the first draft.

A different kind of ABC test

In another post (Raising Questions) I floated out four book openings and asked
a) which are fiction and which nonfiction
b) how they make you feel
c) whether you’d want to read on

Here they are:

1: The greatest hunger in life is not for food, money, success, status, security, sex, or even love from the opposite sex.

a) This one is nonfiction, from The Book of Secrets by Deepak Chopra.
b) It made me feel annoyed, because of the (we hope) unconscious bias in “love from the opposite sex,” which leaves out everyone who loves their own sex.
c) But it also posed a question, which made me want to read on. The question being “what does the writer see as the greatest hunger in life?”

2: The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.

a) This one is fiction, from Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. [The link on the title will take you to Morrison’s own thoughts on what she was trying to do with that opening line, which is on a very interesting website called On Lines (onlinesonline.com), whose tagline is “Connecting story and song, one line at a time.”]
b) It made me feel mildly curious. I was suspicious of insurance agents, which is a terrible generalization, I know, and one born of ignorance about what the job entails. I knew Morrison was a great story teller. Yet the job itself seemed to form a barrier to my interest, and I was on the fence about whether to keep going. A bunch of considerations flew around inside me–the prose, the size of the book, my own feelings.
c) I wanted to keep going because I like Toni Morrison’s writing and because it posed a question: “why did the agent promise, and who was the promise to, and how did he plan to keep the promise?”

3: The French painter and writer Paul Gauguin–by most accounts mad, bad, and dangerous to know–suffered acutely from cosmological vertigo induced by the work of Darwin and other Victorian scientists.

a) This is nonfiction, from A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright.
b) It made me feel extremely interested–the juxtaposition of the cliche “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” followed by the words “suffered acutely from cosmological vertigo” were like a tasty treat for my brain.
c) I felt an interesting mind at work and wanted to read on.

4: I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night.

a) This is fiction, from Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Toczarcuk, translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Here’s a review from The Guardian that reflects my own experience of the novel.
b) It made me feel like pulling up a chair and eating the book immediately. I loved it. I love feeling surprised and interested by a book’s first sentence.
c) I couldn’t wait to read on (so I didn’t). I read it first from a library copy, signed it out again a month or two later, then bought it at the legendary Pulp Fiction Books in Vancouver. It’s one of my inspirations for a novel I’m writing because it’s so highly entertaining yet has so much depth. BTW, it’s high time I thanked my friend, award-winning writer Hilary Zaid, for texting me one day out of the blue saying she thought I’d like this book. Thanks, Hilary!

I’d love to hear your own first sentences, or those in books you love. Send them to me at info [at] awritersroadmap [dot] com, and if possible, include your answers to the abc questions above.


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