Wednesday 22 September 2010


Hi everyone,

Hope you are all doing well and have started the Fall Season with a bang. Mine started with two crashes: first my lovely pink laptop went zing and then my desktop breathed its last only a day after. Two horrendously stressful weeks later, I am back in the saddle - mentally scarred and several hundred quid the poorer -- but relieved that I have been diligent in backing up my documents. In fact, I have now switched to parking my files not only on an external hard drive but also on a cloud (doesn't that sound poetic) in case of fire.

As a matter of interest, has any of you tried writing with a pen recently? Isn't it the strangest instrument? During my two weeks of enforced exile from technology I made the sobering discovery that my penmanship has deteriorated to the point of complete illegibility. And to think I won the school prize for neatest handwriting when I was ten years old.

Work wise, I've had a highly interesting summer and I'm burning to tell you guys all about it. Unfortunately, it will have to wait a while longer until all the paperwork is in place and there can be no more slips between cups and lips. Soon, I hope.

But I did want to share with you the most incredible opening sentence for a novel I've ever read.

"Cyberbot was coming back from the devastated war of the green marshmallows."

Is it not glorious? It is the opening sentence of the latest novel by my seven year old nephew, Carl. Despite his tender years, Carl has already authored several epics and is a writer of great depth and talent. My brother sent this sentence on to me with the message: "Eat your heart out". Ah, to have such untrammelled imagination and bold vision, not to mention finely-tuned ear for pathos. I can't wait to read what will next befall little Cyberbot.

First impression count and a powerful opening sentence is crucial in a novel. Many writers confess to compulsively rewriting their opening line even as the book is already wending its way to the printer. I too had slaved over the first sentence of my debut novel: The Midnight Side. After many, many rewrites, I settled on: "They had shaved her scalp." (referring to a woman in hospital.) When I gave the manuscript to a friend of mine to read, she misread this sentence as, "They had saved her scalp". My friend confessed to me afterwards that she was rather disappointed when she discovered her error, as "saving" conjures up so many more exciting possibilities for a story than "shaving."

Often an opening sentence becomes more well-known than the book itself. Even people who haven't read the actual work will probably know from which novels the following lines were taken:

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again"

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times"

"Call me Ishmael."

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen"

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge."

Poor opening sentences can also pack punching power, of course, and become (in) famous in their own right. Every year San Jose State University sponsors the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest.Participants are invited to create the cheesiest, most overwritten and overwrought opening sentence of which they are capable. One of the organisers was quoted as saying that they are looking for "writers with a little talent but no taste."

The competition is held in honour of Edward Bulwer Lytton whose novel Paul Clifford, opens with the line: "It was a dark and stormy night." This sentence has become a byword for purple prose but I have to confess - at the risk of being struck by lightning -- that I've always found it rather atmospheric - or at least the entire opening sentence:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

 --Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Agreed, it needs a good lungful of air to read out loud, but I like that scanty flame quite a bit. I've always meant to read this novel in full as the premise seems promising as well: Paul Clifford is a criminal who leads a double life as a gentleman. Sounds good to me.

The contest itself has produced many amusing entries over the years and the following link will take you to this year's winning entries:

My own favourite, however, dates from a few years ago. (I did mention that poor taste is a requisite for the winning entry, right?)

She was like the driven snow beneath the galoshes of my lust.

So which opening sentences do you guys hold dear? Setting aside Cyberbot and his marshmallows, I think it will take a lot to top the opening sentence of Mary Stewart's Touch Not the Cat:

"My lover came to me on the last night in April, with a message and a warning that sent me home to him."

Now that's what I call irresistible...


  1. As a big fan of fountain pens and journal writing, I find that my handwriting goes south after even a week away from journal writing.

  2. You use fountain pens? How wonderful. Journals and fountain pens conjure up visions of elegant writing in moleskin books and adventures in far off lands a la Bruce Chatwin. My admiration knows no bounds...

  3. Best first line: Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. The Debut written by Anita Brookner

  4. Smashing first line and it speaks to me :-) It makes me think of Ford Madox Ford's opening line of The Good Soldier: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."

  5. Thanks to Dickens, I actually look closely at the opening lines of chapters. One of my favorite is in Pynchon's 'Mason & Dixon': "Mason, Dixon, and Maskelyne are in a punch house on Cock Hill called 'The Moon,' sitting like an allegorikal Sculpture titl'd, Awkwardness. It is not easy to say which of them is contributing more to sustaining the Tableau." Okay, I realize that's two lines...

  6. I've never read Mason and Dixon but I like the longer opening sentences too. I can't remember how it goes but I remember loving the opening sentence of Tristram Shandy when I read it in school. He's complaining about the poor job his parents made in producing him and it is hilairous.

  7. @J: I've never read Mason and Dixon but what a smashing opening line. Love the "allegorikal Sculpture".

    @Buffy: I remember that opening sentence! I never read all 9 (or is 10) volumes of Shandy but I seem to remember doing a paper on "parody" for my English Lit class many years ago and using Shandy as source material.

    Generally I prefer short opening lines to long, but Brett Easton Ellis's" American Psycho" has a killer opening sentence, (pardon the pun) which is easily the length of a paragraph. Truth to tell, I am not a fan of "Psycho", but I do remember this sentence as doing a great job of giving a snap shot of the setting.