Writing Residency: On the Shelf (Beginnings)

Last month, we thought a lot about writing and were doing a lot of writing. Two of Anna’s essays appeared: “The Making of a Suburbanite” in Literary Orphans and “Why I Write This, Now in Passages North. We’ve been rethinking our writing projects and examining our priorities and how they guide our decisions. And we’ve been planning the year ahead with all this in mind, recognizing that, as arbitrary as the start of a new calendar year is, January is symbolically a beginning.

LizardTwo weeks ago, we were still in the midst of , our writing residency at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. There, we pulled together excerpts from books that happened to be on the shelf at our cabin. We have returned home now, but we are still thinking about the writing we did there and the projects on which we continue to work. And we’re thinking about beginnings.

While we were working in our cabin, we considered how to begin—opening lines for a book, first sentences for a section, how a given paragraph might start. What follows are opening lines from a few novels and short story collections that we found on the shelf in the cabin and from which we gleaned some insight for our own writing, whether fiction or nonfiction.

From The Hours by Michael Cunningham

She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather. It is 1941. Another war has begun She has left a note for Leonard, and another for Vanessa.

From The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired; she went right through the Danger sign.

From Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long. For a frozen moment, his feet had stopped moving on the floating logs in the basin above the river bend; he’d slipped entirely underwater before anyone could grab his outstretched hand.

From Short Cuts by Raymond Carver

Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple. But now and then they felt they alone among their circle had been passed by somehow, leaving Bill to attend to his bookkeeping duties and Arlene occupied with secretarial chores.

From Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

In her last picture, the camera had lingered at the hip, the naked hip, and even though it wasn’t her hip, she acquired a reputation for being willing.

What principles for beginnings might we glean from these opening lines? Perhaps a drowning is the ideal opener for a novel. Or maybe, don’t be afraid of the semicolon. But writing principles are tricky, difficult to pin down with any certainly across projects, impossible to adapt with just a glance at the surface.

That said, each of these openings introduces a character. In a book we mentioned last week, Writing Novels That Sell, Jack Bickham writes, “Good stories do not just happen. They begin with the establishment of someone confronted by a change threatening to that someone’s self-concept.” Stories begin with someone—with a character.

Each of these openings also establishes point of view. The Blind Assassin establishes a first-person narrator—my—even though the sentences focus on the narrator’s sister. All the other openings establish a third-person point of view, though not exactly the same kind. The reader is likely to feel close to the she in The Hours and in the moment with her. In the first story of Short Cuts, the reader likely feels more distance from the Millers and understands them generally but is not drawn into a scene with them.

The opening lines are especially important because these words become the first constraints under which the rest of the book must work. Also, of course, these lines form the first impression a work, whether fiction or nonfiction, on a reader, including your agent or an editor. We continue, in our own writing, to hone first lines, both because revising openings allows us to re-envision the larger work and because we want to draw the reader in as much as we’ve been drawn in.

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