My parents collect automated musical instruments, like this modern German hand organ that my father brings to organ rallies and music festivals. Note the stuffed monkey.
It’s actually quite difficult to play so that it sounds good. You have to be strong enough to keep up the crank, obviously, but you also have to train yourself to move your arm steadily through the swing. Otherwise, you tend to speed up and slow down, and the music gets distorted.
My parents do some cool things.
After giving close reading to a dozen first sentences, half mine and half others, I’m ready to make a list of things that a first line can do (although probably no first line should try to do all of them).
- Include a mystery the reader wants to solve by reading the next sentence.
- Set a fast reading pace.
- Foreshadow the story.
- Establish the basics the reader needs to move on with the story.
- Create relationships between reader, character and narrator.
- Quickly encourage readers who are interested, and discourage those who would rather read something else.
- Most importantly, the use of A) diction, B) grammar, C) imagery and D) punctuation in order to establish X) character, Y) setting, and Z) mood.
Or, in abbreviated graphic form:
What else do you think they do?
Continuing from yesterday’s post, I’m looking at the first lines from some of my favorite stories to see why they work. I picked stories that aren’t very recent, and are either by people I don’t know or by writers I met after reading the story. If I do it again, I may relax that rule, but it seemed like a good way to start out. I only used stories that are online so you can go see how the story progresses if you wish. Again, if this turns out to be interesting to me or other folks, I may do more.
“North Park is a backwater tucked into a loop of the Kaw River: pale dirt and baked grass, aging playground equipment, silver-leafed cottonwoods, underbrush, mosquitoes and gnats blackening the air at dusk.”
Obviously, this sentence is scene setting. Kij makes it beautiful with her specific details: “pale dirt,” “baked grass,” “aging playground equipment,” “silver-leafed cotton-woods,” “mosquitoes,” “gnats.” Almost all of the details evoke slow decay–“backwater,” “baked grass,” “aging.” Insects don’t gather in the air so much as dirty it–“blackening” the dusk. The evoked colors are washed out–pale, baked, silver–we can possibly also include the old metal and rust of the playground equipment. The silver-leafed cottonwoods are the exception here–the color is on the grey/black spectrum, yes, but the tree still sounds beautiful. This is decay, but not hopeless decay.
The sentence also establishes the academic tone. This is the kind of sentence assembled by someone speaking authoritatively about a subject, not describing their sensory impressions of the world. The phrasing is formal and complex, and the use of the colon an even more significant marker.
“Like Daughter” by Tananarive Due
“I got the call in the middle of the week, when I came wheezing home from my uphill late-afternoon run.”
There’s definitely a mystery here — what’s the call?
“Wheezing” gives us a sense of the character’s age, perhaps–at least that she is unlikely to be a very young athlete–since she is still wheezing even though her uphill run is regular enough to be referred to as “my late-afternoon run.” She’s athletic, but in a real-person-exercising sort of way.
Other than that, I don’t have much. It’s fine. It’s an appealing sentence, tightly written, and I’m happy to move on with it.
“Fourteen Experiments in Postal Delivery” by John Schoffstall
“I got your voice mail.”
Conversational. Establishes a relationship between the reader and the narrator immediately — “I” and “you” (and also suggests the reader isn’t actually the “you” being addressed. Is there a term for that?). The questions it poses are obvious — who is speaking? Who am “I?” What voicemail?
I suppose, given that it’s the story it is, it also sets up the reader for some irony–that this story about the postal mail begins with a voice mail.
Perfectly reasonable first sentence.
“Little Faces” by Vonda McIntyre
“The blood woke Yalnis.”
I really like this sentence. Utterly simple, utterly direct. Again, the mystery is obvious–what is the blood? The fact that Yalnis doesn’t know only makes it more urgent. It drives the reader rapidly to the next line.
There’s not a lot to say about it. It’s just good.
“In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Klages
“Once upon a time, the Carnegie Library sat on a wooded bluff on the east side of town: red brick and fieldstone, with turrets and broad windows facing the trees.”
Another setting sentence. We’ve got the titular library, and the reinforcement from this sentence that it is important. Actually, that’s misleading. It’s not a *titular* library–in fact, the library is called a house. Backing up to the title, which the reader has as a cue along with the first sentence, the emphasis is on location. This isn’t the story of the seven librarians, but rather the library–but the library is defined by its relationships. It is the “house” of the librarians; the story is what happens inside it.
So, moving back. Now this sentence is reaffirming what the title suggests–setting is vital here. The story takes place inside; the first sentence tells us about the outside. I suppose, if we want to overextend a metaphor, we could say it’s the cover of the story.
The descriptions are all aligned to evoke the kind of library readers sigh over. “Wooded bluff” “broad windows facing the trees” — a picturesque, beautiful location, which the broad windows suggest is filled with light. Let’s be honest, this is reader fanservice. Personally, I’m good with that.
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang
Her name is Ana Alvarado, and she’s having a bad day.
This is a fine sentence. It tells us what we need to know and suggests we get on with things. We have a who (Ana Alvarado) and a what (she’s having a bad day). Next, we’ll get the why. Almost journalistic.
It also sets up a narrator who has a personality separate from that of the characters. It might be another character, or it might just be the narrative perspective from which the story is told, but this sentence creates an immediate distancing effect. The reader is observing, not participating.
From this, I learned a couple things.
- It’s a lot easier to do a textual analysis on your own first sentences than other people’s. Although:
- It might be easier to do textual analysis on stories I’d read more recently.
- I don’t seem to select for first sentences particularly when I’m choosing my favorite stories. These are all good, but only a couple dazzle. That’s not surprising. A good first sentence is a tiny element of a story, nice but unnecessary. I might try tracking really good first sentences, though, if I remember (I won’t).
I decided it might be interesting to look at some of the first lines of my stories. I’m grabbing a half-dozen first lines from some of my recent publications. I’m only looking at stories that are online, so if people want to see how the first line relates to the rest of the story, they can.
Tomorrow, I’ll look at a half-dozen from some of my favorite stories.If this proves interesting (to me or readers), I may do more another time.
“Love Is Never Still” in Uncanny Magazine
“Through every moment of carving, I want her as one wants a woman.”
I’m happy with this–which is useful because I essentially just finished it (six months ago). The story begins as a retelling of the myth of Galatea, a statue who is wished to life when her sculptor falls in love. For people who are versed in Greek mythology, this should evoke Galatea as a possibility — carving, want, woman.
Voicewise, the formal language establishes the kind of narrative distance that characterizes the rest of the text. It also suggests a story that may not occur in our place and time, as indeed it doesn’t.
I often try to make my first lines like puzzles–they create a set-up, and then add a disjunctive element, so the reader begins with a small mystery they need to solve. In this sentence, the intended mystery is between “carving” and “woman.” They aren’t the same, but are being treated the same–why? (And for readers of Greek myths, the further question, “Is this a retelling of Galatea?”)
“Tea Time” in Lightspeed Magazine
“Begin at the beginning:”
I’m happy with this one, too. “Tea Time” is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland, so beginning with a quote from Carroll seemed the right thing to do. Luckily, Carroll left this wonderful piece of low-hanging fruit.
Having “begin at the beginning” set apart as a phrase gives some signals, too. First, it suggests fairy tale language (once upon a time), although that’s not the only possibility for what it could be doing. Also, it suggests something unusual is going on between the narration and the text. It’s set aside; it has a colon after it which separates it from what follows. It sets the reader on notice to look for something which will explain it, whether that’s metafiction (which it is), or perhaps an interview format or dialogue (which it isn’t).
To the extent there’s a puzzle here, it seems to come from the question of how the phrase will relate to the story. Why a sentence fragment? Why is it set apart? Why does it need to be explicit that it begins at the beginning, when that’s usually the implicit case? It’s not a big mystery, but it’s there.
“Grand Jete” in Subterranean Magazine
“As dawn approached, the snow outside Mara’s window slowed, spiky white stars melting into streaks on the pane.”
Where most first lines work to move you quickly into the story, this one deliberately slows the reader down. The sentence is heavy with adjectives and phrases. It actually evokes the word “slowed” before adding a comma and slowing the reader further.
The story is about a young girl, slowly dying, in winter. The emotions in the story are often muted, and there’s a lot of drama, but it plays out over a long clock. It’s about those long moments that compose a tragedy, the ones that aren’t exciting, but you can’t avoid inhabiting. Grief is like that for me–a little plot, and a lot of aching, endless moments.
It also gets across that the story will be heavily influenced by nature–the snow. And a slow and desolate mood–snow, and even the snow is melting. Something hard and spiky and distinct is becoming only a streak. I’m not expecting readers to get any of that, but it’s the sort of thing that prepares me as I’m writing a story.
I don’t think this sentence has any mystery in it. It’s establishing imagery, mood, and pace, and while it isn’t splashy as a first line, I think it serves the story.
“Abomination Rises on Filthy Wings” in Apex Magazine
“My cock is throbbing so I pull it out.”
I was going to omit the sexual ones from this entry, but I decided to pull this one in because I think I messed it up.
On the one hand, it’s short, urgent, and attention-grabbing. In terms of moving the reader rapidly to the next sentence, it’s likely to work. (If they are the kind of reader who isn’t put off by “cock” being in the first sentence. If they are that kind of reader, they’re likely to stop, and that’s good, because they probably wouldn’t enjoy the story. Establishing what kind of story you’re writing early on isn’t only good for you and the people who’ll like it, but good for the ones who want to get that hot potato out of their hands as quickly as possible, too.)
It also suits the story pretty well since the story is partially about the sexual aspect of this man’s hatred of his wife. The sentence and phrasing is off-putting and abrasively short, which goes with the point.
On the other hand, not long after I put this out, Haikosoru editor Nick Mamatas complained about the prevalence in horror stories of stories that begin describing male masturbation in negative terms. I think he’s right–I rarely see stories start with female masturbation, or with positive male masturbation. So, while I think this suited the story reasonably well, I would do something else if I were starting the project now. Masturbation is a good and useful thing; there’s no reason to associate it with jerks (pun actually not initially intended). I vaguely intend to write something in the future which would start with a positive depiction of male masturbation and/or female masturbation, but I have a lot of ideas while time insists on continuing to pass, so.
“What Lies at the Edge of a Petal Is Love” in The Dark Magazine
After the wedding, Ruth moved into the Victorian mansion on Jack’s vast, rural estate.
Although the story wasn’t published that long ago, I actually wrote it quite a bit before that. The line is okay, but not great.
First, looking back at the story, I can’t tell why Ruth is the main actor in this sentence. (Really, I have no idea why I made that choice.) Jack is the main character and it’s happening from his perspective. Why isn’t it “Jack took her to live in the Victorian mansion…?” That would be a better reflection of the point of view, and it would go with the character dynamics, since Jack is very excited to introduce Ruth to his life, and she in turn is content to follow.
It does give us setting details that are useful for the story. Victorian prepares the reader for an old-fashioned feel, while also making it clear the characters aren’t actually in the Victorian era. “Vast” and “rural” create an impression congenial to the isolation established later in the story. “Rural” also suggests a hint of the plant imagery that is important later.
There’s not really any mystery in the sentence. It just sets up the thing that happened at the beginning of the story — she moved to this place — and prepares to efficiently move on. That’s workable, but not particularly inspiring.
“The Girl Who Waited (for the Doctor to Get to His Point)” from Queers Dig Time Lords, reprinted on io9
It will surprise no one who has given the matter any deep consideration that, given the existence of an extremely powerful being who is documented to engage in time travel and have a predilection for messing about with human history, it follows that there would be many individuals – even possibly contemporary ones -who have had experience with the aforesaid entity.
This is a comic piece of non-fiction about the adventures I’ve had with the Guidance Counselor, a figure similar to but distinct from the BBC’s Doctor.
The labored language is meant to establish my character (cynical, academic) and the style of humor (wordy, dry). I think it’s a funny line, and it goes well with the story. It’s how the character (me) would start it.
However, it’s long and a slog to read. While the elaborate language might work later when the character is a bit more established, it’s a lot to deal with all at once in the beginning. The joke is buried.
It works a bit better in its original context, a compilation of essays about Doctor Who, where the reader is primed. They know there’s something about The Doctor in there; they just have to find it. For them, hopefully, the long paragraph works as a mystery–how does this relate to the doctor?–which leads them through the joke, and on from there. (Or not on from there if they are, e.g., annoyed by authorial insertion.) Without that, though, there’s no real guide for the reader about what to expect, or how to parse the joke, or why this is being written at all.
If I were rewriting the piece, I would add another sentence or paragraph ahead of this. A teasery sort of sentence/paragraph, I think–which I could then pull back from into the abstract voice.
Some sentences from some of my favorite stories tomorrow, and thoughts and conclusions after that.
I love that I can google image search for the term “skeptical birds” and get skeptical birds.
From this, I have learned that owls are the most skeptical of birds.
(photograph from Reddit)
I only included one, but there are many skeptical owl pictures.
(image from Travel News in Namibia)
Vultures can also be skeptical, to no one’s surprise.
(Image from hewhowalkswithtigers at deviant.art–
lots of beautiful bird pictures there worth checking out.)
Cute birds get in on it as well.
If I had one wish that could only be something transient and tiny, it might be to swim in the Hearst Castle pools.
The Neptune pool, outdoors
(image from wikipedia)
The Roman pool, indoors
(image from hearstcastle.org)
Okay, it wouldn’t actually be that, but it would be amazing to be in that water.
I linked to this from my twitter account awhile ago, but it’s really cool.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) commissioned Nervous System to create a new dress for the exhibition #techstyle which runs from March 6 through July 10, 2016. The exhibition explores the synergy between fashion and technology and how it is not only changing the way designers design, but also the way people interact with their clothing.
Inspired by petals, feathers and scales, we developed a new textile language for Kinematics where the interconnected elements are articulated as imbricating shells. Like our previous garments, this dress can be customized to the wearer’s body through a 3d scan, and additionally, each element is now individually customizable: varying in direction, length, and shape.
Thinking about it as a science fiction writer, it’s another step on the road toward awesome things that will, nevertheless, not be as awesome as they are in Star Trek (because replicators aren’t really viable, damn it). Still, ordering a custom 3D printed dress? That’s pretty Star Trekkie shopping.
by Lewis Carroll
Of course, I am fond of a great deal of Ann’s work, but I have a special place in my heart for “Marsh Gods.” It’s simple, but evocative and smart, and it has a diatryma skull in it.
A diatryma skull.
One of these skulls.
It’s friends with a little girl.
I’m a fan of Ann’s fantasy universe in which gods must be careful to speak the truth, lest they lose their power. I hope we get longer work in it someday, or at least more. (Publishers: Hint, hint.)
Voud had escaped the house before dawn, climbing up the ladder and onto the roof, across the neighbors’ roofs and down to the edge of the water, where she had caught three decent-sized frogs. She had tried but failed to catch a fourth, the bullfrog she’d heard honking hoarsely away somewhere on the bank; her sister-in-law Ytine would be dismayed at her muddy tunic, but there was no help for it. Now, her prey struggling in her bag, she went to ask the gods a question.
It was late enough in summer that she could go on foot, over the causeway. The shore of the gods’ island was muddy and cypress-shaded, but as she climbed, the trees cleared. At the edge of the trees, she stopped and dropped her bag on the ground. “I have questions,” she called. “Frogs for answers!” Insects trilled; the frustratingly elusive bullfrog honked. Voud sat on her heels—it didn’t pay to be impatient with gods—and watched the sky lighten.
Eventually a brown crane came wading along the margin of the island and walked with careful, backwards-kneed steps to where Voud sat. It kr-kr-kr-kred and then said, “Good morning, little girl.”
“I’m not a little girl! I’m ten!”
The crane took two steps backward, flapped its wings. “You have frogs?”
Voud picked up the bag. “Three.”
“They’re small, and weak. One question.”
“They’re perfectly good frogs! Three frogs, three questions.”
“Well. Before you start, I’m going to warn you—not every god would, by the way—not to ask me any questions that are impossible to answer, or that are ambiguously phrased. You’ll just be wasting your frogs if you do.”