Tag Archives: literature

The High Stakes of First Sentences

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You probably already know that a story’s first line is of upmost importance. Not only does it set the tone and expectations for the rest of the novel, but the first line also introduces tension and hints at bigger things to come. Your story’s first line introduces readers to your world, and if readers don’t like what they read, they may not go to the next sentence.

That’s a lot of pressure for one line!

The best way to learn how to write phenomenal first sentences is to read a lot of first lines.

Here are some great examples:

“I tell Mama I waitress in the Village so she don’t have to cut me out of her heart.”

–Kiran Kaur Saini, “A Girl Like Elsie”

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

–Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It”

“In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.”

–John Updike, “A & P”

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

–Hunter Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

“There are cavemen in the hedges again.”

–Stacey Richter, “The Cavemen in the Hedges”

The trick with first sentences is to start with the stakes high and then keep moving up. Grab readers from the get go and then don’t let them go!

What are some great first sentences you know of?

(Photo courtesy of Keith Williams.)

Gina with the Cross: A Vingette

I first came across vingettes when reading The House on Mango Street. This book is a series of vingettes. Instead of having a single plot, where each chapter flows in chronological order, this novel is more a series of photographs. Each picture shows a scene, a snapshot into a person’s life. In the case of The House on Mango Street, that life is of Esperanza Cordero, as she grows up in an impoverished Latino neighborhood that she’s determined to leave, only to discover that once she fulfills her dream, she’s drawn back through the need to once again see the people she left behind.

Intrigued with the vingette, I decided to try my hand and create a scene that’s more about conjuring meaning through imagery than plot:

Gina with the Cross

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Gina, petite squirrel girl with emergency red flare nails and gold cross necklace, one purple rhinestone and one missing because she liked to pick, was my girlie friend who loved to pray.

“All you have to do is ask for forgiveness,” she said, staring at me, her brown eyes wide. Her hands were clasped tightly in her lap and her elbows were going to leave indents in her knees.

Despite her whispering, her words charged down the pews, bouncing off the stone floor and the stained glass windows. Nail polish puddled around the purple rhinestone in her left index fingernail, trying to suck the stone down into the sea of red.

“Why?” I asked. My hair fell about my face, and as I stared at my friend, her face was cut into strips: pale, pink flesh divided between strands of coarse mud.

“If you don’t, you’ll be excommunicated.” She scooted closer to me, until our knees bumped against each other. “Just tell them what you did.”

I tugged at a loose flap of skin clinging to the edge of my fingernail, twisting it around and around and then yanking. A plum of pain stabbed into my flesh. I yanked again.

What I did? I wanted to breathe, to expel all the air from my lungs. Just shove it all out there and away, but my throat was constricting. A lump formed in it. My lump, a callous, lopsided chunk of lard and ash. Soot-coated and reeking, it slicked against my esophagus, twisting, trying to grind up the soft tissue there.

“I have nothing to apologize for.” I frowned. My voice had choked on itself, like some piglet trying to squeal, but who had its mouth taped shut.

“Don’t say that.” She grabbed my hands, squeezing my fingers until pain spiked up my wrists. “You’re going to Hell, if you don’t.” Her forehead bumped against mine; her breath burned my cheek. “Worse, you’ll be ostracized. What will your pa say if he knew? You’re going to give your ma a heart attack.” Her voice dropped, quivered. “What about me? What am I supposed to do?” Her head started shaking, almost as if it had a life of its own. “I can’t keep this secret.”

I ripped my hands from hers. “Then, don’t.” I rose. Pain spiked through my jaw. It raced down the side of my neck and made my ear throb, a double bass bashing against my eardrum.

The backs of my calves banged against the pew and the wood shrieked against the stone. A few parishioners swiveled around from closer to the altar, but I didn’t care.

I opened my mouth to shout: What are you looking at! You think you know me! You think you know who I am! But no words came out.

My gaze fell to Gina. She stared up at me; her lips parted in a stark O, her Bambi eyes bright in the dim candlelight. “Tell them whatever you want. Whatever makes you sleep better at night.”

My palms pressed against my jeans. My index finger poked through the hole worn at my knee. “You can even tell them that I wanted it. That’s a lie, but you know that’s what they’ll say. I asked for it.” The big cross gleamed in the background. Massive and golden, it hung heavily over the altar, waiting for the perfect moment when its cables would snap and it would crash, banging against the stone, and squashing whoever was standing beneath it. Perhaps I should stand there. Perhaps it would fall on me. “After all, our bodies know when to get pregnant and when not to.”

“Aislinn…” Her hand fluttered to her mouth. I hoped she could feel my eyes piercing her. I hoped they seared her ribs black. “I know you didn’t want it. I know you were forced – I believe you – but…you killed your baby.”

The lump grew larger, churning and elongating. It would turn my throat to stone. “It was never mine.” I spun around and abandoned the pew. My Keds squeaked against the aisle. One of my shoelaces was untied. The white flopped against the red of my shoe, and dragged along the gray stone. I glared at it, but didn’t stop.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Gina hadn’t moved.

Solid oak doors rose in front of me, stretching far above my head and arching. Iron bars locking them in place. I stopped and stared stupidly, my hands frozen at my sides, unable to press the bars. I’d been able to enter this place. I should be able to leave.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood. There were eyes on me.

My nails pierced the palms of my hands – there would be little crescent moon imprints that would refuse to fade – as I slowly turned, my heels digging into the stone. Great, golden eyes from a tilted head, encircled by jagged thorns, watched me. They shouldn’t be able to. The head was pointed down and to the side, the ribs jutting out against the flesh, the stomach caving in, but still the eyes were on me.

I could have been so many things. I’d wanted to be so many things. What was I now, to Him? To everyone?

Noise rose in my throat, shoving upward, scraping and clawing at my tongue and lips, trying to pry my jaw apart. An uproar about to burst free, shredding me from the inside out, but my lump wouldn’t allow it.

I steeled my hands – iron could only burn – and shoved open the doors.

(Picture courtesy of arbyreed.)

The Book Landfills

517900257_2515938cd4_bYou’ve probably heard someone say that reading is on the decline. Kids aren’t reading like they used to. Neither are adults. Because of this, the literary industry has suffered. Though their monetary losses can be large (and are usually made up for by their bestsellers, think Harry Potter series), the worse impact is on people.

Reading expands the mind. You imagine the world that a piece of literature presents. You extrapolate from that world. Your brain is active when you read. It’s passive when watching TV, which is one of the major reasons for the reduction in reading.

In Reading at Risk, results from a 17,000 individual Survey of Public Participation in the Arts were presented. As a meaningful activity, reading has decreased, especially among young people. Amidst television, Netflix, and all of social media, literature is increasingly taking a backseat.

I’m not a technophobe. I’m a Netflix binge-watching fiend, and I tend to check Facebook once a day. I realize these activities impede on my reading. I have multiple piles of books I’ve yet to read, and while I normally polish off a book a week, this last novel has taken me about a month. Trying to watch all of “Scrubs” before it was booted from Netflix played a part. (At least most of my time watching “Scrubs” was on my spin bike.)

However, as a typically avid reader and as a writer, I find it unsettling how much literature has faded. Without literature it’s much easier to remain ignorant, and with ignorance comes a repetition of mistakes, a lack of imagination and innovation, and less understanding of the world, including other cultures and organisms.

From the survey, there were ten key findings:

  1. “The Percentage of adult Americans reading literature has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years.”

Nowadays, less than half of American adults read.

  1. “The decline in literary reading parallels a decline in total book reading.”

For this point, literary writing is separated from more commercial books. Both literary books and commercial novels are being read less, however literary books rate of reading are decreasing more rapidly than commercial novels.

  1. “The rate of decline in literary reading is accelerating.”

More people are reading less at a faster rate than twenty years ago.

  1. “Women read more literature than men do, but literary reading by both groups is declining at significant rates.”

While many people would love to blame the education system on the declining literary reading rate, it’s more accurate to blame people themselves. Individuals used to read James Joyce, Henry David Thoreau, and William Faulkner for pleasure. In today’s world, the number of people who recognize those names is diminishing. Added to that, an increasing number of light and shallow commercial novels are being written. There’s a misconception, or perhaps it’s no longer a misconception, that peoples’ attention spans are too short for the deeper meaning novels, those books that give you a headache as you attempt to comprehend them. People want a fast read.

  1. “Literary reading is declining among whites, African Americans, and Hispanics.”

The decrease in literature does not discriminate.

  1. “Literary reading is declining among all education levels.”

Though those who are more educated read more than those who are less educated, the reading rate is diminishing across the board.

  1. “Literary reading is declining among all age groups.”

From ages eighteen to over seventy-five, again there’s no discrimination.

I have to wonder how adults reading less effect children. Parents have the responsibility to teach their kids how to read. If parents spend little or no time reading, how can they instill the necessity of reading in their children?

  1. “The steepest decline in literary reading is in the youngest age groups.”

Young adults went from reading the most literature to reading the least.

  1. “The decline in literary reading foreshadows an erosion in cultural and civic participation.”

People who read are more likely to be involved in charity, sports, politics, and art.

  1. “The decline in reading correlates with increased participation in a variety of electronic media, including the Internet, video games, and portable digital devices.”

Having so many alternatives, shifts peoples’ attentions away from reading. Just like with trying to get published, having so much noise out there makes it difficult for people to focus on any one thing.

Based on these findings, it’s easy to see a dismal future. If the rapid rate of reading decline continues, reading as a pastime may vanish. However, despite these findings, I have hope for the literary world. More people are receiving some sort of postsecondary education than in the past, and unlike the fades of social media, books tend to last. Maybe not the newest novel in a twenty-some book detective series, but the great books. Plus, anytime a bestseller rises among the flood of literature, people begin to read more.

Most importantly, the future is unpredictable. We can try to figure out what’s going to happen down the line, but ultimately, we don’t know until we get there. Who knows? Maybe reading will make a massive comeback.

What do you think about the decline in reading?

(Photo courtesy of Patrick Correia.)