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I have a friend named Charles who is a biophysicist, a professor, a songwriter, a musician (guitar, bagpipes, and God knows what else), a poet, and a writer of short fiction. He reads James Joyce and Jose Saramago for fun. He’s been known to brew his own beer.

He’s not a great poker player, but he’s probably not trying very hard.

Charles is also responsible for the title of SOMETHING MISSING. Though he doesn’t know it yet, he also makes a brief appearance as a character in MILO, a novel that perhaps he will assign a title as well.

Charles is a methodical writer, often making me feel like a lazy, good-for-nothing vomiter of words (though I have not actually vomited since 1983). He has worked for weeks on a single sentence, ensuring that it is just right. When I ask him how a story is progressing, he says things like, “I’ve not four sentences now!”

Yesterday I sent him the first sentence to my new book, THE CHICKEN SHACK. I’m quite proud of this collection of words. I actually wrote the sentence a few weeks ago when the seed to this story was first planted in my mind, but I was waiting to finish MILO before committing it to digital print. Charles made one suggestion but otherwise approved of the sentence as well.

The story is now hundred, perhaps thousands, of sentences long. I’ll be finished with the first chapter by the end of today. But here is the first, which includes Charles’s minor revision:

They tried not to receive corpses on the same day as chicken, but since it was impossible to predict when a logger might fall from his bucket truck and break his neck, the two deliveries occasionally coincided.

In SOMETHING MISSING, the first sentence was designed to bring the reader immediately into the precision and minutia of Martin Railsback, whose life is predicated on mountains of precise minutia.   

In MILO, the first sentence describes the catalyst of the entire book.  It is the moment upon which the entire story hinges. 

Both are sentences in which the protagonist is taking relatively ordinary action that ultimately leads to extraordinary results. The first line of THE CHICKEN SHACK is entirely different. 

But hopefully as successful.     

Just for the record, my wife’s favorite first line comes from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.  It is:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. 

I have no definite favorite, though I am partial to the first line of SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE:

All this happened, more or less.

Also, FARENHEIT 451: 

It was a pleasure to burn.

Lastly, CHARLOTTE’S WEB:

Where’s Papa going with that axe?

Anyone want to chime in with your favorites?

No Comments

  1. EB on March 3, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    I have always liked the first sentence of the Christmas Carol:
    Marley was dead, to begin with.

    and also really like Saramago’s latest (from “Death with Interruptions”):

    The following day, no one died.

    (These two sentences both have six words bisected by a comma. I just realized this today. And, upon further inspection, there is a lot more similarity between these sentences!)

    (Interstingly, all three of your sentences also have six words. Maybe we should only be starting novels with six word first sentences?)

  2. Matthew Dicks on March 5, 2009 at 6:48 am

    Wow. Interesting. Makes me worry about the first sentence of my new book. Much longer than six sentences.

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