Sores on the tops of the horses

Writing about his college years, James Thurber tells the story of Haskins, an agriculture student who takes up journalism, “possibly on the ground that when farming went to hell he could fall back on newspaper work.”

Haskins is assigned the animal husbandry beat, which comprises cows, sheep, and over two hundred horses.

Unfortunately, he is shy and doesn’t know how to use a typewriter. He writes slowly, and his stories are dull.

One day Haskins’ editor assigns him to bring in news from the horse pavilion. Haskins later comes back saying he has a story.

The editor, hoping for something more interesting than he’s been getting, says, “Well, start it off snappily.”

A couple of hours later, Haskins turns in a paper that starts with the following sentence:

“Who has noticed the sores on the tops of the horses in the animal husbandry building?”

That’s the other reason I’m not a journalist: When it comes to writing leads, I’m several steps behind Haskins.

Under most circumstances,  I wouldn’t care. I don’t make my living working for a newspaper.

But a lead sentence corresponds in at least one way to the first line of a short story or novel. They both catch the reader’s attention, draw him into the text, make him want to read on.

And there’s this novel I’m working on. And this short story…

And, like Haskins, I’ve heard from some of my critique partners that my first lines leave something to be desired.

After some thought and a brief cooling-off period, I’ve forgiven them and admitted they might be right.

The sad thing is that before my abject humiliation, I never paid much attention to first lines. The sadder thing is that I can quote so many.

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom noticed it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

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

While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken near the elbow.

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.

All children, except one, grow up.

Well, I have broken the toilet.

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

I woke this morning with a stranger in my bed.

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.

They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.

And so on. With all those lines suspended in my brain, you’d think I’d have caught onto why I remember them. And why they’re important.

Here’s the way it works.

A bookstore browser sees a book on the shelf. If the writer is lucky, it sits face out. He takes the volume down, looks at the front cover, the back cover, the first paragraph…and then either buys it or walks away.

And the whole process happens in under ten seconds.

The first line of a novel can make the difference between a sale and a return. Between another advance and a canceled contract.

There’s a lot riding on Scarlett O’Hara not being beautiful. And our not knowing Huck Finn. And what happened when the lights went off.

How does one get to be that good?

The same way one gets to Carnegie Hall, I guess.

Practice. Practice.


And blog blog blog.

Because my concern isn’t just for novels and money and fame. I’d also like the gentle readers who land on To write… to linger longer than the first sentence.


And please discount the business about money and fame. Unless you’re Tom Clancy or Stephen King, those aren’t really part of the package. But they sound good, so I throw them in.


Sorry about that linger longer. Against some things there is no defense.

But what will he do for clothes?

Our weekly movie on DVD was about John, a young editor sent to Italy to persuade Robert, a famous writer, to end a twenty-year hiatus and start writing again. It’s a sweet story with all the necessary ingredients, including John’s falling in love with Robert’s daughter, Maria, and Robert’s encouraging John to leave publishing and concentrate on his own writing.

There was also the requisite hitch in the romance:  Maria told John that, although she loved him, she couldn’t go to London with him because she didn’t belong there.  And she didn’t show up at the railroad station to tell John goodbye.

That’s when I perked up. It appeared there might be a realistic ending. John wasn’t yet a published writer, and he wasn’t a risk-taker. That kind of person doesn’t throw away a stable career for a beautiful girl and a typewriter.

But when it comes to romance, movie makers don’t like risk either. Boy-meets-girl rarely turns into girl-tells-boy-she-won’t-go-with-him-and-boy-leaves-anyway. Writers share the characteristic. Even Charles Dickens couldn’t end Great Expectations as he wanted. Advised that the public wouldn’t be pleased to see Pip and Estella go their separate ways, he revised asap. Nobody wants the audience to go away mad.

Understanding caution, I doubted the chance of a realistic conclusion. John was still at the station. There was plenty of time for Maria to show up with her suitcase.  There was also the possibility that when John boarded the train, he’d find Maria waiting for him.

I watched. John got on the train, put his suitcase on the overhead rack, and sat down. An old woman carrying a birdcage sat down across from him. No Maria. The train pulled out of the station.

They’ve done it, I thought.

Then John spoke to the old lady, and the old lady spoke to John, and a light appeared in John’s eyes. He looked out the window and saw Maria on horseback, loping alongside the train. She held the reins of a second horse, its saddle empty. John pulled the emergency cord, jumped off the train, mounted the riderless horse, and loped back to the village with the beautiful girl to resume typing.

It was lovely.

And I spoiled it by shouting, “Don’t forget your suitcase!”

That exclamation exemplifies the difference between me and the scriptwriter. I worry about suitcases. I worry about paychecks. I worry about horses. My father didn’t let me run a horse on unfamiliar terrain. He said the horse might step in a hole and break a leg, or throw me off. He didn’t think much of horses in parades either, because they might slip on the pavement, especially if they were shod. When I see a mounted sheriff’s posse in the Tournament of Roses Parade, I cringe.

Lest anyone blame my father for my nitpicking, I offer another example to show I didn’t need instruction: Every time I thought about running away from home (which I considered once a week the year I was four), I got hung up on one detail: I didn’t know how to work a can opener.

Anyway, when it comes to stories, I have a handicap. I see the holes, the lapses, the flimsy, the far-fetched. I never believed Carson Drew really let Nancy leave home by herself. After the time she went detecting and ended up locked in the back of that truck, she was either grounded or sent to a convent. And when I see a man run away from his suitcase, my suspended disbelief goes plop.

That’s a shame. I like happy endings. If John hadn’t stayed in Italy with Maria, I’d have been sad. I wanted ET to stay with Elliot, and Rhett to stay with Scarlett, and Gilly Hopkins to go home to Trotter, and all the terrorists and the hostages in Bel Canto to live in harmony forever.

But life doesn’t work like that. Nor do all writers. Some of them understand about suitcases.

Still, if the writer who conceived the story of John and Maria wasn’t thinking about me, he was thinking about the rest of his audience. He wrote for people who want romance, and he gave them the appropriate ending: boy got girl, girl got boy, horses cantered off into the sunset. Everyone was happy.

Including me.

Because, as David pointed out, John could always buy another toothbrush.