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.
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.