In the lead-off spot

Melanie Sherman attends a writers’ conference, and learns something about opening lines:

I chose a class taught by Lois Leveen called “Crafting Compelling Opening Lines.”

She made us write an opening line for a book which included a nurse, and a homeless man in a hospital setting. The opening line I came up with was so lame I wouldn’t even want to read it to my critique group:

The scraggly man lurched into the scrub room, blood gushing from his arm, and grabbed the nurse’s shoulder.

Actually, this might work, if you’re doing a story titled Scraggly Man.

I don’t write enough fiction to have anything resembling a strong opinion on these matters, but I follow two rules:

  • No one is ever going to top “Call me Ishmael”;
  • If someone sends in your opening line to the Bulwer-Lytton contest, you’re doing it wrong.

For the sake of argument, or the sake of lack of argument, here, once again, is the opening line to my most recent project:

Finding a glass bottle in the driveway was nothing particularly unusual, though it’s far more common to turn up a bottle made of plastic, typically reeking of the sort of cheap booze appreciated only by cheap boozehounds on foot.

It is, I think, remarkable only in the context of the universe for which it was written.


  1. sya »

    6 August 2012 · 6:52 pm

    For me, at least, I find it really difficult to come up with something good in one random session. I need time to mull things over before I slap things on the page (thus the planning and outlining). I went to a workshop last week and in one exercise, we had to write stuff in five minutes. Mine was awful and most people decided to talk about the exercise than read aloud anything they actually wrote.

  2. CGHill »

    6 August 2012 · 7:29 pm

    I’ve always suspected that the purpose of writers’ workshops is actually to weed out the bottom 50 percent or so. And I can’t turn out much of anything resembling a story, or even a fragment of one, in five minutes. I suppose I’d be highly weedable.

  3. Lois Leveen »

    7 August 2012 · 12:46 am

    To be fair, the bulk of this session was spent looking at opening lines from novels and memoirs, to identify different approaches authors use. At the end of the 90 minutes, everyone rewrote their on-the-spot opening line to see how to apply one or more of those approaches. I didn’t expect anyone to come up with the greatest opening they’ll ever write, given that the topic was randomly assigned. But just putting pen to paper helps people think about the process. Weeding can happen later.

  4. Francis W. Porretto »

    7 August 2012 · 4:01 am

    •No one is ever going to top “Call me Ishmael”;

    Oh, really? I’d say it’s been equaled a few times, at least. But opinions do vary.

  5. McGehee »

    7 August 2012 · 11:08 am

    She made us write an opening line for a book which included a nurse, and a homeless man in a hospital setting.

    “He was returning the nurse’s attentions in ways you wouldn’t expect from either a typical patient or a drug-addled homeless man.”

  6. unimpressed »

    8 August 2012 · 10:38 am

    How does Snoopy’s “It was a dark and stormy night….” fare?

  7. CGHill »

    8 August 2012 · 11:54 am

    He swiped that from Bulwer-Lytton. :)

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