First Words

July 11th, 2013

For 16 years beginning in 1989, the niece of  William Faulkner held a writing contest in which ‘Fauxners’ were invited to parody the Nobel laureate’s unique style in a brief essay. I recall reading the annual summaries in the onboard magazine of the airline that sponsored the events. Here’s an excerpt from the winning entry of 1995:

When Miss Grimly Gruesome sighed (“Oh Lobe. There’s a bad smell in here again. Lobe? Lobe!”) we had been standing on her lawn for forty-four years, still waiting to collect the library fines she owed and probably wouldn’t pay tomorrow, or even tomorrow and tomorrow, while she kept her squarish round frame in an enroached and ex-spired old Gothic two-story-split, a nosesore among eyesores, hearing her complain to her manservant….

Since I fancy myself a pretty good writer, I occasionally wonder how the opening line in my own novel would read. (Mind you, I don’t intend to publish in the next decade… I just like daydreaming about a reader experiencing those critical first words.)

I’m certain mine wouldn’t begin: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Those, penned in 1830 by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton to begin Paul Clifford, are synonymous with weak writing. In my fantasy world, the wonderful prose would be closer to Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” in Moby-Dick, or perhaps “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, or “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since,” by Fitzgerald to start The Great Gatsby.

The initial words set the tone… capture the reader. I’m not sure if authors pen the opening and the rest flows – although J.K. Rowling says Harry Potter came to her fully formed before she began all 4,100 pages in the series with “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

In case you’re curious, and I don’t want to leave you with a cliffhanger, while I have no idea of the plot or ending, my first words would be: “Tomorrow. That’s when everything started.”

Since three of our best fiction writers – Faulkner, Willie Morris and John Grisham – all have roots in Oxford, Mississippi, maybe the first thing I would do before starting the next great American novel is move there.

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