More Thoughts on First Sentences… and Other News

Here’s something delightful– and who doesn’t need delightful now and again? Reader (thank you so much, Tim) and high school chum Timothy Crouse reminded me of this: the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

It is a contest in which you– get this– compete to win the prize for the Worst First Sentence. I love this. It is both hilarious and clever (such a wonderful combination) and it basically cuts the legs out from under all the gravitas that writers can self-impose, which is a Very Good Thing for everyone.

I have long (and very quietly) believed that anyone can write a good first sentence. Or a good final sentence. And this is because there are all kinds of ways to compel a reader, and all kinds of ways to give a sentence just the right amount of heft. For example, I recently read Nicole Krauss’s Man Walks Into a Room, and the final sentence was just marvelous. Really. It had such simplicity, and imagery that was– when one thought about it– virtually unrelated to the rest of the text. It could have been attached to almost anything (okay, not really). But the way in which it was attached was genius. I loved it. And of course Nicole Krauss is a wonderful writer. Still, my point is that it could have stood on its own, or been attached to another story entirely. It was just beautiful all by itself.

Good sentences are good– just plain good. They can intrigue and entice, or they can merely pique interest, or they can say nearly nothing. The point is that you can begin like that, or end like that, and it’s fine.

But to write a Really Bad Sentence? That takes some serious figuring out, and maybe lots of clauses. I would copy some of the Lyttoniad contest winners here, but I’m having trouble making it work, so I recommend that you head over to the site for a good laugh. I promise you, it will not waste your time.

In other news, my husband decided this morning that the word “Vaccine” would be a good name. For a girl. You know, like Maxine, but not. I know we’ve all seen them: names that seem like maybe they were going for something else, but missed.

Bill is very excited about this, and spent some small time this morning discovering that there’s only one Vaccine in the country, and she lives in Pennsylvania. That’s “Vaccine” as a first name, anyway.

He also suggested that she could name her daughter Innoculata.

All of this because, I suppose, I am writer, and we have decided that characters in books need to have interesting names– not plain ones like Rebecca, or Bill.

How’s this for a first sentence? It was only after that long, vital and earnest conversation with her boss, that Vaccine, horrified, discovered– upon catching her reflection in the ladies’ room mirror– that she had a largish piece of spinach stuck between her front teeth.


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