Uncategorized | March 04, 2004

Fiction staff members at TMR read at least twenty fiction submissions per week; we also read stories that get passed at the weekly meeting, and we read for our classes and for teaching. We also have to read and review a book during the semester; many of us also try to read (and write) outside of our academic responsibilities. I mention this not to generate sympathy, but to give a sense of how we approach the submissions we read. The first page of a story is crucial.

Our editor Speer Morgan once said in a class that the first page of a story should be like the moment a boyfriend meets the girlfriend’s parents for the first time: be yourself, but don’t show off your worst side. Don’t try to shock the reader. I see a lot of this; I also see a lot of stories that try the inverse, lulling the reader by trying to keep all surprises for later.

If the goal of fiction is not to answer the old questions but to ask them in a new, surprising way, what a first page should do is present the reader with questions that keep him/her reading. If first pages don’t do that in the submissions I see, I put them aside for other material.

With this in mind, I’d like to share some of the delight of reading: favorite first lines. I’m not the first to list some in a blog; click here to see someone else’s favorites. You can also see some of our stories with good first lines here and here.

As for a few of my favorite first lines and openings:

“Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you.” Lorrie Moore, “Amahl and the Night Visitors: A Guide to the Tenor of Love”

“I was pummeled as a teenager. For some reason I had the sort of face that asked to be punched.” Richard Bausch, “Nobody in Hollywood”

“They shoot the white girl first.” Toni Morrison, Paradise (a book I’m otherwise not all that fond of)

“Mrs. Hollingsworth likes to traipse. Her primary worry is thinning hair, though this has not happened yet. She enjoys a solidarity with fruit.” Padgett Powell, Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men

Obviously that’s just a short list, but you can post your own in the comments.