December 12th, 2010 / 9:43 pm
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First Sentences or Paragraphs #1: Mary Miller Edition

[series note: This post is the first of five, in a week-long series examining first sentences or paragraphs. It’s not my intention to be prescriptive about what kinds of first sentences writers ought to be writing. Instead, I hope to simply take a look at five sets of first sentences for the purpose of thinking about how they introduce the reader to the story or novel to which they belong. I plan to post them without commentary, as one might post a photograph or painting, and open up the comment threads to your observations as readers. Some questions that interest me and might interest you include: 1. How is the first sentence (or paragraph — I’ll include some of those, too, since some first sentences require the next few sentences to even be available for this kind of analysis) interesting or not interesting on grounds of language? 2. Does the first sentence introduce any particular (or general feeling of) trouble or conflict or dissonance or tension into the story that makes the reader want to keep reading? 3. Does the first sentence do anything to immerse the reader in the donnee, the ground rules, the world of the story, those orienting questions such as who speaks, when and where are we in space and time, etc.? 4. Since the first sentence, in the wild, doesn’t exist in the contextless manner in which I’ve presented these, in what kinds of ways does examining them like this create false ideas about the uses and functions of first sentences? What kinds of things ought first sentences be doing? What kinds of things do first sentences not do often enough? (It seems likely to me that you will have competing ideas about first sentences. Please offer them here. Every idea or observation gets our good attention.) The sentence/paragraph sets we’ll be observing: 1. first sentences from Mary Miller’s Big World; 2. first sentences from physically large novels; 3. the first sentences from every book written by Philip Roth; 4. first sentences from the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction; 5. first sentences from Best European Fiction 2010.]

There’s a leak, I told him, it’s right over my bed. He didn’t believe me. I was a girl.

– “Leak”

My sister is inside watching a movie and bleeding. I don’t bleed anymore. It’s not something I thought I’d miss.

– “Even the Interstate is Pretty”

He had an air gun, a beer box set up to shoot. We were in a hotel room in Pigeon Forge.

– “Fast Trains”

At the breakfast table my mother said the world was my oyster.

“While I’m still young and pretty,” I said.

– “Pearl”

At lunch I sit in the ditch with the thin popular girls and pretend to be one of them.

– “Aunt Jemima’s Old Fashioned Pancakes”

“You’re wearing Coco Chanel,” he says to the girl at the bar. She was watching him. They all watch him. The pills he takes makes this pleasant, like he’s a scuba diver and they’re a school of fish.

– “My Brother in Christ”

My father did not like my sister’s orange hair.

– “Big World”

I sat across from a crumpled woman who seemed to be miscarrying.

– “Animal Bite”

The first thing Norbert tells me is he’s been to all seven continents, including Antarctica.

– “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”

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