First Line: Make it a Doozy

By | Rant

First Line: Make it a Doozy

Even since that one guy got tired of hunting and gathering, sat down on a rock near the fire, waved for others to gather around, cleared his throat and said the words “Once upon a time…” we’ve been suckers for a good story. And it’s always that very first line that draws us in, makes us check out of our own lives and enter a new world. The opening. The kicker. The hook. The first sentence of a story or novel has got to be the ultimate pick-up line.

If you’re like me, you’re happy as a pig in poo browsing bookstore shelves reading first sentences. Some word-strings are so powerful it’s impossible not to continue reading. Some tease with poetic beauty. And some are so brilliantly crafted they almost tell a story in themselves.

You’re probably familiar with these most memorable first sentences in literature:

  • Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
  • Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy,
  • Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… —A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
  • It was a dark and stormy night… —Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. (The sentence was used again by Madeleine L’Engle at the start of A Wrinkle in Time.)

Here’s are a few of my personal favourite first lines of novels.

  • They shoot the white girl first. —Paradise, by Toni Morrison.
  • It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. —The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.
  • “When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.” —Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn.
  • “Officious little prick.” —The Shining, by Stephen King.
  • The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a wild night with an adolescent virgin. —Memories of my Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
  • She copes. —Paula Spencer, by Roddy Doyle.
  • Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. — Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk
  • The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami. —Another Roadside Attraction, by Tom Robbins.
  • “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth.

Many children and young adult books have rich and intriguing first lines. You might remember these:

  • The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything. —Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.
  • Sophie had waited all of her life to be kidnapped. —The School of Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani
  • If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. —A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket.
  • There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. —The Voyage of the Dawn Trader, by C. S. Lewis.
  • There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. —The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.
  • The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. —The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson.
  • “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. —Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White.

I’m really interested in the first sentences of short stories. Concise by definition, short stories rely on the opening to set the tone and launch the tale even more so than for a novel. Here are a few first lines of short stories that have stuck with me:

  • Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child. — Me and Miss Mandible, by Donald Barthelme.
  • My first and favorite task of the day is slaving over the Iliana Evermore Fairy Castle. —Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror, by George Saunders
  • “My lover is experiencing reverse evolution.” —The Rememberer, by Aimee Bender.
  • A woman has written yet another story that is not interesting, though it has a hurricane in it, and a hurricane usually promises to be interesting. —The Center of the Story, by Lydia Davis.
  • “I wouldn’t fuck Prince if he was the last man on earth,” Sonya told her friends, drunk and searing with challenge, that New Year’s Eve before the end. —1999, by Pasha Malla.
  • The other day, Bobby Henzel and Nanami Kazikuyo drew up a list of things that Heaven doesn’t have. —Atheists Were Right About Almost Everything, by Neil Smith.
  • Fucking fuck, there’s no place worse than the port side of the Luxurious CBS yacht. —Survior, by Douglas Coupland.
  • First of all, I should point out that the topic of why you should not talk during a fire drill is such a large and complex topic that I cannot do full justice to it in only one thousand words. —One Thousand Word on Why You Should Not Talk During a Fire Drill, by Mark Halliday
  • I once loved a woman who grew teeth all over her body. —Dentaphilia, by Julia Slavin.

And it you’ve read The Little Washer of Sorrows, you might recall this sentence:

  • The day Margot discovered her true nature began like any other—she woke up, gave Pete a blow job, and went downstairs to fry up a pan of bacon. —Captcha, by Katherine Fawcett.

Yup, it’s a doozy.

The very first few words in the very first story in my very first published collection of fiction, and there’s both fellatio and cholesterol. Although I’ve had some backlash, I stand by the sentence. I knew it would be provocative. Racy. A ball-grabber, if you will. But it’s the kind of thing that Margot would really say; what she would really do. It’s essential to her character, and it pushes the reader into the story whether they like it or not. Margot won’t be censored—she’s the kind of character I had to give those first words to. If you have a problem with that sentence, I encourage you to take it up with Margo. I blame her completely, at least for the first line.


Why Short Stories Matter

By | Rant

“A collection of short stories?” said the very famous writer I met at the Whistler Writer’s Festival last weekend when I told him about my book The Little Washer of Sorrows. “Good luck! The market for short stories is brutal. Only thing worse is a collection of poetry.” (I’d just purchased Prologue for the Age of Consequence, a book of poetry by Garth Martens about the oil sands in Northern Alberta and the workers there.)
“Unless you’re Alice Munro, that is.”
Now I have nothing against Alice Munro, but blue is not the only color and she is not the only successful Canadian short story author. However, his comments made me think. I happen to love the short fiction form. Not exclusively, mind you. I tend to have three books on the go at all times:  a novel (currently: If I Fall, If I Die, by Michael Christie,) a collection of short stories (Juliet Was a Surprise by Bill Gaston) and something non-fiction (bouncing back and forth between What Would Keith Richards Do by Jessica Pallington West and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks). And then, of course, there are magazines. Oh, the magazines! Canada’s superb literary magazines—The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, The Fiddlehead, Prism, subTerrain, etc— ooze with brilliance. Not to mention my two American faves: The New Yorker and Harpers, which both feature short fiction (and wicked cartoons) in each issue.
Why short stories? Are they not not simply snacks before the main course? An entry point, before the author finally graduates to novels–real books? Are writers of short fiction basically wannabe novelists with ADD?
Short story experts like Zsuzsi Gartner, George Saunders, Shaena Lambert, Etgar Keret, Jim Shepard, Pasha Malla and Matthew Trafford are gems in the genre. And some of the biggies: Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaimon and Stephen King are novelists who moonlight as short story masters. I enjoyed Atwood’s laser-point emotional accuracy in the stories of Stone Mattress even more than her recent long-form trilogy. Whether itsy-bitsy tales like the ones in John Gould’s Kilter and Nick Parker’s The Exploding Boy and Other Tiny Tales or the longer stories of Lori Moore’s Birds of America and Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand, Anyway, short stories can be both fun and serious, pointed and ridiculous. They are the roller coaster rides—not the road trips; the fire-works—not the slow burn.
Perhaps because short stories require less of a commitment from the reader (one sitting! you start it at lunch, you’ll be done by afternoon naptime!) writers can afford to be more experimental, more quirky. In an interview with 49th Shelf, an on-line platform for Canadian books, Megan Coles, author of the collection Eating Habits of the Chronically  Lonesome said “The short story takes off its pants and boards a plane. Just to see what will happen.” Kevin Hardcastle, author of the soon-to-be-release Debris reinforced Cole’s sentiments. “I think the distillation of elements in a short story, the intensity of the form, is what makes it definitive…the economy and precision of language that is required and the great degree of difficulty, consistently turns out the best prose and the finest sentences.”
The short story is an intense, passionate love affair. Every word counts, every sentence must be perfect and purposeful. It is a narrative that won’t last—the author damn well better make each fleeting moment count. The short story chops the small talk, the rambling introductions, the long-drawn out goodbyes. It’s all meat. All heart. A great short story will take your breath away like a punch in the stomach.
So which is more valid (and more marketable)—the novel or the short story? One is a sprint, the other a marathon. One is a marriage, the other a stranger’s kiss at a costume ball, the other. I’m all for the good solid commitment, but now and then isn’t it fun to dash naked around the block?
I hope there is room for a diverse library in our country. I hope the very famous writer was wrong, and there IS a market for short stories. I hope readers who tend towards the same type of book time after time step out of the box and try a short story collection, the green eggs and ham of the literary world.

A Lucky Bastard and a Word Nerd

By | Rant

FullSizeRender(6)Tens of thousands of music lovers, dancers, hippies, hipsters, ravers and rockers have converged just outside my home town this weekend for Pemby-fest, a grand celebration on a breathtakingly beautiful meadow where the land is introduced to the sky by that great emcee: Mount Currie. They’ve come from all over Canada–indeed the world–for a crazy mix of musicians like The String Cheese Incident, The Decemberists, Broken Social Scene, The Black Keys, Dakota Pearl, Charles Bradley, Weezer, Shakey Graves, R. L. Grimes, Tiestro, Alice Cooper and many others.

But in the host town, whose population is slightly larger than my old high school, controversy has erupted over a Pemberton Chamber of Commerce campaign to promote local businesses. “Lucky Bastard” says the t-shirt that many employees at the grocery store, the hardware store and the gas station are wearing. Under a large cartoon-ish heart are the words: “Ya, I live here.” At the festival site, chamber volunteers are tattooing the image onto people’s arms (or cheeks, or chests) and taking the time to tell them about all that Pemberton has to offer. And there’s a big sign as you enter town that says “Welcome to Pemberton, you lucky bastards!”

The wording has some people’s panties in a knot

(Offensive? Oops. How about: some knickers in a tangle? Better? Maybe: some black latex crotchless gitch? No? Some ass-less chaps? Some bloomers? Some tighty whiteys? Ah, what fun we can have with words! And what ugliness we can inflict as well.)

Every day, individual inoffensive words are put together and used to invoke violence, promote hatred and spread lies. And this weekend, an offensive word is used to invoke smiles, promote tourism and spread joy. Whether you support it or not, you must admit that the irony is interesting.

Apparently, the Chamber’s campaign was inspired by a typical response when a visitor finds out someone is a local. “You live here? You’re a lucky bastard!” Surely, the creators knew it would be controversial. And they did it anyhow! (Similarly, the geniuses behind Fuck Cancer knew their idea would cause a stir. If they’d gone with Darn Cancer, I’m sure they would have been safe.)

It seems everyone in Pemberton has an opinion on whether Lucky Bastard is courageous and clever or crude and crass. It is fascinating that one word can stir up such an array of feelings and such heated discussion–ah, the power of language. It also raises questions in me: If I am offended by this word, am I a prude? If I’m not offended, am I a red-neck? (and then: is the term ‘red-neck’ itself offensive?) If I’m okay with “bastard,” yet complain about performer Kendrick Lamar’s language, am I a hypocrite? What would my grandmother think of the slogan? What about the local restaurant The Bitchin’ Food Co? Does it matter that this is a very short-term campaign, with a very specific target audience? Does this language portray the “real Pemberton?” or is it just tacky? With so many locals–old time farmers and newcomers alike–letting loose at the festival, what is the “real Pemberton” anyhow?

I know intuitively that in the context of this campaign, the phrase is meant to be cheeky. Edgy. Provocative. And although the word “bastard” does me slightly uncomfortable, it grabs my attention a lot quicker than “lucky duck.” (And it doesn’t provoke me nearly as much as “lucky fucker” would.) Sometimes you just have to wear the red lipstick. Put a little extra garlic in the guacamole. Add a dash of vodka to your prune juice. Like headliner G-Easy says in his song Make-Up Sex: “It’s so hard to be wholesome, yo.”

And if you asked one of those thousands of festival-goes who are loving life in the gorgeous field surrounded by music, mountains and friends if they feel like lucky bastards this weekend, I’m pretty sure you’ll get a resounding, “Hell, ya!”