• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
  • Archives

Gone AreThe Dark Clouds That Had Me Blind

America has voted. The most popular opening line: 
First Place: Twig: Population 189 (Downith)
Second Place:  My mother always started with the pig’s head. (Linda Pressman)
Congratulations to the winners! Thanks to everyone who participated. It was really fun. (Downith and Linda please send your address to me at askbetsylerner@gmail.com for your FREE BOOK. ANd Downith send your first chapter if you like.)
One commenter raised the question of subjectivity in the way agents choose. I would say that same subjectivity extends to editors, booksellers, critics and most important readers. If you can stand one more post on the subject, here are my subjective responses to these sentences:

Twig. Population 189  I just loved the simplicity of it. I immediately believed it was a real place with a tiny population. THe name Twig seemed perfect, like Forks in the Twilight Series. Immediately unforgettable. Something thin and breakable and subject to nature. There is also an authority and even bravado to announce place and population. Boom. Instead of: It was a town called Twig with a population 189.

Winter was coming – I could smell it.  I liked the simplicity here, too. We have no idea who the speaker is, who the first person narrator is, but I feel  like I do. I think this simple sentence is filled with foreboding. Winter is coming, no doubt, but what else: Trouble? Pain? Violence? To me, it’s pregnant with possibility.

My mother always started with the pig’s head.  It’s either Southern gothic or comic. But there’s a promise that by the end of the book we will know what the mother finishes with. We also know that the pig’s head works on a literal level, but it also feels metaphoric. I also like it because I’ve read a million sentences that being with “My mother” the first that ended in a pig’s head.

My mind was on the kill. I loved this because I found it totally terrifying. I believed in six one syllable words that I was in the presence of a serial killer. Chilling. 

Any last thoughts on first sentences, or anything. Like what are you doing right now.

69 Responses

  1. Congrats everyone — especially you, Duchess Downith! Twig. I love it still.

    Right now? I’m packing. (luggage, not firearms)

  2. Right now I am commenting on your blog.

  3. Hi Betsy,
    Yes, for me too “Twig: Population 189” has the ring of truth. I grew up in Kansas, and my town was surrounded by improbabilities like “Twig: Population 189.” There seems to me to be great pathos in that barren statistic. Not much hope; not much possibility; just a forlorn declaration. A lot of Kansas is like that. That’s why I now live in Los Angeles: Population 15,000,000!

    David Evans

  4. Thanks, Betsy, for your comments and to everyone else for their votes. I appreciate it. I can’t wait to get my new edition of your book for my pig’s head first line!

    It is comic, like you said, but not about cooking, like someone else said, because we’re Jewish and my parents were still pretending to be somewhat kosher at the time. But when I was a kid whenever I wouldn’t eat my mother would pull out her most miserable stories from the Holocaust (she was a survivor) and scare me to death with them, like they’d make me want to eat. The worst was the story of the pig’s head.

  5. Right now I’m fighting my way through a YA historical novel. After having two picture books published in 2001 and 2002 by Random House ( which I wrote and illustrated) my life imploded – my dad got sick and died, So did a dear friend. My husband of 18 years left me for a 24 year old. I lost my job… it took the starch out of me and I just stopped writing. I’m back. This book has a lot more words and so far no pictures, but I’m writing again. Yay! First sentence: “I never met my Zio Salvatore, but his ghostly hand has guided my fate since the day I was born.”

  6. Mmm. I wish I’d participated, actually. Busy 24 hours, moving house and working. Congratulations to the winners. Seriously. And what am I doing now? Standing at Capp and 17th, drinking whiskey, on a first date, waiting for him to get back.

  7. “Downith send your first chapter if you like.”

    What am I doing?

    Grinning like a turnip jack o’lantern!

    And like, Deb, wondering how Betsy found that photo of my perhaps not so fictional Twig-town.

  8. I’m sitting on my terrace reading that Downith is a winner and feeling warm and fuzzy all over and wondering if Betsy knows how far she has to send that book.

  9. Oh I forgot to say that I’m from Newfoundland where Downith’s book takes place and I’m not sure if there’s a Twig but there is a town named Dildo.

  10. This was right up there with Averil’s post on Truth or Dare (http://averildean.wordpress.com/2011/10/28/truth-or-dare/.) So much fun, I could play all day.

    Right now I can’t stop wondering how many of Twig’s population are interrelated.

  11. Bravissima Downith! Hope you have zipped off your 1st chapter and prepared Twig for the world!!

  12. Congratulations to Downwith!

    I had the most interesting experience last night. I was exhausted, I’d just spent three hours grading both English grammar tests (subjects and predicates) and Latin translation tests (indirect statements and passive voice). Brain and body were tired.

    As I lay there, trying to push the complete predicates and ablatives of agent out of my head, the solution to my novel’s narrative problem was just…there, complete with first lines. I had to run into the bathroom and scribble the lines on the back of a New Yorker in order to preserve them. That’s never happened to me before.

    Anyone else?

    • I had the most interesting experience while reading your response to this blog. I was thinking the terms you used to described human language actually have more to do with you than the writer. You seem bored, yet, maybe it is Your mind that is boring you. For instance, you mentioned a subject and a predicate as if it were a bunch of straight lines uniformly marked diligently with a piece of lead or sophisticated ink as if this was something to be scoffed at. Either you are insane or you are ignorant and teaching my children to complain like ignorant monkeys fit only for the military. If I knew you personally, I could explain your horrendous situation to you, assuming, which is what you do, that a subject is different than an action, and then you have the nerve to complain about your poor life. I’m gonna let this one go because I have the stinking suspicion you have been bamboozled and you actually don’t have thoughts of your own. You just do what you have been trained to do. God help you.

  13. All hail the Dutchess!
    Right now I’m sitting in my car after having missed my train believing there has got to, got to, got to be more to life than this.

  14. Right on, Downith! I just LOVE the people who comment on this blog. And of course Betsy. “First line” for what I’m doing right now: She wondered how long she would remain in her pajamas.

  15. Congratulations Downith!
    Right now–Looking at the photo of the cute little piglet and thinking about a rough and tough old guy I once worked for–Leo–and his story about raising a pig he got so attached to he couldn’t butcher when the time came. He had raised and killed dozens of pigs, loved his bacon and even blood pudding (just what it sounds like). But this one touched his heart, for some reason. His wife–Myrtle–wasn’t so sentimental and their compromise was to send the pig to a slaughterhouse further south of here. Poor Leo said he couldn’t eat bacon or any pork for a year because he was afraid it would be “that little guy.”

  16. I don’t like anything right now.

  17. Congratulations to Downith and Linda Pressman! Yesterday was a blast. Betsy really knows how to throw a blog party. Right now I’m revising a long story. First line: “I’m worried about Aunt Vonne’s ashes.”

  18. Of course, most literary agents are women, and I’m a man. Does that make a difference? I also wonder what the second lines were????

  19. I wouldn’t recommend it as a method for getting writing done, but I recently contracted Lyme disease. Since I’ve been on the steroids and antibiotics, I can’t seem to stop writing. I’ve produced a few essays, an article or two, and have put the final polish on a manuscript that I agent-queried with yesterday.

    Wonder what’s going to happen to me when the steroids wind down?

  20. Cheers to Downith and to Linda!

    And thanks to you Betsy for a great deal of fun–AND a great deal of good information on what draws us in and keeps us there.

  21. Steroids will do that to you! They gave me heart palpitations and anxiety attacks…

    This was so much fun and congratulations to the winners. You can indeed smell winter coming (as Canadians know), so that one rang true for me.

    Right now, I’m savoring the option money on my memoir that finally arrived last night…it’s being developed as a possible network sitcom.

  22. Thanks for all the good wishes. Yes it was fun, yes Betsy knows how to throw a blog party and I too love the people who comment on this blog.

  23. All day yesterday I kept thinking about this first line: The small boys came early to the hanging.

    And isn’t it funny how the winners are made up of simple words: twig, pig, old. Well done winners!

    • I spent last night wandering through my manuscript, going, Are you my first line? Are YOU my first line?

      Congratulations to all the winners, and especially to Downith and Linda. You’ve got wonderful taste, Betsy, and the workshop was a huge help. Thanks!

  24. getting ready for my annual salon tonight. practising my piece one more time and applying double deodorant, etc. etc.

  25. Congrats to the winners and all who took A Chance!

    As for me, I am pleased to announce I just finished sewing a couture dress for an awards luncheon where I am one of the honorees. An unexpectedly complicated project (28 pattern pieces, all needing to be altered to fit my lumpy shape), I am stowing away the pins and scissors for a while to return to world of plots and adverbs.

  26. I was sleeping until a few minutes ago when the phone next to my head woke me up. It was an electronic voice asking if I’d accept a collect call from an inmate at the county jail. After I punched the no button, I started to wonder if my husband was calling to have me bail him out. Nope, he was downstairs playing with the dog. I wonder if that was the inmate’s one phone call.

    Congratulations to the first line winners!

  27. Is this a cool blog or what?
    Congrats to Twig and pig!

  28. Right now I’m obsessively googling the girl who posted the video of her Texas judge father beating the shit out of her with a belt. I want to smash his fucking head in with a cinderblock. (You asked.)

  29. Congratulations to the winners! I did love the Twig opener; it was definitely attention-grabbing and had me immediately imagining some of the 189. I had to laugh, though. My book (first sentence: My mind was on the kill.) is definitely not about a serial killer. Not even close. Funny what we begin to experience from the first words.

    I’m a part-time reader of queries and manuscripts for a literary agency, among other things, and it always strikes me how critical the first sentences are, and in particular the first paragraph. I read (of course) the query. Then I very carefully read the first paragraph. If I love the writing and/or the premise, I’ll continue to read carefully. If not, I’ll skim the rest of the first ten or so pages, but generally, by the end of the first page, I’ll know whether or not the query will go through. That first paragraph is key. And those with an opening sentence that delivers something, and grabs you from the get-go, those are the ones that stand out.

    • What the heck is it about, if I may ask? Betsy Lerner

      • How adorable is it when Betsy signs off with her full name in the comments on her blog?

        Stayin alive,
        Augustus P. Finklestein

      • Like I might have mistaken her for some other Betsy, right?

        Betsy, you’re probably going to find this hard to believe but it’s a futuristic post-apocolyptic novel (think The Hunger Games but for grown-ups and without the districts) in which a coming-of-age woman (the narrator) discovers she’s one of the last fertile people on earth, and is hunted for that very reason. She’s guarded by her brothers, and a love interest (and also a sexy guardian angel, one of a legion who have been ousted from an overcrowded heaven) as she attempts to evade the Citydwellers, who want to use her fertility to their own advantage.

        She’s out hunting for food on Page 1.

      • Talk about having your mind blown on a Thursday 4:50. Betsy “Lerner”

    • Well I think I’ll consider it a successful afternoon, then. (I just blew Betsy Lerner’s mind!) Thank you.

  30. Let’s do the same for closing sentences some time.

  31. I’m gasping on the projectionist’s readings of first sentences. My god, you have no idea where these stories are going. This is obviously rigged. Betsy takes her friends rather lame first sentences, knowing damn well where they are going, having read, or editing the thing time and time again and then, in the spirit of grad-school selling and dominance gets on her blog and gives the “winners” Her book. Fuck me. I saw that coming. I’m not playing sore loser here, I honestly think that you over-looked my first sentence because you have something personally against me. I know how you book people operate. I’ve been paying attention. You’re not gonna keep me down Betsy! Not in this world!

  32. Lisa, it’s been a long time! She was starving in the forest during the war and the Partisans gave her family a pig’s head to eat. They were thrilled because it was food and they were starving but little did she know that when she’d tell me this story when I was ten my response would be, “Weren’t you kosher?” and wondering why she couldn’t come up with a more plausible story to get me to eat. There’s an excerpt of the book on my blog.

  33. […] binge-writing. But of course, the ultimate pig-out was waking up yesterday to find I’d won Betsy’s first sentence contest. Thanks to everyone who voted for me and/or rooted from the sidelines. I love our blog circle, […]

  34. Sitting in the library wishing I’d gotten back online and over here soon enough to vote for “My mother always started with the pig’s head.”

  35. […] is, spit and polish don’t go together. After I won that contest, there were only 1500 words that mattered. I polished those words like a 50-year-old man with a 50 […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: