Let Us Begin #amwriting

You hafta start somewhere.

In writing a book, I mean. The book hasta start, right? So where? And how?

I wrote a post about that, some time ago.

Reedsy has an excellent and comprehensive post on the subject.

We can’t look for better guidance, though, than Lemony Snicket who, in Book 4 of A Series of Unfortunate Events, THE MISERABLE MILL, says:

Sometime during your life – in fact, very soon – you may find yourself reading a book, and you may notice that a book’s first sentence can often tell you what sort of story your book contains…. And if you liked mischief, a grand old time, or trophies, you would know which book to read, and you could throw the rest of them away.

But this book begins with the sentence “The Baudelaire orphans looked out the grimy window of the train and gazed at the gloomy blackness of the Finite Forest, wondering if their lives would ever get any better,” and you should be able to tell that the story that follows will be very different from the story of Gary or Emily or the family of cunning little chipmunks.

Well said. Well said.

Beginnings aren’t just marks on the paper, signaling to the discerning reader than there is print on the page; they open the door. Beginnings are the first impression in the speed-dating event that is book shopping or library browsing.

It doesn’t really matter if you begin your book with, “Suddenly the door burst open, and a man strode in, a gun in each hand. Bang! Bang!” or with, “Moonlight shimmered over the waves of the lake, moving in ripples from the spot where Maude had gone down for the third time.”

People will tell you, “Never begin with weather,” or “Never begin with backstory,” but the truth is, you can begin with any damn thing, as long as it engages the reader and leads the reader to want to read more.

Here are just a few openings that engaged my attention and led me inexorably into wonderful — and very different books.

The foreman chatters in Meihua, the beautiful tongue, Singapore English. “Get he over here. All this trash here! Got little time.” He is a stocky little Chinese man who has suffered disappointments. — CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG, by Maureen F. McHugh

I don’t want to go to the zoo anymore. — TURTLE DIARY, by Russell Hoban

There were four of us — George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were — bad from a medical point of view, I mean, of course. — THREE MEN IN A BOAT, TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, by Jerome K. Jerome

Dortmunder blew his nose. — THE HOT ROCK, by Donald E. Westlake

I knew something was up when Mum sat down in the front room in her apron. On a Sunday, and all! — BOTTLETOPS FOR BATTLESHIPS: SYLVIE’S WAR, by Andrea Gilbey

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Go get five books you knew you wanted to read from the minute you opened them, and determine what about the beginnings hooked you.



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Let Us Begin #amwriting

  1. Jane

    January 9, 2017 at 9:14am

    Righteous post! Preach on!

    “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” A Tale of Two Cities!

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 9, 2017 at 9:57am

      To be precise:
      “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” So, in one paragraph-long sentence, he establishes a time of Biblical social and moral extremes, ties it firmly to the familiar, promises (by implication) to inform the present by exploring the past, and thumps down to earth. GOD, I love Dickens!

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      • Jane

        January 10, 2017 at 8:33am

        So amazing, isn’t it?
        TALE OF TWO CITIES is like reading a modern mind’s writing from the mid-Victorian times.
        (So’s US Grant’s autobiography, but that’s another story!)

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  2. Dan Antion

    January 9, 2017 at 11:56am

    Two come to mind:

    “Marley was dead: to begin with.” From A Christmas Carol And, From Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions: “This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”

    The last time I was asked a question like this, my answer was met with a Book Report assignment. Hopefully, that won’t happen here…

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 10, 2017 at 7:44am

      Great examples! Your Book Report assignment is to buy, read, and review ALL THE BOOKS! lol

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  3. Joey

    January 9, 2017 at 6:22pm

    Well done. I ALWAYS pay attention to the first sentence, never wanna buy or borrow a book without it, and they SELDOM start with action, and FREQUENTLY start with setting.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 10, 2017 at 7:46am

      In a way, they ALL start with action, don’t they: the action of engaging your attention/emotion and pulling you into the story. 🙂 Thank you SO MUCH for sharing what engages you. Too often, writers tell each other what other writers tell them as writers, but we should be thinking like READERS.

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  4. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    January 10, 2017 at 12:09am

    I use the first sentence in the book description – first, if you skip the prologue and the epigraphs, which are more like grace notes.

    “I, KARENNA ELIZABETH Ashe, being of sound mind, do… But that’s it, isn’t it? Being here proves I am not of sound mind…”

    And you are dumped into the main character’s mind to hear her talking herself down from a ledge; you soon find out why she’s questioning her own sanity – and we’re off.

    That first sentence goes by fast, and must be followed by more. Dickens used the big fat paragraph to start A Tale of Two Cities – but it sets tone for the historical novel to follow. So many ways to start!
    Your text box eats my formatting.

    It depends on what you consider your first line, and what you consider decoration (but not really – epigraphs are part of the plot).

    Whatever you think will keep people reading long enough to get to the end of the paragraph, page, scene…

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 10, 2017 at 7:50am

      “I am not of sound mind” will get me every time! 😀

      If my text box eats your formatting, insert it. If you want text indented, type in front of it and after it (without the spaces — I put the spaces in so the text box wouldn’t just apply the formatting and not show you how it was done).

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  5. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    January 10, 2017 at 10:11am

    I think I can do it – forgot to try. I use the method successfully on other sites.

    You didn’t have to work so hard for me!

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply

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