I Will Judge You

“The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.” ― Blaise PascalPensées

I’m a judgmental little bitch: I won’t judge you by your clothes, I won’t judge you by your weight, but I will judge you by your first sentence. If your first sentence doesn’t make me wet, I won’t get to your last sentence.

My creative writing professor drilled me on the importance of the opening sentence. The opening line must lead the reader to the second line, and on and on until the final sentence, all of which should leave you salivating for more more more. I’ve yet to perfect the opening sentence, though I like to think I’ve had a few.

So what got me thinking about opening lines?

I was on an AirTran flight Sunday morning, and with whatever was going on with their in-flight wireless, I was stuck thinking, “if this Gogo wasn’t a stop-stop, I’d be tweeting this shit from 30,000 feet.”

With no access to my WordPress Reader, or anything online, I was left with the SkyMall and GO! magazines. I left my Kindle at home, or I would have something entirely different to discuss today.

I flipped through the first several pages of ads, skimming and skipping “Gary’s Greeting” on page seven before being drawn into Orion Ray-Jones’s piece “Bon Voyage!” on page nine. This is the 100th issue of GO! magazine, and its last, which is too bad because I was an instant fan of Ray-Jones.

Nine years ago, as I sat 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, I had a revelation: spending $20 on a dark-chocolate Toblerone bar the size of my forearm was a brilliant idea. (Orion Ray-Jones, Editor-in-Chief)

I finished that paragraph, and then went back to read it again. I realized my heart was palpitating, and it was because, one, yes, Toblerone is always a brilliant idea, and two, that sentence catapulted me into the second sentence (It was the third such epiphany that had struck me since opening the duty free catalog.), and the second sentence into the third (As the freshly anointed editor of AirTran’s new magazine, which would be launching in a couple of short months, I probably should have been nose-deep in the competitor’s publication tucked into the seatback in front of me.), and the third into the fourth (But back then, salivating over the descriptions of untaxed candy and schnapps was a lot more fun than reading the average airline magazine, so I passed.), which nicely wrapped up the introduction and transitioned the piece into an explanation of the special focus of issue and the end of GO!.

We’re not talking a novel here. It’s five paragraphs, but five paragraphs in which every word matters, starting with the very first words I encountered. Had they been as lame as the opening of the earlier piece, I wouldn’t now know that GO! will be replaced with Spirit beginning next month. I hope Spirit has a place for Ray-Jones because he’s got it going on when it comes to grabbing and holding this reader’s attention.

Grabbing the reader’s attention is the prime responsibility of the first sentence. It must matter. It must matter in a novel, a news story, a feature article, and a blog post. No matter the form or focus, it must matter. Speaking specifically about the opening lines of a blog post, it’s all readers get in the WordPress Reader, Facebook publicize, and, depending on settings, in email notifications of a newly published post. It. Must. Matter.

I’m no opening line guru. I’m working on it, and I painstakingly compose the first sentence after I’ve completed the piece. It’s something I learned not just from exercise after exercise in creative writing courses, but from turning in research papers and getting them back with the professorial comment, “your thesis is in your conclusion.” By my senior year, I had finally learned to swap my introductory paragraph with my conclusion, and I never heard “your thesis is in your conclusion” again.

It was a valuable lesson, one I took with me through my training as a writing tutor, one I shared with students coming into the university’s writing center for help with their own research papers, and one I use now as I compose blog posts. Once I’ve finished saying what it is I have to say, I’m secure in the focus and feel I can properly introduce the piece with a kick-ass opener. Kick-ass is the goal. Sometimes it’s just ass, but I want it to have kick to it. It’s part of the practice. Someday all this practice will become perfection.

How did “I’m a judgmental little bitch: I won’t judge you by your clothes, I won’t judge you by your weight, but I will judge you by your first sentence. If your first sentence doesn’t make me wet, I won’t get to your last sentence.” work for you? Did you want to know what in the world I was talking about?

Advertisements

22 thoughts on “I Will Judge You

  1. Melanie,
    This is why my first sentence is always: “Le Clown…”, as you can’t go wrong, and you have Pulitzer Prize written all over it right there…
    Le Clown

    Like

    • Perhaps the confusion is simply because I failed to make a point here.
      But I do find that a snappy, snazzy, suck me in first sentence gives me more joy than beating traffic on the way in to work.

      Like

      • The *confused* was a joke on my part.

        Actually, I think you made the point very well. Opening sentences are something I need to work on (and closings…and the middle) 🙂

        Like

  2. I find that when I see the word vagina in an opening line my mind becomes more focused and I’m instantly “in to” the post. There are a lot of people who’ve taken creative writing classes I’ve run across lately. Is it something worth while?

    Like

    • Vagina vagina vagina…I will remember that for next time.
      As far as creative writing classes, I found them to be invaluable. The ones I took weren’t grammar focused, but rather style and technique. My professor taught by imitation, so each week we were assigned an author and a series of short stories to read and then we were to compose a story in the same style. It’s helped me hone my voice, and it’s helped me with the ghost writing I do because I’m already used to adapting another’s voice.

      Like

  3. As far as first sentences go, the one for this post completely intrigued me. I have got a shitton to read today, but when I saw that line, I knew I had to read your post right away. And I’m glad I did. Excellent post on the craft of writing, Melanie.

    Like

    • Thank you Emily. I almost didn’t publish it because I wondered what right I had to write on writing, but then I went ahead anyway because, one, I didn’t have anything else ready, and two, because I’m still in love with Ray-Jones’s opening sentence and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it all week.

      Like

      • Just to be sure, I was talking about YOUR opening sentence. ;D It was awesome, and it was the first sentence that showed up in my WordPress Reader; maybe block quoted sentences aren’t included in the reader summary?

        Like

        • I don’t know about the block quotes and the reader? I wonder. I’ll have to pay more attention in the future. I was worried about putting it on top, but it so succinctly wrapped up what I was thinking that I left it. I’m glad it didn’t muddle the post in the reader.

          Like

  4. Pingback: I Think I’m The One | This Is My Corn

  5. Sucked me right in, Melanie. Congrats on the editor job. Thanks for the writing tip. I need to work on first sentences and second and third…
    Love the kick ass, just ass line. {{{Hugs]}} kozo

    Like

    • Thanks Kozo! I had another professor tell me the first paragraph and the last paragraph are the only two any one reads. I doubt that, but I’ve still never forgotten that. Every sentence is a part of practicing the craft.
      {hugs} back to you

      Like

  6. Pingback: Quote About Reading From Blaise Pascal | Consilient Interest

There you have it. Your turn.

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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s