Fear of the First Line

Now and again, Blueprint magazine publishes one of my monthly columns on their website. This is the November column.

ONCE I KNOW what topic I want to (or have to) write about, the most critical decision becomes inevitable: how to begin? No evening class in Creative Writing, no journalism course fails to mention how important the first sentence is for the impression a text makes upon the unprepared reader. Norbert Miller, a German literary historian, published a collection of essays about what he called this ‘radical decision’. The first sentence compresses the infinite space for reflection into a finite object, settling on one version out of a multitude of variations and possible strategies.

Consider these alternatives: ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ and ‘One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.’

The first example is by the Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who thus began his Paul Clifford. The second is, of course, from Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. After a beginning like this, you know Kafka’s novel is not going to be light reading, while Bulwer-Lytton’s turn of phrase does not bode well if you’re looking for world literature. Its author gave his name to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which challenges entrants to compose bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. The 2011 winner, Professor Sue Fondrie from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, wrote: ‘Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanesof a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories’.

If you spend any time reading press releases, this style of writing won’t surprise you, even though the topics may be less personal. Mixing as many unrelated metaphors as possible into one statement seems to be considered a high art in those circles. Many trades have developed their own style of templated writing. You can actually find bullshit generators online that provide ready-made statements, such as this from artybollocks.com: ‘My work explores the relationship between acquired synesthesia and emotional memories. With influences as diverse as Nietzsche and Roy Lichtenstein, new synergies are crafted from both.’

If that isn’t good (or bad) enough for your purpose, there are alternatives: ‘My work explores the relationship between the tyranny of ageing and skateboard ethics. With influences as diverse as Kierkegaard and John Lennon, new combinations are generated from both simple and complex meanings.’
Increasing levels of complexity, cliche and incomprehensibility are on offer. I am sure that there are bullshit generators for architects and designers somewhere. I haven’t bothered to look for them yet for fear of being infected.

Before one even gets to the first sentence, though, potential readers have to pass another obstacle: the title of the book. While the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest encourages people to write original lines just for the contest, the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year, commonly known as the Diagram Prize, is a humorous literary award that has been made annually since 2000. The winner is decided by a public vote on the Bookseller’s website. The very first award in 1978 went to a publication by the University of Tokyo Press about medical studies using laboratory mice with inhibited immune systems, accordingly but somewhat surprisingly titled Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice.

The 2000 winner delighted with High Performance Stiffened Structures, published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Then there’s Highlights in the History of Concrete, by CC Stanley, published by the British Cement Association. It stormed the Oddest Title in 1994.

What is almost as difficult as starting a text is finishing it. At the end, you are supposed to offer some closure, like answering the rhetorical question posed in the first paragraph; revealing an unexpected answer to a problem that your article had discovered, or at least wrapping up your ramblings with a phrase that would make punters happy about just having grown older by 10 minutes reading it without immediate danger to their health. There could even be a conclusion that would add lasting benefit to all that intellectual activity.

This time, I got to my 800 words or so rather cheaply: a quarter are quotes. To get maximum benefit from reading this, you should look online for bullshit detectors and humorous literary awards. If nothing else, it’ll help against the dreaded Fear of the First Line: you can always do better.


  1. if i may contribute, i usually start by the end (ie the goal, aka the conclusion, clear in mind); and i start by the title: the title is all! ;-) all the best, und tot ziens für alles


  2. It’s my New Year’s resolution to write more. It seems that all this pressure to write an amazing work has stifled me from writing at all. There is another philosophy which seems to be rather prevalent on the internet – writing poorly.
    Is there any merit to writing just for the sake of getting it out of your head with the hopes of getting better as you go?
    My problem is that I know good writing when I see it – and my writing is not it. The consequence is that I don’t write.
    There must be some balance here, no? Maybe the informality of a blog is just such a balance.

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