The First Sentence: Your professional touchstone

Victor Villaseñor visited our writing group this week. He spoke to us for about an hour.  He asked many questions like:  Who here is a selfish son-of-a-bitch?  And: When did you start writing?  The exercise I found the most helpful for writing was for us to think of a favorite book of ours (he is another proponent of writers read ).  Then he asked each of us to quote the first sentence from that favorite book.

I had a terrible time with this because the book that came to mind was Robert Harris’ Pompeii.  And for reasons best explained by family circumstance I had read it twice but in French.  I could describe the scene but not the exact words.  I hurried home afterwards to look up the first sentence in English.

They left the aqueduct two hours before dawn, climbing by moonlight into the hills overlooking the port—six men in single file, the engineer leading.

This opening sentence immediately draws us in by making us ask why.  It is mysterious.  But, over and above that, it sets the story:  an engineer who represents Roman culture, a port town in the Bay of Naples, the aqueduct which poses many questions for the engineer, and the local people who oppose his thoughts on the flow of water, some of whom are following him up the hill.

I encourage you to stop right now and think of one of your favorite books.  Then think of the opening sentence.  Are you able to do this?  Victor Villaseñor suggests that if you can, you are a professional.

If right now you are unable to remember that opening line you need to read more and to read to study writing.

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