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Archive for the 'First Paragraph Previews' Category

FPP#10: Guilt That Clangs Like Church Bells

One thing about pulling first paragraphs out of context and living with them for several days: they can take on a life of their own.

From a novel to be published next month by an imprint of HarperCollins:

My name is Frances Catherine, a.k.a. Frankka — Saint Cat onstage. With names like these, I guess it goes without saying that I'm Catholic. Or I was Catholic. Raised Catholic, as they say. Lapsed Catholic or recovering Catholic, like it's some kind of drug you have to quit cold turkey. Twelve steps and maybe you'll be free of the guilt that clangs like church bells. Newborn original sin washed away by a priest and I'm the only one who's mucked it up since then: Sinner, impure, forgive me, it's all my fault.

Imagine driving past a pharmacy, the paragraph bobbing around in your head, and how the paragraph, interacting with the world around it, changes both...

Religion isn't passed down from the mother. Instead, a holy man (or holy woman) splashes each newborn with water then waits to see how its skin reacts — like those pH strips in high school lab, or an over-the-counter pregnancy test. Green means Catholic. Jews turn blue. Agnostics show no ...

FPP#9: Fanfare and Menopause Jokes

The opening paragraph of a novel coming very soon from Algonquin Books:

In the fall of her fiftieth year, Alma finds herself lost in a dark mood she can't seem to shake. It's late September; she has actually not turned fifty yet, but she has already given that out as her age, hoping to get the fanfare and menopause jokes over and done with. It's not her own mortality that weighs heavily on her. In fact, it makes her sad when she reads that women of her profile (active, slender, vegetarian, married) will probably live — if they take care of themselves — to ninety and beyond.

Someone is dying. Or someone has died. Yes?

But wait: Alma first.

We enter the novel through Alma, a woman passing herself off as fifty while she's still forty-nine. My own mother, each year on her birthday, claimed to be twenty-nine — until my brother turned thirty, at which point Mom begrudgingly gained a decade, conceding that thirty-nine was closer to the truth. Rounding up, though? Who rounds up? Having never witnessed this behavior, I asked a smart female friend what she'd make of Alma lying about her age. "Maybe it means that she's bold," my ...

FPP#8: Jury Box

They shuffled into the courtroom like twelve of San Francisco's homeless, shoulders hunched and heads bowed as if searching the sidewalk for spare change. David Sloane sat with his elbows propped on the stout oak table, hands forming a small pyramid with its apex at his lips. It gave the impression of a man in deep meditation, but Sloane was keenly aware of the jurors' every movement. The seven men and five women returned to their designated places in the elevated mahogany jury box, bent to retrieve their notebooks from their padded chairs, and sat with chins tucked to their chests. When they lifted their heads, their gazes swept past Sloane to the distinguished gentleman sitting at the adjacent counsel's table, Kevin Steiner. A lack of eye contact from jurors could be an ominous sign for an attorney and his client. When they looked directly at the opposing counsel it was a certain death knell.

Recently I asked someone, "What was the first book that affected you deeply?"

She fumbled a bit, reaching back, before a few candidates surfaced. Later, of course, she asked me, "What's yours?"

"I don't know," I said.

Over the weekend, wondering about this week's paragraph, it came ...

FPP#7: Avoid Being Publicly Humiliated

A long paragraph this week, from a book of nonfiction to be published by Knopf on May 2nd.

Priests vow to remain celibate, physicians vow to do no harm, and letter carriers vow to swiftly complete their appointed rounds, despite snow, sleet, and split infinitives. Few people realize that psychologists also take a vow, promising that at some point in their professional lives they will publish a book, a chapter, or at least an article that contains this sentence: "The human being is the only animal that..." We are allowed to finish the sentence any way we like, of course, but it has to start with those eight words. Most of us wait until relatively late in our careers to fulfill this solemn obligation because we know that successive generations of psychologists will ignore all the other words that we managed to pack into a lifetime of well-intentioned scholarship and remember us mainly for how we finished The Sentence. We also know that the worse we do, the better we will be remembered. For instance, those psychologists who finished The Sentence with "can use language" were particularly well remembered when chimpanzees were taught to communicate with hand signs. And when


FPP#6: How Else Was He to Know

Today's first paragraph comes from a novel to be published by Doubleday on March 21.

He came up with the names. They were good times. He came up with the names and like any good parent he knocked them around to teach them life lessons. He bent them to see if they'd break, he dragged them behind cars by heavy metal chains, he exposed them to high temperatures for extended periods of time. Sometimes consonants broke off and left angry vowels on the laboratory tables. How else was he to know if they were ready for what the world had in store for them?

The most versatile story title of all-time must be "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love" because it could serve equally well for half the books in our Literature section. Change the last word, and it applies, one way or another, to just about all the literature of the twentieth century. Who can forget MacAllister's famous study (Sheepscot Review, Fall 2002) and Roth's oft-quoted reaction: "If seventy-two percent of American authors under the age of 35 have experienced at least one moment of mild anxiety or despair that Ray Carver got to the ...

FPP#5: Curled on Pulleys and Grimed

Last week, Venkman pointed us to Elmore Leonard's ten rules of writing. Specifically, #6: "Never open a book with weather.... The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people."

Today's first paragraph delivers people right away:

The first time Jamie saw the boy, he was tied to a tree. She was in no way prepared for the sight, of him wrapped tight in old clothesline haphazardly wound and knotted, the rope soiled and stained where it had at some previous time curled on pulleys and grimed. He was remarkably still but for the snot that ran from his nose.

Jamie is female; we don't know how old. Does she think of the victim as a "boy" because she's older (his mother?), or is Jamie still a girl, herself? Odds are she doesn't know him; otherwise she'd have reported a "Billy" or a "Rufus," identified a "Jack" or a "Kyle" by name. Though he might be so beat up that she doesn't recognize him. Until we hear about the snot running down his nose, he's just as likely dead as alive.

But the snot hasn't even dried when Jamie discovers him, and the first time implies there'll be ...

FPP#4: All Day the Snow Had Been Falling

Today's first paragraph comes from a novel to be published by the Dial Press on February 28th.

All day the snow had been falling. Snow muffled every store and church; drifts erased streets and sidewalks. The punks at the new Harvard Square T stop had tramped off, bright as winter cardinals with their purple tufted hair and orange Mohawks. The sober Vietnam vet on Mass Ave had retreated to Au Bon Pain for coffee. Harvard Yard was quiet with snow. The undergraduates camping there for Harvard's divestment from South Africa had packed up their cardboard boxes, tents, and sleeping bags and begun building snow people. Cambridge schools were closed, but the Philpott Institute was open as usual. In the Mendelssohn-Glass lab, four postdocs and a couple of lab techs were working.

A promising start, one might argue. (Go ahead: argue.) What comes next, do you figure? Is this mystery, literature, sci-fi, a thriller, or an ambitious amalgamation of more than one genre?

So much of a reader's experience depends on timing, and yesterday I couldn't take a book set in winter seriously. That snow rendering Harvard Square quiet... In New York and parts of the Midwest ...

FPP#3: Figuring Out What to Eat

Today's first paragraph:

What should we have for dinner?

Some context: We're reading nonfiction. The query about dinner appears in italics, in a slightly more formal font than what follows. It's not a header or the title of a section; there's no extra space before the next paragraph, just a stress on that opening line.

Now imagine you're on West Burnside, browsing new arrivals in the Green Room. (The hardcover won't be here until April, but let's pretend.) Within arms reach, dozens of face-out covers stare at you with innocent, puppy eyes. If you've bothered to pull this one off the shelf, you won't give up after one sentence, right?

The author continues:

This book is a long and fairly involved answer to this seemingly simple question. Along the way, it also tries to figure out how such a simple question could ever have gotten so complicated. As a culture we seem to have arrived at a place where whatever native wisdom we may once have possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety. Somehow this most elemental of activities — figuring out what to eat — has come to require a remarkable amount of expert help. How did we


FPP#2: But Oh

Today's first paragraph:

I have never looked into my sister's eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I've never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I've never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I've never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I've never done, but oh, how I've been loved. And, if such things were to be, I'd live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so exponentially.

Two odd, exact admissions. The simple sentences start us rolling; we're set off with a push. (If it seems illogical that short sentences speed up a narrative, think of a steak cut into bite-sized pieces. Now think of trying to chew a steak whole. That semicolon before these parentheses shaved a millisecond off your life.) But then what's this about raising arms at the moon? And who calls a moon "beguiling"? The hands and moon slip past before you know it. Until hat and that the slant rhyme of moon and bathroom barely registers. Go ...

FPP#1: Smelled Coming Flurries and Saw Meat

Ed.'s note: Huzzah! Today we introduce a new series: sneak-preview glimpses at first paragraphs from noteworthy titles scheduled for publication in the next six months. With commentary.

Tuesday night I'm walking back from Hedge House and the rain shows no sign of letting up. This afternoon's puddles have assumed small-pond proportions, encroaching from curbsides, worrying intersections. Canals flow the length of the block, connecting oblong pools at the end of each driveway so that a pair of clotted moats protects one side of the street from the other.

Winter in Portland. Need a slug? Got plenty, just ask.

In my living room, a pile of advance readers awaits inspection. Check that: really it's two piles, side by side — before dinner I started a second for fear the first might collapse.

A best-case scenario projects I'll read one of these books in its entirety. Five or six, at minimum, will get a look, to wind up sorted into those for further review and those that go back to the office.

Prior to blogs and customer reviews, and before I worked alongside readers, I got to know books by browsing in a bookstore aisle. An artful cover caught my attention, a friend with ...

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