A Sampler of First Lines from Best of the Web 2010

Nola is splayed on the wooden floor, her skirt hiked up high above her knees, playing jacks.

My son’s first-grade teacher doesn’t shoot heroin anymore.

I went to a wedding reception at the house of a man who painted with his ass.

When the war was over and all the shelling stopped, Dan Barley set up a balloon animal zoo in a broken chemical factory.

Tonight, before they cross the street to their neighbor’s house, Tommy and Margo wrap their seven-year-old boy, Caleb, in his winter coat and mittens and hat until he is not their son but a bundle of clothes in the shape of a boy.

The locker room walls were painted puke green and lined like a cage with metal hooks, and red mesh equipment bags hung from the hooks like meat.

Solely and thus sorely did he row off the disk of the sun that the lake reflected and into the dark of the piling-held dock where many-legged water-denizens and not just water-livers lived, where he lived, when he could.

She lived in my bathtub.

In February, my best friend died in a creek.

In my head, it sounds better–in my head, I am Johnny Rotten screaming into a tattered microphone, I am Vince Neil shrieking to a sold-out arena. I am Roger-fucking-Daltrey singing “Magic Bus” at the Monterey Pop Festival, and Chris is my Keith Moon.

Cut from the front of scalp back to the temple.

We are here, our tentacles coiled in the pond of Martina’s soul, the one untouched by the storm.

I built a bridge and named it Samuel.

I made it my goal in life to be pretty for you so that when we met you would want to put your mouth on mine and fill my head with your bullshit ideas.

Nights, we kept father confined to his room by draping the walls with black velvet curtains to hide the door–which in his sleep-addled state he did not entirely remember existed–and by hanging the drawing of the girl on the window.

This man only dated caves.

The sky rolled up and fell through the hole in Kate’s roof and bounced from her forehead and floated to the floor, upon which it made a crinkly sound as it brushed the hem of her bedskirt.

She staples her plaid skirt shut.

This was supposed to be about the dirt that flies up in puffs between bare feet when the bees are buzzing all a-thrill, their noses deep and delighted in flat Cokes that sit out for too long while kids splash in the creek, browned legs stemming from cut-off shorts and browned arms hallooing, glinting like sun-spackled trout.

Her mother whispers a promise: that if she is a good, good girl, she will be baptized.

In August 1968, a visiting minister from Pakistan gave Chairman Mao a basket of mangoes as a token of the friendship between the two states.

When we were in writing school, Violet and I decided one of the fiction writers had the biggest dick, and the poets who wrote about love would be the best at going down.

She doesn’t know there is a man inside her pillowcase.

After the butter princess wins her title, the other glazed girls who were sculpted and born from a ninety-pound block leave the fairgrounds too.

By the time Sis was fifteen the doctors started calling her problem a gift.

The wires inserted beneath the skin during the cinching and draining allow me to position the limbs of each body perpendicular to the ground.

Father is draped over the windows: what is left of him, dried and stiff and burgundy-brown: somewhat wrinkled and dirty, bleeding and caked with soul.

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13 thoughts on “A Sampler of First Lines from Best of the Web 2010

  1. gawd, i hope you’re not hawking this book. i’m an aspiring novelist and some of these lines made me gag. who knew people could make money just by putting these all together in one great bog sell-out?

  2. Cheryl: I think this can become constructive, actually. I only included first lines of (some of the) stories and excluded all poems’ first lines in the anthology. Not all the stories’ first lines made the cut for this post. I intentionally chose those first lines that would make me want to read the second lines. But this reflects my personal reading tastes.

    (And, if I can use this to hock the antho, then I’ll add that I think the book offers something for every reader. It won’t satisfy everyone — I mean, what single book, and especially what single anthology, can satisfy every reader? At least, I feel, this year’s Best of the Web does a great job of including a wide range of styles and voices that writing on the Internet can offer.)

    So, moving on.

    I looked for first lines that:

    (1) put us right in the middle of the action: “Cut from the front of scalp back to the temple.” Who’s doing the cutting? Why? And why is this constructive advice?

    (2) are absurd, or surrealist, on the basis of the first line alone: “The man only dated caves.” For all we know, “caves” here is a metaphor for hollow or shallow women, or simply for women. I chose these kinds of first lines because I love the unexpected in writing, and I love the bizarre. But, I may shock some when I say, I expect the bizarre beginning, the conceit, the metaphor, to come back down to earth and pull some emotional weight. The bizarre, for me, only works insofar as it gets at real human emotion or struggle. (So why not just read a story about Cancer? Or a man who dates shallow women? Well, there are a lot of those stories out there, and a lot of writers who do that. And do it well. These are different writers. And it’s good to see them exploring their own strengths.)

    (3) offer a startling image: “After the butter princess wins her title, the other glazed girls who were sculpted and born from a ninety-pound block leave the fairgrounds too.” I want to know more about that butter princess and the other glazed girls too. For no other reason than that, I’m glad this story exists. And begins the way it does.

    (4) make me care about my world a little more: “In August 1968, a visiting minister from Pakistan gave Chairman Mao a basket of mangoes as a token of the friendship between the two states.” Fiction or no, I’ll read this story. Find out what happens between the two, find out why a token of friendship is necessary — or at least why the minister of Pakistan thinks so

    (5) broke my heart a little, if for no other reason than I know what it feels like to say or want to say those lines, too: “I made it my goal in life to be pretty for you so that when we met you would want to put your mouth on mine and fill my head with your bullshit ideas.”

    I’ll stop here. I don’t think this post needs any further justification for existing.

    Though I would like to say: this post is about the sentences, gagworthy or no; it is not about money.

  3. Molly,

    I understand the impulse toward the beautiful or surprising first sentence…. I too get entranced by sentences that surprise and break my heart. The trouble, i think, is that sentences very rarely can stand on their own. Especially in fiction, they need the subsequent lines to justify their existence. I think that’s where comments like CherylIT’s come from: without context, there’s a thin line between the ridiculous and the sublime.

    During my MFA, we had a short fiction contest the students read for. And we’d informally collect amazing (and sometimes godawful) sentences for comparison’s sake. It was odd how many of them were indistinguishable from each other. The tone, the context, the story built around the sentence… they all matter.

    • Hi Mike,

      I totally agree. Context is everything. And of course we read stories to read the, well, stories. I am partial to a great beginning, though, and an intriguing and suggestive, well-phrased first sentence will often lead me to read on or not. But I realize this can also be as superficial as judging a book by its cover.

      Thanks for weighing in.

      • I would be scared to write a few of these opening sentences. Scared that what followed could not live up. These are sentence prodigies, playing scales at three and fugues at five. I fear, too, that I might be overprotective of them instead of doing what needs to be done, i.e. sending them out into the greater, precarious, unknown world of the rest of the story.

        Thanks for an appetite-whetting post.

  4. Molly,

    A hell of a list. There’s so much talent that goes unrecognized online. The Best of The Web anthology showcases talented writers as well as the risks those writers take. It pushes buttons and boundaries – it’s one of the beautiful, experiential things about publishing online.

    I enjoyed this post. Keep up the good work, Molly.

  5. For what it’s worth:

    En un cuento bien logrado, las tres primeras líneas tienen casi la importancia de las tres últimas.

    [In a well achieved short story, the first three lines have almost the same importance as the last three.]
    —Horacio Quiroga

    This first sentence I liked a lot: “She doesn’t know there is a man inside her pillowcase.”

  6. That’s a great selection of opening lines. I love them for the same reasons: they are the tip of an iceberg, a hint at something greater, and they create a curiosity that makes me want to read more.

    I think I even recognize a couple in there, which says a lot, that a story I read months ago, and only see the first sentence of NOW, still resonates with me. That 2nd one, that’s Stephen Graham Jones, right? Man, I loved that one.

    Very cool. Have to pick this up.

    Thanks, Molly.

  7. Yes, Richard, that 2nd one is Stephen Graham Jones and part of the reason we selected that story to lead off the anthology (after the introductions from Matt and Kathy) was because of that first line – a nice tone to set. There were other reasons as well, but that was certainly part of it.

    Thanks, Molly!

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