You Have to Start Somewhere

Where to begin, where to begin … it takes effort, feeling, rewriting, rewriting and more rewriting, not to mention a little bit of writerly magic dust to come up with a great beginning to a story or novel. As a reader, what you hope for is to be left with something memorable: one line, a few lines, a paragraph that stays with you indefinitely.

Maybe a few of my selections will remind you of an old favorite or encourage you to make a new discovery. Enjoy!

“I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.”
— Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

“The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Then she stepped out to the edge of the diving board and looked foggily into the pool; it could have been drained, myopic Brenda would never have known it.”
— Philip Roth, Goodbye Columbus

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
— Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
— Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.”
— Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

“You better not never tell nobody but God.”
— Alice Walker, The Color Purple

“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.”
— Paul Auster, City of Glass

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
— J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
— Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
— Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

“The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.”
— John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.”
— Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
— Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter.”
— Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“Call me Oscar Progresso. Or, for that matter, call me anything you want, as Oscar Progresso is not my name.”
— Mark Helprin, Memoir from Antproof Case

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
— Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
— Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
— Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

“Elmer Gantry was drunk.”
— Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
— Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street. Somebody is living in the Louvre, certain of the messages would say. Or in the National Gallery.”
— David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress

“I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train. The walls were stucco, and a color rather like tobacco-spit. Everywhere, in the bathroom too, there were prints of Roman ruins freckled brown with age. The single window looked out on a fire escape. Even so, my spirits heightened whenever I felt in my pocket the key to this apartment; with all its gloom, it still was a place of my own, the first, and my books were there, and jars of pencils to sharpen, everything I needed, so I felt, to become the writer I wanted to be.”
— Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

All of the above are unforgettable beginnings for me but that last one, the Capote one, has a certain resonance. I also had a small, one-bedroom apartment in New York that looked out over a fire escape, and while my room had none of the furnishings that Capote’s did, it still had, “everything I needed, so I felt, to become the writer I wanted to be.”

The list could go on and on…

What are some of your favorite beginnings?


10 Responses to “You Have to Start Somewhere”

  1. Mandy Says:

    “The peace of Manderley. The quietude and the grace. Whoever lived within its walls, whatever trouble there was and strife, however much uneasiness and pain, no matter what tears were shed, what sorrows borne, the peace of Manderley could not be broken or the loveliness destroyed.”
    — Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

  2. Matt Says:

    Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.
    –Franz Kafka, The Trial

  3. J. Rainmaker Says:

    In the morning it was over. The baseball fiesta was finished. I woke about 9 o’clock showered, dressed and went downstairs at The Drake. The lobby was empty and there were no people on the streets. I went to the cafe and sat in a soft chair and leaned back comfortably. The waiter was in no hurry.

    I ordered a doppio and after a while he came down from the room. I watched him come walking across the lobby. He sat down and ordered a coffee. “You know,” he said, “I think that it is best if we don’t mention last night to the others.”

  4. Your Favorite Daughter Says:

    I see you took my proofreading advice…


  5. Kristen Lamb Says:

    Thanks for the comment on my blog and for giving me your link. I will have to include this in my mash-up. Great work and what a treasure.

    Kristen Lamb

  6. More than an Author? How to Become a Household Name–Branding 101 « Kristen Lamb's Blog Says:

    […] Ayres has a wonderful blog on novel beginnings. A collection of the best and great […]

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