10 September 2009

Never Could Figure Out How to End It

The Books section of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle features Grabbers, “a selection of first sentences from new books.”

For example: “I was suspended in eighth grade for bringing my semen to science class” writes Ryan Boudinot at the beginning of his novel “Misconception.”

Being contrary, I wondered about the opposite of “Grabbers.” LAST sentences. From OLD books.

The hapless ending: “That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.” (from “Crime & Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky).

The famous ending: “That’s well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our garden.” (“Candide” by Voltaire).

The scratch-your-head ending: “I dwell the longer upon this subject from the desire I have to make the society of an English Yahoo by any means not insupportable,” (Jonathan Swift at the end of “Gulliver’s Travels”) “and therefore I here entreat those who have any tincture of this absurd vice, that they will not presume to come in my sight.” Swift prefers impossibly smart and civilized horses to debased human Yahoos, or at least that’s how I read it, but I could be wrong. And the novel ends.

Herman Melville began “Moby Dick” with what became one of the most famous first lines in history: “Call me Ishmael.” The novel appears to end with the sinking of the whale ship Pequod: “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

Wonderful ending. But wait; there is an epilogue so Ishmael can survive to tell the tale. Buoyed by the coffin of his friend, the harpoonist Queequeg: “I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

Back here in present reality, I asked local publisher, poet and editor Cynthia Frank to share her thoughts on the usefulness of first lines:

“If I'm bored by the first page in a manuscript submission, I'll usually skip around a bit to see if the story picks up. Many authors who are starting out seem to find their voice, their real starting point, a number of pages in. If it's a first novel and I'm intrigued enough to give the manuscript some time, the architecture of the story, and its ending are extremely important. I've read a lot of bang-up beginnings. Not everyone can write a bang-up ending.

“Some newer authors paint themselves into painful literary corners... If the manuscript is both problematic and full of errors (grammar, syntax), reeks of perfume or mold, or is full of hate (race, gender, religion), we'll reject it immediately. Neatness counts, too. I want to be working with authors who respect their own work! A publishing contract is a long-term relationship, not dinner at your favorite restaurant.

“Of course, we spend more time on submissions than the big publishing houses. If you're a Random House editor wading through 300+ submissions each week, that first page is really important! And so is the marketing information and information about the author,” she concludes.

Now Words on Books needs a good last line. Except I don’t have one.


My long-time friend and colleague Cynthia Frank owns Cypress House, Lost Coast Press, QED Press, and EdgeWork Books, all located on 155 Cypress Street, Fort Bragg, CA 95437.

You can reach her at (707) 964-9520 and online:

Recent books and awards include “Spanish-Live It and Learn It! The Complete Guide to Language Immersion Schools in Mexico” by Martha Racine Taylor and “The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish” by Sal Glynn (winner, IPPY Gold Award for Best Writing/Publishing Book).

Someone has compiled 98 PAGES of first lines, if you dare to look.

Current editions of books mentioned:

“Misconception” by Ryan Boudinot ISBN: 080217065X

“Crime & Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky ISBN: 0199536368

“Candide” by Voltaire ISBN: 0140455108

“Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift ISBN: 0199536848

“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville ISBN: 0199535728

“Spanish-Live It and Learn It! The Complete Guide to Language Immersion Schools in Mexico” by Martha Racine Taylor ISBN: 1879384647

“The Dog Walked Down the Street” by Sal Glynn ISBN: 1879384663

1 comment:

paul in davis said...

Thanks for posting the last line of Candide. It reminded me of the time I played in the pit band for the musical production of the book. What a great time that was! It's an excellent musical and that last line still makes me smile.

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