The Bulwer-Litton Fiction Contest winners for 2011 have been chosen, and the grand prize inflictor’s entry is rather disgusting. There was no memoir category (what!?), but the winner’s entry will do. This contest picks the worst first line of a (fake) novel submitted, as follows:
“Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.” – Sue Fondrie
I hope you can tell this is bad. Bad, ugly metaphor reminds me of the movie Fargo. It’s good to use metaphor (and simile) in your lifewriting, but not ones about sparrows getting chopped up, unless it is a horror memoir. What makes the Bulwer-Litton contest ironic is that the first sentence of any book is supposed to be catching, to lure the reader into going further. And these winning lines certainly are catching, just in the wrong way. After you have written a few drafts of a short lifestory or memoir, take a look at the beginning paragraph. Can you rewrite or tweak it or even start out the book differently to hint at what is coming later in the story so readers are intrigued and want to continue? In my mother’s WWII Japan memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, I put the intrigue at the end of the first paragraph describing a peaceful view from the house: “I could not imagine then how this peace would be broken.”
Here are a few other first lines or last lines of first paragraphs of memoirs that I liked:
“I guess the reason I am still here today to tell my story is because I come from a long line of survivors” (Laughter Wasn’t Rationed by Dorothea von Schwanenflugel Lawson)
“I left the South so long ago, never to return, never looking back to allow yesterday to flood on in.” (Suitcase Full of Dreams by Hoy Kersh)
“To those who are still with me, I can only say one thing: thank God for the foolhardy.” (Hippie From Iowa by Michael Sieleman)
“This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt.” (A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas)
Now, it is not absolutely necessary to have a snappy one-line in the beginning. Rick Skwiot in his memoir, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico starts with him snapping his ankle during a basketball game. Mary Karr starts out The Liars’ Club with a doctor examining her seven-year-old self after a rape. Other authors start out by telling a short story told to them by their mother, launching into a description of another time and place, or introducing an interesting character in an interesting way – here’s Elie Wiesel’s Night :
“They called him Moishe the Beadle, as if his entire life he never had a surname.”
Wiesel goes on to tell how Moishe is different from the other Jews and how Wiesel met this significant teacher in his life.
The writing of a good first paragraph can be stressful, but don’t sweat it. If it doesn’t come to you early, save it for last, after you get an idea of what the whole book will be about. Play around with it, dream about it, read other memoir beginnings, run drafts by your family and friends. As usual, if you are writing for your family it is not as important, but if writing for publication, that’s a different story.