Monday, October 18, 2021

The Once and Future Witches

The first sentence of Alix E. Harrow's book, The Once and Future Witches, is: "There's no such thing as witches, but there used to be." 

This sentence is an interesting case. All but one of the words are common, and have little emotional coloring. The single word that has a lot of associations is "witches" and it is a knockout. We have many strong images to go with the word "witches." 

The sentence also naturally separates into two pieces: one which ends with the strongest word in the sentence, and one which comes after. The two sentences are "There's no such thing as witches," and "There used to be." The word "but" is a simple conjunction (joining word). When I hear "There's no such thing as witches," I think of an overconfident character in a horror film. It's too strong a denial. I start expecting whoever said it to discover their mistake in a dramatic fashion.

The second part of the sentence, "there used to be," softens the effect. "Witches" no longer gains the extra impact of being the last word in the sentence. "There used to be" means something is gone. It adds nuance and possibly grief to the foreshadowing of the first part of the sentence. Since we know witches used to exist, the full sentence doesn't deny any possibility of witches existing. Saying that witches no longer exist is much weaker than saying witches have never existed. What has happened once is much more likely to happen again than what has never happened. 

Let's see what the sentence becomes with other words in the place of "witches." Here's one that's bureaucratic: "There's no such things as form 1384-C, but there used to be." That one is dull; very few people would care. Here's one with something almost everyone likes. "There's no such thing as dogs, but there used to be." That one is sad – we would miss dogs. Here's one that's true: "There's no such thing as dodos, but there used to be." That is a loss, but perhaps not as personal as losing dogs would be. Here's another true one: "There's no such thing as smallpox, but there used to be." We are relieved that there is no more smallpox. 

What are witches in the world of the story? A menace, like smallpox? A valued part of the community? A persecuted minority? Witches have been all of these and more in different tales. They are usually female. They have some measure of power. They have been villains, scapegoats, and heroes, as complex as any humans, with more ability to act. 

Perhaps the most common view of witches is that they are dangerous, magical women. Would it be good or bad if all the dangerous, magical women were gone? 

One great word can make or break a sentence. The word "witches" is an excellent choice for the single strong word in a sentence. The words around "witches" create intrigue, as they open the question that what used to exist, but doesn't now, could exist again. 

Photo by Liv Cashman on Unsplash

Graphic elements by Ken Silbert

Monday, October 11, 2021

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower

Indigenous Peoples' Day caught me unprepared today. When I can, I like to find a good sentence related to a period of observance, read the entire book, and write my blog post to suit. If you'd like to read about a sentence from an indigenous author today, please consider my older posts on Empire of Wild, Two Roads, Trail of Lightning, or Solar Flares

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is part of the influential Horatio Hornblower series by C. S. Forester. I'd heard "Horatio Hornblower stories" frequently as a shorthand for tales of people who start with very little and work hard to gain status and wealth. I was a little surprised to learn this book came out in 1950 – I'd gained an impression that the books had been around longer. As it turns out, C. S. Forester wrote the series out of chronological order. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower covers the beginning of Hornblower's career, but the earliest publication in the series came in 1937. This makes Forester a contemporary of Hemingway. 

The story begins in 1796, and the first sentence has some flavor of that time. Forester paid attention to the sound of the words. Notice the sets of alliteration (words that start with the same consonants): "blustering loudly, and bearing on its bosom," "duties kept them on deck." He repeated the word "loudly." In the second phrase that contains it, "big drops rattled loudly" the strong beats of the rhythm (´, ´, ´-, ´-) thump like the raindrops do. The sentence lends itself to reading aloud, with varying rhythms and repeating sounds. 

Reading it aloud also makes it easier to understand. With only two commas in thirty-nine words, the sentence could use the vocal expression of a good reader to help group the words into meaning. My first read put pauses in the sentence this way: "A January gale was roaring up the Channel,/ blustering loudly,/ and bearing on its bosom/ rain squalls/ whose big drops rattled loudly/ on the tarpaulin clothing/ of those among the officers/ and men/ whose duties kept them on deck." That's not the best division to make the sentence clear. Especially, the break after "officers" causes a hitch when parsing the sentence. A reader who already knew the sentence, and read without pause through "those among the officers and men" would make this easier to follow. Then we see that a storm brought rain that fell upon the sailors. 

A fair number of the words relate to the sea: gale, Channel, squalls, tarpaulin, deck. Some of the phrases sound old-fashioned: blustering, bearing on its bosom, tarpaulin (again), officers and men. The sounds and connotations of the words help build a mood – a little poetic, a little historic. 

This is a nostalgic sentence. It looks back to a time that some found heroic and appealing: when men (only men) stood up to the gusts of nature, and won their place by their own efforts. That's not really how we see the world any more. 

So maybe, this Indigenous Peoples' Day, this sentence can serve as a reminder of a past we no longer admire so simply. 

Graphic elements by Ken Silbert

Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash

Note: Corrected apostrophe placement in Indigenous Peoples' Day on 12 Oct. 2021. 

Monday, October 04, 2021

Welcome to Temptation

Jennifer Crusie's novel, Welcome to Temptation, was the first contemporary romance I absolutely loved. She published it in 2000 and I read it a few years later. Rereading it last year, I again admired the craft and the humor and the characters, even while noticing that quite a lot has changed since it came out. 

The first sentence of Welcome to Temptation is: "Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her ’86 Civic, broke her sister’s sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs. " 

It's a long sentence. Like the first sentence of Last Looks (which I blogged about on Aug. 23rd), it has a careful structure to help the meaning stay clear. 

The first part of the sentence could be complete in itself: "Sophie Dempsey didn't like Temptation." That gives us a person, Sophie Dempsey; a problem – she doesn't like Temptation; and an interesting double entendre – we see "Temptation" the capitalized name, and we also hear "temptation" the invitation to do something one shouldn't. Sophie may well face two things she doesn't like. 

The rest of the sentence intensifies Sophie's dislike. The words "even before" mean that whatever follows will make things worse. Then Crusie piles on the extra layers of problem: "the Garveys smashed into her '86 Civic, broke her sister's sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs." One interesting technique here is that the problems, instead of moving from small to large instead start with the worst and grow increasingly trivial. Smashing into a car is a potentially lethal problem. Breaking sunglasses is physical damage, but to something small and easy to replace. Confirming suspicions happens entirely within Sophie's head – it is perhaps no damage at all. And what is she suspicious about? Small towns and beige Cadillacs – items which many find attractive rather than suspicious. 

The sentence, instead of increasing the tension by making the situation worse and worse, reassures us – because if breaking her sister's sunglasses is the worst damage of the car accident, no one was hurt – and then becomes absurd as Sophie worries about small towns and Cadillacs. The final result is humor rather than tragedy. 

The sentence does raise questions. Why does Sophie dislike Temptation? Why is she suspicious of small towns and people who drive Cadillacs? Or is it only people who drive beige Cadillacs? What will happen next? But it asks those questions with humor and curiosity rather than fear and high tension. 

We also learn quite a lot about Sophie, the time, and the setting. Sophie has an old and cheap car, and a sister. Her car dates from '86, and it's a year when beige is fashionable, which narrows down the time. They are in a small town, where at least one family, the Garveys, drives a Cadillac. These details are the first elements of the story's world. They don't say everything about the time or place, but they do begin to suggest where and when the Garveys hit Sophie's car. 

I appreciate the humor, the attitude, and the commas in this sentence. Since I like humor, attitude, and well-placed commas, I am entirely tempted to read on. 

Graphic elements by Ken Silbert

Photo by Endri Killo on Unsplash

Monday, September 27, 2021

On Vacation!

No first sentence this week! I am on vacation. 

I believe in vacations! Be kind to yourselves this week. 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Anansi Boys

Comfort comes in many forms. After a hard couple of weeks, a random link took me to an interview with Neil Gaiman, and I remembered that I hadn't yet chosen a first sentence from one of my favorite authors. Anansi Boys, like Gaiman's work often does, has moments of horror, and yet, the voice that tells that horror comforts me. 

The first sentence of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys is: "It begins, as most things begin, with a song." 

The tension here is in the word "begins." Something is beginning. We don't yet know what. We don't know what characters will face it. We don't know where or when. So far, we have very few details. 

The next phrase, "as most things begin," is a statement about the shape of the world. It claims that most things that begin all start in the same way. Most things are alike. There is pattern to the universe. This is a not exactly a creation myth, but a statement of faith about creations: Most things have the same genesis. 

The last phrase is "with a song." The word "song" falls in the strong, final position, but it is not a word that increases tension. A song is art rather than danger. This placement shows that songs are important – Gaiman uses the last word to emphasize creation rather than suspense. 

Perhaps that is why I find him comforting. The world, he tells me, even in this one sentence, has danger (it begins) and it also has patterns (as most things begin) and creation (song). Gaiman's epic comic series, Sandman, about the king of dreams and stories, reminded me that storytelling mattered at a time when I had lost faith. His "Make Good Art" speech also reached me at a moment when I needed it. He tells good stories that tell us we can also make art. I need to hear that, now and then. 

Keep creating, folks. It matters. 

With all my best wishes, Anna

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Monday, September 13, 2021

A Minute to Midnight


David Baldacci appears frequently on bestseller lists. I browsed through a handful of his opening sentences, and this one, from A Minute to Midnight, appealed the most to me: "Once more she rode into the Valley of Death." 

That's an operatic and portentous statement. "Once more" – she has done this before, and survived. "She rode" – like a member of the cavalry, or a sheriff in a Western, she is not going or driving, but calling up all the horseback connotations of riding. "Into the Valley of Death" – she is entering a lethally dangerous place, giving up the high ground, and perhaps surrounded by unscalable canyon walls. A valley limits your movement. Armies have an advantage on high ground. So she is not only returning to a very dangerous place, she's giving up her high ground to go there. 

"Valley of Death" in this case has three distinct associations. The first comes from one of the most memorized passages of the Bible, the 23rd Psalm. "Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Death, I shall fear no evil." The psalmist also chose "Valley of Death" to describe an extremely perilous situation, which makes God's protection there all the more impressive. The second association is "Death Valley," one of the hottest places on Earth. It is an extremely inhospitable desert. The third association, as we learn in following paragraphs, is with a high security prison, home to murderers, which our heroine is on her way to visit. 

The triple meaning must have been irresistible. I find it very appealing. 

What kind of woman would return to a Valley of Death? Why go to such a dangerous place? What will happen there? 

This sentence is a true hook – it creates intense suspense. The grand voice of the sentence also suggests drama and passion – a promise that the book will deliver more excitement. With these words, David Baldacci launches the book at high speed. 

Photo by Will Truettner on Unsplash

Monday, September 06, 2021

The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes


The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes is a recent release with a lot of buzz. Xio Axelrod's bio says she plays in a band under another name. The details of the music business here are fresh and precise. 

The first sentence reads, "Antonia Bennette woke up from her after-school nap to the sound of a guitar." There's no dread or suspense here – we are not afraid of naps or guitars – so this sentence doesn't serve as that kind of hook. It's more like an origin story. 

We have a name: Antonia Bennette. She'll go by Toni, later, leaving her with a name that sounds like Tony Bennett, a well-known singer. It's a name that both shows her parents were deeply into music and were a little careless of her. It's unkind to give her a name that will bring an obvious comment throughout her life. 

Next, she "woke up." This is literal – she is coming out of sleep – and it could also be metaphorical. Is she having an awakening? 

The last two phrases start with "from" and "to." That implies a journey – another clue that this could be a metaphorical awakening as well as a literal one. 

And where is she starting? "From her after-school nap." She's young enough to be going to school and to have a nap afterwards. 

Where is she going? "To the sound of a guitar." Her awakening is to music. 

If I rewrote this sentence as the opening of a fairy tale, it might go like this: "One day, a girl named for a famous musician heard a sound that stirred her." Antonia Bennette is going from youth and sleep to awakening and music. She'll make guitars a core element of her life. 

It's a great opening to attract readers who are interested in girls who play guitar and who they grow up to be. 

Photo by Leutrim Fetahu on Unsplash

Graphic elements by Ken Silbert