Monday, December 06, 2021

A Closed and Common Orbit


I first read Becky Chambers' work when her story, "To Be Taught, If Fortunate," was a Hugo nominee. I liked it, and planned to read more. Her most recent book, A Psalm for the Wild Built, was lovely and reassuring, and I went on to read all of the Wayfarers series. 

Of these works, the first sentence that interested me most came from A Closed and Common Orbit, book two of the Wayfarers series: "Lovelace had been in a body for twenty-eight minutes, and it still felt every bit as wrong as it had the second she woke up in it."

There's a lot to unpack here. We have a character, Lovelace. She has a problem – something feels very wrong. Character plus problem is a first sentence formula that can fit any genre. 

Lovelace's specific problem, however, takes up the rest of the sentence, and shows us that the world is not our own. 

First, she "had been in a body" – this is a curious way to relate to a body. Lovelace is drawing a very clear line between the body and herself. Since she has only been there "for twenty-eight minutes," she is accustomed to not being in a body. Lovelace is a person – giving her the personal pronoun "she" in English implies that, as does giving her a name – yet she is a non-bodied person. It's not just that she's unaccustomed to this body; "a body," with the indefinite article "a," implies that there's nothing special about this body – any body would feel wrong to her. 

Next, that length of time – "for twenty-eight minutes" is both precise and short. Lovelace doesn't call it half an hour. Also, she expects that half an hour is enough for her to start feeling better about the body. If she were a newly born human, she wouldn't measure time that closely, nor would she expect to become comfortable that quickly. Her consciousness is well-developed before having a body, and she expects half an hour to make a noticeable difference to her. 

We see that from the word "still" – after half an hour, the body "still" feels wrong. In fact, it feels "every bit as wrong as it had the second she woke up in it." In other words, she was aware of the body from her first second in it, and she is painfully aware that her discomfort in it hasn't changed at all. 

This sentence promises us a world in which an intelligence can move into a body and a close examination of how that person feels about living in that body. A Closed and Common Orbit delivers on those promises. 

I hope, wherever you are, you are comfortable in your skin. Whether you are or aren't, Lovelace's story reflects on bodies and selves in an illuminating mirror with a twist. Such mirrors are one of the strengths of fiction set in other worlds. 

Graphic elements by Ken Silbert

Monday, November 22, 2021

Another Vacation Day!

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate. And I am thankful for all of you who read this.  

Monday, November 15, 2021

The Best Thing You Can Steal

This week's first sentence is another library find, a recent novel from a prolific English author. I found The Best Thing You Can Steal by Simon R. Green rollicking and clever. The first sentence begins building a world with a strong dash of style: "There is a world beneath the world, where magic and horrors run free, wonders and miracles are everyday things, and the dark streets are full of very shadowy people."

It's a lovely sentence to read aloud. It's long, but thoughtfully divided into sections by the commas. It has an understated rhythm, not quite falling into an alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables. It reminded me of poetry, and I went looking for why. I found this attractive pattern: in a sentence divided into four by the commas, the first phrase has eight syllables, the second phrase has eight syllables, the third and fourth phrases both have twelve syllables. 

Now, let's look at the words. 

The first phrase is an elegant definition of the secret history genre: "There is a world beneath the world." The conventions of that genre are that on the surface, we see the world we know. Beneath it, known to only a few, the rules are different. Men in Black, stories of worlds through secret doors, and most vampire novels belong to this genre. 

The remaining phrases describe the hidden world. "Where magic and horrors run free" – since magic is often appealing, while horror is frightening, this phrase suggests that the hidden world is a place of both wonder and dread. 

"Wonders and miracles are everyday things" – both "wonders" and "miracles" have positive connotations. The contrast in this phrase is between the heightened, uncommon, and magical experiences and the bland and common "everyday things." 

The fourth and final phrase leans to the hidden: "and the dark streets are full of very shadowy people." Both "dark" and "shadowy" suggest things that are hard to see. "Shadowy people" can also mean criminals. This is another case of loading the most ominous words at the end of the sentence. 

Until I wrote that paragraph, I hadn't noticed the association in this sentence between dark and dangerous. That's a point worth considering. Many people feel more vulnerable when it is harder to see. Many White people also feel that Black or brown-skinned people are dangerous. It's difficult to become aware and stop making that second association when the language is ubiquitous yet unexamined. I'm glad that looking at this sentence reminded me of that point. 

Reading a wide variety of viewpoints helps develop broader empathy and stronger reading skills. I recommend it. 

Graphic elements by Ken Silbert

Photo by Dale Nibbe on Unsplash

Monday, November 08, 2021


It was time to find more first sentences. I entered the library, and walked to a random stretch of shelf, and began pulling books and opening them, like a shark with a very specialized diet. 

The one to catch my attention was Diana Abu-Jaber's novel Origin. I wasn't previously familiar with the author, although I looked her up later and saw she has won several awards, of which the PEN award may be the most prestigious. The book, and its first sentence, feel literary: "I spot her as soon as I get off the elevator on the fourth floor." 

The first three words contain the most drama in the sentence: "I spot her." That's a different choice than loading the most impactful word at the end. These three words create a link between the narrator and another person. To spot someone is to recognize them, not just to see them. It means there is something identifiable and meaningful about the person you've noticed. 

The next phrase marks a moment: "as soon as I get off the elevator." The impact of seeing the other person is immediate. The narrator doesn't need to process or search the surroundings. The one the narrator sees stands out the very first instant they are in the same room. 

The final phrase marks a place: "on the fourth floor." With an elevator and a fourth floor, we know we are in a large building, the kind usually found in cities. 

Elevators and fourth floors don't carry a lot of emotional weight. The sentence almost retreats from the intimacy and impact of two people connected by a line of sight ("I spot her") to mundane, impersonal details: "as soon as I get off the elevator on the fourth floor." 

In other words, the rest of the sentence softens the impact of "I spot her" instead of raising it. That's a move that feels literary to me: quieting emotions, gentling impacts. 

Another aspect of this sentence that feels literary is the strength of the rhythm. The sentence starts with three groups of three one-syllable words. It naturally breaks like this: I spot her / as soon as / I get off / the elevator / on the fourth floor. A fourth set of three would have become too blatant or monotonous. Changing the rhythm after three sets of three lets the sentence become more natural. 

Finally, the form is first person, present tense. The narrator speaks as the central character, "I," and in the moment, "spot" – not third person, (most commonly he, she, or they) nor past (spotted). We will be looking out from the narrator's eyes, traveling tightly forward in time with them. Abu-Jaber makes elegant use of the difficulty of an "I" observing themselves, and of sharing the narrator's observations, as well as the slipperiness of a constant present, later in the book. 

It was a quiet sentence, and it had enough to draw me in. 

Graphic elements by Ken Silbert

Photo by Taya Iv on Unsplash

Monday, November 01, 2021


The first sentence of Rachel Neumeier's novel, Tuyo, widens the view before narrowing it again: "Beside the coals of the dying fire, within the trampled borders of our abandoned camp, surrounded by the great forest of the winter country, I waited for a terrible death." 

This is a sentence almost like a camera trick. First, we have a narrow focus: "Beside the coals of a dying fire."

Then, we back out to a slightly wider view: "within the trampled borders of our abandoned camp." A campfire is a small circle. The borders of a camp is a larger one. 

Next, we zoom to a very high altitude view: "surrounded by the great forest of the winter country." We'd need to move to a mountain top or a bird's eye to see an entire forest or an entire country. 

Suddenly, the focus is very tight again: "I" – one person, one face. 

And last, "waited for a terrible death," prepares us for a final fade to black. Neumeier has written a truly cinematic sentence. 

In addition to the camera moves, the narrator sets a strong hook. "I waited for a terrible death" sets the stakes to mortal. We also have clues about the world: people camp in groups around fires, there is a great forest and a winter country. "Winter country" is a little strange. In our world, we might call some polar regions winter countries. But even there, it is not winter all the time. Is there something else happening in the world of the story? "Winter country" is a subtle note that might point to the story taking place in another world. 

In another way, the sentence is dramatic rather than subtle. There are six words in the lexical field of death and endings: coals, dying, trampled, abandoned, winter, and death. Nor is it a gentle or quiet death; it is a "terrible death" – death worse than death. This sentence suggests the story to come will contain both small details and subtle clues and grand emotions and vast scale. 

Spending time with this sentence has me feeling like rereading the book. 

Some notes about what I do on this blog. My first sentence posts (which have been my only posts recently, but are not guaranteed to be all I write about) follow a few rules. For living authors, I only write about sentences I like or that I wrote myself. I usually read the books and like the books as well. My schedule is every Monday. I like to vary my authors and the genres they write in. Today I found that my working list of sentences contained six from sf/f, one from romance, and two from mystery/thriller, so I may need to go looking in mainstream fiction soon. This is no surprise, as science fiction and fantasy are my literary home! I do like to feature sentences from authors in groups who have historically had less attention. I like seeing more points of view, and I believe that we are all better off when more people have a chance to share their creativity. 

So do send me intriguing first sentences you've seen, especially those by women and members of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities! This is my 86th first sentence post, and I'm still finding new pleasures in them.

Photo by Benjamin Raffetseder on Unsplash

Graphic elements by Ken Silbert

Monday, October 25, 2021

Black Water Sister

Zen Cho's novel Black Water Sister starts with a sentence that does an unusually good job of foreshadowing three threads in her story: "The first thing the ghost said to Jess was: Does your mother know you're a pengkid?"

The first thread is the supernatural. There is a ghost that speaks to Jess. 

The second thread is intergenerational conflict: "Does your mother know...?" That phrase is how judgmental adults speak to younger people finding their own path. People say that when they want to shame or threaten someone for an activity they think their mother wouldn't approve of. It implies that your mother still has control over you. Our mothers always do, to some degree, yet these words have less leverage once the young person has established their own household. 

The third thread comes from a word I don't recognize: "pengkid." Apparently, it's something that might worry a mother. Jess doesn't understand the word, either, as the narrator explains in the next few sentences. It's a word in a language she speaks but has a limited vocabulary in. This story will feature multiple languages and cultures; this one word tips us off that Jess is caught in a clash of cultures. 

One sentence points out three sources of conflict: supernatural, parental, and cultural. I admire that very much. 

I also admire the careful use of italics. There are different conventions for how to use italics. One is that all foreign words go in italics. Another is that thoughts go in italics. At some point, Zen Cho (with possible discussion with her editors) needed to decide whether to use italics in either of these ways. She decided against italicizing foreign words and in favor of italicizing the words of the ghost, which she hears soundlessly. This works very well – I found the words easy to follow, and the italics helped make the story clearer. If she had used italics for foreign words, it would have done two things that would not have helped the story: first, she would have had to decide which words were foreign, which would make all but one of the languages shown in the book defined as other, and that is not true to Jess's experience – who decides which words are foreign? Second, there would have been enough of those italicized words to tire the eyes.

I've had decisions like this to make for books I've worked on. I like the meaning and the result of deciding to use italics for a way to speak, and deciding not to use italics for words of some languages and not another. 

All of Black Water Sister was clear-eyed, thoughtful, meaningful, and suspenseful. I liked it very much. 

Three sources of conflict makes this sentence a hook. I found it an even better promise. It promised that if I liked young women in conflict with the supernatural and their parents, and who need to navigate multiple cultures, I would like this book. And I did. 

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