Saturday, May 12, 2012

Pulitzer Prize First Sentences

Every writer knows the importance of grabbing the reader with the first sentence, but she also knows how difficult that sentence can be to construct. My writer friends seem to like this one from my novel, Where Love Once Lived: She felt loved on Tuesdays.

To be honest, I like it also. However, I'm not sure why it works. Now that I'm writing a sequel I'm looking for an even better first sentence. This is what I have now, but I'm not tickled with it: Was there anything more embarrassing than being left standing at the altar?

This first sentence could be a spoiler for those of you who have not read Where Love Once Lived and a question mark for those who have. Either way, let me know how you feel about the sentence.

To get the creative juices working, I have listed below, first sentences from a random selection of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy – When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones – The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins.

Empire Falls by Richard Russo – Compared to the Whiting mansion in town, the house Charles Beaumont Whiting built a decade after his return to Maine was modest.

Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow – The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley – At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on County Road 686, which ran due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth – The Swede. During the war years, when I was still a grade school boy, this was a magical name in our Newark neighborhood, even to adults just a generation removed from the city's old Prince Street ghetto and not yet so flawlessly Americanized as to be bowled over by the prowess of a high school athlete.

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron – Above the barren, sandy cape where the river joins the sea, there is a promontory or cliff rising straight up hundreds of feet to form the last outpost of land.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – 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.

The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson – The prairie lay that afternoon as it had lain for centuries of September afternoons, vast as an ocean; motionless as an ocean coaxed into very little ripples by languid breezes; silent as an ocean where only very little waves slip back into their element.

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk – He was of medium height, somewhat chubby, and good looking, with curly red hair and an innocent, gay face, more remarkable for a humorous air about the eyes and large mouth than for any strength of chin or nobility of nose.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.


  1. Hmmm, a novel about abandonment issues?

  2. I don't think so. Just setting up a new problem to grapple with.

  3. Email from Peg:

    Yours grabs me. ?wot? As for the Pulitzer winners. Me thinks some of them didn't win on the strength of their first sentences. But I sure liked Steinbeck and Robinson.