Opening lines. They often are what make or break a poem, a story, a chapter, a novel. They are more than a first impression. They are a promise of what’s to come. A commitment to nuance. A differentiator. Opening lines, man, they’re critical.
As a publisher of mostly novels and story collections, I am a stickler about opening lines. I have very little patience for prose that jams like the barrel of grandad’s little-used rifle, and sadly, as a fussy reader, I have even less patience for poetry that stumbles at the starting line.
I am a snob when it comes to compelling openers — and I am so certain of their significance that I want to celebrate them with a new Atticus Review column dedicated to them.
The best news reporters, sports writers, film directors, and stage entertainers all know the importance of employing a supreme hook in the opening few lines–every second of delay a restraint intended to whet the palate, leaving the target audience hungry for the next course.
Literature is no different. The best literary writers are voracious observers with a hunter’s instinct. They see the potential of poetry and pace in every sentence. They know when to lay low and know when to pounce. Writing, they know, is bloodsport.
When you submit work, dear writer, forget testimonials. Keep your marketing description to yourself.
Forget plot too. Small press editors don’t want to hear it.
Exhibit your craft, your understanding of wild game. Your capacity for silence, your ability to handle a firearm. Your impeccable timing.
Send this publisher new work that wrestles me to the ground and unarms me–introduces me to a writer with intuition, and I’ll be more than happy to publish a brief excerpt of your published work on the Atticus Review website.
The following books and presses are worth exploring, in large part because they appreciate the allure of a strong opener. Be they artful, playful, surprising, or subtle, these writers know how and when to take aim and shoot.
“Chastity is mystical. I am washed clean, purified. My fingers are cool to the touch but scented with rose water. Each step I take is lighter, less anxiety-ridden. My love is a pond, ripples laying outward.” – “White”
“I like to make up stories for people. Wild, exciting things that couldn’t possibly have happened. Anything realistic isn’t fun, and the more interesting, the better. Also, the less actually connected to the factual people, the better.” – Page 33, The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes
“Pym Dark came into my office and sat opposite the potted bamboo and Seurat print. His notebook, he said, contained ideas, proposals, contingencies for a new aesthetic–although when I saw it, these ruminations were crossed out, leaving sequences of black oblongs and irregular circles reminiscent of Morse code. What his book had once held, he said, was connected to the persistence of vision, a long-debunked theory that argued perceived motion originated from the afterimage. To muddy the situation I had been a proponent of the theory, albeit a modified version that incorporated Freud’s ideas on repression.” – “Here is the Light”
“Mom and Dad watch the apocalypse on TV. Correction: they watch Cronkite talking about the apocalypse on TV. But let’s not split hairs. Like usual, Dad waited ’til the last second and all the good motels were booked, so they stay at a brothel in the hills, where the air is sticky. Bed is too, come to mention it. Mom blows bubbles with a plastic wand, strokes her swollen belly. Dad takes notes in this joint’s Bible, a Hustler from the bedside dresser. Dad says Mom’s bubbles look like mushroom clouds.” – “One for the Road”
plain wrap press (San Francisco)
53 pages, 5.5 x 4.25
“My horse wears more name brands than I do, I’ve got arena sand in my boots, and everytime I pull my hand out of my pocket I find strands of hay.” – Horse Girl
The Heart’s Progress
Sarah Fran Wisby
76 pages, 5.5 x 4.25
“The heart bears the absence of your mark, but barely. It limps along, an unclaimed parcel, kept alive by licking condensation from the pipes underneath suburban homes and eating the corpses of kamikaze insects that lie fallen in nightly semi-circles under porch lights.” – The Heart’s Progress
Two of Cups Press (Georgetown, Kentucky)
Night for Weeks
Poems by Teneice Durrant
Cover art by Jeanie Tomanek
Cover design by Leigh Anne Hornfeldt
“Anchored to the shoreline
of an old bar, Sarah orders another
drowning is easier than falling
asleep.” – “Mother of Nations”
“I was probably drunk —
it’s amazing more poems
don’t start this way. The shot
glass O of my mouth
against his on the loveseat.
My bones so small,
like he was a slat wood
raft, a causeway through
the dirty Pontchartrain.” – “Drinking Poem,” Erin Elizabeth Smith