My fingers were poised above the keyboard, tense and motionless, waiting for orders that never come – like soldiers about to attack a rebel town, unaware that their government has abdicated.
The purpose of this first sentence is twofold. Firstly, to try and describe what writer’s block is like and secondly because the line is so overwrought, to show that writer’s block means you’ll eventually settle for any old muck. Since I’m experiencing a touch of this affliction this week, I thought I’d try and work through it.
Primary school teachers long recognised the potentially damaging effects of writer’s block on their pupils by instructing students to simply begin with:
“This is the news. Today is Friday. It is wet and windy”
This helped to ease you into the essay. Although not every day was Friday, most days were wet and windy. Later on, as I developed a bit more of an imagination, English stories came more easily to me and opening lines became more lurid.
“Captain Max Fontaine of the Galactic Photon Fleet placed the thrusters on hyperspeed and soon left his pursuers behind.”
Once that first line was on the page, the story sailed along merrily. But how to finish the intergalactic adventure? Luckily there was a simple enough escape route:
“The engines were losing power. The Zolgarian DeathShips were just seconds away. Max Fontaine did the only thing he could in order to preserve the future of the human race. He pressed the large red button on command deck. A roaring noise engulfed him and before he lost consciousness the smell of smoke filled his nostrils. Then someone was shaking him. ‘Wake up Finbarr you’ll be late for school!’”
It had all been a dream! Everything was going to be just fine. The End.
While that approach worked quite well in school essays, the mortgage advisor at your friendly bank will take a dim view of any attempt to employ it in the real world. “Dear Mr O’Regan. Though we were entertained by your letter and the ‘twist’ at the end of it, I must inform you that now that you are awake, you still have a mortgage with us here and everything will not be just fine.“
A good first line can be the making or the breaking of any piece of writing. Moby Dick is held up as a classic example. “Call me Ishmael” is simple yet it raises questions. Who is Ishmael? Is that his real name? What does he know about the dead whale? Similarly in ‘1984’ George Orwell shows us all is not right with the world of the future. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” While these books are rightly celebrated, I prefer the more straightforward approach as encapsulated perfectly in the Mills and Boon classic ‘The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl’:
“Eleni stared down at the curved black shape of the dead scorpion and a certainty which defied logic whispered its way in a cold chill over her skin.”
Straight away you know there’s one less scorpion to worry about. Mills and Boon books have an advantage over other books because their very detailed titles tell you all you need to know. Clearly, there’s a sheikh living in a desert, who owns horses. He has on his pay-roll a stable girl. Who happens to be a virgin. Though, this being Mills and Boon book, that final detail is likely to change (Spoiler Alert: page 94)
While most written works try to engage you with a first line, there is one set of publications which works the opposite way: the Oireachtas Reports. The opening words of the Dáil transcripts (at oireachtas.ie) are expressly designed to ensure you never read another word. They generally start with this page-turner of a statement from the Ceann Comhairle: “Before coming to the Order of Business I propose to deal with a number of notices under Standing Order 32. I will call on Deputies in the order in which they were submitted.”
You would not be blamed for reading no further. Which is a pity because you would then never have the pleasure of reading the top quality debate our TDs partake in when they’re about to head off on summer holidays. Here’s a snippet from last Thursday. Even though time is running short, Fianna Fáil TD Eamon O’Cuiv wants to make a point, inadvertently triggering an avalanche of Dáil-banter.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív (FF): The recess presents an opportunity to work from home, but that does not mean one is not working. I emphasise that regardless of their policies or allegiances, most politicians work very hard and believe in what they are doing.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan (FG): The Deputy is making a very presidential speech. He is looking for the nomination.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív(FF): We have seen many changes in this Dáil. Deputies on this side of the House will continue to work as a robust Opposition.
Deputy Michael Creed (FG): Robotic.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív (FF): Ba cheart dúinn toradh an mórchruinniú atá ar bun sa Bhruiséil a phlé.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald (SF): That sounded more like an Ard-Fheis speech than a presidential speech.
Deputy Timmy Dooley (FF): Has the Deputy been to one of our Ard-Fheiseanna?
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald (SF): As we pack up our buckets and spades and head off….
Deputy Niall Collins (FF): More like buckets and hand grenades…
“Colm! It’s 7am in the morning! You’ve fallen asleep reading the Oireachtas proceedings again” I wake up. Though the Dáil transcripts were real, the writer’s block was all a dream. I just need to change that terrible first line. But what to replace it with?
How about: “Ishmael never forgot the day he first saw the stable girl fixing the clock”