What makes a good opening line? It depends on the story. Editors of suspense thrillers often hold manuscripts up to an “Airport Test”: If you were browsing through an airport bookstore, picked up a paperback and read the opening line, would you buy the book before boarding your flight?…Draw up a list of five favourite novels and review their opening lines. What drew you in? A beautiful metaphor? The hint of danger? Try duplicating the effect in opening lines of their own. See where they take you.
- From The Writer’s Block, by Jason Rekulak
Here are the opening lines from five of my favourite novels.
1. “They shoot the white girl first.” - Paradise, Toni Morrison. (Obviously, I wanted to know what was going on - why did they shoot the white girl? Why did they shoot her first? Who else were they going to shoot? And who were”they?”)
3. “A long time ago, I disappeared.” - Caucasia, by Danzy Senna. (Where did this person go? Were they kidnapped or did they run away? Was the disappearance metaphorical or physical?)
5. “Brooklyn-born I don’t have no sob stories for you about rats and roaches and pissy-pew hallways.” - The Coldest WInter Ever, Sister Souljah. (I chose this one mostly because of the tone. The personality and attitude of this person - conveyed so boldly in less than twenty words - was an instant attraction.)
And now, here is my own opening line…with the story that follows after the cut!
“There’s a bull loose in the building!”
“There’s a bull loose in the building!”
This exclamation, preceded by the office door flying open and into the wall, stops everything. Some of us pause in the middle of typing; the rest of us pause mid-sentence. There’s not really much of us: only six. And I am the only girl. Thusly, my friends and I refer to my workplace as “The Sausage Factory.”
I’ve only been here for a month and already I’m sucking hard at this position. I think my boss is beginning to regret hiring me. About an hour ago, he handed my copy back to me, saying that it lacked finesse, so since then I’ve been sitting here trying to re-work it in between checking my Facebook profile. I know I should be focusing exclusively on my work, seeing that it’s so horribly inadequate, but I can’t really concentrate right now. So I tell myself that I’m just taking a break, that once inspiration hits me, I can get off the web and back to writing. Sitting there staring at it wasn’t helping anyway.
Besides: how much finesse could one put into copy about a document destruction company?
Not that I’d say this to my boss. He’s super nice but I doubt he’s interested in excuses. If he were, I would also tell him: Maybe my writing lacks finesse because my life lacks finesse.
The man who bursts into our office works across the hall from us. He heads some web design company. There’s so many of them in this building – at least on our floor – which is located on the fourth. It’s all design and print shops: communication-based companies. I’m not sure what’s on the second and third floors, but the first is populated with a café, a furniture store, and some kind of boutique that sells soap so pungent we can smell it all the way up here. There’s some other retail stores down there, too, but I’m not sure what they are. After all, I’ve only been here a month.
The building is old but under construction, so getting inside is a challenge, with all the cranes and other such types of equipment nearly barricading the entrance. Throughout the day you can constantly hear hammering and drilling and sawing. But you can also tell that this is going to be turned into something great. This girl who works in the building’s main office is friendly with The Sausage Factory, so she often comes in with the latest developments, showing us floor plans and prototypes both on paper and on the website. For the latter, we usually gather around my boss’ computer to take a look.
The girl is skinnier than me. She’s got freckled skin and a turned up nose and shiny, sleek hair. She wears a flat Gucci waist pouch that she never seems to take off and walks into the office with a confident stride, her high heels clicking confidently on the tiled floor. Unlike myself, for when I walk outside the office and down the hallway to the washrooms, the sound of my own pumps (which I bought to treat myself for getting this job, which don’t quite fit) make an uneven, erratic staccato beat.
This office is like nowhere I’ve ever worked. It’s open concept, and right now, completely makeshift, because my boss relocated shortly before he hired me. Our desks are tables topped with desktop computers – the old school kind, boxy – and are shoved against the wall. So while some of us are sitting next to each other, the rest sit with out backs to each other, which is my situation: I’m practically spine-to-spine with the sole account manager.
There’s a kick-ass cappuccino machine on top of the filing cabinet, whose third drawer contains a Costco purchased family-sized pack of assorted granola bars. Grimy multi-paned windows, facing east, diffuse a lemony light onto the faded wooden floorboards. The walls are rough and black; suspended from one of them is a large flat-screen TV hooked up to iTunes, blaring out songs by The Fray and Snow Patrol and My Chemical Romance.
I didn’t think I’d like working somewhere that looks like this, so divorced from glamour. I guess I’m fond of the way it’s rough around the edges: a work in progress.
It’s too bad my writing sucks. I actually like working here. Everyone is so nice and I get a kick out of being the only chick here. I like that it’s a more liberated workplace than my previous positions (including the one where they had constant champagne lunches), which I thought were as liberated as one could get. You’d think it would be the perfect atmosphere to give my writing the kick it needed, to light my ass on fire, anything. But no. A little over a month into the job and my boss is already questioning my work.
Which makes me feel sorry for him. Because I feel like I’ve let him down, wasted his time. He’s really nice. He’s always reminding me about the granola bars in case I haven’t eaten breakfast. He treats the office to lunch every Friday, taking us to fancy restaurants in the nicest parts of the city. He lets me leave slightly early everyday to catch the bus since it’s a two-hour journey – each way – every day. When I had to take a couple of days off for my grandfather’s funeral less than two weeks into the job, he asked how my mother was coping with her father’s death. And just now, when he’d returned my copy to me, he was even super-nice about that. He encouraged rather than scolded; made suggestions instead of criticisms. Told me he knew I could do better, told me that lately he’d been noticing my lack of passion, that I need to push myself, to keep writing and rewriting until I found it. His tone was almost that of a concerned parent.
Yet here I am, being a shit and scrolling through Facebook. If I was so concerned about not letting this man down, you’d think I’d buckle down and do the job for which I was being paid. But I can’t seem to. I get restless – raiding the granola bar stash more than once; making myself cappuccino after cappuccino and taking more-than-necessary trips to the bathroom, making the vast, wide hallway echo with the off-key rhythm of my high-heeled pumps.
Also: my boss feels sorry for me because of the long commute I have to take to get here. I have a driver’s license, but no car, so I have to take a bus, a train, a subway and a streetcar every day. The Sausage Factory often teases me about it, but my boss asks me almost every day: “How was your commute?” I’m always good-natured about it, saying that it gives me a chance to read or catch up on sleep. The other dudes think I’m a superhero for putting up with such a long-ass commute because they “could never do it”. They either live in the city or have cars, so they don’t suffer the same fate I do: staring out the window, sitting in a mass transportation tube that, at the end of the day, brings me right back to where I started.
A while back, I was pleased to discover that someone with whom I used to work with at the mall years ago took the same train as I did to work. For then on, we planned to meet up in the mornings so we could sit together. Still, while I was glad to run into her after all these years, I was kind of disappointed to see that I’d be missing out on my reading time.
Except I wouldn’t be.
Even though it had been five years since we last saw each other, it didn’t take but twenty minutes into our first official ride together to discover that neither of us have progressed much since. We both still live at home, and have upgraded job-wise: she settles estates for a major bank and I, of course, write copy. Neither of us are dating anyone. Neither of us own vehicles, have traveled lately, or have so much as purchased an interesting nail polish colour. (Though once she showed me this elaborately designed, raw silk scarf that she felt guilty about buying and was debating whether she should return it.) So our subsequent rides have consisted of something barely resembling small talk; sometimes we end up repeating the same stories. Once in a while, another one of her friends – a male one – would join us and we would be spared such painful conversation. On days when he was not there, she would take to falling asleep minutes following our attempt at small talk, and I was once again free to read.
Yet, ironically, I feel lonely on the trips back home. (I get off work an hour after my work friend does.) Sometimes the streetcar does not sync up with the train’s schedule, so I often miss it and have 45 minutes to kill before the next one. Sometimes I’ll wait on the platform, chatting with an older man I run into quite frequently; he tells me about his job at the public library where he works in archives. I imagine that he goes home, sits in a room smelling of mahogany and leather and drinks an aged cabernet – or, perhaps, a snifter of cognac – and listens to NPR or something. He tells me he’s going to retire next year and plans to spend it travelling extensively with his wife after he walks his daughter down the aisle. I hang on his every word, envying his impeding freedom. I imagine he’s very good at his job, is very meticulous, puts care into every single detail and has never failed to have a positive, upbeat attitude – albeit in a subdued way. I can’t imagine his voice carrying with any significance, but I think that’s okay.
Other times, I will venture into the mall that’s right across from the subway station – where the streetcar drops me off - and parallel to the train’s platform. I have dubbed it The Worst Mall In The World, because, ugh. It looks like it was built in the seventies and never renovated. The only decent store within is the pharmacy; the rest are a smattering of discount stores with merchandise that no one in their right mind would purchase. There’s a hair salon but I never see anyone patronize it. And the postage stamp-sized food court contains a grand total of three restaurants, none of which are recognizable names, or seem to serve food that’s even close to edible. Need to go to the washroom? Sure! Just ask one of the tenants for the key, which is attached to a long bacteria-ridden (probably) stick of wood. Which of these tenants have the key? A select few, so it’s like rolling the dice. Does the key prevent the washrooms from being vandalized and poorly kept? That would be a hell no.
That’s why most of the time that I spend in The Worst Mall In The World is done so in the drugstore. It’s the kind where the pharmacy is secondary among all the beauty products and groceries and other sundries. I go in there intending to just browse until my train arrives, but almost always end up coming out of there with a bag full of something I don’t necessarily need: a bag of chips (usually Lay’s BBQ) candy (jujubes) chocolate (two-for-one is my favourite), a gossip magazine (sometimes Cosmo, which I always regret buying) and some sort of cosmetic: a bright palette of eyeshadow, liquid eyeliner, or a mascara that promises to make even the puniest of eyelashes look fake. Even though the latter product never fails to disappoint me, I keep buying, hoping that I’ll finally find one that satisfies me.
Oh yeah: the bull.
So after Web Design Owner bursts in with this bizarre lead-in, and we all freeze, waiting for the punchline, we soon discover that he wasn’t pulling a prank to shake up our ordinary workday.
Later, Skinny sashays her freckled self in and gives us the 411:
Turns out that a bull or cow or some kind of bovine creature, all 1000 pounds of it, busted out of the trailer in which it was being transported to the agricultural fair. Once it came across our building, it found its opportunity for mischief in the open door of an automation shop, which had left it that way as it was an unusually warm November day. After smashing its way through the store, and trampling the shit out of a piece of equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, it moved on to the warehouse adjacent to the shop, shattering dry wall and leaving steel bolts in its wake – but not before pitching an employee up against a shelf, causing scrapes and bruises.
By then, the police had come one the scene, trying to contain it with a wood table, but the bull/cow made quick work of it before making its way back into the automation store. Bloodied and battered by its own rampage, it calmed at the voice of its trainer, who had since showed up to join the cops. In the end, the creature was tied to a forklift stowed back into its trailer, and transported back to where it came.
Leaving a nice parting gift on their carpet: a big, stinky steaming dump.
“I can’t believe all of that was going on and we didn’t hear any of it,” says my boss.
“Same here,” I concur. I also want to say: I feel cheated.
After Skinny leaves, we chat about today’s incident a little more, searching on Google to see if the story has already been reported to any news outlets: so far, it has not.
“All right,” says my boss, after about twenty minutes of discussion, after the shock has worn off. “Back to work.”
We all head back to our desks, and I start writing again.