Good writing should start strong…
Almost every list of good writing tips says some version of that.
Sometimes they just say start with a bang. Or they suggest you chop the first paragraph. So many first paragraphs are slow. Or they say the first sentence only exists to get you to read the next one.
It’s true. Of course, the second sentence has one job, too…
To get you to read the next one. And it goes on that way, all the way through. Each sentence should make the reader want to keep on reading. And so it goes, sentence by sentence. Line by line.
Bird by bird, buddy. Bird by bird.
— Anne Lamott
I think a book has a little more leeway
A book can have the odd boring sentence or paragraph that drags it’s sorry butt across the page. But if the parts before that were good, and it picks up speed fast enough, we’ll slog through.
Essays, maybe not so much. Online, even less.
Too easy to click away, close the tab. Bored, done.
But it got me wondering. Did Pulitzer prize winning authors start with a bang? Do they start strong?
So I dug into the Pulitzer winners for the last 10 years with fingers crossed the rule would hold up. That they wouldn’t start out droll and boring and win a darn Pulitzer for inflicting that upon the reader.
For your writing inspiration…
The first sentence in Pulitzer prize winning books from the last 10 years.
1. Pulitzer Winner, 2019
First there was nothing. Then there was everything.
— The Overstory, Richard Powers
2. Pulitzer Winner, 2018
From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.
— Less, Andrew Sean Greer
3. Pulitzer Winner, 2017
The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.— The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
4. Pulitzer Winner, 2016
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.
— The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
5. Pulitzer Winner, 2015
At dusk, they pour from the sky.
— All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
6. Pulitzer Winner, 2014
When I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.
— The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
7. Pulitzer Winner, 2013
Citizens, gather ‘round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates!
— The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson
8. Pulitzer Winner, 2012
There was no Pulitzer awarded in 2012. An interesting tidbit on that, which I’ll include at the bottom. An interesting read for writers, perhaps…
9. Pulitzer Winner, 2011
It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel
— A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
10. Pulitzer Winner, 2010
George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.
—Tinkers, Paul Harding
My opinion? They did not disappoint.
Every one of those first sentences makes me want to read the next one.
What about you? Agree or disagree?
As promised, the year of no Pulitzer…
In 2012, there was no Pulitzer awarded. Why that happened is because of the process of selection. Have you ever wondered how they choose a winner?
First, a jury is selected. Members of the jury read 300+ books and have to mutually agree on 3 finalists, which are then submitted to the board. The board selects the winner from the 3 submitted by the jury. Except the year they didn’t, of course.
The hard part is on the jury. How do you cull a list of 300+ books down to 3? Apparently, according to one of the jurors, it’s not that hard.
A lot of them, you will not be surprised to hear, were fairly easy to dismiss. They were trivial, or badly written, or lurid, or overblown, or mawkish —
I found it interesting. One book was dismissed because it was very similar in plot to a Toni Morrison book, but Toni told the story better. Many were judged as excellent reads, but too “lightweight” to be of consideration.
In the long run, despite that the jurors agreed on the 3 final entries, the board did not think any of the entries was strong enough to be awarded the Pulitzer. So none was awarded.
If you’re interested, you can read a letter from one of the jurors about the Pulitzer selection process here.
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