They say this is great writing.

A long time ago, when I first took an interest in the craft of writing, I read that the following lines of fiction were great opening lines. Opening lines to be studied and appreciated. So I took an interest in them. If you are a lover of great opening lines, here are some that are considered great:


They say this is Mark Twain shirtless.


No answer.


No answer.

“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You, TOM!”

No answer.

The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked THROUGH them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for “style,” not service—she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:

“Well, I lay if I get hold of you I’ll—”

The-Adventures-of-Tom-Sawyer-Book-CoverIf you don’t recognize them, these are the opening lines of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

When I started writing fiction, it was important to me that my writing not suck. So having read that these opening lines of Tom Sawyer not only did not suck, but were great, I ripped off this writing that I had read was great, hoping I might piggyback on its greatness just a bit. Here is one example of me ripping it off:

“That’s enough!”

The whirlwind ignored the Leghorn.

“That’s enough, I say!”

The whirlwind still ignored the Leghorn.

“Oh for the love of all that is sacred and righteous in this world, shut the holy hell up!”

The whirlwind sputtered and ran out of gas, and the chickens comprising it froze in various manifestations of panic. Their eyes were on the Leghorn. The air was thick with feathers.

This was the opening from one of my first attempts at writing fiction, a short story called “Simulated Bird Strike Number Three.” It was about a  bunch of chickens who were all bent out of shape because they were about to be fired out of a canon at the cockpit of a fighter jet so that human engineers could determine whether the cockpit’s glass was strong enough to withstand a bird strike during flight. (I’d heard this was how these things used to be tested.) It seemed like a golden opportunity for humor, if told from the perspective of a bunch of apprehensive chickens.

And I kicked it off by ripping off an icon of American literature.

Though it was a funny idea for a story, it was not a good enough idea, or a good enough story, to justify ripping off an icon. But that didn’t stop me from doing it again. I ripped off Mark Twain in another story which I recently posted here on waltbox (but wrote long ago) called The Good Doctor:

“Excuse me one moment.”

“But I–,” began the patient.

“One moment.”

The doctor pushed a button. Spoke into a speaker.

Came the voice: “Yes, doctor?”

“Grace, have we a large rag or sponge?”

A brief pause. “No, doctor. No rag or sponge.”

“Grace, begin a list. Item one: large rag or sponge.”

“Yes, doctor.”

Now, I would guess that those two openings will never be recognized as being as good as the opening of Tom Sawyer. I don’t even know how good the opening of Tom Sawyer really is. I just know I once read that someone once said it was great, and so I assumed it really was great, and when I started writing, I copied it. A bunch of times.

You’ve got to start somewhere.




featured image:  wikimedia commons


39 thoughts on “They say this is great writing.

      • In my experience as a writer and editor, it’s always the stories that you doubt most that people like the most. I think lots of us hold back from publishing something because it looks different from what’s out there – but novelty is a good thing.
        So come fair wind or fowl, give us the chickens! Your public awaits.


  1. Nice piece, Walt. This one hits close to home.
    Once talking to a friend, I told him that most of my writing is pure [Author’s Name] inspired garbage and that I was just a lowly, unoriginal hack. I was sad about it.
    He said, well do you think everyone can read a famous author and ‘get’ how they’re writing works? Much less create their own sort of work using their techniques?
    I hadn’t thought of it that way before. Right then it became like I was a kid following in my dad’s image, but I figured one day he’ll be dead and I’ll be strong enough to carry on his legacy. At least that’s what I hoped. Looking back, it’s funny how much that conversation set me free.


    • That’s a great observation. I agree completely. Who is the nameless author, if I may ask? My first inpsiration for writing was John Lennon. I read A Spaniard in the Works and thought, well heck, I could do that. So I started writing short nonsense stuff, essentially copying his style. Then I discovered Bukowski and thought, I can do that. So I wrote simple and twisted for a while, copying his style. And so on. And so on. And eventually, if you keep at it, I guess, maybe without realizing it, eventually you’re not copying anyone anymore. You’re just doing it your own way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bukowski is a hero. Raymond Carver was a revelation. I read and re-read H.L. Mencken, Twain and Hemingway. Also Sherwood Anderson. All I consider idols. And you’re very right–eventually a map is just a nuisance interfering with the all-of-a-sudden ability to dead-reckon across any ocean.


      • I’m under-read in all of those except Bukowski. I’ve read TS and HF, of course, but nothing else by Twain. The only Hemmingway I’ve read is The Old Man and the Sea and the short story Hills Like White Elephants. I’m sure I should dig deeper. I’ve never read Mencken or Anderson. My biggest influences were probably Salinger, Tolkien, and Douglas Adams. That’s an odd group, but that’s my group and I’m sticking to it. I’ve ripped off Douglas Adams to the point where he’d probably be offended if he read some things. But again, you’ve got to start somewhere.


  2. Just as I enjoy reading about books that others read, but that I know I won’t read — I also enjoy reading about writing, knowing I don’t want to write. I read TS and many other of Clemens’s works. He has never been a favorite of mine, though I know he is of many. However, I get the point of your entry, and love the examples, and what you called borrowing. Everyone starts somewhere, and when there’s a particularly great style, it’s nice (to me, anyway) to be inspired by same. Your entry got me thinking of several standout lines from various authors! 🙂


    • I’ve never been much into Clemen’s myself. I’ve read TS as a kid, and HF I read in school, but I never got into his wriitng the way I did with Salinger, Fitzgerald, or even Hawthorne (I actually enjoyed The Scarlet Letter in high school – I connected with all the unrequited love). It’s interesting that you enjoy reading about writing even though you don’t want to write. Which itself is interesting, in that you do have a blog. I’d be curious to hear about some of thoese standout lines.


      • One line that comes to mind immediately is “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” That’s probably an inaccurate representation, as I am too lazy to look up the quote. Another is ” You can’t get away from yourself by moving to another place” … or something like that. I am at least 93% confident those came from Hemingway. That’s all I can come up with right now. The rest must be in locked in incipient dementia somewhere. I think both of these


        • Those are good ones. I was curious so I checked and they do seem to be Hemingway quotes. I like the first one. I would have to dig a little deeper and understand the context. The second one I’m not sure I agree with. If you go far enough, to a place that is different enough, you may be forced to leave the old you behind. That’s what happened to me anyway. But then I came back and turned back into the me I’d left behind.


    • Thanks for reading! I enjoyed your post and commented on your site.

      Maybe I will post the chicken story. I’ve always thought better of doing that. It’s not brilliant, but there are some laughs in it.


  3. Inspiration, you take it, you leave it, you step on it in your high heels (yours, not mine), and occasionally you inhale it until it seeps through your pores, but surely it transmutes and becomes your own after it has traversed through your bodily fluids. That’s my philosophy, anyway. Mostly incited by a bottle of scotch, but hey, I don’t quibble when philosophy comes knocking and I fall down in pursuit of the door.


  4. Great post Walt, it is true we all are inspired by someone, mine was Richard Brautigan, William Blake, Dr Suess and that lot. My mother would not allow Tennyson in the house. Twain said it best.


      • Ma was a very literate, sensitive artist, product of her times. Apparently she had an overly dramatic teacher one year who only taught Lord Tennyson, so much so she drank from the ink well in a fit of passion. It irked Ma for life, the color green was also not allowed in our home. Odd for a painter. Suess and Tolkein have quiet respect for each other on the other side, I believe..

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Simulated Bird Strike Number Three | waltbox

  6. I think, to one extent or another, we are all inspired by these great writers. And Mark Twain is a brilliant choice!
    I’ve always been keen on these openings:
    “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”;
    “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”;
    “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deep sympathy. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.”;
    “Where now? Who now? When now?”;

    And, of course, the more juvenile books that grow on you with witty, funny openings: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” – a bit of C.S. Lewis; and every single book by Lemony Snicket. I think we always carry along a bit of the books we read, growing up.


    • Those are good ones. I had to look some up that I didn’t recognize. I love the C.S. Lewis one. And I love C.S. Lewis. In fact, most of my favorite authors are British. They have a knack for grammar and rythym that I don’t think American authors have. Which makes sense. It’s their language, after all.

      I love Lemony Snicket – he’s got a gift!

      I was rereading E. B. White and A. A. Milne recently. They don’t write ’em like that anymore! The writing in those children’s books is better than the writing in most adult fiction these days.

      Your thoughts on juvenile books has made me realize that I ripped off the Hobbit in one of my stories without realizing it. (I realized I was ripping off Mark Twain, I did that on purpose). I may do a post about how I ripped off the Hobbit without meaning to. If you see it, you’ll know it was inspired by your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m honoured, really. And you have a very good taste in literature.

        If you find yourself missing all those wonderful writers whose qualities seem amiss in today’s children’s books, I advise you to do what I do: read Gaiman. While there’s not an abundance of pooh bears and pigs called Wilbur, there is plenty of creativity and sometimes, even dashes of pure madness. Read Gaiman.

        That being said, I can’t wait to see your post!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: In which I rip off more great writing. | waltbox

Here's where you can type a thing:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s