I Open At The…

Newsletter 028 – December 9th, 2022


In the title above you might recognize part of a quote from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. “I Open at the Close” was engraved on the Golden Snitch. This is about the opening sentences of stories.

This quote from Joyce Carol Oates was recently posted in an online forum, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written. Agree or disagree?”

My response was: “Generally, I don’t agree with that. I do spend some time crafting an opening sentence or scene once I have a firmly fluid (see what I did there?) idea of what my story is going to be about, and where and how it could possibly end. Sometimes a glimpse of the final sentence will come to me partway through the writing (so I’ll jot it down just in case), but so many things are likely to change as the work progresses (including the opening and the ending) that both of them are just possibilities out there in the distance somewhere, waiting to be resolved.”

Here are a few openings from If a Butterfly as examples. Between its first draft in 2003, and its final one in 2021, the two sentences below went through multiple minor revisions.

March 2006: The morning was crisp and cold, but even though yesterday’s frost was gone from the upper branches of the oyamel trees, Michael was afraid of what they would find when they reached the butterfly preserve.

April 2006: The air was as still and cold as a winter graveyard, and the frost clinging to the needles of the oyamel trees showed no sign of melting in the crisp morning air. Robert Meyer was worried.

December 2013: Robert Meyers was worried. The morning air was as cold and still as a winter graveyard, and the frost clinging to the needles of the oyamel fir trees showed no sign of melting.

June 2020: The morning air, as cold and still as a winter graveyard, bothered Robert. This weather could be devastating for the Monarchs, and the frost clinging to the oyamel trees showed no sign of melting.

And here’s the published version from December 2021: The frost clinging to the oyamel trees showed no sign of melting, and that worried Robert. This kind of weather could be devastating for the Monarchs.

You may have noticed that I first started working on Butterfly in 2003, but my first sentence tries didn’t start until later. I went back and forth between working on Butterfly and Jagged Man and The Lives of Franklin Roosevelt Jones for several years. I didn’t write the scene that became the opening scene until 2006. At that point I was even still calling my scientist Michael Shaw (my first name and my mother’s maiden name), but felt that name was too close to home, so he became Robert Meyers. His wife, Dee (the book’s astronaut), also underwent a name change and a gender switch (she was originally an unmarried male whose first name was David).

The other line that got changed was the air being “as cold and still as a winter graveyard.” It was one of the darlings I had to kill. It just seemed too clichéd to be used there.

Those may seem like minor changes, but part of our job as writers, especially as self-publishers, is to keep searching for the right choice of word or phrase until it’s time to let our work go out into the world.

The next newsletter, the last for this year, is about story endings. See you then.


[“…give us grace to accept with serenity the things which cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” The Serenity Prayer, 1934, Reinhold Niebuhr]

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