Writing well means evoking imagery. It means making the words jump out at your reader and grab them by your choice of sensitive anatomy. Nowhere is this more important than in the opening lines of your book. It’s how you convince people to read the rest of what you have to say.

For this week’s Friday Fun, I present you the opening lines from two books by the legendary Neil Stephenson. Although his books are often long, and can turn into a slog around the 1/3 mark, his openings are second to none.

This is from Snow Crash, his breakout novel and a seminal work of the “cyberpunk” movement.

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed sub-category. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

For those who don’t know, he’s introducing a pizza delivery guy. This next is the opening of his longer, more mature work Cryptonomicon.

Two tires fly. Two wail./ A bamboo grove, all chopped down/From it, warring songs.

is the best that Corporal Bobby Shaftoe can do on short notice — he’s standing on the running board, gripping his Springfield with one hand and the rearview mirror with the other, so counting the syllables on his fingers is out of the question. Is “tires” one syllable or two? How about “wail?” The truck finally makes up its mind not to tip over, and thuds back onto four wheels. The wail — and the moment — are lost.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Stephenson, Bradbury, Lansdale and Bazell are just four authors who can tell us how to make that impression the best possible.


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