Today is the anniversary of the publication of the first novel in America, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature. When the book was first released in 1789, it was published anonymously. Later, however, William Hill Brown, a 24 year-old Bostonian, came forward to claim authorship.
Although the novel is not remembered today for its literary excellence, it is characteristic of it time. Reflecting a popular 18th century literary device, the novel was epistolary, that is, its story is told via letters between characters. The novel involves an illicit love triangle and is written as a cautionary tale. Some speculate that Brown published his novel anonymously because the details of his plot were based on actual events in the lives of his Boston neighbors.
Although there are certainly examples of long fiction that might be called novels before the 1700s, it was the 18th century that launched the popularity of this “new form” of extended narrative, best exemplified by the works of English writers Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding.
Today’s Challenge: Blackjack Sentences
How can you captivate a reader by writing a 21-word opening sentence of a short story or novel? To celebrate America’s first novel on 1/21, your task is to craft a novel first line for a story that is exactly 21 words. Think about a narrative hook that will grab your reader.
Here’s an example:
At 7:10 am that Monday morning, Bill awoke to the choking sound of his cat, Hamlet, vomiting violently on his pillow.
There is nothing magical about 21 words, but writing to an exact word count will force you to pay attention to the impact of each word you write. It will also force you to pay careful attention as you revise and edit. When you write the first draft of your sentence, don’t worry about word count. Get some ideas and details down on paper first. Then go back and revise, making every word count — up to exactly 21 (no more, no fewer).
The sentences below are some examples of opening sentences from American novels. They are not 21 words, but they will give you a flavor for the ways different novelists have opened their works:
You may now felicitate me — I have had an interview with the charmer I informed you of. -William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature. (1789)
I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. —Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)
(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day: It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. -Jane Austen
1-McCarthy, Erin. 7 Fascinating Facts About the First American Novel. Mental Floss.com. 21 Jan. 2016. http://mentalfloss.com/article/74019/7-fascinating-facts-about-first-american-novel.