William Gibson is author of ten other novels—most recently, Zero History and Spook Country. His essay for this series was supplemented with a phone interview. He spoke to me from his home in Vancouver.
William Gibson: Writing the first sentence of a novel, for me, is something like filing, from a blank of metal, the key for a lock that doesn’t yet exist, in a door that doesn’t yet exist, set into a wall … An impossible thing, yet I find it must be done, or at least approximately done, else nothing will follow. The white wall (once of paper, now of pixels) will only open to the right key, or at least something approximating it, as I tend to keep filing, endlessly, through the ensuing composition.
If I were to install a key-logger on my computer, then later watch, fast-forward, as that first line gradually, somehow, finds itself, it would remind me of medieval palimpsests, the magic of writing repeatedly over writing, though in my case never quite obliterating the original, that first stroke that managed, however impossibly, to break the white wall.
I know that not all writers go about it that way, but some do, and I’ve never found that I had any choice in the matter. My first adult attempt at prose fiction, composed secretly over several months, was a single sentence, straining for what I imagined was a tone of sere import, I hoped in the manner of J.G. Ballard. I actually did complete it, that opening line, and have never quite been able to forget it. (“Seated each afternoon in the darkened screening room, Bannerman came to regard the targeted numerals of the Academy leader as hypnagogic sigils preceding the dream-state of film.” Ahem.) I knew then, somehow, that that was it, my opening line, yet nothing opened. I think it may actually been the entire story, such as that was, in which case I suppose it might be considered to have been a successful attempt.
I hope it’s not that obvious, how long I labor over an opening line, but then I find it impossible to be certain how long Elmore Leonard, starting Get Shorty, labored over “When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.” As plainly quotidian as that might at first seem, he’s got it all going on there, damn, and if I were able to write the equivalent, it would take me a good long time. He was a genius at removing every functionally expendable bit of a sentence, right down to punctuation marks, and in my experience that’s slow work.
As a new writer of fiction, I imagined that my fussing over first lines (and titles, which at first I felt I needed to even attempt a first line) was about the need to simply have something, anything: any one acceptable part of an unwritten whole. Today, it never really having gotten any easier, I suspect it’s more organic than that. If writing is like the story of the fiddle-maker, who said that he started with a piece of wood and then removed everything that wasn’t a fiddle, the writer is simultaneously charged with having to generate, like ectoplasm, the block of wood. The first line, to very clumsily mix metaphors, is somehow the block of wood in fractal form. The first line must convince me that it somehow embodies the entire unwritten text. Which is a tall order, virtually an impossible one, yet somehow, so far, I have eventually managed to do it. Once that first line succeeds in selling me on the worthiness of some totality that in no way, at that point, actually exists, I can continue.