The Art of Plagiarism



Artistic influence is a strange, enigmatic, and terrifying realm. To probe it even superficially reveals the strands of threads that lead to words like copying and theft. I remember in high school having to learn the sources from which Shakespeare took his plays—Romeo and Juliet came from Tristan and Isolde, Julius Cesar came from Plutarch—and thinking to myself, What a fraud. Why do we revere this guy? Actually, knowing High School Me, I probably didn’t just think it. I probably complained about it loudly to the class. Who could blame me, when the very same teachers who made us memorize Shakespeare’s sources also gave regular lectures about the evils of plagiarism and the penalties that would result therefrom?

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it when, on my very first day as a music major in college, the Assistant Dean of the music school told all of us incoming freshmen that “In music, plagiarism is the highest form of flattery.” He was careful to warn us that this view did not extend to tests and term papers, but it was hard to deny that, when it came to music, he was right. Variations on a theme by [Insert Composer Here] is a very common title. Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky’s piano composition Pictures at an Exhibition, and his work became more widely performed than the original. Gounod superimposed a melody over a Bach piano prelude, added the (definitely not original) text of the Ave Maria, and, hey presto, Gounod’s new composition became immortal. In music, the line between original and derivative is paper-thin, if you can see it at all. And music is all the better for it.

Shakespeare wasn’t a thief; he was a composer.

I have come full circle now. I not only recant my complaints against the unoriginal Mr. Shakespeare, but I have begun my own project of adapting someone else’s words into a book that I will eventually dare to call my own. I no longer imagine myself to be Bach creating preludes from scratch, but Gounod, crafting a melody that will (hopefully) adorn the extant harmonies with new layers of beauty.

My capitulation to the artist’s role as plagiarist has been gradual, and I daresay it is not yet complete. For a very long time, I have prided myself on writing stories no one else would dream of, crazy stuff like reimagining Crime and Punishment as the story of a teenage vampire, or that weird screenplay where I explored Augustinian philosophy through the lens of neuroscientific research. (Trust me, you don’t want to read that one.) I have not lost my penchant for odd juxtapositions; I’m currently writing about a French countess who confronts alligators and Indians while still wearing her Parisian lace. But I have gradually accepted that my cherished originality was just another form of plagiarism. I did not write Crime and Punishment, after all. The slippery line between being influenced by and stealing from gets slimier with every story, until I wonder what, if anything, I myself have actually created during my tens of thousands of hours spent typing. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Yet there is value in even the most derivative works of art. Bach wrote Piano Prelude No. 1, but he did not write Ave Maria. No one knows who first wrote Tristan and Isolde, but whoever it was, he did not write Romeo and Juliet. There is a spark within the metamorphosis, a tiny ounce of creativity—not the birth of something out of nothing, but the rebirth whereby something old becomes something new. Even the most innovative artists have only the world for their materials, only existing human languages in which to write (assuming they want to be understood), and only the realm of human imagination from which to draw their subjects. None of us create the clay. We only sculpt it. But in the sculpting, it is possible to transcend the clay, to make an asymptotic approach toward the act of creation as a folk tale becomes royal theater, a piano prelude becomes a prayer, and clay becomes beast, or man, or god.

All art is plagiarized to some degree; it must be, for there is only one Creator. But He, in His goodness, granted us both the desire and the capability to shape His creation, to take the work of His hands and transform it with ours. The longer I spend in acts of human creativity, the more convinced I become that God’s purpose in gracing us with this gift is to give us a window whereby we might peer, however darkly, into His own truly creative mind. If we open ourselves to come to know Him in the act of artistic creation, we can glimpse a few atoms of His genius and generosity. Through our art, we have the opportunity to love as God loves, by giving life to a thought, by imbuing humble things with lofty beauty, as He did when He created our lumps of human clay to become His own children.

I am trying to let go of the pretensions of originality I once held, though as with all human failings, old habits die hard. I am working to be content in my role as a mere plagiarist of the Creator. The act of plagiarism has become my prayer, that I might conform my feeble mind more fully to the mind of the only true Artist.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at


Against Productivity



It’s November, and in writing circles, that means it’s NaNoWriMo (the rather awkward acronym for National Novel Writing Month.) As you probably already know, NaNoWriMo is an annual challenge to write an entire novel in 30 days—or at least, to get 50,000 words on paper, even if that might not be quite The End. Every year, people ask me, “Are you doing NaNoWriMo?”, and every year I answer, “No. I’m a tortoise, not a hare.” Then I try my best to cheer on all the speed-writers, because if writing a lousy novel in 30 days is your path to eventually distilling out a worthwhile manuscript, then go for it! I certainly know people for whom this process has proven fruitful, and I’m a firm believer in doing whatever works.

But there’s a fundamental problem with the idea that a writer’s progress can be measured by a word count, which is, of course, that a word count by itself imposes nothing in the way of quality control. “I wrote 20,000 words this week!” sounds like a great accomplishment, and if it represents a flurry of true inspiration or the end of a period of literary sloth, then it is. But those carefully enumerated words, by mere fact of their existence, do not always represent progress—nor do they always indicate that a writer has really overcome his or her tendency toward laziness. Sloth is an insidious sin that comes in many forms, of which the tendency to sit back and do nothing is only the most obvious. Sloth can also manifest itself as a laziness of artistry, and in this, the ideal of “productivity” plays right into the devil’s crafty hand.

There is no set amount of time that a writer must spend to craft a worthy novel. Newly-minted Nobel laureate Kasuo Ishiguro wrote Remains of the Day in four weeks—pretty much like doing NaNoWriMo. Stephen King has said that his first drafts, even of his longest novels, never take more than three months. On the other hand, Donna Tartt spent a decade writing The Goldfinch. Markus Zusak spent three years on The Book Thief. All of these are living writers working within the modern publishing industry. Clearly, in the race between hares and tortoises, the answer is that both can win.

Speed is not a writer’s enemy. But sloppiness is, and while good writing can happen quickly, sloppiness is more often the result of rushing than of careful slowness. Very few of us are Ishiguro.

The modern world has a tendency to want to quantify every aspect of existence. We trust numbers; we have been brainwashed to believe that numbers never lie. Two plus two is always four. Four is always more than two. Mathematical proof is final. Progress must move toward the right on the number line, not the left. In the case of something as ephemeral as a story—a genuinely un-quantifiable entity—we nevertheless seek comfort in whatever numbers we can attach to it. Word count. Copies issued. Copies sold. Dollars earned. See, we tell ourselves, progress is still numbers. Progress is visible. Progress moves forward.

And yet, for the writer, real progress often moves backwards. It is far better to cut the unnecessary scene, no matter how finely-wrought, than to foist it upon the reader. If problems in chapter one prevent you from writing chapter twelve, then it is far better to fix chapter one than to pound resolutely forward, knowing that you are building on a cracked foundation. Above all people, the fiction writer—whose calling is to probe the mysterious depths of humankind—ought to know that numbers can lie, that loss can be counted as gain, that paradox is our natural human state. And yet, we often allow the culture of consumerism to bully even novelists into believing that “productivity” must be our standard. Set up the assembly line. Push the words through. Next novel, please, or you’re fired.

Of course, novelists who are working under contract deadlines really must conform to these standards. However, I suspect that very few of the almost 400,000 people who participated in NaNoWriMo in 2016 had a contract to satisfy. Imagine if, instead of setting themselves a goal to write 50,000 words in a month, each and every one of those 400,000 people set the goal to write one masterpiece in a lifetime—one work of art that each individual would be proud to leave behind as a legacy to the world. Then imagine a whole community dedicated to supporting them the way NaNoWriMo tries to support its participants. What might our writing culture be like then?

What if, instead of asking each other, How many words did you write this week?, writers asked each other questions like, What did your characters teach you this week? What did you learn about your own artistic process? What did you write that required courage, whether because of its content or because you stepped out into new waters of style, genre, vocabulary? What difficult choice did you make concerning either content or craft? What beauty did you create? What love did you show? What empathy did you practice? These are the true hallmarks of progress for the fiction writer: that he or she exhibits dedication to the art and craft of storytelling, and that he or she nurtures a love for fiction’s subject, which is always humankind. Without this progress, a writer’s word count is meaningless—as will be the story those words contain.

Productivity is an idol that can lead to sloppiness and blind us to our real goals, not only as writers but in virtually any area of life. However, I cannot close without acknowledging that it has an equal, opposite idol: perfectionism. For many of us, there is a powerful temptation never to be satisfied—to do the opposite of rushing through sloppy work, and continue revising endlessly long after the work is done. It would be a noble thing if every writer set out to create one masterpiece in a lifetime, but rarely will the current project become that masterpiece. Humility is the only remedy for both of these extremes: humility to submit ourselves to become instruments of God’s creation; humility to look only at what is best for the work, not what is best for its creator’s pride; humility to acknowledge the limits of our own skill, to push them, but also to know when they are reached, and we have produced the best work we are capable of making. Then, and only then, should tortoises and hares alike be ready to cross the finish line and write, “The End.”

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at

The Marian Effect


Marian Effect

As I wrote about recently, I had the honor to serve on a panel called “The Marian Effect: Building Strong Women in Writing and Life” at the Trying to say ‘God’ Conference at Notre Dame in June. We now a have Facebook page established by my fellow panelist, Angela Doll Carlson, to try to keep the conversation going. We’re still trying to figure out how best to use it. So far, we’ve been sharing lots of beautiful Marian art, music, and poetry, which should be a good enough reason to come join us. I hope to “see” you in our community!


Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at

Incarnating Words



Several months ago, Thomas Hanson asked on my post Literature, It Is a-Changing, “May I ask what you think musical study can offer to serious literary criticism? Or, maybe better put, what musical study can offer, that other studies can’t?” This isn’t exactly an answer, especially because I approach the question as a storyteller, not a critic. But I think this is as close as I will be able to come.

What is a word? We who have grown up in a literate society tend to think of it strictly as an intellectual tool, a signifier of ideas, an abstract symbol of concrete thought, but that is only one element of what a word truly is. A word is also an emotional trigger surrounded by context and laden with history; it is a physical experience of sound; and, when it is written, it is a physical experience of shape. Though we are largely unconscious of it, those physical and emotional experiences are intricately tied to our experience of the word. Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I happen to agree with Anne Shirley (of Green Gables):

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”

She’s right: the phonetic and visual profiles of “skunk cabbage” are entirely different from those of “rose,” and human senses are inter-dependent. Change the aural and visual experience, and you change the entire sensory package. Likewise, words are emotional triggers, and there is little one can do to escape the associations of the word “skunk.”

As a singer, I have spent a good deal of time studying and practicing the physical experience of words, not only in English, but in languages I don’t actually speak like Italian, German, and Latin. All singing is by its nature storytelling, but it is storytelling that highlights the physical properties of words, using their tone, timbre, pitch, articulation, syllable stresses, tempo, etc. as elements of the tale itself. In fact, when I’m singing in a language I don’t understand, although it is essential for me to know the literal translation of the words, their physical properties become the only real tools I have with which to convey their meaning. Furthermore, singing joins words to the physical emotions of the human body, to facial expression and gesture. To me, the concept of the “word made flesh” is not some theological abstraction; it’s just what I do. I take words and give them flesh within my own body, and I attempt thereby to convey the fullness of their meaning— intellectual, emotional, and physical—to my listeners.

As Christians, we are called to experience the true Word made Flesh in even more depth, through even more senses, than the way I experience words as a singer. We are called to see and hear the Word in scripture, to study it with our intellect, to taste it and smell it in the Eucharist, to touch it and encounter it and become emotionally attached to it—that is, to Him, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate—through our relationships with each other. It is the vocation of every Christian to bring this complex experience to others through the way we live: to bear the Word to the world through our flesh. But those of us who are called to the vocation of writing have another responsibility: to bear the Flesh to the world through our words.

To bear the Word in the vocation of a Christian storyteller, we must first immerse ourselves in the experience of Christ using the entirety of our being: mind, heart, and body. Then, we employ our talents to bring that same experience to life on the page, engaging the totality of the reader in stories that sing—directly or indirectly—of the Word Incarnate. We receive the Word in all of its depths and dimensions, and then we give it to others. A story that truly bears God to its readers reveals Him not only to the mind, but to the heart and the body as well. That is the particular genius of literature and its advantage over works of apologetics or theology: story has the power to speak to the totality of a human person. But in order for the story to do so, the author must first engage the totality of him/ herself in the writing.

Occasionally, young writers will ask me the best way to learn how to bring characters to life, and I tell them to take acting classes. Acting was a required part of my MFA writing program, so I am definitely not alone in thinking that it works. Like singing, acting requires the actor to involve his or her whole body in the process of storytelling, with a heavy emphasis on emotion and character motivation. These are things a fiction writer obviously needs to understand, but it’s also true that bringing words to life with one’s own flesh helps one learn how to put flesh into words. Acting is an immeasurably useful study for writers. Singing layers another dimension onto this dynamic of physical storytelling, requiring not only a different set of physical skills, but a greater adherence to structure, tempo, form, etc., all of which are useful elements in the creation of literature.

All singing is storytelling; likewise, all storytelling is by its nature musical. Story, even when it is written, is nevertheless a physical experience of sound, rhythm, tone, etc. As a storyteller, I consider it my duty not only to convey the literal meaning of the story, but to bring it to life through the words, paying attention to the physical effects of their sound and even shape, inviting the reader to an experience rich with taste, touch, smell, and emotion. As much as we humans like to think of ourselves as rational animals, the truth is that when our physical or emotional demands are at odds with our intellect, the physical and emotional demands usually win. In most circumstances, a hungry person is going to eat even if his mind says he’s already had enough; a sad person is going to cry, even if his mind says there is no good reason to do so. In the same way, a person who has been brought into contact with the beauty and mystery of God cannot help but feel it, even if his mind says there is no God to encounter. He is still likely to come back to feast on beauty again. Why else does our “post-Christian” society not tear down the great European cathedrals, nor ban Mozart’s Reqiuem from the stage? It is because these works incarnate at least a glimpse of the beauty of the Word; they engage our minds, our hearts, and our bodies in something Divine. It is this appreciation for the totality, especially the physicality, of artistic engagement that the study of music can afford to the study and practice of literature.

The one great advantage singers have over other musicians is the ability to engage the linguistic part of the human intellect at the same time we engage them in the aesthetics of the music: we can tell a literal story. Likewise, what music offers to storytelling, especially Christian storytelling, is the ability to transcend the intellectual power of words and wrap them in physical—that is, incarnational—beauty.

Karen Ullo is a writer, musician, wife, and mother of two small tornadoes–er, boys. Her novels are Jennifer the Damned (2015) and Cinder Allia (coming in 2017.) She is also a regular Meatless Friday chef for Find out more at

News! News! News…letter


Breaking news

Hello Everybody out there in Blog Land,

I just wanted to take a minute to let you know that I’ve finally joined the Internet Age and created an email newsletter. If you want to receive all my latest writing news, blog posts, recipes, and more, hand-curated and wrapped up in a tidy package delivered right to your inbox, you can sign up here.

I tried to embed the signup form on this page for you, but of course, code and I don’t get along, even when real programmers write it. It can smell the fear exuding from my every pore. But the newsletter will still be awesome!

Love, your friendly neighborhood technophobe,


Karen Ullo is a writer, musician, wife, and mother of two small tornadoes–er, boys. Her novels are Jennifer the Damned (2015) and Cinder Allia (coming in 2017.) She is also a regular Meatless Friday chef for Find out more at




I’m preparing to attend a conference at Notre Dame in just a few weeks called Trying to Say God: Re-enchanting Catholic Literature. I’m terribly excited to finally meet face to face many of the movers and shakers of the Catholic literary world. It’s an honor and an opportunity for which I’m deeply grateful. However, the conference organizers recently sent a list of essays as preparatory reading—many of which I had read before, and which I’m sure many of you will recognize—and I noticed something that disturbed me. All of these essays deal directly or tangentially with the perceived dearth of a Catholic literary culture in our current age. They are:

Dana Gioia,  “The Catholic Writer Today,” Dec. 2013, First Things

Paul Elie, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?”  New York Times, Dec. 19, 2012

Kaya Oakes, “Writers Blocked: The State of Catholic Writing Today,” America, April 28, 2014
Randy Boyagoda, “Faith in Fiction,” First Things, August 2013


Francis Spufford, “Spiritual Literature for Atheists,” First Things, November 2015

David Griffith, “The Problem with Waiting” Image – Good Letters

There’s an awful lot of good stuff here, many very salient points and much healthy debate written by people far more learned in these matters than I. I am grateful to all of them for their contributions to this very necessary conversation, and I agree with at least portions of every essay. However, in (re)reading this list in close succession, I could not help but be overwhelmed by the distinct lack of emphasis on what ought to be a Christian’s first and only goal: to do the will of God. Just to make sure I was paying attention, I went back and ran a search through each of these essays for the following words: vocation, discern, pray, love, humility. Some of them never appear; a few appear in passing, as in the titles of quoted works, or in a very general sense. For example, Gioia says of the past literary “golden age”: “Catholicism was not only seen as a worldview consistent with a literary or artistic vocation… the Roman Church was often regarded as the faith most compatible with the artistic temperament.” It’s the only time he mentions vocation. The author who comes closest to proposing prayer and humility as solutions to the problem of the Catholic literary culture is Spufford:

Wild justice—justice unmediated and unfiltered—is different from the thing we painstakingly try to make in courtrooms. Wild charity—love unmixed and uncompromised—is fearfully unlike the adulterated product we are used to. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

That’s it. Six essays about how to create a Catholic literary renewal, and only one mention of “love unmixed and uncompromised.”

Maybe this is our real problem. The focus of anything we build in the name of Christ and His Church ought never to be on the product or the people who build it, but on the One who works through us and through our works.

I am the least and the lowest among Catholic writers. My résumé looks like a post-it note next to those of the authors above. But I dare to say: the solution to whatever lack of Catholic literature there may be lies not in changing the attitudes of publishing houses and periodicals, nor the outlook of universities and academics, nor in establishing our own periodicals and publishing houses, nor in the coming of some great literary genius to inspire and renew the languid modern imagination—though it is not wrong to seek any of these things. But to speak about such practicalities without speaking about the proper spiritual context in which to pursue these goals is to put the cart before the horse. The real answer to our literary woes lies in the same place where the answer to a spiritual problem always lies: in prayer, trust, humility, and the action of God’s Holy Spirit. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Artists:

The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.

I do not doubt for an instant that the authors of all six essays are prayerful people who have devoted themselves to this “spirituality of artistic service.” But are we—even as Catholics speaking mostly to an audience of other Catholics—afraid to say that Christ is the Way to our literary, as well as our actual, salvation? Are we afraid to forego the language of the academic essay in order to address our own spiritual sickness? If we cannot “say God” even in our appraisals of our own Catholic culture, how do we propose to do it in our poetry, our fiction, our memoirs? God, who has the words of everlasting life, has no need of a Catholic literary culture; if one exists, it is only by His gracious will. If you and I desire such a thing, then let’s get down on our knees and beg for it with humility and hearts that are open to God’s will. Perhaps if we seek first the kingdom, then all these things shall be added to us besides.

All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit. Believers find nothing strange in this: they know that they have had a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring in God. Is it in any way surprising that this leaves the spirit overwhelmed as it were, so that it can only stammer in reply? (John Paul II, Letter to Artists)

Christian artists are called to gaze in awe at the splendour of our Creator, who spoke us into being. Only then, and only if He grants us the vocation to do so, do we humbly go forth and stammer.

The Overrated Art of the Opening Line


It was a dark and stormy night

Anyone who has ever taken a creative writing class has been indoctrinated with the importance of the first impression. That elusive perfect opening image, the one that instantly hooks the reader, that declares this book to be un-put-down-able, has developed an almost mythical importance among fiction writers. My Google search for “how to write a great opening line” turned up 83.5 million results. There are even first line generators to get you started, if you happen to be incapable of forming a sentence but still want to be a writer. However, it recently occurred to me that I could not recite the opening line from a single one of my favorite novels. The ones that I’ve included here, I had to go look up. On top of that, my all-time favorite opening line is not really an opening line at all.

Something here is fishy.

My all-time favorite opening line is from Slaughterhouse-Five. It says, “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” It does everything a great opening line should do: it establishes an unmistakable authorial tone, which even dares to break the “fourth wall” and speak directly to the reader; it introduces a character whose very name, “Billy Pilgrim,” sets him up as an everyman on a journey; and it creates a circumstance that makes Billy Pilgrim ridiculously interesting, namely that he’s come unstuck in time—whatever that means, but I sure want to read the book to find out. It’s eight words of perfectly-written dramatic hook.

But it’s not the opening line. It’s the beginning of chapter two . . . and it also appears at the end of chapter one:

I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.
This one is a failure, and it had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt. It begins like this:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
It ends like this:

“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” is a spectacularly brilliant opening line that gets intentionally buried, and whose impact is intentionally undercut by stating it before its proper dramatic time. It’s almost like Kurt Vonnegut took the rule book for writing opening lines, dared anyone to do it better, and then threw the story in a trash can like Kilgore Trout was sometimes wont to do.

The actual opening line of Slaughterhouse-Five says, “All this happened, more or less.” Which is complete and utter nonsense, and provides no dramatic hook at all.

And so it goes.

But, of course, there are plenty of more famous opening lines than my particular favorite. Perhaps the one that is most frequently mentioned when people say “Famous Opening Lines” is from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Enough with the comma splices already.

Punctuation aside, there is not a single element of drama developed in this rambling paragraph of a sentence. Not a single character is introduced; we have no idea what time period is actually being described by all these superlatives; and the only active verb contained within the string of passives is “insisted,” which carries all the dramatic weight of a toddler stamping his foot.

And yet, it’s arguably the most famous opening line ever written.

My favorite book of recent times is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The opening line says: “Here is a small fact: You are going to die.” Which isn’t drama, and it isn’t news.

Another, even more recent book that I very much enjoyed is The Orphan Mother by Robert Hicks. It begins:

December 12, 1912

To the shabby house on Columbia Avenue they came, the four of them, all in black, narrow ties fastened with jeweled stickpins about their necks.

At least something happens in this one: the drama of the jeweled stickpin. How riveting.

Here are a few particularly dull opening lines that I found on the American Book Review list of 100 Best First Lines from Novels:

Mother died today. —Albert Camus, The Stranger

Where now? Who now? When now? —Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

For a long time, I went to bed early. —Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Elmer Gantry was drunk. —Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. —Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler

If I wrote “You are about to begin reading Karen Ullo’s new novel, [insert title here]” and turned it in to my creative writing professor in any university in the world, it would be handed back to me covered in bright red ink. Yet there it is, on the list of the top 100 first lines ever written. It’s not a great line. It’s not even a good line.

But it’s a wonderful book.

What makes a great opening line is never the line itself. Certainly, it’s possible to put a zinger right up front, to entrap the reader Billy Pilgrim-style and—if you can manage it—never let him go. But what really makes a great opening line is the appreciation that comes from having savored the whole novel. The opening line is only truly beautiful after you have taken the entire journey with the characters, and then you stop to look back across the trodden path to see where you started and how far you’ve come. My, what a distance lies between “All this happened, more or less” and “Poo-tee-weet?”. “Here is a small fact: You are going to die” means quite a bit more once you know that Death himself is speaking. “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler,” is really the only appropriate way to begin a book that . . . does whatever it is that book actually does. Just go read it.

I sympathize with every teacher or editor who has ever had to try to convince an aspiring writer that “[Character name] was drunk” is a terribly insipid way to try to catch a reader’s attention. I have had my fair share of those conversations; but the aspiring writer does have Sinclair Lewis on his side. The truth is, the art of the opening line has nothing whatsoever to do with an exciting, dramatic hook, or even clever wording; the only way to make an opening line “great” is to follow it with a magnificent story. Dickens’s comma splices hold such an exalted place in literature because they are the gateway to “a far, far better thing” than one line could ever hold.

Karen Ullo is a writer, musician, wife, and mother of two small tornadoes–er, boys. Her novels are Jennifer the Damned (2015) and Cinder Allia (coming in 2017.) She is also a regular Meatless Friday chef for Find out more at