RG2E Featured Author Jim Guigli on “The Importance of a Book’s First Sentence”

TGIF, RG2E Peeps!

Help me welcome RG2E First Timer, Featured Author Jim Guigli, who’s chatting with us about that very important, first sentence of a book.

Take it away, Jim…


I’m sure you’ve all read the writing experts’ advice about the importance of the first fifty pages of your novel.  Have you thought about the importance of the first sentence?

I wrote a sentence in 2006 that won Grand Prize in San Jose State’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (www.bulwer-lytton.com).  That’s where you try to write the worst opening sentence to a fictitious novel.  Mr. Bulwer-Lytton must have thought “It was a dark and stormy night” would knock people’s socks off.  If he only knew.  Some people call The Bulwer-Lytton the “bad writing contest,” but I think writing is writing, and writers write.  Whether something is bad writing or good writing is occasionally arguable, until it sells.  If it sells a lot, it’s all good, and contrary opinions are sour grapes.

After entering my first sentence for fun, I got serious.  I worked and schemed to write good bad sentences.  I entered sixty-four bad sentences in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest between October, 2005 and March, 2006.  They all weren’t good-bad.  Some were bad-bad.  A few of the better ones (IMHO) can be seen on my website.

That year the judges, mostly former B-W Grand Prize winners and others from San Jose State University, chose my fifty-first sentence above all others — due to, I’m sure, a dry year, alcohol, and whim.  But, I feel blessed.  When I told my wife that I’d won, she said it was the day she was most proud of me, surely a measure of my other accomplishments.  She is less excited lately.  When she reminds me that I’d said I would clean the garage, I remind her that (due to my Bulwer-Lytton internet fame) I am an internationallyfamous author.

My winning bad sentence:

Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said, You’ve had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.

About a year later, after hearing yet again, “what comes next?” I got an idea and wrote a first page for a Bart Lasiter story, of course, using my clunky-but-famous opening sentence.  I decided that private detective Bart had to be an ex-Berkeley police officer.  I had worked more than twenty years in Berkeley, in the hills above the campus.  I knew first-hand, Berkeley is Berzerkely.  Then I moved Bart closer to me, from Berkeley to Sacramento, to make it easier to research his environs.  My big idea was to write a book of short stories, each one using that opening sentence, and each one with a corresponding- but-different woman walking into Bart’s office.  But, I found that I’m not that good at writing short.

Bad News for a Ghost quickly passed the seven-thousand-word target for short stories, and over time grew to about eighteen thousand words.


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Here’s more about Bart:

While he loves living not far from the Capitol in his historic Old Sacramento neighborhood, and he’s okay at investigation, he’s never been very good at finances, or women.  He carries baggage from his teenage, summer-of-love hippie mother, who named him after Black Bart, the Wells Fargo bandit, and then dragged him through the sixties and seventies from one California commune to another.

Barely managing to stay afloat in the PI business after seven years, Bart and his adopted cat, Agamemnon, would be homeless if his live-in office were owned by anyone other than his former Berkeley PD training officer and friend, Fred Clifford, now retired and living on the Sacramento River.

In Bad News for a Ghost, a beautiful Sacramento TV reporter, Marti Planker, offers Bart a small amount of money — not enough to square his debts, but it’s his only offer.  She wants him to help her catch a ghost.  Ghosts — Bart is very skeptical, and the money isn’t much — but she might be offering additional considerations.  Also, though being burned by beautiful women before has made him cautious, he can’t resist a woman who is both beautiful and counting on him.  Bart takes the case and goes deep, exploring Sacramento’s hidden Gold Rush history, while he exposes himself to unknown forces, possibly not from this life.

I hope you enjoy Bad News for a Ghost, and the Bart Lasiter stories that will follow.  For better or worse, Snoopy and I owe all this to Mr. Bulwer-Lytton, for writing that one sentence.  As you contemplate the first sentence of your next book, remember what Mao didn’t say:  A novel of a hundred thousand words begins with one sentence.

Now then, RG2E Peeps…who all would like an Ebook Gift Copy of BAD NEWS FOR A GHOST? Let us know below, and you just might win one!


About Jim:

I have been a reader of biography, history, crime fact and fiction, and mystery for forty years. I have read and enjoyed all kinds of spy and mystery, though my favorites tend toward the loner male. Marlowe, Sam Spade, Lew Archer, Spenser, Nameless, Hoke Moseley, Harry Bosch — those are my guys.

Like a lot of people, I thought it would be great to write a book. I even had some ideas. Like a lot of people, I didn’t do anything about it.

Almost by accident, I became interested in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest and started writing, one sentence at a time. One of those sentences won, and people started bugging me: “What happens next?” After hearing that question too many times, I decided to write. I took that one sentence and fleshed it out into Bart Lasiter, private detective. Now I write, learning the craft a bit at a time as I go along.

I did go to school, too:  After growing up in the Chicago area, I moved to California to study Russian language at Monterey in the Army, earned a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute (Photography 1970), and an MA from Humboldt State (Art/Photography 1973).

My work was in mechanical design, the last in 22 years at Lawrence Berkeley Lab until I retired in 2003.

My wife, Fran, and I have lived in Carmichael since I retired. We are slaves to our cat, Agamemnon, and two dogs, Bogie and Zootie.

I am a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime (NorCal & Sacramento), and the Public Safety Writers Association.

Connect with Jim here:

Jim Guigli  www.jimguigli.com


Great stuff, Jim! I’m a sucker for a great first line in a book! It’s got to hook me from that first sentence! 🙂

RG2E Peeps – Here’s something superfab cool about Jim too…he’s a graduate of the FBI Citizen’s Academy. Here he is volunteering to be a bad guy for a training exercise:


And here he is dusting for prints:


The Best of RG2E Reading Wishes — D. D. Scott, RG2E Founder



16 thoughts on “RG2E Featured Author Jim Guigli on “The Importance of a Book’s First Sentence”

  1. I would love to read Bad News for a Ghost on my kindle. I can’t wait to read a story inspired by an award winning bad sentence. christygibbon at juno dot com

  2. Lol! Congrats on your winning bad sentence! I’ve never heard of a bad sentence contest – but it sounds intriguing. I’d love to read Bad News for a Ghost (Kindle). sharon(at)sharoncooper.net

    • Take a look, Sharon, at the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest website (www.bulwer-lytton.com). You will see the history and winners back to the beginning. I encourage you to have some laughs, and then enter your own sentence. It really does make you think about one sentence at a time. Your copy of Bad News for a Ghost is on the way. Thanks for stopping by.

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