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Writing Leads
That Sell

What you say right up front is likely to determine whether or not
you sell the work you're writing and for how much

by D. J. Herda

I was thinking the other day (something that comes dangerously close to an oxymoron) about how editors function.  I mean, what pulls an editor toward one piece and pushes him away from another?  And how many editors actually read--from start to finish--every word of every manuscript placed before them? 


I know the answer, of course.  But before I break the bad news to you, let me share a little bit about the way one particular editor works.


Sam (not his real name) edits a monthly magazine called Family Journal (not its real name).  The publication has been around long enough so that, even though it has space to run only five or six freelance articles a month (the rest of the publication is staff-written), it receives 30 - 40 submissions a day.


Still, Sam is a lucky editor.  He has an assistant, Chester.  One of the first duties Sam gave to Chester when he hired him was to peruse the "slush pile"--the stash of unsolicited manuscripts that comes in "over the transom." 


The reason Sam gave this assignment to his assistant isn't that he doesn't want to be the one to pick and choose what articles the magazine runs.  On the contrary.  Sam has Chester weed out the articles that are obviously not suited for publication in the Journal.  This includes all fiction, poems, and personal reminiscences ("When I was a bombardier in WW-II ...").  It includes all off-color stuff or pieces of an overtly sexual nature (the publication is family-oriented, remember).  It also includes pieces that are too long for the magazine (which lists a maximum word length of 3,000 in its market report but actually prefers shorter pieces). 


Finally, the magazine excludes departmental pieces, short fillers, jokes, and other things that the staff can assemble themselves or pull from the wire services free of charge.


By the time Chester is finished culling the obvious misfits from the slush pile, he has reduced the day's work load to ten articles. 

Now, the second thing Sam trained Chester to do was to recognize bad writing when he sees it.  Conversely, it might be reasonably argued, Chester can then be relied upon to recognize good writing when he sees it.  Another five articles drop out of the running.


Finally, when Chester has culled the five good articles from the day's submissions, he asks Sam if he has time to review the survivors.  Naturally, Sam--being busy laying out the book or coordinating the editorial content with the advertising department or working with the art director on cover and interior-article illustrations or finding appropriate illustrative photographs to go along with next month's articles--hasn't.  But, not wanting to discourage Chester from doing his job, Sam humors him by asking for a brief oral run-down of the five articles.  It goes something like this:


Chester: "This one is about growing squash in containers on the patio or deck.  It's pretty cute and could be useful to our readers."


Sam: "Does the writer have any gardening qualifications?"


Chester (scanning the writer's cover letter): "Ummm, he doesn't say."


Sam shakes his head.


Chester: "Well, here's one that's a comparison of the quality of automobiles today versus fifty years ago.  It's really well written.  The author used to work for General Motors."


Sam: "What's his conclusion?"


Chester: "He says they can't hold a candle to the cars made even two decades ago, let alone in the Fifties or Sixties."


Sam (shaking his head): "Nope.  Can't do that.  Advertising is running a special automotive spread this month.  Ford would shit green apples."


Chester (sighing): "Here's one I really like.  It's about how parents need to spend more time with their kids, do more positive things with them.  The writer is a child psychologist and a former fifth-grade teacher.  It makes a lot of sense."


Sam: "Does he say how parents are supposed to find the time when both of them are out working so they can afford to buy a car that's inferior to the last car they bought?"


Chester (setting the article off to one side): "This one you're going to love."


Sam: "I love 'em all."


Chester: "It's a piece about how the White House has failed to protect our borders from illegal aliens.  It makes some good points in light of 9-11.  I think it's terrific.  A good investigative journalism piece.  Scarier than hell, but it really cuts to the chase."


Sam: "I agree.  I read a similar piece in Reader's Digest last month.  Anything else?"

Chester (shaking his head): "This is the last one."


Sam: "What is it?"


Chester: "It's a little weak, but you might like it.  It's the story of the PT-109 and how Jack Kennedy saved his crew's lives during World War Two."


Sam: "Any photos?"


Chester: "A couple of old Navy black-and-whites, one of the ship and the crew, including Kennedy, and another of Kennedy in the hospital after they were rescued."


Sam: "Bingo!"


The lead's the thing

Sam is not that unusual an editor.  And if you think book editors are any different than magazine editors, you're right--they're worse.  Imagine some poor working stiff with 40 book-length novels to plow through before the editorial meeting on Thursday morning.  Do you think he'll read every word of every book?  And, if not, what will he read?


Nearly all editors read the first sentence of a manuscript.  If it's a book, they read the first sentence of the synopsis.  If that catches their attention, they'll likely go on to read the first paragraph.  If that "sings," they'll probably read the first page.  If the work is still in the running (and by now, most aren't), the editor will likely set the manuscript aside for more careful review later.  If, after a week or two, he goes back to the piece and still likes it, he may read the entire article or the first few chapters. 


With that done, the editor now has a solid enough understanding of the project to take it in to his publisher or editorial board for review.  If they come back with a thumb's up, he'll likely read the entire thing and then contact the writer with the good news: they're going to publish his work.


What this means for you (and if you're reading between the lines like a good writer should, you already know) is that you need to re-think your approach to writing.  Your work has to fly from the very first line.  It has to have a dynamite opening paragraph.  If it's a book, the first chapter has to sing like a soprano on steroids. 

Check out these two leads to the same short story:

Lead One:  It was a cold and dreary night.  The rain pelted the windshield.  Inside the car, Jack Trembleau, a fisherman on his way back from a day on the lake, struggled to see the road that stretched out ahead of him.  It wasn't easy.  It was harder, in fact, than it had been the last time he'd gotten caught in a Nor'easter--a torrential storm that blew havoc in toward shore from somewhere out in the Atlantic.  And that storm had been so bad, he seriously doubted that he'd ever see Annabelle Lee again.  Now, it seemed even less likely.


Lead Two:  Jack would not survive the night.  Everything that he knew, all that he loved, gone.  Poof.  In a split second.  He wondered what it would feel like ... the end.  He wondered if it would be horrible, filled with terror and wrenching pain, like in the movies.  Or if perhaps it would simply slip over him--death--like a comfortable old sweater.  He could pull over.  Hold up until the storm settled in.  But if he did that, she'd be gone.  And that would be even worse than death.  No, it was better this way.  No matter what.

In Lead One, the writer started out with a cliche, which he promptly followed with another cliche.  Then he wasted more valuable time and space by specifying that Jack Trembleau (who needs to know his last name, anyway?) was inside a car--something even less astute readers might have figured out themselves from the previous reference to a windshield.  He wasted more time in catching the reader's imagination by defining what a Nor'easter is, even though it doesn't matter.  Finally, he bogged the lead down even further with the awkward introduction of the name of some woman who means absolutely nothing to the reader.


Hook 'em, book 'em, and cook 'em

Get the point?  When you lay out your leads, keep them short and punchy.  Make them gripping.  Ask yourself, will this catch the reader's attention and hold it through the next sentence.  If the honest answer is "no," (or even if you're not sure), re-think your lead.  Revise and rewrite and keep rewriting until you come up with something grippy, grabby, and tense, as in Lead Two.  Then--and only then--will you be sure that the editor's eye you're trying to grab isn't going to wander from your manuscript to someone else's after the first few words. 


Don't worry about not providing all the details in the first paragraph.  Writers who do that are literally a dime a dozen--and their writing is worth even less.


Remember, if you think your lead sounds trite, weak, and uninspired, you'd better believe that some jaded editor on the business end of a desk will think the very same thing, in spades.  Your job as a successful, marketable writer isn't to show the editor that you have all the facts right from the start.  Your job is to convince the editor that he hasn't ... and then make him want to read on to learn more.


What's that old phrase about men and women and their eternal quest for love --He chased her until she caught him?  Well, it may be something of a stretch, but when the words you put into your lead chase an editor until he catches them, you've done your job.  And you can start planning to get published ... soon ... and often.



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