Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Taking the Lead

"Okay, class," I addressed the room full of eager writing workshop attendees last Saturday afternoon, "imagine that you are Margaret Mitchell. Using the principles we've just learned, write a query to a fictitious publisher pitching your newly completed manuscript, 'Gone With the Wind.' Since you don't know Margaret's real writing history, feel free to take creative liberties with your bio."

For the next ten minutes, nothing could be heard but the scratching of ballpoint pens on paper.

When time was finally called, a salt-and-pepper-haired gentleman in the back with a mischievous grin volunteered to read his query first. His lead was one of the best hooks I've ever heard.

"Dear Mr. Ledbottom,

What could possibly be better? Hot off the dazzling success of my action-packed thriller about Mrs. Noah, "Gone with the Rain..."

If I was an editor, this fellow would certainly have my attention.

Leads (also called ledes) are of utmost importance, whether you're writing queries, non-fiction, novels, or a letter to your great aunt Matilda. No throat clearing, spit balls or phlegm. Just jump right into the action; spring the clincher on your unsuspecting reader to grab them around the throat and insure their attention is nowhere else but on your well chosen words.

Personal anecdotes make nice leads (didn't the one in this blog entry grab your attention?) as long as you're short on the introduction (like none) and move the point forward, always forward. It's a plus to include a hint or foreshadow in your lead of what your story will be about to help prepare (some call it tease) the reader and make them want more.

Kind of like the effect that smelling hot buttered popcorn has on you: first your interest is piqued, next you begin to salivate, and then you begin to yearn for one of those kernels with every ounce of your being. You won't rest until you can satisfy your craving, your lusty desire for a greasy, salty handful.

Take your opening seriously. Spend sufficient time on your lead to make your reader salivate and long for more. It's the best way to keep editors reading past the 9 seconds average they spend on each query.

So pour yourself a steaming cup of hot cocoa and focus on those beginnings. Then you may indeed predict a happy ending.