Wednesday, November 7, 2018

# guest post # Leah McNaughton Lederman

Wordsmith Wednesday: On Rewriting Introductions

Welcome back to Wordsmith Wednesday! This week, we're lucky enough to have Leah McNaughton Lederman joining us to share with us about rewriting introductions. I don't want to keep you from her so let's jump right in!


That’s just it. You’re going to have to do it.
Every now and again, like the mythical “perfect title,” you roll out a first paragraph to half page that makes the whole piece of writing. Like, it doesn’t matter where you go from there because your beginning was so marvelous.
But that’s like waiting to catch Sasquatch with a butterfly net.  (Not gonna happen.)
More than likely, your introduction was you getting to know your piece. Feeling out the character’s voice, getting the tone for the work. Shaking hands.
How can you introduce a piece of writing you haven’t met yet?
Some of you may have outlined and completed character sketches, etc. (I’m a pantser), but even if you have prepared for this piece of writing for a year, it’s like you’ve been online dating. There’s no substitute for meeting face to face, which is what you’re doing when you set pen to paper, keyboard to screen.
The first few paragraphs are the two of you saying hello, exchanging awkward smiles and rehearsed-in-the-mirror quips. You’re not finishing each other’s sentences yet.
You’ll get there. Plunge through and get into the rhythm. Feel that satisfaction when you enter the last period.
Lean back and enjoy it.
And know that one of your first tasks when it comes to revision is rewriting the introduction.
There are lists out there of things “not to do” in your introduction. Like any such set of rules, most of them can be thrown out the window. As long as you do something well, the rules don’t matter.
Starting with “riveting” dialogue. The main character is a female and she’s running late (and probably dropping things, since us girls are so clumsy). There’s a car crash (with gratuitous sound effect). You have a page long inner monologue summarizing the character’s childhood.
Cliches exist, yo. And they hurt your writing.
By making me not want to read your writing. Because I don’t care about your character or find the story interesting.
I went to the Indiana writer’s conference back in February ( and participated in a “Chapter One Critique Fest.”
Here’s the deal—you submit a copy of your first chapter (without your name on it) and a moderator reads it out loud to a panel of three agents. The agents pretend they’re reading from their “slush pile” raise their hand at the point when they would stop reading and reject. The modersator would continue reading until all three agents raised their hands, then each of them would explain why they stopped.
Their reasons?
A clumsy girl running late.
Obnoxious dialogue.
Car crash.
Being a prologue and not a first chapter (lots of agents hate prologues).
Death of a character (we don’t know them well enough to care, so don’t force us to care).
Inner monologuing.
Mine was in there, too. The introduction to my cousin’s memoir that I’d worked on for over a year. The first thing I wrote down “officially” as part of the book and man, I thought it was gold.

We always had bicycles growing up, my Dad made sure of it. His favorite bikes were Schwinn, of course, and when I was five, right around the time my parents got divorced, I got the green Stingray. Banana seat, the whole deal.
This was the real thing, and I rode it backwards and forwards, hands in the air, uphill and downhill all through the neighborhood for years. I rode it down the hill leading to the lake, taking my hands off the handlebars and feeling the breeze against my skin. It never got old.
Man, I loved that bike.
I thought about it often well into my adulthood; it was a happy childhood memory. And, well, now I think about it knowing that I’ll never ride a bike again. There’s a shadow on my outlook, sure, but it’s still a happy memory, and nothing can change that or take that away from me.
I had a badass, green, Stingray Schwinn. And I conquered the world with it, one Michigan hill at a time. 

I was relieved to find that at least the agents’ hands didn’t shoot into the air right away. Two of them held on nearly halfway through until the reading was scrapped. In discussion, they noted that while they enjoyed the writing and the pace, it didn’t lead them anywhere, and there was nothing tangible in the text, nothing to grab them and pull them into the story—that’s just it: This doesn’t tell you that the story is about a quadruple amputee, and here she is reminiscing about her beloved childhood bike. 

There was no story in my introduction.

And that’s the version of the opening I’d already sent to a dozen agents without a single reply, though in face-to-face pitch meetings I’d received very positive responses. The story was good; the introduction, or opening, was not. I rewrote it, though it was like tweezing my upper lip (a process I don’t practice and certainly don’t recommend), and that’s when I started hearing back from agents.
Sitting in on that exercise changed my writing life. It changed how I read and write introductions by reaffirming what my graduate professor once told the class, regarding the introductions to our papers—when you’ve finished the paper, go back and revise the introduction. It matches the paper you intended to write, not the one that actually came out.

Leah McNaughton Lederman is an author and freelance editor in Indianapolis, where she lives with her husband, three children, three cats, and dog. She spends her free time working on memoir snippets and short stories, some of which are published. 

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