Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Editorial Tip of the Week: Position Is All

Each issue of Poets & Writers Magazine includes Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begins. This first sentence, possibly the most important in your work, opens the door to draw in the reader. In fact, you hope it can reach out and drag passersby off the streets and into this new-made world of yours. It can be dramatic, teasing, funny, quirky, ominous, or mysterious. It can be concise or else present a fully developed scene. It can be a line of dialog, internal or external. Most of us find the opening sentence for our work when we edit, and we may find it lurking on page two or three.

I can still hear Lois Hudson explaining "commanding position." She wanted us to consider the opening of each paragraph and—more important—the last, reminding us not to let that last sentence wander off or fade away instead of ending with a word that matters and, except for the last sentence of a section or work, providing a transition to the next paragraph.

Here's how M.F.K Fisher uses position in "The Measure of My Powers," one of the essays in A Life Through Meals.

Opening sentence: "The first thing I remember tasting and then wanting to taste again is the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam."

And the first sentence in a later paragraph: "She was a grim woman, as if she had decided long ago that she could thus most safely get to heaven."
Last sentence: "Sometimes she let me pull stems off the cherries, and one year when I was almost nine I stirred the pots a little now and then, silent and making myself as small as possible."
Transitional sentence that begins the next paragraph: "But there was no nonsense anyway, no foolish chitchat."

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