What We Look For in Nonfiction Submissions – Strong Beginnings

19 February 2020 on Blog, Storystorm  

“And suddenly you know: It's time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.”
Meister Eckhart

We know this: essays that move readers and stay with them need to be engaging from start to finish. And yet, the reality that we face in putting our writing out into the world is that there is no guarantee that the reader will read it from start to finish. Whether we’re submitting to editors, being published in a journal, or putting a piece out there ourselves, our job is to grab the attention of our reader in the first few lines only and convince them to keep going. Because of this, having a strong beginning is one of the most important things we can do as writers, and something we look for in submissions. Here are some insights from some of Barnstorm’s editors and readers on what, to us, makes for a powerful beginning.

In a Tin House post about beginnings from several years ago, the author Ann Hood writes that starting on dialogue is, “Difficult, but not impossible…” and that when it does work, “what the character is saying and how they are saying it draws the reader in immediately.” That quote has stuck with me. I think regardless of whether you’re attempting to begin with dialogue or in a memory or on an image or whatever, a piece needs to be able to draw the reader in immediately by way of what and how it’s saying something: a moment in time, a conversation. The best beginnings hook you because of what is being said or shown and how it’s being said or shown. Take Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering--she starts with: “The first time I ever felt it – the buzz – I was almost thirteen.” It hooks you because it is introducing our narrator and a moment of their experience. What it is telling you is interesting: a thirteen-year-old feeling buzzed; and How it’s telling you: by way of saying “the first time…” gives you tension and foreshadowing. This is a great opening, to me, because it follows the idea that Ann Hood stated in that post, that what and how you’re saying something needs to draw the reader in immediately.

– Wes Hood, Managing Editor

Lately, I've been thinking about that common advice to put your best idea first so that your reader hooks in for the long haul. There is a part of me that agrees with this advice. I mean, what journalist is told to bury the lead? But here's the other worry: can leading with your most shocking detail somehow cheapen a story? Yes, it might hook the reader, but can it tank an essay, turning it into some tell-all you never meant to write? Even titles now seem to give away the punchline. I'm not sure of the best answer. I find that I'm all about the build up, hoping for that eternally patient reader, but in this age of instant gratification, I may just end up talking to myself.

– Courtney Spaulding-Mayer, Nonfiction Reader

Every reader is different, but personally, I find myself drawn to two (maybe disparate) kinds of beginnings: an opening into a strong scene, or an opening featuring a strong voice. Scenes pique my interest and put me right into the action, and from an editors standpoint I like to know where we are and what’s happening from the get-go (maybe that’s the journalist in me). On the other hand, my first great literary love was Holden Caulfield, and he had my attention with the very first line: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." Yes, yes, I know, I am a walking cliché, and I know that Holden is a work of fiction, but as a young writer I learned a lot about narrative voice from him (or J.D. Salinger, I guess). When a writer conveys that kind of clear, unique voice in the first few lines of an essay, I’m instantly hooked.

- Abigael Sleeper, Nonfiction Editor

My favorite beginnings shock me. Usually they are wry and hilarious and talk about some sort of problem that the main character or narrator has. Sometimes it is almost like a confession or belief they are stating that will eventually matter. I know as writers that we are supposed to establish theme. I know we are even supposed to establish place, time, age, characters, trouble. I get it. My favorite beginnings mention something that seems to not have anything to do with the rest of the story, but will surprisingly come back to the narrative later. The author who does this best in my opinion is David Sedaris. I always know he is going to take me on a wild ride.

- Lindsey Wente, Nonfiction Reader

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