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Writing great openings: 7 secrets from Mary McCarty

Every crusty old trench-coat-wearing journalist can tell you this: you have about 30 seconds to grab your reader’s attention. Take longer than that and the only reader you’ll have is your lover when you corner them in the john with a print-out of your masterpiece.

Mary McCarty isn’t crusty, and she wasn’t wearing a trench coat. I’m not sure if that made me happy or sad. She is, however, an award-winning journalist and columnist at the Dayton Daily News (the same newspaper where I got my start more than a decade ago). Last Sunday at Books and co, Mary her secrets on great beginnings – not just in newspaper articles but for all types of writing:

1. The two things that must happen in a beginning. “You have to grab the reader by the coattails and not let go,” she said. “And you have to establish an authentic writer’s voice.” Convince the reader, she said, that they’re going to be in the presence of someone who will be a delight and challenge to read.

2. What’s your story about? If you don’t know the answer to that question, your reader isn’t going to either, and they’re going to climb off your story train and hop aboard someone else’s. Once you’ve defined exactly what your story’s about, pick up the pen and start writing.

3. Get intimate. One of the ironies in writing is that intimate writing is often the most universal writing. Not many of us, for example, have gotten to compete for an Olympic medal, but we like to listen to Olympians talk because we can relate to them. The hero in the story might be competing for a gold medal in sprinting, but for us, it’s a story about overcoming adversity, pushing your own boundaries and questing for excellence. You can tell those bigger stories without having to mention them.

4. Mystery is your friend. Humans crave answers. We hate not knowing the ending to an intriguing story. If you can dangle a mysterious wooden trunk in front of your reader, odds are, they’re going to stick around to find out what’s inside.

5. Come back later. A good beginning doesn’t happen by accident. Occasionally, we’ll write an introduction that sings the second we put it down on paper, but more often than not, a great beginning has been meticulously honed and crafted. Because great beginnings are so important, a lot of writers over-think them – paralyzing themselves before they’ve even written a word. If that’s you, just skip the opening sentences of your piece and come back to them later. Once you have a great story on paper, the ingredients you need in the beginning often become more clear.

6. Seek out inspiration. Great musicians have listened to a lot of music. Great artists study great art, and great writers have read a hell of a lot of great books. If you’re having trouble putting words down on paper, grab one of your favorite books off the shelf and start reading. “It helps me,” Mary says, “because I’m kind of a jealous competitive person when it comes to writing. I read something great, and I think ‘I’m going to write something just as good.'”

7. Get started. A great beginning is any beginning, Mary says. So long as the story’s trapped in your head, it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. You’ve got to put something down on paper before you can even worry about its quality. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of everything is shit.” One of Mary’s friends, Dayton author Katrina Kittle (The Blessings of the Animals) echoes a similar sentiment: “You can make it better later. First, you must make it exist.”

Fredrick Marion

Fredrick Marion

I like books that refuse to let you sleep at night. I like coffee, talking animals and hearing from readers. Sign up for my email newsletter, and I'll send my latest blog posts to your inbox!

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