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First paragraphs tell the tale of the writer

In a fall 2003 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, I read What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow by David Jauss. He recounted the tale–one I hadn’t heard before–of the surprising discovery in 1909 by Ford Madox Ford (editor, English Review) of a new writer merely from reading the first paragraph of a submitted short story. The story had been submitted by a friend without the writer’s knowledge and “the moment he finished reading the first paragraph, he laid the story in the basket reserved for accepted manuscripts and announced to his secretary that he had discovered a literary genius–indeed, ‘a big one.'” Later that night he repeated his discovery to H.G. Wells who then passed it on to a nearby table of patrons. According to the story, Ford had two publishers “ask for refusal rights to the young author’s first book.”

All this from the opening paragraph, mind you.

Over the years I’ve heard many a new writer bewail the fact that his or her manuscript(s) had not been read completely through, that the editor/agent/published writer had probably not even made it through the first chapter…. Over time and as the result of reading many manuscripts–mine and a variety of contest entries and student writings–I understand how this is entirely plausible, possible and probably true: most manuscripts seldom receive a full reading. I’m not sure I can explain what “it” is when a manuscript has “it.” But “it” exists. Some call it flow, some voice, some style, some rhythm but most are probably like me and just know “it” when they read it.

So I ask you, what makes the great Editor-gods smile, let alone have their eyes track down to the next paragraph? (By the way, the writer in question was D.H. Lawrence and the opening in question was Odour of Chrysanthemums.)


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