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SLANT LETTER: How to Craft a Stellar Introduction
An editorial reading of Katherine May's "Wintering."
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I am constantly sending writers to their personal libraries to become students of stellar writing, to pop the hood and pay attention to what works, structure, transitions, story craft, flow. So I thought today we might become students together, with a seasonally appropriate and absolutely stellar read from celebrated writer + fellow substacker Katherine May.
I read Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times not long after it came out last fall. It seemed to me the perfect pairing for a maternity leave read, especially in an isolated pandemic midwinter. My copy is studded with underlines and margin notes, her writing is the best kind in that it is both personal and universal, her insights both sharp and healing as a fresh blast of October air.
Highly recommend picking up a copy yourself and reading with pen in hand! So in the spirit of reading like writers, let’s read a preview together, shall we?
First, she opens with a story, then zooms out.
May opens her first chapter with a personal narrative that sets the stakes for her as an individual, but then, we see a paragraph break—aaannd CUT to new scene! Which opens with this line:
“Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again.”
Here’s what I want us to notice. May begins the book within a world of first-person “I,” but it isn’t long before she intentionally shifts into second-person “you.”
The moment she does, the book becomes not just about the author, but about you, about us. Suddenly, the reader is rendered a participant in this story, and not simply an outside observer.
Behold, on page 10:
“Winter is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds . . . However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.”
I want to call our attention to a few things here. First, note the clear, succinct definition of the title concept. EVERY introduction needs this, especially if there are any metaphors that need mapped. These direct definitions are essential for your set-up so your reader can get their bearings before the journey begins in earnest.
Second, this is a glorious example of direct address to your reader. It’s second-person, but it’s more than that, it’s personable—a writer speaking to her reader at eye-level. May takes this direct address even deeper by offering up an array of relatable scenarios in which the reader can find themselves.
I am a big proponent of this approach, in part because it recognizes your reader is not a monolith, they each bring their own unique prism of life experiences to the page. As a book begins (and ideally throughout), a writer can name just some of their possible particularities, as a way of making room for your reader and saying, “Welcome. I see you.”
These “cluster examples,” as I call them, can be a powerful, yet also gentle, way for readers to self-identify within the primary struggle you’re exploring.
Of course, the struggle is real and the introduction is where it becomes your task to name it, as well as the resistance readers will face along the way.
Take a look at how May does so in layers:
She names the resistance:
“We’re not raised to recognize wintering or to acknowledge its inevitability. Instead, we tend to see it as a humiliation.”
She previews the hope, and the core invitation of the book:
And finally, she sets the stakes: juxtaposing the “deeply unfashionable” choice of slowing down, resting, and retreating, with the costs of powering through, she lands her first chapter with this line of urgency:
“It’s one of the most important choices you’ll ever make.”
A strong introduction, in many ways, is like winter itself: like the cold that is designed to first wake you up, then cue you to know that transformation is coming, if we take it day by day, page by page.
This mini-writer’s-book-club was a different kind of SLANT LETTER! I’d love to hear if you found it helpful or, as always, any topics you’d like to see covered in this space—just hit “reply” to this email and let me know!
Until next time,
Take heart. Write on. You got this.
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This letter is this editor's off-hours labor of love. If you've found something useful here, would you pass it on to a fellow writer friend?
P.S. // A Blessing for Writers
SLANT LETTER is about both craft + soul care for the creative life. So today, I want to speak this blessing for all of us anxious, ambitious, internet-exhausted writing folk.