Watch Out. That First Line is a Doozy

I’ve written a couple posts about the importance of the first line in a short story. The idea being that a great first line sets the tone, instantly engages the reader, gets them asking questions about the story, and, hopefully, keeps them reading. These posts were inspired by a Stephen King essay called “Great Hookers I Have Known” from his collection Secret Windows. According to King’s essay, a “hooker” is a term once used by pulp fiction editors to describe a great first line that immediately captures the reader’s attention.

In the previous two posts I examined first lines in some of my published stories to see if I was, well, any good at writing a first line. Since I’ve had kind of a bumper crop of acceptances this year, I thought I’d revisit the concept and see if I’ve improved. Here are the first lines from five flash fiction stories I published this year. Let’s see how I did.

1) “New Arrivals” published by Havok Magazine

Senior Agent Howard Townsend parked his Ford Explorer at the head of an old dirt road.

This is not the greatest first line I’ve ever written. “Senior Agent” is kind of interesting, but Ford Explorers and dirt roads not so much. I think what saves this is the first paragraph, which is a lot better. This one received two rejections before Havok accepted it, and that’s not bad. Still, if we’re just rating first lines, I’d give this one a C-.

2) “The Food Bank” published by The Arcanist

A beetle the size of a battleship came out of the afternoon sky, its gargantuan wings buzzing like the drone of a thousand helicopters.

Okay, this is pretty good if I do say so myself. At the very least it should illicit a WTF from the reader. Giant beetle, droning wings, a thousand helicopters, that’s not bad. This story also received two rejections before it was accepted, but I’d give this first line an A-.

3) “Simulacra” Published by Ellipsis Zine

Ice and a snow weren’t the best material for the task, but Jason didn’t have much else to work with.

This one is okay, and it’s another where the first paragraph is better. The first line gives you a little info and starts with the main character doing something (important for flash, in my opinion), but it’s not exactly a knock-your-socks-off first line. Just one rejection for this story before it was accepted. I’d score this first line a C.

4) “Two Legs” published by The Molotov Cocktail

There had been no meat for too long.

Sometimes a good first line is short and simple, and I think this one is pretty good. Not my best, but solid. The word “meat” conjures all kinds of sightly disturbing images. This story received five rejections before The Molotov accepted it. I rate the first line a solid B.

5) “The Inside People” published by Ellipsis Zine

Victor wiped the spittle from his mouth after another coughing fit and stared up at the tower.

Not bad. Kind of gross, but not bad. It creates an image, I think, and maybe invites the question, “What’s wrong with Victor?” The tower by itself isn’t particularly interesting, but combined with the coughing fit, I think it works. This one received two rejections before acceptance, and I’d rate the first line a B-.


Does a killer first line help your chances at publication? Maybe, a little. You still have to write a good story, but a solid opener that pulls the reader in and gets them asking questions can’t hurt. That said, of the fives stories here, only one of them had what I would consider a great first line. The rest were solid to mediocre, and I think it was the first paragraph that did the heavy lifting. So, a killer first line is a good tool to have at your disposal, but it’s just one piece of the getting-published puzzle.

Got any great first lines of your own? Share them in the comments.

A Week of Writing: 7/9/18 to 7/15/18

Welcome to another week of writerly works.

Words to Write By

This week’s quote deals with those tricky endings and even trickier beginnings.

“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”

—Joyce Carol Oates

This quote reflects something I’ve been thinking about as I go through the first draft of my novel. It’s very clear that even if I stick the landing, I’ll almost certainly need to rework the beginning to match. For me, I think this has a lot to do with how I approach longer works. Though I work from an outline, the first couple of chapters are this “feeling things out” stage both with the plot and the characters. I hit something resembling a stride after about 10,000 words, but I leave a lot of clunky characterization in my wake before that. Anyway, I’m looking forward to getting that final sentence written (revised), so I can take another shot at the first sentence.

The Novel

Made more solid progress, and I’m about a quarter of the way through the initial revisions. I made some big changes last week again, matching chapters and character motivations to the new setup. I also completely changed an important secondary character. He just never quite worked for me, and a lot of it had to do with how blandly I described him. I happened to see someone on TV, I can’t even remember which show, and something clicked, and I was like, “That’s him. That’s the character.” It was more of an appearance thing than personality, though the change in appearance has opened a lot of new avenues for interesting character hooks.

Short Stories

Worked on revisions of a couple of short stories last week, though I didn’t write any new ones. This week will likely be focused on revisions as well, as I need to polish up a couple of stories for two pro markets briefly open to submissions.

A slow(ish) week for submissions.

  • Submissions Sent: 2
  • Rejections: 2
  • Acceptances: 1
  • Publications: 0

I only sent two submission last week, though one of them was accepted. (I’ll take a fifty percent acceptance rate any week.) I’m up to 74 submissions for the year, and I’d like to hit at least 80 before the month is out.

The Blog

Two blog posts last week.

7/9/18: A Week of Writing: 7/2/18 to 7/8/18

The usual weekly writing update.

7/12/18: Go for the Goal: 100 Submissions

In this post I talk about my goal of 100 submissions for the year and why I’m pursuing it.

Goals

Cue the broken record. Keep working on the novel and keep sending those submissions.

Submission Spotlight

Flame Tree Publishing has an open call for two more anthologies, Haunted House and Cozy Crime. Flame Tree is an SFWA qualifying market (with pay rates to match). They’re okay with reprints, simultaneous submissions, and multiple submissions. Deadline for these two anthologies is 7/29/18. More details in the link below.

Flame Tree Publishing Anthologies 


That was my week. How was yours?

Go for the Goal: 100 Submissions

This year I set a goal to send 100 short story submissions. It’s similar to the 100 rejections goal, but the focus is a bit different. Let me explain why I’m doing it and subjecting myself to all those rejections. 🙂

Why 100 submissions? Here are my top three reasons.

  1. Number goals motivate me. This is more about me personally than any sage advice on submissions. I’m kind of a stats nerd, and these kinds of goals, as arbitrary as they are, keep me focused and push me to keep writing, submitting, and so on. Your goal needn’t be 100 submissions if you’re not a numbers person. It could be broader. Some like submit to more pro markets, for example.
  2. It keeps me writing new stuff. In order to send out 100 submissions, you need a fair amount of material to send. So I’ve been writing a lot more short stories this year. Sure, a lot of it is flash, but I’ve been pretty consistent with a new story every week or so.
  3. It’s pushed me to diversify. I’m primarily a horror writer, but the simple fact is I run out of horror markets pretty quick. There are a lot more fantasy and sci-fi markets, generally, so I’ve been writing more in those genres, with some success. Hell, I even wrote and sold a mystery story this year. Of course, a lot of my sci-fi ends up being horror/sci-fi and my fantasy is generally dark fantasy, but, hey, it still counts.

So, how am I doing with this goal? Let’s look at some numbers.

  • Submissions: 73
  • Pending Submissions: 8
  • Unique Stories: 26
  • Acceptances: 9
  • Rejections: 55
  • Withdrawals: 2

I’m satisfied with those numbers, and I’m well on my way to hitting my goal (and then some). I’m also happy with my acceptance rate so far (about 14% based on completed submissions), though I’d always like it to be higher. As usual, there have been a fair number of short-listed stories that ended up getting rejected, and I feel confident those stories will find a home and increase my acceptance rate down the line. Out of my 100-plus submissions, I’d really like to hit 15 acceptances, and I feel like that’s doable (he says, jinxing himself).


Got any submission goals of your own? Tell me about them in the comments.

A Week of Writing: 7/2/18 to 7/8/18

Happy Monday. Here’s a week of writing wins and woes.

Words to Write By

Another quote from King, and one that’s especially important to me since I tend to write a lot of horror.

I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.

– Stephen King

It seems simple, but if we just look at horror movies as an example, so many fail at this basic concept. If you don’t care about the people in the story, you won’t care when horrible things happen to them. I love writing about monsters, but I sometimes have to look at them like the dessert course after I finish my character vegetables. I’m not always successful, of course, and a few stray bits of broccoli have, on occasion, been fed to the literary pooch under the table.

The Novel

Got through a couple more chapters last week. More heavy revision as I catch up the manuscript from the changes I made in chapter one. There’ll be more of that this week, as chapters five through ten need revision to conform to a slightly altered plot. But I feel good about what’s happening, and the book is taking shape.

Short Stories

Finished one new story this week called “She Has a Way with Things That Grow.” Yeah, that’s a long, clunky title, I know, and it’ll likely shorten up to something a bit less wordy. It started as flash, but I think it’ll end up somewhere around 3,000 words.

A good week for submissions in some regards and terrible for others.

  • Submissions Sent: 0
  • Rejections: 1
  • Acceptances: 2
  • Publications: 1

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t send a single submission last week. I’m not too broken up about it, though, since I’m still on track for my goal of 100 submissions for the year. Plus, I got two acceptances and a publication last week, so that’s pretty awesome. More submissions will go out this week.

The Blog

Two blog posts last week, both of the “here’s what I’ve been up to” variety. Last week was a good week for new followers, though. So if you recently started following the blog, thank you!

7/3/18: A Week of Writing: 6/25/10 to 7/1/18

The usual weekly writing update.

7/6/18: Submission Statement: June 2018

My submission endeavors for the month of June.

Goals

As usual, keep working on the first read-through/revision of the novel, and get more short stories revised or finished and out the door.

Story Spotlight

This week’s story spotlight marks a dirty dozen publications with The Molotov Cocktail. They recently published my story “Two Legs,” which you can read for free by clicking the link below.

“Two Legs”

Bonus Kitten Round

Yeah, I know it’s not exactly writing related, but we adopted this little fuzzball last week. His name is Fidget, and I look forward to many years of shooing him off my keyboard as I attempt to write stores, novels, and blog posts.


That was my week. How was yours?

Submission Statement: June 2018

June was another active month that kept me well ahead of pace for my goal of 100 submissions for the year. Here’s the down and dirty.

June 2018 Report Card

  • Submissions Sent: 12
  • Rejections: 10
  • Acceptances: 1
  • Publications: 1
  • Other: 1

Twelve submissions is great, and I ended the month with 72 total for the year (and an average of exactly twelve per month). A couple of the rejections stung a bit, only because I thought I had a good shot at an acceptance on at least one of them. Still, I did get an acceptance from a market I haven’t submitted to before, so that’s always good. The publication is for a story accepted in May, and the “other” is a withdrawal letter.

Rejections

Ten rejections, which is about average for my submission output at this point. Here’s how the rejections breakdown.

  • Standard Form Rejections: 5
  • Upper-Tier Form Rejections: 2
  • Personal Rejections: 3

Half the rejection were upper-tier form or personal rejections, and there was one short list rejection and a couple of close-but-no-cigars. I really wanted an acceptance for that short-listed story because it was for a fairly prestigious anthology, and I thought my story was a nice fit for the theme. But that’s the way these things go, and editors have to make tough decisions when they’re filling those final slots. This is one of those stories that’s gotten close a couple of times, so I think it’ll find a home in the near future.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how long it took for each market to read and reject the story.

Rejection Date Sent Date Received Days Out
Rejection 1 8-Apr-18 1-Jun-18 54
Rejection 2 11-May-18 1-Jun-18 21
Rejection 3 10-Jun-18 14-Jun-18 4
Rejection 4 17-Jun-18 18-Jun-18 1
Rejection 5 11-May-18 21-Jun-18 41
Rejection 6 26-Apr-18 24-Jun-18 59
Rejection 7 25-Jan-18 25-Jun-18 151
Rejection 8 25-Jun-18 26-Jun-18 1
Rejection 9 26-Jun-18 27-Jun-18 1
Rejection 10 27-Jun-18 29-Jun-18 1

Pretty standard rejection times for these markets, though some were a bit speedier than usual. The longest wait was 151 days, and that’s because the story was short listed. In that case, the publisher sent a short list letter to inform authors the wait time could be longer than usual as they made final decisions.

Other

The “other” this month was another withdrawal letter.

Dear Editors,

I submitted my short story [story title] to [publisher] on [date]. I sent a submission status query on [date]. At this time, I would like to withdraw the story from consideration. 

Best, 

Aeryn Rudel

This is an example of one of my basic withdrawal letters. Like all queries and withdrawals, be professional and simply state the facts.

Acceptances

One acceptance for the month, from a market I haven’t subbed to before (but almost certainly will again).

Many thanks again for your story, we both really enjoyed it and would like to publish it at [publisher]. Attached is a copy of our standard contract for you to fill in, sign, and return.

In my experience, most acceptance letters read like a very welcome type of form letter. I think this is because they are the opening salvo in a longer communication between editor and writer. Yes, you should always respond to acceptance letters. 🙂 Additional communications of a much more individual nature always follow, revolving around the contract, any necessary edits to the story, when the story might be published, etc.

More on this acceptance as it nears publication.

Publication

One publication in June. My story “The Inside People” was published by Ellipsis Zine. You can read it by clicking the link below.

“The Inside People”


And that was my June. Tell me about yours.

A Week of Writing: 6/25/18 to 7/1/2018

I usually post these on Monday, but the fates conspired against me yesterday and kept me far away from the keyboard. Anyway, here’s the week that was.

Words to Write By

This is one of my favorite quotes because it delivers a great piece of writing advice in typical Twain fashion.

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” 

― Mark Twain

So, let’s give this a shot. Here are a few sentences from a recent draft of a novelette, and, as Mr. Twain suggests, I’ve replaced the verys with damns.

  • “It’s a movie. And not a damn good one.”
  • “Unfortunately, a fair amount.” The angel frowned. “I have a damn delicate situation on my hands and direct intervention would not be prudent at this time.”
  • Adramelech’s doll jerked and then slid off the chair. Its cotton arms and legs possessed no articulation, so the demon couldn’t move it damn well.

Yep, all of those could go (with a tiny bit of revision on the last sentence), but, I have to admit, I kind of like the second sentence with the damn intact.

The Novel

Well, I wrote a new chapter one, and revised chapters two and three to match last week. The holiday is going to slow me down this week, but I’m feeling better about where I am overall with the novel. I’ve also set a hard deadline for when I need to turn the novel over to my critique partners and when I need to get it to my agent.

Short Stories

For the first time in a while, I didn’t work on any new stories. That said, there are a couple of big markets opening for submissions this week, so I’ll be sprucing up a story or two.

A good week for submissions stats.

  • Submissions Sent: 4
  • Rejections: 4
  • Acceptances: 1
  • Publications: 1

Kind of ticked all the boxes last week with submissions, rejections, an acceptance, and a publication. One of those rejections was a real heart-breaker, a story that had been shortlisted for a long time and was eventually rejected. I’m pretty inured to rejections at this point, but those sting a bit. The acceptance was with a new market, and I’ll talk more about that in the coming weeks.

The submissions for last week put me at 72 for the year.

The Blog

Only two blog posts last week (and probably two this week as well).

6/25/18: A Week of Writing: 6/18/10 to 6/24/18

The usual weekly writing update.

6/29/18: 6 Reasons for Rejections

In this post I listed six of the most common reasons stories are rejected.

Goals

Keep working on revisions of the novel is goal number one. Goal number two is prepare stories for two big markets that opened for submissions this week.

Story Spotlight

This week’s story spotlight is my second publication with Ellipsis Zine, a market that is fast becoming one of my favorites. The story is a bit of dystopian sci-fi flash called “The Inside People.” You can read it for free by clicking the link below.

“The Inside People”


That was my week. How was yours?

6 Reasons for Rejections

I’ve written at length about the myriad reasons a story might get rejected, but let’s look at six of the most common and review them. As with all things on this blog, what follows is my (somewhat informed but hardly expert) opinion based on my personal experiences out there in submission land. So, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it.

  1. Ignoring the guidelines. Let’s start off with the obvious one. The quickest and surest way to get a rejection is to not follow the submission guidelines. It’s the literary equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot . . . with a bazooka. Your story is not an exception to the rules. Say it with me. Follow. The. Guidelines.
  2. Needs work. No one wants to hear this, but sometimes we have to face facts. Our writing may not be up to snuff, and even if it is, we all write the occasional clunker. This is why it’s crucially important to work at your craft, identify the weaknesses in your work, and then strive to improve on them. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to gather a group of critique partners who will be bluntly honest with you. It’s no fun to get a story back from a trusted reviewer filled with comments, questions, and red marks, but I think it’s the best way to improve.
  3. Editorial preference. Look, editors are people, and people have a wide variety of tastes and preferences. You can write a good story about superheroes, or baseball, or whatever, and if you send it to an editor that just doesn’t dig those things, you’re probably gonna get a rejection. Helpfully, some editors are up front about their preferences, and their guidelines will include a “do not send” or “hard sell” list to alert writers about subjects or tropes the editors don’t want to see. Pay attention to those.
  4. Bad fit. Similar to editorial taste, but more of a big picture kind of thing. Some markets, despite accepting the same genre you’re writing, might just be a bad fit for your style. If you write more commercial fiction, you might have a hard time selling to a market that leans literary or experimental. If your work tends to be downbeat and dark, a market that generally publishes more uplifting pieces is probably going to pass on your stories. You can often tell if your work might be a good fit by reading an issue or two from the magazine in question, but not always, especially of new markets that don’t have back issues for you to read.
  5. Bad luck. If you write an awesome story about, say, rabid space monkeys and send it to a magazine that just accepted another awesome story about rabid space monkeys, guess what? You’re probably going to get a rejection. Or if the publisher has, for whatever reason, seen a shit-ton of rabid space monkey stories lately, it’s gonna stack the odds against your rabid space monkey story. Yeah, it’s a bummer, but sometimes the editor will tell you this is why your story was rejected. I always appreciate that because it’s useful data, and I can send that story out again with some confidence.
  6. Lots of competition. If you’re submitting to big pro markets and anthologies, your story is going up against a lot of other stories, many from the best writers in the industry. These markets get a lot of quality submissions, but they can only publish so many stories, hence their very low acceptance rates. For more on that, read the excellent and inspiring article Nectar for Rejectomancers by C.C. Finlay, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. 

Three of the reasons I listed above you can do something about. You can keep refining your craft and submit your best work, you can and absolutely should follow the guidelines to the letter, and you can do some research and sharpen your submission targeting. But, even if you do all those things, you’re still gonna get your fair share of rejections because of the three reasons beyond your control. That’s okay. It’s all part of the gig and it happens to every writer. Accept it, keep writing, and keep submitting.


Any other reasons a story might get rejected? Tell me about it in the comments.