There’s some click bait for you, huh? Did I get you? Well, unfortunately, like most click bait, this post is not what you think it is. Let me explain.
A while back, a friend gave me a great book by Stephen King called Secret Windows, a collection of essays and fiction about writing (sadly, it’s now out of print). I think my favorite essay in the book (and there are a bunch of good ones) is called “Great Hookers I have Known.” The essay is about writing a truly gripping first sentence in a novel or short story, which were apparently called “hookers” by publishers back in the day. It’s the sentence that grabs the reader and tells him or her, “Hey, this story might actually be worth reading.”
Anyway, in the essay, King goes to his own published works and discovers he’s not particularly good at writing hookers (Totally tanked his career, right?), then cites some sterling examples of the art, no few of which come from Elmore Leonard. He also points out that hookers are more important in short stories, and I couldn’t agree more. I mean, you’ve got to get that editor’s attention fast, and a top-rate, attention-grabbing first line is a good way to do it.
So, like King, I went to my (much, much smaller and far, far less prestigious) collection of published works to see if I had come up with any good hookers. Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, a few good ones and a few not so good. Let’s look at the bad first.
Here’s one from a story I recently published called “Scare Tactics,” a story I really like. It’s a wonder it sold at all with this yawn-inducing first line.
Lindsey pulled up to the curb, killed the Accord’s engine, and glanced out the passenger-side window.
Wow, boring, right? Curbs and Hondas and passenger-side windows. Bleh. It’s not a bad sentence, I guess, but it sure as fuck ain’t an exciting one. I think its biggest sin is that it tells you absolutely nothing about the story that comes after it. This could be any genre, and it could be set just about anywhere. I swear, the story gets a lot better from here, but I got a bunch of rejections on this one before it sold.
This one is from a flash story called “The Rarest Cut.” I don’t think it’s as bad as my first example, but it’s not gonna win any prizes.
Vincent cut into the meat on his plate, sliced off a small portion, then lifted the morsel to his nose and sniffed.
Sure, you get the idea that this story is gonna have some eating in it, but that first sentence is just kind of sitting there being unexciting. This story also racked up a bunch of rejections before I finally placed it. Seeing a trend here yet?
Finally, this one is from a flash piece called “At the Seams.” This is one of my favorite pieces, but, man, I didn’t do it any favors with this first sentence.
It’s getting harder to maintain focus.
Maintain focus on what? The problem here is it’s just too damn vague. It’s also uninteresting. This sentence is in desperate need of some spice, something that says to the reader, “Hey, fucking NOTICE me!” This story holds my personal record for rejections, racking up thirteen before I placed it.
Let me state for the record I think all three of these stories are good ones, and I did manage to get them published. That said, they were rejected a lot. Was that because of a bad hooker? Hard to say, but if I was running into editors who were bored by the first sentence, maybe they lost interest in the story and didn’t read much of it before hitting the ol’ reject button. The wonderful, kind, and gracious folks who did publish these stories might have pushed past my weak opening line to find something they liked further in. Again, this is all conjecture, but let’s see if I can’t find more evidence for “good hookers are a must” with some other stories.
Okay, here are some of the “best” hookers from my published works. I put best in quotes because this is a pretty subjective exercise.
This first hooker is from “Night Games,” which I personally think is the best story I’ve published to date (your mileage may vary).
Randall Simmons only plays night games.
Hey, that’s not too bad, right? I mean, I hope it has you asking, “Who is this Randall Simmons guy, and why does he only play night games?” I think that’s the key to a good hooker; it gets the reader asking questions. This line also says you’re in for a sports story (even if you’re only passing familiar with such things) and this Randall dude might be up to something. I hope all that adds up to you wanting to read more. This story was rejected a couple of times, but it was also short listed once and it received almost entirely personal notes from editors, usually citing the baseball stuff as a little to sporty for their market. I also managed to sell it as a reprint to a pro-paying market on the first try. Not too bad.
This next one is from a flash piece called “Side Effects.”
Harold approached the final electrical outlet in the living room, a roll of duct tape in one hand, his bottle of Clozaril in the other.
Yeah, I dig this one. It tells you some shit right off the bat, and I think it would get most readers asking questions. I think phrases like “final electrical outlet” and “roll of duct tape” come together to paint an interesting image. But, in my opinion, what keeps this from being a really great hooker is most folks won’t know that Clorazil is an antipsychotic medication. If I could have found some way to make that more clear, I might have had a real winner on my hands. Still, I placed this story with the first publisher who read it.
Okay, this last hooker is probably my best. It’s from a story called “One Last Spell, My Love,” which you can read right here on this blog.
How do you break up with a demon?
There’s a lot of flavor packed into that little bastard, huh? I mean, I just told you you’re gonna read a story with a demon, someone in a romantic relationship with said demon, and, holy fuck, someone who’s gonna kick that demon to the curb. That’s a story I would want to read. Again, I think what makes this a good hooker is that it gets the reader asking questions, probably just one, “How DO you break up with a demon?” This story also sold quickly. In its first submission run, I sim-subbed it to two publishers, and one of those publishers bought it.
So, have I proved you need a good hooker to sell a short story? Nope; in fact, I may have provided evidence that if you’re patient, you can have a crap first line and still sell a story. I think, however, I may have delivered a little anecdotal evidence that a good hooker helps you sell a story quicker, maybe. Again, this is all conjecture and opinion, and I invite you to draw your own conclusions.
Got any good hookers of your own? I’d love to read them in the comments.
Here are a couple from stories I managed to publish (I thought about including some that are looking for homes, but didn’t want to risk anything turning up in a Google search). Incidentally, they are both romances (your wheelhouse 😉 ).
How can you sell something you don’t believe in, Alicia Jean?
“Your little sister’s like a zit, Tom. She pops up at the worst times.”
I think they are reasonably engaging, but I guess the test will be if anyone clicks through? 🙂
Good post. It may be worth revisiting some of my rejects.
Not bad. That second one is definitely a winner. 😉
My published story has the opening: “Today I learned that anything is edible with enough salt.” It came from a game where we tried to write a story in a tweet, and I wrote the rest of it after that. I highly recommend it if you’re trying to brainstorm ideas.
Ooh, that’s a good one. I’d keep reading.
Interesting as always.
I think you showed that a hooker is not that important although it definitely helps to begin a SS, however the following sentence or paragraph is what will reel me in, so although pulling up to a curb amd killing the engine in a generic car isnt inherently mind grabbing, what follows can be and for me that is what really counts.
If editors really base a decision on one line it would be pretty naive if not reckless.
I think it’s all about setting a tone. A great first line can do that and maybe keep an editor reading a bit further than they ordinarily might. It’s hard to say, really, and any evidence I offer in my post is, of course, entirely anecdotal. 😉
This is a fun game. Can I play?
Here’re some hookers from stories that will be published later this year:
1. I had once supported myself quite well by tailing cheating spouses, taking revealing photographs of their infidelities, and delivering prints and negatives to divorce attorneys and the clients they represented.
2. Samuel “Sugar” Cane sat at a glass-topped umbrella table on the back porch of his single-wide mobile home in Lacy Lakeview, Texas, nursed his last bottle of Lone Star, and cleaned his .38.
3. Waco is a city of hypocrisy, a city where Baptist ministers condemn homosexuality yet laud the high-scoring exploits of the local university’s lesbian basketball star; a city where the wealthy attend high-dollar charity events but won’t drop a quarter in a homeless man’s hand; a city where a banker spends thousands of dollars on hookers and his wife pays me only a few hundred to follow him around and take photographs.
4. Chase Montgomery wasn’t just out of the closet—he was out of the house and leading one-man Gay Pride parades around our little two-stoplight Texas town until he disappeared on the first without saying goodbye.
These are great. Do you have a favorite from the many stories you’ve published?
A favorite? That’s like asking me to pick which of my children I like best. Instead, here’s the one that started my professional career, the opening line from my first professional short story sale:
I haven’t seen Bill since he went away to the university, but his mother reads me his letters and tells me of his phone calls.
I have a few…
~ Jack had been living in the basement apartment for less than a week when he realized he was being watched.
~ Grampy always said, “When the world ends, it won’t go out with a bang; it’ll go with a whimper.”
~ The trap door dropped slowly, cantilevered staircase/ladder extending down into the upstairs hallway; there were some muffled words, then a childish giggle that brought instant attention from every denizen of the long abandoned attic.
It’s very rare that I have a first sentence that’s really short, but still a great hook (IMO), but here are 2 of them…
~ Yesterday I died.
~ The cat had become an issue.
These are all good, but “The cat had become an issue” is fucking fantastic. I NEED to read that story. 🙂
You can read it here: http://magiccatpress.weebly.com/grey-doyle.html
This was published under a different pen name, as it isn’t speculative at all.
Good post. And guess what? I read the entire thing waiting for a hooker to appear.
Thanks! Did you come up with a good hooker?