Hook, Line & Sinker: Fine-Tuning the First Sentence

Last year, I wrote a blog post inspired by one of my favorite essays by Stephen King, “Great Hookers I Have Known,” from his collection Secret Windows. The title of the essay is, of course, not what it sounds like. It’s about crafting a first sentence for a novel (or short story) that grabs the reader, the “hooker,” as it was apparently called by publishers back in the day.

In the blog post from last year, I looked at the “hookers” in six of my published stories and tried to ascertain if a good one resulted in the story being published quicker (fewer rejections). Well, I’ve published some new stories since that last post, so let’s look at the first lines from six of them, count the rejections, and see if I’ve improved my skills.

1) Let’s start with the mediocre first. This is from a short story called “Paper Cut.”

“I got no outs this time, Jimmy,” Ronald said.

Not exactly a knock-your-socks-off opening line, huh? I like opening a story with dialogue, but this is just too vague and too bland to grab the reader. Now, the opening paragraph is stronger, but the first line could use some work. Did the opening line affect this story’s publication chances? Well, it was rejected sixteen times before publication. I don’t think the first line is the only reason for all those rejection, but it probably didn’t help.

2) This one is from a sci-fi flash story called “An Incident on Dover Street.” 

“What is it, Vince?” Dale said. “A wormhole or something?”

I think this is better than the opener of “Paper Cut,” but it doesn’t do much. The question and the mention of a wormhole is sort of interesting, but it’s still a little flat. The opening paragraphs are better, so I’m grateful the editors read a bit further. This one racked up five rejections before I sold it.

3) This next one is a bit better, and it’s from a flash fiction story called “Masks.”

He has worked for Finco Novelties for as long as anyone can remember, a gaunt man with a slack, forgettable face and mud-brown eyes.

I give you a fair amount of detail here with the description of the protagonist, and I think it sets the tone for the story pretty well. Still, it’s not that “Holy shit what happens NEXT?!” line that can help a story sell. But, hey, what do I know? This one sold on its first submission, though it has picked up one rejection as a reprint.

4) Up next is a line that is pretty solid, I think. It’s from a flash piece called “Reunion.”

“Does it hurt them, Daddy?” Evelyn asked.

So this is pretty simple, but I think the question posed in this first line and the fact that it’s obviously coming from a child makes for a fairly intriguing opening. I also think it’s kind of creepy, which is appropriate for this Lovecraftian horror story. This story was rejected three times before I sold it, and that’s not bad.

5) Moving on, this one is from a story called “Where they Belong.”

Daddy always says to put things where they belong. Toys have to go back in the chest. Milk has to go back in the fridge. Dead people have to go in the ground.

Okay, I’m cheating here, I know. This is not the first line; it’s the first paragraph. It’s still really short, and I think it’s one of the better openers I’ve written. I think it gets the reader asking questions, which, in my opinion, is the best thing an opening line can do. I sold this one on the first submission to a pro market (sadly, now defunct). Like “Masks,” the story has since picked up a rejection as a reprint.

6) Last one, and this is my favorite of the bunch. This is from a story called “Cowtown.”

“Dude, again, chupacabras eat goats not cows,” Miguel said and stepped over the barbed-wire fence, being careful not to snag his crotch.

I love that opening bit of dialogue here, and it still makes me giggle when I read it. I think it creates a solid image in the reader’s mind and kind of a funny one. It also tells you the story might be horror and might be humorous (it’s both). Though I think this is the best opening line of the bunch, this story picked up two rejections before I published it. Still, that’s not too shabby.

So what’s the verdict? Does a good opening line help sell a story? If we look at the last time I posted about this subject, I listed opening lines to six published stories, and only one of them sold on the first attempt. Here I hit two out of six on the first attempt. The first six stories amassed 31 total rejections, for an average of about 5.2 each. This batch of six received 28 rejections, for an average of 4.6. Of course, you have to take into account that “Paper Cut” received 16 all by itself, and I wrote that one before I started working on my opening sentence game. If you remove the rejections from “Paper Cut,” then the other five stories averaged only 2.4 rejections before they sold. Yeah, yeah, this is rejectomancy at its finest, but I do think I’ve gotten better at writing opening lines (I’ve actively worked on it).

Look, I know a good opening line is not the only thing that sells a story. The rest of it has to be good too, and my quicker sales in this batch could be the result of a whole bunch of other factors. Still, I’m a firm believer that a good opening line can only help your chances.

If you’d like to read some of these stories, you can find links to most them in my Short Fiction Page.

What are your thoughts on writing opening lines? Tell me about it in the comments or share one you’re proud of.

One-Hour Flash – The Christmas Crypt

Hey, all, it’s time for another installment of one-hour flash. If you’re new to this feature or this blog, these are stories I wrote as part of a one-hour flash fiction exercise/contest. Some of those stories were good enough to be published, and the others, well, they ended up here. 🙂

Today’s story is a weird one, and maybe it’s greatest flaw is that it’s a Christmas story. That’s a big limiting factor on which markets you can submit to and when. Since I never think far enough ahead to look for Christmas-themed submission calls, I figured I’d celebrate this Christmas by sharing the story with you.


The Christmas Crypt


“Christ, It looks like the North Pole exploded in here,” Frank said, panning his flashlight around the huge dark room. The thin beam of light played across stockings and garlands pinned to every wall with rusting nails, a mob of blow-up Santas, snowmen, and elves in various states of inflation, and a small forest of fake Christmas trees, each festooned with gaudy ornaments. Some of the Christmas junk was new, but a thick layer of dust coated most of it.

“Dude likes Christmas,” Randall said with a shrug, shining his own flashlight around. His small, deep-set eyes glinted with rodent-like eagerness as they moved across the room.  “Some of this shit is expensive, though. He must have some cash somewhere.”

“I hope so,” Frank said. “I got two strikes; a B&E would send my ass to prison for the long haul.”

Randall moved further into the room, waving the flashlight in a methodical sweeping motion. “Don’t worry; I’ve been scoping this place for months. The guy lives alone, and he doesn’t get visitors. When he leaves, he’s gone for days. We’re fine.”

They were keeping their voices down out of habit, but it wasn’t necessary. The big old house was in a neighborhood where people liked their privacy. That meant lots of space between homes, and a veritable forest of tall pines obscured this particular house from the road. No one could see onto the grounds without actually coming up the driveway. If that happened, they’d hear and see the car, giving them more than enough time to exit through the back window they’d pried open to get in.

“We’ve been through every room in this place, and I’ve seen nothing but piles of Christmas garbage. There’s not even any furniture.” Frank shook his head. “It’s fucking weird, man.”

Randall had reached the other side of the room and stood next to one of the towering fake Christmas trees. “Hey,” he said, motioning for Frank to join him. “There’s a door behind this tree.”

Frank pushed past a trio of inflatable Santas to join his partner. The door behind the tree was made from a heavy dark wood and crisscrossed with metal strips in a checkerboard pattern. A stout iron bolt held it closed.

“Help me move this tree,” Randall said, and the two of them manhandled the faux Douglas fir out of the way.

Randall put his ear against the door and listened.

“Anything?” Frank asked.

Randall pulled away from the door, his forehead wrinkling. “Bells, I think.”

Frank lifted his shirt, exposing the butt of a black pistol in his waistband. He put his hand on the grip.

“Fuck that, man.” Randall held up both hands in protest. “Stealing is one thing, but I don’t want to kill anybody.”

Frank’s gaunt, freckled face was impassive. “We haven’t found shit in this dump, and if I’m gonna risk strike three on a B&E, then I might as well risk it on armed robbery. Open it.”

“Fine,” Randall said. “But put that thing away unless we absolutely need it.”

Frank rolled his eyes, but he took his hand off the gun and covered it with his shirt.

Randall yanked on the heavy bolt, and it gave way with a loud screeching noise. He pulled the door open, and from the night-black portal came a thick animal stink. Both men covered their noses and stepped back.

“Fuck me,” Frank said, gagging. “Smells like something died down there.”

“Maybe something did.” Randall aimed his flashlight at the open door. The beam revealed rickety wooden stairs leading down.

Frank pulled the collar of his shirt over his mouth. “Let’s see if this asshole keeps his money in the same place he keeps the road kill.”

They mounted the steps, shining their lights into the gloom. The stairs led down into a large brick basement with an earthen floor. When they reached the bottom, they heard two things: the soft tinkling of bells and the hollow boom of the door slamming shut above them.

Frank whirled toward the stairs and pulled his pistol. Randall stayed where he was and shone his flashlight around, trying to find the source of the bells. He heard Frank on the steps behind him, and the bells grew louder, closer.

Randall opened his mouth to call out to Frank, but something large and fast moved out of the dark and into the beam of his flashlight. He saw a white blur and what he recognized as antlers seconds before they pierced his abdomen and slammed him back against the wall. He screamed as the thing connected to the antlers twisted them violently in his guts.

Halfway up the stairs, Frank turned to see his partner pinned to the wall by a white reindeer the size of a grizzly bear. Its red eyes seemed too large for its skull and its misshapen head was crowned with a rack of antlers like a nest of spears.  A string of small iron bells hung from the creature’s neck. The beast jerked its antlers from Randall’s body, letting him sag to the ground, and moved up the stairs toward Frank. He pointed his pistol at it, retreating until his back brushed against the door. He fumbled for the doorknob and realized with cold dread there wasn’t one.

The reindeer shook its head, blew steam from its flared nostrils, and charged. Frank pulled the trigger, filling the night with the dichotomous sounds of gunfire and jingle bells.

Yeah, this one’s not perfect by any means, and it’s probably more vignette than true story, but I dig the weird factor of a giant devil reindeer. Is it a marketable story? Eh, it’d be a tough sell with that holiday theme even if I polished it up. I’ll say this for it, though; it’s an absolutely perfect final blog post before Christmas. 🙂

Happy holidays to all the writers, readers, and fellow rejectomancers.

Two New Publications & Two New Markets

The first part of this month has been pretty damn decent. I’ve received one acceptance and I’ve published two pieces, both of which you can read for free online. I’m gonna talk about the publications first, and then I’ll give you some information that might actually be useful. 🙂

Publication #1:

Yesterday, The Molotov Cocktail published my flash story “Little Sister.” This another story that began life in a one-hour flash contest. It’s seen some minor revisions and polish, but the published versions is pretty close to what I jammed out in an hour four years ago. Anyway, you can read the story, plus two more excellent pieces of flash by Christina Dalcher and Alyssa Striplin by clicking the image below.

Publication #2:

The second publication is another flash horror story called “Reunion.” It was published by The Arcanist on December 1st. This is yet another story that started out as a one-hour flash exercise, and the published version is also very similar to the original mad-dash scribble. You can read this one by clicking on the image below.


Okay, now that my shameless self promotion is over, how about some useful info? Here are two new pro-paying speculative markets that have recently begun taking submissions for their first issues.

New Market 1: Factor Four Magazine 

Here’s what they want:

We publish flash fiction in the genres of speculative fiction, specifically science fiction, fantasy, supernatural, super hero, or any combination of these.  We are looking for stories that are engaging to our readers in such a short word count.  Please take note of these factors (pun intended) when submitting stories to us.

They’re accepting submissions up to 2,000 words but list a probable “sweet spot” of 500-1,500 words. They pay an impressive .08/word, and look like a very professional outfit, with a nice website and clear and thorough guidelines. Check out their submission guidelines.

New Market 2: Spectacle 

Here’s what they want:

Welcome to Spectacle! We’re a brand new magazine (yes, print) that covers the exciting world of speculative fiction, which is any story, saga, or tome that has some fantastic element. These genres include (but are not limited to) sci-fi, fantasy, alternate history, horror, apocalyptic, and weird fiction. We’re exploring limitless worlds with infinite possibilities.

This market accepts flash fiction up to 1,000 words and short stories up to 7,500 words. They also have a professional pay rate of $100.00 for flash fiction and $500.00 for short stories. That translates to around .10/word for most pieces, which is at the very top end of the pay scale for speculative markets. They also have a professional website and clear and simple submission guidelines. Here’s those submission guidelines.

Got any new publications of your own you’d like to share? Tell me about them in the comments.

Acceptance Rates: What are the Chances?

We all know that top-tier short story markets receive tons of submissions, likely hundreds every submission period, but how many of those submissions are actually accepted? Excellent question, and we have some data that can at least get us in the ballpark.

Since I’m primarily a horror writer, I’m going to give you stats on five markets (three pro and two semi-pro) that accept horror: Apex Magazine, Black Static, The Dark Magazine, Pseudopod, and Red Room Magazine. I’ve listed the acceptance rates for these markets below, pulling the data from Duotrope and The Submission Grinder and then taking an average. The numbers are fairly close between the two submission tracking services, but not always. Check out the disparity between the two for The Dark.

Market Tier Duotrope  Acceptance % Submission Grinder Acceptance % Average
Apex Magazine Pro 0.22% 0.28% 0.25%
Black Static Pro 1.36% 1.88% 1.62%
Pseudopod Pro 3.23% 3.42% 3.33%
The Dark Semi-Pro 0.90% 2.52% 1.71%
Red Room Magazine Semi-Pro 1.52%
*Please note these are ballpark figures based on the data at hand. Each market’s actual acceptance rate may be (and probably is) a bit higher or a bit lower than what I have here.

Apex Magazine is by far the toughest market to crack, with an acceptance rate somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 out of every 400 submissions. The others aren’t exactly a walk in the park, though your chances are slightly better. One other thing to consider is that Duotrope states the acceptance rates may actually be lower than what they have listed. That’s because folks are very good about reporting acceptances and, uh, less good about reporting rejections.

The only complete data I have is for Red Room Magazine. They actually published how many submissions they received (and accepted) during their last submission window (four months). The numbers look like this: 575 submissions received, 8 submissions accepted. That works out to a 1.52% acceptance rate, which puts Red Room Magazine in line with most pro and semi-pro markets. Other markets on my list, like Apex Magazine and The Dark Magazine, must receive at least this many submissions in the same period, and if I were a betting man, I’d wager they get a lot more. I have no data to back that up, just gut instinct based on their longevity and prestige in the spec-fic marketplace.

Of course, you can’t look at this as only a numbers game. If you had all the time in the world, you could send 400 submissions to Apex Magazine and still not get that one acceptance the numbers indicate. At the end of the day, this is still about putting a good story in front of the right editor at the right time.

But what can the numbers tell us? Well, it’s not all bad news. With acceptance rates this low, these magazines are certainly turning away some good stories, stories that might go on to publication elsewhere, even another pro market. The reasons for this are many: bad fit for the market, they just published a similar story, not quite up to snuff in the craft department, and so on. In other words, a rejection from one of these markets doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve written a bad story. Case in point, my story “Night Games” was rejected by three top-tier markets (one on this list) and eventually published by Pseudopod. So, when it comes to the low, low acceptance rates of these top-tier publishers, I’d offer you the same advice I tell myself: keep writing, keep working on your craft, and keep submitting.

[Edit] Just a quick note. I originally had only Duotrope statistics in this post, primarily because that’s the service I use. But a lot of folks use The Submission Grinder, and it was pointed out to me by a top-tier science fiction and fantasy magazine that there can be quite a disparity between the two services (their own numbers were very different). So I’ve gone back and added The Submission Grinder stats to the chart and taken an average. It’s not perfect, but it’s likely a bit closer than what I had.

Thoughts on acceptance rates? Experience with any of the markets I listed here? Tell me about it in the comments.

Submission Statement: November 2017

November was my most productive month of the year for short stories, maybe my most productive month ever. The reason? I finished some new stories and started sending them out, which led to a record number of submissions and a fair number of rejections. Let’s have a look.

November 2017 Report Card

  • Submissions Sent: 13
  • Rejections: 7
  • Other: 0
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 0

In 2018 I’d like to get closer to this month’s submission numbers on a regular basis. Thirteen submissions is a lot, but a monthly total of eight to ten seems doable. I’d also, you know, like a few more acceptances in 2018, but, hey, while I’m wishing for stuff, I’d like a pony, and a Red Ryder BB gun, and a million dollars. 🙂


Seven rejections this month, three of which are for the same story.

Rejection 1: Submitted 10/15/17; Rejected 11/3/17

Thanks for considering XXX for your Reprint submission, “XXX.” 

Unfortunately we have decided not to accept it. 

We wish you the best of luck with your writing career and hope to see your name often (new stories, too!) in our slush pile. 

A higher-tier rejection from a pro flash fiction market. I’ve sent them eight pieces, both new works and reprints, but no dice yet. They’re one of the few markets open to reprints, and they also accept multiple submissions. That’s a winning combo, and I’ll definitely send them more stories in the future.

Rejection 2: Submitted 11/1/17; Rejected 11/7/17

Thank you for giving me a chance to read “XXX.” Unfortunately, this story didn’t quite grab me and I’m going to pass on it for XXX. I wish you best of luck finding the right market for it and hope that you’ll keep us in mind in the future. 

This was my first ever submission to one of the biggest science fiction and fantasy markets on the planet. I think this is a higher-tier rejection, but I’m not one-hundred-percent on that. The “keep us in mind in the future” or language like it is usually an indicator of a higher-tier for big markets, but some publishers include something like that in every rejection. Either way, it’s a nice form rejection.

Rejection 3: Submitted 10/30/17; Rejected 11/15/17

Thank you for submitting your story, “XXX”, to XXX. Unfortunately, we have decided not to publish it. To date, we have reviewed many strong stories that we did not take. Either the fit was wrong or we’d just taken tales with a similar theme or any of a half dozen other reasons.

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ve seen this rejection plenty. This is from a top-tier sci-fi market, and my lack of success here might have something to do with the type of stories I send them. Sure, I follow the guidelines and send what can be considered science fiction, but it’s usually horror/sci-fi, and the sci-fi elements are often secondary to the horror. This is, of course, rejectomancy at it’s finest, and like their letter states, my stories might have been (and probably were) rejected for “half a dozen other reasons.” I currently have a story under consideration here that is absolutely more sci-fi than horror, so we’ll see if I fare better with this submission. Tune in next month to find out.

Rejection 4: Submitted 11/17/17; Rejected 11/18/17

We have read your submission and unfortunately your story isn’t quite what we’re looking for right now. While we regretfully cannot provide detailed feedback due to the volume of submissions, we thank you for your interest in our magazine and hope you continue to consider us in the future.

This is the first rejection for a brand new story from one of the more prestigious horror markets. I’ve sent this market a lot of my work, and they’re definitely one of my bucket-list publishers. I am somewhat heartened by the fact that my last three submissions, including this one, have resulted in higher-tier rejections. So, I might be getting closer. Have to keep trying to find out.

Rejection 5: Submitted 11/18/17; Rejected 11/20/17

Many thanks for sending “XXX”, but I’m sorry to say that it isn’t right for XXX. I wish you luck placing it elsewhere, and hope that you’ll send me something new soon. 

The second rejection for that new story I mentioned in the last rejection. I have a short list of top-tier horror markets I send every new story (if appropriate), and this is one of the publishers on that list. Despite the “hope you’ll send me something new” line, this is not a higher-tier rejection; it’s their standard form rejection. That’s not to say they don’t mean what they say, just that in this case, that language is not an indicator of a higher-tier rejection.

Rejection 6: Submitted 11/19/17; Rejected 11/24/17

Thank you for considering XXX for your story, “XXX.” 

Unfortunately, we have decided not to accept it. We wish you the best of luck finding a home for your story elsewhere. 

This is the standard form rejection for the publisher in rejection two (that one was a higher-tier). This is the first rejection for another new story, a flash piece. It’s currently under consideration with the publisher from rejection four.

Rejection 7: Submitted 11/20/17; Rejected 11/29/17

Thank you for submitting “XXX” to XXX. We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, we don’t feel it is a good fit for us and we’re going to have to pass on it at this time.

This is the third rejection for that new story I mentioned in rejections four and five. This is another of my go-to publishers for new stories, and this is their standard form rejection. The story is out again for consideration with another market.

And that’s all I’ve got for November. How was your month?