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.