Then I came up with a cool idea. I wanted to provide openings to the stories belonging to my slush survivors that have been published (or will be) in Realms of Fantasy. Rather than talking about the same old stuff, I could do an analysis of sorts for each of these openings, explain what I liked about them. So I contacted all 14 of my slush survivors (I actually have 15 now, I just haven't posted about this dude yet), and all 14 of these writers were generous enough to grant me permission to use their openings.
So I thought some of you may find it interesting if I posted this essay on my blog. The first few pages of the essay consist of me going into a lot of standard stuff about the submissions process and such. Skip or read it as you please (note: contains lots of observational humor you may appreciate). Then I get into the analysis of the openings. That part a lot more of you may find interesting.
Thanks to all my slush survivors. You are all brilliant and generous. And without further
It Came From the Slush …and Survived!
By Douglas Cohen
In the world of writing short stories, hell, in the world of fiction writing in general, with very few exceptions, no writer starts a career in anyplace other than the slush pile of an editor or agent. Even the best of us were once nobodies, striving to make an impression upon the critical eye of someone who can help build or launch our careers. Chances are you’ve never met these people. It’s also rather likely these people’s opinions mean more to you than those of many people you have met. Interesting, when you take the time to consider that. Regardless, there is no secret to getting out of the slush pile. I repeat: there is no secret to getting out of the slush pile. No secret handshakes or decoder rings. Barring those rare exceptions, you get out of the slush pile in one of two ways. The first way is that you’ve earned this privilege through your previous fiction publications. Of course, these people used to be a piece of slush as well, and the way they originally got out of the slush pile is non-secret number two: they wrote a story the editor decided to publish.
But how do you do that? Again, I’m revealing no secrets here, just facts. There are dos to writing fiction, along with don’ts. As with so much else in life you can bend some of these rules, especially when your skills reach a level where you finally know what you’re doing. The place where you can’t bend the rules is in the submission process. Every editor has preferences, a particular method to the madness. We all like your submissions to be submitted just so. And really, can you blame us? We have to slog through so much stuff, and while we may love reading, we’d prefer the experience to be conducive to our brains and our eyes. This is why we provide submission guidelines. Do read these. Don’t assume they’re all the same. It may be the most common error I come across in the slush, i.e. failure to follow the submission guidelines. Following the submission guidelines is the equivalent to getting points on your SATs for writing your name in the proper box. So do it. Take the requisite two minutes to read the instructions. In school, we’re taught from the time we can read to “read the instructions before you do anything.” I consider it one of the great ironies in publishing that anyone who fancies himself a writer should skip this most obvious and fundamental step.
But let’s assume you’ve read the submission guidelines, that you’ve tailored the cover letter, the format, and the postage right, that you’ve met every technical need the editor demands of you, that you’ve actually done something so annoying and irrelevant as reading and following the submissions guidelines. What then? Well, for starters, before you submit anywhere, you should consider reading at least one recent issue of the magazine you’re thinking about submitting to. No two readers have the exact same tastes in literature. Editors are readers too, and we’re more particular in our tastes than most. Our magazines reflect those tastes, and they often differ radically, even in a tight-knit community like speculative literature. If certain “writers” bothered to read an issue of Realms of Fantasy first (or our submission guidelines), the magazine I work at, they’d know not to submit a science fiction story to us. They’d also get an idea of what kinds of fantasy we like, and what kind of writing bar we’re setting for anyone who wishes to publish with us (it’s high). There are reasons why you don’t see Dungeons & Dragons-type stories in our pages, or elves, dwarves, cats, or unicorns, or rip-offs of Conan, Frodo, Gandalf, Merlin, or the infamous Dark Lord. We’re not terribly interested in these sorts of stories. You may find some exceptions in our back-issues, but you’ll also find these stories were so good they merited exception. But if you don’t read us first, or any other magazine you’re considering submitting to, you’re throwing darts in the dark. So take the time to do something you should be doing anyway: read.
Yes, yes, yes, you’re thinking. But what about the story? What about the writing? What makes editors put a story down? What makes editors keep reading? What makes me pass something up the editorial ladder? Fair enough. I’ll tell you.
As I already mentioned, when your skills reach a certain level you can bend (or break) all sorts of rules, but first you have to learn what you’re doing. For starters, learn how to write a competent sentence. Editors will forgive occasional spelling or grammar errors. What we’re not interested in reading is writing that seems to have topped out at a sixth-grade level. And building on this, proofread your work. Clean up all the carelessness so you can present a nice clean package. Not proofreading your work indicates you don’t care if there are errors in there. It’s pure laziness. If you don’t care about your work, why should we? Or the readers of our magazines?
“No, no, no! You’re getting technical again! We want to know about story. The fun stuff. Talk to us about that.”
Okay, fine. You’ve endured the technical side of the lesson, and if you’ve taken all of this to heart, then I will indeed talk about the fun stuff. But here’s the thing. I’ve repeated myself on this subject so many times I feel like a parrot. I’m tired of doing it. And besides, too often when someone reads something concerning the dos and don’ts of writing, it goes in through one eyeball and out through the other. And I promise that if you’re serious about writing, all the “usual stuff” I could impart to you will be passed along by someone else down the road. So I’m going to try something different this time around.
I put most stories down after the first page. The writers fail to grab me. You must grab the editor on page one. Then you must deliver on that promise, up through the last page. But how do you do this? Well, rather than tell you, let me try to show you. Below you’ll find fourteen openings to fantasy short stories. All of them are by writers I fished out from the slush who have gone on to publish (or soon will) with Realms of Fantasy. Each one of these writers was kind enough to grant me permission to reprint the first few paragraphs of their tales for the purposes of this essay. Now let’s take a few moments to look at these openings, and I’ll try to break down what I liked, what kept me reading:
1) The Greyhound bus’s rumble brought Gwen’s head up from her hammering. She peered out from the sweltering blacksmith shop into the cool October sunshine where the hillsides clung to the red of the New Hampshire fall. Something at the bus caught her eye.
A turn of the head, a lift of the chin, a cutting movement of the hand.
--From “Lady of Ashuelot,” by Karen L. Abrahamson, Realms of Fantasy, April 2006
Within three paragraphs I know this is a piece of Arthuriana, and the Greyhound bus lets me know this is taking place in modern times, which while not unheard of is somewhat unconventional for this sub-genre. Gwen working in a blacksmith shop is also unusual for this iconic princess, and all sorts of sensory details add to the New Hampshire setting.
Of course I’m going to keep reading. I know this is different, so I now I want to see what the author plans to do.
From horseback he looked up into the dappled green, but between the branches and the leaves he could see nothing.
“Or should I say Sir Guy now?”
There was a movement among the green and Sir Guy drew his horse to a halt beneath one of the long branches that stretched over the path where he rode. Just visible now, as though he had melted out of the green itself, there was a lithe figure crouched among the leaves. The grin he wore flashed like a stray bit of sunlight. With perfect balance, he stood up on the narrow branch he had been crouching on and sketched a mocking bow. After a moment he leapt lightly back to catch the branch and swing for a moment, upside down, with his face inches from Sir Guy’s, before dropping gracefully to the forest floor.
“You have been a Sir more than once, so I’ll thank you to keep your disdain to yourself.” Guy’s expression was halfway between a lopsided grin and a sour frown, but Robin only continued to grin.
--From “Robin of the Green,” by A.C. Wise, Realms of Fantasy, June 2006
Within the first few paragraphs I learn this is a story about Robin Hood, and I’m introduced to a key twist very quickly, because Robin and Guy are on somewhat amicable terms. The author paints a fine picture as I learn this, so I already see what’s happening very clearly.
Why wouldn’t I keep reading? As with “Lady of Ashuelot,” the author has introduced some interesting twists quite early, and I’m curious to see where this is going.
3) She stood across from me, hands tucked into the armpits of her jean jacket, the tear in her nylon stocking looking garish in the pale yellow light. When she glanced at me through the fogging breaths and cigarette smoke, my heart did the skids.
Five us huddled on the snow-covered sidewalk outside the restaurant, Lenny the manager, a couple of waitresses in addition to Rita, and me, a thirty-year-old busboy who’d only been in Oregon a month. The conversation had turned to our plans for the holiday, and while Lenny and the other waitresses chatted animatedly about turkey dinners with annoying relatives and last-minute shopping for hard-to-find toys, Rita and I hadn’t said a word.
--From “The Grand Mal Reaper,” by Scott William Carter, Realms of Fantasy, August 2006
These two paragraphs are overflowing with sensory details, enough to make a very ordinary setting come alive. The narrator comes alive too. By the time you’re finished reading the second paragraph you already consider him an okay guy. The way he describes himself is very unassuming. Makes you root for him. The author has also made it obvious that the narrator’s interested in Rita. And you want him to get the girl. Because you trust this guy. More importantly, you already trust the writer. You’ll always keep reading if you trust the writer. I did. One of the best ways to earn trust is through strong characterization.
4) Rudolfo’s gypsy scouts found the metal man sobbing in an impact crater deep in the roiling smoke and glowing ruins of Windwir. He crouched over a pile of blackened bones, his shoulders chugging and bellows wheezing, his helmet-like head shaking in his large metal hands. They approached him silently, ghosts in a city of ghosts, but the metal men still heard and looked up.
Gouts of steam shot from his exhaust grate. Boiling water leaked from his glassy jeweled eyes. Nearby lay a mangled metal leg.
“Lla meht dellik ev’I,” the metal man said.
--From “Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing With the Sunrise,” by Ken Scholes, Realms of Fantasy, August 2006
Very quickly the author lets me know this is a secondary world, and along the way our protagonist is introduced to a fascinating situation: a metal man seated amidst charred human remains in a destroyed city. And he’s crying. Now I want to know why he’s crying. The fact that he is crying tells me this particular metal man has emotions. And the third paragraph absolutely demands I read the fourth paragraph. I need to know what’s going on. The author has already got his literary hooks in me, because so much is happening.
5) My father was a cold-drake; revenge and malice flowed through him as blood through a lesser being. He stole the only daughter of a high mage from her walk along the cliffs of Hightower and sprouted his seed within her womb, then tore the babe—me—from her dying body. He named me Kamorr, which means the ‘the cold death’ in the speech of the cold drakes, then cast me into the sea to live or die.
I lived. I was half cold-drake, and my body shaped itself to the waves, my teeth to the fish I caught there. I grew strong.
My father watched and smiled.
--From “The Cold Drake,” by Renee Bennett, Realms of Fantasy, August 2006
Another secondary world, and once again we learn as much within the first paragraph. And while the story starts off with what basically amounts to a bunch of background (usually a bad way to start a story) it’s a terribly interesting background, told in a very assured voice. It’s interesting enough that I’m already certain the author is building toward something worthwhile. And she’s so careful with her words that when you break everything down, you realize this information is measured out in careful doses. No wasted words. Every sentence is doing several things at once, whether it’s relating family background, planting vital seeds for the rest of tale, intricate world-building, or a voice that draws you along with hypnotic cadences. The author is juggling. All the pretty balls are keeping my attention. Now all she has to do is not drop any of the balls until the end of her act. Trust me, she doesn’t.
6) It was raining when Noriko called me to her darkened room, the air sharp with jasmine incense. The house was open to the rain and it cut some of the jasmine’s bite, but Noriko’s room was closed, as it had been since the day I had come to Kojima. It was there Noriko told me Min was dead.
They found Min near the docks, her robes wrapped around one of the farthest pilings. She was the very color of those robes, Noriko said, as blue-black as the deepest ocean water. They pulled her out, but she was dead, her eyes gone from velvet to milk-white, her slim fingers puckered. They placed her in a boat and set it afire, allowing Min to drift wherever the ocean would take her.
--From “Indigo With Distance,” by E. Catherine Tobler, Realms of Fantasy, August 2006
Sadness is practically flowing from the words. The narrator never tells me she’s sad, but I know it all the same. I know it because of the way the author picks her details. The rain and darkened room in the first sentence become echoes of the narrator’s mood when we learn that Min is dead in the third sentence. That’s why she’s going into such vivid detail about Min’s death in the second paragraph, because Min was someone very important to the narrator. Without being told, I know the narrator cares. That makes me care too. If I care I’m going to keep reading. It should also be noted the author is conveying this mood (and let’s not forget the setting) with a very sparse style. She has an excellent command of the language, another way of building trust.
7) The dragon is dying.
The city feels it in bones of stone and iron, in scabby concrete skin. The otherkind feel it, a weight in their blood. Even Simon feels it, mortal as he is. The city waits.
The dragon will die, of age or violence, and another will take its place. Someone will eat the dragon’s heart, and take its power. A lot of people are interested in the dragon’s demise.
Some are less patient than others.
Simon crouches in a narrow alley that smells of blood and piss and damp brick. Dark clouds scrape their bellies over the rooftops overhead, heavy with unshed rain and ash from fires that raged the night before. He tastes char with every breath.
A sacrifice. Everyone knows you have to bleed the dragon, or burn.
Simon’s already burned; now he sheds blood.
--From “Snake Charmer,” by Amanda Downum, Realms of Fantasy, October 2006
The choice of present tense here conveys tension. If the dragon was dying I’d feel as if I could kick back and read along in a leisurely fashion. But when the dragon is dying for an opening line, and when that line comprises the entire opening paragraph for a beast as mythic and powerful as a dragon it makes me sit up a little straighter. Clearly this is important. Over the next few paragraphs the author builds on that tension, further drawing me in with some interesting phrases, such as “scabby concrete skin,” dark clouds that “scrape their bellies,” then building on the belly idea by writing “heavy with unshed rain,” like a pregnant woman ready to go into labor. Some skillful stylistic touches, but she doesn’t get carried away with this, understanding that doing so will draw unnecessary attention to the present tense narration, which happens all too often when authors opt (usually foolishly) for this tense. But between the tension, the tense, the style, and the situation (what are the otherkind and why are does someone want to eat the dragon’s heart?), she’s walking a tightrope in these first few paragraphs. Since she doesn’t fall, I’m perfectly happy to admire.
8) In the vale of Brecon where the fishermen hunt their game amid deep and succulent cloud, where the yaks are pink, and where the maidens are all beautiful (with some exceptions) lived the grand old dowager, Lydia Batterfly.
Lydia Batterfly’s greatest regret in life was her niece, Dagmar. Dagmarwas neither inclined toward the practice of womanly etiquette nor sufficiently attractive to be forgiven her disinclinations. Despite attendance at finishing school for two full years, she stubbornly refused to act like a lady. Worse was her tendency to make a spectacle of herself over the most inappropriate things, most recently and deplorably, “that awful tower boy,” as the dowager Batterfly referred to him.
“I don’t know why you bother with him,” said the dowager.
“His name is Henry,” said Dagmar, “and I bother because he is superb.”
--From “A Fish Story,” by Sarah Totton, Realms of Fantasy, October 2006
The author hits the ground running and doesn’t look back. In the first sentence we have cloud-fishing and pink yaks. There is no disputing we’re dealing with a wacky world, where weirdness is run-of-the-mill. The author also lets us know we’re in for a fun tale, because this particular parenthetical comment is on the playful side, and “Lydia Batterfly” is a rather silly name. Heck, the pink yaks let us know too. From here, she very smoothly transitions the focus to “Dagmar,” and we learn this is a love story. Yet we also know that this particular love story will be lighthearted, because of the fun manner in which she’s handling the subject matter. She’s building the humor a sentence at a time, and that first sentence, combined with the style, tell us exactly what sort of humor to expect: lush and unrelenting. By the time I hit “superb” I know I’m in for a ride.
9) Varkez, Lieutenant of the City Guard of Nucidad and Prince of the Seventh Rank, crawled on his belly before the great idol. The fact the idol was a giant jade frog only heightened his sense of embarrassment.
He considered hopping a little, but decided against it. What would be gained? And what might be lost? All sorts of eyes watched from the shadows. They might take it take it as mocking disrespect. Groveling, on the other hand, was desired by most deities and their priests. It had made Varkez’s clothing choice difficult, trying to pick something prosperous looking to show respect, but not so expensive that he could not afford to replace if it stained.
--From “In the Lair of the Moonmen,” by Jon Hansen, Realms of Fantasy, December 2006
This author is also drawing us in through humor, but of a different sort from the previous opening. This humor is more wry, almost self-deprecating. It doesn’t draw the same attention to itself as the previous example, which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s merely a different approach. Someone is actually considering hopping around to pay homage to a god. He’s debating the pros and cons of this maneuver. Hopping. And his decision could have very real consequences. But rather than focus too long on the ramifications of this situation, which would alter the tone of this tale when it’s just being established, the author opts for some clever characterization, revealing a vain streak in our protagonist, because we learn of an equal concern is having to soil his clothes through his groveling, and the dilemma of what to wear in this particular scenario.
Simultaneously, the author is also making fun of the fantasy conventions. Frogs gods are a dime a dozen, and countless characters have groveled for countless reasons. But how often do any of these characters concern themselves with hopping and ruining their good clothes? And really, given the situation, is it so absurd to believe certain men would think this way? The author is thinking outside the box, creating humor on different levels. Layers are always nice.
10) A voice inside Becca’s head told her not to look but she did anyway. The mare had snorted violently followed by Bill’s garbled exclamation. Any fool could guess what might happen next. Becca turned in time to see Nessie’s haunches buck as her husband’s hand slipped from the saddle horn. Nessie bucked again and off flew Bill, his arms pinwheeling in a failed attempt to grasp some piece of the animal as he fell.
Words flooded to her lips and she wanted to cry out, “No, no, you dumb son of a bitch, no!” but before she could speak a word, Bill’s head hit the ground with a hollow crack, like a dry branch breaking off a dead tree. His body landed with a thud and a cloud of dust.
--From “Black Jack Davy,” by Trent Hergenrader, Realms of Fantasy, April 2007
The author does something interesting with his opening sentence, although only he can answer whether this is intentional. Barring a case of the crazies, when we read outside of speculative fiction about a voice in a character’s head, it’s another way of saying the character is having some inner thoughts. But in speculative literature, it can also mean a voice in the character’s head. Because this is the first sentence, we have no way of knowing what the answer is. But we may as well read the second sentence and find out.
While the answer is never actually provided in this opening segment, one can surmise the author is relaying the character’s inner thoughts, nothing more. I came this conclusion because the whole time the author stays in a tight, limited third person point-of-view, and no other suggestion of anything speculative (or possible craziness) is offered in these first two paragraphs. What the author does do is paint a very interesting picture, fast. Bill and Becca are married, which is pretty straightforward. It’s no great stretch to believe some wives have believed their husbands to be a “dumb son of bitch” at some point in their marriage. But this is the first impression we’re privy to, and as the cliché goes, first impressions are everything. So this suggests to me Becca isn’t exactly in a fairy tale marriage.
The author also pays attention to the plot, because that “hollow crack” could mean any number of things. Bill could be dead or injured. He could be unconscious. Or it could be nothing more than a nasty bruise. But the clear precise writing lets me know he’s been hurt in some fashion, and now I want to know how hurt he is. Early on in a story it’s all about making the editor read the next sentence, and while nothing fantastical has happened (assuming the first sentence isn’t fantastical) the author is keeping me reading. That’s what matters.
11) Dreams have power. Not the common dreams of flying or arriving naked at work—those are nothing more than froth thrown up as the sleep-waves roll across the mind. No, the dreams that have power are the deep dreams, the unformed dreams. They move slowly in the deep of the mind, like great whales gliding under the waves. Dreams of this type sang to Bach and Mozart. Dreams like this spun webs of beauty to dazzle the eyes of Picasso and Van Gogh. Dreams like this poured out through the hands of Byron and Shelley.
But below these dreams, far below, where the mind turns black and cold and the pressure grasps and crushes in a smothering embrace, down there in the abyss swim the black dreams, the hungry dreams, the dreams of blood and bone. These are the dreams that whisper in the ears of the man next door as he stares unblinking at the ceiling and thinks of his daughter’s flesh. These are the dreams that coil around the heart of the young mother living across from you as she stares at her ever-crying baby, her hands white-knuckled on the pillow as she grips with both hands.
These are the dreams that goose-stepped across Europe. These are the dreams that piled skulls high in Cambodia. These are the dreams that wore white hoods and planted strange fruit.
Dreams are powerful things. And in Thailand, land of white elephants, sleeping giants, and mechanical swans, they are most powerful indeed. Here, the hungry dreams can reach out and swallow you whole.
--From “The Tao of Crocodiles,” by Euan Harvey, Realms of Fantasy, April 2007
This author is starting with an extremely omniscient viewpoint. We aren’t introduced to any characters or plot, no setting (at first) beyond the nebulous world of dreams. And yet he has us. Utterly. Early he does this through his style, through his use of imagery and simile. But what keeps our interest is that he’s taking risks with his writing. A man thinking about his daughter’s flesh. A woman about to smother her infant with a pillow. These are dark thoughts, and they set the tone for the whole story, because once you touch upon things so blatantly taboo so early in a story, it’s hard to go back. What I also like is that the author is gradually panning in, focusing the story as he steps away from the description of dreams, until by the end we know the story will be in Thailand, where the dreams are “most powerful indeed.” Why tell us this unless he means to place his story here? He confirms my suspicions with the next sentence, starting it with “Here,” firmly plunking us down in Thailand, and readying us for a dark tale about dreams in this country. I don’t know what exactly to expect next, but after reading this opening I obviously want to find out.
12) Darlene says she’s tired of looking at fakes. Malik Rahman the art dealer makes the mistake of trying to bluff. Absolutely genuine, Miss Corrigan, he says. Absolutely. Priceless Buddha rarities. He pats his face with a handkerchief. Nervous man. He sweats a lot.
Darlene says she didn’t fly from L.A. to Pakistan to be offered phony antiques at rip-off prices. She tells the dealer she’s got an impulse to knock the whole row of heads to the floor.
Which, being Darlene, and impulse control not being her strong point—she proceeds to do.
Luckily I’ve known her long enough to guess what’s coming. I catch her sleeve just as she leans in to sweep the counter clean.
“Leggo.” She shakes her arm free. “No harm trashing junk.”
I tell her yeah, she’s probably right, but still it’s not good for foreigners like us to break other people’s things when we’re guests in their country. Especially for foreigners like me. I’ve been working here a while and hope to go on doing so.
--From “Afghan Buddha Payback,” by David Pinault, Realms of Fantasy, June 2007
This author’s style is catching my attention. People are mostly speaking without quotation marks. They’re doing it consistently, and he’s making it work. This is an unusual approach in speculative literature, and the choice of present tense helps brace the reader for this. Present tense often lets us know something is a little off about a story, something that requires telling it in a different tense. In this case it’s something as unassuming as the lack of punctuation.
This method also accomplishes something else: it makes the dialogue with punctuation convey more impact. The five words Darlene speaks that are punctuated give her character so much extra punch, which suits her aggressive behavior. Imagine that, lack of and use of punctuation helping to develop character. All this, and the author is delivering the story in a first-person narrative.
This is so delightfully quirky I have to keep reading.
13) You’d think the Upper East Side of Manhattan was an easy place to find sinners, if only because of the population density, but after 9/11, common decency had spread through New York like a catchy commercial jingle. Not that Merchari minded a challenge, but he was behind quota, and he hated taking the subway. It stank and was hot year round, and that made him homesick.
Still, Second Avenue was high-traffic, with restaurant after restaurant in a city where apartment kitchens were often smaller than the bathrooms. He loitered a while, invisible and insubstantial, letting several groups pass; he was behind quota, but not so desperate as to nab vapid Human Resources bippies and their Marketing Department boyfriends.
--From “MetaPhysics,” by Elizabeth M. Glover, Realms of Fantasy, August 2007
The first sentence of the story is one big complaint. That someone is complaining about a lack of sinners and a proliferation of common decency suggests humor. And while the author’s at it, she’s letting us know the piece is set in NYC. The next few lines do a nice job of capturing the flavor of Manhattan, mentioning things such as hot stinking subways and the traffic. And look at what at the author does in the last sentence. More humor, basically taking a potshot at HR. The tone has been more firmly established. It’s no-nonsense, unapologetic. Charge ahead and take no prisoners. Read me if you want to. One other thing worth mentioning is the author mentions 9/11 in the first sentence and sets her story in NYC. Even so, the author’s voice is strong enough that the story stays light and fun. If you know how to write a competent sentence you can get away with all sorts of stuff, especially when you have a strong voice that’s oozing personality.
14) For as long as she could remember, the girl had played in the white oval nursery that overlooked the sea. She had a doll made of seaweed that sang mournful songs when the wind blew, and a glowing stone that cast fearsome shadows on the wall. Under her bed she kept a shoebox full of fingernails, to sink ships with.
On summer days she leant against the turquoise glass of her window and made faces at the grey seagulls that wheeled and screamed on the wind. At night the seagulls roosted on the window ledge, and left it caked with droppings and fish-blood. Sometimes she woke to find they had arranged a strange collection of objects against the glass: a piece of torn velvet, a coal-black flute, a gold necklace, the knucklebones of a drowned sailor, a broken compass. Whether they brought these objects as gifts, or simply to furnish their own nests, the girl was never able to tell.
--From “The White Isle,” by Von Carr, Realms of Fantasy, forthcoming
There is a fascinating blend of twisted innocence, detail, and mystery here. Innocence comes in the first sentence because we have a girl in a nursery. It becomes twisted in the very next sentence, because she has a seaweed doll that sings sadly when the wind blows, which is kind of creepy. “Fearsome shadows” also lets me know something is not quite right. Then the author cinches it by mentioning that she keeps “a box full of fingernails, to sink ships with.” No getting around that one. Something dark and disturbed is brewing here.
And yet right after this the author brings it back to innocence. A child making faces at gulls on summer days is very unassuming. And then look at the next sentence. “Droppings and fish-blood” is far from pleasant. The author is keeping me on my toes from sentence to sentence. All the while she’s drawing me deeper into the story through the careful use of details, all observed from one white room. Yet it feels like there’s an entire world here. All this leaves me with one important mysterious question: what exactly is the story behind this weird little girl.
Obviously the only answer is to keep reading.
If there is one thing above all others these slush survivors have in common it’s that they made me keep reading. The content and approaches exercised in these openings illustrate that there are countless ways to achieve this. Characterization. Voice. Style. World-building. Tone. Tension. Description. Sensory details. Piquing the reader’s curiosity. Whatever method is employed, these stories made me want to know what happens next. Next is essential. Always make your reader want to know about next, right until the story is over. And when the story reaches its end, you must deliver. A strong beginning means nothing if it doesn’t follow through all the way. A strong beginning is a promise to your reader that a powerful middle and ending will follow. If you break that promise the editor will probably stop reading, and almost certainly decide not to buy your story.
Once you have an editor reading past your opening we’ll keep reading because you keep offering elements that measure up to (or surpass) your opening. So whatever tidbits I happened to drop in analyzing these openings, consider them my suggested “dos” and “don’ts” for getting of the slush in terms of writing your story. Beyond this, the best advice I can offer will be nothing more than another cliché. Hopefully something here helps you.
And remember these were or are writers building their names, writers who understand the misery of the slush pile, because all of these openings belong to slush survivors. They got out of the piles. So can you.
Go write something.