Escaping the Pile: Part IV

Good morning, internets! I hope everyone’s New Year’s is getting off on the right foot. It’s another week, so it’s time for the next installment of Escaping the Pile.

Everything we’ve talked about so far: cover letters, formatting, word count, compatibility, has been about preparation. These are things you can do to improve the odds of any story being accepted, without changing a single word of text. Now, we’re going to dig into the content itself, and teach you the importance of avoiding…

Slow starts: Novels and short stories are a fundamentally different reading experience. With a novel, the average reader will gladly plough through the first chapter or two waiting to get snagged by the ‘hook’. People commit to reading books and realize that character building, back story, and scene-setting takes time.

Short stories are another matter. In the short format, the first page, even the first paragraph, is critical. This is doubly true for getting past slush editors, because if the first page of your story doesn’t make us want to read the rest of it, most of us aren’t going to. We don’t have the time. Odds are your story is one of anywhere from five to ten that we need to read that day, in addition to our own writing, paying jobs, and families. You have to show us that your story is worth the time we’re going to spend reading it, and you need to do it fast.

I know what you’re thinking, and I agree. As a writer, I find it appalling that someone would pass judgment on my work before finishing it. But as an editor, I found myself doing exactly that. Here’s why; if a story can’t hold the interest of an editor, odds are it won’t hold the interest of their readers either.

There is a simple test to determine if your story suffers from Slow Start. Find a five-to-ten year old. If this is a rare species in your vicinity, a teenager with ADHD or a twenty-something with a hangover can act as a substitute. Corner them in a room with only one door, and stand in the exit. Start reading. If they sit in rapt attention, you’re probably fine. However, if they are trying to escape through the window before you’ve finished the first page, then there may be a problem.

A slow start isn’t the end of the world, however. Fixing one is as simple as trimming the fat from the beginning of the story and coming to the point more quickly. The first page and paragraph shouldn’t be about back-story or world-building, those details can come later. You should be focusing your opening on getting the action moving. Don’t explain the where’s and why’s of the story until later. Often, correcting a slow start is as simple as moving exposition deeper into the story. This has the added benefit of building mystery and suspense in the reader’s mind, perking their curiosity and pulling them into your story further still.

Incidentally, this advice applies equally to novel-length work, only over a proportionately longer amount of text. The best stories trickle out details, letting the reader learn as they go instead of forcing them to sit through an introductory course in the first chapter or scene.

That’s it for now. Next week, we’ll be talking about making sure your work is a complete story. Now go write!

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