Slush readers are like lonely folks sitting at a singles bar: we came here to fall in love. The odds aren’t good because the goods are odd, as the old saying goes, but there is one truth—when we start reading your story, we want it to be beautiful. Our Hope-O-Meter is maxed out.
What is our Hope-O-Meter, you ask? It is the internal gauge every slush reader has when he or she reads a story. As we lay our eyes upon the first sentence of your epic tale, we are filled with the hope that you—yes, you!—will win the Nebula for this very story.
What you as a writer must understand is that our Hope-O-Meter starts topped off—but as we encounter each bit of bad writing in your story, our Hope-O-Meter drops.
When we first pick up your tale, our Hope-O-Meter looks like this:
However, as we read on, we may discover a vital issue: we don’t care about what’s happening. And usually, that lack of caring comes because we don’t know one of three things:
- Who is this character we’re expected to follow along until the end of the story?
- What is s/he doing, and why is s/he doing it?
- Why should we care about this particular action?
If we don’t know all three of those soon, then generally speaking we’re going to lose interest. (Great writers can break any rule, of course… but if you’re a great writer, then why are you still in our slush pile?)
As we lose interest, we start to skim, looking to see if there’s anything else that might be kinda-cool—our attention fades. We start thinking about the other twenty stories we have to read before dinner, and wondering whether this one is going to be a waste of our time.
We’re still reading, but at this point our Hope-O-Meter has dropped. We’re not reading closely. We have a faint optimism that maybe you can drag us back in, but it’s not a sure thing now. Our gauge now looks like this:
Then at some point, we hit the final bump and our Hope-O-Meter has redlined. We know that in our heart of hearts, we can’t recommend this story to our editor and feel good about it. And we realize that we are going to have to reject a writer — which, since we are writers ourselves, never feels like a good thing.
How long does this Hope-O-Meter take to drop? Depends on the writer; if you’re really incompetent, you can drop it all the way to zero in the first sentence. But for most writers, you have until about the middle of page two before our Hope-O-Meter drops to the middle and we’re pretty sure we’re not going to buy your story.
The average point at which I realize that I utterly am not going to pass this on? Page three. I’ll skim to the end to make sure I didn’t miss a spectacular ending–but many slush readers won’t. Thus, beginnings are vital.
So what you’re doubtlessly asking by now is, “How can I keep that Hope-O-Meter filled all the way up?” And the answer is, “Get me to care about your characters, quickly and efficiently.”
How do you do that? By answering the right questions.
Let’s take some real-life examples of openings from actual slush, and talk about where they went wrong. I’ve filed off the serial numbers of these rejected stories, rewriting the opening paragraphs so that the flaws remain but the original prose has been burned away.
Jason’s hand trembled as he crouched in the bush and aimed at the slaver on the rooftop. The slavers had come to Juniper County to put anyone they could find in shackles, so now Jason had no choice: he had to shoot.
The slaver turned, his eyes going wide as he saw Jason. Jason pulled the trigger; the slaver’s head burst open.
Swallowing back nausea, terrified that someone had heard, he ran for cover…
This is an action-packed adventure, to be sure, but I’m already wondering one thing: Who the hell is Jason?
Because right now, we have a guy who’s shooting slavers in defense of his home town — something most people would do, I think — but we know nothing about him. There’s some indication that he’s not an experienced fighter — the nausea, the nervousness — but it’s also possible that Jason could just be in fear of being caught.
That “who” makes a huge difference. We don’t need to know that Jason is a Community College Grad who went on to become an in-home accountant with a moderate business and a flair for interior decoration… But we do need to know what he’s fighting for (does he have family here?), how experienced a fighter he is (since it’s going to make a huge difference to the story if he’s an experienced woodsman vs. an accountant who’s never fired a rifle before) , and what his ultimate goals are (escape, drive the invaders out, rescue a friend).
Does it need to be in the first three paragraphs? Absolutely it does. You don’t need to tell; you can show by having Jason, say, be a little concerned whether this Wal-Mart bought rifle will actually fire now that he’s taken it out of the gun safe — or you can have him be confident that Ol’ Bessie will do her job. And he’s not just concerned about Juniper County as an abstract, he’s concerned about living long enough to find his beloved son Tommy.
Again, “Who” is critical. It may sound silly— but for most writers, if they haven’t answered who this guy is in the first three paragraphs, they’re not going to answer it in the next fifteen pages.
At six o’clock on the dot, Damien clicked off his computer and stacked his unfinished paperwork neatly in his in-tray. The desk had become untidy over the course of the day, so he lined everything up geometrically; the desk blotter perfectly parallel with the keyboard, the monitor at a forty-five degree angle.
He made his way to the elevator, observing a spot on his shiny leather shoes. He unfolded a handkerchief to buff it clean, then pressed the exact center of the button that marked the first floor.
When the elevator arrived, Damien spritzed the air with a small can of perfume, trying to neutralize the odors of stale BO and farts pent up within …
Good job! In the first paragraph, you’ve up that Damien as a meticulous and retentive man. I know who Damien is.
What I lack now is a “What.”
Why are we following Damien? I need a reason that we’re here watching him, because if all that’s going to happen is an extensively-detailed trip of his journey back home, then I don’t care. People do a lot of mundane things in their lives, but part of being a storyteller is leaving out the boring parts.
So why are we being asked to watch Damien buff his shoes and get on the elevator? These are unimportant moments in Damien’s life, the kind of thing he’ll forget in an hour or so — so why should we be invested in them?
Stories should not consist of insignificant moments.
I know what this author is leading up to — somewhere around page two or three, Something Unusual will happen to Damien, breaking the pattern of his everyday life — but even a “mundane” life has tensions that can be called out.
Note how this opening has no real indicators of Damien’s wants or needs, aside from a clean shoe and a fart-free elevator. It’s a kind of weak characterization, because it does tell us what his immediate needs are without letting us know what his goals are.
However, if we know that Damien is leaving work to go to a pick-up bar to try and get a girl, then suddenly all of these mundane details take on personal shape; he’s buffing his shoes so he’ll look good, he’s spraying the elevator to avoid smelling bad for his partner.
Or, if we know he’s going to visit his dying mother in the hospital, the rituals take on an air of desperation; his mother’s illness is out of his control, but he can control his own personal space.
Regardless, the point here is that just showing what a character is like is only half the battle; we need to know what that character’s goals are early on. What’s Damien hoping to get done? Even if the Devil is going to show up on page three and make him an offer, give poor Damien some internal goals before the first plot point arrives!
Beatrice stirred her soup in time to the rhythm of her husband chopping wood outside. Her cousin Jack took over stirring as she went into the bedroom to check in on Cindy. As Beatrice picked her daughter up, she wriggled and grinned.
This one has two problems. The first is that there are too many generic characters to keep track of.
Interesting characters do things that no one else would do in their circumstance; that’s why you remember them. After all, you’d probably be unlikely to walk into a cave empty-handed to try to talk a dragon out of devouring someone else’s crops, but that’s what Jim the Dragon Diplomat does for a living!
In this case, you have four characters in the first paragraph, none of them doing anything that makes them memorable. Anyone can chop wood, if they need to. Anyone can stir soup or check on a baby.
So the unspoken question is, “Why are we watching these characters? What’s going to make them so fascinating I want to spend the next 4,000 words reading about them?” And when you have not one but four characters, each doing generic things, you’re going to forget who’s who.
But even more than that, there are no interesting story questions. This family seems fine. The kid’s healthy. So again, why are we here watching them? I’m bored and slightly confused before the end of the first paragraph! And so the hope-o-meter just dropped by fifty percent.
Maybe if the child was sick and coughing, that’d be something of interest — a little cliché, perhaps, but sick babies are a constant problem in frontier/medieval stories, and always significant. Or maybe if we knew that they were all preparing for the night before the werewolves came to eat them. (Or, more mundanely, that they were chopping wood and preparing food for winter… But hey, I read spec fic. I expect blood and alien creatures.)
The point is that I need to know why we’re watching them. Give me a reason to care, stat!
The work will take three months, and if done poorly, risks fatally poisoning you,” Nellie explained to the scent-engineer. “So I need to make sure your skills are up to speed.” She tightbeamed a spec over to his PDA; he whistled.
This is quite an unusual request,” murmured Paco. “Even if you granted me full access to your family’s pheromone farms, I’m not sure it could be done.” He nodded, contemplating the request. “But if so, I’m the only man who can do it.”
That’s the attitude I’m looking for,” she said, reaching out to clasp hands and seal the bio-contract.
So we have a clearly defined set of goals, an interesting job (pheromone farms? Scent engineers?), and a good story question: these two people want to accomplish something dangerous that’s never been done before. So what’s the problem?
A lot of writers, for some reason, think it’s more interesting to conceal the central premise of their story and then reveal it later on. At some point around page five or six, we’re going to finally have the Big Reveal that what Nellie is looking for is an Enslavement Pheromone to turn humans into mindless ant-drones. Mwoo hah hah!
Unfortunately, the irritation of leaving your reader in the dark is almost never as cool as your actual central concept. Plus, to make this sort of delayed-reveal work, you usually have to work in a lot of awkward vagueness that competent characters wouldn’t actually engage in. As the story goes on, you’ll have to keep referring to the Big Plot (or Hidden Monster, or Secret Goal) as “it,” and have the characters ask very nonspecific questions, and so forth.
All so… what? If they get to the end of your first section, they’ll be hooked? Have some faith, man! If your concept is that cool, hook them right away! You don’t need some artificial stall to build tension.
Break right out there with having her talk about her need for an Enslavement Pheromone. Like Catherynne Valente says, get to the Ghostpigs. And get there quickly.
…because man, a lot of you do this. A lot.
The woods were moist with the morning dew, as the sun rose and lent a rosy glow to the land. A deer, ever-vigilant, stopped to drink from a placid pool. A fish flipped out from the pool, splashing the water and scaring the deer, who bolted into the thick brush.
Lance and Judy wiped the sweat from their brows as they set up the tent…
Writers love to start off their stories with descriptions of the landscape. They discuss the roads and the weather and the creaky old house across the way and the gables of the roof… And then, after circling the point for several hours, they get to the actual story.
To be fair, some folks can pull off the all-landscape introduction. One of the greatest novels in recent history, Watership Down, starts with an extensive description of the landscape. (Though that was, it should be noted, a novel and not a short story — people have more patience for novels.) And if you have a beautiful writing style, you can effectively start out your tale with a prose poem — enticing your readers with the mere power of evocative language.
Most of the landscape introductions, however, are like this — not particularly beautiful, not particularly florid, just workaday descriptions of the place the story’s set in. And the place the story is set in is usually not that interesting, either — the tale’s in the deep woods, or the haunted graveyard, or the dark castle, or the mansion the rich people live in, or one of a thousand stock Hollywood sets that folks are traditionally placed in at the beginning of a tale.
Now, if a story started with, “The tendril-fields were wet and pulsing, the rose-pink tentacles reaching up to grab at the spine-birds that flew overhead,” then fine, I’d be like, that’s amazing. Tell me more. But generic descriptions of landscape are a pace-killer.
Furthermore, note how this description of the landscape doesn’t tie into the story at all. You could pretty much start with Lance and Judy and lose nothing except for a bit of visualization — and, with some competent in-the-body descriptions as Lance and Judy set up the tent, you could create that same woodsy atmosphere from Lance and/or Judy’s perspective.
The reason Watership Down’s intro works is because we really need to know the area the rabbits live in — it’s vital to them, and turns out to be vital to the plot — and it is elegiacally written in breathtakingly beautiful words. If you can do neither, then skip it.
The wind whipped through my hair as I stood on the high precipice of the city. The sky was a chaotic blur of neon streaks of all colors, with vehicles zipping through the air, dodging their way around the acid rain-scarred skyscrapers of Keystone metropolis. The holographic billboards blared advertisements in Japanese and English. It all looked a little faded, like an old video game on an antique system, bright lights going to seed.
This isn’t a generic landscape description, but it is clichéd. Essentially, what we’re looking at is the Blade Runner universe, which we’ve been to a lot of times.
Be careful when you’re writing that you’re not inadvertently ripping someone off a little too much. If you are — and it’s not an inexcusable crime, to want to play in someone else’s tone-poems — then be sure to start the story somewhere a little more unique to you.
Incidentally, this is why a lot of editors love reading stories by non-American authors — it seems like every other story I see features a white guy in a detective’s office, or a white guy scientist in his lab, or a white rich guy regretting his past actions, or something. They’re all generically American, almost a blank space that we’re expected to fill in with our culture.
Whereas if you’re writing a tale of, say, Medieval Africa, you have to set up the atmosphere and setting, which makes it automatically more interesting just by virtue of being Not A White Upper-Class Dude In America Doing White Upper-Class Stuff. Even if the writing levels of the two authors are exactly the same, the story with the more unusual background winds up standing out more.
You who know the comfort of sanity look askance upon me; I watch you as you view my broken spirit and walk away. Yet my so-called madness has opened up new worlds within me; I feel jubilation, exhilaration, exhaustion. You may flee, but I — I see the bitter truth.
This is a particularly bad example of the trope, but this is what I call the Abstracted Emotions Gamble. You see this particularly in Lovecraftian stories.
Thing is, there’s a big difference between “he’s insane” and “he thinks bugs crawl into his ear whenever he talks on his cell phone.” There’s a big difference between “He’s in love” and “Every time he fills up at the gas station, he buys a single flower for his wife and leaves it on her pillow.” There’s a big difference between “exhilaration” and “The story you spent three months agonizing over just found a home at Shimmer.”
Stories are about concrete details. If you write about emotions as though they’re just these abstracted principles, then your story lacks all power. When you write about characters feeling stuff, get as gritty as you can; it’ll make them more unique and pay off, and it won’t make us slush editors go, “Oh, yes, another story written by a madman who doesn’t actually sound all that insane.”
Not giving us the answer to “Why should we care?” is the most common way of losing us as a slush reader, but there are a thousand others — simple grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, names that are too silly (“The Farhplock was in high dunder that day, given that the Kapl’u’rk’a had been stolen”), submissions that are clearly not a fit for our magazine, and of course the ever-popular “This story doesn’t actually start until page six.”
Best of luck! If this is of interest, let me know; I may follow up with a note on “Why did this fail?” — an essay on endings that don’t quite work.