A great many editors will tell you that they know within a few lines of a story submission whether or not they will consider it for publication or not. Some will tell you they know just from the title. They want a story that hooks them or grips them from the outset, something that pulls them in. If the title or the first few lines don’t really grab their attention, they put the submission aside and go on to another one. I don’t fully agree with this tactic. I’ve given slow starting stories a chance before and been very glad of it, but I do understand what these other editors mean, and I know, given constraints on their time, why they do it, even if I think it is sometimes damaging to the art. We live in an age of short attention spans, too much going on at once, and a general desire for instant gratification. We don’t wait for much these days. But patience is a virtue, and a slow starting story may be deceptively engaging. Then, the ability to delay our gratification is a sign of adulthood.
Still, I do have some titles and opening lines that I love and will never forget, that did sell me on the story.
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…” The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.” Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury
“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s Farm.” Pawn of Prophecy – David Eddings (What can I say? I like kitchens.)
A Gathering of Garygoyles – Meredith Anne Pierce (Maybe it was this particular alliteration?)
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
She is the Darkness – Glen Cook (If I hadn’t already been a fan of the series, I would have bought this book regardless. I wish I had thought of the title and used it first. I was much too late in the game though.)
The Darkness and the Dawn – Thomas Costain.
“The old folks gather in the park, come sundown on All Sorrows Day, to watch the blackbirds choose roosting trees on Remembrance Hill.” The Five Faces – Frank Tuttle.
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
I find the above titles and opening lines to be very evocative, enough so, that I was willing to give the rest of the story of each a try on those merits alone. I don’t expect that the above choices will work for all of you, but I do bet you each have come across titles and opening lines that you find equally evocative as do these.
When I was editing my first anthology for Dark Oak Press, not so long ago, I did have several submissions that strongly commended themselves on the strength of their titles alone. The anthology is titled, A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder. I thought that one up and was pretty happy with, thinking it nicely captured a sense of what I wanted for the pirate stories I was soliciting. The best titles I received were as follows, “The Davidof Dilemma,” “The Gods Must Clearly Smile,” “Eighty-Six Pitrell Becomes Dread Admiral,” and “Blood is Thicker than Pirate’s Gold.” I nearly accepted each of those on the strength of titles. Fortunately, I did read all the stories in full before deciding. I had some other very good titles that turned out to be tacked on to stinkers as far as writing was concerned. I don’t remember them anymore.
Of course, editors are much more likely to discover that a story which seemed great a first impression is bad than to discover that one which seems ho hum at first is actually very good later on. My advice then to readers and editors alike, even in this fast paced age in which we live, is not to judge a story by its first few lines but to read a little further. Stinkers will show pretty quickly, but some slow starters may be full of wonderful flash and bang, surprising twists, satisfying denouements, or deep meaning by their ends.
My advice to writers is not to be afraid to take their time with their work, but also not to avoid a great title or opening line or to otherwise hook the reader if it can be managed. Don’t be obsessed with it either. That sort of quest can distract one from the rest of one’s work and change the quality of the story. The middle and end need to be solid too. So please keep reading.