These opening line no-no’s go hand in hand with my Three Strikes and You’re Out Rule.
Somewhere out there floats the urban legend that evil editors will read the first line of your story, make a snap decision about your worth as a writer, and toss out a rejection letter based on your opening line.
Is this true?
Yes. Yes, it is.
Hi. I am an editor and a longtime slush-reader. I will not hesitate to ax-murder your story’s starry-eyed dreams if your opening line is dreadful.
An opening line (or paragraph) tells me a lot about your skill as a writer. Do you understand voice, style, tension, struggle, character, pacing, narrative hooks? Can you make me care? Does your story stand out from the rest or is it one more tedious and mediocre effort at literary witticism that I have to slog through before I can call it a night and watch Game of Thrones?
I will most definitely toss a form rejection at a story with an irredeemable opening line.
But … but … you’re saying. But … you’re an editor and your job is to edit my story and make it better.
Take that whine and have some cheese.
Your story is in a stack of thousands, yes, thousands of other stories. Some are dire. Some are … eh. Some are abysmal. Most are mediocre.
But a few, a precious few, are stunning. And their opening lines sing.
So if your opening line doesn’t sing, I might as well save you the time of sitting in my slushpile and myself the time of slogging through another tired old story.
Now. You’re in luck. Because today I’m not only an editor, I’m also here to be your teacher.
So here are the opening line no-no’s that will get you tossed out of my slushpile:
Warning: do not come back at me in the comments with “but…but…but…my story….” and a lengthy explanation of how you are the genius who will make this sad opening no-no work.
I’ve heard it before. A thousand times before. More like a thousand times a month. Don’t make me really pull back the charm curtain and give you the unfiltered version of what I think about these SAD-ASS-DON’T-MAKE-ME-READ-THESE-AGAIN (ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE MY STUDENT).
- Waking up openings
- White rooms (lack of any setting whatsoever)
- Sitting on a stump or fence or log
- Characters holding still
- Waffly verbs
- Wonky tenses
- Irredeemable racist or sexist overtones
- Overt stereotyping
- White man fantasy worlds
- Any kind of woman in a chain mail bikini, stiletto heels and a mini skirt, or a boppy blonde ponytail trying to save the world
- A character describing their appearance by looking in a compact (Handbook for Mortals, I’m looking at you.There’s a reason real authors knew you didn’t magically end up on the NYTs bestseller list with descriptions like that)
- Using big words to prove you can find the thesaurus function on your computer
- Your kids, your pets, your grandma, or anything that “really happened just like this” or is “too precious to be true”
- Psychopaths staring through window blinds
- Any kind of naked woman of any species in any body of water (don’t ask)