From Slush Pile to Editor’s Desk: Build Urgency from the Beginning

 

by Manuela Williams

While you can’t predict exactly what an editor will or will not like, there are a couple things you can do to ensure that your story has a fighting chance when you submit it to a literary magazine (and won’t cause anyone to scream and/or tear their hair out in frustration).

This is PART 2 of a multi-post series. For PART 1, click here.

Build Urgency From The Beginning

Lack of urgency is the number one reason why I turn down stories. The prose might be beautiful, but I can’t be sold on that alone. Your story needs to open with a bang and keep me hooked from sentence one.

If your story starts out with two characters discussing the weather, then I probably won’t read on (unless they’re talking about sharknados). Another pet peeve of mine: when a story starts off with a description of scenery. While this can sometimes work, it often doesn’t and leaves me yawning after the first couple of sentences. As a rule, start with some action, or an interesting scenario.

Two very important things you should cover within the first 1-2 pages:

  • Who is the main character, what do they want, and why should I care about them?
  • What are the stakes? In other words, what does the main character have to lose if they don’t get what they want?

If I don’t care about your character, or if I can’t get a sense of what’s at stake from the beginning, then I will not keep reading.

Once you build urgency, you have to maintain it throughout your entire story. How can you do this? Here are a couple ideas:

  • Keep raising the stakes. How much can your main character stand to lose?
  • Prevent your character from getting what they want.

For a more complete list, check out this post on the Terrible Minds blog. Chuck Wendig really knows what he’s talking about with this one.

I recently read an excellent story from Family of Fallen Leaves called “Thirteen Harbors.” It begins like this:

“I took a new wife for my husband. Maybe the strangest thing ever to happen at Yen Ha village, I chose my good friend to be the bride, a woman who had passed the age for marriage but for a long time had desired a child and wanted a husband.” — Suong Nguyet Minh, “Thirteen Harbors”

Talk about a bang, right? And from there, the story doesn’t let up in its urgency as main character Sao suffers from devastating miscarriage after miscarriage.

If you have the opportunity, I highly suggest you read the rest of it. Not only is “Thirteen Harbors” a haunting story about the effects of Agent Orange, but it is also expertly crafted, which is really beneficial for us writers.

 

 

 

Manuela Williams is a Las Vegas native who is currently studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is a member of Carve Magazine’s guest reading committee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 300 Days of Sun, The Birds We Piled Loosely, WINDOW, Wicked Alice Zine, and others.

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16 thoughts on “From Slush Pile to Editor’s Desk: Build Urgency from the Beginning”

  1. Thank you for this advice! So concise, I am sure to remember it better than all the other pages and pages of research I have done on the topic. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed in an ocean of do’s and don’ts. This has been a breath of fresh air.

    Like

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