Getting Beyond the Door

Note: This post does not reflect how things are handled at Shock Totem.

So you just finished a 5,000-word story. Read on…

Have you ever heard an editor say a story needs to grab him—or her—within the first few pages? Have you ever thought about what that means for you, as a writer? What it really means?

In the business of reading slush, where hundreds of stories pour in weekly, those first couple pages can mean the difference between rejection and acceptance. Some editors say a story needs to grab hold from the opening line, and while some authors pull this off with ease, others take a slower approach. Some authors start with explosions, while others light small fires that grow and grow…

Because some stories beg for the explosive intro, and others require a slow build. It all depends on the tale (excluding flash fiction, which has no excuse not getting right down to business). But how often is a great story overlooked because an editor—and there are plenty who subscribe to this school of thought—thinks a story needs that WHIZBANGPOW! opening?

I recently finished a 5,300-word story. In standard submission format—12pt Courier font, double-spaced—it’s 29 pages long. Now let’s discuss exactly what that translates to: Changing the format to Times New Roman, single-spaced, the story shrinks from 29 pages down to 11. What was once the first three pages an editor sees is now barely a quarter of the way down page two, and the story starts halfway down page one! So we’re talking a mere 483 words.

Frightening. But it’s worth thinking about.

We, the writers, must impress within the first few pages, right? We’re told this over and over again. But depending on the publication that standard may be an illusion, because in standard submission format, those pages represent but a handful of words—not pages. And that’s just to keep the door from closing, let alone getting your story across the threshold! And beyond that there’s a whole new set of obstacles.

Less than 500 words…


About K. Allen Wood

K. Allen Wood is the editor/publisher of Shock Totem. For more info, visit his website at
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5 Responses to Getting Beyond the Door

  1. Lee Thompson says:

    Great post. That is scary!

  2. 500 words. That’s about right. If I don’t feel compelled to read past the first 500 words…why would any reader?

  3. Very true and very scary as you mentioned. I’d go even further and say the first line has to be good enough, has to grab the editor and the reader. Then the first paragraph and then the first page.

    If you can manage this not only do you have a formula to grab attention and draw attention, but you also find yourself in the habit of making every line and indeed every word count. That’s a great habit to fall into.

    Best of luck and thanks for the post.

  4. I think also, it depends on the person reading the slush, what they are looking for what they are interested in etc. Yes, if a story doesn’t grab me within the first, even couple of paragraphs sometimes I think that this might not be something I will like, however… the purpose to write is to surprise and shock so a good story is still a good story.

  5. Obviously you don’t need more than 500 words to see that some stories are no good, or not right for your particular publication. But I can definitely say that, if we had a policy of giving stories just a few pages—500 words—to impress us, we wouldn’t have accepted a lot of stories we’ve published. Stories that readers have loved.

    Many stories that we, as a group or individuals, weren’t initially impressed with have turned out to be our favorites. And again, loved by enough readers to tell us that plenty of stories deserve more than a few pages of face time.

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