It seems clear that what you all want to know is, “How do I get published in Ploughshares?” So, lets start at the beginning. Literally.
If you want to get out of the slush pile, one of the worst things you can do is write a lackluster first paragraph. Don’t make the mistake of thinking: the really fine writing starts on page three of my story, and I’m sure they’ll appreciate it when they get there. By page three, I’m frustrated. If you want out of the slush pile, you must prove it from the first paragraph, from the first line.
In Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing, Debra Sparks says, “[A] lot of fine openings…make you think, ‘Wait, that can’t be right.’ They offer a moment of confusion that is interesting rather than discouraging…Often enough, slightly curious sentences deliver an image or line so fantastic that we feel the promise of a good story ahead.”
You can be sure that every manuscript selected for Ploughshares delivers on Sparks’ insight. Look at the first line from Joshua Howes’ story Grace in the latest issue: “It’s been a month now she’s been tutoring a dead girl on Park Avenue.” First sentence, first paragraph. I read hundreds of stories last year and I still remember that opening line.
Ploughshares receives over a thousand manuscripts a month and the reality is you must shine from the get go. It doesn’t have to be a killer first line but something special has to happen in that first paragraph. The 2012 winner of the Emerging Writers’ Fiction contest, Jasmine Sawers’, first line in The Culling was lovely — “The night boasts the first edge of an autumnal chill” — but it was the sum and total of the first paragraph that illustrates exactly what Sparks is talking about. If you haven’t read the story yet, you should.
I’ve read that when she was fifteen or sixteen, Joan Didion used to type out the stories of Ernest Hemingway to learn how the sentences worked. I think that is a helpful exercise. It doesn’t have to be Hemingway, but you should have a go-to author, one who speaks to your sensibilities and whose sentences you admire and aspire to. My go-to author is Flannery O’Connor. Look at your author’s openings; write them out; really get a feel for the sentences, and then go back to your own work. Not with a mind to line-edit but to really get dirty and make global edits. Didion in that same interview says, “What’s so hard about the first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence.” Don’t make that first line and first paragraph a throw away. If your opening does not push your story forward right from the start, get rid of it. If the fine writing starts on page three, then start your story on page three.
Think about it practically. When a reader sits down to read manuscripts they carve out a few hours of their day to read five, maybe ten, manuscripts. That can sometimes be upward of two hundred pages. Your first paragraph is your introduction to this reader, and you must deliver the promise of a good story to get out of their pile. (Of course, you must also keep delivering to ultimately get passed on to the guest editor, but without a strong opening the rest is moot.)
The writing life is one filled with rejections, but those who keep at it succeed. I have written stories thinking finally, my best work, this is it. I send it out, get rejected, get discouraged, and I put it away for a while. Months later, when I approach the story with distance and with an eye for revision, it is often clear where I can make improvements. So keep writing, and send us your best work. Remember, you have to play to win.