The First 500 Words

From the comic strip “Peanuts” by the late Charles Schulz

Something new happened when I tried to submit a short story to a publisher via the platform Submittable. There was no option to upload my Word file. There was only a field to paste in up to the first 500 words of the story.

I looked at the publisher’s specifications again and they said they’d respond to submissions of the first 500 words in a few days, and then the entire story in a few months.

Of course I submitted the first 500 words (491 actually so I wouldn’t have things cut off in the middle of a sentence) and a day later, got this back:

Thank you for sending us the first 500 words of “XXX.” Your writing caught our attention and we would like to read your entire story. Please upload your full story and complete the requested fields in ‘Step 2’ under the Forms tab that now appears in your Submittable dashboard for this submission. We look forward to reading it in consideration for XXX.

I have since uploaded the file, but I think this illustrates an important point.

As writers, we’ve only got a limited number of words at the start of our tales to capture our audience. If my first 500 words hadn’t been compelling, the entire story would have gone into the bit bucket. I was a tad worried, since the “real” action doesn’t happen until later in my wee missive, but apparently there was enough human texture and mystery right at the beginning to make the editors want to read more.

We need to keep that in mind, especially newbies like me, when crafting stories. If you don’t grab the reader by the imagination right away, you may never have the opportunity to do so later on.

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12 thoughts on “The First 500 Words

    • Opinions vary, but a short story is generally considered between about 5,000 and 10,000 words. Every anthology and periodical that has open submissions calls always have a word count range, sometimes as low as 2 to 5 thousand. This particular anthology has a range of 2 to 9 thousand with the “sweet spot” being between 5 to 7K. I know that can seem pretty restrictive, but they’ve got a max word count for the entire book or magazine and a certain number of stories they are looking to accept, so there are practicalities that have to be considered. For my first pass, I just write until the story is complete. If I’m over the word count, I try to edit down. It’s amazing how many wasted words and phrases I can find.

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      • I have the opposite problem. I tend to be too “talky” when I write. Part of that is the necessity of setting up the scene and describing characters so that the reader doesn’t feel like they’ve been dumped into a blank box with a bunch of generic people. Then it just depends on how complicated my plot is.

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    • If you’re referring to brick and mortar stores, Derek, they’d probably read the back cover blurb. If on Amazon, a similar marketing paragraph or two is presented so the reader can make a selection not actually based on the book’s literal content.

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  1. You are very right. Although I was taught it was in the first sentence(so that would be maybe 20 words at most)… and if that didn’t grab you might as well chuck the rest. Lately, I’ve considered the first 50-100 words as the pivot. Like your article here. Been missing you out at Fri Fic.

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