When I started reading slush, I feared the onslaught of the great unwashed grammar monster and the evil spelling pixie. You sometimes hear people gripe about how the content of slush is soooooo bad. But the reality is that those people are just jaded whingers. The vast majority of submitting writers know how to spell and use correct grammar. By far the most important reason a story gets rejected is this:
The story is boring.
Now I should perhaps rephrase this: the beginning of the story is boring. Because if the beginning is not interesting, a slush reader won’t read on. Really. A slush reader (or any reader) has no obligation to finish reading a story. As writer, your task is to make sure a reader finishes the story. Actually, I should rephrase that again: the beginnning of the story is boring to me.
As you can see, I’ve just put a couple of caveats into the statement. What is boring to me may not be boring to others.
That said, I tend to look unkindly upon stories that do any (or, heaven forbid, all) of the following:
The story starts with an interesting tidbit that grabs my attention, usually in a very short scene. The second scene is a huge slab of narrative explaining the situation in retrospect. Repeated use of the word ‘had’ is indicative. The third scene involves the character going through some mundane, everyday situation. These scenes often start with statements that establish time, such as ‘The next day’, or ‘That day…’
The story starts with the character gazing reflectively out a window, or similar, and thinking about something that has happened or is about to happen. It is really hard to pull this off as an effective start to short fiction, even if your window looks out over a spaceport that is being blow apart in an interstellar war. The point is that the character is detached from the action and is not doing anything. Watching action does not equate taking part in it.
The story starts with a scene (or even more than one scene) in which the character does everyday stuff. Sometimes, you feel a need to establish a character’s living situation before the inciting incident. If the living situation is interesting enough, you can sometimes get away with it, but usually it’s more interesting to start with the inciting incident.
A slush reader is under no obligation to read the entire story. If something interesting happens halfway in the story, start the story with that. Don’t cheat and start the story with the interesting thing, and then backfill the next few scenes with the not-so-interesting, mundane stuff that was the original beginning of the story. You shall be found out. The mundane stuff is not interesting. You don’t need it.