Sunday Shorts – “On the Line,” by Shawn Syms

There’s a lot to be said about the first story in an anthology. I’ve spoken with quite a few editors, and heard the first-and-last stories referred to as “anchors” and “draws.” The idea is that in an short story collection, your potential reader is going to glance at the cover, read the back blurb, and then – if you’re lucky – start browsing the first story. Much like a ‘chapter one’ or a ‘prologue,’ this is your opportunity to grab the reader. And in short fiction collections, there’s a decent chance they’ll read the whole story as a litmus before picking up the collection.

So, y’know, no pressure about that first story.

“On the Line.”

I’m lucky. I’ve gotten to share a table on contents with Shawn Syms twice now. Also, having read a few other short pieces by Syms before, and having truly enjoyed Friend. Follow. Text.: #storiesFromLivingOnline, I knew I’d be in for a treat with his first short fiction anthology, Nothing Looks Familiar.

The first tale, “On the Line,” does all the things you want a first story to do. It paints the picture of the kinds of people you’re going to explore in the collection (in the case of Syms, this means complex, sexual, gritty people who drip with realism), and suggests you brace yourselves. Syms has a way of presenting people that feel real to you in a way that reminds you of people you know, people with scars or illnesses or disabilities that didn’t fit the role those characteristics are “supposed” to entail (and so often unfortunately do in fiction).

The style of the story – about a meat-cutter in a large processing plant who washes off the scent of the meat and blood slaughter as much with sex as with soap – is also very much the style I’ve come to expect and enjoy from Syms. You get to glimpse of a few key moments, with just enough context to form a cohesive whole without over-telling.

I always walk away from a Syms story both satisfied and wondering “and then what happened?”

And really, what more can you want from a short story?

Got a memorable “first story in a collection” tale you want to share? Pop it in the comments. And until next time, keep it short…

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