Advice from a Slush Reader

Being an acquisition editor for a speculative fiction magazine requires two things:

  1. Loads of free time
  2. A love for the weird

I have copious amounts of one of those. Not so much of the other. Which do you think is the limiting factor above?

I started reading for an online e-zine. A volunteer position, of course. Most online e-zines make very little money. They are done – you guessed it – for the love of it.

Anyway, this past year, I’ve been reading loads of what some in the industry call ‘slush’.

Slush is the collective term used to refer to your stories. It’s not quite a negative term, not quite positive. It’s…slush. In my mind, it conjures images of warm afternoon ski days on a south-facing slope. Sometimes slush can be good.

But most of the time it’s bad.

As an acquisition editor, the trick is to get through the slush pile quickly, because if you don’t, it will keep coming until you are buried. So, you learn to recognize the signs of a good story and the warts and zits that foretell a bad story.

Let me say this right now, before I get into the meat of this article. If you take nothing else from this post, burn this into your brain:

If your first sentence is not perfect, does not draw me in, doesn’t say something profound or witty, then your story is not ready. If that first sentence mentions someone sleeping or being lazy, or describes the weather, then your story is not ready. If you start by explaining what your readers will gain from reading your story, then your story is not ready.

As a matter of fact, just know this: Your Story is Not Ready.

But wait, you may ask, how do I know if my story is ready or not?

If you don’t know if your story is ready or not, then your story is not ready.

Believe me, I’ve sent in stories that were not ready. I knew they needed a bit more spit and polish, but I figured the editor would see their promise and they’ll love them as much as I do and damn the consequences, they’ll accept!

Don’t fool yourself.

Frankly, we have so little of it these days, we shouldn’t be wasting each other’s time. Write your stories, then do the following to ensure they are ready before you submit them to some (harried) slush reader.

Advice from a Slush Reader

Share your story.

Yes, that’s right. Share it with your writing buddy or your best friend. As a matter of fact, join a critique group. Get as much feedback on your story as you can. The more the merrier. You’ll gain valuable insights into what you are doing wrong, but more importantly, you’ll start to recognize what you are doing right.

Edit your story.

This goes without saying, right? Never assume. And never assume you got every single typo out of your manuscript. There is never (okay, rarely) a typo-free story. I have tons of stories to go through, if I’m tripping over one typo over another, I’ll pass on your story even if I think it has promise. Most editors do not have time to work with a writer to polish their work. We expect it to be perfect when it hits our inbox.

Backstory sucks.

That’s not true, of course, but in short stories, inserting background story is like a huge speed bump in the road. Leave the backstory for your novels. In short stories, stick to the, you know, story.

Know your story.

What are you trying to say with your story? In one sentence, explain it to me. Go ahead. Do it right now. Take one of your short stories and write down, in one sentence, what your story is about. If you can’t succinctly do that for each of your stories, it’s very likely that someone who isn’t you won’t get your story. We are not in your head. I don’t magically know what it is you know. The only clues you can give me are the words you write. No, that doesn’t mean you need to write more words (see the point on backstory above). It means you must choose your words carefully.

Until next time, write well (but don’t send in that story in until it glows).

Nila

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16 thoughts on “Advice from a Slush Reader

  1. Sounds like you’ve been busy, Nila. I’m impressed that you spend so much time going over what must be 95% “meh,” 5% “oooh.” Great advice for the budding short story writers!

    1. It’s more like 5% “oh, dear”, 90% “okay”, and 5% “oooh, nice”. Most pieces are very good, but just not quite there. It really is true about your piece needing to be as perfect as possible.

  2. So, oh seasoned slush reader,I have a question: at least in your e-zine, do the main editors also read the slush pile? Or does a rejection from an editor mean you passed the first cut? Had one a while back of that from the main editor and was wondering where that left me in slushdom ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Our main editor (the magazine owner, Allegory, by the way), does not have time to read all the stories submitted. We read the stories and suggest either a rejection or a possible acceptance. The editor does not read the rejected stories, but he does read through the ‘maybes’.

      Random factoid: According to Submission Grinder, Allegory accepts 5.26% of submissions. Which, I think, is about normal. Pro-rated ezines only accept about 1% of their submissions. The things is, your piece may be good, but it has to be great just to get our attention, you know what I mean? There are a lot of people writing good stuff out there. So, to stand out, your story has to be even better.

      Makes me appreciate the fact that I’ve been accepted at all. But also makes me realize what a steep climb we all have to make. :/

      1. Good to know the stats. They aren’t as bad as I thought but it’s still a long shot and as everyone knows, there is a certain amount of serendipity involved.

        I’ve sworn off submissions for now. Going to focus on writing, probably for a year or more then may reconsider. With no multiple submissions and long response times in most cases, it’s really not my idea of a good way to spend my time or my ’emotional capital’ was someone left in a comment on my own blog.

        Maybe later. Hopefully never, if I can get away with it, although I’m sure I’ll be back on the rejection treadmill sooner or later.

      2. I hear ya on the “emotional capital” thing. It is very hard to get rejection after rejection. The thing is, now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I understand what rejection means now. It means, the story is not ready. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Great advice. My only issue with critique groups is, they seem to prefer to trash someone’s work, rather than say anything constructive.

    “Nothing, not love, not greed, not passion or hatred, is stronger than a writer’s need to change another writer’s copy.”
    – Arthur Evans

    1. Oh, sorry to read that.

      I think, sometimes, that is true. There are some writers who *do* trash-critique.

      But, regardless, I accept all critique with the attitude that they took the time to read and offer feedback, it’s got to be worth something. Even if that feedback is painful, I’ll take from it what is helpful. I don’t care in what spirit the feedback was given. The point is for me to improve. If it helps, great, I’ll use it. If not, then I ignore it.

      At least, that’s how I approach it.

      Plus, I try to be as constructive as possible with the critiques I offer to other writers in the hopes the universe will reciprocate.

      Sometimes, though, I’m not as successful as other times. But I never intend to be hurtful, though I can see how it might be perceived that way. Sometimes, it’s not that we are trying to be mean, but that we forget to be kind.

    2. critters.org can hook you up a large pool of critquers if you write fantasy or science fiction. They are a pretty good group although as a critter at times myself, it become very easy when critiquing to focus on things that could be improved and less on the positives in a work. I consciously try to do the standard good-bad-good sandwich but the bad can get pretty thick ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. And that’s fair, if you really read the work and it’s your honest assessment. I’ve also beta read for people, and most people seem to not actually WANT feedback apart from “This is genius!”

  4. I’m sure you’re a terrific critique partner. I’ve never joined a critique group because I’ve heard so many horror stories. My only experience is with beta readers who go too far, and suggest new characters and new directions to take a story in. I ignore that stuff, I figure they just need to go write their own stories ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. Hello busy person! Good to hear from you again.

    If your first sentence is not perfect, does not draw me in, doesnโ€™t say something profound or witty, then your story is not ready.

    As I review a lot of self-published stuff, I have been known to give up before the end of chapter 1 if it doesn’t grab me. The first sentence mantra is a good one, but I do like to give a little extra leeway.

    I’ve just published my third self-published work and it felt ready. I really did not feel I could improve it further. Judging by the 5 star reviews, readers agreed too.

    I think the major problem is that people worry more about setting themselves a deadline than they are about getting it right, as though the pressure of a self-imposed release date will improve the quality of one’s editing. It doesn’t.

    1. Yes, I usually read well past the first sentence, but if the first sentence isn’t all that great, it’s a sure sign that the rest will be…the same.

      And, double yes that a deadline will not improve your writing. It will help you get it done, but it will not make your writing shine. What get’s *that* done is the spit and polish you do AFTER your self-imposed deadline. (At least, that’s how it has worked for me.)

      Congrats on your five-star reviews! As a reviewer, I rarely give a five-star verdict (even for stories I love and are traditionally published), and I’m sure that holds true for a lot of readers. So, be proud!

      1. Yes, even the comprehensive review I had that listed a handful of niggles said that they were complaints of personal taste and failings of the mixing horror and comedy genres, so I am very pleased with it ๐Ÿ™‚

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