Being an acquisition editor for a speculative fiction magazine requires two things:
- Loads of free time
- 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.
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).