Tuesday, September 30, 2014

9 Slush Pile Mistakes: A Guest Post by 2 Slush Readers

Welcome to Adam Shaftoe (slush reader for Daily Science Fiction) and Patrick Icasas (slush reader for Flash Fiction Online). I've known Adam for a few years now thanks to the Toronto-area convention scene and I very much admire his reviewing skills. Read his blog, people! 

I met Patrick only recently via my LAB•B work, and it turned out we had lots of interests in common, and I even helped him get a very well-known comic book writer on his new blog, How to Suck Less. Woo!

In any case, Patrick and Adam work hard at what they do, and they have some wisdom to share with you short fiction writers. Read and learn, my friends. Read and learn. --Beverly

Short fiction can be an unfair game. Though talent, hard work, and dedication can get a person pretty far as a writer, the truth is that sometimes a story will take longer than it should to sell. The simple explanation is that now, more than ever, writing is about the numbers. More people are writing today - which is great - compared to when the pulps turned the submission process into a de facto routine. Alas, the number of semi-pro and pro-paying markets hasn't grown in proportion to the influx of submissions.

We each handle dozens of submissions a month. Even if we restrict ourselves to flash pieces of a maximum of 1000 words each, that's sizable chunk of a full length novel every two weeks. There's a reason it's called a slush pile. That's a lot of stories to read through--even for a team of editors--and we have to be efficient in sorting the middling from the amazing. That means looking for reasons to reject the middling sort as quickly as we can.


Nothing we are going to say in this piece guarantees a sale. We're out to level the playing field, and explain some of the reasons why a story might get read and rejected within thirty seconds. You, gentle reader, can avoid every pitfall that we list and still lament an objectively good piece of fiction being rejected over and over. In those cases, all we can tell you is to keep at it. If you're a good writer then you have the capacity for greatness, and greatness is what sells.

#1 - Follow the damn guidelines

Guidelines are simultaneously an idiot test and a test of quality akin to the “no brown M&M” rule. When a submission fails to follow seemingly arbitrary rules like 12 pt, Century Gothic with 1” margins, using Canadian/British spelling wherever possible, it tells a submissions editor that there are almost certainly other issues in the writing, thus there's no point in offering any benefit of the doubt when the first paragraph contains a glaring typo or a shift in voice.

#2 - Copy and paste: you're doing it wrong

Many publishers are using back-end software that, in theory, makes lives easier for submissions editors and writers alike i.e. fill out the boxes, copy and paste your story, wait for the good or bad news. All too often people copy and paste from their word processing program of choice (Microsoft Word is notorious for this) without using something like Notepad to strip away character codes and embedded formatting.

Weird formatting puts submissions editors in a sour mood. Could you imagine reading

five thousand words of text that

<span> were formatted like <span> this?

#3 -  Longer probably isn't better

If H.P. Lovecraft, a notoriously lugubrious author, showed up in the slush pile today, I would reject him out of hand. It doesn't matter who you are, how much you've written. If you're SWFA, or if you're John Scalzi, himself, if you're going to make us read 5,000 words, then it best be a 5,000 word story. World building out of the gate, excessive internal history, descriptions of food, clothing, horses, the colour of the sky are almost always filler. Filler gets rejected.

#4 - Don't imagine we haven't seen it before

Submissions editors read a lot of fiction. We're voracious readers, and almost always writers, ourselves. Remixing some existing ideas into a new story is well and good, but if an editor can read the DNA of your story in the first 10% of the story then we're probably going to write it off as derivative and move on to something else.  This also includes using stereotypical greek names for starships, planets, and the like. Stretch into some other religious/mythological pantheons.

#5 - Stop starting at the start

In medias res is a writer's best friend; starting a story with a person waking up and pondering on the meaning of a dream is not.Neither is starting at the creation of the world or the birth of a child.

#6  - Don't be entitled

You may think you're God's Gift to the Craft, but after reading your story (or even your cover letter) we can most definitely say that you're not. Having a closed and confrontational attitude will keep you from growing as a writer, and make it hard for editors to want to give you a second chance.

#7 - Know the story you're writing

I've read quite a few stories that start out strong in one genre (like an introspective sci-fi narrative), only to turn sharply midway through into something totally different, like horror or humor. Most of the time, this is a symptom of a badly done “twist” ending. Speaking of twist endings...

#8 - Forcing a twist

Twist endings are best used sparingly. In fact, many so-called “clever” twists are highly overdone (e.g. IT WAS ALL A DREAM) and ruin the story. (There's a reason M. Night Shyamalan is a one-trick pony) A twist should make sense within the context of the story, so that it's surprising yet inevitable.

#9 - Submitting the same story over and over

What do you do when your story is rejected? Do you shrug and immediately fire it off to the next editor? Or do you take a step back and see what's wrong with it? Many publications offer personalized rejections to stories that show promise, but aren't quite there yet. A good writer listens and, in the process, improves. A bad writer dismisses it out of hand and stagnates. Which one are you?

We're not out to hurt anybody's feelings. We work to find and publish the best stories that people will enjoy reading. If your writing doesn't happen to make it through this time, then learn from the experience and try again.

Patrick Icasas is a slush reader for Flash Fiction Online, a pro-paying market for flash fiction of any genre. Patrick supports his slush reading and creative writing habit by blogging for companies on a freelance basis. He's also been known to blog for himself from time to time about How to Suck Less.

Adam Shaftoe-Durrant is a critic, writer, and podcaster. He also reads slush for Daily Science Fiction. He holds a Master of Arts degree in History from the University of Western Ontario, and worked as a Teaching Assistant at Brock University for seven years. His essays and reviews have previously appeared in On-Spec Magazine, Jamais Vu - The Journal of the Strange Among the Familiar, and on Guysnation.com. He lives in St. Catharines, Ontario with his fiancée Rebecca and their cats. During the day he works as an labour market researcher for a local NGO. Adam blogs and podcasts about all things genre at PageOfReviews.com.