Reading, research, Writing

On Loving Slush

Winter has returned to reclaim the remaining days ’til the Spring Equinox, and probably to fight it out even after that for control. I won’t miss its passing, slinking away into a sleety end. (notice here that I started with the weather–really, you’ll laugh later!)

But slush! Ah, that I’m really loving.

Since it’s posted on the Staff page, it’s no big secret that I’m a slush reader over at Fantasy Scroll Magazine. (Remember my goals for the year? Finding a new slush reader position=check!) I’m a slush reader, or a first reader as some would call it. As a simple explanation of how that works: all the unsolicited submissions sent in end up in a database, and the slush readers split ’em up and read them. I (but it’s not just me) get to weigh in on whether I think these stories are going to end up in the magazine, or not. Slush reader decisions are NOT final. We may be overruled, in either direction. I offer up my opinion, and any thoughts that guided me to that point, to those above me in the food chain (editor, editor-in-chief, etc…).

It’s an unpaid, volunteer position. It takes time away from my own writing, and editing, and surfing for cool things on the internet. It takes time from my pleasure reading, for sure. Why ever would I want to do this, then?

Um, I like abuse?

No, that’s not it. Not it at all. Really. But the truth may be harder to believe. I do this because it’s a shock to the system, a school-of-hard-knocks method of learning to write, and to edit, my own stories better.

Let’s say you have 100 stories to read. And really, this is not unusual. Submissions come in waves at times, in drips other times, but there’s usually a few days of a backlog, at least. So, 100 stories. Fifty of them open with the weather. Nothing else, nothing to show how it’s unique, or odd, or that I should care. After I’ve read those fifty stories, and I begin to wonder why I should care that it’s a brilliant, sunny day, I start to think, “Hmm, starting out with a weather report is probably not my best bet for getting someone to read the rest of my really neat story, is it?” And so, I’ve learned something valuable, right there.

Another lovely piece of advice you often hear is “Don’t start with backstory.” Well, another 30 stories have just done that, so that I know what K’lthanniops wore as a child and how it felt mocked for its too-short snout, what it wore on the day 3 years ago when its clone-parent perished and how it now wished it hadn’t worn that (and probably that it’s raining on this being now), but I wonder what is going on and when the story is going to actually, you know, begin–and, multiply by thirty, and I suddenly, can see the utter wisdom of this advice, and the problem inherent in not heeding it. So, I cut off and throw away the first 3 pages of my manuscript, so it starts where the story does. See how I’ve improved? Now I’m better than 80% of the submissions!

(This isn’t even counting the manuscripts that just plain don’t follow the rules posted on the submissions page. For example, when we say “no poetry,” we actually mean it. I’ve also opened a couple stories only to find that “erotica” isn’t strong enough to cover what was inside, and wished I could wash my poor eyes out after reading. Please, please read the guidelines!)

At this point, you’re down to 20 stories left. Fifteen of them are about vampires, zombies, or vampire-zombies. They all sound remarkably similar, even though they’re coming from places around the globe. Hmm. And in yesterday’s reading, there was a vampire-zombie story that included a fairy-godmother and a pink roller-derby-playing unicorn, and it just rocked! So, against that near shoe-in, these others…well, really, they don’t stand much of a chance now, do they?

Let me highlight that: Even if they’re not badly written, they’re not unique enough in some way to stand out. Seeing that, in these kinds of numbers, was rather mind-blowing. It’s not enough to write a nice story about a dragon and a princess in peril. Those are rather standard tropes, and have been done (and are still being done) a million times. What stands out, fast, is something different. Different how? Ah, that’s what you, the author, gets to decide. Because really, every time I open a new story, I’m hoping to be wowed. To wish I’d written that story. To write “YES, YES, YES!” on my comments.

But wait, we’ve got 5 stories left. Where are they? These are the “real contenders,” the actual competition for the slots in this issue. All are pretty well written, all have something unique going for them: setting, character, dilemma, or what-have-you. This is where the real chance for the slush-reader’s learning comes in:  what makes the cut, what gets the “almost, but not quite” rejection?

This is where craft and polish gleam on the gems, and their lack makes a noticeable difference. Did typos trip me up? Or did I get confused by the pronouns? Did the ending feel like an emotional closure, or did the author just tell me “and that’s the end?” Was I lost anywhere in the story? Was the dialog realistic, and did the characters feel like real people, or like puppets the author moved about? Was there, actually, a story in there? Chances are, in 3 out of these 5, there were issues with these things. They’ll get the “almost, but not quite” rejection.

Leaving just two. Two stories that have given me no reason to stop reading them, who have pulled me along in their narratives, making me care for the protagonist’s journey in some way, and who have made me reach “The End” and think, “Wow. This needs to be published! This is good stuff!” I hug myself, do the chair happy-dance, and write “Yes!” in their comments, sending these two stories up the channels for serious consideration.

And this is why I read slush: I want to be one of those two out of 100 stories in some other market. I want to analyze all this raw data, draw conclusions, and inform my own writing with what I learn. For me, slushing is worth the time I give up, the time I could be writing, reading–or hey, even sleeping!–because it’s got me focused on what works, what doesn’t and why, up close and personal.

What do I suggest you do? Well, if you’re up for it, try applying for a slush reader position. And whether you do or not, I really suggest you check out Fantasy Scroll Magazine, and well, keep me in slush! I really, really hope to write “Yes!” on more great stories…

5 thoughts on “On Loving Slush”

  1. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I also love the slush. I’ve been reading it for over two years and i don’t think i’d like to stop anytime soon. Everyone told me it was painful, but i think i’m too compassionate to share that school of thought… i find it inspiring to see all those people sharing their words, and watching their submissions get better and better over time, and seeing their cover letters include more and better credits. 🙂

    And like you, it has DEFINITELY helped me become a better writer! It’s good to learn all the things that make a first reader’s eyes glaze over, even when they’re trying really hard to like your story.

    1. Yep, I really can’t imagine stopping too soon. It’s kinda addictive, looking for that next little high that comes from finding “a keeper” in the pile! BTW, were you reading this as I typed it?? You replied almost immediately after I hit “post,” and nearly scared my socks off!! And today I still need those socks–brrr.

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