A little while back, two of my VP classmates blogged about different aspects of short story submissions: Nicole wrote about when you should trunk a story following a few rounds of submissions and rejections, and Fran wrote about how a story is neither alive nor dead following submission – a Schrodinger’s story.
To complete the trifecta, I decided to address what it’s like to be the slush reader on the other side of the black hole – the poison to your story’s cat.
I’ve been slushing for the awesome dark SF magazine, Apex, since January. While that isn’t too long in the grand scheme of things, I’ve settled into a rhythm with it, so I’m more comfortable talking about what goes through my head when I’m reading a story.
Before I started slushing, I practiced rejectomancy – obsessing over the content of the rejection letter, checking response times on Duotrope and reading into what it meant if my story was being held longer or if I got the rejection faster than average. It’s understandable, doing this. You feel like if you can just tease out some meaning from the whole process, it’ll help you become a better writer, like drawing a critique from a stone.
After I started slushing, I realized the timing of a rejection means nothing. A lot of things dictate when I read slush. I’ve got my own writing I need to carve out time for. I’m in a band. I’m in a book club. I try to get to slushing as soon as I can, but sometimes life gets in the way. Duotrope says a bunch of form rejections went out in three days last week and yours has been out for seven? Maybe I really liked it and I’m chewing it over for a few days. Maybe I sent it up to the editor. Or maybe I was in Texas all week for a work meeting and was strong-armed into playing back-to-back games of drunken laser tag. Like I said: timing means nothing.
When I send out a form rejection, it means one of two things: it’s not a good fit for the magazine, or the story isn’t quite there yet. For the former, Apex is a dark SF magazine. Your story could be brilliant, but if it doesn’t have a dark element, I’m not passing it up. For the latter, there are a lot of reasons why a story doesn’t work.
Here are a few of the reasons I’ll pass on a story:
I get bored. This is a big one. When I get bored, I start skimming. Never once have I passed up a submission that made me start skimming. Does it take two or three pages for me to find out what your story’s about? Do the characters spend the first half of the story making oblique references to something really important, but I’m left completely in the dark about it? Is there no plot? No conflict? No choices? Is the main character just wandering from scene to scene with nothing driving them? If I can’t figure out why to care about what’s happening, I’m done.
The stories I pass up grab me early and hold on to me right through to the end. There’s believable characterization in the face of some kind of conflict. The characters make decisions that have consequences that lead up to
The end. There have been more than a few stories that I was thoroughly enjoying right up until the cutesy ending. I’m not a big fan of Twilight Zone-style twists. They’re predictable. That’s not to say I don’t like twists. If it’s done properly, being built up in the background in such a subtle way that when I get to the end, the entire story rewrites itself in my head – that’s fucking brilliant. But cutesy moral messages? Abrupt endings with no bearing on what happened in the story? Everyone lives happily ever after and walks away unscathed? Not so much.
The stories I pass up end in ways that leave me wrung out while still being inevitable. They add something to the story rather than just “The End.” Endings are messy, painful things. They change us. Or at least they should.
Which brings me to
Cliches. Has your story been written a hundred times over? Is it about vampires or zombies or werewolves or Nazis or serial killers? These things aren’t inherently bad, but they’ve been done in so many different ways, it’s hard to write something with a new spin. I won’t immediately stop reading the story if it’s about one of these things. I will stop reading if it’s the same story I’ve already heard a thousand times.
But that’s the wonderful thing about writing. Give ten people the same story prompt and you’ll get ten completely different stories, because everyone has their own pool of experiences to pull from. You’ll get a zombie love story, a mad scientist tale, a Barker-style splatterpunk romp, or a quiet meditation on what it means to be alive. It is still possible to write a zombie story that’s unlike anything else, because you can write the zombie story that only you can write. If you let yourself.
But, please. No cannibals. I thought it was a bit of a joke when I started, but I soon found out it wasn’t. ::shudders::
Speaking of cannibals, there’s also the matter of
Taste. This is the most nebulous factor. I’ve passed up stories that weren’t personally my cup of tea but they were well-executed. I’ve passed up stories that were flawed but they pushed all of my buttons. I try to be a bit dispassionate about this aspect of it. My squicks and squees have been developed over a lifetime of good and bad experiences. I don’t like elements like frustration, chronic misunderstandings and ineffective communication in stories. But I love stories told from villain POVs, things with lots of (accurate) science, deep character studies, moments of surreal oddity. I’m aware of my buttons. If they’re pushed, great – I will love your story that much more. If they’re not, it’s not the end of the world.
I’ve been writing for long enough that I understand the elements that make up a good story. Taste is not an automatic deal-breaker if I can see what you’re going for.
But the biggest deal-breaker is
Bad mechanics. Are there a lot of typos in your story? Lots of semi-colons used incorrectly? Not sure how to use a comma? These are things that should be worked out before the story lands in my inbox.
Another unexpected factor has actually been
The cover letter. Now, most cover letters don’t make much of an impression on me. Name, contact info, story title, word count, and a short list of salient publications. Cool. Awesome. No problems there. We’re good.
But is it filled with typos? Run on sentences? Did you list all of the articles you wrote for you college newspaper? Did you address it to the wrong magazine? There have been a few cover letters that made me a bit excited to open a story (like publication credits in magazines I adore). But that’s really rare. Mostly, the only thing cover letters can do is make me skeptical.
* * *
So what can be done in increase your odds of having a story make it out of the slush? Come out of the gate punching, with characters that like doing the punching, and that spin down to an inevitable and satisfying ending. Hopefully the road the character takes is paved with your passions (and not littered with typos and bad grammar). Maybe it’ll push my buttons. Maybe it won’t. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is the overall taste of the editor, and you can figure that out by reading the magazine.
Writing short fiction is hard. It’s insanely competitive, and the amount of work and pain and rejection involved in breaking in seems disproportionate to the effort. My best advice is, if you think there’s a problem with your story before you send it out, and you hope no one will notice, you’re wrong. It will be noticed. Write stories that push your buttons, and push them hard. And if you really just want to write novels, write novels. There’s no reason to suffer by doing something you don’t like. Choosing to write short fiction isn’t just writing practice, it’s an entirely different form.
But that’s a whole other blog post.
Go forth and be awesome.