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Slush
astounding
ann_leckie
So I’m reading slush these days. And some of the commenters on Scalzi’s post about Dragon’s rights grab (are you freaking kidding me? All rights?) have got me thinking about things you don’t learn until you’ve read slush.

One of those things is that, no, really, it’s not worth getting just any credits at all to get yourself noticed. It’s all about the writing. If you think that your stuff isn’t getting past the slush reader because you have no credits, and your writing is just as good as the people who sell stuff all the time—well, dude, think again. I mean, it might be true? But I wouldn’t bet any actual, real money on it.

Another thing? Is the whole question of “you’ve got to grab the editor in the first few paragraphs.”

This is more or less true. But it leads to people saying, for instance, that this means you’ve got to have something fast paced, actiony, world-destroying in the first paragraph. Open with action! Explosions! Fights! And, went some recent complaints, this is sad because what about wonderful stories that open slowly?

Well, see, this is the thing. Those wonderful stories that open slowly—they grab you in the first few paragraphs. It’s not exploding suns and fast-paced action any given editor is looking for (though she might be, tastes differ of course). It’s writing. Slow or fast, really good writing makes you sit up and go, “Oh!” and you want to read more.

No, don’t tell me that it gets really good on page four. I have only two possible reactions to that.

A) No, it doesn’t. Really. Believe me. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, the first paragraphs are a really excellent indicator of the quality of the rest of the sub. I know this because, in an invisible and pointless gesture of solidarity with writers languishing in slushpiles, I generally read the whole ms. If you’re being rejected all the time, and never passed up to editors (when there are slush readers, which there aren’t always) it’s because you don’t write well enough. Make your next project as good as you can make it. Go over every detail until there is nothing you can point to that makes you say, “Well, that’s not exactly right but it’s good enough.” Because “good enough” is not good enough. Good enough is not the name of this game. Freaking fantastic is the name of this game, and you won’t get there except by writing, and reading with an eye towards seeing how the writers you admire do it.

Or optionally, rarely, but it is possible,

B) So then start on page four! Or else go back and make pages one through three really freaking good! Don’t figure those three iffy pages are okay if four is good enough. Like I said, good enough isn’t good enough.


It’s true that you get some leeway when you’ve made a name. But it doesn’t work the way some assume.

I’ll give an example. This weekend, I met with some other writers to crit stories. It was a lovely afternoon, actually, and great comments from everyone. But at one point, one participant mentioned worrying, when she’d started reading a particular story, that the issue this story dealt with was going to be trivialized, and she was pleased and relieved when it wasn’t.

That was when I realized that I had never even considered that possibility—because I already knew the writer being critted. The commenter was, at this session, meeting and reading the writer for the first time.

That’s the kind of extra leeway you get. “Hey, Susan’s doing something really odd here—but I’ve read a bunch of her stuff and she usually knows what she’s doing.” Or “Wow, this really seems to be headed in a cliché/offensive/whatever direction. But I know Susan, she’s probably going to do something interesting with it.”

Is that fair? Well, no, not entirely. What should the unpublished writer do about it? Well, the same thing the unpublished writer should do about anything—write each story as well as she possibly can, send it out, start on the next project with the intention of making it better than the last one. Lather, rinse, repeat. Because if nothing else, the slush reader gets to know you. “Oh, here’s another one from Susan, and…wow, this one is even better than her last! I’m sending this up!”

Write. Write well. Write as well as you possibly can, and then write better. There is nothing else.

I do realize that there’s some ego-defense involved. Rejections are hard, repeated rejections are downright depressing. And besides, it’s hellishly hard to actually see your own writing for what it is. In some ways it’s like your child, and have you ever met a parent who didn’t believe their baby was absolutely beautiful?

And you need some of that to survive. You need to keep sending out, even when your work isn’t perfect. You either need to be a masochist who loves being rejected all the time, or you need to be convinced, on whatever level, of your own ability. Maybe some internal, private narrative about how Those Idiots fail to recognize Your Genius and you’ll show them one day! And hey, whatever lets you print out the next SASE and get it to the post office. But don’t be so convinced of your ability that you fail to improve yourself as a writer.

When I say, “You’re not selling because you’re not good enough,” understand that I’m most emphatically not saying “You miserable wretch! You suck!” I get rejected, too. Sometimes (hell, always, when it comes down to it) stories I’m very proud of and that I’ve worked very hard on. But it’s not because I don’t have any credits, or because my openings aren’t flashy enough, or because I don’t know the right people. It’s because for whatever reason that story just didn’t do it for that editor at that time. The end. Send it out again. Make the next project even better.

Like I said, there isn’t anything else.

Applause, ovations, confetti.

I actually did the *facepalm* gesture reading slush the other night.

I still love it, because I learn something from every single piece, even if it's just a reminder of what not to do.

I actually did the *facepalm* gesture reading slush the other night.

LOL, I know what you mean.

I still love it, because I learn something from every single piece, even if it's just a reminder of what not to do.

Absolutely! I really think anyone who wants to write seriously should spend some time reading slush.

I'm done with slush for a while. Hurray!

Bravo, thank you for posting this. (And this is coming from someone who's crowning achievement to date is a personal reject from Strange Horizons.)

Aren't those nice? :) I think non-writers don't really understand that--I got my very first ever personal reject--which was from Strange Horizons!--and I was so happy. And my mom said, "Well, but it was a rejection." And I said, "But it had a note! From Jed!" And she didn't get it.

That note remains a bright spot in my huge pile of editorial refusals.

(Found this via rachel_swirsky.)

This is marvelous. I'm mentally gearing-up to start the slushpile for the small-press antho I edit (<shameless_plug>Triangulation<shameless_plug>), and I may need to link to this in my submission guidelines.

I was amazed at how snobby I got. Like you, I did the semi-pro solidarity thing and always read much deeper into the story than I probably should have, and it almost never went well. If the story didn't have my complete attention by the end of page 1 (which is really only a half-page in standard manuscript format), it had dug a hole it was unlikely to get out of.

There were a few stories I wound up liking despite god-awful slow starts. I forget precisely how many there were, but I'm quite certain I can count them on one hand and still have fingers left over. (And this was out of ~300 submissions. Yes, my goofy little anthology that nobody has ever heard of and that aspires to someday have triple-digit circulation got about 300 submissions. "Buyers' Market" doesn't even begin to describe the conditions out there.) I even bought a few of them once the author had fixed the problem. There was one that I absolutely loved once it got going somewhere around page 4; that writer was adamant that no, it couldn't start on page 4, as the boring start was crucial to setting the tone. I nodded, respected his vision of the story and didn't argue with him, and asked him if he had anything else he'd like to submit because there was no conceivable way I was running that story as-is.

The other thing that surprised me was the general quality. There were a few lamentably hideous submissions (including one that had my assistant and I crying tears of bewildered joy when we realized the author was selling the reprint rights), but those were actually outnumbered by the stories that were good enough to buy. I quickly learned that a capable, well-written (but not dazzling) story based on an idea I was already very familiar with equaled instant inescapable death!!! Give me an story I've already read and you'd best knock me on my ass with your Neal-Stephenson-grade prose pyrotechnics, or you're getting rejected.

And the cover letters ... I developed a reflexive aversion to any story from a writer who felt compelled to list all of the one hundred markets they'd appeared in. (Very often I, a total short-fiction slut who has submitted to pretty much all of Ralan's pro markets and most of the paying ones to boot, had only heard of two of them.)

There is no substitute for good writing. Really. None. Whatsoever. Want more sales? Write better stories. Everything else is window dressing.

By all means, shameless plug away! :) I thought about submitting to Triangulation, actually, it seemed like a fun idea, but nothing...coalesced for me.

I was amazed at how snobby I got.

I prefer to call it...picky. Discriminating. I know it feels like snobbery from the other side, but what you say about the stories--absolutely true. There are some ideas and/or structural things that are done over and over again and they're all...just like each other. And of course, if you're not looking at the sluhspile, you don't realize that your story is in there with a million others that are basically the same as ever other one.

The lesson I have taken away from this--I must always make sure that I approach any idea at all from a distinctive angle. Any sort of distinctiveness--voice, structure, some twist in the concept, better than usual characterization, whatever--will likely make a slush reader sit up and start reading a bit more eagerly. Several of those together, and...dude, the slush reader will remember your name and likely pass you up.

There was one that I absolutely loved once it got going somewhere around page 4; that writer was adamant that no, it couldn't start on page 4, as the boring start was crucial to setting the tone. I nodded, respected his vision of the story and didn't argue with him, and asked him if he had anything else he'd like to submit because there was no conceivable way I was running that story as-is.

Sounds like the best thing you could have done. I have mixed feelings about situations like that--on the one hand, the writer is right to stick to his view of the piece's integrity. But...maybe three or four years down the line he'll slap himself on the forehead and go, "Dang! Blair was right, and I should have...." Ah, well. We all of us, writers and editors, are limited by our current knowlege and skill, and can only do the best we can and respect each other for taking a stand, professionally. You do need to be able to do that.

I developed a reflexive aversion to any story from a writer who felt compelled to list all of the one hundred markets they'd appeared in. (Very often I, a total short-fiction slut who has submitted to pretty much all of Ralan's pro markets and most of the paying ones to boot, had only heard of two of them.)

Oh, I know these people! Funky cover letter issues don't make me read a submission with less attention, but by and large they are like the first paragraphs--a signal that maybe I won't be finding that long-awaited gem this time.

Rachel wrote a cover letter thing, and I'm with her (of course! We've discussed the issue a lot). Pick your three best! I don't want to read your cover letter, I want to read your story!



>Well, see, this is the thing. Those wonderful stories that open slowly—they grab you in the first few paragraphs. It’s not exploding suns and fast-paced action any given editor is looking for (though she might be, tastes differ of course). It’s writing. Slow or fast, really good writing makes you sit up and go, “Oh!” and you want to read more.

Yes!

I'm always afraid when I say, "No, I really can tell in the first paragraph or so whether this is something I want to spend time with," that will misunderstand.

And that then I'll have to send out (even more) rejections that say "this seems to be trying too hard."

Thanks for this. Another link I can send to my writer's group.

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