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.