Monday, December 19, 2011

Secrets from the Slush Pile.

Slush readers... They all live in New York, right? They work in  high-rise office buildings wearing high heels, or ties. They have definitely taken a shower. 

Those stories you submitted couldn't possibly be read at two in the afternoon by a woman still in her pajamas who keeps looking away from the screen to bargain with a four-year-old for the use of her own computer.

Editor of your dreams...

Slush reader of your reality.

I've recently learned that the above theory is falser than Kim Kardashian's marriage, or the myth that anyone cares about Kim Kardashian's marriage.

Here's how I learned that...

So... about the time Proser's started, I signed on to be a slush reader at a SFWA qualifying market. I'm not going to say which one, because anomininity and what not, and because then it's like an unopened Christmas present. Could be anything... even the market you just submitted to...

Dun, dun, dun...

Anyway, so for Christmas I thought I'd share some of the observations I've gleaned while working as a slush reader. 

Merry Christmas!

Secret number one. Slush readers are writers...thereby...slush readers are creative artistic types...thereby... fifty-fifty chance that the person who reads your story is on antidepressants. For that reason, and because ( I promise you) it will stand out of a crowd of dismal depressing stories, try to give your stories some string of hope.  Romeo and Juliet had a dismal tragic ending, but because the story is about the power of love (cue eighties flashback) it works brilliantly. On that note...

Secret number two. Endings aren't as important as beginnings, but they are dang important. One of the stories I read this last month was well written, had interesting characters, and interesting situation...and an ending that made "I woke up and it was all a dream" endings seem Shakespearean*. The ending undercut the powerful beginning, and it ultimately it got a no from me. Endings do matter. That should be a no-brainer, but use your brain, and make an ending that makes the story matter.

Secret number three. Keep your purple prose away from the first thirteen lines. The stories that do well have language that let's you fall into them. Keep the word choice simple. Give me a character I can care about in a situation that is clear, and be concise. Give me a chance to wade into your story.

Secret number four. Give me an awesome first sentence. There was a story I read this month with a great first sentence. The rest of the story wasn't anything that special, if I'm being honest, but the first sentence was so good the story got a yes from me. It probably wont go past the second gateway, but a good first sentence will get you half-way there. Follow it up with a good story and you have gold money in the bank.

Secret number five. Speaking of money in the bank, if you make me laugh once, you automatically get a yes from me. I've heard the advice that you should stay away from humor, because everyone has a different sense of humor, and it might offend the editors... The almighty editors who work in those high rise buildings and have showered... Those editors.

False. Was it Oscar Wilde who said, "if you want to tell the truth, make them laugh or else they will kill you."... Something like that. Use humor. Use it like you use hope. It'll make your story stand out.

Secret number six. I've also heard the theory that you shouldn't submit a story until your writing is publishable, because the editors (those editors) will remember a bad story and not like you anymore. And possibly kill your cat.

Let me tell you a secret... if I remember your story, then you are doing something right. If you can create a story that resonates enough that it stands out from the crowd , even for being horrible, then you are on your way to brilliance.

Also... I read blind. Yes, you read that right. I don't ever know who it is who wrote what. I get the title, the story, and yes no or maybe. That's it.

Secret number seven. When I started, I thought I would be the slush reader I would want my story to get. I read every story all the way through. Some stories I read twice, trying to get the nugget of gold out of it. But then, as more and more stories came into my Que, I stopped caring about the writer. Sorry, but it's true. I only care about the reader, and the magazine. I don't want the reader to read something that is less than great, because it would make the writer of the story happy to get a yes. The reader is king, and your stories are not your soul, they are your product.

Give me your best, and I will give you a yes.

And that's no secret.

* If you don't know why I'm giggling, go read more Shakespeare.


  1. I thought Romeo and Juliet was about the tragedy of teenage idiocy? Agree to disagree ;)

    I struggle a lot with endings - how to make it satisfying and hopeful without being too pat? That's really tough. I agree that they matter a lot, though - a bad ending can ruin an otherwise great book for me.

    These are great tips, Sheena. I find it very reassuring to imagine slush being read by someone in her pajamas ;) Thanks for the insider info!

  2. All the advice is awesome, but I third the great ending advice. There seems to be a lot focus on strong beginnings but strong endings are just as important. For me if the ending falls flat, the whole story falls flat.

    That said, the I struggle so much with good beginnings and good endings. They are so tough to pull off.

    I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who fights with a a four-year-old over my computer. :)

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Sheena! As it happens, I work for this same magazine, but we generally don't talk with each other about this sort of thing. So I was very interested to read this!

    As it happens, I'm a slush team leader, so I do get to see authors names, and read their cover letters. That will be a whole post of its own.

  4. I'm about to toss my MS into the slush pile for the first time ever, so this post came at the PERFECT time. Also, haha, I don't read slush, but I do have to bargain with my 4yo for the computer nonetheless. I used to dream about being the cliched writer in a coffee shop. Nope, instead I'm usually in my pajamas, writing while my daughter serenades me with her favorite commercial jingles and begs to play on :)

  5. Marisa, Curious George does need help to build those sandcastles. For us, it's usually Snow White needs help choosing her outfit.

    Good luck with the slush!

  6. Excellent advice!
    Now for some courage to submit...


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