Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sorting through slush

I'm very proud to be a part of the editorial team over at Flash Fiction Online.  I'm a slush editor, which means that when stories are submitted, our editor-in-chief assigns half of them to me, and half to the other slush editor.  It's my job to check stories for compliance with our submission guidelines, assign them to slush readers, interpret/compile votes, and then pass the lucky few on to the winnowing process for final decisions.

Anyway, in hopes that my many, many, many hours of reading slush could be of some use to aspiring writers, I humbly offer my perspective on the slush process.  Since I could go on for pages and pages about slush in general and writing flash-fiction length stories in particular, I'll just stick to one topic.  Today: tips on submitting your stories, why not to worry about cover letters, and why it's important to always be respectful.

General disclaimers: these are all my opinions, and not necessarily representative of Flash Fiction Online or it's staff (except the part about reading the submission guidelines. I think we all agree on that.)

Tip #1:  Read the guidelines.  
Then read them again.  Finally, before you submit, check them one more time. I know how it is.  It's 10:30pm, you have a big meeting at work tomorrow, and you still need to shower, and you have ten minutes to figure out how to use this submission software and get your story in.  But please, take that extra few minutes to read the guidelines.  We helpfully summarized the most important tips at the end, and believe me, there are important reasons why we included each and every one of them. In the end, it's all about respect.  Do you respect us enough to take those extra few minutes to read the guidelines?

Tip #2. Yes, some guidelines are flexible. 
If you're not sure that your story meets the submission guidelines, send it anyway – but put a note in your cover letter.  This lets me know that you're paying attention, and didn't just completely skim the part of the guidelines that told you we only publish stories with a PG-13 rating.  Other guidelines are not flexible, by the way, but we make clear what those are (don't make me reject your 497 word story.  I know it seems nitpicky, but on the other hand, you couldn't think of three extra words?)

Tip #3: Don't sweat the cover letter.  
Submitting short stories is very different from submitting a novel to agents, for example. Do not include a summary of your story unless the magazine asks for it. Don't be overly chatty; think of this as a business transaction. Be polite. Be concise.  And for the love of all that's holy, do not degrade yourself or your story in the cover letter.  Saying things like "I can do better than this," or "I'm new at this so I'm sure it's terrible," does not make you sound like a professional.  Frankly, it's disrespectful.  We put a lot of time and effort into the 'zine; please do us the respect of sending us stories into which you've put time and effort.   

Tip #4: Proper manuscript format is your friend. 
Why? Because it's easy to read, and because it lets me know that you care enough about your craft to know what's important.  And yes, courier truly is easier to read. As a counter point, please don't be creative with font face or font size, or turn your page horizontal to make yourself look different.  It's annoying, not cute. I can't state enough that a good story stands out on its own. 

Tip #5: Being memorable can be a good thing.
When Sheena posted about her work as a slush reader, she brought up something I'd never heard before – that editors apparently remember authors of stories they hate. But in my case, there are only two things that make me remember an author:
            -they were extremely, unnecessarily rude
-they write a story that's so fantastically amazingly awesome that I fall in love with it.  I love it so much that I'm memorizing your name and watching for it in the submission queue.  It doesn't happen very often – I have… mmmm…. three or four names memorized right now.
Another thing - if you received a positive review from us before - particularly if one of your stories went to winnowing - let us know in your cover letter. It certainly won't hurt. 

Tip #6: Don't worry if you have no prior publications.  
No, seriously.  Really, seriously truly.  I've read thousands of stories and thousands of cover letters by this point (not exaggerating; I believe I'm close to 2000 at this point).  And here is one thing that I've found to be absolutely, positively true: prior professional publications or awards are not a good predictor of whether or not the submitted story is of good quality.
I have a few hypotheses as to why.   First, very few writers are 100 percent consistent in quality.  Second, I don't know when in the career a writer wrote this particular story.  Third, flash fiction is a difficult art.  And I'm not exaggerating – it's not easy to tell a concise, compelling story in 1000 words or fewer. 

Tip #7: Don't be upset by form rejections. 
A form rejection doesn't mean I hated your story.  It just means that it's 10:30 at night and I have a big meeting tomorrow and I haven't showered yet.   

If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask.  And if you have anything you'd like me to discuss in a future post, let me know in the comments.


  1. I love this kind of inside insight, and find it interesting how important it is just to follow the basic rules. Thanks!

  2. Awesome, Sabrina.

    Thanks for sharing. It is nice to get insights from the other side. :)

  3. Great tips, Sabrina. Thank you for sharing - it makes the process seem so much more... human ;)

    I would love to read a post about writing flash fiction. I keep meaning to read more flash fiction (I guess I'll start with FFO!) because the idea of fitting a whole story into so few words sounds downright impossible to me. In the back of my head, I keep wondering if trying my hand at flash fiction (which I would not submit, because it would not be submittable) might be like a crash course in story-telling.

  4. Thanks, Sarah. One problem - I'm terrible at writing flash. I can tell you what makes a good flash story, but my attempts at writing flash have ended poorly.

    Now, if we can get Suzanne to write a guest post... She actually teaches workshops about writing flash!

  5. Note: I realized after publishing it that this might all sound incredibly basic.... but these are all issues that either people get wrong all the time, or that I've been asked about before.

  6. Flash is so much harder than it sounds. I know this because I so seldom read flash stories that I like. FFO knows how to find the good ones though. You do a great job!


Got an opinion? Use it! Remember... be silly, be honest, and be nice/proofread.