Lessons from the Slush Pile: Good vs. Great

The following is reposted from Inkpunks, a group blog I’m a part of.


When I got stuck for a blog topic this week I asked for suggestions on Twitter. Three of you said you’d like to read about what I’ve learned from working for Lightspeed Magazine. This is timely, actually, because January 9 marked one year since I joined the team, initially as a slush reader, and later as an Assistant Editor. I’ve written a little bit about some of the things I’ve learned over at my personal blog–little things about cover letters, and worrying less about why your story was rejected. But today I want to dig a little deeper.

First off, what I’ve learned is that working for a magazine–even a great one–doesn’t make me an authority on anything. So what follows is only what I think I’ve learned. So far.

Personally I think we have a pretty high percentage of competent writing in our slush. Most of the people submitting to us are not bare beginners, they’re seasoned amateurs and new professionals. They’ve joined critique groups and been to workshops and know how to give a story a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s a difference, though, between Pretty Good (which does not get past slush), Really Good (which does) and Great (which gets purchased.)

It didn’t take me long to start seeing the pattern of mediocrity–of Pretty Good–in the slush, and realize that my own work fit in that category. Stories without structure and tension don’t hold the reader’s interest; stories without voice all sound the same. I was–am–one in a sea of Not Quite Theres.

Once I’d learned to identify Pretty Good from an editorial perspective, I wanted to look at it from a writer’s perspective. I picked them apart some more, the way we do when we’re critiquing. Nothing new emerged from that (I’ve been doing this a while.) It seemed that reading and analyzing mediocre stories wasn’t going to help me get better at this point. So I started reading Great ones–the stories that the Overlord bought–with a closer eye.

What I learned is that the Great stories have a few things in common. They have structure, they have voice (which is consistent throughout the whole story–every line is colored by that voice, it dictates what the right words are), and they have something to say.

As writers we get so accustomed to identifying what’s wrong with things. We read and we pick out the things we don’t like about a story, what we think the author did wrong. Maybe it’s time for a new approach: We can go read something great, and then identify what made it great, and how the author executed it. (You can start with the Lightspeed archives, if you like; fully half of the original stories have been picked up for Year’s Best anthologies, which is a pretty astonishing ratio for a new magazine, so I feel pretty confident in recommending at it as a Source of Great despite my obvious bias.) We can ask ourselves what the story was about, and what we learned from it–not about writing, but about life and being a person.

Look at Adam-Troy Castro’s story, “Arvies.” Look at “Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn, or “Cucumber Gravy” by Susan Palwick. Totally different voices, totally different styles, but in each that voice is strong and clear, and the author is addressing something that matters. I come away from those stories thinking, and feeling like I know humanity a little better.

Reading stories like those, aspiring to that, is frankly intimidating. But we got this far by believing in ourselves and each other, right?

We can go back to our own stories now, and look for what’s missing. At this stage of our careers it’s probably not a problem of too many adverbs or inconsistent POV. We’ve probably got a beginning, middle, and end. The problem is no longer a question of what to take out, it’s what to put in.

If we have sales, especially sales we are particularly proud of, we can go back and figure out what made them work. My guess is that we nailed the trifecta of structure, voice, and having something to say.

So the last thing that I want to address here is this: What comes after competence is craft, and craft takes time*, and care.

What I’ve learned is that not enough of us take that time. We see so many stories where if the author had taken a little more time, taken a step back from it, come back with fresh eyes and put in what was missing, it would have made all the difference. As writers, we’re in such a hurry to get it out the door that we get it to Pretty Good and submit. Pretty Good isn’t good enough.

So that’s what I have to offer, a year in. It’s daunting as hell as a writer, but very exciting as an Assistant Editor. Finding a Great Story in the slush is exhilarating, and nothing compares to finding out that the Overlord is buying a story I recommended.

I can’t wait to find the next one. Maybe it will be yours.

*Your mileage may vary.


Lessons From the Slush Pile: Your cover letter and you

Hi! This article continues to get a fair amount of traffic–I’m glad it’s been useful! Just wanted to pop in and mention that it was written in 2010, and the reference to Lightspeed being closed to submissions is not current. Check their Guidelines for the current status. Thanks!


Lightspeed may be closed to submissions, but that doesn’t mean we’re not all out there hustling our manuscripts elsewhere. Naturally you’re saving your best science fiction for us, but in the meantime there is a huge marketplace waiting for your stories.

Submitting to short fiction markets can be very scary for newcomers, and there is a whole lot of confusing advice out there. I’m here to help.

First, though: you guys with the long lists of publications, who have your editors on your Christmas card lists and are now submitting reprints and selling rights I’ve never even heard of, you can wait over there in the bar. And you too, you newly-minted pros who have been doing the submission/rejection slog for a few years now–you should go buy those other guys drinks and network a little. We’ll come join you in a minute.

The rest of you, huddle up.

We’re going to talk about our cover letters today: those things that we agonize over, that First Impression that we are all SO WORRIED about. Do I sound like a real writer? Did I rank high enough in that contest entry? Do my college credits count as professional credits? What about my work as an astrophysicist, that surely qualifies me to write SF, doesn’t it?

Have you picked up the theme for this blog yet? What do we think of ‘worry’ here at Inkhaven?

I will tell you a secret: when submitting fiction to SFF markets, your cover letter is meant to do THE EXACT OPPOSITE of what it’s supposed to do in the rest of the world.

I’ll explain.

Out There–in the job market, academia, whatever–your cover letter is meant to impress. You are expected to drop names. You are supposed to include the most tangentially related accomplishments you can think of. You are meant to inflate it with every credit you can muster. Out There, cover letters become masterful works of fiction: spells cast to cloud the reader’s perception, to convince them to trust us and believe that we are the right person for the task. It is absolutely natural to assume that the same holds true when writing a cover letter for an SFF market.

Natural, but wrong.

The information on the internet reinforces the myth of the Inflated Cover Letter. You’ll see this perfectly reasonable-sounding advice given to writers on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s even in the submission guidelines of your favorite publication:

– Include your publication credits

This is terrifying to a new writer who doesn’t have any. We want to do it right, so we wrack our brains, thinking we have to put something there. Do I include my high school newspaper experience? What about that essay I published in our local Arts & Entertainment paper? I placed 15th in that one fiction contest–that means I was better than the other contestants who placed lower, right?

I know! It’s a horrible mental knot that we tie ourselves into, but the answer is really very simple: Leave it out.

If you do not have semi-pro or pro publication credits, anything less is not a substitute for them. This includes college courses, workshops, contests, university publications, and anything else that did not pay you Actual Money of at least 3 cents/word. Those other things are not examples of professional quality work, and including them can actually hurt you if the reader has a low opinion of any of them.

There are exceptions: there are fanzines with immaculate reputations; a contest that comes to mind that is considered very credible in the field; workshops that most of us would give our eyeteeth to get into. You know which ones those are, if you’ve published in them, placed in it, or attended them. If not, don’t list lesser ones.

And then there’s the advice that sends us all into sweating fits of anxiety:

– Explain why you’re the best person to write this story

No. Stop. Just…NO.

I’d seen this advice treated on the internet as general wisdom for years, but it never made any sense to me, not for what I was writing. What comes of this ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE advice are sorrowful, worry-filled cover letters that say things like “I’m a stay-at-home mother, but I’ve been reading SFF for as long as I could read, and have taken several creative writing classes at Local Community College.”

When an agent at a conference offered it up again to the workshop I was in, I seized the opportunity to clarify. I said approximately the following:

“WTF. I’m writing about DRAGONS/WIZARDS/ZOMBIES/VAMPIRES/SPACESHIPS/ALIENS. I do not have direct experience with any of those things. I’m the best person to write this story because…I have an active imagination?”

He changed the subject. It was almost as if he himself didn’t know why he was advising it. Or it might have been my demeanor, which was admittedly exasperated. Either way, my class didn’t get an answer.

What I’ve since learned is that it’s advice that came from non-fiction publishing, where yeah, your experience with your subject matter counts. It does not scale to SFF. Ignore it. STOP WORRYING. NOW.

One more thing you want to leave out of your cover letter is what rights you’re offering. If you read the guidelines (and you DID read the guidelines, and followed them TO THE LETTER, didn’t you?) you know which rights they’re buying. They are not going to negotiate with you on that. Including it tells the reader that a) you didn’t read the guidelines, and b) you are concerned that the publisher is going to steal your rights from you. They’re not. It’s okay. They’re professionals.

That’s what not to include in your cover letter. Let’s talk about what you should include. You’ll be shocked. Seriously. This is the easiest, most worry-free thing you have ever done. It never needs to take up another cycle in your brain that would be better spent making art. Ready?

Dear Sue Doe, [Editor’s actual name. Many editors are INCREDIBLY PICKY about this. The Overlord is not, but many are. If there are many editors and sub-editors, use the name of the highest-ranking editor.]

Please find attached my short story “Epic Tale You Totally Want To Buy” (2500 words, Fantasy) for your consideration. [Title. Word count. Genre if market accepts more than one. If they only accept one genre, do not submit a different genre to them. Natch.]

My work has previously appeared in Realms of Fantasy and Fantasy & Science Fiction. [THIS IS OPTIONAL.] I am a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing workshop. [ALSO OPTIONAL.]

Thank you for your time and attention.

Regards,

Jane Smith
123 Main Street
Smalltown, PA 12345
jane.smith@somewhere.com
123.456.7890

THAT’S IT. That’s all. Do not inflate. Do not be clever. Do not include a bio unless the guidelines specifically ask for one.

So here’s the point: in the rest of the world, cover letters are meant to impress. In the SFF world, they just need to not bias the reader against you.

Look, we’re already up against how the reader’s day job went, how much sleep they got, whether their kids are driving them crazy, the state of their general health, their financial troubles, and whether or not their relationship is working. We’ve got a LOT working against us. As new writers and budding professionals we do not want to add to that.

I’m going to keep hammering these numbers home: 400-600 submissions PER MONTH. 2-5 available slots PER MONTH. They are not looking for reasons to love your words; they’re looking for reasons to cull them from an overwhelming pile. Do not give them a reason to doubt your ability before they’ve even seen your story. Let the work speak for itself.

So tell them what they need to know and tell them nothing that they don’t. Click Send, and update your submissions spreadsheet.

Now go take your rightful place over there in the bar with the rest of the writers. It’s where you belong. You earned it.

(And then get to work on your next story.)


Lessons From the Slush Pile: What editors owe us

For those new to the blog, welcome! I got so much great feedback on the Snark post. I really appreciate your participation and passion.

If that was your first visit to Inkhaven, though, I feel like I should introduce myself.

I’m a writer. I’ve been working hard since 2001 to learn the craft, and I finally made my very first sale in February. I’ve only been an editorial minion for three months, but I’ve been a struggling aspiring SFF writer for nearly a decade. I am still a struggling aspiring writer. I will probably continue to be for years to come, because that’s what it takes. That’s what I signed on for when I decided that I was going to take fiction writing seriously. That is who I am first and foremost, and what this blog has been about (and its previous incarnations on an old domain and on LiveJournal.)

I want that out there because I’m about to wade into very deep water based on some of the feedback I got on that entry. I want you to understand that I am in your shoes and on your side. Even so, with all that we have in common, there is still something we disagree on, and that is this: what an editor (or an editor’s minion) owes us in terms of feedback on rejections.

I say this as a writer, and an unsuccessful one at that. My opinion on this has never wavered.

They don’t owe us anything.

I’ve racked up the rejections just like everyone else. I’ve only had one story not rejected again and again. I know the head-spinning frustration of it. I know that we all want a reason. We want to know what that one thing is that we need to fix before it’s good enough.

I want you, Brave Writer, to take a step back from that for a minute. I want you to do something that does not come naturally for us:

I want you to stop worrying.

Having now taken a peek behind the curtain, there is one thing that I can say with absolute certainty about why any story is rejected.

Remember that an issue of our favorite publication only has two to five available slots. They receive roughly 400 submissions a month. If were are left wondering why our story was rejected, the answer is this:

Because it wasn’t one of the editor’s two to five absolute favorite stories out of those 400.

Doesn’t help much, does it. But it’s the real answer.

We need to stop wondering whether it was because we had a typo in our submission, or because we didn’t format to 12 pt Courier. We need to stop second-guessing that one paragraph that we labored over for hours and just knew we should have left the way it was. We need to stop spinning our wheels over whether it was because we used too many adverbs, or not enough description.

Editors are trying to find the stories that they love, so they can put them in their publication and share them with the rest of us and make their publication successful. That’s their job. Their job does not include critiquing my story. Not even a little.

And I don’t know why, but I’ve never thought it did. I’ve had critique groups for that all along. I’ve never felt that it was up to an editor to tell me that my ending was weak, that the first three pages are throat-clearing, that my dialog is unbelievable, or that nothing really happens in my story. Any or all of those things may be true, but it’s not up to them to tell me that. That’s the job of my fellow travelers. I’ve been a member of several different online critique groups, and of course my beloved and now in-limbo Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and that’s where I give and get that feedback.*

It’s up to the editors to find great stories to put in their magazines. Some day I hope to write a story great enough that one of them will.

We as writers put way too much emphasis on those rejection letters. We worry so much. I want you, my fellow writer, to stop worrying about why that story was rejected. It just was.

Find the next market and send it back out. Do the paperwork, and then start the next story.

It wasn’t their absolute favorite, and that’s all we need to know.

* You didn’t think I’d leave you just hanging like that, did you? Of course there’s a post on how and where to find a critique group coming up! :)


Lessons From the Slush Pile: Why I refuse to be a snarky slusher (and why I unfollow those that are)

In a nutshell: because it’s mean.

I’ll expand on that a little.

Look, slushers and editors, I don’t want to make you feel bad. I just want you to stop making other people feel bad.

People know when they submitted to your market. They know what your turnaround is. They follow you on Twitter or Facebook because they either like you, respect you, or if you’re very lucky, both. They’re watching your Twitter stream closely, because they know you have their story. And then you say something snarky and belittling about it. They know what they sent you–of course they recognize themselves.*

Slushers, editors–how could you?!

You just hurt the feelings of an aspiring writer, someone who looked up to you, someone who desperately wants your approval. Someone who is just like you once were.

I get it. You’re venting, because you’ve seen the same mistakes over and over again. But there was a time when you didn’t know the things that you know now, when you were making those mistakes yourself. If they knew about the clichés you’re making fun of, they wouldn’t be using them. It takes years of hard work and careful study to learn the dos and don’ts of spec fic writing. And you’re making fun of them because they don’t know what you have learned over the course of years. They don’t know yet because they haven’t discovered the resources that would tell them. It all seems obvious to you now, yes, but you’re forgetting that you learned it. None of us sprang fully formed from the brow of Zeus.

They submitted it because it was the best they knew how to make it right now. A year from now they’ll submit something better, but for now, this is where they’re at. They did the best they could.

Griping about typos and homophones and the misuse of the occasional word is just as bad. They are not being lazy. They are not stupid. They made a mistake. Maybe they’re actually dyslexic! There’s often a copy editor who cleans up after you, too.

I once twittered something about a submission I was reading, and I realized belatedly that it sounded snarky. It wasn’t meant to. It was about a cover letter that came with the story. It was 700 words long, and I twittered something about how the writer didn’t need it. I didn’t mean for it to be sarcastic at all–I was genuinely bummed for that author, because he put so much effort into that cover letter, because he just didn’t know that he didn’t need it. The thing is, I remember when I didn’t understand cover letters either, when the advice I was getting was bad advice (“Include why you’re the best person to write this story!” This is fiction. That advice doesn’t apply here.) I remember sweating over it, not having a reliable source of information for someone in my position.

And I thought: What if that author follows me? What if he saw that? What if he took it as sarcasm and thought I was making fun of him?

I decided after that I just wouldn’t twitter about what I was reading anymore.

There’s another factor here: I represent the publication I am reading for, and perhaps more importantly I represent its editor, and what I do and say on the internet reflects back on him. I am fortunate enough to work for an editor who is interested in your story, not your typing skills (do not use the Overlord’s benevolence as an excuse to not proofread!) I work for an editor, in fact, who actually edits, and is damned good at it. He’s human (I know! I was as surprised as you are) and he gets that you’re just another human being making art. Lightspeed needs to be a safe and accessible place for you, both as a reader and as a writer. You should not be afraid that you’ll be mocked on the internet when you submit to us.

Slushers and editors, you are the face of your publication–how do you want it to be seen?

Personally, I don’t submit to editors who publicly mock writers anymore. That probably doesn’t matter to anyone but me. But I also don’t subscribe to their publications.

I’ve actually had to sit on this post for two days, because when I originally wrote it I was very angry. I’ve had to unfollow a lot of people who are relevant to my interests because their streams were just too upsetting when they slushed. (I’ve since discovered Muuter. It is handy.)

I hope that I’ve groomed the worst of the anger out and left the important part: I implore you, please, be nice or be silent. The world is already full of reasons for writers to give up. It is such a steep climb. The years of rejection letters are bad enough. If you can’t make it better for them, at least don’t make it worse.

I see those same mistakes that other slushers are snarking about, but I think there’s a better way of informing writers about them. I’ll do what I can here. I need to bulk up my own Resources page on the site, and I’ll start posting some entries that might be helpful. I talked to the Overlord and got the go-ahead to blog about the slush, with some fairly obvious guidelines (no talking about specific stories or authors, etc.) I’m still new at this, but if there’s anything specific you’d like me to address, feel free to hit me up in the comments and I’ll do my best.

In the mean time, keep making the best art you can, and don’t let the snark get you down. We’re all on the same side. We just might have to remind a few people from time to time.

* This has happened to people I know.


Lessons from the Slush Pile: the Numbers

It’s only been 19 days since I started slushing for a Publication Which Shall Not Be Named. I have not seen the level of dreck that I had been led to believe slush piles are full of – what I see is a lot of mediocrity, and I certainly recognize my own work as being in good company at that level. There is much to be said about the content and technique I see, but today I want to talk about the math.

In those 19 days (I started January 3,) I have read 133 stories. Of those, I have recommended about 20 to the editor, though I deeply loved only three of them.

Of those 20, Editor has requested one rewrite – one of my three favorites, I was gratified to know – and accepted none.

None.

Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Guess what: it’s worse.

That’s just the part of the slush that I see. Not the part that Editor reads while I’m busy with my day job, or the part that other slushers are reading. I dropped Editor a line early this morning to see if I could get some real numbers.

Editor has actually received 460+ stories in the past 21 days, and has accepted none of them.

That, my friends, is what we’re up against.

Those three that I loved kind of plague me. One of them came in last night, and I pushed it to Editor full of hope for that author, because I thought it was a beautifully written story that deserves readers. I was disappointed when it was rejected. I hope that someone else will see in it what I saw, and print it.

This information has been messing with me, I’ll admit. One second I’m overwhelmed, knowing how far I have to go before I could possibly attain the level of skill and originality that is required to get picked off the slush pile. The next second I’m ready to go wage war against mediocrity in my own writing.

The odds against us are just staggering. What lengths are we willing to go? How hard are we willing to work?

How bad, exactly, do we want it?