Escaping the Pile: Confessions of a Slushie Machine, Part I

Good afternoon, aspiring writers! Today, I’m starting a six-part series on what you can do to kick your work to the top of the pile and start getting noticed. But first, what makes me think I can tell you anything? Well, I’ve managed through hard work and a generous helping of luck to get over a dozen short stories, articles, and novellas accepted by all sorts of different publications. But, perhaps more importantly, I’ve spent time working for the other side as well.

For just over a year, I was a slush editor for the excellent publication, Apex Magazine. During that time, I was on the front lines, reading through upwards of 40-50 short stories per week, trying to find the gems that were good enough to send up the chain to Cat Valente, who was the Senior Editor at the time. She has since gone on to win a Hugo award for her fanzine work, so she probably had some idea what she was doing. I strongly recommend to all writers that they volunteer to read slush for one of the many wonderful publishers to make industry connections, and gain insight into the process. Since working with Apex, I’ve given panels on this subject at a number of conventions and writer’s workshops, which have always proven to be very popular. But, not everyone can attend, so it’s my hope that this blog series will be able to help a wider audience. Let’s get started!

Though writing often feels like a solitary pursuit, the slush pile reveals otherwise. Without careful management, it can quickly grow to overwhelming heights. These stories aren’t writing themselves, at least not yet. There are thousands of writers pecking away on their laptops in the hope of nabbing one of a finite number of publishing slots. Your job as a writer (and never forget that it is a job) is to cut down on the errors that annoy slush editors. For your story to get through to the actual decision makers, and therefore have any chance of seeing print, you have to escape the pile.

But how? There are as many ways to self-destruct a story as there are writers, but the bulk of unforced errors fall into a handful of categories. In rough order of obviousness, these include: Cover Letter Crimes, Formatting/Guidelines, Market Incompatibility, Slow Starts, Where’s the Story, and Haven’t I Read This Before? Today’s installment will focus on the first.

Cover Letter Crimes: In short fiction, less is more. Cover letters should consist of your name, a pseudonym if you use one, the title of your story, word count, and a handful of your most impressive publishing credits; if you don’t have any yet, no problem. Got all that? Good, now stop.

Wait, why are you writing a three-hundred word summary of your three-thousand word story? Stop that. Your last thirty publishing credits? Cut it out, I mean it this time. All the authors you’ve talked to at cons and books signings? Now you’re just making me angry.

And for the love of ink, if you don’t have any publishing credits, don’t come out and say so. Do you want to know that the guy about to cut into your chest is doing his first lung transplant surgery? It would make you a little apprehensive about what came next, wouldn’t it? Well the same is true here. There is no reason to put a Las Vegas sized neon light over your story, blinking ‘Unpublished Author’ before the eyes of the person who is about to read it. Clear enough?

We’ll continue next week, (provided the world didn’t end) with the next segment focusing on formatting and the importance of reviewing guidelines. If you have any questions about this week’s topic, please don’t be shy. Stick them in the comments.

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