Slushie Machine: Escape the pile

Hey gang. I’ve just returned from GenCon in Indianapolis, and while I had a wonderful time as always, (more on that later) after talking to a group of aspiring authors, I was once again struck by how often the same questions about submitting stories and working with markets keep coming up. This stuff is old hat to me, but only because I had to wade through my own mistakes waist-deep for the first few years.

I’d written an article on this very topic that appeared in The SFWA Bulletin a while back called “Confessions of a Slushie Machine.” Those of you who’ve been following the blog from the beginning might remember it as a six part series of posts, but I figured it might be easier just to put it all in one place. So, in the interests of helping writers new and old float to the top, and to save slush readers from a mountain of bad submissions, here it is. Please help it spread far and wide:

Confessions of a Slushie Machine


So you’ve decided to become a professional writer. Congratulations, for you have embarked on the only career path with a one hundred percent success rate. No one traveling the path of the author has encountered so much as a pothole on the road to publishing a best seller.

What, you don’t believe me? Have your efforts been met with resistance, frustration, or even, *gasp* rejection? In that case, the odds are good that you have run up against someone like me, for I am a Slushie Machine.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the nomenclature, the slush pile is the stack of unsolicited stories, poems, or book manuscripts that publishers receive everyday. Submitting a story through the slush pile is the literary equivalent of selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door in a neighborhood already infested with salesmen. Even a good writer, with a good story, is going to be rejected more often than not.

However, hope is not lost. As a slush editor for a prominent online publisher, I sort through dozens of stories per week. One thing I’ve learned after reading the work of hundreds of aspiring writers; not all tales are created equal. Many, if not most stories in the slush pile are hobbled by errors that are easily avoided.

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 get past me.

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?

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? Okay, moving on.

Formatting/Guidelines: This should go without saying, but please, read the submission guidelines of the market you’re submitting to. Twelve-point, Times New Roman or Courier font, and double-spaced is a good place to start. This may seem like common sense to many of you, but I am consistently amazed at the number of manuscripts submitted that do not follow this standard formatting.

The next item to tick off your pre-flight checklist is word count. Most publishers of short fiction work within tight constraints, especially those printing hardcopy. As a result, most prefer stories of a certain length. For example, the market I work with has set a hard cap of 7,500 words. This should be self-explanatory, however I return between one and three stories unread each week because they exceed our limit. This doesn’t have to happen.

All of the previous mistakes can be avoided with very little effort on the part of the writer. These are simply good habits to develop. The next step requires a bit more work.

Market Compatibility: There are many hundreds of paying literary markets, each trying to carve out their own audience. Think of it as a market ecosystem, with every magazine, website, and anthology series acting as a unique species.

Just like in nature, markets evolve to fill specific niches in their environment. Some are generalists that publish work from diverse genres. However, most markets are specialists who have built a reputation around a specific genre, be it high fantasy, hard sci-fi, urban supernaturalism, steam punk, space opera, etc.

The market I read for has established a reputation for horror and suspense stories with a fantastic or supernatural bent. It’s what our subscribers have come to expect. Yet still I get stories every week that contain no horror elements. Many of them are quite good, but are incompatible with our goals; so back they go.

Before you hit the ‘Send’ button, or lick a stamp, take some time to read a handful of selections from the market you are considering submitting to. Figure out the genre and tone of the stories the editors liked enough to print. If your story feel like it’s in good company, send it along.

However, if it doesn’t mesh, then don’t send it to that market. This wastes not only your time, but the time of the reader on the other end, which won’t endear you to that editor should you send another story in the future. Some of us have surprisingly long memories for that sort of thing. As I said earlier, there are hundreds of paying markets. You can always find one that will be a good fit for whatever you choose to write.

Everything we’ve talked about so far: cover letters, formatting, word count, compatibility, has been about preparation. These are things you can do to improve the odds of any story being accepted, without changing a single word of text. Now, we’re going to dig into the content itself, and teach you the importance of avoiding…

Slow Starts: Novels and short stories are a fundamentally different reading experience. With a novel, the average reader will gladly plough through the first chapter or two waiting to get snagged by the ‘hook’. People commit to reading books and realize that character building, back story, and scene-setting takes time.

Short stories are another matter. In the short format, the first page, even the first paragraph, is critical. This is doubly true for getting past slush editors, because if the first page of your story doesn’t make us want to read the rest of it, most of us aren’t going to. We don’t have the time. Odds are your story is one of anywhere from five to ten that we need to read that day, in addition to our own writing, paying jobs, and families. You have to show us that your story is worth the time we’re going to spend reading it, and you need to do it fast.

I know what you’re thinking, and I agree. As a writer, I find it appalling that someone would pass judgment on my work before finishing it. But as an editor, I find myself doing exactly that. Here’s why; if a story can’t hold the interest of an editor, odds are it won’t hold the interest of our readers either, and they have surprisingly long memories as well.

There is a simple test to determine if your story suffers from Slow Start. Find a five-to ten year old. If this is a rare species in your vicinity, a teenager with ADHD or a twenty-something with a hangover can act as a substitute. Corner them in a room with only one door, and stand in the exit. Start reading. If they sit in rapt attention, you’re probably fine. However, if they are trying to escape through the window before you’ve finished the first page, then there may be a problem.

Where’s the Story: A weakness that plagues many of the submissions that I read is a simple failure to tell a complete tale. Short stories are a challenging format, because scene-setting, character introduction, conflict, resolution, all of it has to happen inside a very small space. Like conducting an orchestra from inside a closet.

When writing short fiction, many new writers fail to include one or more of the elements that makes a self-contained story. To be complete, a tale needs characters the reader can relate to, a conflict, and a resolution.

For example, little Suzy is eight years old. She has lost her cat. She embarks on an epic journey to find her cat that will span many years, several oceans, and every imaginable mode of transportation, while being pursued by her parents, and some Somali pirates.

So, scene, characters, and conflict are all present. Now there needs to be a resolution. If Suzy spends the rest of her life in a futile search for her lost cat, which any reasonable person would know had died many decades ago, that isn’t really a story.

There needs to be some satisfying resolution to the central conflict; Suzy finds the cat under her bed. The resolution doesn’t have to be what the reader is expecting; Suzy finds the cat, but it has died. Suzy finds the cat, but an evil scientist has set up Schrodinger’s box experiment, and she can never open it out of fear of collapsing the wave-form. Suzy finds the cat, but it turns out that it contained the reincarnated soul of a man that Suzy had murdered in a past life, and traps her in a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption lifted from the Saw franchise. Whatever tickles your fancy, but the resolution has to be there.

Haven’t I Read This Before: Here is where the rubber meets the road. Above all else, short fiction needs to be original. That is the deathblow for many stories I have read. They can be well written, with full characters and a complete story, but if it doesn’t feel new and fresh, then it will almost invariably fall flat.

Several times, I have read a story, only to find it is a well-known tale with the serial numbers filed off. One stands out in my memory as a carbon-copy of Blade Runner. The writer in question had never heard of the movie, or even the book it was based upon.

The best way to avoid this trap is also the most time-consuming; read lots of books and magazines, watch loads of movies and T.V., and play video games and RPGs. The only way to learn the tropes of your genre is to immerse yourself within it.

This is not to say that a story cannot include familiar elements. Sci-fi will always have space ships, aliens, and ray guns, and fantasy will always have elves, dwarves, and wizards. But find ways to tweak the conventions and make them your own, unique version. By defying expectations, you will grab the reader’s attention. Think of all the successful authors of vampire fiction.

If you follow these relatively simple steps while crafting and preparing your work, you will have positioned your story ahead of as much as two thirds of the deluge we have to wade through every time we open our inboxes.

Of course, you still have to get past the Senior Editors. But that’s another article.

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