Lessons From the Slushpile: Good vs. Great

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.

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  • Love it!

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Those don’t actually sound like Pretty Good. They sound like Awful But Not Horrendous. One of the dangers of workshops is that the necessity of not sending everyone home in tears every time can lead to the perception of the substandard as “almost there,” especially as time goes on and more and more of your reading is the other people in the workshop. As a book doctor I find that about a third of the time, the most helpful thing people can do is quit their critique group, which may have taught them much in the past, but is now discouraging them from seeing what needs to be fixed and how far things have to go.

  • Can’t say enough about this post. Insightful and practical. Thanks for taking the time to share.

    I particularly enjoyed this:

    The problem is no longer a question of what to take out, it’s what to put in.

    I’ve never put my finger on it before, but that cuts to the core of why I enjoy the stories I do. And what I need to think about when writing my own. I’m so fearful of tinkering with a story too long, I may be guilty of sending them out too green.

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  • Wendy Wagner, Inkpunk

    I think two words go along with/explicate the something-to-say part of a Great Story: vision & scope. And that’s something that has less to do with the writING and more to do with the writER.

    You really have to dig into your vision of the world, your experience & understanding of humanity, to find a nugget of meaning to use in your work.

  • I’m just starting on Month 4 at Apex, and man oh man does this ring true with *my* learning curve. Thank you for putting it into words.

  • Amy

    I’ve been doing what you suggest recently, and reading stories I know are good and pulling them apart to see what’s working. I think we’re onto something here….

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  • Good points! Thank you. I need to take this to heart.

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  • Cate Gardner

    Excellent post, Christie. Scratching that trifecta onto my wall.

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  • Frank Dutkiewicz

    Dear Christie,

    This is a very enlightening article you have here. I found it while researching Adam-Troy Castro’s award winning story “Arvies”. I reviewed it at Tangent Online months ago and noticed how you cited it as an example of what a ‘Great’ story is and what it takes to get published at Lightspeed.
    The story success sparked a debate at the critique workshop “hatrack”

     http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum30/HTML/000356.html

    In short, although I did not look unfavorably of ‘Arvies’ I was flummoxed at why it was considered “Great”. Your explanation of what made a great story

    >…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…

    …doesn’t quite fit. My contemporaries agree with me, but the critics liked it enough to name it the best online short story of the year and it has received a Nebula nomination.
    I thought another story in that issue hit on all marks (Patient Zero) but this one lacked the punch, emotion, or voice I associate with greatness.

    What am I and my contemporaries missing?