Standing Out in the Slushpile: Some Basic Tips

For the past four-and-a-half months, I’ve hardly written anything, focusing instead on four anthology projects (Broken Time Blues, a reprint anthology, a young-adult anthology, and the re-release of Rigor Amortis). Before I get back to writing, and while the business of editing is fresh in my mind, I thought I should post my own version of lessons from the slushpile.

Christie Yant, fellow Inkpunk and assistant editor of Lightspeed has done a few posts on this topic: What Editors Owe [Writers], Cover Letters, and Good vs. Great.  I would encourage you to check these out.

I agree with everything Christie has to say, and also offer the same caveat—I’m just one editor, and these are only my observations and opinions; others may disagree.

So, how can you increase your chances of being plucked from the slushpile? Read on.

Follow the guidelines

Yawn.

I know you’ve heard this (Dr. Evil voice) one mill-ion times before, but some authors still haven’t gotten the message. Not following the guidelines gives an editor an easy excuse to reject your story, probably without even reading it.

In the Broken Time Blues’ slushpile, for example, we received non-speculative stories, stories pasted into the body of an email despite requesting an attachment, stories exceeding the maximum word count, etc. While I won’t reject a story simply because the author double-spaces after periods, blatant disregard for the guidelines irritates me. It makes me feel that the author is spamming markets with little regard for their themes or requirements. Not the first impression one wants to make.

While a few markets have highly particular or idiosyncratic guidelines, most simply require standard manuscript format. Use that.

Get to the speculative element early

You already know that you need a catchy beginning to keep an editor reading, but for most genre markets this means getting to the fantasy/science fiction/horror element early. Six pages of the main character making toast before we learn that she’s an escaped robot monkey is probably too long. Of course there are exceptions, but the writing must be excellent and the tension high to keep me reading if there are no obvious fantastical elements or hints of the same.

Be unique

The most striking thing I’ve noticed in the slushpile (which I suppose should’ve been obvious, but wasn’t, initially) is that people gravitate toward what they know, based either on their own experience or what they’ve often seen or read in the genre. This makes sense and I’m not even sure people do it consciously, but they (we) tend to lean on what’s comfortable. 

If someone were to seek submissions for a vampire anthology, for example, I expect that most of the stories they’d receive would be: urban fantasy (i.e. set in a real world city, present day), take place in North American or western European alleys or bars at night, and feature a cast of straight, white, thin, able-bodied, beautiful, ass-kicking, smart-talking, humanoid characters, probably dressed in black leather. While it’s possible for such stories to be great, there are going to be more of them. It’s a numbers thing. The person who writes about the Greek demi-goddess Empusa, or a future invasion of blood-sucking alien worms, or a vampiric parrot terrorizing a ranch in South America in 1963, is automatically going to stand out. This doesn’t guarantee acceptance, of course, as the quality of writing must be there, but the editor is less likely to reject the story for duplication of content or setting, or for being clichéd.

My advice? When considering a call for themed submissions, jot down the plotlines, settings, and characters that spring immediately and easily to mind, and then go in a different direction (while still honoring the theme and following the guidelines). For great tips on writing what you don’t know, see John Remy’s recent post on the subject.

Don’t be boring

Stories that bore me tend to fall into two categories: a potentially interesting plot is buried in wordy, repetitive, and bland prose; or the gorgeous language and quirky characters fail to make up for the fact that nothing happens. The former are too concerned with the big-picture, the latter with sentence-to-sentence writing. Balance is ideal.

Strangely, it is often the most action-packed stories that are devoid of pizzazz. It’s like the author’s fingers can’t keep up to the pace of the story: There is no time to consider language or detail! This story must be told! Quickly! And with the first words that spring to mind!

But what results is a generic and bloated story in need of significant editing. Pro-tip: editors want to do as little editing as possible.

So what can you do? Pay attention to detail. Have a look at each sentence—can it be shortened and still say the same thing? Are you repeating information or descriptions the reader has already seen? Do you have unnamed and/or stock settings that could be named or changed to something more unique (e.g. pubs, castles, villages)? Same thing with characters—name them and make them come alive with quirks and distinctive voices. And do you use a lot of abstractions, such as “love,” “hate,” “good,” “evil,” etc.? Can you show these things instead of using a shorthand abstraction to tell us? While it is possible to go overboard on detail, detail is what lends richness and a sense of reality to the story. A story lacking in detail reads more like an outline. Outlines don’t get published.

At the other end of the spectrum are authors who focus on prose and form to the detriment of story and substance. There is no arc or structure. These stories read as vignettes or fragments. They leave me scratching my head and wondering if I’ve missed something. I often re-read them only to find my suspicion confirmed: there’s no (or very little) plot.

I’m not suggesting that authors shouldn’t experiment with structure; there are whole sub-genres and markets dedicated to publishing experimental work. But unless you’re aiming for one of those markets, a reader should come away from your story feeling like something happened and that it matters. If they can just shrug their shoulders and say “huh,” you probably haven’t done your job.

Whether your piece is a quiet story of character transformation or a rollicking tale of high adventure, you should pay equal attention to both language and plot/structure. The best stories have both.

Well founded ending

A disappointing ending is one of the most frustrating things an editor faces. You’re reading along, getting excited that you’ve found something great, and then…argh! The story has ended too abruptly, cutting off at a strange point. Or the protagonist does something completely out of character, presumably to create a twist. Or major plot points aren’t dealt with (they don’t have to be wrapped up tidily, but they can’t just be abandoned, either). It feels like the author has become lost, is unsure of what to do, and has thrown his hands up in defeat. The editor will likely do the same.

We shouldn’t be able to see the ending coming, but it should also feel perfect—like the story couldn’t have ended any other way. Don’t send in your story until you’re sure your ending’s just right. Beta readers can help with this.

Good stories get rejected

That’s the unfortunate truth. There’s simply not enough space to publish everything worthy of being published. Stories are rejected because they’re too similar to others, they don’t fit the tone or feel of the anthology, or are simply longer than other, equally good stories (the longer the story, the more exceptional it has to be to justify its cost and space). However, if your story’s good, it’ll probably get picked up somewhere, or you’ll at least get encouraging rejections. Persevere—you’re on the right track.

So, that’s it! Follow the guidelines, get to the speculative element early, be unique and interesting, and write a great ending! Not so easy, I know. But if you work on these things don’t be surprised if you get an acceptance or two.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and tips!

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  • John Remy

    Erika, before I begin ideation for my next anthology or magazine submission, I’m totally going through this checklist. Thanks!

  • John Remy

    Also, I’m so dense–thank you for referencing my post! 😀

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  • This is a great list of must do’s. Thank you for taking the time to put it together. I especially liked the advice…Jot down the first things that come into mind and then write in a different direction.
    Just Great Advice!

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  • Vikki

    Great post! 🙂

    Was glad to see you mentioned endings. We’re always told to have a fantastic start to our stories, but, surely, the ending is just as important!

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