Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Top 5 Slushpile Woes

The slushpile, where unsolicited stories go to die. I've been on both sides of the slush, as a writer submitting to markets, and as a reader sifting through the slush in search of hidden gems. Most of us have heard stories about the horror of a slushpile (including horror genre slushpiles), and I'm here to tell you: It's all true.

Well, mostly...

The truth is that most stories fall into the realm of decent. There are a good number of truly terrible stories and an extremely tiny percentage of exceptional stories. For the rest of us, we're just decent--and decent often isn't good enough for publication.

I'm here today to give you all an opportunity to peer past the slush curtain. As a professional slush monkey for Lightspeed and Nightmare magazines, along with ParsecInk's Triangulation anthology under fearless editor Stephen V. Ramey, I can safely say I've read a ton a slush. While I can't speak of particular subs, what I can do is tell you the common problems and pitfalls I see everyday.

For our purposes, I'm going to overlook failure to follow guidelines, because I imagine W1S1 participants are smart enough to know this. Still, receiving subs that don't follow guidelines is a common complaint among slush monkeys like myself.

1. Poor Writing
This is the top problem. Writing is simply amateur with poor syntax or grammar, bad imagery or analogies that don't make sense. If you can spin a sentence together properly, you're already ahead of the game. The next level is to make that writing sparkle, really capture a unique voice and style. That's what turns decent writing into amazing writing.

Always continue to hone your craft.

2. Too Slow
Far too often, the story takes too long to get anywhere. The author spends too much time in miniutae or description. Exposition drones on and on... and we get bored. Start with a character doing something. Anything.

By that same token, if you start in the middle of an explosion, I will likely have no context to understand what I'm reading. Starting with action does not mean the same thing as starting with bombs and gunfights (though both can be done well with enough craft, see #1).

3. Goes Nowhere
The story ambles. Scenes are thrown in at a whim. We end, and I'm left feeling empty because nothing has really happened. You must provide resolution to the conflict, tie it all up together. Make the reader feel as if something has been accomplished here.

At the end of every story, ask yourself, "What did my character learn/accomplish/succeed/fail at in this story?"

4. Logic Errors
I've read plotholes big enough sail the Titanic through. Please check your logic and make sure that everything happens for a reason. If it doesn't, if your characters seem to question how or why, than the reader will as well. Sometimes all that's needed are a few plants early on to satisfy logic questions.

Best bet: have someone else read it for you. They will spot things you cannot.

5. Derivative
Sometimes a great story will get passed on simply because it is not unique enough. We've all read Tolkien's elves and Asimov's robots before. If you do a story like this, you need to put your own fresh spin on it. There is nothing that says you can't write a great Lovecraftian piece, but it better be you writing it, not Lovecraft.

In the end, the settings and people and ideas we've never heard of before have the most impact on us.

And there you have it, the top 5 slushpile woes. I hope to share more of my slushy adventures with the W1S1 community in the future. For now, please remember: in writing there is no "always" nor "never." Talented writers can break all the rules, but do so purposefully.

Happy slushing!


  1. Great post! "Logic Errors" are a problem for me, especially in my larger works, like novellas and novels. That's why I give all my pages to my husband - he's the most logical person I know. :)

  2. Great list, Stephanie!

  3. I'm guilty of these sins, but I'm not masochistic enough to want to be a slush reader. Thanks for reminding me of my writing sins. Five good points to remember.

  4. I think we're all guilty of these sins at one time or another. That's what revision and careful critique partners are for. :)

  5. I highly recommend a round of slush reading for anyone who is serious about publishing. It's a lot of work, but you will begin to see why your gems may not be quite the gems they seem (nor are they likely the dogs you might think they are when rejection comes your way), and why taste and luck are an unfortunate part of the process no matter how hard editors try to negate it. (Try reading a dozen stories online when you've had a long day... or back to back stories on a similar topic with a similar style).

  6. thanks for sharing this concise list. I'm sharing with my writing group and students.
    2 Stephen Ramey. good advice!

    1. Michal, I hope you and your group/students find it helpful! I know reading slush has been a great learning experience for me.

  7. Good post, Stephanie. The more I read slush, the more I'm annoyed when someone doesn't follow the guidelines. It's like opening up a chocolate candy bar and finding a granola bar inside. Another thing writers do is not put in enough conflict. For horror stories especially, something horrific should happen.

    Great advice, Stephen. I think I've learned more about plotting from reading bad stories than good ones.

    1. Jeff, Failure to follow guidelines has got to be my top complaint with the slush. I don't understand how something so easily fixable can so often be overlooked. Simple carelessness, I suppose.

  8. Wonderful post. You didn't have some of my pieces in mind when composing this did you?

    1. Not at all, Simon!


      Well, maybe a little. ;)

  9. A mighty fine post, Stephanie. I find that I struggle most with opening my stories too slowly, and it's something I'm working on.

    1. Yep, Milo, it's a common issue in the slush. We tend to focus too much on giving the reader information and background rather than grounding them immediately into a character within a scene. Information, ideally, comes out when the character NEEDS it (or would naturally use/want it). It's a tricky balance to get right. I find that I spend a huge amount of time on first sentences. If I can find a way into the character/scene that interests me, the story will usually flow tightly from that.