The Slush Pile


I love to read.  It doesn’t matter if it is a short story, a novel or something in between, I’ll probably give it a whirl. But I can tell you, after a few pages, I can tell you if I’m going to like it or not. (yes some stories surprise me but most of the time I’m pretty consistent in my opinion.)

That’s why when a small press put out a call for slush readers, I put my name in the hat.  I was accepted and looked forward to reading.

I’ve read slush before for Dagan Books and Port Iris. I found both places to be a great way to learn the process. Neither of these had a huge backlog and I don’t think I read more than 20-40 stories a month*. After a few months I learned stories came in 3 flavors: No, Maybe, and OH HELL YES!

Unfortunately, there are a lot of NO stories in the slush pile. This isn’t to say that these stories are bad over all. It’s pretty common to find a lot of vignettes in the slush pile. If you don’t know what a vignette is, here’s a short description from Wiki:

a vignette is a short impressionistic scene that focuses on one moment or gives a trenchant impression about a character, idea, setting, or object

Most of these types of stories are missing an element and one of the most common is plot. If your character wanders around the story–no matter how wonderful the setting–without changing or being challenged in some way, you are probably missing a plot line. The plot is the “why” of the story. Why would the character wander around? Why would the character act the way it does? If you write a story and can’t answer Why, then you might want to go back and fill that in.

Another reason a story will get a no from me is if the character is inconsistent. Now, I’m not talking about jumps in Point of View (POV)–though that is a distraction but easily fixed.  I’m talking about a character who has drastic changes in attitude without good reason. For instance the majority of people in a story think that X is bad (or good for that matter). But when told by another character tells them that X is good (or bad depending on the story) they immediately change their mind and embrace/reject X. Yea… Well, real people don’t do it and even in a fantasy world, I would expect more conflict about such a drastic change in character.

There’s lots of other reasons why a story might get a rejection from me including:

Formatting (a huge block of text that has  no paragraphs or proper punctuation is an immediate NO –I won’t give myself a headache for that)

Topic (yea there’s some topics that don’t belong with the theme of the publication issue)

and a few other things

The stories that get a Maybe are a little bit harder to dismiss. Mostly they are well written, but lack a little bit of something. For the most part I’d say 1 of every 5 stories I read in the current slush pile on average is a maybe.

All of these stories include the following:

A Plot!

Character/s who are engaging

Setting/timeline

an interesting concept

They also might have other features that catch the eye, but there’s also some places in the story for improvement  such as:

dialog (might be stilted or stiff)

the ending falls flat (very common)

Too many loose ends (often things that are mentioned but not resolved)

or some other element that makes the story good but not quite great

The Oh Hell Yes stories are even more rare than the Maybes. I probably endorse 1 story out of  10 to 15 that I read.  The difference between the Maybes and Oh Hell Yes stories isn’t always easy to define. Most of the time I’m left with a warm fuzzy feeling after reading. The stories are smooth, easy to read and things feel natural.  Often there’s a  great conflict and resolution that even the character isn’t always so sure about. And sometimes these stories leave me kind of breathless in a weird way.

But just because I endorse some of these, doesn’t always mean they get accepted. And unfortunately, since many stories get form rejections, it’s hard to tell what category a story falls into.  But please don’t email the editor as to what your story needs for improvement. We just don’t have time for that (see below) The best way to figure it out is to read, compare your writing to other writers, try again and read more. (Yes it is as simple as that!)

*For the small press I’m volunteering with now, I read 80+ stories in June. If I averaged that out at 3,000 words per story (which that is a kind of low estimate) I would have read 252,000 words or in other words, 2 contemporary novels! So you might say I have read quite a bit this past month.

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