Slushpile and Editor Mind

My third career trajectory (the first two were decorative painting and CAD design, with a smattering of copyediting over the years) has been a decidedly odd one.

I started out writing Science Fiction, and a few years later found myself writing a nonfiction memoir (‘Aegean Dream’) which is enjoying a reasonable success; I took a three-year detour into publishing and editing ‘Eight Against Reality’ and the Panverse series, anthologies which were generally well-received; and now,  back to writing, I’m at the tail end of revision on a novel, an essentially mainstream thriller barely tinged with the fantastic. I’m also doing some occasional reviews at Tangent Online.

There and back again.

Before taking up the editor’s red pen myself, I had the fortune to meet and learn from the great, multiple-award winning editor Gardner Dozois during the week he was our guest instructor at Clarion West in 2002. What perhaps impressed me most about his attitude to editing was the sheer integrity and poise he brought to the task: when Gardner considered or discussed a piece of work, all that mattered was the work, nothing else.

When I put out the anthology call for Panverse One in May of 2009, opening the floodgates on the groaning  novella-dam, my slushpile was soon overflowing with hefty manuscripts, and they kept coming. And since I’ve always railed against slow response times, I’d stated right up front on our guidelines page that I’d always respond to subs within 30 days.

It could have been ugly.

The slushpile is a challenge to an editor’s very survival. If you don’t stay on top of it, it very quickly gets out of control, and might easily eat your brain. I determined to stay on top of it from Day One.

Now, though I’m only speaking from my own limited experience (close to 500 novella submissions in three years), I suspect that most editors and first readers operate in a very similar manner—they have to. Here’s what you need to know to give you the best chance of selling that story.

Let’s assume that, on opening the envelope or file, the editor finds no threats or insults in the your cover letter, and hopefully no synopsis or brags about the story. Let’s further assume that you’ve followed the submission guidelines. Very good.

The first glance at your story is going to be a tough one—the editor, whiskers twitching, is looking for a reason to bounce it. The reason an editor does this is so that they can focus their attention on those stories that deserve it and not waste time on the also-rans. In my own experience with Panverse, I found that only about ten percent of submissions need to be read beyond the first few paragraphs, and maybe only half of those to the end. Poor prose skills, muddled thinking, third-hand ideas, a gift for tedium, or simply the absence of anything interesting—all these, if present, will jump out at the editor in the first paragraph or two and earn you a swift rejection.

“You didn’t give the story a chance!” screams the writer. “Things really start happening on page such-and-such!” Well, tough. If the story doesn’t grab the reader at the very beginning and hold them to the end, the story ain’t working. Period. But bear in mind that holding a reader’s attention doesn’t necessarily mean a breathless, action-packed opening. An intriguing character or situation will often work; sometimes, the writer’s voice alone will carry it (see my March 25th blog post, Openings). The point is that unless you give the reader a reason to keep going, they won’t. And editors are just very experienced and analytical readers.

If the beginning looks promising, the editor may skip ahead a few pages before committing to a full read. Often a story that begins well quickly emerges as dull, or with fatal flaws in plot logic or world building; sometimes the premise is unlikely; the author may have a tin ear for dialogue or, knowing the genre only from TV or movies, is aping Star Wars or channeling the most tired sort of Sword and Sorcery, and has made no effort at owning his or her world. Bounce.

In the happy event your story works, the next consideration is whether it’s publication-ready or needs minor revision. One of my goals at Panverse was to publish new authors, so I asked for minor fixes and—in a couple of instances—substantial rewrites—on several stories. Not all editors will do that unless, maybe, (i) they really like a story, and (ii) they believe, based on what they’ve seen, that the writer possess the craft skills to fix the issues.

Another thing editors often say and which I now grasp to be true is that they often don’t know in advance what they want until they see it. This can get tricky when the editor is faced with a well-written and highly publishable story that they like a lot. It can get trickier still because an anthology, unlike a novel, is a moving target: each story the editor accepts shapes the whole, so that as the slots fill up, the balance between the individual stories in an anthology becomes a factor in the editor’s mind. With magazines, the editor may well select stories for individual issues around some loose theme or design. Most of this is out of your hands, but a High Fantasy story is never going to find a home at Analog, however good it is.

Nor are editors perfect. In reviewing stories at Tangent Online, I’ve more than once come across stories in pro-level magazines that are fatally flawed in plot logic, story arc, etc., and wondered what the editor was thinking. It’s possible that sometimes an editor might like one aspect of a story so much that they entirely miss, or even ignore, a major issue. Editors are human. But next time you read a story and think, “My God! this is crap! I could do better than that!” …well, you might just be right.

Finally, when editors say that they really want to find a nugget of gold in the slushpile, they’re not just trying to make you feel warm and fuzzy. Sending an author, especially a new author, an acceptance, or asking for a rewrite and having the story come back with its issues resolved and in great shape, is a golden moment: as a writer myself, I know how that author feels; I can promise you that if editors appear hard at the front end of the process, it’s so they can reward those authors who really merit it, and give readers stories that will make them remember that author’s name.

A few extra tips:

Read a publication’s guidelines. This is so important, yet a blinding number of writers who submit stories clearly don’t.

Cover letters. With a story (as opposed to a novel), these are essentially useless, and synopses are downright irritating. The best covers are brief, polite and to the point, just a line or two including the name of the story, maybe that it’s unpublished, and a closing line. No cover at all is fine. Publication credits? Keep them very brief, but know they don’t influence the editor one whit—pros get rejected all the time. In fact, nothing you put in a cover, except maybe a seven-figure check, will improve your chances of acceptance; but it’s possible to annoy an editor a good deal with a rambling, boastful, or fawning cover.

Here’s a checklist you may find useful; if you can honestly answer yes to every item, you’ve got a far better chance than most of getting a sale.

  • Does your story meet the publication’s subject guidelines?
  • Have you observed their formatting requirements?
  • Have you proofed your work carefully? (Don’t rely on spellcheck!)
  • Is your cover letter short and businesslike?
  • Does the opening contain a hook?
  • Is your world or setting fresh and interesting?
  • Are you giving enough setting description to avoid the dreaded ‘white room’ syndrome?
  • Do you open with story rather than backstory?
  • Have you cut all unnecessary backstory?
  • Are you infodumping?
  • Is there enough setting description in each scene to ground the reader?
  • Is there credible and sufficient character motivation to drive the plot?
  • Are your characters somewhat proactive? Are their goals and motivations clear?
  • Do the stakes start high and rise as the story progresses?
  • Does the antagonist get the breaks while the protagonist has to use their wits and fight for every inch?
  • Are you engaging all the reader’s senses?
  • Does each line of dialogue advance the plot, reveal character, impart information, or (even better) do several of these things? Does it sound like the speech of a real person?
  • Does each scene serve a purpose?
  • Is the ending satisfying? Does it resolve the primary conflict?

To conclude, the only sure way of breaking out of the slushpile is to keep writing. The craft of fiction, like any other, needs to be learned, and for most of us it takes years of practice before a reasonable competency is achieved. Even King and Bradbury, Cherryh and Gaiman, Liu and de Bodard had to learn their craft.

Next week I’ll talk about critique groups, and how to make them work for you and avoid their pitfalls.

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