14 January 2011

Tales from the Slushpile

I've read a lot of slush in the past few days, trying to get caught up. Most of it's really fun. It's awesome to see the cool ideas out there! But, and here it comes, there's the constant downside of having to reject most of what I read. Out of about 40 stories I saved 2 to vote on.

Why'd they make the cut? They had the full package: interesting story idea, things I hadn't seen before, clever protagonists, and the foundation of decent writing. There's also some other aspect, a sort of confident passion. More on that in a moment.

But as I do reject most of what I read, here's some notes on why:

I want to know what the story's about quickly. I know, I know. I harp on this all the time.

For instance, I don't like idle discussions between characters and being left just hoping they play into the story eventually. I don't like a fight scene without knowing why the protagonist is fighting. I don't like punchlines too well either.

I really really like when stories start on the first page and end on the last page, and when beginnings and endings frame the story in a way that makes sense. Beginnings are meant to take your reader by the hand and lead them deeper into the story, not skirt around it.

I like meeting the cast fairly quickly and being shown their importance to the story. Also not crazy about important, influential characters remaining off screen. I'll put it this way: antagonists were meant to be seen and heard.

I don't have to feel sorry for your protagonist, or even like 'em. But I damn well need to be interested in him or her. Everyman protags don't appeal to this editor.

Our word limits are firm. Stories outside the limits are not read. I had a few of these. I have to say, it annoys me a bit because we have pretty generous word limits. And yeah, if a story claims something close to 7K words, I usually do a word count to double-check.

This one's fuzzier to explain, but the writing has to be solid. I've got to feel like some skill, craft, and thought went into telling your story. I know Electric Spec can't pay a lot, but on the flipside, we don't keep rights for very long, and only electronic rights at that. It's still a business relationship, one in which we expect to deal with professionals.

Strive for originality. A lot of what I reject, I've seen before. Not the actual story, of course, but the idea. There's a few ways to rectify this.

  • Read short fiction, a ton of it. Read novels. Read your genre and others. Read great stuff and bad. See what's lately and what's old news. It's not that tough to keep up on. The short story market moves quicker than the novel markets.
  • Skip TV for research. TV and film stories, incidentally, are pretty far behind the written word when it comes to speculative fiction story trends. Case in point: graphic novels have had a tremendous upsurge in the past decade. Film is just now catching up in the past few years with its superhero blockbusters.
  • Put your personal stamp on your work. All writers have personal themes, things they return to again and again for exploration. I see a lot of stories that have the vague feeling of ignoring the writer's personal themes. They lack passion. Sometimes it's immaturity; sometimes it's outright denial. But at some point good writers embrace their personal themes, readers and editors be damned. You have something to say; say it in a way that's as true to yourself as possible.
Hopefully this helps some writer out there know what's going through my little editor's head. Now...tell me what's going through yours...

5 comments:

lesleylsmith said...

Wow, you editors are pretty harsh! :)
But, seriously, thanks for the insight into your selection process Editor Betsy.
There's lots of good advice here.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

"You" editors? Riiight... :D

Peter Dudley said...

There is, indeed, much good advice there. Do you have a sense of how much is pretty standard versus personal style preference?

The word limit thing is pretty standard, I get that. But meeting all the characters quickly... in short fiction, yeah, I think that's important (unless the story somehow is based on the late introduction of a character, which might be an interesting prompt to try to write to some day), but in longer fiction, I imagine some editors prefer just the opposite.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

I could write a whole post about that. I know I tend to like dark stories and characters. I like epic fantasy. Very little humor gets by me. Those are personal preferences.

The first page thing is something I thought about and developed as a guideline for myself and my slush. It's also easy to explain to writers. Other editors may be more forgiving or not articulate it that way. But I noticed as I read successful published stories they seem to have it in common.

The personal theme bit is another thing editors want but often don't articulate. They might describe a story as having "a certain something..." Boo on that. I think great stories have a maturity reflected in the writing and theme. I think good writing is characterized as confident and unselfconscious. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't analyze what makes good stories sing.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

I could write a whole post about that. I know I tend to like dark stories and characters. I like epic fantasy. Very little humor gets by me. Those are personal preferences.

The first page thing is something I thought about and developed as a guideline for myself and my slush. It's also easy to explain to writers. Other editors may be more forgiving or not articulate it that way. But I noticed as I read successful published stories they seem to have it in common.

The personal theme bit is another thing editors want but often don't articulate. They might describe a story as having "a certain something..." Boo on that. I think great stories have a maturity reflected in the writing and theme. I think good writing is characterized as confident and unselfconscious. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't analyze what makes good stories sing.