How To Escape The Slush Pile
I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading lately of the submissions for our soon-to-be launched tdotSpec magazine and have noticed some patterns.
Being an aspiring writer myself, I thought I’d share these “thoughts from the slush pile” in the form of friendly advice for those looking to get published in an anthology or magazine or the like, in the form of some helpful tips.
While this is specific to the submissions we were receiving for the magazine (short fiction and poetry), more specifically short fiction, and likely will not cover all the important points if you are looking to get a different type of work published (e.g. novels usually require having an agent) I believe the majority here will still apply.
So here are my observations from all the reading, and associated tips for escaping the slush pile:
Follow the submission guidelines.
While this is so obvious I feel like it shouldn’t even need saying, the absolute quickest way to not get published is to not follow the guidelines put out in the call for submissions.
This is probably the simplest point in this post to follow, as it does not involve the content of your writing in any way, just how it is presented and how you interact with the editorial team / publication.
While the formatting of work being submitted for the magazine thus far has been great overall, I was shocked by the number of submissions which have flat-out ignored the criteria for either word count, the submission window, or both.
Safe bet: Read the submission guidelines extra carefully and follow them to the letter. If there is any doubt or wiggle room, submitting something in Shunn format (10 or 12 point Courier, double-spaced, first line indent for paragraphs) is the safest bet and basically industry standard, at least as far my understanding goes.
I highly recommend using one of these templates that Shunn is kind enough to provide.
Start your story on page one.
(Not page three, not page five, not page ten, nor any page after that…)
As one of my fellow submissions editors commented, there is a very large number of submissions where the story “starts on page five.”
Part of being a good writer is knowing when to murder your darlings. While your first fifteen pages of world-building and backstory might be important for a large fantasy epic (and hopefully appear in a prologue!) and I’m sure are full of beautiful words and description you put a lot of hard effort into writing, if they aren’t contributing directly to the story in an important way, unfortunately they have to go.
Pare down your story down to only the most critical elements, whether they are moving the story forward or developing your character.
On a more positive note, there are better, more natural ways to inject those sorts of details within the overall narrative of your story without large “info dumps”; for example, by putting them into your protagonist’s thoughts:
A war was waged, The 1000 Years War, where all the magic creatures of the kingdom - sprites, elves, wizards, fairies, trolls - clashed with the humans over a right for their existence, and something greater still: the right for magic to exist in the world at all.
Al’dair remembered what the old mage had said, about the atrocities of the ancient past. Rivers of blood spilled by the humans. Her kind rounded up into cages. A world where magic itself had once been on the verge of being stamped out, extinguished, cut from this world by the steel of falling swords. A war that had lasted a thousand years.
See how one is “telling” but the other is conveying more-or-less the same information through the character? Additionally, how our protagonist remembers the details and feels about them help to develop the character instead of just having it conveyed to us through narration. A good story shouldn’t feel like a Wikipedia article.
Keep your reader reading.
Your story has to start strong and keep the reader interested thoroughout. If your story doesn’t do this from the get-go but has an amazing twist at the end, said twist may not even get read.
Your story doesn’t necessarily have to have an inciting incident, but it has to keep the reader hooked. Some of this comes down to the pacing and flow, but also tone and the arc of the story.
I read a fair number of submissions that had a great opening hook but then dragged in the middle which made them really hard to get through, let alone consider accepting. Again, this is going to come down to paring down your story to the critical elements, and unfortunately, in some cases, doing a dreaded structural edit.
Every good story should have a plot.
Seriously. Enough with the vignettes and dialogue that goes nowhere. Don’t fall in love with the world you’re building and your characters, such that you’re writing a story just to hang out with them. There has to be a conflict. There has to be an underlying driving force for your narrative.
There were a suprising number of submissions where the writing is fantastic (description, dialogue, flow, etc.) but nothing much really happens.
I’d rather read one very tersely told tale about a character in an ordinary world resolving a conflict important to them than a hundred stories with beautiful flowery language set in fantastical realms where there is no structure to the story at all, nor any elements of danger, conflict, or resolution.
If you find you are in a situation like this, it might be a good time to step back from your ideas and perhaps do some outlining, or, if your story is not large enough for that, at least jot down the main points that make it a tale worth telling:
- What is the plot?
- What is the central conflict?
- What is your story about?
This ties in very closely with the next point.
Make the reader care about your character.
Make sure the reader has a compelling reason to read your piece. Is the main character interesting? What difficulty are they trying to overcome, what wrong made right?
Additionally, they have to care about the character or identify with them in some way in order for the story to be engaging.
I think this is generally easier to do with a story told in first person, where we are “inside the character’s head” and feeling what they are feeling. Generally speaking, the “further away” we are from the character, the less we are going to be connected to their thoughts and emotions, right? One way to address this is through giving your a character a fundamental flaw, special quality of some kind, or personal stake in their backstory - or even just communicated through their inner thoughts.
(There are arguments to be made for writing characters that the reader does not identify with, e.g. in transgressive fiction, but this is generally more difficult and not as commonly done)
While I often fall victim to this myself, if you don’t give a compelling reason for the reader to identify or care about your character, you are really just dictating a sequence of fictional events. Your reader may reach the end and be left scratching their head asking: …and? So what?
Your story should be a self-contained work.
In reviewing submissions for the magazine, there were some very, very, strong pieces of writing to which I just had to say no. Some were just not right for what the magazine is going to be (e.g. were not speculative fiction - again, check the submission guidelines and make sure you are submitting to the right place!). But others were very well-written pieces that weren’t really a whole story.
Seems silly to say, but make sure your piece has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If your submission feels like an excerpt of a larger story, maybe you really have a novel in you that’s just itching to get out, or you should at least think about significantly expanding the word count. The best way to gauge this is to get feedback, either from individuals whose feedback you trust, or by attending a writers group.
Secondly, there were a fair number of pieces I read where the ending felt tacked-on, or left me with little or no closure at all. The reader is getting invested in your characters by reading your story - don’t leave them hanging at the finish! Conversely, as a writer, if you’ve worked so hard to craft a great story, make sure you are equally confident in the ending as this is the last impression that will be left with your reader.
Keep at it.
As always, my continual piece of advice for everyone, everywhere - don’t give up.
Just because your piece didn’t make it out of the slush for a particular publication doesn’t mean it’s not good. Maybe there’s a place for it somewhere else, or it just wasn’t what that particular editor or editorial team was looking for (in most cases you’d hope this would at least result in a personalized rejection).
So, to summarize: Start your story on page one. Keep your reader reading. Make sure your story has a strong plot and central conflict. Make your reader care about your character. Ensure your story is a self-contained work. Don’t give up.
All the best, and keep on writing!