Slush Readers’ Advice for Writers

I’ve been a slush reader for Apex Magazine for over a year. My local speculative fiction writers group, MinnSpec, hosts monthly meetings on various writing topics, and this month, they asked me and two fellow members (Michael Merriam and Eric Heideman) to offer our advice for succeeding past the slush pile. If you’re in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, the meeting is this Sunday at noon (but there’s a waiting list).

To gather a broad range of advice for this meetup, I solicited my fellow Apex slushies and they were more than happy to oblige. After gathering together all their correspondence, I present you with their valuable advice (and mine).

General advice

My advice to writers boils down to two major points: Be professional, and do your homework. Everything listed below is a variation on those two themes.

1) Publishing is a business. Publishers want to publish the best content, not just good content.

“There are a lot of decent stories out there.  You have to better than all of them to get on the short list.  And then you have to be better than everyone on the short list to get published, or at least you have to be exactly what the editor is looking for, or what caught the editor’s eye.”

Submission guidelines at Apex Magazine from Catherynne Valente, our former Editor-In-Chief:

“We do not want hackneyed, clichéd plots or neat, tidy stories that take no risks. We do not want Idea Stories without character development or prose style, nor do we want derivative fantasy with Tolkien’s serial numbers filed off.

What we want is sheer, unvarnished awesomeness. We want the stories it scared you to write. We want stories full of marrow and passion, stories that are twisted, strange, and beautiful. We want science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mash-ups of all three—the dark, weird stuff down at the bottom of your little literary heart. This magazine is not a publication credit, it is a place to put your secret places and dreams on display. Just so long as they have a dark speculative fiction element—we aren’t here for the quotidian.

Keep in mind that the search for awesome stories is as difficult as writing them. If you are rejected, don’t get angry—instead, become more awesome. Write something better, and better, until we have to accept you, because we have been laid low by your tale. It really is that simple.”

I love this quote. Become more awesome. That’s your job, writers.

2) Here’s the key to a successful story. Hook us at the beginning and keep the momentum building until the climax. At the end, we need to feel the connectedness of the beginning, middle and end, and have a sense of closure. Most of the slush I read is strong at either the beginning or the end, but not both. You need both.

a) Hooks

This is where the majority of stories fail. I’m a curious person, so I’ll read or skim a story to see where it goes, even when I know I’ll reject it. Sadly enough, I reject most stories before the end of the second paragraph, either from an uninteresting beginning or bad writing.

“Your job as a writer is to hook the reader from the first sentence and never let go.  If you can’t do that, then you’re not the person for the job.  There is no “keep reading, it gets better, you’ll like it…” in a short story.  Maybe in novels, but not in short stories.”

b) Endings

Endings are the problem child of writing. I read so many stories with promise that fail with a bad ending. I’m not looking for a happy ending (I read dark fiction…most endings are not happy), but I need closure. Give me something at the end that concludes the journey you’ve taken us on, yet leaves us wanting more. It’s difficult, yes, but it is so important. I hate rejecting stories I read all the way through, only to deal with an unsatisfying ending. It makes me angry with the author for getting invested in a story that goes nowhere.

“Surprise endings stink. I don’t mean endings that surprise, but endings in which the whole story is leading up to a “big reveal”–like the “and then she woke up” or “all the people are actually plants!”–it typically makes the entire story dull, which means most editors may not even make it to the “big reveal”, and sadly, the “surprise” at the end is almost always the more interesting idea, where the story should have STARTED, not finished (as in the case of the plant people, for example). It’s like the author had this awesome idea but was too scared to write/explore it, so they tucked it away at the end so they wouldn’t have to. Surprise endings are fun in Twilight Zone–not so much in written stories. (Of course, there are exceptions, but it’s very, very hard to pull off.)”

I hate surprise endings, too. I find them gimmicky and immature.

3) Voice and POV

“If you sound like everyone else, then the only way you’ll get the job is if you are better than everyone else.  If you sound like you, then your chances greatly improve, as long as your story is decent to begin with.  The novelty and individuality of your voice, as a writer, is what makes readers read your stories rather than someone else’s, especially with short stories.  You can be less than a perfect writer if you sound like an individual instead of a cookie cutter.”

Yes. I’ve sent stories on to the editor that weren’t perfect, but I loved them for the voice. Voice can carry a story.

“Point of View and narrative style makes a huge impression…the way in which a story is told can carry a huge amount of unspoken information that can increase the realism of your story and also convey a lot of background without actually having to talk about it openly.”

4) World-building

We’re speculative fiction writers, so world-building is a necessity. Do your research, especially when writing science fiction. Don’t bog down your story with unnecessary details just to prove how much science you know, but provide just enough to make your story sound plausible.

“Plausible story lines and science go a long way.”

“Take time to world-build your short story. It makes a huge difference when the story takes place in a world that jumps off the page with life, even though you’re only seeing a tiny slice of it. I’ve always tried to describe it like this: a short story is a window into another world (realistic or totally imaginary), and that world lives and continues before and after you put the story down. Those characters go on to do other things, they have elaborate histories, the world exists without the reader, but the reader can visit for the duration of the short story. This is true for stories set in modern-day and those set in far-away worlds. You don’t have to personally know every detail–just enough to hint that a much bigger picture exists outside the scope of the story.”

“World-building owns. Just look at Avatar. One of the crappiest sci-fies of the last decade, but they built the world well (beastiality not withstanding) and so everyone ignored the Pocahontas with aliens plot and the on-the-nose Iraqi Oil referencing ‘Unobtanium’. If there is no world-building in spec-fic, there is no world. We can’t refer to the inside of your skull whenever we don’t get something – Why is he flying, again? Hang on, I’ll just check Mikhail Bakhtin Junior’s head. Oh, okay, so everyone uses cybernetic augmentation implants in this world because they can’t be bothered going to the gym? Now it all makes sense. This is an impossibility.”

5) Tropes, Clichés and other Bad Ideas

Read within your genre and avoid writing ideas that have been beaten to death.

You can find a list of SF tropes and overused clichés here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SpeculativeFictionTropes

My personal pet-peeve: CANNIBALISM. At one point, 30% of the slush I read focused on cannibalism. The only quote of mine I’ll offer from our group email session:

“Is it just me, or do we get an awful lot of cannibalism stories? There is more to dark fiction than eating your neighbor/girlfriend/mailman/high school science teacher. UNCLE!”

Please, no more cannibalism stories. Instant rejection.

“Don’t vomit on the page. Prose pieces consisting of nothing more than gore, grue and delicate prose about flash-frozen body parts make me queasy, especially since I often read slush whilst eating lunch. I once read a cannibalism story about a groom who gobbled up his bride on their wedding night. It was about ten pages of visceral description, starting w/ the fingernails and going on from there. The piece frightened me, in that I was afraid the author might try to hunt me down and kill me when he got the rejection letter.”

“I agree that we see a lot of lovingly depicted cannibalism, which rarely contributes to the quality of the narrative, and that child abuse is frequently not handled with effect or with purpose. To these approach-with-extreme-caution elements, I’d like to add spousal abuse and subsequent revenge (regardless of which spouse abuses which), and, though it seems a cliche of “Things that Turn Us Off in Submissions” lists, rape as cheap trauma bears mentioning again.”

Avoid stories regarding priests and boys. You wouldn’t believe how many of these I’ve read and I never want to read another one. Instant rejection.

Avoid dream sequences, especially beginning a story with a character waking from a dream (or an odd sequence of events before waking from a dream). Cliché. Instant rejection.

6)  Don’t Preach

The moral/theme of the story should be subtle. It should come across naturally through action and characterization.

“Don’t write morality fables. Here’s how it goes: the author creates a character with one personality trait, always bad, and then kills him/her off in an ironic way. Example: Jack is a miser. One day when he’s walking to work he gets hit with a falling bank safe. He dies and goes to Hell. The End. The slush pile is full of these gems. A nasty streak of morality runs through many of the slush pieces I’ve read, some of which are nothing more than tarted-up power fantasies (the author gets to play God/The Grand Inquisitor/judge, jury, executioner/take your pick). I don’t like reading stories that punish people for making bad life choices, as I’ve made more than a few myself.”

“Ditto regarding the morality fables. I’d like to branch off the life choices/character traits, though, and mention stories that function as political or philosophical screeds. It makes to difference to me as a reader, and certainly not as an editor, whether I agree with the screed or not. No one is buying Apex Magazine for hamfisted preaching. The worst is hamfisted preaching that’s also objectively ignorant of its own subject matter. While many, maybe even most, great stories are written with some purpose beyond the words themselves, writers will add no one to their cause by beating readers over the head with it. Especially beating them over the head with poorly informed version of it.”

7) Beware of Mary Sue

You know why writers mock Twilight. Most slush readers (if not all) are writers. Don’t Twilight your story.

“I find Mary Sue Mouthpieces, or characters who represent all the writer deems good and perfect but now persecuted by an evil and intolerant society or setting, to be very offputting, the most so as protagonists. It’s by no means a bad idea for any character to be a self-righteous professional victim, but it’s much more interesting to see these flaws acknowledged and handled as such.”

8) Falling in Love

Here’s something many writers don’t understand about slushing. We put our reputation on the line when passing your story on to our editors. For that reason, I need to love a story, not just like it. Make us fall in love with your story, and we’ll have no qualms about passing it on. In order to do that, you need to make us feel something.

“Make me feel something to the point where I can’t help reacting: get me laughing out loud, crying, hair standing on end, gaping with the slow unfolding of horror as I realize that things weren’t as I thought they were, beaming as two people fall in love…”

9) Use your Resources

The internet is out there, people, and it sure is useful. Most publishers have a website, blog, Facebook account, Twitter account, Google + account, etc. They post helpful suggestions, gripes, and other useful information, all publicly available for you to peruse.

You can also find the names of editors and contributors on most publishers’ sites. Follow them online. Find authors you admire and follow them too. They also post lots of helpful information.

Network with other writers. Attend writers groups, critique groups, conventions, etc. Follow other writers. Learn from their mistakes and their successes.

There’s a great big world wide web out there. Use it.

10) Keep at it

In this industry, perseverance is key. There is an element of chance when submitting stories. Maybe the slushie reading your story hates talking animals (a lot of them do). Another slushie at the same publisher may love it, and maybe even the editor, but it won’t get past that first slushie. That’s the pits. You can keep sending it out to other markets and hope it finds a home, or edit the story to make it even more awesome. Just keep at it, and you’ll get there eventually.

Technical Gripes

Slush readers find certain flags that signal a writer’s lack of experience. Avoid these if you can. One or two mistakes in the entire story won’t necessarily mean a rejection, but a few in the first two paragraphs will.

This is a short list, but there are many more of these that you’ll probably find on editors’ blogs and tweets.

Learn your craft and join a critique group, because most publishers will not provide feedback with rejections. It’s up to you to improve your writing and find out what’s not working.

  • Typos. Your story doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be close. No more than 2-3 maximum.
  • Starting off sentences with: “It was,” “There was,” etc.: “Now, dude got away with it with “It was a dark and stormy night,” but come on, that’s classic and shouldn’t be bothered with, right? When I see a story start out like that, I start grinding my teeth. Too, if numerous sentences start out with “It was”, then I just think, “lazy writing” and pass on to something else.”
  • “’It was as if’ – No, it wasn’t. Either something is or it isn’t”
  • “’Suddenly’ – My eyes and ears bleed”
  • Foreign languages and terminology: “An offshoot of being informed: I know enough Spanish to recognize when it’s incorrect. My fellow slushers can read other languages as well. A multilingual story, if it involves languages with which the author is not highly familiar, should be checked over before submission by a reader who is.”
  • Focusing on unimportant details: “I’ve read a lot about women in curve-cupping dresses whose “glowing red/raven black/creamy blonde har falls to her shoulders in gentle waves etc.” It’s actually the phrase “falling to her shoulders” that appears over and over and over again in the slush pile, and it grates on me more and more. I mean, hair falling to one’s shoulders is nothing special. Heck, my hair falls to my shoulders, and while I have quite nice hair, it certainly doesn’t bear waxing purple about.”
  • Rank is no substitute for characterization: “Broader but still nitpicky, I personally tend to drift off during spaceship/submarine/military stories, as characters’ titles often substitute for traits and I lose track of who’s who and who’s got what motivation. It’s vital to establish these people by distinctive and interesting characteristics rather than by rank: rank doesn’t make the story.”

Be Professional

“Submitting a short story is a job interview.  Be 100% professional – follow directions and edit to as near perfection as you can get it. You’ll never get a job because someone feels sorry for you; you only get the job if you beat out the other applicants.”

1) Read the Submission Guidelines

If you don’t follow the guidelines, it’s an instant rejection. Submission guidelines will be posted somewhere. Find them and follow them. Do your homework.

“Always, always read the submissions guidelines. If the publication asks you not to do something, then don’t do it in an attempt to look cute and stick out from all the other slush. It doesn’t work.”

a) Cover Letters

i. Include a Cover Letter

“Not including a cover letter. That drives me straight up a wall. Even if all it says is, ‘Dear Editor, Please consider my (piece) for submission in your publication,’ that’s better than no letter at all.”

ii. Content of the Letter

“Cover letter trying to be humorous and failing badly – Personally, I don’t feel humor has any place in a professional cover or query letter.”

“Don’t send long-winded garbage about every story you ever wrote, and don’t send half-sentence emails in text-speak, or your title and word-count alone. Aim for something in the middle – who you are, why you’re emailing, story name and word-count and last few notable publication credits. I DON’T CARE WHAT YOUR CAT’S NAME IS, SO DON’T TELL ME!”

“Don’t editorialize in your cover letter. I’ve had people tell me that their piece was great (THIS STORY IS TEH AWESOME!); conversely, a few folks have told me their story sucks. In the first case I didn’t believe them, in the second I was more than willing to take them at their word.“
iii. Addressing Cover Letters

“Poorly addressed cover letters – ie, those submissions which come to a specific editor. When you submit directly to a specific editor, your submission is forwarded to the actual submissions pool”

b) Submitting the Right Content to the Right People

Apex slush is full of gruesome horror stories. If you read Apex Magazine, you’d be hard-pressed to find any straight-up horror. Yes, Apex accepts horror, but it better be horror with some science fiction or fantasy added to the mix. Apex won’t print your literary version of the Saw movies. The current issue is always free online. No excuses.

Many other publishers have free content online, or can be purchased cheaply. Go to libraries or borrow books from other writers. Find work similar to yours and see who published it.

Use duotrope.com or ralan.com to find the right publisher for your work. Duotrope also has functionality for tracking your submissions.

“I did once get a full book manuscript from a YA agent about two teenage kids who fall in love. No SF. No dark. I think I might have been a little rude to her… Don’t quite remember… :)”

“Do not send absolutely fantastic stories to magazines that don’t publish in those genres. You could be the next Dan Brown, but submitting page-turning thrillers to philosophical science fiction magazines won’t get you published.”

c) Word Count

“It helps submissions readers greatly if you place your word count on the top of your story along with your contact information. Even an “approximate” word count helps us out. Sometimes when we’re reading, we don’t have time to read a 7k story but we can a 2k story.”

d) Addressing Submissions

“Don’t email directly to a slushy when the magazine has a submissions address or system – it is very unprofessional, causes them more hassle than they’re willing to go through for an unfamiliar name on their computer screen and just plain-ol’ pisses them off.”

“It’s probably improper to address a submission to a specific person. We have several folks who read stories. “Dear editor” works nicely in this case.”

UPDATE: Some people are very confused on addressing submissions to editors. The email address you use must be correct. However, in cover letters many publishers prefer you address a specific editor to show you’ve done your homework. The particular editor above (at Apex) prefers the generic address since we have a slush team. Unless it is stated on the submission guidelines, don’t worry so much about which one is correct. I doubt anyone will reject your submission because you said “Dear Editor,” instead of addressing a particular editor.

e) Contacting the Editor(s)

Send submissions to the address specified by the publisher. Send any inquiries to this address as well (only if past the timeline stated by the publisher). Don’t contact the editor/slush reader directly.

“Don’t reply to rejections. Just don’t. If your story has been rejected, it means that it was either not good enough for the magazine, or not what the magazine was looking for (like submitting a brilliant western story to a horror magazine).”

“I’ve gotten some very snarky responses from authors before. Only advice: don’t do it. It only hurts the author, not the publisher.”

f) Submitting Files

“Do not paste your story into the body of your email. It is an instant rejection and not helpful to anybody.”

2) Don’t Be a Jerk

The most important part of “Be Professional.” It’s sad that this even needs to be mentioned, but believe me, you don’t want to be remembered for the wrong reason.

a) Badmouthing Your Publisher Online

An author was scheduled to be published, and paid, by Apex Magazine until she badmouthed the magazine and it’s owner online. Don’t do this. Google Alerts will unearth these accusations and notify the mentioned parties.

b) Hostile Correspondence

The reason I no longer provide personal feedback on the stories I slush: too often I get attacked from writers responding to my comments. It takes time and energy for me to write those comments, and if they’re not appreciated, I’m not going to bother. And if I get harassed…now you see why I avoid personal contact at all costs. DON’T REPLY TO REJECTIONS. If you’re angry and need to vent, follow these simple steps: draft angry letter to publisher, then delete it.

c) It’s a Small World After All

Everybody knows everybody. Even if you’re not posting an angry rant on your public blog, be careful what you say and to whom. A convention is not a good time to trash the publisher who rejected your latest masterpiece. Lots of editors attend conventions. Make friends and be nice. EVERYBODY LOVE EVERYBODY.

On Slush Reading

Publishers advertise for slush readers on occasion. It’s usually unpaid, and depending on the publisher, workload demands can vary. At Apex, we are asked to read 5 stories per week. I’ve heard Clarkesworld slushies read 5 per day.

I highly recommend any writer read slush for a while. It’s an eye-opening experience, and it gives you a good feel for the quality of writing necessary to get published. (There’s a reason why big name writers get published, and it’s not only due to their fan base. Their work really is that much better.)

Thoughts from Apex slushies:

“I found that one writer’s group thought this was interesting: Slush editors have lives of their own, and more often than not don’t get paid to do this, and squeeze it into our schedules between our own day-jobs, kids, family, school, and our own writing time. We do it for the love of a great short story, and when we find one, there’s no better feeling in the world than seeing it get published in our magazine. It’s like a little mini-win for us, too, when an author gets a YES rather than a NO.”

Yes! We love to find stories we can’t wait to publish. It’s almost as good as publishing your own work.

“If you can get a slush job, do! There’s nothing better for teaching you what works and what doesn’t in short fiction.”

Agreed, especially on the “what doesn’t work” part.

Recently, Cat Rambo recommended slush reading on Google+. If you don’t know Cat, she’s an amazing writer and editor so maybe her advice holds more weight than mine. You can find her blog here: http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/

Many thanks to the following editors/slushies for your valuable input:

Katherine Khorey, George Galuschak, DeAnna Knippling, Sigrid Ellis, Zakarya Anwar, Maggie Slater and Mari Adkins

19 thoughts on “Slush Readers’ Advice for Writers

  1. saraheolson says:

    As long as you’re using a publisher’s Contact Us form or sending an inquiry in to their general email address (please don’t contact an editor directly), I think unsolicited contact is fine.

    I usually see postings for slush opportunities on Twitter, so it’s helpful to follow publishers there.

  2. Jennifer K. Oliver says:

    This is a fantastic post, thank you for sharing! I’m particularly glad you posted about addressing submissions. Often I dither over whether to address an editor or slush reader by name, or use a more general ‘dear editor’. In future, I’ll go with the latter, unless a magazine specifically asks for a more informal greeting (a couple I’ve submitted to have, although it’s still tricky figuring out exactly who my submission is going to when they list two or three editors/readers on their page!).

    Many thanks,

    Jennifer

  3. saraheolson says:

    Jennifer – I think that would be a good choice. Some publishers don’t have a slush team reading submissions, so in that case, you can address it specifically to them. As long as you follow the submission guidelines, you should be fine.

  4. maggiedot says:

    Awesome write-up, Sarah! :D This is great. A little something for anyone at any stage of the process. ^_^ Thanks so much for posting!

  5. Sarah Sideways says:

    Awesome, awesome, awesome tips! I’ve been hanging on to my “brilliant” book idea for so long. A bit written here, a bit written there…writing a book is intimidating, but the submission of it is what I find to be the most intimidating. I’ll come back to this article when it’s that time. ;)

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