How to navigate my slush pile

I’ve been doing some slush pile reading for a literary magazine that shall remain nameless, if only because I don’t want to advertise that I’m doing slush pile reading for them, hence people trying to find out if I read/passed their work on to the editors in charge.

The magazine publishes short stories of 4,000 words or less, and flash fiction of 1,000 words or less. And it’s been a great experience to see what other people are creating, especially since I’ve been so non-productive/cowardly about getting my own fiction writing out there. These writers truly inspire me and I hope that they’ll influence me to get working.

Having said that, I’ve seen some things that, if the writers in question would stop doing them, would vastly improve their chances of getting past my slush pile and on to the editors’ slush pile. Some are obvious, but I keep seeing them (and have been guilty of doing them myself). So do what you will do with these suggestions (including completely ignoring them) and good luck!

1. No clichés! I’m as guilty as anyone else of slipping clichéd language in my work, and whenever I go back for an edit, I try to find them and reduce them into recycled paper pulp. Pounding hearts, milky white anything, hairs that stand up on the backs of necks: feel free to make these first-draft placeholders. But go back and replace them with fresh words before the story leaves the safety of your files.

Which leads me to two other items that fall under the cliché category:

1a. Don’t wake up! I’m going to flag your story if you start with your protagonist waking up, the morning sunshine dappling the bedspread/searing her eyes/revealing the zombie horde that has broken into the parking garage/etc.  It’s been done by so many writers, and you’ve got 24 whole hours to play with in a day. Try any time other than the a.m. wake-up to begin your tale.

1b. Zombies. Maybe it’s just me, but unless you’ve got a fresh perspective, zombies should be left for undead. Zombie plotlines usually involve a protagonist who is fighting to survive a zombie apocalypse until a) he is eaten by zombies, b) becomes one  himself, or c) doesn’t become one, because whatever is causing the apocalypse has ended. Your story may have some great things going on (compelling characters, fantastic dialogue), but if it reads like every other zombie story I’ve seen so far, there’s a good chance it’s going to be slushed.

2. Avoid retrofitting longer works to fit shorter word counts. I tend to slush stories that feel “first chaptery,” like they’re introducing a protagonist who is about to start off on a bigger quest, with a story climax that feels more like an inciting incident.  If a publication is asking you for a short story, that’s what you should be submitting: not a preview of some larger work.

And I recently read one great story that I would have passed on to the editors, except that it included a fantastic, original plot device that was clearly and clumsily reduced in importance at the end to meet word count. I’d rather see the full story published somewhere that has a more generous word count allowance.

3. Wow me. I have a day job that deals with extremely dull subject matter and my slush-pile reading is usually confined to late in the evening. I’m exhausted by then, which means your writing has to be pretty impressive to keep me awake, never mind keep me from sadly dragging it into the “rejected” folder. I wish I had a “wow” formula you can follow, but I know whatever I like isn’t going to be exactly the same as my slush pile neighbor. I just know that for me, it involves some extra firing of neurons in some lonely spot in my brain, and it’s a fantastic feeling when I come across a writer who nails it. I’m excited to pass the story along to my esteemed editors and glad to help someone awesome get published.

Have similar slush-pile experiences and want to add what you tend to cut? Calling out anything I’ve written here as bogus? Leave a comment (please be civil) and we can discuss!

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