Lessons learned in slushing

Several weeks ago, my dear friend (and obscenely talented writer) Sam J. Miller was asking me about my experience reading slush for an SFF magazine, which I had just stopped doing after six wacky and wild months of aliens, wizards and–we’ll talk more about this last one later–Nazis.

He encouraged me to put my reflections into a blog post, but because I’m notoriously awful at updating ye olde blogge, it didn’t get done until I read this article on Samuel R. Delaney’s distinction between good writing and talented writing. And it spoke to me, deeply, readers. I pointed at my computer screen and exclaimed, “THIS!”

So, without further ado, I present to you Lara’s Observations from The Slush. Please bear in mind, these are just my opinions and foibles, and may not actually get you published, no matter how assiduously you apply them to your writing. But, I mean. In a perfect world, they would.

1) if, at a micro level, a story flowed, and was beautiful, I forgave it a lot of structural flaws. When sentence by sentence reading was enjoyable, it could take me all the way through. Delaney says, “[talented writing] pays attention to the sounds and rhythms of its sentences.” True! Pretty prose will help you swim upstream through the slush pile

2) During the first week of Clarion 2012, the inimitable Jeffrey Ford said something like, “Ninety to ninety-five percent of everything is shit,” and he was utterly, completely right. The sad thing for slush readers is that it’s not entertaining shit. 5% maybe is really, hilariously awful and entertaining. 85-90% is just boringly mediocre. And anything that isn’t fantastic–at some level–is going to get chucked. Samuel R. Delaney gives slightly different statistics: “The major fault of eighty-five to ninety-five percent of all fiction is that it is banal and dull.” But again, True! Slush readers want something that will grab us, shake us up, make us feel. And usually, we don’t get it.

3) Sometimes I’d read a story all the way through, knowing it wasn’t good enough to accept. But there was something that made me keep reading. I’m not sure what that magical thing was. Sometimes it was unique concept, sometimes a plot quirk. Sometimes humor. But, basically, just because a slush reader reads your story all the way through doesn’t mean it’s going to get passed up. You really need a combination of talented micro-level wordsmithery and engaging macro-level concept and plot. And a few muscular, hooked tentacles of emotional manipulation. Which brings me to a fourth point:

4) I, personally–and the editors of the magazine I was reading for, I think–prefer Profoundly Sad Stories. Resonant ones. And having read around the short fiction scene lately, it seems like Profoundly Sad, Resonant Stories are where it’s at these days. With the caveat that some editors are like “ENOUGH OF THE SADNESS!” Charles Coleman Finlay, for instance, who is guest editing an issue of F&SF this month, asked specifically for humor. So keep your markets in mind, I guess.

Lastly, and less to do with actual technical skill in creating gorgeous stories with emotional impact like the crater that killed the dinosaurs:

4) No. Nazi. Stories. Let me say it again: no Nazis. NONE. Remember when I said that about 5% of the bad stories were epically, unforgettably awful? About 4.5% percent of those stories were about Nazis. I don’t pretend to understand. But there you have it.

Then again, as in all things: it’s all in the execution. If you can apply your Talented Writing to the rich, disturbing, toothy topic of WWII, the Holocaust, the Third Reich…listen, people. You can make a story out of anything. But you have to make it transcendent to get it past the deadened hearts and minds of the slush readers.

I don’t mean perfect. it doesn’t have to be perfect. But it has to be better than anything else the reader has seen that day. Maybe better than anything they’ve seen that week. Slap us out of our haze! We are so sick of reading boring stuff that we can’t get excited about something that’s just good. We want something talented.

5 thoughts on “Lessons learned in slushing

  1. I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said, and yet I feel completely the opposite way. :/ In my months of reading slush, I have become profoundly bored of the “gorgeously-written” dark magical realist story. I am tired of attempts to make me “feel” and would prefer more attempts to make me think. I am almost coming to think of these stories as lazy: they contain little to no worldbuilding, no research, no ideas and little thought. Just a hazy concept and a lot of prose.

    I do love the best of these stories, but I’m overwhelmed now with beautifully-rendered dead babies, miscarriages, rape survivors, recovering addicts, grieving, the unsettled dead, and longing. It’s starting to feel perverse. I want to tell these people: it’s not enough to make us feel. There needs to be a point, a new contribution to the discussion. Or, there does for me, anyway.

    Maybe this is part of “know your market”. 😉

    1. I am, in fact, completely with you on wanting to think. I guess there should be a bullet point somewhere in between “beautiful prose” and “profoundly sad,” that says “take on meaty topics. Make me walk away with a lot on my mind. I want to think about your story for days and weeks after I read it, and talk to other people about what it means.” The best stories I passed on while slushing always had something at their heart that was profound, not just profoundly sad. Something big and intellectual, that could be felt at a personal, emotional level.

      1. Oh, yay! I thought WordPress had eaten my comment. Hurrah!

        Yes, this! Though I definitely err on the side of the robots – I will forgive a smart story without too much emotion before I will forgive an angsty story without much substance. This is a lot of why I “moved over” from a more straight literary background into genre fiction: I wanted more story, more character and more imagination. The literary world is all alcoholism and dead babies – I’m not completely thrilled to find the sffh world infested with it too.

  2. “And having read around the short fiction scene lately, it seems like Profoundly Sad, Resonant Stories are where it’s at these days.”

    This makes me kind of, er, sad. Why do you think we like sad stories more than happy ones? A while ago I realized that almost everything I wrote was depressing and made a concerted effort to mix it up with some happy ending pieces. Writing both happy and sad makes me feel better about myself as a writer–I don’t want to be contributing only depressing shit to the world. This is part of the reason I’m half-assedly working on a romance novel–to give myself a break from Seriousface sad stories to write something unabashedly fun and fluffy for a while. For a while there I lost the idea that writing was supposed to be joyous, and writing romance reminds me of that.

    But at the same time, when I think about the novels and stories that have resonated with me most in my life, most of them are, as you say, Profoundly Sad, Resonant Stories. Hmm.

    1. Hmmm. Thinky questions. As a writer, I enjoy profoundly sad stories because I like creating deeply flawed characters–I relish their cruelty, their hard-heartedness, their amorality…whatever–and then sending said characters gleefully to their doom.

      Well, it’s slightly more complicated than that. I’m working on two projects right now–a novel, and a collaborative short story–both of which are really, deeply tragic. Untimely deaths, sundered love, war, fascism. There is something SO SATISFYING about tearing apart the things you’ve lovingly built.

      There is, I think, the same sort of catharsis in reading tragedy as there is in writing it. Because, as you say, the stories that have affected ME have mostly been Profoundly Sad and Resonant. There are definitely fun, non-emotionally destructive books that I love and recommend to people ALL THE TIME, but the ones that made me care the most also hurt me the most. New Amsterdam springs to mind, first of all. Elizabeth Bear creates something so beautiful, and spends the whole book reminding you how tenuous it is. But you don’t believe her. You refuse to believe her. Her own characters refuse to believe her. And then she proves it, like BAM.

      Which is how life works, really. Beautiful things that people love get broken for no reason. Or sometimes they don’t. Things change, for the better and for worse. So while fun, fluffy things are wonderful and help us get out of Seriousface land, Seriousface land reminds us that fun, fluffy things aren’t always fun and fluffy?

      I don’t know where I’m going with this. I’ve had the “why do you like awful things so much” conversation with several people, and I can never quite communicate the answer.

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