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.