Confessions of a Slush Pile Reader

I read slush.

For some of you, my statement makes complete sense, but I imagine several of my readers are scratching their heads right now. What is slush?  So, if my writing friends will allow me a moment to explain to the non-writers:

The slush pile consists of unsolicited materials submitted to agents, editors, publishers, journals, etc.  Someone has to wade through this never-ending stack to weed out the junk.

Yep, that's right the first reader of a submission is rarely the person it's sent to.  Someone else evaluates it and decides whether to recommend it to the decision-maker or reject it. I'm one of those readers for an online short story magazine, Stupefying Stories.

For the most part, I get to read stories that have some value or promise in them, so what usually makes me reject one?

The first lines of a story can make or break you. Maybe it's because I'm a writer, but I tend to be a little forgiving in this regard. That said, I do rejoice when the first lines draw me into another world.  Unfortunately, that doesn't happen too often.

My biggest annoyance is the story that promises something great, but then the writer falls flat on the ending.  I'm reading along, enjoying the story and then it looks as if the writer decided, "Hey, that's the word count I wanted.  Let's end this baby."  And they do.  There's something called a story arc.  These writers follow the upward curve of the arc well, but when they don't develop the conclusion, it propels the reader over the edge of a cliff to smash on the rocks below.  Not fun. Not enjoyable.

Look at your endings.  Did you wrap it up before you should? Or did you make things work because you didn't know what else to write?  We can tell when we read it.  Go back and fix this!  Talk to your writing buddies and hash out some ideas.  The progression to the end should follow the climax (highest point of the arc) and be satisfactory to the reader.  That doesn't mean that I have to be happy about the way it ends, but I do need to feel like we arrived at the conclusion in a well-developed way.

Another thing that kills a story for me is gratuitous anything.  I'm serious.  Don't throw in scantily-clad babes just because.  This happens more than you can imagine.  I've been reading along and out of nowhere, almost naked girls appear and start fawning over the protagonist, who, of course, is too macho to be bothered with these pathetic creatures.  Really?  If you need half-naked people, make it work.  We don't need it for the thrills.  This includes language, explicit gore, sex, and violence.  If it belongs in the story, then fine, but all too often it just appears out of nowhere without a good reason.

In a few cases, I've enjoyed a story so much that, when it failed in some form of development, I sent notes back to help the writer.  I even had the opportunity to read the revision on one.  I opened the file with excitement, only to find that the writer took the suggestions and stuck something in place to meet the requirement.  Gone was the beautiful flow of prose.  The reader shouldn't be able to spot the edits.  They need to flow with the story.  That goes for first submissions, too.  If the flow doesn't work, the reader stops reading.

One last bug-a-boo for me--nothing's happening.  Why do I care about this person?  Why should I read this story?  Where is the conflict?  I can hate your character and still want to read the story, but I need to feel something.  If I don't care, I don't read.

As I said earlier, most of the slush pile stories I read aren't bad.  They're just not ready.

What are some of the mistakes you've seen in published and unpublished writing?

And now a shameless plug for the Stupefying Stories issue that contains my short story, Lifesource.  Get it here for just 1.99!

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/


Henry said…
Note that Barbara's story received a favorable read before anyone knew she was my sister. (I'm an associate editor for Stupefying Stories.).

One other bit of advice for prospective writers: read the submission guidelines and follow them. You'd be amazed how many cover letters begin "I know you said you don't want , but my story is different!" No, it's not different. It's irritating. And irritated editors send rejections, not publishing contracts.
Wayne G. said…
I have a rule that I find useful. If the story doesn't grab me in the first two chapters I drop the book like a hot potato and find another. I might miss something that turns out to be good when read to the end, but why bother when there are so many great stories out there and I have so little time.
@Henry, One of the advantages of reading slush is I usually don't see those query letters. Someone else wades through that and gives me the appropriate material to read. It's true, though. If I read a story that doesn't seem to fit our guidelines, I hesitate to forward it on to the editors, no matter how good it is.

@Wayne, I've gotten where I will give up on a story if it's not grabbing me, too. In a short story, you've got to do that within a few paragraphs, forget two chapters. For novels, it's always a disappointment to give up on something, but my TBR (to be read) stack is just too large to struggle through a boring read.
I read a lot of student papers--essays in beginning college classes.

I can so imagine how bad the slush must be, and how hard it is for the writer to see where he falls in that pile.

Thanks for the ideas. Maybe I can tighten up what I'm doing and get past the pile.
Charlotte, I've seen those college papers, too. Yikes! They can make you cringe.

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