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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Slushpile Survival Guide

Welcome to the first installment in what promises to be a very long series. Eventually this feature will take up permanent residence on the STUPEFYING STORIES web site, when we find enough free time to develop that site, but for now, it works just as well here.

The object of this feature is to pass on some of the lessons we're learning as we slog through the vast and trackless midden that is the STUPEFYING STORIES slushpile. With luck, you might learn something here that you can apply immediately, to help your story rise above the common lithic debitage.

And so, without further ado...

Today, I want to talk about file formats. Not manuscript format—although, while we don't insist on it, it certainly doesn't hurt to become familiar William Shunn's guide to Proper Manuscript Format. But today, let's concentrate on the actual electronic file that you will use to send your story to a publisher, assuming the publisher accepts electronic submissions.

As to which tool to use to write your story, the answer is, unfortunately, very simple: Microsoft Word, or something that produces Word-compatible files. Love it or hate it (and for me, personally, "hate" doesn't begin to describe how I feel about it), Word is the current de facto standard, and the most universally readable and editable file format is the Word .doc format—or as Microsoft now calls it, "Word 97-2003 Document" format.

Depending on which version of Word you use, you may need to use the "Save as" option on the File menu in order to save your file in this format, as more recent versions of Word default to the .docx format, which is somewhat problematic.

For a time, we thought Rich Text Format (.rtf) might be a better choice than .doc, as it's technically somewhat more portable, but that's turned out to be an illusion. Rich Text Format files do work very nicely when they arrive intact, but some bizarre interaction between certain email client programs and our email server makes that intact arrival uncertain. In particular, we've noticed that .rtf files sent from Hotmail accounts always—always—get turned into something that looks like this:
{\rtf1\adeflang1025\ansi\ansicpg1252\uc1\adeff0\deff0\stshfdbch0\stshfloch37\stshfhich37\stshfbi37\deflang1033\deflangfe1033\themelang1033\themelangfe0\themelangcs0{\fonttbl{\f0\fbidi \froman\fcharset0\fprq2{\*\panose 02020603050405020304}Times New Roman;}{\f34\fbidi \froman\fcharset0\fprq2{\*\panose 02040503050406030204}Cambria Math;} {\f37\fbidi \fswiss\fcharset0\fprq2{\*\panose 020f0502020204030204}Calibri;}{\f38\fbidi \fswiss\fcharset0\fprq2{\*\panose 020b0604030504040204}Tahoma;}{\flomajor\f31500\fbidi \froman\fcharset0\fprq2{\*\panose 02020603050405020304}Times New Roman;}
Remarkably, we can make sense of these files. But it's not fun.

Secondly, make sure you have a good anti-virus program installed on your working computer, and keep it up to date and run virus scans religiously. If you can, make certain you scan your .doc file before you send it. There is no kiss of death more instantly fatal to your submission than sending the publisher a file that is infected with a virus, or one of the old malignant Word macros that is still floating around out there. Yes, this has already happened to us. More than once.

Third—and I can't believe I actually have to say this—at the very least, make certain your name and email address are in the actual document file you send. Stories frequently get separated from the cover letters that accompany them, and sometimes cover letters get lost. If we lose your email address, we have no way to contact you regarding your submission, short of hoping we get lucky with a Google search on your name. But if we don't even have a name on the manuscript—and yes, I do have one pathetic orphaned manuscript sitting here that I would like to send back to its proper home, if only I knew who to send it back to...

Finally, we know that everyone has their own preferences and work habits, but it really helps to give your file a unique and descriptive name. Giving it the same name as the title of the story is a good start. Giving it some combination of your name and the key words from the story title is better; for example:
Scribbler-Night of the Iguanadon.doc
Giving your story file a name that clearly means something terribly clever to you but nothing at all to anyone else (e.g., badadoop.doc) is a mistake, but not the worst one. We actually have received stories in files named newstory.docx.

Conclusion: The slushpile is a fearsome and ugly place, filled with stories fighting tooth and claw to be noticed. STUPEFYING STORIES does not even rise to the level of being a second-tier market, and yet on average we receive six new submissions daily, seven days a week. In a typical month we can at best publish ten of those stories. Do the math.

But after you've done the math, don't despair. Because the truth is, most of what distinguishes the top 10-percent of submissions from the rest is just a matter of learning and applying some very simple things, and the more I dig through the slushpile, the more clearly I see just how simple these things are.

Okay, I've got to get back to shoveling now. Will write more next week,
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