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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Slushpile Survival Guide

Continued from last week...

Something I've begun to notice, as I read the something-hundredth cover letter, is just how many of them end with some variation on, "I hope you enjoy my story!"

Allow me to let you in on a little secret. You don't hope we enjoy your story even half as much as we hope we enjoy it.

This is not school, or even your writing group. We don't read stories to find nits to pick, reasons to dock you points, or excuses to write rejections. We read stories to find ones we want to accept for publication, and begin reading each new submission with the hope that this story is going to be one that's so good that by the time we finish it, we'll be champing at the bit to share it with the world.

So why do most stories end up being rejected?

To some extent it's a numbers game. In any given month we receive about 200 submissions and can publish about 10, so of necessity some pretty aggressive winnowing must take place. However, there are also a number of fudge factors and inventory level issues that come into play, which I don't feel like explaining now, but suffice to say your story must rank in the top quintile to have a realistic chance of being accepted.

Lest you feel daunted, though, remember that this also is a dynamic and competitive ranking, and after you take a good look at the competition, you'll see that making it into the top quintile is not nearly as difficult as the raw numbers might suggest.

Here's why.

The first point of failure for many writers comes either from not reading the submission guidelines or else from imagining they don't apply to you. Believe it or not, publishers do not post submission guidelines just to be officious prigs. We really are trying to give you the information you need in order to help you decide, before you send the submission, whether this is really the right place to be sending this particular story.

So if a publisher's guidelines state something like, say, "Absolutely no coprophagia stories," it very likely means they don't publish coprophagia stories, and not that they simply have not yet known the joy of reading your brilliant paean to the pleasures of coprophagia. I mean, do you really think that Catholic Digest is the right place to send your paranormal erotica story that features an explicit sex scene in which a vampire priest sodomizes an acolyte with a lit altar candle?

Apparently about ten-percent of aspiring authors do, because that's roughly how many of our submissions get rejected on receipt for egregious violations of Rule 86. They don't even make it as far as the slushpile. Another ten-percent slip through the initial screening and get into the slushpile, but immediately trigger the gag reflex of the first person who pulls it out and actually begins reading it.

So that takes care of the lowest quintile.

The second point of failure usually becomes evident only after we have finished reading the submission and made the frustrating discovery that it wasn't actually a story. We see this most often with flash fiction, but have seen it in manuscripts up to 10,000 words in length. The material might be most of a story. It might even be the fascinating wreckage of a story. But a story, by definition, has an ending.

As an editor, one of the most frustrating things to see is a near-story that is simply brilliant for the first twenty pages, and then collapses into a puddle of formless goo in the last paragraphs before the author declares "The End" on page 21. As a reader, one of the most frustrating things to see is a story that stops abruptly in mid-air and leaves you asking, "Hey! Where's the rest of it?"

This is closely coupled to the third failure mode, in which the story actually is complete and does have an ending, but the ending consists of the author's suddenly upending a Gatorade bucket full of despair and nihilism on the reader's head.

Tragic endings are okay. Some of the most powerful stories in all literature have heart-rendingly tragic endings. But pointless tragedy is too much like the morning paper or the evening news, and it's not what people read fiction for. That weird Goth chick who edited your college's literary magazine may have really gotten off on reading bleak and gloomy stories that wallowed in the ugly existential meaninglessness of it all, but no one else does.

Remember, when you ask someone to read your fiction, you are asking them to give you something very precious: their time. Therefore you have an obligation to your readers to use their time well, and to bring your story to a conclusion that leaves them feeling the time they spent reading it was worthwhile. Of all the feelings it is possible to leave a reader with at the end of a story, the absolutely worst one is, "Well, there went an hour of my life that I'll never get back again."

Thus, taken together, the non-ending and the pointless and depressing ending knock off the next two quintiles. So what differentiates the top two quintiles, and separates the merely good from the really great?

Well, I need to have something to write about in the next column, don't I?

Hope this is useful to you. Will write more next week,
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