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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Slushpile Survival Guide

A Manuscript's Odyssey, Part 5

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

As ridiculous as it may seem now, a year ago, when we were first ramping up to launch STUPEFYING STORIES, we worried about whether we'd be able to attract enough submissions to make it work. Ergo at that time we decided to make it a sticking point that every manuscript received would receive the full attention of the entire original editorial team. Every new submission that came in would be posted on our private file-sharing site, read by everyone, and then the team would discuss the story and decide whether or not to accept it.

It was a nice vision.

It was also insanely impractical.

Within a few weeks we'd completely overloaded our original file-sharing site and exceeded its capacity. Not too long after that we'd completely overloaded our original editorial team and exceeded their capacity, too, and they began to show signs of serious story-fatigue. As the trickle of submissions became first a stream, then a flowing river, and then a raging torrent, our submissions-handling process needed to evolve quickly or die.

It evolved, in fits and starts.

We went from sharing every individual file that came in to posting zipped-up weekly round-ups. We went from "everyone reads every submission" to "each editor takes a portion and forwards only the best stories to the entire group." We went from a voluntary opt-in system in which editors were allowed to pick the stories they wanted, to assigning blocs of work and nagging people when they fell behind. We started pre-screening stories and rejecting the obviously unsuitable submissions before they ever made it as far as the slush pile. (Believe me, read a few hundred stories and you will develop if not an infallible sense of what's good, at least the ability to catch the unmistakable whiff of True Crap the moment you see the first line. Or sometimes even just the title.)
Sidebar discussion:
Every now and then some well-meaning person asks, "Why not do what [magazine] does? Let the slush pile accumulate for a month," (or two, or three), "and then pick a Saturday, have everyone come over to your house, order in some pizzas and beer, and deal with it all in one afternoon and evening. It'll be fun!"

Well, for one thing we're an Internet-based company, spread out over two-thousand miles and three time zones, so that puts a serious crimp in the idea of our all meeting at anyone's house. (In fact I don't think we've ever all met in person.) For another, on those rare occasions when we do get together, we can't even agree on which beer to buy. So for us to reach agreement on which stories to buy in the space of just a a few short hours...

We went from "let's identify promising writers and work with them" to "if you can't be an advocate for the story as-is, reject it."

That last one was a difficult step to take. We've all come out of writing group backgrounds and have painful memories of what it was like when we were just starting out. We all have this innate desire to behave as if we are still in a writer's workshop, and to identify promising new talents and then spend the time it takes to coach them through the rewriting needed to turn their interesting student-grade projects into polished professional work. And to be honest, of the stories we've published so far, a few of my favorites came to us in just exactly that way.

But ultimately, we had to let go of that. As the first winds of the Great Submission Blizzard of 2011 began to howl and the story-drifts began to pile up in the lee of the garage, it became apparent that we had to make a choice: we were either running a writing workshop and trying to teach people how to write or building a fiction publishing company. There simply was not time and energy enough to do both.

And then the Heavens opened up, and it being winter, the torrent of stories became an avalanche, and we began to realize that we were in real trouble.

...to be continued...
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