No, I’m not talking about the weapon of choice on Glee.

Some of you might be aware that I do a little slush reading on the side for an online speculative fiction magazine. I won’t divulge the name of the magazine here, though I’m sure I’ve mentioned it in a prior post somewhere. If you feel inclined to dig into the archives and ferret it out, more power to you.

A slush reader sifts through the unsolicited manuscripts sent to a magazine and provides an initial reading and review for the editors. They all have their own process, but in our case, the editor sends the four or five of us slushers the weekly haul, and we return brief comments and a thumbs up or down on each one.

If we’re in violent agreement on the merits of a story, he’ll probably accept or reject it after a cursory review of his own. If we provide a mixed endorsement, he’ll spend more time looking at the story in detail before rendering a final verdict. It’s all about helping him manage his time and identify the needles of excellence in a haystack of, well, something less than that.

After doing this for a few months, some common traits emerge among stories that succeed, and also among stories that fail. Here are some hints for getting your story past the slush squad and onto the editor’s desk.

1. Submission Guidelines are Not Suggestions – Every magazine, whether print or electronic, has guidelines that spell out what is expected of a manuscript submitted for publication. They’re usually found on the magazine’s web site, via a link helpfully labeled, “Submission Guidelines,” or the equivalent. You’ll discover important details such as formatting requirements, acceptable file types (for electronic submissions), acceptable genres and content, and time windows for submission. Some magazines will automatically reject manuscripts that violate their guidelines, no matter how good the story is. At the very least, failure to follow submission guidelines tells the magazine’s editorial staff that you don’t much care what they think and you don’t much care that you’re metaphorically sending the child of your imagination into a job interview thirty minutes late, dressed in saggy jeans, flip-flops, and a sweat-stained t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “I’m With Stupid.”

2. I Am Not Your Proofreader – A discouraging number of manuscripts arrive littered with typos, misspellings, grammatical errors, and awkward sentence structure. There might be a very good story buried under that mess, but chances are, we’ll never see it. A manuscript that looks like a first draft communicates inexperience, laziness, or both. Invest in a style guide like Strunk & White’s Elements of Style or the Chicago Manual of Style, study it, and chain it to your writing desk. Polish your story to a fine sheen before sending it off, and that polishing should include a pass or two through a critique group or trusted reader who will identify the problems you miss.

3. Don’t Rush a Rewrite – Sometimes we get a promising story that falls a bit short, and the editor might return our review comments to the author with an invitation to resubmit after a rewrite. It’s the next best thing to an outright acceptance, but we’ve seen several authors fumble this golden opportunity by getting in a hurry trying to turn the story around—we often see it again within the next day or two. It’s a fatal error. When writers don’t take the time to make changes carefully and deliberately, they usually create new problems or wreck the parts of their story that were sound and shouldn’t have been touched. Quality of the final product is much more important than speed of turn-around for a rewrite.

4. Get Fresh – With your story, not with us. We read a lot of stories, both via the slush pile and on our own time, because we love to read. If we didn’t, you couldn’t drag us within two parsecs of this job. The downside is that we’ve seen it all. Retreading the latest fad or a classic plot twist will not impress us. New ideas and fresh perspectives catch our attention. Give us a reason to start reading, to keep reading, and to remember your story a long time after we’ve finished. Is it subjective? Sure. To get a better idea of what any editorial staff likes in a story, the best thing you can do is read their magazine.

5. These Don’t Work – Slow introductions, massive data dumps of background material, illogical plots, wandering narratives, graphic sex, gratuitous violence, excessive profanity, political/religious sales-pitches, and stereotypes.

6. These Work Better – An arresting plunge into your story, worldbuilding blended into storytelling, meaningful action, steady pacing, honest emotion, intelligent dialogue, and memorable characters—real people wrestling with real problems.

7. Accept Rejection Gracefully – Even if you do everything right, there’s still a high probability your story will be rejected. There’s not enough time, money, or space to publish everything that comes into the mailbox, and not everything is a good fit for the magazine’s style and vision. It’s nothing personal. We usually provide a little feedback about what did and didn’t work for us in the hope that you’ll try again another day with a better understanding of what we’re looking for. Rejection letters don’t require a reply, but we sometimes get snarky comebacks or overheated rants from rejected authors. These yield nothing but a closed door next time, and it doesn’t take long to run out of potential story outlets if you make an enemy of every editor who turns down one of your stories. Courteous authors get more consideration than rude, boorish authors. Swallow your pride, learn from the experience, tweak your story if it needs it, and fire it off to another market.

8. We’re On Your Side – Believe it or not, slush readers are not scowling gatekeepers dedicated to keeping the riff-raff out of our members-only salon. Nothing brings us more joy than discovering a cool story in the slush pile. We don’t care who you are, where you come from, how you vote, where you pray, or what style of underwear you prefer. If you write good stuff, we want it, and it pains us to see authors submit manuscripts that aren’t ready for prime-time, but could be, with a little more work.

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