Posts Tagged ‘Slush pile’


I think every writer, at least every short story writer, should read slush for a while. My god, but it really puts fiction in perspective for you.

For the uninitiated among us, wikipedia informs us:

In publishing, the slush pile is the set of unsolicited query letters or manuscripts sent either directly to the publisher or literary agent by authors, or to the publisher by an agent not known to the publisher.[1]

Sifting through the slush pile is a job given to assistants-to-the-editors, or to outside contractors (called “publisher’s readers” or “first readers”).

Reading slush really gives you such a huge appreciation for the talent and skill of true professional writers. Take a run of the mill slush story and a story published by a professional writer in a magazine or anthology…most often there is simply no comparison to be made. It’s not even a case of apples vs oranges. It’s a case of biting into an apple versus chugging a pint of bleach.

And that’s not to denigrate those of us who aren’t the elite cadre of writer’s out there. God knows I’m not in that grouping (yet!! *shakes fist*). But you really have to admire those professional writers at the top of their game.   They’ve come up with a cool story idea; they’ve crafted characters who are real people; they’ve started the story at the right spot (biggest issue with most poor short fiction); they’ve placed those characters in some sort of situation or presented them with some problem that requires resolution; they’ve developed an underlying theme or motif that either overtly challenges the reader or bubbles away in the background; and they’ve written the story using finely polished prose that takes the reader through that process in an evocative and engaging manner. They made you think things. They make you feel things.  That’s no small feat!

So what’s this got do with reading slush? The vast majority of fiction in the slush pile fails at one or more of the above mentioned things. The more things it fails at, the more the story’s ‘apple’ dissolves into ammonia.   At first, some of these failures (usually outright omissions.. e.g no plot, no real people, no situation/incident, etc) are hard to spot, and that’s the beauty of it.  Reading slush hones your ability to critically analyse stories and prose. It might be hard at first, but I guarantee you by the time you’ve read 100 slush stories… you will  be spotting issues with many stories with ease. You’ll look at a story and think “Geez, three pages went by before I found out what the issue/problem/incident to be resolved is!” and bang, there you go.. you know the story started 3 pages too early. Your own writing will improve dramatically.  When you’ve picked out unnecessary filtering of action and emotion in 100 manuscripts, you’ll really start to notice it popping out in your own. Conversely you’ll start noticing where a more distanced point of view might be of benefit to the story.  With 200 stories under your belt your repertoire of issues that you’ll catch during your analysis will increase and you’ll develop strategies and a process or workflow that you use when analysing a story.  With 300 stories under your belt, you’ll develop a true confidence in your analysis. (Obviously we’re all different I’m just throwing out some ballpark numbers here, but you get the drift.)

It is extremely hard to notice flaws in your own fiction, even some of the real pros struggle with it, which is why they continue to get critiques and beta-reads done by other writers. You need some serious writer/editor-fu to be able to do it, and this only comes with time and experience.   I believe this is where slush reading is of a huge benefit because via repetition and exposure to an endless variety of writing styles, it provides that experience.  Slush reading, for me, is the equivalent of basic routines and katas in martial arts.  In martial arts, you perform the move a hundred times, two hundred, three hundred – block-punch-kick. block-punch-kick. block-punch-kick.  It seeps into you and becomes part of your subconscious and your muscle memory, to the point where if someone throws a punch at you, your immediate response is block-punch-kick!  When you’ve seen and noted 300 different authors filter the actions and emotions of their point of view character, then you have the literary muscle memory response of block-kick-punch, and you blow away that filtering and you write in a more active and close point of view into your own manuscript.

Beyond critical analysis skills, slush reading provides a writer variety and exposure to a variety of ideas, narrative styles, prose styles, grammatical techniques, story telling techniques. This in invaluable. As humans, from the time we’re born we’re copying others. First our parents, then our teachers and friends, and later in life even other adults. This is how we learn and grow.  Sure, we often put our own spin on something we’ve learned or we innovate in a particular area, and we can still create extremely unique art, but our ability to do this is extremely limited if our exposure to new ideas and methods is limited.  I am currently doing an interview series where I’m chatting with Women who work in the horror genre. Almost every single response to the question “what’s the best advice for new writers” is “Read a lot and widely.”  Reading slush is a perfect way to do just that.




Yesterday I did a post about a filter words, which I’ve labelled as the Worst Offender in my slush pile. This is true at the prose/sentence level, but what about some of the other issues that I’m seeing that pertain more to story structure, etc?

To make this post a little more fun, I’ve tried to order each entry as how I would notice it as I read the story with my editor’s hat on.  These are probably the first 3 things that will, (at least with me, but also with many other editors), result in your short story being rejected. I’m writing about these issues in the context of short stories, but these are pertinent issues for longer form work such as novels and novellas, too.

1- Pre-Incident waffle:

1 waffle

A Pre-Incident Waffle

In the Pre-Incident Waffle scenario, the the author doesn’t start the story close enough to the start of the actual story/inciting incident/action. This results in two pages of waffle before the story starts going somewhere. Much of it is beautiful description and exposition; much of it is lovely waffle-but waffles are for breakfast, they’re not a tool for writing short stories.

2- No Inciting Incident:

zero incidents

The inciting incident is point where your story takes off. It’s a figurative door that your character steps 0ut from and through which they cannot return. It is an event, early on the in story, that upsets the equilibrium in the character’s life, posits them a question and/or forces them to take action. The protagonist tries to find a resolution, or answer to this question. The antagonist seeks to prevent this.  This is the catalyst for conflict and the crucible within which the action that makes your story really go places.

I cannot begin to express how many stories come through in slush piles that have no real inciting incident.  I suppose, these could be considered some kind of “slice of life” fiction, which frankly bores the hell out of me. I don’t want to be bored.  I want read to a story about someone—Someone real. I want conflict. I want to be taken on some kind of journey. I want tragedy and triumph.

A good piece of fiction has an inciting incident.  Arguably, any piece of fiction has one, but so many stories that end up in the slush pile and end up with form rejections have no real inciting incident. They’re just a bunch of words on a page where a person does things. There is no conflict. There is no resolution. There is no real antagonist.  A reader, and definitely any editor, will lose patience and interest with this story extremely quickly.

Some truly clever writers have mastered the art of disguising the inciting incident. The net result is a story that seemingly just unfolds for us as readers, and yet captures our attention and imagination from the beginning because the conflict is there but it’s just so damn subtle. The antagonist may be hidden or may not be another person/character in the traditional sense. The problem is, the vast majority of stories that come through slush are not this story. They’re just poorly written and would benefit from rewriting with a view to find and accentuate the inciting incident.

As a general rule, the closer to the start of your short story that your inciting incident occurs, the better.  Many of the best short stories have the inciting incident occur or referenced within the opening line or paragraph of the story.  If it hasn’t occurred by the end of the first page, you haven’t started at the start of the story.  It is often said that anything that occurs before the inciting incident is, in fact, back story.

As discussed in the intro, this is as important for the novel as it is for the short story, the difference being that the novelist has more leeway as to how long they can take before the Inciting Incident occurs.

3-  Post-incident waffles:

more waffles


In the Post-Incident Waffle scenario, the the author starts at the inciting incident (II) in the first line or paragraph (Yay!), but after the first paragraph, or short scene in which the II occurs, goes into a waffling parenthetical explanation of scene/characters/history/etc. that drags on for 1-2 pages before they bring the reader back to the action and the story recommences moving forward.  Once again, folks, repeat after me:  WAFFLES ARE FOR BREAKFAST – THEY’RE NOT A TOOL FOR WRITING SHORT STORIES.



At this point, I’ve read circa 6 pages of your story and if you have all of the above 3 issues I’m  going to reject it. Often I’ll know by the time I’ve got through your Pre-Incident Waffle that the story isn’t for me. If it’s good waffle, I’ll probably read a bit further. If the author dishes me waffles straight up and that is the story’s only major structural flaw, it’s probably not hard to edit it down so that the story starts near the inciting incident. If this is the case, I’ll keep reading.

I’m definitely going to be looking for the true start of the story (inciting incident) and when the action to really kick off. If I can’t find those and you put me through MOAR WAFFLES, I’m gonna reject your story.

Here’s the rub:  I’ve got 14-20 other stories I need to select and edit, probably anywhere from 40-100 slush stories I need to read,  author correspondence to make, proofing, etc. etc. I’m not going to make a rod for my own back by taking on a story that requires so much work to correct—I simply don’t have the time. Many editors wouldn’t even be this lenient and would’ve rejected your story after the first two pages. I know of only a couple who would bother to keep reading or would read the entire story.

To quote E.B White, speaking of Professor William Strunk, author of The Elements of Style:

“Will (Strunk) felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get this man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.”

Your reader is a drowning man. Throw him a rope so he can climb out of the swamp. The longer you delay, the further he slips into the mud. Drowning people don’t care you have an awesome ending in 8 pages. Your reader just wants to live!  If you’ve taken 4-6 pages to throw your reader a rope,  you’re probably too late. You’ve just drowned your reader. DON’T DROWN YOUR READER. Especially not the fiction editor you’re submitting to.

I’ll address some other things in Pt 2, but this has addressed some of the major issues that will cause problems for an editor in the first few pages of your short story.