Just to prove what a small world it is, when I went over to Chicago for Worldcon there were a number of people in the States who I already met, and was keen to catch up with again. One of those was Ethan Fode, a fellow writer I had met at Conflux and whose company I had really enjoyed. With all the craziness of the convention it took a bit of arranging, but when we managed to cross paths it was great to get to hang out and chat writing and enjoy the excellent bar!
As well as being a very talented writer, Ethan is also part of an exciting and ambitious project to launch a crowd sourced magazine. I’ve been following its progress with a great deal of interest, and it looks to me as if it is coming together nicely. I’ve put my money where my mouth is and subscribed, because as a writer I know we need more pro markets for quality short speculative fiction, and as a reader I love reading the work of new and established writers. As well as subscribing, I thought I would ask Ethan to come and talk about his slushing experiences at Crowded, and I hope that you will at least check out the website (which has awesome stats up right now for fellow stats geeks like me!).
I’ve always wondered what it was like to read slush. A few months ago, I got my chance to be a real live slusher at Crowded Magazine. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that a friend of mine and I started Crowded Magazine; we also happen to be the #1 and #2 slushers.)
A little bit about the Crowded slushpile: it’s basically open to the public. Anybody who submits a story or subscribes to the magazine can read slush. And slushing is anonymous: slushers know the name of the story, the approximate word count, and the story’s genre. But that’s it. The author and the story’s current rating are hidden.
Now let’s get back to me. During Crowded’s first reading period, I waded through a little over 300 stories. This didn’t make me a slush expert—not by a long shot—but it did give me a little insight into my slushing process. Here’s a list of a few things I learned.
Thing #1: There are lots of publishable stories out there. Bazillions of them, in fact. Maybe the top 5 or 10 percent, give or take. But the magazine couldn’t publish all of them, so I found myself rejecting perfectly good stories on gut instinct. For me as a writer, this means that whenever a hot, steaming rejection plops into my inbox, I resist the urge to go back and attempt to figure out where my story went wrong. Because there’s no telling whether the story went wrong or not.
Thing #2: My reaction to a story depends on, but is not limited to, the following factors:
– My experiences as a reader and writer
– My job (or lack thereof)
– My childhood (or lack thereof)
– The last book I read
– The last story I slushed
– What I had for breakfast
– How much alcohol I drank the prior night
– The phase of the moon
As you might have guessed, my reaction to a story can be different on any given day. Sure, some things don’t change: I’m a hard sell on vampires, werewolves, and zombies. But at the margins, stuff gets a little muddled. This goes back to Thing #1. A rejection—even a flat out form letter rejection—does not mean that the story wasn’t good. The story just hit me on the wrong day, the wrong way. (Note: this is not an invitation to resubmit a story that’s been rejected. There’s too much slush out there as it is.)
Do I have prejudices as a slusher? Sure I do. Am I going to tell you what they are? Hell no. Because they’re different for every story I read. For example, I’ll forgive one story’s wonky prose and then go crazy when the next story has similar writing. Maybe it seems like I’m being arbitrary, but I think most people will agree that matters of taste are more nuanced than that.
In that vein, some slushers seem to have rigid criteria for the stories they read, and I’ve seen some very prescriptive lists of “slusher don’ts” on the interwebs. For example: Don’t use sayisms. Don’t write in second person. Don’t start a sentence with a participle. Don’t have an ambiguous ending. Don’t go swimming in shark-infested waters. Don’t feed your story after midnight. Don’t don’t don’t.
That’s all great advice, sure, but take it with a grain of salt. Trying to do all that stuff will make you crazy. I’m not saying that you should submit a story filled with typos, or send in a manuscript written in crayon—educate yourself, by all means—I’m just not sure if it’s worth killing yourself trying to follow someone else’s roadmap to quality.
Thing #3: Reading slush makes you a better writer. I’m not sure exactly why, but seeing someone do something badly is a great way to learn what not to do. It’s a lot easier for me to read a terrible story and say, “Whoa, I’ll never do that” than it is for me to replicate what I read in a collection of Hugo winners. And besides providing lots of bad examples to avoid, my experience as a slusher has helped clarify what works for me. After plowing through 300 stories of wildly varying quality and subject matter, I feel like I’m closer to writing the story that I want to write.
For that reason, I think every writer should try his or her hand at slushing. If nothing else, you get to see what it’s like from the other side of the table.
And this is not a shameless plug for Crowded. Honest.
Although if you’re interested in giving it a go, our next round of submissions and slushing starts in January.
Ethan Fode is co-editor of Crowded Magazine, a pro-paying speculative fiction magazine based in Sydney. To learn more about the magazine, visit the website at www.crowdedmagazine.com.