The Submission Process (From a Slush Reader)

Some news for you fine readers, recently I had some luck with writing but not with my own. The awesome folks over at PodCastle decided to take me on as one of their Associate Editors. Though Associate Editor sounds cool, I am really just a Slush Reader. In addition, I’ve decide to start a podcast called the Slush Puppies which I will post every week at the beginning of my blog posts. The two will not always coincide as I cover all things writing on the blog and the podcast is only going to cover problems I see in slush pile, and how writers can avoid making the same mistakes. If you want listen, check out the audio player below.

(Side Note about PodCastle: We pay $0.06/word for previously unpublished fantasy short stories up to 6,000 words, $100 flat for reprints over 2,000 words, and are a SFWA qualified professional market. Please read our full submission guidelines before you submit.) 

In case you don’t know, us slush puppies are the first people who read submissions (With PodCastle the submissions are fantasy short stories). If a slusher likes something  we pass it up to the senior editors who ultimately decide if the story gets accepted. If we don’t like the story, we reject it. This post is aimed at giving some insight to those terrible, quiet weeks after you’ve hit submit but haven’t heard a reply.

Slush Puppies: E1 Cover Letters & Emotional Impact

The Submission Process (From a Slush Reader)

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First, your story gets sent to our team account. Any editor can check out these stories and assign them to ourselves. This keeps multiple people from reading the same story and slowing the submission process. Even though we technically could cherry pick any story that we wanted, we always read the oldest submission in the box first. This helps us stay within our turnaround times.

Once I’ve picked a story, the cover letter pops open. Before I delve into this section, realize that I am going to read your story no matter what, so don’t stress too much about the cover letter. That said, there are three things that I really need to know about your story.

  1. The Title
  2. Your Word Count (helps me judge how long it will take to read as I can get about 5,000 done in about 30 minutes)
  3. The Genre

Submission Process: Writing Credits

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Novel submission are different, but when it comes to short stories this is all that is 100% necessary. If you’ve published other stories, I want know that too, unless they are not from a paying or professional market. SFWA has a list detailing every professionally-qualified market on their website. If you’ve published with one, I guarantee I will recognize it and it will make a stronger first impression.

If you have no professionally qualified credits but have been paid for your writing, include the pay rate at the very end. This lets me know someone thought your work was good enough to actually pay with real money, not exposure or the chance to say your “published,” but real money.  Here’s an example:

My story, “Awesome Story I Wrote,” was published on January 12th, 2017 by ABC Magazine ($0.03/word). 

I know its harsh, but I don’t care if you’ve been published by your school newspaper, had something self-published (unless its a mega best seller), or published anything that you were not paid an upfront amount for. Unpaid writing credits pretty much mean nothing to me. If your writing was really that good, then somebody would have been willing to pay you for it.

As it stands, pro markets like Clarkesworld or Asimov’s are the best. Semi-Pro markets that pay but are not SFWA qualified are next. Unpaid writing or self-publishing means pretty much nothing unless the work has won some awesome award. This isn’t to say self-publishing is bad, only that I have no way of knowing if the self-published work was even proofread. The accessibility of self-publishing makes the credit pretty much worthless.

The reason why this matters is because it primes me for the quality of writing I’m about to see. Stellar writing credits will tell me that I am getting ready to read a professional writer not someone still learning their craft. A bunch of credits from unpaid markets or self-publishing tells me that the writer either hasn’t been able to get published by a pro-market or they just starting to submit to the big leagues. If someone has no credits, I will probably have pretty low expectations, BUT that makes it much easier to surprise me. I would rather be the first person to “discover” an unpublished writer, rather than the same writer claiming to have been published a dozen times though they had never been paid a dime.

Submission Process: The Story & Prose

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When it comes to your story, I pretty much know if I am going to reject it within the first page or two. This is because 90% of stories that I read have not been properly revised. This is next point is really important, because I didn’t realize what this meant before I read slush. I don’t mean that these stories are full of typos, I mean the are too wordy. There is so much fluff that it takes away the tension of the story. Realize that this isn’t something a casual reader will notice because there is nothing really “wrong” with it. Below are two examples to illustrate my point:

Example 1: The silence was deafening. I quickly nodded my head. 

Example 2: Silence. I nodded. 

Both convey the same information, but in my opinion, the second is more powerful. The extra words in the first removes immediacy. You might argue that this is personal style which I can understand; but as a reader I dislike it. I’m sure there are editors with differing opinions so try your best to research the styles editors like to read.

Back on topic, If I am reading a story written in the style of the first example, I will be mentally parring each sentence down, which makes it hard to become immersed in the story. If I can’t enjoy the story, I can’t pass it up.

Lack of Force

Another problem common to the slush pile revolves around the actual story. Essentially, stories in the slush pile often have too much beginning and not enough ending. To elaborate, stories often take a long time to convey a compelling emotion (tension, mystery, intrigue) and once the emotion finally starts to simmer the conflict ends. Sometimes the story continues but that is a separate problem, which I’ll address in a bit.

To fix this issue, have your beta readers mark each time they start to feel tension, every time it builds, and whenever it falls. If you have a 5,000 word short story and your readers say they don’t start feeling tension until word 3,000, you can assume they are somewhat bored until they get to that point. As an editor, I can respect some awesome prose, but this isn’t poetry, a story needs to compel me to read and this is most commonly done by capturing and building on a specific emotion.

Some stories have a cool premise and writing but the characters simply try one thing and then the story ends. This often makes it feel hollow and unsatisfying. If you haven’t heard it, check out the 15 minute Writing Excuses episode on try/fail cycles. It will tell you everything you need to fix this problem.

Finally, some stories will set the scene, build tension, and then let it ebb because they do not capitalize on it fast enough. Even though the climax might come at the end, it doesn’t have power because the tension had already faded from earlier. This is why it is important to have beta readers mark the points where tension drops. In short stories, it should build from the inciting incident all the way to the resolution. Any lengthy dips will actually reset the tension and create multiple tiny spikes rather than one giant emotional kick to the teeth.

Submission Process: Levels of Rejection

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Even if I know I will reject a piece, I will often read it all the way through. Poor writing will make it hard to accomplish, but I will often read a few pages beyond the point where I know I will reject. If a story somehow catches me, I will be much more apt to forgive the prose. If the story gets rejected before I reach the end, it is almost always due to some pervasive line level problem.

This could be extensive typos, too little or too much detail, rough dialogue, or just anything that shows the writer is still in the earlier stages of learning their craft (Note: Some experienced writers have these problems because they haven’t adequately polished the piece). If I reject a piece for these rejections, it is just a straight form rejection, no details about your story, just “Thanks for submitting, but we are going to pass.”

The next level of rejection is still a form. If I finish a story and feel like it had some good elements but some problems, I use a bit more encouraging response. “I enjoyed your story, but it didn’t quite come together.” Common problems that cause this rejection are flat characters, little tension, or pacing issues.

The top tier rejection from me is personal. I only do this for stories I like but couldn’t bring myself to pass up because they didn’t wow me. I will likely point out something that I enjoyed about their piece and then let them know why I didn’t accept it. (i.e. Your characters and prose were awesome, but I didn’t feel a strong emotion at the ending.)

If a story has no major problems, and I enjoyed their prose. I will most likely pass it up. Overall this is only about 5% of the submissions that I read. Even when I pass something up that doesn’t mean the story will be accepted. The Senior Editors read it and make the final decision. Of the story’s that actually get accepted, it is probably around the top 1-2%.

The difference between those top 1-2% stories and those around the 5% mark usually isn’t the writing, its the ideas behind the story. We want to read something unique and fresh. The conflicts, characters, or plot catches our attention and makes it without a doubt something that deserves acceptance.

Thanks for Reading!

I hope this was helpful. I know before I started at PodCastle, I always wanted more info on what actually goes on during the submission process. If you haven’t followed my blog and want to hear some more of my thoughts from the slush pile, please hit the button below. Thanks again and good luck with your writing.

—Don’t Forget to Subscribe

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