I have a little confession to make. Something I’ve been doing, but haven’t yet shared with you kids.
I’ve been slush reading for a short fiction magazine.
Why's that? Well, I read that a good way to learn what kinds of stories get published in short fiction magazines is to volunteer as a slush reader. The slush reader is the first person to read the unsolicited fiction submissions. They’re the gatekeeper. They read the short stories and decide whether to reject outright, or to pass any promising submissions to the editors, who then make the final decision on what gets published.
I have to admit, I’ve been really enjoying the work. There’s nothing glamorous about it. There’s a lot of non-publishable stories to wade through, but it’s teaching me how to read my own fiction with a slush readers eye, which has been incredibly helpful. (Plus, I get to read tons of short stories and whether they're good or bad, I still kind of like having new stories to think about.)
When I read a submission, there are several things that jump out to me right away that cause me to reject it. Ironically, I had just submitted another short story when I began slush reading and several of the items I’m going to share with you guys are things I realized my own story was guilty of too. Sure enough, it got rejected. But now I know what to look out for in my own writing and can re-edit that story to address some of those issues I see now as a slush reader. Maybe I’ll have better luck with future submissions as a result.
So let me share my slush-reading insights and maybe they’ll be of some help to you too.
1. Do your sentences contain excessive numbers of adjectives and adverbs? Is there more description than plot or character development? If yes, go through your story and be brutal. Cut all that stuff out. I don’t know where we all learned that good writing was hyper-descriptive writing, but I feel like it’s something we all have to unlearn. Take out every description that doesn’t move the story along. If it isn’t adding anything tangible, delete it. A cleaner written, simpler syntax instantly reads better to my ears as I’m combing through stories.
2. Avoid hokey narrative voices or attempts to be funny. Trust me, I’m guilty of this too. I don’t know, I guess we all can hear the joke better in our own heads as we’re writing it, but it rarely translates to an external reader. Again, keep it simple. Cut those parts out and focus everything on telling one griping story.
3. Don't forget about character. If your reader couldn’t tell you anything about the backstory, likes, dislikes, fears, desires, motivations about your characters, or if there’s nothing remotely unique about your characters, that’s a red-flag for me. This one is harder to fix, because you actually have to write more to address it rather than take stuff out. But character arc is important. Without it, I reject.
4. Is there excessive violence in your story? That’s another almost instant rejection, for me. Usually the magazine’s submission guidelines counsel against gratuitous, graphic violence anyway, so ask yourself, do I really need that evisceration scene? Does the whole story depend on someone’s brain’s getting blown out? If yes…maybe consider submitting a different story? It’s really unpleasant to read something so gross and violent. There was one story I read that took a sudden graphic turn that I seriously felt angry that I had to read such a disgusting thing, with no warning whatsoever. (There was also something borderline excessively violent in my own recent submission, and I have to wonder now if that was one of the I'm sure many reasons it was rejected.)
5. Is your story idea unique? If I can easily categorize your story (i.e. vampire romance, a fantasy version of Hamlet, search for a lost crystal, etc.), then I’m probably not going to pass on your story to the editor. It’s better to avoid clichés and aim for something totally original. Those are the stories that are getting published.
6. Is your manuscript really long? I feel bad about this one, but honestly, if your story is really long, I’m already not looking forward to reading it. I think as a rule most of these magazines’ slush readers are unpaid. They’re doing this in their free time and maybe they have other things going on in their life. If it’s possible to cut down your short story from 5000 words to 4000, then by all means do so. Those 1000 words could mean the difference between a tired/bored reader, and one who is excited by your idea and ready to pass it on to the editor.
Anyway, those are just a few thoughts for now that I might add onto later. I would highly recommend you try slush reading if you’re interested in publishing. It’s teaching me how to read my own work with more detachment; how to see it through the eyes of someone who is considering it for publication.