4 Reasons to Read Slush

Awhile back I ran across an internet discussion debating the merits of reading slush. While some expressed skepticism that reading slush would be worth their time, every slush reader or former slush reader I’ve spoken to has extolled the value of the experience.

Submissions editors, colloquially known as slush readers, are an integral part of any speculative short fiction market’s inner workings. A slush reader’s job is to read through the mass of a market’s general submissions — the “slush” or “slush pile” — identify stories that fit the market’s needs, and pass those stories up to the editors for a final decision.

So what exactly are the benefits of being a submissions editor aka slush reader? What value do people, especially writers, derive from slogging the slush? I’ve done very little slushing myself, so in order to answer this question, I consulted with a number of folks with experience slushing for major SFF venues.

1. You Give Back to the Community

At the risk of stating the obvious, contributing to something you value is, by definition, valuable. Many submission editor positions are volunteer positions, and donating your time is one way you can support something you love. Some people donate money to causes they believe in, others might donate food to a food bank, or clothes to a shelter. It all depends on the resources available to you and the needs of the particular organization you want to support. Venues that publish speculative short fiction need slush readers.

For Matt Dovey, who has slushed for PodCastle for 3 years now, this contribution to the community is the most important part of slushing. “[It] makes me feel like I’m paying something back,” he says.  “There is not enough money in the speculative short story market for it to work without volunteer labor, despite it offering something of real worth back to the world.”

And engaging with a community is never a one-way street: Matt Dovey also “made a lot of connections with very smart, very cool people.”

Other writers agree, slush reading connects you to the wider community. “I live in what feels like the middle of nowhere… hours from any opportunity at meeting up with speculative writers,” says A. Katherine Black. “Being on the Strange Horizons staff has given me a stronger sense of participation in the SFF community, which has been wonderful.”

Slushing not only connects you to the editors you read for, but also the writers who submit. Every time a slush reader passes a story up to the editors, they’re doing their part to advance the author’s career. And they can’t help rooting for that story, and for the author who sent it in.

More than that: slush readers even root for the stories they reject. Cislyn Smith, who has slushed for Uncanny Magazine since they first opened almost 5 years ago, says “seeing something that came to Uncanny end up elsewhere is always a thrill, and I’m happy that the author kept sending things out and found it a home.”

2. You See the Process from the Other Side

Speaking of rejection, slush reading can be a great salve for that inevitable sting.

“Often times, it’s not that your story isn’t good, it’s that it doesn’t fit what the venue needs at that time for whatever reason,” says Dawn Vogel, who slushed for Mad Scientist Journal for 8 years. “Slushing helped me see how many GOOD stories have to be released back to their authors for exactly that reason.”

When an editor says your story isn’t right for them, they often mean just that. It doesn’t mean that story isn’t right for someone else.

And while that lesson can be related by word-of-mouth, firsthand experience is a stronger tool for learning than received wisdom. There’s no substitute for witnessing the apparatus and inner workings of a fiction market up close.

“As a writer reading slush, seeing great stories sometimes get rejected for reasons unrelated to quality is eye opening and reassuring,” says Sandy Parsons, who slushes for Escape Pod. “Also seeing the sheer volume of stories in the queue can give you a whole new level of appreciation for what the editors and publishers have to contend with.”

Beyond that, slushing can lead to further editorial opportunities, and may even make a writer realize they’re just as comfortable on the editor-side of the table.

3. You Improve Your Own Writing

In addition to seeing stories that work but aren’t right for a given market, slush readers also comb through loads of stories that, for various reasons, don’t quite work. Identifying what doesn’t work in a story, and why, is essential to slush reading, and reading slush is bound to build that skill. It also happens to be an invaluable skill for a writer.

“I think even if you’re not actively going into this to learn to become a better writer, it’s bound to happen just because you’re reading so much and reading critically,” says P.A. Cornell, who slushes for Amazing Stories. “I’ve definitely noticed a big improvement in my own writing and in my ability to edit.”

Applying that kind of insight to writing and revision can take a story to the next level, where it can get noticed by slush readers at another market and get passed up to an editor.

“I learned the fail mode of stuff I was trying to do,” says Effie Seiberg. “I could see stuff where it was clear the author thought they were being clever, but really only making the author laugh. This made my own work better because it taught me what not to do. My own craft seriously leveled up from slushing.”

While there’s an upper limit to what one can learn from reading slush, and some choose to stop slushing after a couple of years, plenty of people stick with it for longer. Because there are more reasons to keep slushing than just honing your writing skill.

4. You Make Your Own Reward

Perhaps the most compelling reason to read slush is the simplest: for the sheer enjoyment of it.

To the uninitiated, it might seem strange, even masochistic, to take pleasure in wading through dozens of stories looking for undiscovered gems, but it’s those few gems that make it all worthwhile. Stephen S. Power put it well: “Slushing is like shopping, but you don’t have to pay for what you want. Same dopamine rush when you find something good.” So for some, slush reading is like a literary flea market, or a magical bookstore, where all the stories are free and completely new to you — and in many cases, new to the world.

There are a surprising number of things to appreciate about slushing. “I love slushing,” says Eleanor R. Wood, who slushes for Podcastle. “I love seeing everyone’s ideas and vastly different writing styles. I love waxing lyrical about the stories I love and championing them to the editors. I love seeing stories I bumped get accepted. I love being part of such an amazing team of people, knowing my contribution is useful, and tuning in each week to hear the stories we’ve rooted for. I love panning through the silt looking for that one gleaming story that makes me laugh, or cry, or transports me somewhere incredible.”

Of the 4 reasons described here, any one alone could prove sufficient motivation to read slush; and most people I consulted cited at least two of these benefits, if not more. Of course, slush reading is not going to be for everyone. Some writers simply don’t have the time or inclination. But for those who do, it can be worthwhile and rewarding endeavor.

What Cannot Be Said in Words: Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

Yesterday the world learned of the passing of literary giant Ursula K. Le Guin. And I don’t think I’ve ever felt so deeply upset by the death of someone I never actually met. But then, few individuals have had such a profound impact on me with their words alone.

When I was about thirteen, I read A Wizard of Earthsea. It was quite different from any piece of fiction I’d encountered before: epic but focused, mythic yet personal, with a fascinating take on magic and the power of words; and it flipped the script on the common fantasy trope of pale civilized folk and brown barbarians, revealing and rejecting the white supremacist undercurrent I hadn’t even realized was present in the genre. Eager for more, I nabbed the sequel, The Tombs of Atuan, and settled into my faux-denim beanbag chair to continue my journey through Earthsea.

Wizard was wonderful and eye-opening, but The Tombs of Atuan was a revelation. It changed how I thought about fiction, challenging and overturning my fundamental assumptions about what made good fantasy.

Sometime in the preceding year or so, I had declared anathema all books that had “slow parts.” Tombs was all “slow parts.” There was little action, and almost no magic, at least not in the flashy, overt sense I was accustomed to. The magic of Tombs was personal and interpersonal; it was empathy, and reclaiming lost identity, and freedom, and choice. It was beautiful, and restrained, and by my own standards of the time I should have been bored and done with it by page 2. But I loved every word.

Afterwards, I was unable to express why this book had drawn me in and consumed me so thoroughly. It showed me that compelling storytelling didn’t have to come barreling in with a loud bang. Sometimes the most powerful stories come softly, creeping up on you unawares.

I’m still not sure I could explain how Le Guin did what she did, how she got an adolescent boy raised on explosion-filled Saturday morning cartoons to invest himself in a young girl’s quiet coming of age. Perhaps it’s time for me to revisit The Tombs of Atuan, time to return to the world of Earthsea, and explore it once again with fresh eyes.

I wish I had some bit of wisdom or a pithy quote to end with, but there are entire books filled with Le Guin’s words and wisdom (go forth and read them, for the first time, or the fiftieth time) and I can offer none of my own. Because right now, I’m back to being that kid in the beanbag chair, failing to find the words for what I’m feeling.

Goodbye, Ms. Le Guin. We will miss you.

Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of a series of posts I’m doing about building skill in descriptive narrative prose and language use. In this installment I dig down into some theory and practice (my own personal theory and practice, anyway). Click here for Part 1. Or click here for Part 2.

With Passion: Words to Build Worlds

I’ve always been a lover of words. (That’s common among writers, of course.) I think of words in connotation, in shades of meaning. For me, there are no precise synonyms, only imperfect ones, words that are almost-but-not-quite the same. I love learning interesting new words, and I encourage any and every writer to be an avid word-hoarder.

When I’m writing, I often have a tab or two open to an online thesaurus, searching for the exact right word — the one on the tip of my mind that I can’t quite put a neural finger on. Recently I got up to about twelve thesaurus tabs at once, which is a record for me. What I’m trying to say is, if you want to build a good product, know your materials and tools, and use the right ones for the job. Words are your tools, your building blocks, but words are also living things, and you should choose them, and use them, with care.

You also need to pay attention to where your words fall in the sentence, of course. In the case of the Day of the Twelve Tabs, I discovered that rearranging the sentence was the solution, and when I did the word I’d wanted to use finally fit. Taking the care to choose the right words, in the right places, with the right punctuation, can make all the difference. I know that sounds kind of fundamental, even vague, but bear with me here. Because I think — or rather, I feel, and have virtually no expertise to back this up — that there are three levels or “layers” of prose composition, or of prose revision anyway, and it’s the second two layers where you should focus your passion.

Many experienced authors will advise you to do one prose-focused revision pass on any given piece of writing, usually as a third or fourth draft revision after you’ve addressed any larger-scale problems with the story. This is good advice. I don’t follow it strictly, because I can’t resist the urge to revise as I go. If you can resist that urge, then I recommend saving all your prose polish for last, or close to last, so that you don’t spend time polishing a part of the story that you’ll later have to cut, change, or rearrange.

When you’re doing your prose polish — assuming you do one; if you don’t, because your words come out perfect the first time, what are you doing reading this? Go win a Pulitzer or something — you’ll be working in three distinct “layers” of prose. (Or that’s how I see it anyway.) Different sentences will need attention in different layers. Some sentences may even need attention on two, or even all three layers. The top layer of prose revision isn’t much more than aggressive copyediting: cleaning up sentences and punctuation, fixing grammar, and reinforcing clarity on the most basic level, using the everyday rules of the English language as your tools.

Keep in mind, grammar rules exist to serve clarity, not some arbitrary standard. For instance, no matter what anyone tells you, there is nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive. “To boldly go where no one has gone before” sounds more natural than “To go boldly…” and loses nothing in clarity. And for those who think it’s never okay to end a sentence with a preposition, well, that’s the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!

The second layer of prose revision is where clarity meets style, where function meets form, and you break out your writer’s toolbox: varying sentence lengths to aid pacing and story rhythm, fixing weak or awkward constructions, cutting back on adverbs (“walked angrily” becomes “stalked” or “stomped”), eliminating filtering (“He saw a ghost appear in front of him” becomes “A ghost appeared in front of him”); strengthening your prose.

The third layer is where you ask yourself: How could I construct this differently, to use words and rhythm to better effect, to make a stronger impression in the reader’s mind? How can I say this better? It may be a matter of changing a single word, or a whole paragraph — or nothing at all. Often, I’ll dig down to this third layer when I see problems in the top two layers, because making improvements here, in addition to being an end in itself, can solve a lot of problems in the layers above. This is the layer that this blog post is all about. This is where your inner poet and inner word-lover go to work.

A few pitfalls to avoid: don’t use bigger or more obscure words just because you can, and don’t overelaborate or purple your prose. Make the words and punctuation serve the story. Like the title of Part 2 said: you still need to think like a storyteller, and not let your poetic diction overwhelm your story’s direction. Words are tools; sure they’re the tools you use to paint a picture, but they’re still tools, just like a brush and palette. Most importantly, don’t forget to bring your upper-layer tools down the mineshaft with you. You don’t want your work in Layer Three to destabilize the layers above, or they’ll collapse and your carefully excavated prose will end up buried under a mountain of passive voice and dangling modifiers.

I’ll use a small example, from my earlier twelve-tab anecdote. I started with “brief and intense,” which is a bit of a stock phrase, and “intense” just wasn’t quite the word I was looking for. Twelve tabs later I settled on “vivid.” “Brief and vivid” didn’t scan quite right; “brief but vivid” did, but there was still something missing. How about “brief but vivid in the moonlight”? And that’s what I went with. Maybe that doesn’t strike your fancy, maybe it sounds like total trash to your literary ear, but I like it.

And that wraps up the 3rd and final installment of Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion. I don’t have any specific exercises for this final section, other than grab a piece of your fiction and dig into that third layer of prose. If you like, you can go back and apply the third layer concept and careful word choice to the exercises from Part 1 or Part 2. If you do, let me know how it goes, if those exercises feel different after what you read here in Part 3.

Be well, and keep writing.

Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a series of posts I’m doing about building skill in descriptive narrative prose and language use. Click here for Part 1.

Poetic Prose: Think like a Storyteller, Write like a Poet

I admit it: I have dabbled in poetry. The Forbidden Art. I took a class on the Romantic Poets (Blake and Keats 4eva!), but I also, through no fault of my own, ended up in an Advanced Poetry class without having even taking the basic level poetry class. Sure, I’d taken the Intro creative writing class, and I’d written some poems there, and some stuff back in high school (thankfully not the typical angst-filled kind, but still pretty bad). I was annoyed, since this was not the class I’d wanted to take (that would have been the short story writing class, which was full), but I wasn’t worried. The first poem I handed in for critique, the class completely ripped to shreds. And rightly so. I’d been thrown ass-first into the deep end of the poetry pool, and this was going to be a trial by fire, where I’d learn not to use clichés and mix my metaphors.

The upshot of studying poetry, and writing poetry, especially with a group of people much more experienced and dedicated to the art form, was that I could FEEL my writing improving at the word-level, the level of individual expressions and arrangements of syllables, the building blocks even more basic than the sentence. (I was like a biologist who discovered, hey, you know, knowing a little bit about this chemistry stuff is pretty useful.) It was good exercise, focusing that level of care and attention on individual words, their interactions and arrangements, on layers of meaning and metaphor and imagery. And unlike in a story writing class, we read our poems aloud before critiquing them. I am a big advocate of reading your work aloud, tasting the syllables, the rhythm of the words and punctuation.

So: read poetry. Read it aloud. Write poetry, even if it’s bad. Read your own poetry, good or bad, ALOUD. In front of people, and by “people,” I mean an audience, not your cat. You don’t have to try to be a poet; Zeus Seuss knows I’M not a poet, and have never claimed to be. (I even wrote a poem for the aforementioned poetry writing class, about how I’m not a poet; cute, but that whole “meta” thing’s been done a bit much.) But if you can capture even some microscopic iota of poetry in your words, some poetic residue to soak your prose in, you’re bound to improve your story writing as well.

If you’re not that familiar with poetry, setting yourself the task to read it, let alone write it, may seem daunting. Poetry is so varied, and so subjective, it’s hard to take (or give) any advice on who or what to read. You might not know where to start. So I’m going to tell you: think about the types of songs you like. What kind of lyrics do you find compelling? Do some brainstorming. Write down some of your favorite songs and write a sentence or two about why you like each one, focusing on the content of the lyrics apart from the music itself. Maybe make notes on some songs you really don’t like, and what it is you can’t stand about them. Is there a pattern to what you like and don’t like? A common complaint about poetry is that it “doesn’t make sense” — the meaning is too abstract. But if you’re a Bob Dylan fan, that might not be a concern for you. (“Ballad of a Thin Man” might follow a poetic logic that evokes the sinister bewilderment of a nightmare, but that doesn’t qualify as “making sense” for most people.)

Once you have a good grasp of what it is you like (and don’t like) in song lyrics — which are really just a kind of poetry — then you’ll be armed with the knowledge of what kind of poetry you’re looking for, and thus equipped to seek it out. The internet is a great resource, but don’t overlook other sources of information. Venture out into meatspace, talk to some real humans. Libraries and librarians are awesome. AWESOME. And don’t forget that most experts, particularly in academia, are eager to share their expertise. If you can get in touch with a professor at a local college, you’ll have a font of information (no cold calls; use your common sense, shoot them a politely worded email if you don’t have a mutual contact who can relay your interest). If you’re asking about their specific area of expertise, even better. Tell someone who’s devoted their life to the study of Irish poetics that you’re really interested in Yeats, and you’ll have an instant friend. (Just make sure you pronounce it “Yates” and NOT “Yeets.”)

Before I close out this section, I’ll give you a few of my favorite poetry exercises we did in the Advanced Poetry class I took.

Found Word Exercise

Take some written medium, like a newspaper, or go to Wikipedia and hit the “random article” button half a dozen times and use those as your medium. Choose words and phrases from the selected medium and splice them together to create a poem.

Dictionary Exercise Random Word Exercise

I was going to talk about an exercise that involved picking words out of a dictionary, but since it’s kind of awkward to explain and a lot of people don’t own hardcopy dictionaries anymore, I came up with something else on my own.

Write something — anything, a poem or prose — or take some existing piece of your own writing. Now pull up a random word generator like text fixer or watchout4snakes. Generate a random word, and replace the first noun of your text with the randomly generated one. Do this for every noun in the text.

The possible variations on this exercise are almost limitless. You could generate 14 random words and use each one in the line of a sonnet, or generate 3 random words, one for each line of a haiku. (Just so you know, haiku written in English don’t really have to follow the seventeen syllable rule, so don’t beat yourself up trying to decide if “tired” is one or two syllables. Bonus points if you write a haiku in Japanese and then translate it into English.)

Watchout4snakes, a random word generation site I discovered while I was writing this, has a “word+” generator that lets you choose what type of word you want (adjective, noun, verb, etc.). So you could generate random words for a poem as you’re writing it, every time you needed a verb, or every time you needed a noun, or just when you didn’t know what to put next. The site also has a phrase generator, and a sentence generator that could be used to generate the first line of a poem, or even the first line of a story. I only had to click the “refresh” button a couple of times on the sentence generator before I got: The oldest weapon pants into a questionable camera. I just might have to use that as a story opener! There’s even a paragraph generator, which you could use to create your “base text” for this exercise or one of the other exercises.

Opposite Word Exercise

This exercise is a little more complicated. Write a poem or a prose passage, or take some existing piece of your own writing. Now choose a pattern of words within the piece of writing: every noun, every verb, every other word, or even every single word. It can be whatever pattern you like, but the more words in the pattern the tougher the exercise and the more wild the results.

Now go through each word in your chosen pattern and try to think of the opposite word, and replace the original word with its opposite. Not every word has an obvious antonym, so you may have to get creative (which is part of the point). Try to be consistent, so that (for example) the opposite of “one” isn’t “two” in one place and “zero” in another, and if “if” is the opposite of “because” then “because” is also the opposite of “if.” This may sound simple, until you have to think of a one-word opposite of “the” or “of” or “be.” (That last one can get complicated; personally, I avoid contractions with this exercise, because while “isn’t” could be the opposite of “is,” there is no equivalent negative contraction of “be.” Try to dig deeper and ask yourself, what action could I set as an opposing or mirror action to being?)

Not only can this exercise produce interesting and unexpected results — one of my favorite poems I wrote for the Advanced Poetry class was just the every-word-opposite of a different (bad) poem I wrote — but it also gets you thinking about words on a very fundamental level.

Thus ends Part 2. Coming up next, Part 3 will be… With Passion: Words to Build Worlds.

Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of a series of posts I’m doing about building skill in descriptive narrative prose and language use. This installment provides a basic introduction and some warm-up exercises.

Recently a friend from my writing group, the very talented z.m. quỳnh, complimented my use of language and description in fiction and asked me about my process, how I write on the prose level. I babbled incoherently for a few minutes and didn’t really say anything helpful, but since then I’ve thought some more about how I got to this point with my writing, specifically my language use and narrative prose. I’m no expert, but I decided to post my thoughts here, to hopefully provide a better answer to z.m.’s question, and for anyone else who’s interested. (I don’t know, maybe the rest of you think my language use totes sux.)

Keep in mind that what I have to say here isn’t likely to help anyone improve the CLARITY of their prose. I won’t be talking much about the basics of prose writing. That’s a subject that could easily take up a whole blog post by itself, and in fact has filled entire books. What you’ll find here are some very broad guidelines — let’s say, ideas — for how you might proceed if you want to improve the language in your writing, based on my own limited personal experience.

Practicing: Word Harder

The creative writing department at the college I attended had a pretty strong literary bent, which generally puts an emphasis on style over structure. Outside of critiquing each other’s stories — and one (excellent) course on playwriting and screenwriting — we didn’t delve very deep into how to tell a story. The reading and resulting discussion we did basically ended up being the same kind of literary criticism you’d do in a standard literature course. (Considering the plethora of literature courses I had to take to complete my BA in Creative Writing, many totally unrelated to the type of writing I wanted to pursue, I felt and still feel that additional literary criticism in my creative writing classes was a huge waste of time.) So, lacking the guidance of anyone like Nancy Kress (and oh, man, do I wish her book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends had been part of the curriculum!) I basically spent four years polishing my prose. (It still sucked by the time I graduated, but it sucked LESS.)

So, to unpack that a little bit: improve your prose through practice. This might seem like part and parcel of the old advice to simply write more. And to a certain extent it is. But, if you practice some of the things I’m going to talk about in this and following installments, maybe you can help hone your prose specifically as you continue to improve your writing generally. (Results may vary. Improvement not guaranteed. Void where prohibited. Side effects may include synecdoche, metonymy, and imagery. Consult your Muse before use.)

Since we’re talking about practice (well, I am anyway (actually I’m not talk at all, I’m just typing) but if you’re talking, I’m afraid I can’t hear you) let’s start with… *drum roll* … some practice! Just a couple of exercises to get into the right frame of mind.

I’ll give you a sentence of description, and you go ahead and rewrite it to make it more evocative:

The sun shone down on the parking lot.

 

Okay, that’s a pretty bland sentence. No way you can screw this one up. Try rewriting it a few times in different ways. Expand on it, if you feel the need — there’s only so much you can do with that one sentence. Experiment with tone. Is this story a comedy, a drama, a love story? A horror story, the sunny day at odds with an inescapable sense of foreboding? Obviously experimenting with tone could be an exercise all on its own, but here we can use it to give you some different “sentence environments” for playing with language. Different words and expressions lend themselves to different tones, and vice-versa.

Let’s try a bit of a longer segment that will give you more to work with:

Althea picked out an apple from the basket on the counter. She held it in her hand, staring at it. She inspected every detail of the apple’s skin, under its waxy coating.

 

Also fairly bland, but clear. You could easily elaborate about what details Althea notices on the apple’s skin; hint at why she’s staring at an apple in the first place; add some subtext to indicate her mood or state of mind; make the apple a reflection of that state of mind. Doing any number of these things, while useful practice by themselves, will also give you room to experiment with language, rhythm, and sentence structure.

Try some sentences and scenes of your own devising. If you like, you can come back to these exercises, or make some more of your own, after you’ve read the other sections of this extended essay thingamajig.

That’s it for Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2 – Poetic Prose: Think like a Storyteller, Write like a Poet.