When I started reading slush, I don’t think I was entirely prepared for what I was going to find. I was filled with preconceived notions about how slush reading had to be (“It can’t be that hard to read my story in a week! What are they talking about?”), and even as I familiarized myself with the industry, a lot of those preconceived notions never went away.
Until I started reading slush. The more I read, the more I had these moments of realization.
Everything they told me was not a lie.
Full disclaimer: Everything I’m saying here is anecdotal. This is not the end all be all of slush truth, and I definitely don’t want to pass this off as fact, or as true for all slush readers. Okay? Okay.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
Cover Letters Really Do Matter
Yes, cover letters matter. But not in the way you might think. I really don’t care what you say in your letter, as long as it isn’t profane or creepy. Your letter can be a sentence long for all I care. Feel free to say, “Attached is my short story, TITLE, for your consideration. Thanks, So and So” and be done with it.
What I really, really care about is your salutation. I want it to say, “Dear Ms. Wodzinski”, or “Dear Ms. Wodzinski et al”, or, if you feel like mixing it up, feel free to address it to anyone who reads slush. Don’t say, “To whom it may concern” or “Dear Editor.”
The reason isn’t that it’s polite, or that I want some kind of validation that I am a real human being and not a slushbot, but that, overall, the stories that have a cover letter that begins with a personalized salutation are better than the stories without. That salutation makes me sit up a bit straighter in my chair, take another sip of coffee, and get excited about your story before I even open the document.
That doesn’t mean that I’m going to penalize you if you don’t personalize your salutation, but let’s be honest here: In such a competitive industry, can you really turn down anything that gives you an edge?
But that said…
Publishing Credits Don’t Matter as Much as You Think
When I started this writing thing four or five years ago, I thought that once I had a publishing credit under my belt, I would have it made. Editors all around the world would clamor for my stories. I’d get shifted into the “short-list” slush pile. Golden laurels would form on my head, and I’d ride a white stallion into the sunset while penning deathless prose, all of which would be gobbled up by waiting zines almost immediately.
Truth is, if a story isn’t right for the magazine, I’m not going to suggest it to the other editors even if the author has tons of published stories to her name. Do I take that credit into consideration? Sure. I might even be guilty of thinking, “I don’t like this, but this author was published in such and such a magazine. Maybe I should read it again…”
However, after that reread, it’s rare that I’ll send a story forward.
Usually, seeing publishing credits will make me react about the same as seeing a personalized salutation. I get excited, but those credits alone aren’t going to make or break a story.
So, the moral here is, those authors with publishing credits do have a slight edge over those without, but that edge isn’t enough to make me prefer the story from an author with credits over the story from the author without.
“This Just Isn’t Right for Me” is a Totally Valid Response
Before anyone jumps on me, let me just say that I hate this line in a rejection letter. I hate it when I’m on the giving and the receiving end. I generally do try to be a little more helpful than this, I promise.
But sometimes, that’s all you can say.
The writing was solid. The characters were well rounded, complex, and subtlety portrayed. The plot was intriguing, and that twist at the end probably suits someone’s taste. So, it’s a good story. But I don’t like it.
This is generally when I enter panic mode. There has to be something wrong with this story, I think. What is it?
And, in totally anecdotal advice, usually it’s the ending. There’s something wrong with the ending, and either I don’t like it, or I don’t think Beth will like it. But someone else might like it. Some other editor out there probably will like it, in fact, but I can’t imagine this story in Shimmer.
Sometimes, I’ll punt the story upstairs anyway, to see if it’s just me. So far though, it hasn’t ever been just me. Sometimes, the story just doesn’t fit.
Every Slush Horror Story is Probably True
A while ago, Keffy wrote a blog post about how you should not write Editors Getting Their Comeuppance stories. For the purposes of this bullet point, I want you to go on a journey with me.
I want you all to imagine a little baby associate editor, reading stories happily for her new favorite magazine, Shimmer. She opens a story and starts to read.
A few minutes later she’s trying to put her brain back together while glancing over her shoulder to see if someone’s creeping around in the bushes outside.
A few minutes after that, she’s staring at her screen and thinking, “This has to be a joke.”
I’ve only seen one or two scary things in my short time as a slush reader, and only one of those was at Shimmer. Still, those few times are enough for me, thanks. So please, the next time an editor or slush reader tells you a slush horror story, don’t roll your eyes. It’s probably true.
That Said, Most Slush is Not That Bad
I think that on a lot of writers’ forums, people tend to throw around statistics like, “If you check your grammar and spelling, your story will be better than 90% of what editors see.” Maybe this is just my experience, but I think these numbers are exaggerated.
It’s true, a lot of slush can be bad. But it’s not THAT bad. It’s not like we’re getting incomprehensible stories written in a foreign language, with extra commas tossed in like bacon bits on a salad. For the most part, stories are more or less grammatical. It’s more like a collection of stories that are written by people who haven’t fully polished their craft, with a sprinkling of grammatical depravity, and a handful of stuff I like mixed in. The key to standing out isn’t so much writing expertly, it’s about writing well.
There you have it! I hope this was somewhat helpful, and that it formed a better, clearer picture of what slush reading entails.
What slush myths have you heard? Maybe we can dispel (or confirm) them! Tell us in the comments.