Wading Through Slush

A word on the slush pile. No piece about the submission process is complete without giving some idea what goes on on the Other Side.


The slush pile is the fond name editors give to the enormous stack of unsolicited manuscripts they receive on a daily basis. Now make no mistake about this: they’ve called this down upon themselves by opening up their publication to submission by just anyone. (In fact, some of the high-kudos markets don’t do that, instead actively soliciting manuscripts from authors, but these are the exceptions, as are the authors so solicited.) But choosing to go mountain-hiking in your socks on a rainy day doesn’t make the slush any less cold or wet as it seeps through the fabric and freezes off your toes.

The slush pile is huge, it’s unpleasant, and it keeps growing. Some editors begin to believe after a while that slush attracts slush like money attracts money, or that the slush submitters are specifically out to make the editor’s life miserable. These editors should probably take a sabattical, because the truth is much simpler.

There are many, many, many more people who want to write than are actually capable of the feat.

And all these people send their stories to these editors.

And the editors have no choice but to go through the whole pile. For one, because they asked for it. For another, because they really, really want to find the gems in there, the stories that stand out, that shine with excellence, that they just have to buy to enhance their publication with. That moment of discovery is much like the moment of acceptance on our end: it’s puur, unadulterated joy, and makes reading all those slush stories (or in our case receiving all those rejections) worth it.

But before they find a prince, they have to French-kiss a lot of warty, slimy toads. That’s why editors usually develop the skill of judging a story by its first few pages, or even paragraphs. If those don’t grab the editor, the story gets rejected.

And if the opening does grab the editor, but the middle sags, the story gets rejected. And if the middle delivers on the promise of the opening, but the end is weak, the story gets rejected. And if there are (more than a handful of) typos, spelling or grammar errors in your story, it gets rejected. Same with weird fonts that don’t match the guidelines; coffee stains; cover letters exhorting the fundamental importance to the universe of publishing this story; content that doesn’t match what the guidelines ask for; and anything else that helps the editor come to a rapid, negative decision.

The Law Of Numbers

You need to realize two things in this respect. One, that there are plenty of capable writers who are also capable of the level of professionalism that enables them to SIMPLY FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES. Two, if you are professional enough to follow the guidelines, your story is competing for a place in the market with every other capable writer there is. So even if your story rocks, if it could potentially blow the socks off readers worldwide, there may just be another story in this particular slush pile that will blow their socks off, lift their skull caps, and bring them to instant climax.

And even if your story is “objectively” the best in the slush pile. It may still miss the precise thematic and stylistic sensibilities the editor is currently looking for. The editor may have personal issues with the depiction of bearded ladies in fiction, making your choice of protagonist unfortunate. The editor may have just bought a story about a Hindu temple established on Europa by an Indian expedition to worship the Great Red Spot as one of the incarnations of Shiva, making your take on Muslim worshipping of Saturn’s rings an unfortunate instance of more of the same.

You may even have had the bad luck that just when the editor grabbed your story off the slush pile, the phone rang, and his hurried attempt to pick up knocked his cup of coffee all over your first page, obliterating your brilliant first three paragraphs.

In other words: a host of reasons, factors, unfortunate coincidences, and unfair circumstances may pile up against your story. And odds are you will never know which of these was decisive in rejected it, because odds are the editor will send you a form rejection slip.

Good form

So here’s the editor*, overworked and underpayed**, who’s just read and rejected–for whatever reason–your story, and now needs to send you the bad news. She has a choice now, between:

  • skimming over your story one more time, making a couple of notes, launching her word processor, writing you a nice letter explaining the various reasons why your story isn’t a good fit, or why your chosen theme falls just outside the intangible scope of the magazine, and why she encourages you to nurture and develop your talent, and send another story her way when you have it (all this while every sentence she writes is punctuated by new manuscripts dropping onto her precariously teetering slush pile); or
  • sending a form rejection slip.

And if that is not enough to convince you that you’re possessed of a slave driver mentality to even hope for something more personal, think of another aspect. You, of course, are way more professional than this, but there are (people who call themselves) writers, who take anything beyond “no, we don’t want your story, good luck elsewhere” as encouragement to start an endless, raving correspondence about the various reasons why the editor is wrong, putting forward less than flattering hypotheses about the line of business the editor’s mother was in, and invoking the threat of suicide to change the editor’s mind.

So form letters are not just a way to ease the work load just a bit, but also a way to discourage any kind of reaction on your part. The message is firm, straight, honest, and unambivalent: no, they will not buy your story.

* Or, in many cases, the slush reader understudy.

** Or, in many cases, not payed at all.

*** You think I’m exaggerating, don’t you? When you do meet an editor, ask them if I am.