Confessions of a Slushpile Reader (Part 2)

In Part 1, I listed a number of small myths about submitting to a literary magazine. Here’s the biggest myth of all.

Myth: If my work is rejected, that means it was awful.


Well, not necessarily.

Of the 15 stories I read per slush-batch, I’d say that on average at least 10-12 are indisputably unpublishable. That is, my co-reader and I both rate them a “no”.

One or two of these are completely batshit crazy.  Sometimes they take the form of some sort thinly-veiled memoir of spiritual ramblings from a charismatic cult leader that is largely incomprehensible. Sometimes it’s a long rant. Sometimes it’s just bizarre form: 18 pages of questions, or a story that consists of a single, 10-page sentence. Maybe you could call this experimental fiction, but the thing with experiments is that they often fail. These 1 or 2 stories are generally awful.

Most of people submitting work in the unpublishable group can write. Given all the slushpile horror stories, I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  Most people in the slushpile can write.

But they can’t craft.

There’s a wide variety of problems.  Many write stories that are just too thin–lots of atmosphere, not enough story.  (I know I’ve been guilty of this.) Probably my most frequent comment is “No conflict. Lacks tension.”  There may be pages and pages of carefully wrought background information, but nothing actually happens. Or the protagonist isn’t the agent of the story, who only watches the story.

Others write stories that are needlessly complex, rushing through a ton convoluted action and events.  These tend to be heavily expository (“telling, not showing”) or the plot is hard to follow because it jumps around everywhere.  If the story you have in mind needs a novel’s worth of words to tell it, write a novel.

Or the story reads like a joke with a punchline, some kind of supposedly deep meaningful twist that the writer intended to be mind-blowing except that it isn’t.  I always picture a bunch of earnest undergrads high on pot writing these ones. (“Whoa, man, you mean like the chicken is Death? That’s deep. Hey, you want to get some fried chicken?”)

But there’s always a handful in this group that are really close.  The work has potential, but is not quite there. The ending falls flat.  The writer veers away from the main conflict or skips right over the important bit. There’s an emotional distance to the story because the writer didn’t quite go for it. Etc.

It’s actually kind of heartbreaking. Close, BUT. The writing is good, BUT. Some great moments, BUT. Started off well, BUT. Interesting premise, BUT.

If you are in this group, your story is not awful. Most likely, it’s underbaked. It needs work. It wasn’t quite ready to face the world and in its current state, it’s probably not going to find a home. But you can write.

The remaining 3-5 might be publishable.  They will likely find a home somewhere.

Of there group, there’s usually 1 story that both my co-reader and I agree that yes, this is competently written and needs to go to the next level.  The editors may still reject this story due to taste, space, trying to a achieve a certain balance in the issues.

The rest of this group is more highly disputed, and unavoidably, this is where taste sometimes starts to enter into it. Sometimes, I think it’s great, my co-reader thinks it’s borderline. My co-reader thinks it was erudite, I think it’s pretentious but competent. Both us think it’s good except neither us is sure if the ending works or not.  Things like this. In essence, the story does a lot more right than wrong, but there’s something that isn’t quite singing, or perhaps needs to be a shade stronger.

We vote yes, no or maybe, and give our reasons for our vote.  Then it goes on to the editors to make final decisions.  The editors look over all our notes, looking more closely at things that got a yes vote from a least one reader, but then they make their own decisions.

It’s actually been pleasantly surprising, after all the myths I’ve heard about the slushpile, to see how much good writing is in it.  Sure, most of it is writing that needs more work, but it’s clear that most people submitting are writers.

Did that clear anything up?  Anything else you want to know? Let me know in the comments.


2 responses to “Confessions of a Slushpile Reader (Part 2)”

  1. Sonal;
    Great post. I like how you describe much of the slush-pile as “unbaked.” It implies that writers who make time to properly bake their stories will eventually find publication.
    Slowing down is hard! But it’s the only way to write well.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Daphne!

      Yes, I think for a lot of writers (myself included) the excitement, or sometimes relief, of actually finishing a draft is so huge that work gets sent out before it’s quite ready. And it’s always intimidating to face re-writing. But most of the work that gets sent in has potential, and with a little time and work, it will get there.

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