Confessions of a Slush Pile Reader (Part 1)

I’ve been on the editorial board for PRISM for close to a year now, and what that means is that instead of being rejected I get to reject other people. It’s less gleefully vengeful than it sounds.

I can’t speak for the entire magazine, but I thought I’d clear up a few myths about what makes a submission a Yes versus a No–at least for me. (If you want a more official sense of what happens to your submission, you can read that here.)

Myth: You need to sell yourself in the cover letter with your awesome personality and quirky life experiences.

WTF? A lit mag is not a popularity contest.

People subscribing to this myth probably think that they need to convince me to read the story at all. Not even remotely true. Everyone on the editorial board has to comment on every single story to explain why we gave it a yes or a no, which means each one gets read.

Myth: You need publication credits to be taken seriously because it shows you’ve made it.

I’ve actually been surprised at how many people submitting have extensive publication credits, particularly since I reject most of what comes in.

If you’ve never published and I reject your work, I can at least respect you for trying. But if you’ve published a lot and turn in something that’s gawdawful I have to wonder how it is that so many places published your work. (Oh, and I don’t care how many followers on Twitter you have. Yes, someone has told us this.)

Myth: Cover letters don’t matter because no one reads them anyway.

I read every cover letter before I read the stories. What I’m looking for is the completely batshit crazy cover letter that’s in every bunch, and that usually accompanies a completely batshit crazy story that isn’t even remotely publishable, which means I can reject it quickly and feel like I’ve made progress.

Otherwise, there’s some basic information I need to pick out (for example, due to grant rules I don’t understand, PRISM tries to publish a certain percentage of Canadian writers so where you are from matters) and the rest is only a mark of your professionalism.

Myth: I should be sure to suck-up and say how much I love the magazine.

Flattery gets you no where. I don’t care what you think of the magazine. Maybe the actual editor cares, but no one is going to publish you based on your love of the magazine. Especially if you say you love it and then turn in something wholly unsuitable.

Myth: A single typo will get you instantly rejected.

No. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t proofread your work, because you should, but if you’re capable of writing well, a typo here and there won’t sink you because it will be obvious that it’s just a silly typo. If you keep making the same grammatical or spelling error, however….

Myth: My work is spelled correctly and formatted nicely, so it will stand out.

No. Most of the work that comes in is competently written in the sense that the sentences are basically grammatical and the words are generally spelled correctly, and things are in a nice clear type. For all the warnings about sending in work that looks professional, I haven’t seen any that’s particularly unprofessional. (Although someone once drew us a picture.)

Myth: Modern software counts words, so I don’t need to put in the word count

This is probably my own pet peeve.  When I sit down to read submissions, it’s usually in between other things. I read online via Submittable, and so unless someone puts the word count in their document (preferably in the cover page) I don’t actually know how long it is when I start. I like the forewarning so I can plan my time. I also read in order of shortest to longest, because if a story is bad and short, at least I can get through it quickly.

Failure to put in the word count won’t get you rejected though.

Myth: If I want to make my story universal, I should avoid giving my characters names

I see this one a lot, and it annoys me every time: characters are referred to as “the man” or “the woman” for no good reason. I’ve never rejected a story for this reason specifically, but I’ve yet to come across something I’ve said ‘yes’ to that did this.

Universality does not come from being general. It comes from being specific. Think of any novel or story you read that really spoke to you. Chances are, it featured a character who had a name.

Myth: If I’m writing non-fiction, I don’t need to write it well because the story itself is so amazing and true!

I don’t see a lot of creative non-fiction in the slush-pile, but most of what comes in is poorly written. This is a literary magazine.  The quality of your words matter.  Creative non-fiction involves a lot more than just presenting a cool story.  You have to present that cool story well.

Myth: No one reads the whole story.

Totally wrong. I read everything until the end.  That said, on at least half of what I read, I can tell that this is not publishable after about 2 pages, and if the story is long I skim the rest.  About half of the other half fall apart at the end.  The remaining ones are either publishable, borderline or have more systemic issues.

That’s it for myths (for now.)  Was any of that helpful? Do you have any other questions? Let me know in the comments below.

And stay tuned for part II, where I talk in more detail about what actually happens when I reject a story, and what it really means.



Contested learnings

Recently, I had the opportunity to be a first reader for a reasonably prestigious literary magazine’s creative non-fiction writing contest.  (Say that 3 times fast.)

I then promptly forgot that I’d agreed to do it, though I did remember just in time to turn in my votes and comments 1 day late, so they couldn’t use them. (Don’t try to bribe me, people, I am not organized enough to handle it.) But still, I learned.  And not just about writing down deadlines.

Of the nine entries I had to read, only one was good enough to make the longlist (which the real judge reads.)  And even that one, well, it wasn’t amazing.  It was simply good; nothing obviously flawed, but nothing incredible.  I’d be surprised if it wins, though the writer could probably sell that piece to a magazine somewhere.

Here are some of the big problems I saw.  If you can revise out these problems, your work will stand out:

  1. There’s no story. Amazing how you can write a story with no story in it.  But the truth is that we all do this.  Or we start a bit of a story, and then we don’t go there.  We forget about beginnings, middles and endings.  We forget about conflict.  We ignore the naked guy.  Make sure your story has a story.
  2. Falling in love with a gimmick. Sometimes, that’s a complex structure. Sometimes, that’s a dialect.  Sometimes, it’s even as little as a line or as much as a character.  Whatever it is, the reader can tell you’ve fallen in love with it because it stands out more than the story.  Once you’ve ascertained that you really do have a story there, ask yourself “Would I still have my story without this?”  And if the answer is “yes,” you don’t need it.
  3. Telling me the story. Your job, as a storyteller, is not to tell me the story. (Misleading job title, eh?)  Your job is to reveal the story.  Show it to me.  Let me enter your world and participate in it so that I can make up my own mind. If you’ve revealed the story well, the story I see is the same story you showed me, and I will walk away thinking “Ah, I just read a story.”  But if you are telling me what the story is, and telling me what the characters are like, and telling me how to react to everything…. frankly, I don’t like being told what to do. At best, I’ll tune you out.  At worst, I’ll start telling you why you are wrong, and since you aren’t here to defend yourself, I will win that argument handily.

There you have it.  Three little things.  None of these things are easy, mind, but all of these things will make you a stronger writer.