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.




Write anyway

I’m fond of telling people that I come from a long line of accountants. It’s true–I run out of fingers trying to count all the accountants I’m related to.

So it’s quite strange to talk to anyone in my family about writing. We don’t have a tradition of arts or artists in our family.  I used to think this was a huge disadvantage owing to the lack of support and understanding, but then I met a writer who comes from a long line of well-known writers; the pressure to write and write well is huge. What we can learn from this is that some things about family are just family.

The truth is, no matter what kind of family you come from, writing is lonely. That’s not solely because you shut yourself away to write, but it’s that most people can’t quite relate to what we do or why. Encouragement is often well-meaning but misguided. (“You must be so happy spending all this time on a hobby!”) Discouragement runs high. (“Don’t you have better things to do?”) Every writer, I think, has a secret log in their head of things people have told us that made us feel we shouldn’t write, or that we were aliens for wanting to. Our inner critic uses this frequently to beat ourselves up.

But the amazing thing is that we write anyway.

When you are a new or emerging writer, no one really tells you to keep going or that what you are doing is worthwhile. No one really tells you that you are good. Inwardly, you believe you aren’t that good, but no one tells you if you’ll ever get better. You screw up enough courage to send writing out for publication and you start collecting form letter rejections. You let someone read your work and they tell you “It’s nice” (or “I don’t really get it”). You get something published and no one reads it. You spend money on classes and courses and maybe even retreats, you come away feeling energized, but that feeling fades as you find yourself back in that place, wondering if there’s a point to all this time and energy and love and care and emotion and frustration you pour into this.

And you write anyway.  You beat yourself up for not writing enough, or not being more conventionally successful, but you write anyway.

Think about this for a second.  In the face of being misunderstood, discouraged, rejected and unsuccessful, you write anyway. It sounds crazy, right?

But the act of doing it again, of trying again, takes a great deal of personal strength and courage. And that is pretty amazing.

Pat yourself on the back, writer.

You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway. ~ Junot Diaz