OR gate

Martin Kenny via Creative Commons

About two months ago I began volunteering as a first reads editor for a small semi-pro science fiction magazine. If you’re a writer who regularly submits fiction to publishing markets, you’ll recognize this role as the “slush reader.” If you’re not a writer, the short explanation is that unsolicited submissions are collected into what is called the slush pile—a stack of stories sent in cold for publishing consideration. The editor-in-chief is usually the person responsible for purchasing stories they want to publish, but in a lot of cases the number of submissions overwhelms the time an editor-in-chief could reasonably devote to reading and making a decision upon.

Many markets use slush readers, almost always volunteers, who comb through the submissions and reject the ones they feel have no chance of being approved by the decision-makers and passing along only those that pass first inspection.

Slush reading has a reputation of being something of a thankless job. Aside from being unpaid, it can take a significant amount of time, depending on the volume of submissions and the current number of active first readers. Plus, there is the perception—true or not—that slush reading means reading a lot of really awful stories.

My reasoning for undertaking this endeavor is that, having spent a year and a half having my writing read by these pre-screeners, I wanted to get a taste of life on the other side of the submissions queue. I have some designs of doing editorial projects in the future and I felt this was a good way to get some experience in editorial-adjacent work. The other factor, and not an insignificant one, is that I heard from a few writer friends who slush read on the side that doing so was beneficial to their own writing. Seeing common mistakes that got stories rejected was good, they said, for helping them avoid similar mistakes in their own work.

So I answered a call for first readers from Plasma Frequency Magazine. My experience with them was fairly limited; I had read a couple of issues as part of my research project to get a sense of what certain markets accept. I submitted one story to them which passed their first two reading tiers and was, eventually, rejected by the editor-in-chief. I had thought about submitting other stuff to them, but decided to see about the position first (volunteer editors are not allowed to submit to PFM).

Once I was brought onboard I began reading through the submissions queue and making decisions. To be honest, at first I didn’t think too closely about it and just tried to be fair about what I thought had a chance at being picked up by the editor-in-chief.

But over the following couple of weeks I started seeing certain things happen that opened my eyes to what might be going on behind the scenes at markets where I had pending submissions. Obviously I can’t assume that my observations map to anyone else’s, or even that the processes of doing first reads are all that comparable (I have only this experience—and a very small sample of it at that—to go on), but thinking about how this plays from both sides of the fence has been interesting at least, and possibly instructive.

On Beginnings … And Endings

Here’s a hard truth: endings matter. I didn’t think, as a slush reader, I’d get that emotionally invested in the stories I was reading. Turns out, I think of each submission as a potential project, something I want to fall in love with, root for, share with the other editors. But nothing is more distressing than loving a story right up until the very end, only to have it all fall apart with either a cheesy/cliched end or an abrupt stop with no closure. There is a distinct difference between a twist ending and a lame attempt at a twist ending. There is a similar distinction between an open or ambiguous ending and an incomplete one. I get how hard it is sometimes to find a satisfying end to a story, especially shorts that flirt with that flash fiction line (or are, in fact, flash fiction), but if the main character does not change or if the whole thing feels like a gimmick just to get to an ending, it’s such a letdown it makes it hard to push it up the chain.

And here’s a harder truth: beginnings matter more. I’ve powered through some slow build stories and even ended up liking a number of them. But let me tell you, as a slush reader, slow openings are kind of a time saver because if I’m not engaged right off the bat, I’m speed-reading, looking for something interesting to hook me back in. As a writer, I feel the sting of thinking people maybe aren’t reading through to the end of my work or aren’t being thorough. So I do my very best to read each and every story all the way to the end. But the thing is, if I don’t care about a story or the characters after a few pages, with short stories there’s so little time for the writer to turn that around. Maybe there’s more leeway in novels where you know the journey is going to be longer, but in a short story, I need to know why I should care immediately. If a story’s ending is weak or rough, I may still give it a recommendation, or I may request the author consider rewriting the ending. Endings, in general, are easy to fix. But if a story doesn’t hook me fast, it seems to be more often indicative of a larger issue with pacing, character, and execution. The kind of things that are generally harder to fix quickly with a simple rewrite request. The kinds of things that suggest the story needs a few more drafts to really be ready.

On World Building

Okay speculative fiction writers, say this with me: world building is not story building. I’ve actually seen this a lot. Extensive, perhaps even exhaustive world building is admirable. Creating a wonderful, memorable setting is the kind of effort a writer can put in that really makes a story grab onto a reader’s brain and not let go. But it only works as a means unto itself if you’re going to use that world in a role-playing game campaign. Because then your audience is also your co-creator. You can hang stories in that world together.

In the author-reader relationship, readers don’t get to help bring story into your intricate universe. That falls entirely on the author.

Here’s my simple guide:

  • Blah setting + Blah story = Rejection
  • Great setting + Blah story = Rejection
  • Blah setting + Good story = Possible forward to editor
  • Great setting + Good story = Probable forward to editor
  • Blah setting + Great story = Probable forward to editor
  • Great setting + Great story = Guaranteed forward to editor

And the secret sauce of world building is that the less time you spend showcasing how much work you’ve done in the background, the better it comes across. It’s truly thankless, I know. I feel you. But it’s true.

On Hard Science Fiction

My problem with hard SF is similar to my problem with intricate world building: too often it serves to distract from or mask a lack of actual plot. Good hard science fiction uses solid science and a little bit of speculation to create fascinating and/or novel obstacles, challenges, or circumstances within which well-realized characters must act or solve problems. Hard science fiction is not a tired, hackneyed plot in which the author demonstrates their extensive grasp of theoretical physics or the extent of their knowledge on astronomy (or any subject matter). Just because you feel like you’ve come up with a really novel solution to the problem of energy exchange in faster-than-light travel does not mean a long treatise about this rammed into the middle of a dull story in which nothing happens makes it fascinating to anyone else.

Just like with world building, the less the reader has to be told, the better. Simplify it. If you have to spend four pages discussing the scientific principle of something in order for your plot to work, your plot doesn’t work. Focus on the parts that truly matter for the story. If you’ve solved time travel but traveling through time plays only an ancillary (or worse, no) role in the conflict or character development, don’t talk about it. At best a reader will say, “gee, that was really cool and interesting—why wasn’t the story about that?” At worst it becomes a distraction and results in TL;DR. Or, in my case, a form rejection.

On Rejections

Generally speaking, rejections are not a statement about the quality of the writing. I know people say this to rejected writers all the time, but it really is true. I would say that even for a semipro magazine like PFM, the overall quality of the submissions queue is best characterized as “solidly competent.” Most people submitting to PFM have the mechanics of writing down, and many of them have good or even great ideas. The reasons for rejecting a story are far more varied than just “it’s not good.”

In my case, the editor is sometimes looking for certain lengths. Usually I don’t reject for length, but I’ve seen him do it. Often the length-versus-breadth of story plays a factor. Really well written stories that are thousands of words but by the end don’t feel like all that much has happened get rejected because editors don’t want to bump other worthy stories for a clever idea that overstays its welcome. Sometimes it’s a subtle thing, like a really good story that lacks a well-rounded character to draw the reader through the action. Short stories that take place over a long span of time or that are broken up into smaller vignettes have problems with this quite a bit.

Personal preferences come into play, too. Probably a lot more than you might expect. The editor-in-chief at PFM doesn’t care much for horror, especially gory and violent stuff. Even wonderful bloody slasher pieces are probably not going to be a good fit for his magazine. Horror fits into the broader genre (speculative fiction) that PFM traffics in, but it’s a hard sell. For me personally, I’m turned off by really flowery prose, the kind that sounds put-upon. “Standing upon the prow of the vessel, he scoured in vain for a more suitable rejoinder than the one he had given her, as if it might matter so long after the fact,” etc.

In a lot of cases, a rejection is more about the editorial vision than the quality of work. Publications as a whole are a reflection on the editors, even when individual stories are a reflection on the contributor. No editor would publish something they didn’t feel was representative of what they love to read.

That’s why persistence is the key with publishing. It’s not about writing the perfect story. No story is perfect. It’s about finding the perfect market for a particular story.

Conclusion

I’ve really enjoyed doing first reads, particularly in seeing the kinds of things my stories may be sitting alongside in various other slush piles. Every lesson above was one I needed to learn myself, and having to make decisions based on these observations has resulted in a lot of reflection of my work and found it coming up short. In other words, if I saw some of my own submissions in the PFM pile, I’d send myself a rejection. My job now is to make sure everything I send out from here on out is only something I myself would accept.