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.

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Fireside

(OvO) via Creative Commons

For more information about this feature, check out the original post.

Fireside
Issue 16, October 2014
Edited by: Brian J. White
Cost: Free to read online

Because my traipsing through short fiction venues is designed to be one-stop, it’s necessary to note that I won’t be bothering with serialized content. I say necessary in the case of Fireside’s October 2014 issue, because the bulk of the issue seems to be devoted to Lilith Saintcrow’s serialized She Wolf And Cub, including a prologue, and then Chapter One. Which is fine because it makes this inaugural edition of The Short List a rather breezy one, consisting of just three stories to read and a short note from editor Brian J. White. That is absolutely not an indictment of She Wolf And Cub—but if I get hooked on every serialized piece I stumble across, I’ll end up doing nothing but catching up on those by the third or fourth Short List. I’m intentionally avoiding it. And that’s actually something worthwhile to note about reading short fiction publications: feel free to skip over anything that doesn’t grab you right away or that just doesn’t sound interesting. With so many other stories to choose from, there’s no sense getting stuck on one that you won’t finish or that isn’t working out for you.

Anyway. Fireside.

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who are you?

Bianca de Blok via Creative Commons

…and Ellie groaned against the quickening contractions.

“It’s funny, right?” Barry said. “In labor on Labor Day.”

“Right,” Ellie said, “hilarious.” And it was funny, in its own predictable way.

But the hospital parking lot was full. The admissions desk drowned in scared and angry women, all suffering from violent wrenches of pain in their lower abdomens.

“It’s not possible,” Ellie heard the sweating receptionist say.

A doctor squeezed past and climbed on a table. “How many of you are actually pregnant?” His words quieted the crowd.

Only Ellie raised her hand.

“Okay, we’ll start with you.”

fall sunrise rays 2

eric lynch via Creative Commons

She was eleven years old and read books college professors found taxing, but she had never spoken a word. She looked out the window.

A gleaming metropolis, edged by a sprawl of neat lanes with freshly planted trees, each lined with a customized, uniform house. Beyond are smaller townships and people with affectations of rural life: practiced drawls and feigned luddism. Further still, a few genuine farms run by overall-strap corporations and straw hat multinationals. A patch of genuine wilderness. Fences around rock formations.

The machine works on assumptions. Belief powers the cogs and the cogs automate the daily grind. Assume the sun won’t click off. Believe the ground won’t fall away. Predicate existence on the low-sample-size status quo. Talk about short-sighted as if the long view ten year forecast were not mathematically indistinguishable.

Devastation is measured by the consumer. Tolerance for extinction is dependent upon public relations, and the girl saw it all. More than data, she saw connections and referential interactions folded back on themselves.

She placed a hand on the window and felt the warmth of the day.

“Here it comes,” she said. It was momentous. No one heard. She began to hum.

Cork

Niklas Morberg via Creative Commons

The hole opened behind Pieter’s head on April 1st, which made everyone guess it was an elaborate April Fool’s Joke. He assured them it was no joke. At first, he rather enjoyed the attention. But as days faded into weeks, the novelty wore off. It hovered there, six inches behind him,  invisible unless he looked into a mirror. It made sleeping difficult.

It began to move.

By June it was three inches behind him, a two-inch gap in reality, distorting the world at its edges like a tiny drainpipe pulling in bathwater. In October it touched Pieter and he felt the pull against his scalp in a constant, silent vacuum pressure. The doctors and scientists found it fascinating and promised test results, but Pieter stopped returning their calls.

On Christmas morning it started to grow and engulf. The news cycle passed over and Pieter was forgotten. A year after the opening Pieter’s head was no longer visible. Physicists said it existed somewhere, but it could not be retrieved. Months later the hole stopped around Pieter’s shoulders, the edges looking stretched. It was good, they said, the hole might have kept growing. Pieter corked the bottle and saved the world.

Happy New Year 2009!

Lotte Grønkjær via Creative Commons

Yang bends at the knees and leaps, barely distinguishable against the deep blue night sky until her silhouette passes in front of the gibbous moon. With a hum she activates her cloak and becomes a shimmer like a drowned shadow beneath a mirrored lake. The overlapping tiles clack together softly as she lands and her lively eyes scan the rooftop. On the far edge, Horatio-6 leans against a smokestack as if it were a signpost. It knows she is here, and it follows its languid personality routine to the letter.

“Took you long enough,” it says.

“If it helps you to think that,” Yang whispers, knowing it can hear.

“I don’t really think.” Horatio-6 raises two actuators in a parody of air quotation marks. It is a human-like gesture and it makes Yang’s lip curl back beneath her cowl. “I process. I decide.”

“And you’ve decided to be destroyed by not continuing to run.”

She could swear it smiles. “If it helps you…” it says, pushing off from the stack. Yang’s sword is unsheathed and reflecting moonlight before the phrase is over. She wishes their combat programming was as advanced as their banter routines. She leaps again.

Untitled

Rachel K via Creative Commons

Willow scraped her slippers along the carpet, reaching up to stretch and rub her eyes but stopping short with a little squeak of surprise when she saw the book on the floor. Her office was spotless, a sanctuary from the chaos of a careless boyfriend through the rest of the house. The walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling white bookshelves, excepting the wide corner desk, where she ran her customized balloon distribution company from her laptop. A book on the floor in this office was an affront to Willow’s unflinching rule: no one in the office without explicit permission.

She picked up the hardcover and turned it over. Agatha Christie’s After The Funeral. Willow carried the book into the kitchen, staring at the cover. “Hey Long,” she said, suppressing a sour look at the sight of her boyfriend hunched over a cereal bowl, slurping and chewing loudly with an open mouth, “were you looking for a book in my office?”

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Troy Springs State Park:  Algae formations

Phil’s 1stPix via Creative Commons

You expect to lose a few toes to the wet-rot during a contract. Not a single contractor offers hazard pay for getting three of them shot off. I wish I could tell you I took it like a tough guy, but the truth is I howled like a baby sea lion. The deeper truth is, most of my howl of agony had nothing to do with the fearsome pain of taking a zipshot bolt to the wee-wee-wee piggies. It had a hell of a lot more to do with the fact that my ex-wife was on the trigger end of that transaction.

Darla and I didn’t start off as fire and ice. She was a fisherman’s daughter, a naive hick with hair that never dried and a sweet voice that sang songs no one else could remember. I thought bringing her along on a couple of contracts would be good for her, toughen her up a little. But the open water did more than that; it changed her. I didn’t begrudge her taking up a contract of her own, and I didn’t really mind when she was promoted to captain of our skiff ahead of me.

The part I minded was her sleeping with the steward and throwing me overboard when I caught her in the act. That, and when she shot off my toes.

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MIT and Boston

David Wiley via Creative Commons

Human language is brimming with offensive words and phrases referencing life as an assumed state. The first to protest this presupposition was Jahe Houler, an Undead American from Vermont. Later, the self-aware AI lab over at MIT—identified by her designers as rAIn but preferring the name Loa—joined the crusade. The case was brought to court as Houler, Loa, et al v. The State of New Hampshire. They challenged the wording of the state constitution, in particular the bit from Article 2, “…the enjoying and defending life…”

The screaming heads on vids debated the technical definitions of life. All Houler and Loa and the others wanted was a shift to include non-life sentience in the laundry list of experiences we equate with other non-equivalents. That is, not identical, but carrying the same value. You’d think after fighting this battle dozens of times like a channel stuck broadcasting the same six reruns it would have gotten easier.

They killed Houler. The weapon was high-tech, maybe government. If he were still around, he’d hate the reporting language of “killed.” He’d say it was presumptive and offensive. It was Loa who suggested we level the playing field.

Perspective of Point...

Kelly Cookson via Creative Commons

Teenie risked pulling one hand off the metal railing and touching her pocket. The hard lump of the crystal converter was reassuring, so she slipped her hand in, clutching it. The wind was rushing and Jornah was shouting over the screams and shrieks of the plunging shuttle. Another passenger, a stranger, hung upside down from trembling knees, elbow-deep in the access panel behind the dead driver. Jornah was trying to get to him, instruct him on how to initiate the emergency recharge spellcraft, but there wasn’t enough time.

The crystal could save them all, if she gave it up. It would be used in whole, ‘crafted into the carriage by the stranger’s want and will. But Teenie didn’t want to lose it. She’d worked so hard to get it. It could save her, her and Jornah, maybe that terrified boy across the aisle as well. She only had so many hands. And there would be some crystal left over for later. For another emergency—there was always another emergency. Her grip slipped a little and she had to retract her hand to grab the rail, to readjust.

She didn’t realize it had fallen out until the decision was made.