Reading Slush

[May 2011] I’ve never been in the position of having to read through a slush pile to pick out publication worthy short stories. However, as one of the judges of a short fiction contest, I feel like I’ve been through a similar experience. The contest had on the order of 150 submissions. In the first round, we divided them equally among the four judges, who winnowed them down to individual top 10 lists. We then read over each other’s top 10 lists to come up with a new set of top 5 lists that were submitted to a committee that would pick the winner. That meant that we each ended up reading nearly half the stories.

We’ve all read anthologies where we liked some stories better than others, for whatever personal reasons, but it’s rare that I see a story in a reputable collection or anthology (by reputable I mean edited and well published) where I think the author can’t write on some level. I may disagree with certain storytelling decisions, or the characters or plot might not appeal to me, but there’s generally a sense of skill that can’t be denied.

In most slush submissions processes, first readers cull out the stuff that clearly won’t pass muster with the editors. At first glance that might seem harsh, letting one person act as a gatekeeper of sorts, but the truth is that a lot of stories simply are not very good. We judges admitted amongst ourselves that we had a hard time picking 10 worthy stories out of the 40 we were assigned in the first round. Good writing and good storytelling stand out from the general submissions.

None of the approximately 70 stories I read came from people who didn’t know how to spell or put a sentence together with mostly correct grammar. Having some of those in the stack (and I’m sure that happens in the slush pile more often than it did here) makes the job a little easier. Sometimes the writing was eloquent and sometimes it was workmanlike, but it was always functional. The worst grammatical offense was mishandling tense, especially in present tense narratives that had flashbacks (or seemed to, but didn’t really.) The main problem was that, though they could put together sentences and construct paragraphs, many of the writers didn’t know how to tell stories.

In some cases I could tell that the writer had heard the message that you have to captivate a reader with the first sentence. There were a lot of very good first sentences. However, that doesn’t mean you can slack off at that point. One story had a great opening line, but then it spent the next three pages talking about the protagonist getting out of bed and having breakfast and doing all the sorts of mundane things that you can’t include in a short story. As Elmore Leonard would say, leave out the boring bits. (In a similar vein, at World Horror a few weeks ago, one panelist said that he always checks out Chapter 4 of a novel because most editors want to read the first three chapters, so he’s curious to see if the book falls apart in the section following a carefully crafted submission package.)

In many cases, there was too much backstory loaded up front. You had to get through page after page of supporting information before the story actually began. There were a number of cases where I noted that the story began on page 10 (out of 12 or 14, often). In at least a few cases, there never was a story. What I read was a dozen or more pages of character notes. The character never actually did anything. Or the character’s entire motivations were laid out in two or three paragraphs at the beginning of the story—the worst examples of telling instead of showing.

This is especially true in short stories: you have to stay on point and keep focus. Readers won’t forgive you for page-long digressions that are basically info dumps. There are ways of getting information before the reader other than a four paragraph essay on the science of X or the history of Y.

A few writers tried too hard to be funny or cutesy. Scary or suspenseful or mysterious is hard, but funny is really hard. If you’re going to write a pastiche where all the characters are barnyard animals or fairytale characters, you’d better be darned good to pull it off. There is probably a story where crime scene investigators look into Sleeping Beauty’s mysterious illness, but most amateurs shouldn’t try this at home. A gimmick shouldn’t be a substitute for good storytelling.

Another ill-advised decision was to give characters (especially the protagonist) overloaded or metaphorical names. I don’t think there can really be another Sam Spade in a crime story, even if the Sam is from Samantha. Could anyone get away with calling a detective Hercule Poirot? Naming him or her after some Greek god where the reference is an allusion to some character trait is also not recommended. Frank Zeus or Poseidon Brown are bad names in most situations.

Having a first reader will spare you from submitting a story with obvious errors. I was prone to this myself in my early days. To my shame, I have a story in print (but not available any more, thankfully) where a character who lives in an apartment later in the story constructs a secret room in his basement. Oops. I don’t expect every writer to be an expert on poisons, but if I can verify in a few seconds that a certain poison works so fast that it would be impossible for the victim to have a five-minute conversation with his poisoner as he dies, then so should the writer. (By the way, apropos of nothing, I loved the poisoning scene at the beginning of the second season of Justified. It was positively chilling.)

A first reader or a critique group will also help writers avoid confusing or cumbersome staging. What happens in a particular scene might be clear in the author’s mind, but it doesn’t always translate to the page in a way that is clear to the reader, too. In a crime story it’s okay to mislead the reader, but it is a crime to confuse him or her through muddy writing. Another thing a first reader will pick up on is when a writer relies too heavily on coincidence or happenstance to advance the plot. If a potential suspect just happens to pick up a damning piece of evidence during the two minutes when a policeman dropped by his house, there better be a good and credible reason for it.

This may be entirely a matter of personal preference, but I found it difficult to like stories where I didn’t like the protagonist. This was especially true in a couple of caper stories. When you have rogues doing illegal things, it’s my opinion that they have to be likable on some level. Maybe not all of them, but there should be one character for the reader to identify with and root for. Otherwise no one wants to see these characters succeed. In a similar vein, some writers tried too hard to create a wisecracking first person narrator. It’s as hard to pull this off as it is to be consistently funny. You have to be absolutely true to the character, otherwise he or she comes off as belligerent and unlikable.

After working through a lot of stories that have flaws like this, when you encounter one that was clearly written by someone who knows what he’s doing, it’s like a light going on in the middle of the night. You no longer find yourself coming up with excuses to reject the story. You get sucked in by the author’s skillful storytelling. In retrospect, you may admire his attention to detail, the clever turns of phrase, the adeptness with which scenes are constructed and executed, the compelling story or appealing characters. But that only comes after you find yourself carried along on the current of a story that takes you smoothly from the beginning to the end.

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