SFF Short Fiction 101 (from a slusher)


Hello new writers! Welcome to the game.

Here is some stuff I’ve learned about short fiction submission (and hopefully sales) in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres. I expect that some of this will be wrong, or not true in all cases. If you’ve had stuff published before, you probably know all this.

My credentials: I write mostly fantasy, and have slushed for the Upside Down anthology released by Apex Magazine. I currently slush (am a first-reader) for Escape Artists, specifically Podcastle and Cast of Wonders. I also have written a small number of spotlights (tiny interviews based on short stories) for Lightspeed.

Why am I writing this: I tweeted something re: short fiction submissions, and discovered some people saying the process is opaque. Hopefully these 9 items will shed some light on what happens to your story.

1. What is a slusher? Why should I listen to you?

When a short story gets sent to a publication (sometimes called a market), it enters a queue. The first round of readers, called slushers, read through the stories and decide which ones to pass up to the editor. This is sometimes called a “bump.” If the story doesn’t quite match the publication, or the prose isn’t quite there yet, it will be rejected at this stage. More on that below.

The word slush comes from back in the day when people would submit their stories by printing them out and tossing them through the mail slot. You can visualize how a thick pile of white manuscript paper resembles a chunky, half-melted snow drift.

Why listen to me? You don’t have to listen to me, there are lots of posts by much more successful writers, editors, and agents — but after about a year of being a slush reader, I’ve observed a few missteps that are pretty easy to fix. You know. If people know about them.

2. My story is done, and revised, and ready to go! What next?

Are you sure it’s done?
Have you gotten feedback on plot, sentence structure, pacing, plausibility?
Have you checked for common tropes that might be overused?
If no, go back and fix it.
If yes, read on.

Do not skip the revision step. Once you send a story to a market, you cannot re-submit it. Consider that bridge, for that story, burned.

But you can always submit different stories.

There are lots of places to submit your story, and new markets and anthologies pop up all the time. My go-to search engine is the Submission Grinder.  There I can search not only by subgenre and length, but I can also search by the pay-level. Around 3cents a word is semi-pro, and around 6cents per word is considered a pro-rate.

Pay rates matter if you care how much money you’re making, and they will also qualify you for membership in organizations and guilds like Codex and SFWA.

Why join a guild? Friendship, news, and some resources. You’ll need to make at least one sale at 6cents/word in order to qualify for either of those.

3. How do I know if my story is what that market is looking for?

Well… you don’t. We don’t either. That’s why “don’t self reject” is common and good advice. However, here are the elements at play in a decision.

  1. You have to learn that market. Read the magazine. Listen to the podcasts. There are many styles within a genre. Some fantasy markets want old-school Conan adventures. Some fantasy markets are deeply committed to beautiful, understated language that cut to the emotional core.
    1. Subbing to a market without a broad sense of their taste is like going on a date with the editor and only talking about yourself. Hard to make a meaningful match that way.
  2. Is your story the best story in the pile, at the time? Sometimes we’ll get five stories in a pile that we absolutely adore, but we only have two slots available.
    1. I’ve had one friend get rejected because their story was similar to one that was recently purchased. They waited a year, the editors changed,  they resubmitted, and sold the story.
  3. Taste is subjective. The stuff I like, the stuff my fellow slushers like, and the stuff my editors like might not match exactly. My editors have been kind enough to let me know if I’m going in a different direction from them, and I’ll adjust. If I don’t click with a story, but I recognize that the writing is really good, I leave it for someone else to judge.

4. I found a market I want to submit to. What next?

Check their web site for submission guidelines. That includes file type, formatting instructions, and cover letter content. I can’t speak for all magazines/markets, but most cover letters for short fiction should be brief.

I see a lot of cover letters that are fluffed up into more details than this. To be honest, as a slusher (and kind of a jerk) I’m not interested. If your story is good, then people will like it, and they will like our magazine by extension. This is a business. There are no pity-sales.

If you don’t have previous publication creds, that’s totally fine. You can also list esteemed workshops and awards if you like, such as Clarion, Viable Paradise, or Taos Workshop. I don’t really care about that stuff, though. Mostly I will be envious you got to enjoy those experiences, and I haven’t yet.

I care about your story.

5. What about inclusion? Don’t you want to know if I’m non-binary?

This is the one exception to the above tweet. I do look for things that indicate the author has come from an underrepresented demographic, and I also look for notes on their occupation or other lived experience (i.e., refugee, Indigenous Cultural Advocacy, etc).

This does not include your feelings or intentions.

The reason I glance at this information depends largely on the topic and themes of the story. These qualities lend veracity to stories about those particular topics, but quality comes first, always.

I have also used this information to make sure I’m not misinterpreting unfamiliar language as “improper” language. Everyone slushes differently, and I’m still learning how to do this properly.

6. What if I get rejected?

There are a few kinds of rejections.

Form rejection – general, no details about your story. Either a poor fit, or the writing wasn’t quite ready.

Personal rejection – these are actually really great! The top 10% of rejections. They’ll tell you something specific about why your story wasn’t working for the editor. The trick is to go from being in the top 10% (personal rejections) to the top 1% (publication).

Rewrite request – “if you’re willing to make these changes, then we can send you a contract. LMK if that’s ok.” When I’ve been asked for rewrites in the past, I have done them — with the intention to revisit the cut material in other stories (if what was cut out was really important to me). It’s totally ok if you don’t want to make changes. No one will blacklist you for sticking to your guns.

Silence. Check the magazine’s website. Sometimes they’ll indicate how long you should wait to query. Querying is totally fine IF you do it during the time-span suggested (i.e., after waiting 3 months).

Regardless of what kind of rejection you get, it’s totally fine. It happens to most of us, all the time. Keep writing new stories, keep revising, and keep sending them out. It’s totally ok to “trunk” (put a way) a story if you’re not sure if it will sell. You should start the next one as soon as you can, though. If you have writer-buddies, this is how we keep our spirits up. If you don’t have writer buddies, check out some forums or Twitter or G+ and see if other people are looking. That’s a whole other post by itself.

7. What if I get accepted?

There will be a contract and a celebration, most likely. Possibly also dollars. Once the party’s over, start writing the next story.

8. You’re so mean! Why do you say you don’t care?

It’s not personal, it’s business.

That said, in light of privilege and intersectionality, there’s still a lot of work to be done. There are millions of stories not getting told, that really need to be. There are voices that aren’t getting their share of the spotlight, that really should be. All of our experiences are unique, as are our voices. You might have some insight I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear. I want you to keep writing, reading, learning, growing, improving… so that when it’s your turn, you’re bulletproof.

I don’t want you to miss out because your sentences are clunky. I don’t want you to miss out because you’ve been sending your military SF to urban fantasy markets. I want you to have every opportunity available, and I want you to not waste it by making small, fixable mistakes.

9. What if I have more questions?

Slushers are largely invisible because of the odd person who will respond to a rejection with an argument, or in some cases, a baseball bat. Never EVER argue. Ever. Don’t even send thank-you notes. By allowing slushers and editors a bit of professional distance, we have the spoons to do our jobs correctly, voting on each story on its own merits.

This is a business. We are more likely to do business with other people who treat it like a business.

If you really want to get back at us, or thank us, keep writing. Write something that knocks our socks off. Keep trying. You’ll get there.

In the end, all that matters is the story.

Final note…

The writers that are loudest about process advice tend to also be the newest (and not successful, yet). Don’t worry too much about finding the right path into the industry. Write and read, write and read.

When trying to figure out who to listen to, check their publication credits. How many books do they have out? Are they selling well? What awards to they have?  Are they regularly invited to speak at conventions? Have they been interviewed or published in trade magazines like Locus?

Spoiler alert: I have done none of these things. So if you have the opportunity, become a slusher yourself. You’ll see what it’s like out there.

Maria Bamford is the Best.

“It takes tenacity and courage to use a glue gun, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to criticize stuff. Click, don’t like, boo.

But if you sing out your Batman poetry to a largely hostile Barnes & Noble crowd; or if you crank out a raw, unedited skull of a granny smith apple, pop that on a Bratz doll torso, upload that to Etsy, price it high. If you think of doing a nude clown opera, you write it, you cast it and you actually fucking do it? That doesn’t show you’re insane. It shows the symptoms of being hard-working—and a huge success.

Now if you’ll excuse me,
I need to get back to La Quinta,
because I have faces to make
in the bathroom mirror.”

— Maria Bamford


Shut up and cope, you fucking weakling

Frustrated with talk of anxiety and trauma? Think that this generation is full of mewling pussies?

Have I got a rant for you!

If you have said the above sentence to yourself, I’d like to suggest that you’re coming at the sensitivity/politically-correct culture from the wrong direction.

(I offer as my context: I grew up in New York, and I now live in Norcal. My best friends and I say “go fuck yourself” instead of “I love you.”)

The primary goal of sensitivity, inclusion, unpacking, safe spaces, intentional communication, etc. is to to make the world less harsh and scary. In and of itself, that’s not a bad goal.

The process of unpacking all the horrible shit we’ve done to each other as a species is part of achieving that goal — looking personal and institutionalized cruelty (and the banality of evil) in the face and taking ownership of how those systems continue to screw people over.

So we’re looking at everything from considering natural African-American hair “unprofessional,” to quite literally beating each other to death over what… having to piss? Turning down a date? For fuck’s sake.

But sEtSu, everyone’s playing the victim! They use their “anxiety” and “trauma” to take up all the space in the room!

Well, I mean, lots of people have some form of social anxiety, ranging from, I’m a little nervous, I hope my peers like me, to full-blown can’t-go-outside-because-the-world-tried-to-kill-me agoraphobia. Acknowledging these things is usually meant as a way to show vulnerability — to bond — with the people around you. If the psychological vocabulary, or gender-studies vocabulary, or concepts relating to intersectionality are now widely available… why shouldn’t we use them to better understand ourselves and each other?

Especially in a world of social media, where it’s normal to not only air, but curate your thoughts and feelings. Our inner life is just as much on display as the clothes and cars of yesteryear. The thought police have nothing on social currency.

It’s also why you can’t really compare today’s struggles with the Victorian era, or WWII, because the stakes are so different. We can’t abstain from being online, from participating, because we’ll lose currency. On top of that, internet records are forever; and likely something your bosses and lovers (and now, possibly children?) will find.

Consider also the heightened insanity created by political echo chambers; pushing us further to one side or another in any game that has stakes… On top of terrorism, which is perpetuated somewhat by bombs, and much more by our media and government. There’s nowhere to run from any of this. We can’t avoid being online, and Syria is online. France is online. Nigeria is online. Radicals of all sorts are readily available 24/7, and we’re all watching each other.

I’m not saying the internet is the cause of our so-called fragility; but it’s been absolutely instrumental in changing the way we interact with each other as a people and as a species. The language is also changing and evolving incredibly fast. I’ve started seeing CW (content warnings) instead of TW (trigger warnings) to more accurately convey the purpose of the note.

As connective as this is, we could (and do) readily use that kind of information to exploit one another socially, emotionally, physically. We’re that much more on our guard for harm, because it can come from so many directions, with great intensity, at any time. We live in a world where you can get booed off stage by thousands of people from the comfort of your own living room.

It’s like that nude photo leak a few years ago. Some argue that the starlet shouldn’t have taken the photos, but they were stolen and distributed without her consent. Take a second to consider what you’re arguing in favor of. A kinder, gentler world wouldn’t slut-shame.

In my opinion, without shame, there’d be more orgasms for everyone. If they want them. No requirement either way. Consent. Vulnerability. Safety. It’s all good.

If someone cops to the fact that they feel off, and as such, are likely to do awkward things (like be insulting or draining, which is an honest mistake), surely you have as much ability to say, “it’s not my preference to shoulder that kind of vulnerability. Can we shift to a different topic?” Which lends itself to that kinder, gentler world folks are aiming for.

“Shut up and cope” is perfectly reasonable for some. Often, it’s exactly what I need to hear to pull myself out of a funk. For others, it leads to a sense of isolation, projecting, bad temper, alcoholism or other crutches, suicide, etc.

So I mean… it’s all about choice, spotlight or no, right?

Still annoyed?

Quit whining, whiner. Go for a walk or something, damn.

Container Store Visualization

During one of the last coping skills classes, the instructor took us to the container store (visualization meditation. I like going places in my brainspace). She told us to pick out a container. Could be a tupperware, could be a shoebox, anything that catches your eye. Then we had to put something in it, and put the box somewhere, to help shelve the problem in the event we’re not really able to deal with it right now. Some of my classmates put their containers under the bed, or buried under flowers in the backyard, or shipped it around the world so that they’d have a few months before it was returned to sender.

I picked a stone urn, where the lid was held in place by the clamped jaws of five dragons, then I threw it off a cliff and into the sea. We’re coming up on a year since that shitstorm. There are some riddles about it I haven’t solved yet, but rather than 30% brainspace I’m about ready to give it 2%, then maybe 1%, and hopefully, eventually, archive it entirely unless it’s absolutely relevant.

There is no “back to normal,” just the new normal.


Today holds:
Finishing touches on the script
Consultation with a game designer
Short story revisions
Probably brownies and wine.

I really wish it would rain.


P.S. one of my friends joked, “imagine finding that on a beach.” There’s a story seed for you.

Don’t Ruin Your Life (Today)

Supposed to be studying something else last night but decided to watch a documentary on H.R. Giger instead.

I wonder if, to really dive deep into story and borrowed/vicarious/masked/translated experience… One needs to develop comfort with the subject matter. Or if one can go there while, or because, they are deeply uncomfortable.

Maybe, if you can’t do it sober, you can’t do it.

Got to chatting with a buddy with whom I share some of the same, shall we say vices. It was comforting, because it made me feel like less of a freak; but also discomforting, because it reinforced the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable.

And why, based on how many steps we can take toward manifesting real-life nightmares just to give me something to claw through.

Looking at Giger’s art in Giger’s house, the omnipresence of Eros and Thanatos, got me to thinking about vices, addictions, and fascinations — and how deeply they’re ingrained into who we are. They indicate something vital, maybe not what kind of life we want; but what we want to use our lives to explore.

It’s up to us how we channel those frustrations and fascinations.

Which makes me wonder if procrastination and alcoholism function the same way, and if mastering both is something we have to take one day at a time.

As my brother says, “don’t ruin your life today.”

Karelia lives (again) at Grimdark Magazine


Grimdark Magazine Issue #8 is live for e-book purchase.

Short fiction includes…

  • Viva Longevicus by Brandon Daubs
  • Burying the Coin by Setsu Uzume
  • A Proper War by James A. Moore
  • The Price of Honour by Matthew Ward

Non-fiction content is as follows:

  • Is the Alien Trilogy Grimdark? by C.T. Phipps
  • Series Review: Acts of Caine by Matthew Stover (review by Matthew Cropley)
  • An Interview with Dennis L. McKiernan by Tom Smith
  • Review: The Wheel of Osheim by Mark Lawrence (review by Matthew Cropley)
  • Review: Wolfenstein by C.T. Phipps
  • An Interview with Jesse Bullington (Alex MarshallI by Adrian Collins

If you’d like to purchase this on Amazon, you can use their AFFILIATE LINK.

For more news on the sub-genre, check out their Facebook page, and their Twitter @AdrianGdMag 

Guest Post up at Warpworld

Author Kristene Perron is one of the most genuine individuals I’ve ever met. As part of the launch of the fourth book in the Warpworld series, Perron and a number of other authors will dive deep into the concept of loss. How we cope, how we process, and what part loss plays in a story. She writes:

In a world that at times feels obsessed with having more, more, more, it is intriguing to see how much we gain when something is taken away, pulled from us against our will. The characters in the Warpworld series lose their freedom, their beliefs, their privilege, their homes, their families, and yet somehow, as Lois McMaster Bujold so beautifully expresses in her novel Memory, they “go on”. In the weeks to come, we’ll introduce you to some amazing real life people who have found their own way through loss, their own way to “go on”.

I had the honor of writing the first guest post on the subject. Here’s an excerpt:

For all my unpublished short fiction, I can pinpoint where I was when I wrote the story and who I wrote it for. The names and places change. They’re overlaid with magic and technology, separated by eons of time and light-years of space; but the feelings never change. Lost love still hurts. Lost family cannot be replaced. Choices cannot be unmade and death cannot be undone. When someone or something I love disappears, and there are thousands of words left unsaid, I have to put them somewhere.
Read the full article here.