Tag Archives: fantasy

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.

I narrated a story! Spirit Forms of the Sea

Bogi Takács is a neutrally gendered Hungarian Jewish person who wrote a story about archers, shamans, and questionable pacts with Cthulu-like monsters. It was exciting to learn the Hungarian words.

If you would like to hear me narrate this tale, please proceed to the castle.

Spirit Forms of the Sea, by Bogi Takács.

Narrated by Setsu Uzume.
Produced by Podcastle.

Sober-dialing my peeps, becaus Alyx Dellamonica knows what’s up.

Holy fuck. Girl, I don’t know you, but I wish I did.

In response to all the partisan insanity gripping the SFF world, here’s my addition to the conversation.

Mary Anne Mohanraj, you are the kindest badass on the planet. You are in the trenches calling out for justice and humor every day, and I admire you even more for sharing with us your family stories, your cooking, your garden, and your confrontation with motherfucking cancer.

Juliette Wade you brilliant woman you. I remember the day we met and thought you were some kind of untouchable pro — and in no time at all we’re sharing rack of lamb made by your fabulous husband. I love that you share knowledge on every level; from intersectional issues to rock-climbing adventures.

And on that fateful day I met Jon Del Arroz — oh my god! You are the absolute best, because we sit so squarely at opposite ends of the table and the discussions never harm our friendship. You’ve opened my eyes to so much about the way we talk about contentious issues. Plus, like, puns and drinking, and (oh my god, where are the frigging humor mags?). I honor and treasure you. I hope more people like us figure out how to do the same.

Griffin Barber, you too, man. There’s so much we’ve talked about that we can’t say publicly, because we understand how ideology can shape a conversation for ill. I am so grateful for your perspective, and your service, and your example to keep on keepin’ on even when the whole world blasts your kind.

One way to get to know someone fast is to take a road trip with them upon first meeting, right? Kevin Andrew Murphy, you are the shiniest goth I’ve ever met. I don’t think there’s any topic I could name that you don’t have knowledge of, from table settings and obscure poisons, to the literary context of cultural icons. If anyone has reminded me that you have to keep working, keep studying, and keep a healthy mix of curiosity and skepticism, it’s you.

Dave Thompson, for breaking it down, for believing in so many people, and providing a space for everyone to step up and tell the story behind the story.

David Gerrold, and Eric Flint — you guys are anchors in rocky seas. I love you both for holding our community to a higher standard of behavior, and making us laugh even while you scold us for behaving badly.

Lillian Csernica, Patricia H. MacEwen, Arley Sorg, Effie SeibergFrancesca Myman (a benevolent Lucrezia Borgia–I’ll always remember that description of you) and Vylar Kaftan — you connectors, you bridge-builders, you friend-makers. Thank god for you. Thank godlessness for you.

Who did I miss? Everyone, I’m sure; but this is just the beginning. We have more in common than we have in difference, so in deference to difference, I defer to you. High five. Read, digest, pass it on.


The Purpose of Science Fiction and Fantasy

What I love most about science fiction is that it imagines the outer world — possibilities and scenarios we can actually achieve. We’re warned and inspired to experiment, to learn, and understand.


What I love most about fantasy is that it imagines the inner world — the brilliant and harrowing sides of greatness. We’re warned and inspired to be heroic in our deeds and friendships, to take risks, and to reach ever higher for wisdom in the role we’ve chosen to play.

A Recommendation for Joe Abercrombie

Q: Is Joe Abercrombie one of those writers who just brutally murders all his characters?

A: No, not quite. Here’s why I like his books.

I’m a confrontational person. Lots of New Yorkers are. Since I moved to the West Coast, I’ve been taught that expressing myself with that kind of sincerity comes off as impolite, inconsiderate, and anti-social; rather than genuine, efficient, and solution-oriented.

Abercrombie’s books are full of people who swear, call each other out, joke, lose their nerve, fuck around, fuck up, and kill when they have to. They do horrible things, even if it’s for the so-called right reasons. As he said last night, “Gimli and Legolas laughing over their body counts, to an orc, sounds like two psychopaths discussing mass murder.” His books don’t hide that kind of perspective.

There are brutal murders, yes, but never for no reason. The cruelty in his stories is packed so tightly with honesty and sincerity that you come to trust his telling — the way you’d trust a dear friend when they say you’re acting like a shithead.

It’s brutality, but it’s brutality that unearths deeper questions and yields deeper understanding.

For me, that’s the definition of safe space.


Half A King tour, July 2014


Check out his latest book, Half A King and see for yourself.

Branding, Writing Under a Pseudonym, Book Covers and Gender

I’ve heard that it’s important for writers to have a brand. If you pick up something by JK Rowling, or Stephen King, you know what you’re in for. They have a particular style, particular themes, and of course genre. From a marketing perspective, some authors have found it useful to jump genres under a pseudonym, so that their current fans won’t be disappointed. The downside is that some fans appreciate good writing no matter what the genre. Perhaps it’s the voice, rather than the tropes, that make for a good read.

Astute as always, Kevin Andrew Murphy has this to say about one of his favorite authors.


“I’m going to wade mildly into the fray currently in F&SF. I backed the Women Destroy Science Fiction! Kickstarter from Lightspeed and am downloading it, looking forward to reading the stories by numerous friends and colleagues. I was also wondering if Paula Volsky had any new books out since her Curse of the Witch Queen was my absolute favorite at sixteen–and still a favorite–but when you’re a writer, your reading time goes down. I discovered she’s got a new trilogy but it’s published under the pseudonym of Paula Brandon. As romance. But looking at the descriptions of The Veiled Islands Trilogy–The Traitor’s Daughtor, The Ruined City, & The Wanderers–they look like classic Volsky. Yes, a romance plot, but lots of action and adventure and fun magic. Plus zombies. But the covers? The Bridesmaid Dress, Return of the Bridesmaid Dress (now with more sparkles!), and The Bridesmaid Dress Revisited (now dripping with lace cuffs!). And the model’s head cut out of the frame.

While I curseknow a bunch of people have been saying, “Boys don’t read books by women” and I’ve been thinking, “But I’ve got piles of books by women! More than half my favorite authors were women when I was a teen!” they do not have covers like this. And that, I think, is the problem. Boys are fine with someone who looks like a competent, even prettily attired, heroine on the cover, but not with something that looks indistinguishable from an issue of Modern Bride.

And that’s part of the problem. How hard is it to have the heroine in the lavish gown fighting a zombie?”


My Experience as a Panelist at BayCon 2014

This one’s super-long. I’m reporting back on four days of convention.  Grab a sandwich and come back, you’ll need it.

BayCon 2014 was a great experience for me. I’ve been going to Sci-fi/Fantasy/eclectic conventions since I was literally in the womb. I love the panels, the dealer’s room, the costumes, and the wonderful exchanges between fans and pros. This past May was my first time coming at it from the pro side, and there were some delightful and eye-opening surprises.

I had originally proposed four panels, expecting to be on two. I spoke on seven. Here is my roster, including the brilliant minds I had the pleasure of speaking alongside:

The biggest thing I got out of this experience is that it never goes as I expected while I was preparing. I have pages and pages of notes I wound up not using; but was still grateful to have. The whole conversation is a balancing act between the panelists (obviously), the moderator, and the audience. We wound up in some really unexpected places.

Religion: I really enjoyed this one and it was a great way to kick off the con. I grew up Pagan, and it was easy to speak from my own experience. The panel took on a largely anthropological bent. Learned about the Lateran Council, Alogencians and how we can move past tolerance into celebration of the Other.
Best Quote: “You said something very powerful in the beginning of that explanation: I See Myself As…

Community: Actors, it seems, give rougher critique than writers. This panel was a lot of fun, but focused more on critique than — for example — how to find other writers and artists in the first place. Best of all, I met two members of Broad Universe, an organization that promotes sci-fi, fantasy and horror works by women. Also, Dan Hope, the managing editor for Fiction Vortex had great insights from the other side of the submissions desk.
Best Quote: “A beginning is raising a question that must be answered.

Creative Process:  Took place in a boardroom! It was a great, intimate setting to talk about writing, sculpture, graphic design, metalwork and other arts.
Best Quote: “There are three things that will block you from your work. Your skills aren’t up to par, your tools aren’t up to par, or your idea isn’t up to par. Sit and think about where the disconnect is occurring, and that will tell you how to find your way through the block.

LARPing For Beginners: I had done extensive research into this one, including local games, common challenges, and how to run your own game. One experienced LARPer passed by, saying she’d been playing for twelve years and didn’t think we had anything for her. My cohort gave great info on one-shot games like murder mystery dinner parties; but I was out of my element.
Best Quote: “A tabletop game follows the players, no matter where they range. A LARP centers on the setting. The GM knows everything; the ST does not. Start with your setting.

Writing Compelling Fight Scenes: We were joined by two members of Saint Michael’s Salle d’Armes to talk about what makes fight scenes compelling. This was a challenging panel for me, even though I was looking forward to it the most (fights are kinda my thing).  All of us had different opinions on what made a fight scene work — from brevity to intense detail. It was great to see how subjective it all was.
Best Quote: “The technical details don’t always serve you, and will probably confuse the reader. Fiction isn’t meant to be a manual.”

Family: The whole reason I went to BayCon in the first place was to deliver a painting. A few months ago, I put out a call on social media. Tell me something that’s bothering you, and your two favorite colors. From there, I came up with some drawings, and turned one or two of them into actual paintings. “When to Stand Strong, When to Let Go” was so happy with her painting that she offered to buy it. I didn’t feel comfortable shipping it, so I thought I’d arrange to speak at a con we would both attend and deliver it in person. A lot of work for something small and heartfelt — absolutely — but that’s kinda my thing too.
Side note, “When to Stand” also wrote new lyrics to Les Mis “On My Own” to describe the process of writing. We should YouTube it one day.
I also spent a good chunk of the con hanging out with her daughter. It’s great when parents can incorporate their kids into their lifestyle.
We all shared stories of our own families, good and bad, and how our friends come and go as our lives change. I recommended HackerMoms to new families looking for gaming/craft groups now that their normal crew saw a baby and fled.
Best Quote: “Sometimes the best way to express love is distance. Give yourself time, so that when you’re ready to renew the relationship with your mom, your brother, or whoever, you’re in a position to be honest and present with them.

Warrior-women:  My crowning achievement. I moderated this panel, doing my best to set my own goals aside and facilitate these other writers and producers. We only covered 60% of my questions, and I had to reluctantly open to the audience for questions. It turns out that this will be the theme of next year’s BayCon — 2015 is for Women of Wonder!
Best Quote: “There’s a difference between a warrior and a hero. Two firemen go into a building to rescue a puppy. One does it because that’s the job; the other does it to get on the nightly news.”
If you can’t tell a noble story, tell a cathartic story.


And now for fan-experiences, rather than pro-experiences.

As soon as I dressed up in a pretty gown for regency dancing, the first  comment I got was:  “Are you going to be a slave at the auction tonight?”

I bit back the urge to growl “fuck you,” at this person.

Then I thought about it, realized I’d never been to a slave auction and I don’t know what it entails. I decided to go and participate anyway. It turned out to be an interesting thought experiment. Bidding on women started at $20, and all proceeds went to the Make A Wish Foundation. The contract we signed was very explicit that we didn’t have to do anything we weren’t comfortable with. I was not forced into this situation, and faced my discomfort with open eyes.

I heard afterward that a singer sold for several hundred dollars. Me, under fifty. I was first up, and didn’t realize that you were supposed to vamp, or how. It was, for lack of a better description, something of a low-key burlesque.

Willingly placing your value — especially comparative value — in someone else’s hands is something we do every day. In this case, I was able to look folks in the eye while they assigned a value to me. I recognized some of the people who bid on me from other cons. I suspect they had no idea who I was.

We judge so deeply with such little knowledge of each other.

I don’t have it in me to be a slave, playful or otherwise. The experience tainted my con enough to know never to do that again. As I said on the fight panel, it’s important to acknowledge what your protagonist goes through — especially with an intense experience like a first kill. No one comes out clean from that. Ever.

A convention is a great place to meet people. You can network and make friends to your heart’s content. The slave auction seemed to distill the experience. We judge each other for performances, costumes, how we speak on panels — how we represent ourselves. Somewhere between our own choices and others’ judgements is our path. No man’s an island, as they say.

I’m glad I had the chance to practice a public face in this arena. I learned a lot.


Wee Ninja strikes again!