Tag Archives: science fiction

SFF Short Fiction 101 (from a slusher)

**THIS POST DOES NOT REPRESENT THE OPINION OR METHODOLOGY OF ANY ANTHOLOGY OR MAGAZINE I HAVE WORKED FOR. ALL VIEWS ARE MY OWN.

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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?”

 

4 Secrets from My Writing Process

Today’s post is part a Writing Process Blog Hop I was invited into by one of my favorite bloggers, Lauren Sapala.

As part of the Hop, I’m answering four questions about my personal writing process and then passing the baton on to four other bloggers who smear their mad mental wanderings all over the walls.

Here’s my take on my (mostly) private writing life:

What are you working on?
I am finalizing a science fiction story about a woman sent to recover an objet d’art from a gang of thieves. When she discovers the artwork is actually a human being who can make dreams into a reality, she’s forced to choose between the safety of her crew and the independent thoughts of the human race.

How does your work differ from others in the genre?
It’s difficult to answer, because I feel as though I haven’t read enough to make that kind of call.

I will say this: I’m dark, but not cynical. I love gritty, hard stories. I love breakneck pacing and lots of action. I want people to suffer — but I want them to suffer and learn. I want them to suffer and grow. I want them to suffer and still find goodness within themselves. I’m not willing to sacrifice the last tiny sparkle of hope for the sake of shock value.

Why do you write what you write?
For this particular story, I was inspired by Facebook’s privacy controversies. Whenever we ‘like’ something, we get recommendations related to the original topic, and as a result we limit our horizons rather than experiencing that which rises from the chaos of random exposure. We shove ourselves further into self-contained bubbles. On top of that, we post anything and everything that’s on our minds from photographs to vague wishes about love. We volunteer for that trap. It made me wonder what happens to individuals — to our souls — when we submit our thoughts and dreams irrevocably to a collective.

How does your writing process work?
I speed through edits and critiques at any time of day; but when it comes to new material I can’t start until 8pm. I depend on music to orient me. When there’s a certain scene I’m trying to complete, or emotion I’m trying to capture, I need to make sure I’m listening to something that resonates with what I’m trying to express. For this story, I’ve been going back and forth between Hybrid and Joseph Gergis. Gergis got me up to 5,000 words in a single night. I need him to make a new album already.

Now, I pass the baton on to these four insanely talented writer friends:

Fantasy From the Desk of Laura Stephenson
Laura’s book, “A Complete Guide to Being Evil” is a fun story about death, devils and dirty dealings.  Her blog is full of videos about writing, reading, and process. Somewhere on my blog is a picture of her murdering me while she’s dressed as a Norse goddess.

The Art of Almost by Tom O’Connell
Tom’s brilliant blog is an exploration of craft from all angles: the reader, the critic, the student, and the archivist. Check out his flash fiction and guest-speaker recaps. You’re sure to crack a grin.

Hopes and Dreams: My Writing and My Sons by Lillian Csernica
Kind and dedicated author Lillian Csernica blogs about challenges of maintaining a professional writing career while being a good mother for two special needs sons. Lillian writes romance, fantasy, historical fiction, as well as some sci-fi and horror.

TalkToYoUniverse by Juliette Wade
Juliette writes about linguistics and anthropology, science fiction and fantasy, point of view, grammar geekiness, and all of the fascinating permutations thereof. She also hosts Google hangouts that will tell you everything you could ever want to know about world-building! Videos and transcripts are broken up by topic.