Tag Archives: writing

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.

The Assumptions of 2nd Person POV

I have a lot of trouble connecting with work written in second person. I have a lot of trouble with “you are…” statements in general written by people who don’t know me. Especially if it says something evocative of coyness, glancing up from under long lashes while you brush your hair behind one ear — you always were beautiful.

Vomit.

For me, hearing “you” gets too tangled in my own sense of self, and the urge to get defensive or fling the book across the room for being presumptuous is too strong. It throws me out of the story, and there’s nothing worse, while reading, than remembering you’re reading. It ruins the escapism.

One way to use this successfully is when the object of the “you are…” is clearly established within the scope of the story. The most successful example of which is “Read This Quickly, For You Will Only Have a Moment…” by Stephen Case.

I am marking it here so I don’t lose the link again.

Head over to Beneath Ceaseless Skies to listen to it. It’s an old one from 2011, but it sticks in my memory.

Teens and Adults Write the Same Things

Have you ever gone digging through your old work?  Especially stuff you wrote in your teens? I was cleaning up my desktop, backing up files, tra-la-la, and I discovered a ‘poems’ folder that I hadn’t opened since high school.

Oh boy.

I cringed, and opened the file.  I read through some of them. They were simple, especially in terms of style and depth. The striking thing turned out to be the subject matter. Thematically they were all the same.

The things I write about now are more complex, long-winded versions of the same experience! The bad relationships in my stories all thrive–and are torn apart by–conflict. Sacrifice, bitterness, violence and the dry-eyed acceptance of loneliness were in almost every old poem I wrote.  That stuff seems typical of every high-school experience, but I realize that these sorts of themes are also still showing up in all my novels and short stories.  There’s something about that experience I’m still turning over in my hands.  It’s possible that every time I’ve been driven to write, from childhood until now, the trigger has remained the same. I sometimes wonder if lifelong immersion in one mode or another is healthy for a mind.  Do we do damage to our psyche by returning to the same themes; or do we write to stave off the cancer that consumes us from within?

When you look back at the body of your work, what do you think?

“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” ― Marcus Aurelius

 

Iri

In Writing, There Is No Max Score

A creative endeavor is a never-ending journey.  It can be frustrating.  You write and write and work and work but to what end?  You will never finish.  Ever.  Never ever.

How’d that feel to read?

A.  The never-ending journey is a daunting, exhausting sisyphean task.  The boulder will never just sit flat on top of that friggin’ mountain.
Or, B.  The pursuit of mastery is a quest for growth, new understanding of the craft, and more advanced application of that craft.  It gets better and better.

B seems the healthier perspective.  Inherent in any qualitative pursuit is the goal of mastery.

Keeping positive about a never ending task can be difficult.  One method is to use healthy competition.  Everyone reacts to competition in a different way.  For some, it’s an opportunity to measure one’s skill and maybe show off something they’re proud of.  For others –those incapable of discerning defeat from death — it turns them into snarling rage-beasts.  Competition should never be about the opposition, but rather about yourself.  Competition is a tool to gauge where you are now, and how far away your goal is.  Competition lets you mark, surpass, and then set new goals.

Ultimately there may be cash prizes and publication involved, but start smaller.  Small competitions — competitions with yourself or with your fellow writers — can give you just the push you need to improve.  Make a bet with a friend to finish a poem by next Friday.  See how you do.  Writing has no finish line.  There is no maximum score.  Constant growth, new understanding, and application of craftsmanship is your prize, and the prize is the journey.

Bakers, theoretical astrophysicists, and writers all have the same goal in mind: mastery.  Let your victories and losses mark the path of your eternal journey.  Then keep going.

“Writing is a profession you can practice while upside down and experiencing total blackout in a cave. You just use the mental recorder instead of pen and paper … or portable … and hope you find a use for the experience.”
— C. J. Cherryh
“It has to be learned, but it can’t be taught. This bunkum and stinkum of college creative writing courses! The academics don’t know that the only thing you can do for someone who wants to write is to buy him a typewriter.”
— James M. Cain

How Editing is Like Hosting a Thanksgiving Dinner

I’m in the midst of preparing menus for two parties. First, an orphan thanksgiving for local friends, and then traveling to a family dinner.

Have you noticed that despite the fact you you celebrate Thanksgiving every year, it’s never the same as last time? Sometimes there’s a little change, like adding a new side dish to the turkey feast; but sometimes there are massive changes.  Maybe you can’t stand turkey anymore and went for Chinese.  The core ideas were the same — family, feasting, gratitude — but you went about it a totally different way.  It’s a lot like re-writing and revising. 

You know the basics of what’s going to happen.  Thanksgiving has traditions and a theme, and your story has traditions and a theme.  The more experience you have planning the party [or re-working the manuscript], the more your skills and confidence will improve.  Change is necessary, and it’s up to you to say what stays and what goes.

Start small.  Tweaking your dialogue is like tweaking a recipe.  Adding a scene is like inviting a new group of people over.  Then move on to the big stuff.  If your manuscript is too long, think of it like cutting your guest list.  You love your writing, like you love your friends and family—but if your friends and family don’t mesh, one of them can’t come to the party.  Don’t be afraid to hurt feelings, or cut things you’re really proud of.  They can always get their own party later.

You owe it to your guests [readers] to make it the most fun, the most touching, and the most memorable party [story] you can.  Now buckle down and do it.

The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is merely tenacity…
— Amelia Earhart

TG

Purity, Story Ideas, and God on the Rag

I was reading about a holiday called Ambubachi Mela, which is observed by Hindus for three days during monsoon season. This is the first holiday I have come across which marks not the birth or death of a divine being; but their menstrual cycle.

Gods: they’re just like us!

I kid you not, the goddess Kamakhya has a period once a year, when the holy river goes into a flood. The rains and water rushing everywhere represent a positive, renewing force; but there was one fact that brought me to a screeching halt.

For three days, because the goddess becomes impure, she has to go into seclusion the way women traditionally did when they had their cycle. The temple closes during this time. On the fourth day, after the goddess is ritually bathed and re-purified, people can go into the temple and worship. Perhaps this is a matter of art imitating life, but it got me thinking about our perception of blood.

There’s a thick association between blood and primal forces. Blood is life. Blood is sacrifice. Blood is the mark of adulthood, either by ritual or by surprise in your pre-teens. I understand that that blood corrupts. If you hunt and kill something without cleaning it of organs and fluids, it will quickly rot. Open wounds and infections kill us. The thing is, women aren’t meat. It’s not an open wound. Where does purity come in? Just because it’s gross? Blood sacrifice is pretty gross too, but some Aztecs and Vikings still thought it would be a cool present for a divine being. Technically, it’s poor scholarship to compare what’s happening in India with what happened in Mexico and Scandinavia during different eras, but there’s something about symbolic blood that seems to resonate across time and distance.

That said, it seems counterintuitive, or unjust, to say that blood is both powerful and holy during ritual, and then it goes back to being gross and shunned in an everyday context. Ambubachi Mela is a time of austerity and cleansing in the hopes for future fertility, and menstruation is a pretty good mythological metaphor in this case. The thing is, if all ritual is arbitrary, based on our own recognition and application of nature’s patterns, why observe blood (represented by water) as impure rather than divine? It’s part of a divine story, in a divine context, coming from a divine being. It has me thinking not so much about that particular myth, but the idea of purity.

A lot of subjugation has happened over perceptions of purity, but purity doesn’t last. All food turns to shit, eventually. All peoples intermix, eventually. There is a huge difference between looking at a biological function and saying, “that’s gross,” and looking at the person whose chemistry produced it and saying, “you’re gross. You’re so gross you can’t participate in society for three days.”

I understand why a woman would want to peacefully retreat during that week. The sequester isn’t the issue. It’s the specific mark of “impure” that niggles at me as a writer.

So when a writer goes out, settles in, whips out his or her pencil and starts to create a world, that world might include arbitrary rituals. They look great, sound cool, and you come up with a myth and it helps ground you in that world. Purity will come up at some point in the context of the world you’ve built. Call it virtue if you like, but there will be a social stratification between those who do things correctly, and those who will not get the holy high-five.

When someone offers blood as a prayer, is it the blood that holds the power, or the idea of sacrifice itself? Is menstrual blood considered non-sacrificial because it just happens?

If blood is universally divine because it’s an offering of oneself, then surely there are other offerings on par with it. Imagine the kind of world where blood and fine craftsmanship are equally divine. Where the endurance of suffering is all well and good, but the labor and effort of creating something marvelous is more precious — the giving of oneself, rather than the sacrifice of oneself. If knowledge, creativity, and excellence were as valuable as flesh and blood, what then defines impurity?

To be empty. To lack. To starve.

This is the story I’m working on now.

Quick Notes – How to Edit Your Own Work

Here are some notes most generously copied for me by the talented Laura N. Stephenson. I met her at ConDor in San Diego and we swapped panel notes.  Conventions are a great place to make friends, learn from pros and strut your stuff. For more on convention prep, check out this post.

  • Writer’s ticks – Words/phrases you overuse.
  • Read it aloud – ear will pick out mistakes the eye glosses over.
  • Read your sentences backwards to prevent brain glossing over mistakes (Sentence 3, sentence 2, sentence 1)
  • Don’t edit before the manuscript is done.
  • If a section is terrible, rewrite rather than edit.
  • Put cut material in separate document to look at after the manuscript is over and judge if its worth putting in somewhere else.
  • Read one character’s dialogue at a time to be sure they’re consistent with themselves and different from each other.
  • Make sure sentences don’t go longer than two lines.
  • Gail Carriger writes 2k words/day
  • Write a mark in the manuscript for where you need research, whether into your own work or to fact check.
  • Don’t use too much or too little stage direction.
  • Act stage directions out.
  • Scrivener is a useful tool (K. M. Alexander swears by it)
  • Too short? Ad another POV character.
  • Before making a major edit, back up current version.

My own two cents, on top of these tips, is to make sure you do all your spell-checking and re-reading BEFORE you hand your work off to a beta reader or editor. Let them help you with the things you miss; not the problems you ignore.

“The great artist is the simplifier.”
— Henri-Frédéric Amiel

“A pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.”
— George S. Patton Jr.

spiral-scribble