No Shit, There I Was, with lessons from the depths of my own slush pile 5

I’ve now sent the last of the responses for the anthology; if you haven’t gotten an email of some sort from me and submitted a story, please query immediately. This is the first time I’ve ever truly dived into a slush pile, and it was a really cool experience. I ended up enjoying way more stories than I could fit in the anthology, which made writing the last round of rejections particularly agonizing.

But after shoveling all the slush, here’s some things I noticed. These are not meant to specifically call someone out, and I will not be naming names because that would be damn rude and unkind. Any details are made up as examples.

Technical Things

  1. A lot of people apparently don’t know what is meant by standard manuscript format. But honestly, I’m not even this picky. I just want double spacing, indents on the first line of each paragraph, a readable font, your contact info, and a header with page numbers.
  2. If you can’t be bothered to send me your story in one of the acceptable document formats I list, I can’t be bothered to open it.
  3. Please don’t summarize your story for me in your query letter. I want to read your story and find out for myself. In fact, summarizing in the query letter actually makes it more difficult for me to evaluate whether your story accomplishes what you set out to do.
  4. Please make sure you have deleted all editing comments and accepted all tracked changes in a document before sending it. I really don’t want to know how the sausage was made before it arrived in my inbox. (Note that this did not cause me to reject anyone, but it was super distracting.)
  5. You’d better darn well know what you’re doing with ellipses or one of my slush jackalopes will probably take out a hit on you.
  6. Commas are extremely important. They make the difference between sarcastic insult (“Awesome, jerkoff”) and porn (“Awesome jerkoff”).
  7. If you’re not querying a piece as a reprint, it better not have been published anywhere. Ever. Things that count as publishing even if you made not a blessed cent and only your grandmother saw it: putting it in your uni literary magazine, posting it publicly on your blog, publishing it in your church bulletin, writing it up on a series of pictures that you’ve shared on instagram. And so on.
  8. Don’t tell me what the speculative element is. If I can’t locate it without you telling me beforehand, I’m not going to accept your story.
  9. A lot of stories really stumbled when it came to the integration of the first line. If I can tell it’s literally pasted onto the start of a story and nothing’s been adjusted around it, that’s not going to fill me with confidence. Also, I admit this is a weakness of such a prompt, if a narrator starts with “No Shit, there I was” and the rest of the story contains absolutely no cussing and no colloquial language, that’s going to be very dissonant.
  10. I don’t generally find puns amusing. Sorry, punsters. This is a flaw in my character I’ve never been shy of pointing out.

General Plot Things

  1. Speaking of speculative elements, it has to have a clear “what if” that is fantastic or science fictional in some way. If your main character just thinks the orange on their desk is talking to them, that’s not speculative. If the orange on their desk is actually talking to them, then it is speculative.
  2. Stories need to have a fully realized plot with a beginning, middle, and end, in which something changes. It could be the character. It could be the development of the plot itself, or a change in the world caused by the action of plot and character.
    1. What does not count as a plot: several thousand worlds in which a narrator describes the history of the world in a giant, expository dump. If there is more time spent by your character describing the world than actively interacting with it, you do not have enough plot.
    2. Personally, I prefer character driven stories, where the internal and external needs to the character either drive the plot or become developed through interaction with the plot. However, if you write a really good plot driven story (there are several in the anthology) I will still enjoy it!
  3. First act bloat is a problem I battle, myself. But the setup of the world and the introduction of the plot should be at most 1/3 of your page count. Multiple stories had a first act break was 1/2 to 2/3 of the way of the page count in, which makes for an unevenly paced read.
    1. Your story needs to have a beginning, middle, and some kind of conclusion. If it reads like the first chapter of a novel, it’s not going to work as a self-contained short story.
    2. Three act structure is most definitely not required or necessary, but it’s not a bad place to start if you’re not sure about your pacing. An alternative tool is Jule Selbo’s 11 steps (broken out here in three act structure, but actually they don’t have to be); while this is a film structure tool, it’s useful for examining the development of plot and character.
  4. Twist endings can be good, but they still need to make some kind of sense. Approach with caution. I need to be able to look back on the rest of your story and think ah, now X, Y, and Z make sense or oh man that totally screws with my perception of all those events! If your “twist” amounts to kids picking daisies in a field and suddenly a lorry comes screaming out of nowhere and runs them over, that’s not actually a twist. It’s a non sequitor.

Thoughts about the how and why of the successful stories to follow later.

And hey! I’m raising money for Act For Change by hate watching Gods of Egypt. You should check it out.

5 thoughts on “No Shit, There I Was, with lessons from the depths of my own slush pile

  1. Reply Karl Dandenell (@KDandenell) Feb 9,2016 12:02

    Maybe this is a Left Coast thing, but out here we “put out a hit” rather than “take out a hit.” Jackalopes are optional.

  2. Reply sbaker Feb 9,2016 12:14

    “Please make sure you have deleted all editing comments and accepted all tracked changes in a document before sending it.”

    Oooooops. Sorry about that! We only noticed a week or so ago, and there was much egg-on-face.

    • Reply Rachael Feb 9,2016 12:21

      Yours wasn’t one of the ones we noticed that on, actually! So it must not have been too bad. :)

  3. Pingback: No Shit, There I Was, thinking about successful stories ← Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery

  4. Reply JohnD Feb 10,2016 17:00

    ” If your “twist” amounts to kids picking daisies in a field and suddenly a lorry comes screaming out of nowhere and runs them over, that’s not actually a twist. It’s a non sequitur.”

    Or an old ad for a dodgy politician…

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