Slush and Difficult Starts

I’ve been reading slush for almost three years. You’ve probably heard a lot of stories about the horrors and joys of slush reading, I’m here to tell you that every story you’ve heard is probably true in some form.

Yes, a lot of stories that get submitted are rife with rape and murder.

Yes, many people don’t follow the submissions guidelines.

Sorry, your story where a despicable man that treats his family terribly but ends up being revealed to be an actual monster and/or murdered at the end is not original. I don’t feel cathartic at the end of the story, after suffering through the character’s terrible actions only for him to meet an equally brutal end. I’m tired, not joyful.

But yes, I will read your story. It will linger with me for a moment, as I consider the time you took to write it and what you were trying to say with it. As a writer whose own work is struggling through slush, I will feel empathy for your plight even as I make a recommendation that your story be rejected.

We don’t need more stories out in the world featuring rape and murder just for the shock factor. Just as we don’t need more racist stories, or stories full of stereotypes and generalizations. We get plenty of that in the news. And please don’t bring up an argument about realism. There are ways to deftly handle these issues without glorifying them.

What else do I often see in slush? Stories where characters wake up in the first paragraph. A whole first page of dialogue without tags or character names. Someone walking in a field picking herbs, thinking about life. A struggling alcoholic out on the town, thinking negative thoughts about their spouse, but the spouse deserves the mistreatment because the alcoholic is misunderstood. They’re on a mission to save the world/girl and/or to solve the mystery/murder. A first paragraph full of shock factor and little else. Stories that are barely SpecFic.

This doesn’t mean you should never start a story with any of the instances above. I’m just saying that many, many people do. It follows that your hard written words won’t stand out. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t continue reading.

Here is my typical approach to slush:

I read until I lose interest. I might lose interest because of any of the items mentioned above. If one of the items mentioned above does happen, but the writing is good, I will continue reading. If the story still isn’t grabbing my attention, I’ll scroll down to the bottom and read the last paragraph. Maybe I’m misjudging the story. Maybe it ends somewhere surprising, flipping the tropes. If I like what I see, I’ll go back, start again.

All of this to say, if any of the previous sounds like your story and you keep getting rejected, I ask that you take a moment to reexamine it. Would it serve your purposes to start the story somewhere else? To cut the first few paragraphs and get to the action faster? What purpose does the brutal assault serve, when we already know the character is a bad person from their previous dialogue? Are your women characters multi-dimensional, or are they only there to fulfill the emotional needs of the male characters?

It takes more than good writing to beat the slush pile. Sometimes multiple drafts and even submissions are necessary before you realize your story actually starts on page three, or that there’s an entire subplot you should have cut. All of this can be daunting and, at times, success seems impossible. But you are going to keep trying, because writers have to write and to submit. Through self-reflection and the refusal to give up, we can become better.

Featured image by Kaboompics

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