A recent discussion over at the SFReader forums on developing a thick skin in the short fiction submissions game got me thinking about rejection, and how it doesn’t really bother me anymore. I’m not bragging, I certainly haven’t had nearly the level of success or landed the sales to many of markets that I most want to be in, but I no longer take rejection personally and haven’t felt that all-too-familiar sting for quite some time. Many writers over at SFReader mentioned ways they got over the newbie rejection hurdle, and some of them hit on the one thing that I think helped me the most when I started out — seeing things from the other perspective.
That is, sending out some rejections of my own.
If you think I’m suggesting some sort of malicious counterstrike on all those evil editors, I’m not. No, what I mean is volunteering to read slush somewhere — to become one of those evil editors and find out, first hand, that maybe they aren’t so evil after all.
In this three-part article I’ll first be exploring some of the reasons a writer should consider volunteering for a slush position. Next week in part two I’ll make some suggestions as to just how a new writer/editor with no contacts can go about getting such a position. Finally, in part three, I’ll talk about the ins-and-outs of reading and evaluating slush, and offer some tips on how to do so.
What is Slush?
For those of you unaware of what I’m talking about, slush is the term for all those unsolicited manuscripts piled-up in back rooms and clogging up email in-boxes of magazine and anthology editors the world over. Somebody has to read all that stuff, and make decisions on whether or not each submission needs to be passed over, or passed to the higher-ups. Slush readers are assistant or associate editors with an important job — they have to evaluate a manuscript for its publication potential, applying criteria ranging from grammar and narrative soundness to appropriateness and the needs of their market. It’s a crucial role at any publication, though more so at the level of small press publications that cannot contract for a large percentage of their content from already established writers, and reading slush is one of the best ways a new writer of short fiction can get a feel for the submissions process, manuscript preparation, dealing with editors, and crafting a story that demands attention from the start.
So Why Read Slush?
Firstly, the benefits of reading slush for the beginning writer isn’t just about learning how to deal with rejection — it isn’t, as you might think, some callus-building exercise where if you dish out enough ‘no thank you’s,’ you get better at taking it on the chin. There may be a little bit of truth to that, because once you discover it generally feels worse to reject someone than it does to be rejected (assuming you aren’t a sociopath) your whole emotional understanding of rejections changes. But, beyond that, it is about looking at the whole process of reading, evaluating, and acting on submissions and realigning your perspective as just one piece of a bigger dynamic.
The Importance of Formatting
If you ever thought editors were irritable and nit-picky and too obsessed with their submissions guidelines, a few months of wading through slush piles will cure you of that. Weirdly formatted, completely off-topic, borderline-insane manuscripts are a slush pile editor’s constant companion — a perpetual reminder of the idiocy of his fellow man. See enough of that stuff and you start to wonder how anyone can put up with it for long.
So, the work of going through all this slush is one way to start seeing things from the editor’s perspective. All of a sudden taking the time to make sure things are the way the editor expects them isn’t merely a hassle for you, the writer, but a courtesy, a gesture of respect for someone working at a sometimes thankless task — and one which it does not pay for you to make any more difficult. But beyond the surface appearance of things, beyond the necessity of coming across as one professional dealing with another by making sure your spacing, font, point size, and layout are the way the editor wants them, there is the question of substance.
Reading Manuscripts Teaches You to Write Them
Beginning writers can only read what they have access to — in other words the polished and edited work of published writers. Consider, then, that they don’t ever see other examples of what they themselves are called on to produce — namely manuscripts — and so don’t necessarily have a model for their own work. Joining a critique group, which I will discuss further in the second part of this article, is the most immediate fix for this situation. Reading slush is an even better one.
Why is reading slush a better learning experience? Because of volume, pressures of time, and the practical demands of putting together a publication — none of which come into play in the critique group atmosphere. Learning from experience what pops out of a slush pile and what sinks beneath it, what works to grab an editor’s attention and what does not, are critical insights into the submissions process. Read enough good, bad, and mediocre manuscripts and you start to get an idea of what you can do to make your own stand out from the crowd.
It Isn’t Personal Anymore
When you, the writer, receive a rejection from an editor it’s a singular incident, a big unhappy face stamped on your day. When you, the editor, juggle dozens of submissions a week and send a handful of rejections out every few days, it’s an impersonal process — one in which you deal with many different submitters. And the first time you reject a story you really like — one you possibly like even more than one you are accepting! — for any one of a thousand reasons that have nothing to do with quality but everything to do with the needs of your publication, you start to understand what rejection is really all about. Eventually, you can even forget that people could possibly take it personally at all.
Reading slush, experiencing the editing process from the bottom and the submissions game from the other side, is a fantastic way to grow as a writer — both in craft and in understanding of the big picture. It’s also a great way to get your name out and make valuable contacts in other writers and editors, and in part two of this article I will be exploring ways that you can go about getting yourself a position reading slush. But I also want to add that, while this article focuses on the benefits to you as a writer from a stint reading slush, the editorial process should not be looked at merely as a means to this end. Indeed, a great deal of the satisfaction one can derive from it has nothing whatsoever to do with becoming a better writer, but in ensuring the work of other writers is presented in the best possible light.