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What I Learned from Reading Slush

"If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader's attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete.  The greatest writers . . . are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter."
    -   William Strunk jr.

I learned more from reading slush at the California Quarterly when I was in grad school than in any course I was taking at the time. We received 40-50 manuscripts a week, and we didn't accept a story in the first four months I was there. It wasn't that it was all bad--although heavens knows that over half the stuff was immediately rejectable--but that so little of it stood out. Here's some usable info I learned from the editor's side of reading slush. If your manuscript exhibits any of the following, it's better than half of the slush pile: 

          1) If you use action verbs in the first paragraph. 
          2) If you don't use a cliche in the first paragraph. 
          3) If you don't use unneeded words in the first paragraph. 
          4) If you name things specifically in the first paragraph. 

A lot of manuscripts managed to use no action verbs, to use at least one cliche, to throw in unneeded words, and to not name a single thing specifically, all in the first paragraph, and those were the hardest to keep reading until the end. 

What I learned over and over and over again, through weeks of reading slush, is that professional, readable writing is recognizable in the first paragraph. Getting to the second page without running into a single groaner was such a relief that I'd sometimes read the first page of such a story to anyone who was near just so they could hear competent prose. 

Writing well at the sentence and paragraph level is what I keep pounding into my students and workshop members. That's why I think studying poetry can be so helpful: poetry is all about sentence level decisions. At any rate, that's what I learned. My guess is that if you have a chance to read slush or to read for a contest you might learn something different, but, no matter what, do it. It's a great, educational, professional move.

Here's something else I learned too. Over half the authors in the slush pile made multiple mistakes in their first page of the sort I described above, and that made them easy to reject, but that means a good bunch of them didn't. So how do you choose from among the competent? 

What really kept me reading as an editor, and what was required in a manuscript we eventually bought, was that something interesting occur on the first page. That interesting thing could be an event, an image, a phrasing, an odd connection, a bizarre situation, a simile, etc. It had to be something that widened the pupils, or made me catch my breath, or made me say, "Oh, cool!" What's amazing about this interesting quality, by the way, is that it doesn't require genius (I don't think), but a willingness to be focused and original. Focused on the specific reality of the story and original in language and vision. The writer who could be interesting on the first page was much more likely to continue being interesting than the ones who weren't.

I even think I know why so few stories had this quality: they came from writers who didn't revise enough ("revise" as in "to see again"--not proofreading). If you think about it, most writers don't have an absolutely clear idea of what their story is when they write their first paragraph. They learn about the story as they write. Their clearest vision of what the story is comes to them when they're on the last couple of pages (although not always on the last paragraph--endings are hard; they really require the writer to know what the story was about). So they send out these stories with their weakest writing still at the beginning where their characters, setting, situation, conflict, language, tone, mood, etc. were at their vaguest.

Sometimes what I think is the problem for the writer is not an unwillingness to be specific, but a lack of knowledge about the specifics.  When I workshop stories I'll ask questions about specifics, like "What are the shops on the street?" or "What is the pattern on the couch your character is sitting on?" and more often than not, the writer won't know.  The writer hasn't thought about it.  Of course, you could say those were unfair questions, the writer can't know everything, right?  I agree, but these writers didn't know anything beyond what was on the page.  They hadn't fully occupied their fictional world, and it showed in their level of detail.

I think a writer can get a lot more milage out of the tiny thing imagined well than the huge thing imagined poorly.  What convinces the reader that the story is real is the tiny detail.  It's Prufrock's description of the girl he's going to meet, 

 

          Arms that are braceleted and white and bare

          [But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]

 

It's Robert Hayden's evocation of the father in "Those Winter Sundays":

          Sundays too my father got up early
          and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
          then with cracked hands that ached
          from labor in the weekday weather made
          banked fires blaze.

 

Both descriptions get miles of good work by the tiny details, the “in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!” and the “cracked hands that ached from labor.”

 

At any rate, this is a long post that says, among other things, be specific.
 

 

Comments

( 41 comments — Leave a comment )
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matociquala
Mar. 28th, 2007 02:55 pm (UTC)
Fabulous post.

Oddly enough, just a couple of weeks ago I handed in a column for Subterranean on... how reading slush taught me to write better.
jimvanpelt
Mar. 28th, 2007 03:14 pm (UTC)
Hi, Elizabeth. Was your experience in reading slush similar at all to what I described?

I remember going three months without accepting a single manuscript, and when I finally got to one we eventually took I really did read parts of it out loud to some poor strangers who were close enough to me in the student union to suddenly become an audience.

It got so that I could tell when I was reading a story that had a chance to be a keeper. The experience of the first 100 words was so much better that most of everything else.

I don't think I have the heart and soul of an editor, though. The reams of rejectable manuscripts discouraged me. I despaired that writing in America had completely gone to hell. I imagined all of these poor, deluded people who, for whatever reason, believed that they could string sentences together. When I saw the same beginning for the umpteenth time, I wanted to fling it to the floor.

By the time I finished, I understood why the editor I replaced had once gotten into trouble for writing a two-word rejection note to one writer: "Tree Killer."
(no subject) - matociquala - Mar. 28th, 2007 03:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimvanpelt - Mar. 28th, 2007 04:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
albionidaho
Mar. 28th, 2007 03:45 pm (UTC)
This is wonderful. Thanks for posting it. It's given me a lot to consider whilst writing.
jimvanpelt
Mar. 28th, 2007 04:26 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the comment! Lots of times I wax philosophical about writing. Today my high school kids are doing their state-mandated testing, so when I'm not directly supervising, I can post these things.
makoiyi
Mar. 28th, 2007 03:59 pm (UTC)
Thank you, that really resonates with me. (came here via ebear's journal), especially the para about revision. I quoted that on my own journal, I hope you don't mind, but I should stick it up on the wall to remind me that writing the damned story simply isn't enough.
jimvanpelt
Mar. 28th, 2007 04:28 pm (UTC)
You are welcome! I love getting to the end of the story so I can move on to revision. So much good work happens to the story after the first draft is done.
(Deleted comment)
jimvanpelt
Mar. 28th, 2007 05:03 pm (UTC)
Hi, Devon. Thanks for dropping in.

I also found that the more I read, the more critical I became of stuff that wasn't bad but not very good either. My tolerance for the mediocre fell apart too.

You'd think I would have done better emotionally at slush reading because I'm also a teacher and used to bad and mediocre work, but it didn't turn out that way.
(Deleted comment)
jerwine
Mar. 28th, 2007 04:58 pm (UTC)
Great post. I can certainly agree with you on this...and the mentioning of cliches made me think about the fact that at least once every two months I see a story that starts: "It was a dark and stormy night..."

Even a rank amateur should know that one is a no-no!

jimvanpelt
Mar. 28th, 2007 05:06 pm (UTC)
J, LOL! That's amazing that you would see that beginning still.

I see cliches in my writing classes that I wouldn't expect. Like my college creative writing class just handed in a collection of their poems. I know, even though I warned them not to do it, that most of them will have at least one poem about the difficulty of writing poems. Almost all of them start with, "Here I sit, pen in hand . . ."
(no subject) - jerwine - Mar. 28th, 2007 05:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimvanpelt - Mar. 28th, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nancylebov - Mar. 28th, 2007 05:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimvanpelt - Mar. 28th, 2007 05:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
coolmajaka
Mar. 28th, 2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
I've been reading slush for over a year now, and all I can say is "true dat". You can often tell in the first sentence if a piece is getting the boot.

It sure has opened my eyes as a writer, though, and helped me improve my skills. And it is always a thrill to find a good piece in the nonsense, which gives me hope as a writer. If I send in a solid piece, the editor will be pleased.
jimvanpelt
Mar. 28th, 2007 05:32 pm (UTC)
Hi, David. Thanks for dropping by.

I think you're right about reading slush giving me hope as a writer. Before I read slush, I assumed that as a new writer I was probably going to be on the bottom of the stack, and I'd heard about the 800 manuscripts a month some of the magazines were getting. That's a lot of writers to become better than! But what I found was that a lot of the slush is truly awful, and some is merely awful, and some is almost not quite awful, and I was better than that. So, I wasn't starting at the dead bottom of the slush pile.
tbclone47
Mar. 28th, 2007 06:16 pm (UTC)
90% of what I reject for Talebones I know I'm going to reject before the end of the first page. It's SO very true about having something "interesting" on page one (even paragraph one); silly errors, clunky writing, and nonspecific events keep me from getting into the story.
jimvanpelt
Mar. 28th, 2007 06:37 pm (UTC)
My other problem as an editor was that I felt obligated to read all the stories to the end. It was kind of a karma thing: if I read all of their manuscripts completely, then the universe would be sure that editors would read mine to the end.

Oh, what foolish beliefs I once held.
therck
Mar. 28th, 2007 07:22 pm (UTC)
I read slush for three years, in the 90s, for a small press horror/fantasy/SF magazine that was just starting out. The editor wanted us to critique everything we got (I suspect that it was intended to encourage people to send us stories. We were only paying in contributor's copies for the first year). That meant that, even when I knew immediately (as I often did) that I'd be rejecting a story, I had to read the whole thing.

The things that stick in my memory, interestingly, aren't the instances of bad grammar or clunky prose but rather the story details that made no sense. I remember the bad science, physically impossible/improbable events, bad logic and the person who used 'muskets' and 'rifles' interchangeably.
jimvanpelt
Mar. 28th, 2007 07:56 pm (UTC)
Ouch! Reading rejectable horror seems particularly awful to me. I've judged a couple of horror story contests, and I also reviewed some of the ultra-small press horror zines, and bad horror that doesn't horrify is tough slogging. You probably earned extra points for heaven by reading them all to the end.
muneraven
Mar. 28th, 2007 07:44 pm (UTC)
Oooo you quoted Robert Hayden
Now I must "friend" you because nobody quotes Hayden and he wrote my favorite poem to speak out loud EVER: "Runagate Runagate".

What I learned from my years toiling at the slushpile was very similar. But I also learned never to take rejection personally because there are so many reasons stories get rejected and about half of them aren't even logical. Oh, and I also learned that about 90% of people who write aren't very good at it.

Love that 10% who rock my world, though.

I wandered over from E.Bear's matociquala-land, by the way. Nice to virtually meetcha.

jimvanpelt
Mar. 28th, 2007 07:57 pm (UTC)
Re: Oooo you quoted Robert Hayden
Thanks for coming by!

The whole "how to take rejection" discussion is an entire thread of its own, no doubt.
snickelish
Mar. 28th, 2007 09:04 pm (UTC)
So they send out these stories with their weakest writing still at the beginning where their characters, setting, situation, conflict, language, tone, mood, etc. were at their vaguest.

Yes. This is something that I'm realizing I need to watch out for more in my own submissions.

Believe it or not, I envy you your time in the slush pile. Sometime, like when I'm out of grad school, I'd like to volunteer for some small mag and read slush for a while for just the sort of experience you're talking about. (Incidentally, for others similarly interested, Aberrant Dreams is looking for fiction editors right now.)
snickelish
Mar. 28th, 2007 09:06 pm (UTC)
Er, just realized that the AD position is in the process of being filled, so they're probably not taking applications any more.
(no subject) - jimvanpelt - Mar. 28th, 2007 10:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
cyperus_papyrus
Mar. 28th, 2007 11:57 pm (UTC)
I discovered your LJ in some roundabout way I don't remember and have been lurking for a while, enjoying your posts. You have some very thoughful things to say in this post, which are helping me understand where my stories are going astray. Figuring out how to integrate the vision of the story is what I haven't figured out how to do yet, as though the vision is only part way there. You have also inspired me to post a science fiction poem. :)
jimvanpelt
Mar. 29th, 2007 02:50 am (UTC)
Hey, Cyperus! Welcome aboard. I liked your sonnet. There's something about the sonnet form that works really well to express a thought.
(no subject) - cyperus_papyrus - Mar. 29th, 2007 04:19 am (UTC) - Expand
nancylebov
Mar. 29th, 2007 10:53 am (UTC)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_was_a_dark_and_stormy_night

That sentence shows up about a dozen times in popular literature, it was chosen from as much of Bulwer-Lytton's prose as people could stand to read to name the bad-prose contest, and it's easy to remember. I have no idea what its virtues are, but it must have *something* going for it.

I agree that all the rules can be broken, and I've noticed that this is especially true for humor (though that doesn't apply in the case of _A Wrinkle in Time).
geo4real
Mar. 29th, 2007 02:00 pm (UTC)
This has to be one of the most useful few paragraphs on writing that I've ever read. The first paragraph was an eye-opener, there wasn't a wasted word, and it was chock-full of specifics that I'll take away with me.

Thanks for posting it - and for practicing what you preach!
jimvanpelt
Mar. 29th, 2007 02:09 pm (UTC)
Hi, Geo. Thanks for the note. Good luck with your writing projects. It sounds like from your LJ that you are working on a novel?
(no subject) - geo4real - Mar. 29th, 2007 02:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimvanpelt - Mar. 29th, 2007 02:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Anonymous)
Mar. 30th, 2007 12:17 am (UTC)
inspired
As a new writer desperately trying to avoid the "cut" pile, I found this post inspiring. Of course, I assumed I'm better than 90% of the writers out there. Even if you make it to the top 10% though, if you get cut, you get cut. Anyway, thanks for the insight!
jimvanpelt
Mar. 30th, 2007 01:29 am (UTC)
Re: inspired
Your welcome. Good luck with cracking that top 1%!
dr_phil_physics
Mar. 30th, 2007 08:03 pm (UTC)
John Scalzi posted a link here from the blog section on Ficlets. As one cheerfully throwing my stories into the slush piles of SF and waiting for them to get spit back out again, I appreciate pieces like yours which share some insight of how to get out of the slush pile in the forward direction. Because a lot of us "know" better, but don't always follow through. We already know our story and so see our words through some sort of anti-slush filter. Someday, though...

Anyway, thanks!

Dr. Phil
jimvanpelt
Mar. 30th, 2007 08:57 pm (UTC)
Hi, Dr. Phil. Thanks for your note. Of all the qualities I've seen in published writers, the one that they seem to share the most is perseverence. Let me know how you do, and good luck.
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