Slush

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Mike Resnick
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Slush

Postby Mike Resnick » Tue Dec 23, 2014 6:59 pm

There seems to be a lot of curiosity and some misinformation about slush, so I thought I'd run this column, which was an editorial I wrote for Jim Baen's Universe a few years ago. It's still every bit as true.




Everyone talks about slush, but no one does anything about it. Except read it. Very reluctantly.

But it’s what keeps us going. Sooner or later just about every author you’ve ever heard of, or will ever hear of, comes out of a slush pile. Sooner or later every editor reads slush, if not all of it, then at least the slush that’s passed up the line to him by the people who are paid to read nothing but slush.

If you go to enough conventions, sooner or later you’re going to attend a panel with a title like “It Came From the Slush Pile”, in which editors discuss – humorously, it is to be hoped – the most awful stories ever to appear in their slush piles. I never participate in such panels, because I think it smacks of a certain cruelty. I don’t like making fun of people who are trying their best to become writers, and of course you never know if one of them is in the audience, sitting there being quietly humiliated by editors poking fun at his lack of skill.

Every now and then someone who has attended such a panel asks me if slush is really like that. The answer, alas, is that it’s every bit that bad and nowhere near that amusing.

So let’s talk about slush a bit, since I have never, in five decades in the publishing industry, seen a small slush pile.

Why do we have them at all?

An editor is a lot more than a purchasing agent. He has to work hand-in-glove with writers. He has to attend sales meetings. He has to sort out his budget. He has to work with his artists and his art director. He has to work with his columnists. He has to balance his issue, which becomes quite interesting when a story he was depending on – or a segment of a serial – comes in late or not at all. He has to justify what he is doing to his publisher – and when it doesn’t work, he has to justify his continuing employment to his publisher. In this field, he has to attend conventions and glad-hand authors, especially authors who are writing for rival magazines and whom he would like to have writing for his magazine. And he has to read dozens of stories every week.

The amazing part is that he gets it all done. What he can’t get done is reading 250 or more unsolicited stories a week. He knows that he’s got to look at all the journeyman writers, all the award winners, all the agented stuff (though these days a majority of agents don’t want to be bothered with short fiction)…but he simply hasn’t got enough hours in the week to read 250 stories by the authors he doesn’t know, the authors whose accomplishments are either nonexistent or at least unknown to him. By arbitrary definition, those stories are known as slush, and until someone reads them they reside in what is known as the slush pile.

And since he hasn’t got time to read them himself, the editor – or his boss – hires slush readers, who are usually referred to by the more dignified title of first readers. They wade through the slush, always hoping they’ll find the next Asimov or Lackey in the pile, and usually go home wondering if any author they read that day actually graduated grammar school.

So…that’s slush, and that’s where stories go until the author has developed enough of a reputation to get his work out of the slush pile.

What are the odds?

For twelve years I wrote a bi-monthly column for the Hugo-nominated semi-prozine Speculations titled “Ask Bwana” (no, I didn’t choose the name), in which I gave not artistic but career advice to hopeful science fiction writers. And one day, in the mid-1990s, someone asked me that very question: what are the odds of selling your story out of the slush pile?

I didn’t know, so I asked some editors.

Gardner Dozois, who was editing Asimov’s at the time, told me that he got about a thousand slush stories a month. How many did he buy? Three a year. Odds against selling a slush story to Asimov’s? 4,000-to-1 against.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch was editing F&SF at the same time, and I asked her the same question. Her answer differed only in degree. She got about 7,500 slush submissions a year, and bought seven or eight. So the odds against selling a slush story to F&SF were minimally better: 1,000-to-1 against.

But you know what? People do come out of the slush pile. I did. Eric Flint did. Anne McCaffrey did. Nancy Kress did. Joe Haldeman did. And so did 95% of the authors you can name, the authors you see on the Hugo and Nebula ballots and the bestseller lists every year.

You’ve got to be good, and you’ve got to be a little bit lucky, but most of all you’ve got to persevere.
Now…are there any tips for getting out of the slush pile?

Yeah, there are.

The first is: learn how to format a story, whether on paper or in phosphors. You wouldn’t believe how many stories are left at the starting gate just over that.

Second, check your spelling and punctuation. Again, that seems awfully basic, and in truth no good story ever failed to sell because of a couple of typos…but a sloppy manuscript implies that the author had no respect for his work and his craft, and if he didn’t then why should the reader (and in this case, the slush reader)?

Okay, any high school teacher could have told you that. Now for something they don’t tell you.

Third, spend 90% of your effort working on Page 1. If you don’t capture the slush reader by the bottom of that first page, the odds are hundreds to one that you’ve already lost the battle.

Let me tell you a depressing little truth. Back in my starving-editor days in the late 1960s, I edited a trio of men’s magazines. And it was company policy to fire any first reader who couldn’t reject a story every two minutes, because that’s how fast they arrived. That means he had to open the envelope, pull out the story, read that opening page, attach a rejection slip, stuff and seal the envelope, and put it in the outgoing mail tray, all in 120 seconds. If you hadn’t captured him by paragraph 2, he never got to all those gems that you had up ahead on pages 8 and 19 and 22.

When I joined Jim Baen’s Universe there was a ton of slush that had been passed on by our enthusiastic but inexperienced staff. The reason I so characterize them (and they are still enthused, but no longer inexperienced) is because the slush reader, when he or she would forward a story to Eric or me, would write a brief comment…and I came to too damned many comments that said, in essence, “It starts slow, but it gets really good on Page 7.” I didn’t even have to read those, because that’s an automatic reject. Our subscribers are not being paid to wade through all the junk to get to Page 7; if we haven’t captured them in the first couple of pages, the odds are that they’ll stop reading that story and go one to one by a major author (we don't lack for them), or at least a known commodity.

There are many other reasons for rejecting a slush story (beyond the fact that most of them are simply not written at a professional level). In the mystery field, it’s an old and honored tradition to create a detective, and present him with one crime after another for the remainder of his (and the author’s) career. Doesn’t work in science fiction. We’ve got all time and space to play with, and twice-told tales don’t cut it, not in the magazines with the highest word rates around. It is essential for the hopeful science fiction writer to be well-read in the field. (There used to be a rejection slip back in the 1970s, I can’t remember the magazine now, where there were 8 or 10 reasons for rejection, and the editor would check the one that applied. One of them, and it was checked more often than you might think, was “Heinlein did it better. And earlier.”)

A quartet of helpful tips:

1. There’s no sense nagging an editor about your story. The odds are that he hasn’t seen it yet (and indeed may never see it, if the slush reader doesn’t pass it on to him) – and you have no idea who’s reading his slush pile.

2. You will no doubt come up with several innovative scams for getting your story out of the slush pile. Trust me: they may be new to you, but there won’t be any that the editor hasn’t seen a few dozen times.

3. Don’t lie about your credits. They are too easy to verify.

4. Don’t brag about your amateur or semi-pro “sales”. They won’t impress any professional editor, and if it appears that you think otherwise it tends to scream “bush league”.

Ready for one final unhappy truth? A slush story can’t be as good as a story by a “name” writer; it’s got to be better. It is a simple fact that if Asimov’s puts Connie Willis’s name or my name on the cover, they know from past experience that we will draw a certain number of additional readers. Same as when F&SF runs Harlan Ellison or Ray Bradbury on their cover, or when Analog’s cover brags about a new Lois McMaster Bujold or Robert J. Sawyer story. If you’re going to knock one of these authors, or dozens of others you can name, out of an issue, you’ve got to have written one hell of a story.

The flip side to all this, of course, and what makes it all worthwhile, is that once you sell to a major magazine, like the ones I mentioned (or the one you’re reading), you’ve beaten the odds and there is no question that you belong there. Not many triumphs in your future will be quite as satisfying or meaningful.

Okay, so much for slush. It’s probably just as depressing as when you began reading this, but hopefully it’s a little less mysterious.


-- Mike Resnick
Hugo & Nebula multi-award winner
Writers of the Future Contest Judge
www.mikeresnick.com

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Martin L. Shoemaker
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Re: Slush

Postby Martin L. Shoemaker » Wed Dec 24, 2014 5:43 am

Thanks, Mike! Great advice, as always. It's no fun being in the slush, but it's nice to remember that we all start here. It's just part of paying our dues.
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Re: Slush

Postby E.CaimanSands » Wed Dec 24, 2014 6:54 am

Mike Resnick: always around to offer hope and good cheer on this merry Christmas Eve. wotf007
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Re: Slush

Postby Mike Resnick » Sun Dec 28, 2014 9:26 pm

E.CaimanSands> Name 50 science fiction writers. At least 48 of them came out of slush piles.
If you're good enough, so will you.

Mike
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Re: Slush

Postby T. R. Napper » Mon Dec 29, 2014 11:33 pm

Thanks for this Mike. Very interesting.
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Re: Slush

Postby E.CaimanSands » Tue Dec 30, 2014 4:18 am

Mike Resnick wrote:E.CaimanSands> Name 50 science fiction writers. At least 48 of them came out of slush piles.
If you're good enough, so will you.

Mike


I mean to claw my way out of that slush pile! Unless I die first. wotf001
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Re: Slush

Postby preston » Tue Dec 30, 2014 11:57 am

E.CaimanSands wrote:
Mike Resnick wrote:E.CaimanSands> Name 50 science fiction writers. At least 48 of them came out of slush piles.
If you're good enough, so will you.

Mike


I mean to claw my way out of that slush pile! Unless I die first. wotf001


Me too!

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Re: Slush

Postby bobsandiego » Wed Dec 31, 2014 5:10 pm

My personalized rejection level passed 40% this year, so I'm climbing, baby, I'm climbing!!
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Re: Slush

Postby katsincommand » Thu Jan 01, 2015 11:03 am

Nice post, Mike. Thanks for sharing.

I wold like to add that having a glimpse of the slush pile also does wonders for your perspective as a writer, as in, what not to fuss over anymore, and how to get ahead of those other stories. If you haven't read slush, it's a great experience. Find a zine, pro or semipro, and learn this first hand.
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Re: Slush

Postby austinDm » Sat Jan 03, 2015 8:53 am

Thanks for the wonderful insight and advice, Mike.

I also want to second that the best way to understand slush is to read it. I read slush fora creative nonfiction magazine a few years back and learned to recognize really quickly whether or not a story would hold my interest. Also, if you've been rejected from a slush pile, it's best to send that particular story elsewhere, even if it's been edited. Sure there are stories of authors making sales of the same story to the same market, but I could always tell if I'd read a story before, and if I rejected it once, there wasn't much chance it would suddenly be good enough the second time around.

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Re: Slush

Postby E.CaimanSands » Sat Jan 03, 2015 11:34 am

austinDm wrote:Thanks for the wonderful insight and advice, Mike.

I also want to second that the best way to understand slush is to read it. I read slush fora creative nonfiction magazine a few years back and learned to recognize really quickly whether or not a story would hold my interest. Also, if you've been rejected from a slush pile, it's best to send that particular story elsewhere, even if it's been edited. Sure there are stories of authors making sales of the same story to the same market, but I could always tell if I'd read a story before, and if I rejected it once, there wasn't much chance it would suddenly be good enough the second time around.


I always thought it simply looked bad if you submitted the same story twice, like you can't take "rejection" for an answer. So I never have sent a story twice, except to WotF, where my stories are of course anonymous so there's no possibility of David remembering my name as that annoying writer who keeps submitting duplicate stories.

I agree generally it's best to send the story elsewhere, but I've sometimes wished I could resubmit a revised piece. wotf017
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Re: Slush

Postby Martin L. Shoemaker » Sat Jan 03, 2015 1:48 pm

E.CaimanSands wrote:I always thought it simply looked bad if you submitted the same story twice, like you can't take "rejection" for an answer. So I never have sent a story twice, except to WotF, where my stories are of course anonymous so there's no possibility of David remembering my name as that annoying writer who keeps submitting duplicate stories.

I agree generally it's best to send the story elsewhere, but I've sometimes wished I could resubmit a revised piece. wotf017


Analog has a code; or at least, I think of it as a code:

* Form rejection: Send it to the next market.

* Personal rejection with reasons Trevor didn't take it: Send it to the next market, but first consider changing it in response to his comments.

* Personal rejection with suggestions for what you might change: Make those changes and send it back to him.

* ANY result with the comment "Good luck placing it elsewhere": Send it to the next market. He's done with it.
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WRITE! WRITE! WRITE! WRITE! WRITE!
SUBMIT! SUBMIT! SUBMIT! SUBMIT! SUBMIT!
REPEAT! REPEAT! REPEAT! REPEAT! REPEAT!
Patience. Patience. Patience. Patience. Patience.
NNiNN

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Re: Slush

Postby E.CaimanSands » Sun Jan 04, 2015 9:09 am

Martin L. Shoemaker wrote:
E.CaimanSands wrote:I always thought it simply looked bad if you submitted the same story twice, like you can't take "rejection" for an answer. So I never have sent a story twice, except to WotF, where my stories are of course anonymous so there's no possibility of David remembering my name as that annoying writer who keeps submitting duplicate stories.

I agree generally it's best to send the story elsewhere, but I've sometimes wished I could resubmit a revised piece. wotf017


Analog has a code; or at least, I think of it as a code:

* Form rejection: Send it to the next market.

* Personal rejection with reasons Trevor didn't take it: Send it to the next market, but first consider changing it in response to his comments.

* Personal rejection with suggestions for what you might change: Make those changes and send it back to him.

* ANY result with the comment "Good luck placing it elsewhere": Send it to the next market. He's done with it.


Indeed. That's pretty much what I thought. wotf017
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Re: Slush

Postby austinDm » Tue Jan 06, 2015 9:16 pm

Martin L. Shoemaker wrote:
E.CaimanSands wrote:I always thought it simply looked bad if you submitted the same story twice, like you can't take "rejection" for an answer. So I never have sent a story twice, except to WotF, where my stories are of course anonymous so there's no possibility of David remembering my name as that annoying writer who keeps submitting duplicate stories.

I agree generally it's best to send the story elsewhere, but I've sometimes wished I could resubmit a revised piece. wotf017


Analog has a code; or at least, I think of it as a code:

* Form rejection: Send it to the next market.

* Personal rejection with reasons Trevor didn't take it: Send it to the next market, but first consider changing it in response to his comments.

* Personal rejection with suggestions for what you might change: Make those changes and send it back to him.

* ANY result with the comment "Good luck placing it elsewhere": Send it to the next market. He's done with it.


That actually sounds like a good rule of thumb for any market, particularly the last point.

Personally, I agree with Elinor: rejection means send it to the next market unless explicitly invited to do otherwise.

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Re: Slush

Postby bobsandiego » Wed Jan 07, 2015 6:06 pm

WotF is the only market I have re-submitted a story to. (And of course never an SF or above) Joni actually encouraged it, so here it is far from being a bad thing.
That said, nothing changed.
As far as pro markets. in my limited opinion the rul is only re-submit if they *asked* for changes.
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