How to read slush

Hi, my name is DeAnna and I read slush for Apex Magazine and have since last July, and I love it.

[Hi, DeAnna, the small circle says, like it’s part of a 12-step program.]

When I started reading slush I was just dropped head-first into it.  I’m not saying that’s a bad way to do it, because I eventually figured out what I was doing, but I have a few things that I’d like to talk about today regardless.

Reading slush has taught me a lot of invaluable lessons, and I highly recommend doing it–but only for a magazine, editor, etc., that puts out work that you love.  I can’t imagine trying to send stuff up to an editor who made choices that I hate.  As it is, I root for some of “my” stories a lot, and sometimes they make it in, and sometimes they don’t (yay next issue!).  When they don’t, I’m able to look at the stories that are there and say, “…okay, I don’t like that choice, but I respect it.”

I think Catherynne is an awesome editor as well as a writer.  I haven’t actively disliked any of the stories that she’s picked, and that’s pretty rare for a run of things in a magazine; I’m almost always mixed on things.

So.  For new slush readers, first readers, here are my requests for you while reading slush:

1) Slush means A LOT.

Good:  a lot of slush.  Bad:  no slush.

Think about how many stories come through in a month.  300?  400? 1500?  3000?

Think about how many slots your editor gets to fill in a month.  1?  2?  3?

The math means A LOT of those stories must get rejected.

Who should be rejecting most of those stories?  You.

Let’s say you’re reading five stories a day (5 * 30 = 150, or maybe 5 * 20 = 100 [weekends off]).  If you’re sending up one story per day, that’s 20 or 30 stories that you’re sending up.

Let’s say there are 10 slush readers.  That’s 200-300 stories that the editor has to sort through, or 10 per day, which is a lot more than you’re reading.  Too much – also, these are the better stories, so they take longer.

As you start out, you may want to give yourself a story budget:  one story per day, two stories per week, ten per month, whatever.  You will break this budget, because there will be this one story that you can’t stand not to send up.  That’s okay.  Starting out, you will still cut down on the number of stories you send up.

2) Time is money.

Good:  fast turnover on the slush level.  Bad:  it takes a year to get a rejection on a story that never makes it up to the editor.

Stories aren’t little pieces of special sparkly that need to twinkle in your inbox in order to feel loved; they’re product.  Writers want to sell them.

Hanging onto a story for a year is cheating the writer; they could have sold the story once, let the first-print rights expire, sold it as a reprint and an audio, and published it as an ebook by now.  They could have made a couple of hundred bucks on the thing, if not more, and you’re hanging onto it for a year?

And if it’s not that good, why are you hanging onto it in the first place?

Writers may disagree with you, but it’s better to get that story back quickly as a rejection than it is to have a slush reader dither over it for extended period of time, trying to figure out whether it’s good enough.  Either send it up to the editor or reject it.  If it takes you more than five days to decide, reject it.  If, after five days, you’re passing by perfectly good stories because you know that it’ll bump that one story off your budget, send it up and let the editor deal with it.

Do not cheat the author by hanging onto the thing for months and months and months.  Just do not.  It would be better to have a meltdown and reject everything in your queue, unread, than hang onto stories FOR A YEAR.

And if, for some reason, you can’t read slush for more than a day or two, let someone know, especially if you’re getting stories as paper or in an inbox.  If you have a backlog, let someone know.  Say, if you have ANY stories in your queue that are more than two weeks old.  The editor has bigger decisions to make that take more time; you just need to make a “yes” or “no” call at your level.

The slush will not go away; unlike Lucy and her chocolates, you can’t eat stories.  Get them out the door.

3) Quality vs. Taste.

You have to be reading slush for an editor you respect; otherwise, what’s the point?  You’ll be sending up stories that you love that get rejected in favor of crap you can’t stand.  In that case, get out.

Read stuff that the editor has written (best) or that the editor has edited (harder to pick out what they like, but still valuable, IMO).  Get a feel for what they like by reading what they like.  You don’t have to be obsessive about it, but do it, so you have something to start from when you ask yourself, “Is there any point to sending this up?”

At first, you will send up stuff that the editor would never, in a million years, take.

However, eventually you will come across a story that is so fabulous that you would, if you had to, reject every other story that came through your inbox or on the website in order to have your editor look at that one story, and things will make more sense.

You will know it when you find it.  Until then, just do your best.  And always read what gets accepted.

A good rule of thumb:  if you start to skim, the story is out.  A good story may make you skim, as you rush through it to find out what happens.  But if you start thinking about your grocery list, etc., it’s time to go.

4) Speed Reading.

I think we mostly all start out saying, “I won’t be the slush reader who is cold and heartless.   I will be a kinder, gentler slush reader.  I will read everything from start to finish, and I will provide detailed comments.”

I did.

I’m not that way anymore; I struggled with feeling guilty about that for a while.

However, I ran out of time.  I volunteered to take on emergency slush stories, and then we went over to HeyPublisher!, which means that I can see how many stories are in the queue and how much needs to get done on a daily basis in order to keep us from slipping behind.  I only have so much time that I can spend (for free), editing slush, to get x amount of stories out the door, so I quit reading everything all the way through.

It’s probably a good thing; for a while, I was always very angry while reading slush.  “How dare you pull that crap on me?!?” I’d ask, look up the author, and realize that this might be their first story, or their tenth.  Or I’d realize that they didn’t know our market and were just testing the water.  That kind of thing.  I’d send out a form rejection and let it go.  They weren’t ready to get published yet, but the only way to get ready is by trying and failing until you “get” it.

By reading just enough to find out whether the story was any good or not, I was able to let go of being angry at those stories.

As a slush reader, you have to protect your ability to read stories without being pissed at them from the get-go (for example, wanting to kill the writer who turns in the 7400-w0rd story, good or bad); this means you have to skim the ones that you know aren’t going to make it.

So yes, start out reading things from start to finish.  But no, you don’t have to continue in that vein, as you get more experience.  It’s okay.

5) Good Stories are the Best.

Totally worth it.

There isn’t as much crap as I thought or other people said there would be.  But there sure is a lot of decent stuff.  Not many stories make my skin tingle and my hair stand on end.  Being the person who spots them is like panning for gold.  Total thrill.

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2 Comments

  1. Kate Jenkins Kat Dalton :)

    This post makes me want to read slush.

    How many submissions come through each month to Apex (if you can say)?

    • De

      Really? I would have thought I was making it sound scary. But like I said, I love it.

      I don’t have official numbers or anything, but maybe 500 monthish?

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