Showing posts with label Slush Pile. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Slush Pile. Show all posts

Friday, April 12

What Slush Pile Readers Look For In A Story

What Slush Pile Readers Look For In A Story

Yesterday I read a fascinating article written by Ferrett Steinmetz, an accomplished author and slush pile reader, about what he looks for in a story.

Slush Pile Readers Want To Love Your Story

Some of what Steinmetz wrote surprised me. For instance, that readers of slush want to fall in love with your story. He writes:
As we lay our eyes upon the first sentence of your epic tale, we are filled with the hope that you—yes, you!—will win the Nebula for this very story.

What you as a writer must understand is that our Hope-O-Meter starts topped off—but as we encounter each bit of bad writing in your story, our Hope-O-Meter drops.
There are many things that can cause a slush pile reader's Hope-O-Meter to drop but it all comes down to this: The reader doesn't care about what's happening.
Steinmetz writes that this lack of caring usually comes from one of three things:
  • Who is this character we’re expected to follow along until the end of the story?
  • What is s/he doing, and why is s/he doing it?
  • Why should we care about this particular action?
If we don’t know all three of those soon, then generally speaking we’re going to lose interest.  (Great writers can break any rule, of course… but if you’re a great writer, then why are you still in our slush pile?)

The Secret: How To Get Your Short Story Accepted

Steinmetz writes:
So what you’re doubtlessly asking by now is, “How can I keep that Hope-O-Meter filled all the way up?”  And the answer is, “Get me to care about your characters, quickly and efficiently.”
And now for the 64 million dollar question: HOW does a writer get a reader to care about their characters?

Steinmetz's answer:
A writer gets a reader to care about their characters by answering the right questions.
To illustrate this, Steinmetz gives examples from actual slush that didn't make it:

1. Who is your protagonist?

Jason’s hand trembled as he crouched in the bush and aimed at the slaver on the rooftop. The slavers had come to Juniper County to put anyone they could find in shackles, so now Jason had no choice: he had to shoot.

The slaver turned, his eyes going wide as he saw Jason. Jason pulled the trigger; the slaver’s head burst open.

Swallowing back nausea, terrified that someone had heard, he ran for cover…
The flaw here, Steinmetz writes, is that we don't know who Jason is.

- If slavers came to their home town, most people would shoot at them, so this doesn't tell us a whole lot about Jason.
- Jason is nauseous and nervous so that might indicate he's inexperienced but it could also just be that he's afraid of being caught.

What we needed to know about Jason:
a. Who or what he is fighting for. Does he have a family that he's trying to protect? (This covers two things: character and motivation.)

b. How experienced of a fighter is he? Is he an able hunter or a clueless accountant?

c. What are his ultimate goals? Does he want to escape the town? Drive the invaders out? Rescue his family? His friends?
Further, the reader needs to know the answer to these three questions in the first three paragraphs.

2. What is your protagonist's goal?

Here's an example of a passage that nails the "who" but falls short when it comes to "what":
At six o’clock on the dot, Damien clicked off his computer and stacked his unfinished paperwork neatly in his in-tray. The desk had become untidy over the course of the day, so he lined everything up geometrically; the desk blotter perfectly parallel with the keyboard, the monitor at a forty-five degree angle.

He made his way to the elevator, observing a spot on his shiny leather shoes. He unfolded a handkerchief to buff it clean, then pressed the exact center of the button that marked the first floor.

When the elevator arrived, Damien spritzed the air with a small can of perfume, trying to neutralize the odors of stale BO and farts pent up within
Here we know the kind of person Damien is, but we don't know what motivates him and we don't know what his ultimate goal is. Steinmetz writes:
Note how this opening has no real indicators of Damien’s wants or needs, aside from a clean shoe and a fart-free elevator.  It’s a kind of weak characterization, because it does tell us what his immediate needs are without letting us know what his goals are.

However, if we know that Damien is leaving work to go to a pick-up bar to try and get a girl, then suddenly all of these mundane details take on personal shape; he’s buffing his shoes so he’ll look good, he’s spraying the elevator to avoid smelling bad for his partner.

Or, if we know he’s going to visit his dying mother in the hospital, the rituals take on an air of desperation; his mother’s illness is out of his control, but he can control his own personal space.

3. What makes the protagonist interesting?

Here's an example of a passage with bland characters:
Beatrice stirred her soup in time to the rhythm of her husband chopping wood outside. Her cousin Jack took over stirring as she went into the bedroom to check in on Cindy. As Beatrice picked her daughter up, she wriggled and grinned.
Steinmetz writes:
In this case, you have four characters in the first paragraph, none of them doing anything that makes them memorable.  Anyone can chop wood, if they need to.  Anyone can stir soup or check on a baby.
We want our protagonists to be interesting. If they're not interesting then they're boring and who wants to read about a boring character? Steinmetz writes:
Interesting characters do things that no one else would do in their circumstance; that’s why you remember them.
Also, a writer needs to make each of their characters interesting and memorable but in different ways. Otherwise characters blend into one another.

4. What is the story goal?

Usually the story goal(/story question) is the same as the protagonist's external goal.

For example, in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones' goal was to find the ark and bring it back to the university for further research and study. That was also the story question: Will Indiana Jones find the ark and bring it back to the university museum before Dr. Rene Belloq and the Nazis snatch it from him and use it to swing the tide of war their way?

However, the protagonist's goal isn't always so closely linked to the story question.

For example, in Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke's goal is to destroy the death star and thereby save the rebel alliance. However the overarching story goal is to destroy the empire. Even when Luke succeeds in destroying the death star the empire is far from beaten since the emperor is still alive.

Steinmetz holds that it's important for readers to know both what the protagonist's goal is, and what the story question is (if they're different), from the beginning.

Here's an example of an opener where the story goal is withheld:
The work will take three months, and if done poorly, risks fatally poisoning you,” Nellie explained to the scent-engineer. “So I need to make sure your skills are up to speed.” She tightbeamed a spec over to his PDA; he whistled.

This is quite an unusual request,” murmured Paco. “Even if you granted me full access to your family’s pheromone farms, I’m not sure it could be done.” He nodded, contemplating the request. “But if so, I’m the only man who can do it.”

That’s the attitude I’m looking for,” she said, reaching out to clasp hands and seal the bio-contract.
Steinmetz writes:
A lot of writers, for some reason, think it’s more interesting to conceal the central premise of their story and then reveal it later on.  At some point around page five or six, we’re going to finally have the Big Reveal that what Nellie is looking for is an Enslavement Pheromone to turn humans into mindless ant-drones.  Mwoo hah hah!

Unfortunately, the irritation of leaving your reader in the dark is almost never as cool as your actual central concept.

5. Don't include too much description

I know, that's not a question, but Ferrett Steinmetz makes an excellent point:
[I]f a story started with, “The tendril-fields were wet and pulsing, the rose-pink tentacles reaching up to grab at the spine-birds that flew overhead,” then fine, I’d be like, that’s amazingTell me more. But generic descriptions of landscape are a pace-killer.

6. Show don't tell

Steinmetz writes:
Thing is, there’s a big difference between “he’s insane” and “he thinks bugs crawl into his ear whenever he talks on his cell phone.”  There’s a big difference between “He’s in love” and “Every time he fills up at the gas station, he buys a single flower for his wife and leaves it on her pillow.”  There’s a big difference between “exhilaration” and “The story you spent three months agonizing over just found a home at Shimmer.”

Stories are about concrete details.  If you write about emotions as though they’re just these abstracted principles, then your story lacks all power.  When you write about characters feeling stuff, get as gritty as you can; it’ll make them more unique and pay off, and it won’t make us slush editors go, “Oh, yes, another story written by a madman who doesn’t actually sound all that insane.”
Great examples and excellent advice. The epitome of something simple to understand but not easily done.

I encourage you to read the rest of Steinmetz's essay here: Confessions of a Slush Reader: Why Should I care?

Other articles you might like:

- Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Choose Your Opening Line
- Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction
- Find Out How Much Traffic Your Blog Gets

Photo credit: "recession" by Robert S. Donovan under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, March 24

The New Yorker Rejects Its Own Story: What Slush Pile Rejections Really Mean

 The New Yorker Rejects Its Own Story: What Slush Pile Rejections Really Mean

The Experiment

It's easy to forget that one can have the best prose in the world, but that's not enough to get your story accepted.

So David Cameron decided to remind us.

As an experiment, Cameron copied a short story that had been published in The New Yorker--one of the top professional markets in North America (The New Yorker was said to pay $7,750 per story in 2003) and submitted it to "a slew of literary journals, all of whom regularly grace the TOC of Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, O’Henry, etcetera and etcetera".

The cover letter simply said that Cameron was "an unpublished writer deeply appreciative of their consideration".

Cameron also submitted the story back to The New Yorker.

Then he waited. Would one of the publications catch his duplicity and cry foul? Would any of the magazines accept the plagiarized story and, if so, how many?

Well, you've probably guess the outcome: none of the magazines accepted the story, not even The New Yorker!

David Cameron writes:
Dear reader, every single one of these journals rejected my poor New Yorker story with the same boilerplate “good luck placing your work elsewhere” auto-text that has put the lid on my own sorry submissions. Not a single personal pleasantry. What’s more, the timeframes tracked perfectly. For example, if the Beavercreek Fucknut Bulletin (not a real journal, but representative) generally takes thirty days to relegate my stuff to the recycle bin, then our New Yorker story ... fared no better.
Cameron thought his results might be a fluke so he tried again, this time with a story "by a rather celebrated youngish New Yorker author" but he had the same results; no one accepted the story.

What Was The Point?

What did David Cameron's experiment demonstrate? First and foremost it's a much needed reminder that the slush pile "is often just a cleanup chore relegated to overwhelmed readers, and ... rejections might mean nothing".

We've all been told that, but it's nice to have a demonstration of it every once in a while.

Still, I'm surprised no one caught onto the hoax. Cameron writes:
A part of me really wanted to be outed, to have some vigilant editor write back and say, “Nice try. Consider yourself blacklisted.” Or even to put me in the horribly awkward position of an acceptance!* That would mean there’s hope, that open submissions weren’t just, in so many cases, empty gestures.
To read more about David Cameron's audacious experiment, click here: The New Yorker Rejects Itself: A Quasi-Scientific Analysis of Slush Piles.

The Steps Experiment

In the comments to Cameron's article someone mentioned The Steps Experiment that Chuck Ross conducted in 1975.
[Chuck Ross] typed up twenty-one pages of a highly acclaimed book and sent it unsolicited to four publishers (Random House, Houghton Mifflin, Doubleday, and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), claiming it was his own work. The work he chose for this experiment was Steps, by Jerzy Kosinski. It had won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1969 and by 1975 had sold over 400,000 copies. All four publishers rejected the work, including Random House, who was its original publisher.
I encourage you to read the entire article: The Steps Experiment, 1975. Chuck Ross--who later went onto a successful career in journalism--later did another experiment and submitted the script of Casablanca to over 200 movie agents.

Unaddressed Questions

Cameron didn't give us the names of the authors of the stories he sent out, and of course he didn't give us the names of the magazines which rejected them, but it would have been nice to have been told:

- How many magazines he sent the stories out to.
- How long he gave the magazines to respond before he wrote his article.
- How many replies he got back.
- The approximate pay rate of the magazines he sent the stories to (so readers could get a feel for the kind of markets they were rejected from).

Also, it would have been interesting to see the cover letter Cameron sent out with the stories. Though I'm sure it was well written, it would help rule out the objection that it was the cover letter that killed the editors' interest.


I did some research as I wrote this article and came across interesting articles I want to share.

Dan Baum's story of his short career as a staff writer at The New Yorker

A few days ago a friend asked how much I thought a staff reporter at Wired makes a year but I had no idea. Dan Baum's article answered my question (in 2006 about 90k) and gave a tantalizing peek into that life.

Dan Baum originally told his story as a series of tweets (2009) and then gathered them together on his website. Here's a link: New Yorker Tweets.

By the way, if you would like to submit to The New Yorker, send a PDF to The New Yorker's online submission form. Deborah Treisman is the fiction editor.

Submissions may also be sent snail mail to the fiction department at The New Yorker, 4 Times Square, New York, NY 10036. (No simultaneous submissions)

How much can one get for a short story?

It depends, of course, on a number of factors: the market, the length of the story, and so on, but here are the numbers for a few markets: How much does a short story earn in a magazine? 

(Duotrope used to be one of the only places a writer could get market information but now there is the The Grinder.)

The following numbers are approximate:

New Yorker: $7,750 for 5,000 words (as of about 2003)
New England Review: $230
Asimov's Science Fiction: $427
Rolling Stone: $3.40 a word (as of about 2002)
Question: Have you ever been tempted to do a similar 'sting' on traditional publishers?

Other articles you might like:

- Writing And The Fear Of Judgement
- The Rules Of Romantic Comedy
- 5 Tips For Creating Memorable Character Names

Photo credit: "More from Vivid" by aussiegall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.