How to Escape the Slush Pile
A self-editing checklist for short story writers
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Submitting your work to magazines can be a discouraging process. You work for months on a short story, send it to your favorite magazine, and six month to ten months later, receive a form rejection. Here at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, where I’m assistant editor, we open submissions for one month at a time a few times a year. Reliably, we receive over 1,000 submissions in under 30 days. For editors, searching for a story to publish in the submissions queue can be like searching for a needle in a haystack: it takes ages to find that needle, but when you do finally grab it, it pricks you to let you know it’s there.
Most writers say that if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not submitting enough. Others say that you should aim for 100 rejections a year. This is solid advice, but at a certain point, if you’re trying to establish a career as a writer, some of those rejections need to turn in to acceptances.
Reading as many stories as I do, I’ve compiled a list of common problems I see in stories from “the slush pile” (an unkind industry term for unsolicited submissions), that prevent promising stories from getting past the form rejection. This article, used as a pre-submission checklist, and combined with time, patient self-editing, and honest self-assessment, can help your story become that needle editors are looking for.
Have you written a story?
It seems terribly basic, doesn’t it? After all, you’ve written the story. You’ve polished it. You’ve gotten rid of all the typos. You’ve put it in a respectable font. But is it a story? Stories that don’t actually tell a story are commonplace in the slush pile. They aren’t about much. A character who is having some thoughts moves from room to room and gazes longingly out of windows. These stories may be filled with beautiful, lyrical language, but at the end of the day, nothing much has happened or changed. The non-story is a character sketch or set piece, at times very profound about the workings of the human mind or heart, but the people in these non-stories don’t actually go out and do much of anything. What is this story about? What happens in this story? These are questions that can quickly reveal if you’re dealing with a non-story. Where is its center? Where does it turn? What is at stake? What are the plot points? Why have we spent our time reading the story? A story doesn’t have to do much, but it has to necessitate its own telling.
Are you bored?
Take a moment to read through your story. Read it from start to finish. Mark the places where you grow bored. Assume that an editor will stop five pages before that. If the editor or reader assigned your story stops reading on the second sentence, then perhaps the easiest way to stay in the game is to open boldly. I do not mean that you need to start with sex or death or violence or a powerful image (though these things can be useful). Rather, I think a bold opening is an opening that strongly and clearly lays out a route to the heart of the story. Effective openings frame the architecture of the story’s meaning. At the end of an effective opening, we have gained some clue as to the story’s voice, structure, and plot. Bold openings come in a variety of shapes — they can be lyrical or concrete, spare or maximalist, witty or solemn, action-packed or meditative — but they are never boring. So be bold. It’s gut-check time. Are you bored? If you are bored, then the reader will be bored. Go cut out the boring parts. Can the story still stand without them? If not, find a different solution. Refuse to be bored. Refuse to write the easy thing.
Does the world need another story like this, told this way?
Often, writers think about clichés as well-worn phrases that have been drummed of all meaning by excessive usage. Consider another application of the term: the story that is so familiar to the reader that they don’t even have to finish the first page to know how it will end. The drug addict, the orphan, the sex offender, the hardboiled detective, the malaise-stricken divorcee — a cast of characters familiar to any person who has taken a writing class. Of course, if written masterfully, even a cliché rises to the level of compelling narrative. There are always exceptions to the rules. But is your story an exception? Does the world need another stream-of-consciousness piece about a young man on heroin as he wanders from place to place on his college campus? Do we need another manic pixie dream girl or a star-crossed story of kids with cancer? Does the world need another alcoholic middle-aged man who behaves badly because he has a sadness he cannot comprehend? Possibly, but have you reinvigorated the limp story? Have you brought something fresh to the trope? Do you have something to say?
Flashback as story
If the most (or only) interesting part of the story happens in a flashback, editors sometimes wonder why that isn’t the story itself. Flashbacks can be clarifying and can provide emotional weight, but they can also feel like narrative dead-ends. After all, we know how they end — they lead up to the story thread that is happening in the present — and they can’t drive a story forward, at least not usually. In stories that rely heavily on flashbacks, the present thread of a story typically feels extraneous. There is little action or little in the way of motivation. In some ways, this is a specific application of the non-story. Consider the balance between past and present and think about ways you can shift the tension so that the story feels like it moves forward (often achieved by adding action to the present thread).
Are you turning your story into a screenplay?
There is a danger in being over-descriptive. When a moment in a story is painstakingly described, it becomes impossible to enter that moment as a reader. For example, if you tell the reader about every movement, every breath, every door that is shut or open, then you’ve left little room for the reader’s imagination. In a sense, stories operate in the tension between what the writer has put down on the page and what the reader creates as they read. This isn’t an imperative to write sparsely, but rather to choose your details carefully and to leave room for the reader. The story that reads like blocking for a screenplay is a common sight in the slush pile, and rarely does one of these make it past the early rounds of consideration.
Are your characters motivated?
One way to grab an editor’s attention is to populate your work with vivid or interesting characters who have human motivations. One way to jumpstart a non-story is to give a character a motivation and have them try to see it through. This is one of the keys to narrative tension. A character with a motivation is immediately more interesting than a character without one. It also introduces questions that can propel a story forward. What do they want? Will they get it? How will they get it? How will they overcome the minor complications that arise from trying to achieve their goal? This is so basic as to be almost redundant, but a shocking number of writers forget this fundamental idea. It is also important to note that sometimes the first draft of a story is writing toward discovering a character’s motivation, and that’s okay. It’s part of the process.
Is this piece ready?
Have you read it out loud, start to finish? Have you set it aside for a week? Did you get fresh eyes on it? If not, don’t submit. Sit on the story. Think it through. Find a solution. If you notice a problem, the editors will notice it, readers will notice it, everyone will notice it. If you are anxious about anything at all, work on it. Work at it until you have made peace with it. If you worry about the pacing, the characterization, whether or not you have too many characters, if you should dramatize more, if you should summarize more, if the story feels flimsy in the middle, if the ending bugs you — fix it. Make your story as good as possible. Don’t settle for almost there. Take your story to the very limits of what you’re capable of. Don’t stop until you can picture your story alongside the work of your favorite authors. Submit only your very best. That being said, don’t let perfectionism be an excuse for never submitting your work. To paraphrase the French poet Paul Valery, a piece of writing is never finished; it is only abandoned.
Are you comfortable with receiving edits?
Once you’ve submitted your story, instead of spending this time anticipating rejection, biting your fingernails, and pulling out your hair, keep writing, but also take the opportunity to reflect on what kind of edits you would be willing to make if the story is accepted.
There are as many different ways to edit as there are editors. Some editors like to offer broad comments. Some editors like to get into the weeds. Some editors like to copyedit. Some like to actually shape the architecture of the piece. Some editors don’t do anything except read and accept or decline stories. Consider what kinds of edits you are open to and what kinds of edits you are not willing to accept. Where do you want to stand firm and where do you want to give ground? It’s important to think about this beforehand so that, if your story is accepted, you’re ready when the editor comes with their suggestions to engage in a dialogue. The best editing is always a conversation, and it’s easier to engage in the conversation if you’ve thought about it ahead of time. Also, know that it’s okay to walk away from an acceptance if you feel uncomfortable making certain changes. And if the story is rejected, you may have generated ideas for further revision.