I have now logged more than 150 slush pieces for ASIM and I thought I’d write a bit about the experience.
I’d like to tackle the incredulous question asked by a dismayed writer: can you really tell within one paragraph whether or not a submission is going to work for you? (please note the for you in this sentence – every reader and editor is different).
The answer has to be: usually, yes.
Trying to quantify why is probably harder, aside from submissions with poor grammar (of which there are surprisingly few) or punctuation (of which there are a lot more – learn to punctuate dialogue, dudes!), but I’ve run across a few issues I can identify, one of which is:
The piece has a poor handle on POV (point of view).
Consider the following start of a short story (which I’m making up on the spot up for the purpose of demonstration):
She held the gun tightly.
David followed her up the stairs, wheezing and clutching his side. His hair was plastered to his forehead. ‘I’m not used to this anymore,’ he panted.
She pushed away revulsion. Since when had he let himself go? He used to be so fit.
‘In here?’ she asked, nodding at the door.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘If I lay my hands on the bastard who has my son…’
This start does a number of things right: there is action, the prose is functional, not overly wordy, and we are thrown into a situation that makes the reader wonder.
But who is the POV character? This piece of text tells us far more about David than about the main character, who – for crying out loud – doesn’t even have a name yet. She seems to be some sort of kick-arse gun-wielding assassin, but we don’t know. We don’t know why she’s there (presumably because she’s paid, in which case her motivation for being there is not very strong) or what she’s feeling except for contempt for David (and this doesn’t make me like this anonymous person).
I’ve found this sort of thing very common in the slush pile. I wouldn’t press instant-reject, but I’d read on to see if the main character becomes more defined. Usually, though, this doesn’t happen. The POV in the story is neither well-defined, nor is the main character the person whose story the writer is telling. From the above crappy example, I’d say this is David’s story.
A few thoughts on this matter:
– For crying out loud, name your main character as soon as he/she enters the story (* and **).
– Consider who the best character is to carry the story. Who has most to lose?
– Write the story as if you were that person. The most prominent emotions and impressions will be that person’s.
* There are some plot types where not naming a character is a plot point. Try avoid this, though, unless you’re 100% certain that it’s necessary.
** Naming a character is impossible when you write in first person. In that case, I’d advocate getting an ‘I’ into a sentence before you mention any other characters. Definitely don’t wait until other characters have been doing things for half a page.