From the slush minion’s diary #13: confidentiality

This is a hard one, and a subject I offer here for discussion.

Supposing I received in the slush a story which I think is absolute crap or which annoys me for a reason, and I then jumped on Twitter and tweeted “Haha, here is yet another [insert reason why story annoyed me]”

The author of that story is also on Twitter, and sees my response. The author recognises the story and is offended.

Hell, yeah, the author has every right be offended. As far as I know, when you submit a story, you enter into a voluntary agreement that the venue will write back to you saying stuff about your story, most likely “we are unable to use this story”. You do not give permission for the slushreader to jump onto social networking and lampoon your submission in front of millions. I do, seriously, not submit to editors who tweet their slush, and fortunately most seem to have understood how offensive it is to do so without the author’s express permission, for example if it’s a blog contest or something where social media posting is part of the package.

OK, no we agree on that, let’s consider the next step.

The author receives a rejection with some comments on the story. The author is a bit pissed off because the slushreader seems to have totally misunderstood the story or it is clear that the slushreader hasn’t even made it past the first paragraph.

So, the author jumps on Twitter to vent frustration about this fact, thereby breaking the equally voluntary agreement of confidentiality between the magazine and author. How could this be harmful? After all, authors are underdogs in this game.

Ok, supposing you were an author trying to get an agent, and an agent is kind enoughh to make some comments on either your query or your manuscript. You find the comments annoying and say so on your blog or Twitter. When the time comes to send out your next manuscript, that agent might see it, remember your name, google it… and come up with the stuff you said.

I think there is a fine line. While I agree that some stuff (rude comments or hideously long response times or other beating about the bush in terms of contracts or payment) is tweetable, I think it is only OK for an author to tweet literal personal rejections if the author is happy not to sell anything to that particular venue.

I, for one, as slush reader, hate seeing the comments I thought were personal rejections being tweeted around the twitterverse, and have stopped making those comments for that very reason. I make the comments with an assumption of confidentiality, in other words, that the submission process is a conversation between the magazine and the author, and that it only acceptable to be aired publicly if the conversation breaks down.

What do you guys think?

From the slush minion’s diary #12: stories that are boring

When I started reading slush, I feared the onslaught of the great unwashed grammar monster and the evil spelling pixie. You sometimes hear people gripe about how the content of slush is soooooo bad. But the reality is that those people are just jaded whingers. The vast majority of submitting writers know how to spell and use correct grammar. By far the most important reason a story gets rejected is this:

The story is boring.

Now I should perhaps rephrase this: the beginning of the story is boring. Because if the beginning is not interesting, a slush reader won’t read on. Really. A slush reader (or any reader) has no obligation to finish reading a story. As writer, your task is to make sure a reader finishes the story. Actually, I should rephrase that again: the beginnning of the story is boring to me.

As you can see, I’ve just put a couple of caveats into the statement. What is boring to me may not be boring to others.

That said, I tend to look unkindly upon stories that do any (or, heaven forbid, all) of the following:

The story starts with an interesting tidbit that grabs my attention, usually in a very short scene. The second scene is a huge slab of narrative explaining the situation in retrospect. Repeated use of the word ‘had’ is indicative. The third scene involves the character going through some mundane, everyday situation. These scenes often start with statements that establish time, such as ‘The next day’, or ‘That day…’

The story starts with the character gazing reflectively out a window, or similar, and thinking about something that has happened or is about to happen. It is really hard to pull this off as an effective start to short fiction, even if your window looks out over a spaceport that is being blow apart in an interstellar war. The point is that the character is detached from the action and is not doing anything. Watching action does not equate taking part in it.

The story starts with a scene (or even more than one scene) in which the character does everyday stuff. Sometimes, you feel a need to establish a character’s living situation before the inciting incident. If the living situation is interesting enough, you can sometimes get away with it, but usually it’s more interesting to start with the inciting incident.

A slush reader is under no obligation to read the entire story. If something interesting happens halfway in the story, start the story with that. Don’t cheat and start the story with the interesting thing, and then backfill the next few scenes with the not-so-interesting, mundane stuff that was the original beginning of the story. You shall be found out. The mundane stuff is not interesting. You don’t need it.

From the slush minion’s diary #11: problems with Open Office (or LibreOffice) and RTF files

Let me preface this post by saying that I don’t work for, and neither am I subsidised by, Microsoft.

My word processor of choice was Word Perfect (remember that?) and I started using Word out of sufferance, mainly because I was running into too many compatibility problems.

For me, a piece of software has the following requirements:
– it must do what I want it to do, and
– it must be as portable as possible

Word DOC files are just that. Word DOCX are not.

Enter Open Office. If you you follow my tweets, you will have heard me talking about Open Office victims. In a batch of slush I received last week, there were two out of fifteen submissions.

In case you didn’t know this already, here it is in bold letters:

Do not use Open Office to make RTF files for submissions.

ETA: Important addition (Dec 2012): Using LibreOffice does NOT solve this problem

Just don’t, OK? I use Open Office, too. It’s cool because it’s free, and works well with files in DOC format (I’ve not used it in any other format).

When you save a document as RTF, however, the following may happen:

– OO deletes random (or even all) spaces
– OO deletes random words
– OO puts random slabs of text in allcaps
– OO replaces random characters with random other characters (often the letters G, J or H)
– OO replaces random characters with random characters from other (as in: non-roman) character sets. As in: Chinese.

The insidious bit is that the file may well look fine on the computer you have used to create it, but it is not portable to another computer. That other computer is likely to be the one of the magazine where you sent that submission.

This is a known problem of Open Office and has existed for years without anyone fixing it.

Short of buying other software, I’m not sure how you can fix it. If a magazine allows DOC submissions, use that option. I only ever use Open Office to edit DOC files. I never use the OO native format, or RTF. I am yet to encounter a problem, because the problem seems confined to RTF files. If you only have OO, it would pay to send the file to a friend with Word to check it.

Will your story get rejected on typos?

Writing post today. As usual, leave it, or take it with a good dose of NaCl and humour.

Sometimes, you can hear people cry out: ‘but surely magazines don’t reject a story because it has a few typos!’

Well–uhm–no, they don’t. And yes, they do.

First: define ‘typo’.

‘Tyop’ is a typo; ‘amking’ (making) is a typo. This is one of my bugbears, by the way. ‘Frpm’ is a typo.

‘Then’ instead of ‘than’ is not a typo. ‘Your’ instead of ‘you’re’ is not a typo, and neither is ‘affect’ when it should be ‘effect’.

A typo is something the fingers did that the brain didn’t intend the fingers to do. It is clearly an accident. The second lot of ‘typos’ are lazy-arse excuses for writers’ poor grammar skills. Guess which are likely to get you rejected?

Genuine typos tend to be one-off occasions in an otherwise clean document. Excuses for typos tend to breed in dark corners. If there is one, there are almost certainly more. There are exceptions, of course, and some stories are good enough to excuse a very low level of this kind of poor English. One thing you should remember about exceptions, and that is that they as a rule never, ever apply to you.

Mostly, excuses-for-typos tend to be symptomatic for other style problems, such as chronic over-writing, word repetitions, trying-too-hard writing or flat writing. They are never the sole reason that a story gets rejected, because they rarely happen in isolation.

In other words, if you have grammar and style bugbears, catch them, squash them or shoot them and incinerate them. Your grammar skills are like the screwdriver in a tool kit: you can use it to fix things, lever things off, or bash things, but you don’t notice it until it’s missing and then you can’t do the job.

Motto of the day: don’t leave home without a screwdriver.

from the slush minion’s diary #9 long stories

I see the following question being asked a lot by writers: which magazine accepts stories over 10,000 words?

There are a few such magazines, including, if you’re Australian, ASIM. You can find these magazines on Duotrope.

But I would like to ask a counter-question: are you sure the story needs to be that long?

Because, you see, most stories I see of this length could be shortened. If not, the story is usually very good. In ten thousand words, you can do a lot of worldbuilding and character work.

Mostly, though, stories are that long because they’re too flabby. They’re overwritten, repetitive, or start in the wrong place or all of the above. Sometimes I feel that the effective content of a story takes up less than 50% of the total word count.

So, yes, there are places that accept stories over ten thousand words, but before you send your story to such a place, consider the following:

– Is your inciting incident (i.e. ‘where the story really starts’) in the first scene on the first page? Or does your story start with lots of backstory/character navelgazing and thinking about the past or otherwise sitting still and doing nothing in particular or going through boring, domestic tasks?
– Have you described everything, every place, every emotion, every action, only once? Or does your story contain dialogue that comes back to the same point in a circular motion? Does your description describe the same place/person/scene type/action twice? Also consider this within a sentence. I see a lot of sentences with two clauses that mean pretty much the same thing.
– Are your sentences taut and effective? Or do they contain lots of fluff words, which are imprecise, waffly and just words for the sake of words? I call this ‘that was what that was’ type of language.

By looking at all these things, you can often cut an awful lot of verbiage from the story. I can guarantee that if you cut a 10,000 word story down to 7000 words, you’ll end up with a far better story, and more places to submit it.

from a slush minion’s diary #8 do your research

I’d like to talk about an issue that has made me feel a bit sad about some competently-written stories I’ve seen over the two-and-a-bit years I’ve been with the magazine.

The story works fine, it’s effective, well-written technically, but the pseudo-science is such a lot of rubbish that making corrections would be a major undertaking and sometimes wipe the plot from under the foundations of the story. It’s not all that common, because by this stage, most stories will have been rejected for other reasons, whether the setting works or not.

But it breaks my heart having to return a story with a big physics or chemistry lecture containing facts more or less directly from Wikipedia. I’m not a chemist, or a physicist, and if I can look up these facts, why can’t the author?

OK, OK, I fully accept that science fiction twists facts, and bullshit is pretty much the name of the game, but, having said that…

If you’re going to use a scientific term, make sure you know what it means and how it’s defined and use it in that context, or if you decide you don’t want to do that make up a different term. Google this term to make sure that it doesn’t mean something you are unaware of.

If you are going to go into detail about such varied things as space ship propulsion, plant breeding or geology of a river bed (just to pull out a few things I remember reading about), make sure you know what you’re talking about. Use the correct terms, look up the orbital formulae and at least some of the latest on rocket propulsion. Read about basic genetics. Don’t make up stuff without consulting the current science. If you don’t want to do this (yes, it’s a lot of work) don’t go into detail. This type of detail, by the way, is what may well push your story into the pro magazine range. Yes, it’s a lot of work. No one said writing was easy.

But don’t use a lot of pseudo-scientific terms to befuddle the reader ‘because it sounds good’. In the words of a buddy on the Analog forum: Don’t think no one will check this. They will.

In this case, ‘someone’ is a slush reader with a finger over the ‘reject’ button.

Do your research. Please.

from the slush minion’s diary #7 stories that turn me off

I’ve noticed a trend lately. I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s coincidence, but I’ve read quite a few stories recently that are just plain revolting. I have no other words for it.

Some people seem to think that whatever is disgusting in real life somehow isn’t in a story. It’s what I call the overly-visceral syndrome. Yeah, OK, humans sometimes vomit, have the shits or piss themselves, and I think everyone goes through a stage where it feels liberating that you can actually write about this stuff. At the time, it feels like: hey, look at this, this is a real-life gritty story.

Sometimes, there is a point to all this revolting mess. If you’re going to have a vomit scene, by all means, make it realistic, but, and there is a big but. Real-life vomiting is quite rare. Like sex scenes, it is something that loses a bit of its power every time you use it. Also, you need to have been familiar with the character for a bit to feel any sympathy for him/her. If not, the scene comes across the same way as you would feel seeing a stranger vomit on a city footpath as you were walking past. In other words: revolting.

So what is it with all the stories that start off with a vomit, shit or piss scene? Seriously. Don’t. Please.

from the slush minion’s diary #6 stories that sell

Today, fellow WOTF-er and WOTF forum master Brad Torgersen posted a very informative interview with Eric James Stone on the Writers of the Future forum. You can see it here. Eric of course is the author of a recent much-praised flash story called The Greatest Science Fiction Story Ever Written. The title may sound a tad pretentious, but I assure you, it fits the story perfectly. As to whether it describes the story accurately, I leave that to you, but do go and read it and make sure you read the last line, because it’s hilarious.

Anyway, in the interview, Eric discusses slush disappointments (he’s assistant editor at IGMS), and I can very much relate to his ‘disappointing ending’ letdown feelings. Yet, lacklustre endings are disturbingly common even in published short stories. I once read an issue of a magazine that shall remain unnamed, in which all the stories appeared to be ‘slice of life’ stories, at the end of which nothing much had changed, and the characters wandered off into the blue yonder, leaving the readers to scratch their collective heads.

Maybe it’s fashionable, and sometimes the sheer power of the setting is worthy of publication, but in all instances, I believe the story would have been much better with a stronger plot.

Writers: you want to sell stories to better venues? Look after your plot. While you may be able to sell a story in which nothing changes, you’ll do better if you write a story in which somebody learns something and somebody changes direction.

from the slush minion’s diary #5 slush summary

I’m editing an issue of the magazine and in the process, I got more than my regular share of slush. I thought it might be interesting for people to see what slush really looks like, so I took a random 100 submissions from the incoming flood, and made comments on each story.

Some random observations:

1. Out of the 100, I passed five stories up the chain. This is probably more than will be published, but our system is such that approved stories go into a slush pool from which editors can choose. We have rotating editors, so the slush pool needs to cater for varying tastes.

2. The number of stories that truly made my eyes bleed was very small. You hear a lot of editor-whingery about how bad most slush is. I think the vast percentage is written with reasonable competence, but not enough competence.

3. when I tallied up my comments, I found that the biggest issue I had with submissions was quality of writing (this covers a wide range of issues), the second-most important issue was storytelling and subject choice was the third issue. That said, this ranking could be because…

4. Put bluntly, if the first few paragraphs were clunky or overwritten, then it’s most likely I didn’t even get to the plot. As editor, you can fix a few plot issues, but you can’t edit for style. That has to come from the writer.

I think I might cover each of the issues mentioned under point number 3 in separate posts.

the slush minion’s diary #4: sympathetic characters

This ‘slush minion’ post is more of a question than anything else.

There is a school of thought that says that ‘must have sympathetic main character’ is a box that must be ticked before a story is publishable.

I tend to think that the character could be unsympathetic, as long as he/she is interesting. An example: I’ve just watched District 9. The main character Wikus van der Merwe…man, he’s an annoying prick at the start. But he’s a CHARACTER with big fat capital letters, and after a while you feel sorry for him. He carries the story, because of what he was and what he becomes. But sympathetic… er…

So what’s your opinion? Do you automatically stop reading a story when you don’t like the main character? What are attributes that would make you stop reading?