from the slush minion’s diary #3

I’d like to talk about something positive. All this don’t this and don’t that talk gets me down. As I said often, there are no rules in writing, only guidelines, so they might as well be positive ones, like this:

You feel you are in the hands of a competent writer from the word go when that writer…

… uses precise and to-the-point language…

… which includes:

– using words a reader can picture
For example, I can’t picture ‘furniture’ in a room or ‘clothes’ on a washing line as well as I can picture ‘a table and four chairs’ or ‘overalls’ in the same sentence. Moreover, a more detailed word can add to setting. A character who has overalls on their washing line is going to be a very different person from the one who has massive floral bloomers on their washing line.

– minimising the use of the two ‘weak’ pronouns: ‘it’ or ‘they’
It is possible to kill a piece of writing with overuse of these words. Make sure that when you use it or they, there is a very clear noun for these words to refer to in the previous sentence. People tend to use ‘it’ a lot in speech, but two speakers frequently have connection that goes beyond dialogue. If my husband comes into the room after he’s stomped about the house for a bit, I already know what he’s looking for without him having said a single thing. He hasn’t picked up the home phone to ring his mobile number, so it isn’t his phone. He hasn’t asked me for the car keys, so it’s not his keys. Ergo: his glasses. Don’t assume readers have a similar connection with you or your characters. Readers need to be told.
For the sake of this argument, I suggest you get one of the Harry Potter books off the shelf. Notice that the author rarely ever uses the word ‘they’ when referring to a group of people doing something? ‘They’ means nothing. It’s imprecise and allows the reader to forget who was there.

Use precise language and you’re ahead of the pack.

from the slush minion’s diary 2

Here’s another reason why stories are rejected, dare I say, some pretty good stories are rejected:

The story is too long.

The writer has either left in scenes/parts of scenes that don’t contribute to either plot or characterisation, or, more commonly, the writing isn’t tight enough.

Both will of course depend a fair bit on style and personal preference, but it’s fair to say that magazine editors are almost always pressed for space. In my reading of stories across various venues I’ve seen very, very few stories that are 10,000 words that are the right length. These days, my warning flag goes up for any wordcount over the 6-7000 word mark. Usually, not always, but mostly, the writing of these stories is flabby and wordy. The sentences carry lots of empty verbiage. The story might be fine, but the writing is not efficient enough.

Writers: try to cut every word that doesn’t pull its weight before you submit. This can sound pedantic, but can make a huge difference to the quality of the story.

from the slush minion’s diary 1

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.