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.

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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.