What the Slush Pile Taught Me
4th Jun 2018 in Writing
For two years I co-edited Fractured West, a print magazine for flash fiction. We received around 3,000 stories, and I read every single one. I also guest-edited a special UK-themed issue for PANK Magazine, for which I read around 500 stories, poems, and personal essays. What I am trying to say is: the slush pile is my friend. It teaches me what what works and what does not.
For example, I have read dozens of stories with one (or more) of the following characteristics:
- The story begins with the point-of-view character waking up, looking around the room, thinking about things. Often they are hung over. Even more often, their first action is to hit their buzzing alarm clock.
- A character wanders around a city, thinking about things. Often they’ve just been dumped by a girlfriend. In the end nothing happens.
- The ‘twist’ is that the narrator is really a dog/ghost/inanimate object.
- The story concerns someone sitting in a kitchen looking at the freshly-dug garden; the ‘twist’ is that they’ve killed their husband/wife/father/mother and buried him/her in the garden.
- A story about a relationship breaking up, told through an extended metaphor.
Stories with these aspects might are not necessarily bad. They might be very good indeed. But there are so many of them that it’s hard to say something fresh. Have you ever heard that people make up their minds about strangers within three seconds of meeting? The same is true for stories. Your final line might be killer, but if the first three paragraphs are boring or clichéd or clumsy then the reader might not get that far – and even if they do, their opinion is already soured by the beginning.
So why waste time describing the character waking up? Why use the same tired twists as hundreds of other writers? You have a unique and original voice, so use it! You might be protesting: ‘But my story about a man waking up with a hangover and wandering around the city thinking about his ex-girlfriend is different!’ And maybe you’re right. Maybe it is. But is it better than the dozens of other, very similar, stories in that editor’s inbox? You’ll improve your chances of publication by producing work that is fresh and individual – after all, you only get one chance to give that good first impression.
I know you won’t apply this advice to your own writing. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have either. But I challenge you to volunteer as a slush reader – for a week, or a month, or as long as you can – and then tell me I’m wrong. Read fifty stories that begin with the main character waking up, and then see if you can bear to write that beeping alarm clock.
A Story Written Entirely In Clichés at the BBC
(Originally published at IdeasTap)