Why Should Aspiring Writers Read Slush?

A tweet from Three Lobed Burning Eye magazine caught my eye recently. It was a screenshot showing how many submissions the magazine has processed and accepted since 2006. I was interested in the entry for 2011, because that was the year 3LBE accepted and published my short story The Burning One. I was amazed by the statistic: out of 696 submissions, only six had made it to acceptance. I couldn’t believe I’d beaten those odds!

The other salient point of the tweet was the sheer volume of submissions that 3LBE has received over the years. Five thousand, seven hundred and thirty one short stories. And counting. That’s a big pile of slush.

It got me thinking about the task that editors of speculative fiction magazines take on when they put out the call for submissions. Sifting through slush is a chore. I should know. I did it for a while for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, one of Australia’s premier speculative fiction magazines. It wasn’t easy. On top of my job, my writing, spending time with family, practising the guitar, and walking the dog, I gave myself the task of reading a bunch of random short stories each week.

I had to reject the stories that weren’t up to snuff, or pass through to the next round the ones that were. There wasn’t a lot that made it through, unfortunately. I read a couple of stories that were awesome, but they were rare. There were plenty of stories that were okay, but that lacked zing. And some, I regret to say, were just not good. Eventually the steady stream wore me down, and I had to cry uncle.

But I believe there are benefits to be had for writers looking to crack some publication from reading slush. I definitely learned from the experience. So what are the benefits of reading slush? Conveniently, I can list five.

1. To support the industry

It should be acknowledged that writers are able to entertain dreams of publication precisely because there are slush readers out there sullying their eyeballs with the stuff that’s not quite up to it. It’s only fair that these writers take a turn winnowing the pile at some point.

2. To get a sense of how good you are

A lot of the writing that festers in a publication’s slush pile will be mediocre at best. After you’ve read a good selection of the work of other writers seeking publication, you can get a good sense of the quality of your own work in comparison.

3. To learn from the mistakes of others

Building on the last point, a good way to improve as a writer is to read the works of the masters. But another good way is to take a look at the… how can I say this diplomatically? The less-well-developed work out there. Identify where others have gone wrong. Then avoid their mistakes.

4. To get a feel for the market

As a slush reader you will be reading pieces from a broad cross-section of genres. You will read fiction that you would not normally look at. This is the stuff that is on the market. You can get a good sense of the submission zeitgeist by putting your hand up to read slush.

5. To develop empathy for editors and agents

There is not a conspiracy of editors and agents working hard to hide your talent from the world. Just a whole bunch of people working hard to get through their inbox. If you give slushing a try, you will know the stifling sensation of not having read a batch of manuscripts before the next arrive. Slush is as inexorable as Lovecraft’s colour out of space. It’s hard not to groan when you receive three submissions with a 10k word count in a genre that you dislike. I only dabbled in slushing. I pity anyone who does it on a regular basis as part of their day job!

So give it a go.

It is possible to have your manuscript pulled dripping from the morass and selected for publication. There’s a special pride in having a story or article accepted for publication that’s run the gauntlet and beaten its way past the yammering mob. Taking a turn as a slush reader at the publications you submit to may help your work to rise above.

photo credit: Stack ’em high via photopin (license)