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Saturday, June 03, 2006

A View From The Other Side Of The Slushpile

Like other writers, I’ve experienced the anxiety of sending in a story and waiting for a reply from that magazine overseas, like so many others I’ve had the disappointment of the rejection slip, the annoyance of wondering if my tale had even been read (I still believe that some of them weren’t) or if they had had less of a chance because they weren’t American. I did once have a personal rejection slip from Marion Zimmer Bradley, typed on a manual typewriter and definitely from her, though a friend once told me she had a reputation for not replying personally. I still have it somewhere - it’s the only personal rejection slip I ever got from the US, though I got some from Britain and within Australia, where I live. Those were the days before the Internet, when you had to buy two International Reply Coupons, or visit a philatelist for US stamps, send the thing with a self-addressed envelope and a cover letter that said, “This is a photocopy, so trash it if you don’t want it, but please reply.” And then wait - and wait - and wait. And, after three or four or six months, send a polite letter of inquiry, asking if they’d received your story and sending another SAE with another two reply coupons, which were a very expensive item. And chances were that you would then get your story back, crammed into the envelope, or sent surface mail in a large envelope if it was too long for that, covered in coffee stains and with a printed slip.

You had to really care about your story to keep submitting in those days. I’d usually have more than one doing the rounds, but they were stories I had had to type up a few times because I didn’t have a computer back then; I was very proud of my gorgeous new electronic typewriter, which I had bought with money won in the Mary Grant Bruce Award for children’s fiction. You could actually type up a whole sentence and check it before letting it print!

With the Internet, you no longer have to worry about International Reply Coupons or overseas stamps, for the most part - some publishers still want stories by paper, because they don’t like having to spend time and money on printing out your stories. But mostly, you can just e-mail your magnum opus and it means you probably won’t have to wait six months for news on one short story any more. It also means, unfortunately, that a lot of people take a lot less trouble over their work; it’s just too easy to finish, turn it into an attachment and hit the “send” button.

This has become very clear to me since I’ve started to see the slush pile from the other side.

A couple of years ago, I joined the Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine Co-operative. This is a group of science fiction fans who decided to get together to produce a new Australian magazine that would publish funny SF and fantasy, because there is so little market for either humour or SF (as opposed to fantasy) these days. Naturally, no magazine is going to survive if it’s entirely, or even mainly, dedicated to humour, and it does have a good balance of humour and serious fiction. But we would, it was decided, choose stories that had - well, story - about them rather than angst-ridden mood pieces, say. Stories that entertained, that gave pleasure, would have priority over depressing ones. (Which didn’t mean we wouldn’t take depressing, when it was good - one of our stories that has had the most awards is terribly sad!) A couple of the co-op members - Simon Haynes and Tansy Rayner Roberts - had written funny SF. Simon had had to self-publish his Hal Spacejock novels, but they had done well and have now found a trade publisher. Tansy’s two novels, published by a trade publisher, were out of print, but she had gone on to a successful career of writing short funny fiction.

The magazine has appeared regularly and attracted some good reviews and a number of the stories have been shortlisted for awards or “Best Of” anthologies. That, in its turn, has led to submissions - lots and lots of submissions, many of them from the US, all sent by e-mail, because that’s how we operate. We read them blind, to be fair. Names are removed from the manuscript.

When you’re reading stories weekly, always hoping that the next one you open will be Hugo material, you begin to wonder how many people study their market before hitting “send”. Some of it is good mainstream stuff that should, however, never have been sent to a genre magazine. Some of it is obviously fresh from a writing course, done as an exercise and sent to every possible market on the list. Some of it is clearly by teenage boys who are still writing space battles and alien invasion stories. Actually, I don’t mind the teenage stuff, because I think it’s great that kids are having a go and some of them, while unpublishable, are written by kids you know are going to be writing the real stuff in a few years and I’ll be pleased to say I once slushed their work.

Most of the slush I read is clearly written by adults who should have known better. They’re adults, but they’re still writing alien invasion stories, usually about staunch Americans battling the villainous aliens. Or they’ll come up with a cute idea and write it into a story, without bothering to create characters you can care about. The entire story is usually written entirely for the punchline or for the idea itself. “Ha ha, it’s a Western set in space, get it?” or “Hee hee, the spaceship is really the Star of Bethlehem” and so on. (I recently did read a Star of Bethlehem story which I found quite touching, even if Arthur C. Clarke did it far better, and it was by no means a Clarke ripoff, concentrating on a different angle, and I passed it on to the next round of readers.)

Sometimes the story could have been good if the author had put it away for a while and had another look at it. I read it and say, “yes, yes, nicely-written, but this or that part of the story just doesn’t make sense and the story falls apart as a result”.

Often, the worst stories are the ones that are the longest - I have read excruciatingly awful stories of novella length and no good ones. I have, in all but one case, made myself read the whole thing anyway, because it’s someone’s baby which I am going to have to call ugly and I keep hoping there will be some part of it that I can say something positive about. We send feedback, you see, which is one reason why so many people submit - I know of at least one case where the rejected writer had been using us as a free feedback agency and was most annoyed when people actually liked her story but couldn’t find a spot for it! She hadn’t got anything she could use to re-write and send it elsewhere. The one time when I didn’t finish the story, I skipped through to the end and found there wasn’t actually an ending - it was 9200 words long and something had gone wrong in the sending. So, long as it was, it had actually been longer!

Very occasionally, I receive a story of which I say, “Oh, that was wonderful!” But only occasionally - and it invariably turns out to be by a well-known writer who knows his or her stuff.

One thing I have learned from all this is never again to send off anything I don’t care about deeply, anything that was just a bright idea on my part - “what if the inhabitants of Sodom were all vampires ...?”, for example - and always to put it away before sending off. It means I’m writing fewer short stories - most of my professional writing these days is commissioned non-fiction and articles for children - but when I do write fiction, it’s going to mean something. I don’t care. There’s still plenty of material which I can go back to, when I am ready to ask myself why I wrote it, and some stories that were rejected and put away have material I can use elsewhere.

Not everyone has the benefit of reading slush, but I can only hope that some writers who get lots of rejection slips will learn the same lessons I’ve learned from being on the other side of the slush pile. And I’ll continue looking for that potential Hugo-winner...

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