Getting published means getting out of the slush pile.
Surviving the slushpile means getting past slush readers.
The thing is, slush readers are perennially grumpy. Probably drunk too. Okay, that’s just me, but the point still stands.
So what do you do?
I have had some amount of success with Lovecraftian incantations, but you can invoke the Ancient Ones only so many times before Cthulhu starts ignoring you like a passive aggressive cat. For those of you smarter than I (by which I mean: pretty much everyone reading this right now), I will give you an insight into a slush reader’s job.
Consider it like a primer on how to leave a good impression.
Or you could always do the dark incantations thing if you’re up for it. Careful, though, it’s like popping bubble wrap – once you pop you can’t stop.
So without further ado:
Spelling And Punctuation Matters
A typo or misplaced comma won’t get you kicked out of slush-town as long as your story is fantastic. However, the amount of people who get “their, they’re, there” mixed up is staggering. Affect and effect. Lay, lie, laid. All of those are pretty standard, so much so that they send me into fits of violent rage (you can’t tell, but I am covered in blood as I am writing this).
Your story represents you as a professional. As such it needs to reflect that you care about your art. If you don’t care, why should editors or slush readers care? Spell check is a bit dumb at times.
Have someone proofread your work, multiple times.
Punctuation then! Punctuation is important. How important? Well let me show you this instructional gem:
“Put it in, Grandma.”
“Put it in Grandma.”
Hook The Reader
First impressions matter.
You wouldn’t go to a job interview wearing a murder-clown mask, or interpret the “Flash” in Flash Fiction as a call for indecent exposure.
The first paragraph, or even the first sentence, can set the expectations a slush reader has for your work. The flexing space in flash fiction is limited. You can’t exactly use a lot of words for setup. Every word has to advance the plot and build character.
You might be thinking that such an attitude towards first sentences and paragraphs is a bit unfair. It’s a reasonable assumption to make, but experience has shown me the following:
Never did a story with a boring or bad first line change gears and become brilliant at the end.
Nothing is always absolutely so, except the above quote, and I bet the guy who came up with it is super smart and handsome and you all should mail him chocolate, quote Theodore Sturgeon. I believe the second part has been recently found and added and I totally didn’t make it up, I swear.
I also never cry myself to sleep.
Anyway, Sturgeon had it right, but here it applies to the opposite case. The stories that disappoint me most are the ones that start wonderfully and have a sluggish ending. It’s like buying a Happy Meal and removing the toy (you monster).
Closure is important.
An ending that resolves a problem or a character arc, or strongly hints at either is a huge plus (more about that in the next section, however).
So how do you go about hooking someone then? There’s a myriad of ways. Interesting images, situations, characters or problem do wonders. Show-not-tell is your friend.
Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers At Page One & Never Lets Them Go by Les Edgerton is a master class on the subject. I wholeheartedly recommend it,
Flash Stories Are Still Stories
Flash fiction still needs compelling characters and arcs. Gimmicks won’t get you far. We publish the occasional experimental story, but those are rare and hard to pull off. Also please note that “experimental” does not equal blatant gimmickry.
Have a beginning, middle and end. Have it all matter. Trim and revise.
One of the most excruciating exercises in slush is reading stories that exist solely to deliver a punch line. The story either turns into a joke or a plot twist as the last line renders the rest of the story meaningless.
Plot twists will not get you an auto-rejection, but please foreshadow them properly. Humor is welcome, but don’t turn a story in a post-apocalyptic setting into a zinger. That’s fundamentally unfair to the reader.
Nobody likes to feel cheated.
Lest we do not forget: no rhetoric, please. We drop thinly-veiled hate speech and misogyny as if they were pissed off badgers. Stories should challenge viewpoints and preconceived notions, not knock down straw men.
Um, yeah… faithful reader and submitter? One more thing?
I don’t know where to put this, but there’s a type of story that’s depressingly common and it kind of baffles all of us. So here I go:
No cat stories.
Stop laughing. Stop it. I know you’re doing it. For some reason, this has become a sub-genre. Cats doing… things. Like burying their poop or going on weird cat adventures. I like cats and have giggled at more cat videos I dare to admit (let’s face it: I have a problem), but I want to take a shower and cry whenever I see a cat story. More so than usually I mean.
Not qualifying this here. No cats. Please. Okay?
Why do my eyes sting and why do I feel the urge to shower…?
The Cruel Mathematics Of It
The Grinder, at the time of writing, puts FFO’s acceptance rate at 3.02 percent. We read at least six hundred stories monthly. We publish three per issue. The magazine is a monthly one.
Sounds discouraging, doesn’t it?
It doesn’t have to be. Yes, often we have to pass on perfectly good stories, but if your story is excellent, a slush reader will bat for you – I can guarantee it. Remember, slushies are not paid. They are overworked. However, when we see a gem, we get excited. Excitement is currency in the second round of voting. Yes, the owner and editor have the final say, but don’t think I am above begging and wheedling when I love a story. We are all people. We love being impressed.
And who doesn’t want to be the slushie or editor who discovered the next big author?
So, no. You’re not alone in the slushpile.
Love your work. We will too.