Some Thoughts on the Slush Pile

I’ve been reading slush on and off for about a year now and, I have to say, it’s enlightening being on both sides of the divide, that is, being a writer and a reader of slush. When you’re sending out submissions it’s so easy to imagine slush readers and editors as soulless automatons bent on destroying the hopes and aspirations of writers everywhere, but now that I am a “slush reader” I can say with relative confidence that I am not a soulless automaton. At least not the last time I checked. Well, I don’t know. Maybe somewhere there is a soulless automaton bent on destroying the hopes and aspirations of writers everywhere, but if there is, well, I hope they get over themselves. As for me, I actually angst quite a bit about whether or not to reject something and then, once I’ve decided on rejection, which rejection letter to send. Sometimes I wonder if other people angst as much as I do, lol. I think what depresses me the most, though, is not being able to explain exactly why I’m rejecting each piece. It makes me sad to think writers will struggle on, not knowing what it was that didn’t work for me, making the same mistakes.

I’ve also noticed a bewildering pattern since reading these submissions. A story may be beautifully written say, or extremely funny, or have an interesting premise, but it just won’t be compelling. I’ll find myself reading it thinking so what? Why should I care about these characters and their situation? And, of course, if I don’t care, why should I pass said story on to my editors? I find myself asking that question a lot and it surprises me, but it also makes me wonder. After all, what do I mean by compelling? What the hell is compelling? I might be compelled by a story about a family of bunny rabbits trying to escape from three headed aliens while dancing the tango in a floating carrot. You, however, may have more sense than I do. But by compelling I don’t mean a story has to have explosions or special effects or even grand themes like life and death. I think it’s about trying to communicate something, an emotion, an idea, the emotion behind that idea (?), trying to move outside oneself as a storyteller. It’s really pushed me to think about my own novel and why it is that I’m writing it because it’s so easy, isolated in our writing caves as we are, to forget we’re writing for someone else. And by that I don’t mean “the market” or even an agent or editor really. I mean the ideal reader, the child or teenager we used to be, ourselves perhaps, or maybe even some random person out there who might really get the story we’re trying to tell. Writing isn’t just the nuts and bolts. It’s not just about craft and structure. It’s about substance. Or at least it should be. Otherwise why the hell read anything at all?

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