From the Slush Pile: Readers Speak

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A pink pill in casing

If there was a magic pill—you know lose weight, no exercise—to beat the slush pile and warm the hearts of editors straight to publication, I’d eat it and then dole it out to all of you. But we all know you have to do the work, show up every day and keep putting it out there in the world. There is no way around it: our readers are diverse and your stories will speak differently to all of them.  So, I thought I’d go directly to the source. Today, our editors and readers give insight on what works for them and what rubs them the wrong way.

Ladette Randolph, Editor-in Chief, writes to our readers on nonfiction (though her thoughts are important across all genres):

As an editor, I try to stay open minded about what I’m looking for in literary nonfiction. I’m guessing the same is true for all of you. I appreciate what I can only describe as authenticity in a writer, and obviously, since everyone is different, authenticity is distinct to each writer. I can appreciate a lot of different styles and a variety of subject matters, but if the voice doesn’t feel genuine, it will usually throw me out of an essay before I can finish it. Conversely, a writer with authority will keep my attention even if I thought I couldn’t possibly be interested in the mating habits of wasps or the story of a failed artist. In other words, nonfiction is just as much about storytelling as fiction is.

Margot Livesey, Fiction Editor, writes to our volunteer readers on the topic of subjectivity:

If you feel that you are not the right reader for a story, that there’s something there but you’re just not getting it, then you should send it back to the editorial assistants and ask them to send it to another reader.

(I take great solace in this editorial tidbit.)

Mark Hengstler, reader, on the importance of longing:

I’d say a story that “works,” a story that I consider passing on, is a story that is deeply centered on the sensory experience of a character, sensory experience that is organized around her longing. Developed and complicated with bric-a-brac, this longing exhibits her fears, loves, griefs, and triumphs. This can happen in a Big Desire piece. It can happen in a much quieter story. But the yearning is on page one, often in the first paragraph. The stories I pass on don’t make me think; they make me feel. The writers I trust are the ones who guide me by the hand, not the ones who shock me into submission.

Eson Kim, reader, on what makes her pass something on to the editors:

  • Pacing. When a story is paced well, I forget that I’m turning the page, and the next thing I know, I’m halfway in. That’s when I know I’m onto something good.
  • Connection.  I need to care about the character(s). When I feel like I really need to know what happens to the character(s) then the story has accomplished something.
  • Impression. A story that makes a powerful impression in some way is worthy of passing along. If the impression is strong enough, I almost always pass it on to an editor.
  • Finesse. Ploughshares is an elite literary publication, so a writer needs to show a baseline quality of writing overall.

…and her pet peeves:

  • Clichés and stereotypes. These can make a work feel flat. Work should feel fresh, even when the concepts are not.
  • That said, every work is given a fair shake and read with an open mind.

Sonja Vitow, reader, on what makes her hesitate to pass something on:

We hear all the time that you have to have a good first page to get readers interested, and that’s for sure true—but the story has to have good pacing and plotting too, or the ending will fall flat. I’ve seen a lot of stories that started out great and then petered out…and I feel like it’s because people don’t want to do big revisions that will even out their stories.

…and her pet peeves:

Writers need to check to make sure they aren’t turning in a draft that has track changes or notes to themselves in the margins. And proofread, please proofread.

Matt Socia, reader, on the importance of setting:

Aside from the language itself, I’ve found that the best way to pique my interest in a short story is a well established setting. Reading stories without a good sense of space and location is very disorienting for me—the characters might as well be standing in a black box theater. For every submission I read, I have to reset: new characters, new style, new setting. The stories I read with interest are the ones that can firmly establish the parameters of the story almost immediately. If I know where I am, I can focus on the characters and the hard work put into plotting. I don’t need paragraphs of setting description at all (in fact, that would get tiresome). A clause can do the job: a character’s interaction with an interesting object, a smell on the wind. But the best stories lock me in place on the first page.

…and his sort-of pet peeve:

I don’t know if it is a pet peeve, but I am instantly wary of stories that have a title page.

Josh Garstka, reader, on the importance of language:

I’m drawn to language first. When I’m reading ten stories in a row, it’s not the subject matter but the way it’s written that stands out.

…and his pet peeves:

  • Cover letters that describe or summarize the story.
  • Courier, the font.

Elizabeth Denison, reader, also on the importance of language:

I am almost always more taken with language than with plot. That isn’t to say it doesn’t matter to me what a story is about, but rather that I particularly love and look for fiction in which the essence of the story is contained at the level of the sentence. The right language does the work of making something happen, however subtly, or of revealing character (or even of conveying a broad and overarching idea/message/theme)—both of which are essential for rich fiction, and both of which tend to determine what a story is “about”. I’ll read about a salt shaker if the composition is arresting.

Abby Travis, Senior Nonfiction Reader and Editorial Assistant, on what she doesn’t like to see in submissions:

In terms of nonfiction, I suppose I get weary of writing that stays entirely within the realm of the self, and never extends beyond itself or makes itself necessary—that is, that never (subtly, or otherwise done well) addresses why the story is worth sharing. In short, essays that leave me with a lingering “So what? Who cares?”

Creative writing does not require creative fonts. Too much play in formatting and font is simply distracting from the writing itself. Same thing with cover letters! Title, word count, brief credits/biographical information, done. Don’t use the cover letter to stand out; that’s another place to show that you understand the business and that you aren’t overcompensating in the cover letter for an otherwise weak submission. Aesthetics speak loudly.

Our readers have spoken. Take their advice and it could be the juju you’re looking for.