Up to One’s Hips: Thoughts on Wading Through the Slushpile

I just finished the first pass on the slushpile for If This Goes On. The anthology is intended to be half solicited manuscripts; half from the open call, and I’m happy to say that I don’t think it’s going to be hard to pull that together. I’ve got five or six definites on my list right now, and I’m setting them aside. I did read through every story except for a handful of less-than-serious ones; thank you to the slushreaders and publisher Colin Coyle for winnowing those out.

If I can, I’ll take one more pass through the first third or so of the slushpile, when I was reading and not knowing how strong some of the submissions would be. I suspect at least a third of those can be winnowed. Then I’ll ask the publisher to send out that round of rejections.

By then I am hoping I’ll have narrowed things down to a few dozen stories. These manuscripts have officially made it to the final round. At this point I’ll be looking at some things that include:

  • Is this a common theme or something unusual? A few commonalities have emerged and I will probably only have one underwater people story, one abortions-are-illegal story, one from-a-child’s-POV story, and one post-apocalyptic landscape story, which may or may not be one of the several that featured a particular dietary item.
  • How much bang for the buck does it yield in terms of editorial work? If it’ll be amazeballpants (common editorial jargon), then I’m willing to put more time into it. Along the same lines, I’ve got one serviceable story that would only take a little work to deepen its emotional impact. It’s also a strong contender.
  • What’s the tone? I’ve got lots of gritty, desperate stuff and some humor in there to leaven the mix is necessary. At the same time I don’t want things that will seem incongruous next to each other.
  • What did the slushreader(s) think? Unfathomable as it may seem, I have been known to be wrong. If I was meh about a story but someone else raved, I’ll certainly go back and take another look.

Then will come the final passes, where I’ll be reluctantly saying goodbye to some stories for reasons that might include:

  • They don’t fit the overall theme as strongly as the others.
  • They don’t play off other stories, or else are too similar to another piece.
  • They will take a lot of editing, but the amount of work required by other pieces with similar strengths/themes is significantly less.

I hope that the slushreaders have learned something from all of this, including a better sense of what submitters may or may not want to avoid, and how varied the slush pile can be. With a few of them we’ve done some talking about stories, but not all. For most slushreaders, I would suggest if you’re passing up more than half the stories, you are not being harsh enough, but if it’s only one in ten, you may be leaving out some stuff the editor will want to see, unless your tastes are perfectly aligned.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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