In January, I started reading slush for Masque Books, a digital imprint of Prime Books. And so far it’s been a fascinating peek behind the publishing curtain.
I’ve seen my fair share of crazy fonts and strange formatting, but not nearly as much as I expected to based on the horror stories of the slush pile that get bandied about. What’s surprised me the most is the overall care that’s gone into the submissions. This doesn’t mean they’ve knocked my socks off, but rather that the average submission is much higher in quality than I expected—they’ve been literate, proofread if not perfect, and largely followed the submission guidelines.
That kind of attention to detail is encouraging to see, which is why it’s so heartbreaking to get to the actual story and know within two paragraphs, sometimes sooner, that it’s a no-go. And more often than not, the culprit is immature writing.
What do I mean by that? Well, it’s a catch-all phrase that I use when I see a manuscript that has either sentence-level issues or a lack of sophistication with elements of craft (or both).
This can be as simple as a poor grasp of grammar—improper punctuation, run-on sentences, etc. A mistake or two won’t make or break a submission. But they can add up, and when the errors are egregious, it’s that much harder to take a story seriously.
There are also more subtle signs of sentence-level issues. Things like wordiness, filtering, awkward phrasing. I’ve trained myself to write tight, to weed out inefficiencies in my text, to catch mistakes and edit out the awkwardness. When I see project where these kinds of things aren’t addressed, it makes me wonder just how far along the writer is in their journey. Is this their first project and they haven’t quite figured everything out? Or have they just not taken the time to refine their writing to make it the best it can be? I usually go with the former interpretation, and have to hope they won’t give up when they get their rejection, that they’ll keep writing, keep striving until they get their stories out into the world.
Bottom line, every word in your story subconsciously signals your ability as a storyteller to a reader. Sentence-level issues are the one thing you as a writer can control in a highly capricious business, so there’s no excuse not to learn them. And if you haven’t learned them, when I read your submission I assume that you are too immature a writer to competently tell me a story I’m interested in.
Elements of Craft Lack Sophistication
This is even more subjective, but in some ways more detrimental to a submission. Say an author has great descriptive powers, but cannot orchestrate an action scene to save their life. Or the voice of the protagonist is largely spot on, but infodumps and unrealistic dialogue grounds a story before it even gets started. Essentially, there is some aspect (or aspects) of the writer’s craft that screams inexperience, by virtue of it being poorly handled or weaker relative to other aspects of the work.
This isn’t always a fatal flaw—after all, a good editor will work with a writer to improve all aspects of a story. But the problems with craft must be surmountable. For example, a story where every paragraph tells the reader what to think instead of showing them or a clumsy inner monologue that sidelines action in every scene are too insidious to tackle. Other things like a lack of specificity or an overabundance of specificity could be fixable, but the story would have to be worth the effort.
This is where beta readers and critique partners and groups come in, because writers can be blind to their shortcomings.
Bottom line, you cannot afford to ignore the weaker parts of your craft and hope the rest will be strong enough to carry your story. If I see a big imbalance in your abilities as a writer or if the way you handle certain aspects of craft show your inexperience or lack of awareness of what’s acceptable, then I’m going to assume you haven’t matured as a writer and that your story isn’t ready for publication.
Harsh? Yes. Necessary? Also yes. I’ve only recommended two stories since I’ve started slushing, and those were both with big reservations.
So at the end of the day, remember: Writing stories is hard. Rejecting stories is easy.
It’s all too easy to find a reason to reject a story. You’re goal as a writer is to minimize those reasons for “easy” rejections (following guidelines, fine-tuning your prose, making strides with your craft). You want to make it difficult for me to say no. You want me to keep hoping if I turn the page, it will be worth it.
I want it to be worth it. And you can prove that to me by maturing as a writer. It won’t happen overnight. But if you keep writing, keep working, keep striving, you’ll get there. We all will. One day.