Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2007
Column: Bears Examine #2 by Elizabeth Bear
I hate the word ought, and I hate blanket imperatives. For that reason, I am not about to say that every aspiring writer really ought to spend a year reading slush.
But I will say that aspiring writers can learn by reading slush. For one thing, it will show you what everybody else is doing, and maybe why it’s not such a great idea for you to do exactly the same thing.
But moreover, you will learn something more important to your development as a writer.
You learn why editors reject stories.
And editors reject stories for very simple reasons. Essentially, it boils down to one thing (sort of like the old joke that Cause of Death is really always the same: “lack of oxygen to the brain”) if a story is rejected, it’s because the story failed to enthrall the editor.
I still read slush, for the online ‘zine Ideomancer. I don’t get paid to do it. I’m not the person who makes the final editorial decisions. I am just the Cerberus at the gate, the person you have to get past to get to the people who will actually decide if we are going to publish you.
And they reject most of what I send up, because I don’t actually have to love everything I pass along. I just have to get to the end and not roll my eyes.
I’m going to be candid. The eyeroll is when I reject. It’s my red line of death. (Damon Knight used to draw a line on critique manuscripts to indicate the point at which he rejected them.)
The moment I send a story back whence it came is the moment when I take a breath and think, “Why am I reading this?”
The main thing an editor cares about is if the story keeps her reading.
And that’s it. That’s all you have to do. You’re not being graded on a curve. You’re not being graded pass/fail. You are not, in fact, being graded.
In other words, you don’t have to be “good enough.” There is no such thing as good enough. It doesn’t matter what your writing group is doing, either: this is not about peer promotion; it’s about entertainment.
If you can entertain, you get the job.
If you can’t… the job goes to somebody who can. Because the slush reader’s job is to anticipate the entertainment reader. The end consumer. The guy who buys the book.
That reader is an entirely selfish beast, you see, and he doesn’t owe the writer anything. An inconvenient fact, and one I find a tremendous frustration, but there you go. He’s the one with the money in his pocket; he is completely in control of the relationship.
This doesn’t mean that you should let him run your life, though. Because this is where artistic integrity comes in.
As a writer, you have to be able to set limits on what you are or are not willing to do. I personally would recommend not writing anything you’re not sufficiently passionate about to really want to write.
And readers, in addition to being fickle, are psychic.
They can tell if you don’t care. Not-caring is boring. And if the slush reader is bored, the regular reader is going to be bored too.
The bad news is, not-caring is not the only form of being boring. My slush is full of stories about which the writer obviously cares deeply. Those may be unpublishable for a variety of other reasons.
As a slush reader, I have a list of other things that I have come to find boring. Preachiness is boring. Predictability is boring. Twist endings are boring.
Most of the things aspiring writers do to punch up the beginning of a story are boring. (Explosions, sex, shocking revelations, the inevitable heat death of the universe.) All that stuff is boring.
So what’s a writer to do?
Here’s the counterintuitive thing. A story can be incredibly engaging from word one, even if it starts with a great big wodge of exposition.
Because what pulls us into the story is the narrative urgency, the drive, and the disconnect. The little mystery, the incongruity… and the writer’s voice. That’s the dirty secret: what keeps you reading, as an editor, is whether or not the writer can rub words together.
The good news is, this is a learnable skill for most people. Just like juggling. And just like juggling, it’s not easy. And requires years of practice.
A lucky few come in gifted in terms of voice, but they generally have other problems—and their problems may be harder to address, because it’s my completely unscientific experience that those writers start selling sooner, and so may have less motivation to push themselves and keep pushing.
Voice, in other words, is the thing that emerges when one has written one’s million words for the trunk. (Mine was considerably more than a million. Just so you know.) The horrible thing about the million words is that you can’t write them expressly for the trunk. You never learn that way, just writing bad words. You have to push for the best words, bleed for them, train yourself to exceed your current limits.
And as far as I know, there is no shortcut.
But there is that other thing I mentioned. The disconnect. The incongruity. It’s not the lake of blood or the masturbating vampire on page one that will keep a reader engaged in the story. (Actually, come to think of it, a masturbating vampire might just do the trick. I don’t see those every day. [Every slush reader in the business is cursing my name right now, FYI.])
What I mean is, what pulls a slush reader into a story is a certain vividness, of prose and image, of character and action. And that little thing that niggles, that you have to keep reading, to find out about.