What do these readers love most? Slush! (Part 1)
Posted April 13, 2014on:
they don’t wanna brag, they don’t wanna boast, but these folks, they like
(with never ending apologies to Heywood Banks)
As part of Apex Magazine’s Operation Fourth Story (my recent review and learn more and win stuff!), Becky Allen, Anika Dane, and Caroline Pruett have stopped by to tell us more about what they do behind the scenes of Apex, why it’s important, and what they enjoy about it. In a few days Michael Matheson will stop by with his thoughts. I always enjoy these behind-the-scenes things, don’t you?
okay ladies, what’s your favorite part of slush reading, and why is having a slush team important to the success of a short fiction magazine such as Apex?
What’s my favorite part? My favorite part has to be the diversity of ideas that people build their stories on. I’ve been reading sci fi and fantasy for most of my life, and sometimes when I pick up books it feels like I’ve read it all before. They’re genres with well-worn tropes. But, to my great delight, the majority of submissions we see are more than that. Often they’re twists on tropes, but still structured around something fresh, wrapping a delicious trope around an original, chewy caramel center. Seeing the different ways people tackle familiar ideas is fascinating and exciting.
I’ll add this, too: I love reading the slush because I’m consistently impressed by people who can fit a whole story into such a short format. I’m incredibly verbose myself and have never been able to write short stories, but find the feat of fitting a beginning, middle, and end, plus world building and a character arch, into 5,000 words, to be remarkable.
Why is it important? I think there are a few reasons, the most pragmatic of which is that Sigrid can’t read everything herself, unfortunately! But beyond that, having a team where everyone has their own perspectives, their own likes and dislikes, means there’s going to be a wide variety of stories that get passed along to Sigrid and advocated for. That widens the spectrum of what kinds of stories get selected, which is, ultimately, great for the finished magazine every month.
My favorite part is sending stories on. I get really excited by certain stories and I like being their cheerleader.
Without a sizable and diverse slush team it would take a short fiction magazine like Apex twelve years to put out one issue. That may be an exaggeration but by less than you’d think — and when you have only one or one type of person picking and choosing the result skews uniform no matter how inclusive that one person wants to be. Having a number of people selecting the first round inserts different viewpoints while streamlining the process and that creates a better magazine.
Slush reading has been a great experience for me because it’s taught me to think about what I really value in a story. That’s not what I expected when I started. I thought of a slush reader’s job as more akin to filtering out the chaff: the writers who hadn’t read the guidelines, the stories that weren’t clearly weren’t up to the level of craft or skill that we expect from publishable fiction.
That basic level of quality control is definitely part of the job, and it can be time-consuming, but it’s relatively easy. The really challenging and engaging part comes in evaluating stories on the continuum of, “Good,” “Very good,” and “Holy @#$!, you have to read this!” In my everyday pleasure reading, I just have to decide whether a story is interesting enough for me to finish it. Sometimes I read fiction in order to review it, in which case I am also thinking about how highly I would recommend the story, and to whom.
When I read slush, though, I think in terms of whether a story is something I can advocate for. When I send a story on to Sigrid, I tell her, “This story is worth looking at” and I also list reasons why. In the past I’ve come up with four factors that appear in my favorite stories. These don’t cover everything, and they won’t compensate for an impenetrable plot , wildly inconsistent characters, or misapplied vocabulary, but they’ll go a long way to take a story from, “Competent” to “Drop everything and read this now.”
Insight: Tell me something I didn’t know, take me to a new place, or put me in a situation that I’d never considered — and let me know why it’s compelling. Insight can be emotional or intellectual. Let me recognize something in a character’s action that I had always known about human nature but never thought in those terms before.
Immersion: This one is about swallowing the reader up in a world the story creates (or represents). It’s a bit less important to me than the others — it isn’t going to make or break a story for me, probably, but it’s a great add-on for books that have one or more of the other qualities. An immersive story doesn’t just explain the author’s cool fantasy concept, but it transports me there.
Connection: One of the things that I find fascinating about good fiction is that characters interact with each other in ways that feel meaningful, significant, even profound. Not every single scene has to be like that, but the sum total of two characters’ interactions should make me believe that what happens to them, or between them, matters. This can apply to romantic relationships but, especially in short fiction, it most stands out to me when it happens between family members, friends, work partners.
Voice: This is (even out of these pretty abstract categories) probably the hardest one to pin down. It’s most obvious in first-person fiction. But even when you get away from the “I”, the sense that a story is talking to me, that we’re having an intimate sort of conversation, is probably the number one factor to my enjoyment in the moment. A third person story can have lots of voice, too, of course — in fact, first-person is probably less effective overall in speculative fiction. (Though if you think you’re the exception that proves the rule, I’m open to it; I love the visceral satisfaction of a well-executed first person story). Ultimately, what matters about most about voice in a sense that the author is in command of the story’s language.
Every slush reader is going to have their own standards, of course. That’s as it should be. Apex’s audience isn’t just made up of one reader, and slushers aren’t all looking for the same thing. Through applying our individual, subjective, and very human standards, we hope to assemble a collection of stories that speak to all kinds of readers.