Slush Pile Lessons, Part Two – Telling a Story

Welcome to part two of “I’ve read a bunch of slush and I think I’ve learned something.” You can find Part One here. You can find Part Three here.

This post also got long, so there will be a part three. Sorry. I babble.

To recap stuff from the other one: we’ve read a bunch of stories over the years, and we’ve noticed things that a lot of writers do that are frustrating as an editor. Many of these things are things we’ve also done as writers, so it’s extra embarrassing. This is a chance to share these insights.

Here’s the super short version of my disclaimers.

  • I hate “conventional wisdom.”
  • But knowing what editors experience can help. 
  • I use the term “editor” because I’m an editor. This advice may not apply to other groups.
  • This advice is about controlling what you can control, because there’s so much you can’t.

First, a Half-Baked Metaphor

I had this random epiphany just as I was ready to publish Part One. But I couldn’t fit it into the previous post. So here’s just a random thing to think about when it comes to standing out or finding your voice. I’m not going to claim this is wise. I just like the idea and thought someone else might find it helpful.

There’s this idea that all stories have been told before, and all you bring is your own voice and point of view. And that made me think of musical covers.

When you’re looking at covers of songs, they come in all kinds of flavors. Some just try to perfectly emulate the source material. Some add their own flair to the songs they’re covering. (“All Along the Watchtower” sounds very different depending on whether it’s Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, or U2.) But sometimes you bring your own thing, and it doesn’t cause the song to stand out.

I listen to a lot of Postmodern Jukebox. It was what prompted this half-baked metaphor. For those not familiar with PMJ’s oeuvre, it’s a musical project by a guy named Scott Bradlee. He does these retro arrangements of popular songs, and gets a bunch of musicians and singers to perform the songs.

Sometimes they are amazing and bring their own energy to the song. Sometimes they don’t sound very different from the original. Even by bringing his own “voice” to these songs, he doesn’t always cause it to stand out. Compare Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You” (Original/PMJ) to Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” (Original/PMJ).

PMJ’s “Closer” is very different from the original, “Forget You” is less so. You might not care for the cover of “Closer” compared to the original. You might even hate it. But it stands out in a way that “Forget You” doesn’t. It’s become its own thing.

This doesn’t mean that one that stands out is “better.” Sometimes what you need is the “Forget You” cover instead of the “Closer” cover.

When you start getting into genre expectations, getting too weird can sabotage you. If you have eclectic tastes, PMJ’s “Closer” could totally be your jam. If you are a hardcore fan of electronica or industrial music, PMJ’s version could be your sworn nemesis. (But you might enjoy Kawehi’s cover instead.)

To bring this back to writing, consider romance novels. Romance readers have expectations that fans of other genres might not. You might not want to be the romance writer who is described as “WEIRD 1 [STAR].”

WEIRD - 1*

This is literally the only review I’ve seen from my brief foray into writing romance.

On the other hand, Chuck Tingle has made quite the career in going off the rails. But then, he understands that love is real for those who kiss.

In your journey to find your voice or your strengths, this metaphor might be helpful. This doesn’t mean that stories that fit the norm aren’t good or can’t sell. And for some authors, their strength is cleaving closer to the expected norms. The bulk of commercial fiction is arguably more like “Forget You,” so if that’s your strength, then strength the hell out of that.

But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about.

I’m here to talk about the draft.  I’m here to talk about telling stories.

Tell a Story

From the stance of writing being self-expression, the thought of formulaic storytelling seems awful. From the stance of getting people to pay you for your writing, especially an editor, formulaic storytelling helps. And a lot of things use the same formula.

That Formula

It’s easiest to see at work in mainstream movies. They’re usually two hours long, so you get to see it all in one go. Some movies mask it better than others, but you can often still find it. Heck, I remember even seeing it at work in pro wrestling matches. It has a bunch of names. The Master Formula. The Hero’s Journey. The Three Act structure.

Why do they do this? Because it works remarkably well.

It can also be really hard to write. One of the reasons short fiction is recommended as a starting point is that it gives you a chance to experiment with writing narrative arcs on small scale. Novels, on the other hand, are more unwieldy for this sort of practice.

There are a lot of great resources that provide advice on story structure. My go-to is always Mark Teppo’s Jumpstart Your Novel. At the end of the book, he breaks down the structure of the movie Die Hard as a neat illustration. I also recently learned about Pixar’s writing prompt, which is part of a long list of advice they have.

As someone who hates self-help novels, I’m leery of a lot of writerly advice. Prior to MSJ, I’d consider these great brainstorming tools but would sneer at the idea of codifying a story.

As an editor…?

If I’ve just read 50 stories, and I have 150 more to read, I’m not interested in feeling frustrated, lost, or confused. At a certain point, I’m even looking for an excuse to just stop reading and move on to the next one.

There are questions I that I don’t want to ask when I’m reading a submission:

  • “What is this about?”
  • “Where is this going?”
  • “Is this really where it ends?”

In workshops, they’ll often talk about “getting booted out” of a story. The moment where something is suitably jarring where the story gets ruined for them. In a workshop, they’re obligated to finish. An editor isn’t.

As an author, I’ve been guilty of all of the narrative arc problems. I’ve written stories that don’t actually start until the middle of the manuscript. I’ve written stories where nothing happens. I’ve written stories that were just a series of events that didn’t go anywhere. I’ve written stories that leave too many things left dangling so that it’s more like the first chapter of a book rather than a self-contained story.

If you’re too cheap to buy Mark Teppo’s AWESOME BOOK, here’s the free half-assed version of the typical narrative arc: Convey the plot, setting, and themes as quickly as possible up front BLAM. Have a bunch of bad shit happen. When things have gotten as bad as they can get, provide a reasonable conclusion.

If you don’t think that’s helpful, maybe you should cough up $3 for a longer explanation, you cheap jerk.

It’s super basic, and yet super hard to do. I’m sure there are pros out there who can just knock it out of the park every time. I’m not that person. I use Mark’s book every time I write an outline just to have exercises that help me think about how to structure it. (And, to be clear, he is a pantser and still uses his brainstorming to get a feel for what his story is about.)

Sometimes you can get by without any of that narrative arc/hero’s journey/formulaic nonsense. Sometimes an idea is just so great that it can stand on its own without a plot. Sometimes the prose is just so rich and beautiful that you just get sucked in and it’s an experience unto itself. Sometimes you manage to hit on an editor’s favoritest thing and they are going to love it despite the odds.

For MSJ, we’ve totally bought stories that are fun even without a plot. A neat concept with good prose can keep us reading even if there’s not much of a plot. But the definition of “neat concept” or “good prose” is extremely subjective. If you’re playing the odds and hedging your bets, you may be better off going with a more conventional structure.

Of the dozen or so stories I’ve published through other people, they’ve all had something resembling that narrative structure. My prose isn’t so dazzling that someone has been swept up into the beauty regardless of plot. I’m sure there’s someone out there who thinks that about my prose, but none of them have paid me money to put a story in a book or magazine.

Maybe Don't Call Me

I was going to say, “If you do think my prose is dazzling and you want to give me money, call me!”
But, let’s be honest: I hate talking on the phone. A phone call from a strange number is just going to terrify me. What sort of monster even uses phones anymore?
But email or Paypal works. I’m Bolthy at Gmail.

Workshop, Sashay, Shante

It’s easy to be blind to whether your plot works, so getting outside opinions is valuable. And not just from people who love you and want you to be happy. Unless your mom is a professional in the publishing industry, don’t ask her for help. She’ll just put your story on the fridge and tell you it’s great. Heck, she may even do that if she is a professional in the publishing industry.

Ideally you want input from people with experience reading and writing fiction. You might argue that you want to get feedback from your target market, and that has a certain value. But if you’re going through a gatekeeper like an editor, you need to be able to sell it to them before you can sell it to anyone else.

The common advice is a critique group. And they have a lot of value. I’m always learning new things when I do critiques.  But I’ve never been part of a regular critique group. Critique groups are time consuming. Getting words on paper is time intensive. Getting words on paper and reading manuscripts for a half-dozen other people for your weekly writer kaffeeklatch and providing meaningful feedback? I couldn’t do it.

My solution has been to just make friends with writers who are willing to help me out once in a while. We get together, hang out, and sometimes get each other to look something over. It doesn’t have quite the intense drive for productivity as a critique group that meets regularly, but it fits better with my schedule.

If you have disposable income and vacation time, you could consider one of the residential retreats. You have to apply, with no guarantee that you’ll get accepted. Some are more exclusive than others. I went to the CSSF SF Workshop out in Kansas and got a lot out of it. I also had a great experience with online workshops taught by Alyx Dellamonica through UCLA Extension. There are many others out there.

If you have less money and vacation time, some conventions will offer workshops. Fairwood Writers, for example, does a workshop at Norwescon. You get paired with at least four seasoned writers: three of the pros attending the convention, plus a representative from the Fairwood Writers. I had my stories critiqued there several times when I was starting out, and I’ve been one of the pros there. I’ve only been driven to tears once, and she hasn’t been back in years.

If you have money but no vacation time, you can also straight up pay someone to provide feedback. There are many fine editors out there. I’ve had great experiences with Lillian Cohen-Moore, Andrea Howe with Blue Falcon Editing, and (of course) Dawn Vogel.

If you have no money or vacation time, there are always online writing communities like

Wisdom from the Workshop

I learned a bunch of stuff when I did the CSSF workshop several years ago. There’s a comment from instructor (and SFWA Grandmaster) James Gunn that has stuck with me. I can’t find it written down, but here’s the general gist:

In the argument between the author and the reader, the reader always wins.

Specifically, this is about the difference between what you intend for a story to convey and what readers get out of it. This is not about ideas of fan entitlement about what an author should or shouldn’t do.

A story can only be judged by what is on the paper. It’s unlikely you will be on hand to be able to explain what it means while the person is reading it. If you’re writing with the aim to have people pay you, then this is the ultimate value of workshops: getting that outside perspective. It’s a beta-test for your writing. (And, in fact, some authors will have beta readers to give feedback on writing.)

I’m certain you can think of lots of situations where you wish, “Why didn’t they stop and get an outside opinion?” Like “My favorite color is Hitler” or the inadvertently pornographic Super-Soaker Oozinator. While you might not hit that big of a gaff, it’s best to get that check in from people who will catch it.

Does anyone want to have the fictional equivalent of the Oozinator?

Again, you can’t control a lot of things about how readers will react. But you can at least learn ways to avoid some obvious things by getting that outside point of view from people who know their stuff.

In part three, I’ll hopefully bring this series of posts crashing down.

(Or you can rewind back to Part One.)

2 thoughts on “Slush Pile Lessons, Part Two – Telling a Story

  1. Michael Rettig

    Great piece. Your line ;” In the arguement between the author and the reader, the reader always wins.” Is a core concept that quite a few of us writers should have as a mantra.

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