Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ask the Editor: How Do You Become a Slushpile Editor?

Reader Bonnie Fernandes asked: "How do you become a slushpile editor?"

Great question.

You know what they tell you when you go to job search seminars?

They tell you to network.

And finding a job as a slushpile editor is no different.  It's really all about WHO you know.  Of course WHAT you know certainly helps too.

A good slushreader is more than just a reader.  A good slush reader knows the mechanics of writing, inside and out.  A good slush reader doesn't have to BE a writer, per se.  But he knows HOW to write.  He knows how to recognize good writing in the work of others. He knows how to recognize errors in writing mechanics.

These qualifications are crucial, but they're only a gateway to finding a position as a slush reader.

So how, exactly, does one network?

Your first step is to join writing communities.  Online writing communities and workshops are a great place to meet people who know people.  And some of those people you get to know are bound to have connections of their own, and eventually one of those friends or acquaintances is bound to know someone who happens to work at such and such a magazine who, at some point, is bound to let their network of friends know that their magazine is looking for slush readers.

For example, at Flash Fiction Online, when we are in need of slush readers we first go to our staff to ask for recommendations.  They look through their lists if friends and writing acquaintances, send out a few emails, and send me names and email addresses of interested parties.  One occasion we've advertised for positions at writing workshops we frequent.

At least that's how it works in the larger publishing community.  In other words, the vast number of magazines--online and in print--that are run on a shoestring budget and seldom have money to pay staff.  (There are definite benefits to reading slush that compensate for the lack of actual pay.)

If you're looking for a professional, paying job as a slush reader, it's slightly more complicated.  Still, it's all about who you know and what you know.

At the larger publishing houses--those few who still have a slushpile--they accept applications and look at resumes.  They want to see relevant college degrees and work experience.  If you can name-drop a friend in the publishing industry, even better.  Networking.  It's crucial.

I once spoke to an editor who said her first editing gig was copy editing phone books. Her English degree helped her get that job, which gave her a toe in the door at her next job--reading slush for a small local publishing company.  As she worked she gained further experience, more lines on her resume, until she broke into the New York publishing industry--as a slush reader again, but, dang!  In New York!!  More working, more experience, now she works as an acquisition editor for a small publishing house, gaining more experience, making better money.  

But with so few major publishing houses accepting slush anymore, where does one look for slush reading jobs?

Agencies.  These days most accepted, published manuscripts are acquired through literary agents, and literary agents need a handful of slush readers to wade through the piles of potential-client manuscripts they receive.  And how do you land a job reading slush for a literary agent.  Network.  Get to know people.

Also, start small.  Do some pro bono slush reading for a small press online magazine, for example, to put a line of relevant experience on your resume.  Use that to move up to the next level, and so on.

Be persistent, be professional, be able to prove you know your way around the world of writers and writing.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Why I'm Not a Fan of Cat Stories

In our guidelines (https://ffo.submittable.com/submit) we state several hard sells, or stories that we see too much of, don't particularly enjoy, and that you'll have to work extra hard as a writer to overcome the eyerolling reaction of our staff when they appear in our slush pile.

Cat stories are one of these.

I will not gloss over the truth. For me, this is one reason:

Yes, I am a dog person.

I am as prejudiced against cats as cat people are against dogs, and neither of us understand people who would have both, nor people who would have neither.

But to be fair, I'm not a huge fan of dog stories either.  In fact, I'm not really a fan of any story in which the point of view character is not a human or an intelligent alien.  That includes babies.  Babies are hardly intelligent and barely human.

And don't get me started on humans trapped in a dog/cat body.  Just don't.

But this post isn't about dogs or babies or aliens.  It's about cats.

We see far more cat stories than dog stories.  You see a lot more cat hoarders, too.  Yeah, yeah.  We had a crazy cat lady down the street when I was growing up.  Didn't we all?  No one ever said anything about the crazy dog lady.

What does that say about cat people?  That dog people don't love their furry companions as much as cat people?  That cat people are crazier about their beloved pets than dog people?  Or that cat people are just crazy?

But let's put all that prejudice aside and talk facts.

In 2012, only 30% of American households owned cats.  (36.5% owned dogs, despite the fact that dogs were costlier to keep healthy--more than $100 greater annual expenditure in veterinary costs. But that's just me gloating.  Dog person, remember?)  What that tells me is that 70% of the population doesn't really care about cat stories because they either don't care for cats or because, well, they're human.

That's the crux of it.  Cats are not human.  Humans (especially humans who don't care for cats) have a difficult time empathizing with a cat.  Lack of empathy translates directly to lack of interest in the fiction world.

In very practical terms, despite my own dislike of cats and cat stories, it's bad business to publish a story that only 30% of my readership is likely to give a cat's behind about.  And at only 36.5%, that's the reason I'm not likely to be attracted to a dog story either.

Especially stories about little dogs.  But that's another prejudice for another day.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Ask an Editor: Published or Not?

While this question didn't come from a blog reader, it is a question I receive frequently from submitters:

"If I posted my story on my blog, do you consider that previously published?"

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer:  Yes, we do.  As do almost all other markets.


A magazine, you see, is in the business of procuring and keeping readers.  It's how we function, it's what we're for, it's how some of us make money.

So when I'm buying your story to put onto my pages, I'm not just paying you for a story for the hell of it.  I'm making an investment in you, in the idea that your story is going to bring potential new readers to my magazine.

But if everyone you know--your family, friends, acquaintances, critique group members--have already read your story on your blog they're much less likely to read your story on my site, which means they're much less likely to potentially purchase a copy or a subscription, much less likely to click on ads on my site and buy products from our sponsors, which then doesn't put money in our account with which we could otherwise afford to buy more stories from writers like you.

Story Titles

Imagine yourself at Barnes & Noble.  How do you browse for books?

Cover art?  Most books aren't shelved with the cover facing you.

Blurb?  No books are shelved so you can easily browse the back-cover or inside-cover blurb.

What faces you first is the title.

And that's what I see first, too.

Am I going to be excited about reading a story titled 'Boring'?  

To tell you the truth, I might be just a little intrigued by that title.  It might lead me to wonder--nay, hope--that the story will be anything but boring.

So let's take a look at some of my favorite titles from the pages of Flash Fiction Online and how they might have been less appealing:


"Driving My Post Partum Depressed Wife to the Mountains"

The first title, hopefully you recognize, is the real one.  But it's not what the story is about.  The second title tells me what the story is about, but it doesn't make me want to read the story.  

How about:


"Granny and Her Microwave"



"I Was a Robot Bride"

So why don't we take a look at what makes these titles successful, eye-catching, editor-appealing.

Sparks:  What kind of sparks am I talking about?  The kind of sparks that get my imagination working.  That first title, "James Brown Is Alive and Doing Laundry in South Lake Tahoe," even though it has very little to do with what the story is actually about, puts an immediate mental image into my head.  I'm imagining an aging James Brown, his thick hair still piled high in that ridiculous pompadour, his shirt unbottoned to his enormous old-man belly, his chains getting tangled in his exposed, graying chest hair, crossing the street with his wheeled laundry basket in tow.  Maybe he has a cigarette dangling from his lip.  Maybe his boots are unlaced as he shuffles aimlessly over the blacktop.  A cross between the classic rocker we all recognize from "I Feel Good" and the proto-bag-lady who seems to grace every laundromat in the universe.

But the author does something else important.  As she opens the story she places me immediately in a place from which I might just catch a glimpse of someone who looks like it just might be James Brown heading for the laundromat--a car driven by an over-tired new father.  She also ties that title neatly into the story.  You'll have to read the story to see how.  But that's important.  I shouldn't get to the end of your story and wonder what in the heck the title had to do with anything.

Not Your Run of the Mill:  Irma Splinkbottom.  Holy cow, what a name.  When I first read this title I prayed fervently that the story would be as good as the title.  It was.  We bought it and published it in 2009.  What this tells you is a lot of things.  

First, a great title will catch any editor's attention.  A boring title won't.  Choose carefully.  Put as much thought into that title as you do to your opening paragraph.

Second, a great title alone won't sell your story.  That fervent prayer wasn't for nothing.  I've read hundreds of stories with imagination-catching titles in which the story just didn't cut the mustard.  So many, in fact, that the prayer was needed.  And this time it worked.

Third, title can say a lot about what might be expected from your story.  This title gave me to expect humor, which is what Irma delivered.  Be careful that you don't become so concerned with writing an imaginative title that you lose sight of the fact that it's saying something about your story.  Make sure that what it's saying matches what the story says.  I don't want a title that takes me to the Bahamas only to find the story takes me to Antarctica.

Fourth, putting something peculiar in the title, like Irma Splinkbottom or the irony of an old lady name along with 'cold fusion', can be definitely imaginatively engaging.  Be careful how you use unusual, though.  Unusual can mean just about anything.  Make sure your title aims for the right kind of unusual.  For instance, I recently had a story titled "Past Perfect/Future Tense" in my slush pile.  While to grammarians it's merely grammatical terms, an editor/writer like me will look at that and say, 'Hmm.  This story is probably about more than grammar."  Which then gets me thinking about that title.  Past Perfect.  Future Tense.  The past is perfect.  The future is tense.  I now feel as if I'm looking through a window into the soul of this story and hoping for great things done with strong, empathetic characters.

Language Is Beautiful:  It really is.  We often hear people say how difficult the English language is to learn--all the exceptions to the rules, all the exceptions to the exceptions.  It's a mongrel of a language, that's for sure.  But that mongrel has given the world a language with an enormous diversity of words--more diverse than any other Earth language--which, according to one source, is approaching a vocabulary of one million words and which is constantly adopting words from every potential source.  

No other language offers the writer a larger pool of words from which to draw in order to express himself with such great accuracy or fluency or grace.  There is no excuse for any writer to thunk down a string of graceless words and call it a title, when so much meaning and poetry can be had with even a single well-chosen word.

Take a look at "Gathering Rosebuds of Rust."  All those lovely Rs--alliteration.  The exact same thing could be told using entirely different words, but it certainly wouldn't have the same flavor.  For example: "Picking Rusty Metal Flowers" or "Putting Rusted Roses in My Basket."

As an exercise, write a title for a story you're working on or have recently completed.  Have your critique group or members of your writer's forum read the title and answer the following questions:

Do you like the title?  Why?
What do you think this story is about?
What kind or genre of story do you expect it to be?  
What emotional vibe do you expect the story to have?

If the answers you receive don't jive at all with the story you've written you probably want to rethink that title.  

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ask an Editor: Cover Letter Bio?

Margie asked: "Do I need to include a brief bio in my cover letter when submitting a story?"'

The simple answer is no, you do not.

Is it helpful?  Potentially, but not always.

I've seen all kinds of bios in cover letters.  From a single sentence to a full page to nothing at all.

Speaking as a working editor, I'd say I tend toward nothing at all over a full page for a bio.  Margie, being an astute writer, asked if she should include a 'brief' bio.  Brevity is the key word.  If you do decide to include one, keep it brief.  No more than three or four sentences.

But are you one of those writers who should include one at all?

Here are some questions to help you decide:

1.  Do I have any writing-related credits to include in my cover letter?  Writing credits would be recent and/or professionally paid publications.  You might also include recent publication in lesser markets if they're well-respected.  Also, if you have participated in professional writing workshops, have a degree in English or creative writing, other writing-related education or activities, you could include those.

Well, OK, just one question.  That's really all there is to it.

Don't include your life story, your sleeping habits, your favorite recreational activities, every place you've ever lived or exotic foreign clime you've visited.  Don't include the title of all 32 stories you've published in obscure publications over the course of 68 years.  I exaggerate, but you're smart enough to realize that.

But what if you don't have any writing-related credits?  Just a simple:

Dear Editor,

I respectfully submit my story "Title Here" for your consideration.


Your Name

Because I'm going to let you in on a little secret:

Editors don't always even read cover letters.  It's just one more thing to do in a long string of things that need to be done to get a story from the slushpile to the printed page.

At Flash Fiction Online, your story gets read first, because what's in your cover letter doesn't really matter.  What matters is the story.  After we've read, if we're interested, we'll read the cover letter to learn more about you.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What Kind of Writer?

I'm currently working my way through Dave Farland's new edition of Million Dollar Outlines.

He suggests, and rightly so, that there are two main types of writers: the discovery writer and the outliner.

Of course it's not quite that cut and dried.

Essentially, there are a hundred kinds of writers, but they all fall on a scale somewhere between discovery and outliner.

So what do I mean by those terms?

A pure discovery writer never thinks ahead about what he's going to write.  He sits down, begins writing, and discovers where his writing will take him.  A VERY pure discovery writer won't even have a preconceived story idea in mind when he begins writing.

A pure outline writer won't write a word unless he has a detailed outline of every detail of the story, from beginning to end, and will NOT deviate from that outline in any way.

But there really are very few pure discovery or pure outline writers.  We mainly fall somewhere in between.

Even a heavy discovery writer will begin writing with a general story in mind, or maybe the end of a story in mind, or maybe a character who needs a story in mind.

A heavy outline writer (at least a smart one) will allow himself to let the story take him in a new direction, taking some time to readjust his outline to reflect that.

Each type of writer has his own challenges.  For example, a discovery writer may end up with a mess of disorganization at the end of months of writing that will need so much editing that it hardly seems worth the effort; while an outline writer may be so wrapped up in the outlining that by the time it comes to writing the story he's bored with it, never getting beyond the outline in the process.

Personally, I can't imagine sitting down to write with no preconceived notions of what I'm going to write, though I'll suggest that doing such a thing is an excellent exercise for getting over writer's block or for getting the creative juices flowing at the beginning of a writing session.

But I do lack a certain amount of skill in the area of outlining.

That's why I'm reading Dave's book.  I'll let you know how it turns out.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Originality in Storytelling

Someone once said that there are no new stories.

He was right.

All stories can be categorized into one of many motiffs, all of which have been done for as long as stories have been told.

So how do you make your story original?

You don't.  But you DO make it interesting.

First, let me slay a myth--people don't read your story to find out what happens at the end.  The underlying story structure that we, as humans, have lived with for thousands of years says that good wins, problems are solved, characters learn lessons, and life goes on.

Even in a murder mystery we know the killer will be caught in the end.  And in a well-written murder mystery we even have a richly satisfying "I KNEW IT!" moment when the killer is revealed.  You see? We already knew.

So what makes us read a story?  The middle.  The stuff that gets us to the end.

We want to see what happens to get your characters there.  We want to see their struggles, their desires, their pain, their courage, their cowardice, their triumphs, strengths, weaknesses, warts and all.  We want characters to be REAL to us.  We want to feel for them.  We want to feel WITH them.

Your characters don't need to have green hair or seven toes to be interesting.  They don't even need to be described in great detail.  They only need to do things that your readers can relate to, can understand, can empathize with.

Another aspect of making a story more original, or interesting, is to avoid cliche.  Avoid the first thing that comes to the collective human conscience.  For example, if a kid is walking across a playground and comes across a hoppy-taw, what's the first thing he might do with it?  Sticks it in his pocket?  Maybe.  Play a game of hopscotch?  Possibly.  Those are pretty common answers.  What's slightly more interesting than that?  Maybe he goes on a quest to discover the owner of the hoppy-taw.  Maybe that gets him into some other kind of adventure.  Maybe he knows whose it is and decides to keep it.  Maybe there's some tension between him and this other child.  What could it be?  How might it be resolved?

Keep thinking.  The third or fourth idea will likely be considerably more original.  And that idea will lead to others, and the process begins again.

So, originality is less in the story structure and more in the story details.  Give yourself a break.  Let yourself use the standard story structure and enrich your stories with the treasures you can stuff inside it.