Lessons From the Slush Pile: The Heartbreak of Mediocrity

by Dan Stout in


I recently did a stint as a slush reader for a small online magazine. For the uninitiated, 'slush' refers to the great pile of unsolicited manuscripts that pile up at any kind of publication. All writers -- especially of fiction -- will spend some time wallowing in the slush pile in the course of their career. 

I had heard that reading slush is excellent training for writers, and I found this to be absolutely true. There were lots of things I leaned, some of which I'll break into a separate post. Going into the job, I expected to see some pretty bad stories, and hoped to find some gems. I came across both of those, but the thing that stuck with me most was the agonizing heartbreak of the stories that were just okay.

The Tor Slushpile. Photo by Cory Doctorow

The Tor Slushpile. Photo by Cory Doctorow

The bad stories, the ones that didn't have a chance, didn't bother me. They were easy to identify, they were no-brainers to cross off the list, and frankly, there weren't that many of them. Even rarer were the great stories. They leapt off the page, and sizzled with life even as I read them. Those too were no-brainers, and quickly got passed along the editorial chain.

The vast majority of the submissions I saw were the stories that I found most frustrating: the ones that were almost good enough. The ones that need a little more effort, more revisions, more focus, or just.... something to put them over the edge. I didn't anticipate how many stories would come through the doors almost ready for prime time. I also didn't anticipate the way they would fill me with rage. 

I wanted to grab hold of the authors and shake them, to yell, "Just write another draft, for Chissakes! Make it better! I'm on your side!"

But I couldn't do that. And even if I could, how many of them would listen? 

I say this a writer who has produced my fair share of 'just okay'. And this is the greatest lesson I took from the slush pile, that as writers we can always push ourselves to get our work to the next plateau. Often we're so very close to a stronger piece when we give in to complacency, but it's that rallying effort that sets apart those pieces that truly stay with the audience. We owe ourselves that effort. But we also owe the readers and -- yes -- we owe it to the editors, too.

Slush readers aren't in it for the thrill of rejecting writers. They sure as hell aren't in it for the (non-existent) money. They do what they do because they love stories. They love to see words come together and be moved by them. They want to find great stories. And when we authors fail to deliver the goods, we break their hearts. 

So revise. Re-write. Push your prose to the next level. Find a way to tell a story that will stay with your readers days, weeks, hell years after they've put it down. 

photo credit: gruntzooki via photopin cc
by Dan Stout