Hey peeps! I’m currently a slush reader for a pro-genre fiction magazine. Slush reading, for those who don't know, means that I read submitted stories and make Yay or Nay decisions before an editor sees it. Okay. Now that's out of the way.
I've been reading slush pretty regularly for a few months, and in that time I’ve noticed some trends and some things that are universally Things Not To Do when submitting to magazines. I thought it might be cool if someone wrote about these things—without mentioning authors’ names or any details of the stories to keep people’s sanity (and feelings) in tact.
So, I’m hoping this will be a series. Regardless of whether the pro-magazine decides to keep me as a slush reader, I have eight posts planned after just four months of slush reading. (One of the posts will be short.) If it’s not a series because I get eaten by the massive amounts of writing work I have on my slate for 2018, I’m sorry. At least you get one post. This one.
I’ll try to make it good.
So, here we go: PITFALLS OF THE SLUSH PILE: EPISODE ONE-LACK OF RESEARCH
As my intro said, I’ve been reading for this magazine since October of 2017, and I’ve probably rejected four or five stories based on total lack of research on a major area of their story that I happen to have a lot of expertise in. This isn’t something like, “Oh no, doors don’t make that sound.” Not something small like that. But something essential to the running of a plot or major character that just doesn’t work either scientifically or biologically or behaviorally.
Now, I'm not a Renaissance Woman. There are a lot of things I don’t know shit about. I’m sure if a story about a sentient motorcycle came across my queue, and the writer knew shit about motorcycles I’d be like, “This is so cool!” Assuming all other parts of the story absolutely worked. Because, peeps, I know absolutely shit about motorcycles.
Someone might say this isn’t fair. Maybe, but writing is also a lot about luck.
What is writing also a lot about? Research! Science fiction, fantasy, and horror gets to involve One Big Lie. The rest is all world building (mostly fact) based around that One Big Lie. Harry Potter is a kid wizard in a muggle world. There happens to be a school for wizards. Harry Potter’s world has dragons because at the wizard school Harry attends, there is a class on magical creatures. Dragons are magical creatures. See?
If a writer doesn’t do their research and doesn’t know their stuff about psychology, animal behavior, or simple physics (and these things are essential to getting the plot or characters moving), it’s my job to nip this in the bud. I can't let the story pass on up to the editors.
Caveat: My story “… Calamity Jane” originally used a very specific shotgun that, during the course of my research, I found that Jane Canary herself had used. Unfortunately, this shotgun only enjoyed one or two years of popularity (one those years was the year the story took place) and then faded into obscurity, making it look like I didn’t know how guns worked when I wrote and submitted the piece to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. (PS: It's true. I don’t know how guns work. But I did a shitton of research on this one specific shotgun—including watching over two hours of YouTube videos on it's operation and handling.)
But Scott Andrews accepted the story anyway, changing all mentions of this one specific shotgun (name lost forever in written-over early drafts), to a more common shotgun that current readers are more familiar with. He did not reject my story outright for not knowing how guns work, but by that time, my story had made it up past the first readers and on to the Editor in Chief. We did several rewrites before the story was publication ready. Now it’s available on Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ website.
As I know, when I wrote “…Calamity Jane,” I had done extensive research on guns and how they shoot and how to shoot them. So when I see a story come over my queue that has no idea about a character trait or a plot concept, I see it as a failure of storycraft. That perhaps this particular author isn’t ready for pro-publication yet.
I’ve been guilty of this myself. One of my favorite stories I sent out several times before it was ready. Before I had the world building and science part ironed out and iron clad. It wasn’t until I read such a solidly world-built story by Charles Payseur (“Feathers & Void”) that I realized how lazy I was being, and I dove into this psychological/bio-fic story and made sure the science was sound and totally there. (Charles Payseur is one of those writers that makes you want to be better, because he’s just that good.)
Peeps, the quality of the personal rejections went from “Thanks but no thanks,” to “We love it! It’s emotionally harrowing and wonderful. No thank you.” It’s still out on submission. One day, little misguided story. One day.
So do the research. Make the effort. Build the world around facts and One Big Lie. Build the characters around real, actual concepts. If you don’t know a thing about dogs, don’t make it up, look it up. It probably won’t take as long as you think it will, and the results are often fascinating. (I won’t tell you about the fun I had looking up How Do You Fight With Scimitars?)
Research is one of the things that separates a rejection from a bump for me. I can be cruising along in a story I absolutely love and if I hiccup on one or two big failures of research, the story is gone.
Don’t be that person. Look it up. It’s fun. I swear.