Consider the poor editor, slaving away at her overheated desk, surrounded by piles of manuscripts. She finds herself amid vales of verbiage, stacks of sonorous prose, wondering where and how she'll pull together a meaningful selection of work that won't get her drummed out of the Editor's Club, bar privileges revoked forever. There are dirty little secrets to the editor's art....
It Didn't Really Come From the Slush Pile
"Eye of Argon" and hundreds of hilarious con panels notwithstanding, much of what arrives in a slush pile is pretty good. For independent markets, such as Polyphony (which Jay edits with Deborah Layne), the percentage of "pretty good" can be quite high. It changes a little with large, well-established markets, such as the major New York presses, or any magazine listed in places like Writer's Market. We all like to think that the slush pile is some primordial soup of fiction, stews of bizarre and subcompetent prose occasionally throwing up a rough gem for discovery by a lucky, long-suffering editor. In point of fact, that's not so much the case. In an independent slush pile several hundred manuscripts deep, there will be very few howlers. In a large-market slush pile thousands of manuscripts deep, there will be more, but it's still not an overwhelming percentage.
The thing that can trip an editor up, at least until she develops the compartmentalized ruthlessness we all know and love from the icons in our field, is that every one of the writers who sent in a story for consideration was doing their best. Insecurities and a few exceptions aside, they believed in the story they sent out to the slush pile. Every one of those people wants, aspires, needs to be published.
And almost all of them are pretty good.
The secret to the slush pile isn't that the good stories are diamonds afloat in a sea of crap. Sturgeon's Revelation is somewhat overstated. 90 percent of everything isn't crap. A lot of it might even be pretty good. Rather, it's the reverse that applies — only a tiny percentage of anything is excellent. And one of the big secrets of the slush pile is that the editor is looking for excellence, not "pretty good."
One might reasonably ask what constitutes excellence. (Well, first one might reasonably ask why that should be a secret at all, actually. Hell if we know, but observational evidence indicates that it seems to be so.) Since editing is a matter of taste — both the editor's taste and the readers' taste as projected by proxy through the editor — there is no objective answer to the question of excellence.
It has something to do with what will make the individual reader (in this case, the editor) sit up a little straighter in her chair and open her eyes a little wider and bring a smile of anticipation to her lips. The things about the story that make her forget that she is looking for an excuse to say "no." Because there are so many manuscripts in the slush pile, that is what (on a purely work-related level) she wants — a reason to toss it so that she can make the pile she has to get through smaller.
The writer's job is to make her forget that she wants to reduce the pile.
This quality of "excellence" is very hard to quantify. One can, however, considerably reduce the set of things which are not excellent, and thus, if nothing else, increase the chances of excellence occurring in the remainder, if not by dint of authorial effort at least perhaps through some literary avatar of Aristotelian abiogenesis.
Big Secret Number One
Most of the slush pile is pretty good.
Things Which Are Not Excellent: Goofy Envelopes
The editors in their studies and offices all have mental lists of things which are not excellent by which they may winnow their slush (i.e. give them an excuse to say "no"). First is the envelope. Kitten stickers aren't the secret handshake of fiction that some authors fondly imagine them to be, for example. Probably swirly purple ink isn't de rigueur either, as far as addressing goes. Though it would be difficult to get oneself roundfiled from outside the envelope, it's certainly possible to bring a moue of doubt to the editorial visage before one's manuscript is drawn forth for inspection.
Things Which Are Not Excellent: Strange Cover Letters
Threats never go over well. Neither do lengthy personal appeals. Rumor aside, clipping money to a manuscript is unlikely to aid in making a sale. The perfect letter is a terse transmittal letter, unless you have something extremely pertinent to say about your technical qualifications for writing the story or your recent winning of the MacArthur grant. Another editorial (almost) secret is that most editors don't read cover letters anyway. Give it a rest.
Things Which Are Not Excellent: Odd Manuscript Formatting
Regular printing on regular paper in either Courier or something a hell of a lot like Times cannot go too far wrong. (Note: if you do use Times, make it nominally larger due to the reduced x-height of the typeface. This will ease the editor's reading eye and ensure a roughly equivalent word count per page as compared to the most traditional forms of manuscript formatting.) Some authors labor under the misapprehension that making the manuscript stand out in some fashion format-wise will impress the editorial mind. Nothing could be further from the truth. The manuscript is a tool for telepathically implanting your story in the editor's head. She doesn't need to wonder why anyone would perfume foiled paper, or print gold on black, or whatever.
In all fairness, the previous examples of non-excellence are probably old hat to anyone who aspires to professional status as a writer. (It must be noted in passing that a surprising number of well-established writers either arrived at their status with idiosyncratic habits, or developed them later in life, but this is not to be emulated.) It certainly is possible to have a story bounced before the editor ever arrives at the first sentence of deathless prose. There are a surprising number of stories in any given slush pile which in fact achieve non-excellence through self-presentation. Sending one's story in to a market is no different from dressing for a job interview — look professional.
Big Secret Number Two
(As little of a secret as it should actually be) your manuscript shouldn't stand out, your story should.
More Things Which Are Not Excellent: Cliché
As Fred Askew once said to Jay in conversation, "This is science fiction, invent your own clichés." But clichés aren't just in the figures of speech, but also in the characters, settings and problems that make up stories. Don't give the editor a broken-hearted artist making a deal with the devil unless you can do something radically new and different. Dead babies, twisted stepmothers, the unbearable lightness of love — these are all very standard props in our cultural mythmaking.
Your job is to do something new.
True, distinctive originality is tough. It suffers from, among other things, the Potter Stewart definition, essentially, "I know it when I see it." For example, recently Charlie Stross's story Lobsters has been hailed by a number of readers and critics as stunningly original — launching a movement which admittedly so far consists mostly of Stross. The story and its successors — collectively the novel Accelerando now — is much admired and awaits someone with Stross' peculiar species of frenetic energy to propagate to a wider tide of fiction. At the same time, other readers have pointed out (quite rightly) that Stross was expanding on well-established Extropian themes following the decades-long lead of such writers as Vernor Vinge. Originality, like excellence, is relative.
Nonetheless, there are many writers generally regarded to be doing original work. Fascinating, even startling work. Writers from Theodora Goss to David Moles, from Jeff Ford to Jeff VanderMeer, from Greer Gilman to Kelly Link to Ted Chiang to Ben Rosenbaum. They're doing new things with the furniture of fiction and the props of genre. Installing horses in the master bathroom, so to speak. They're not writing the obvious idea, the first or third or fifth thing that springs to mind. They're writing the strange, different, off-beat idea.
Originality is very much in the eye of the beholder, in other words. But when that beholding eye happens to be an editorial eye, then your story has a shot at publication.
Big Secret Number Three
Your story should do something new.
Surprised yet? Hopefully not. The biggest secret to the big secrets of the slush pile is that they aren't secrets. Great stories sell. Certainly there are layers of marketing and other issues around that. Any editor has to buy a certain number of name authors to provide newsstand pull for their book or magazine. Persistence really, really counts. Factors and nuances abound of the sort that are discussed in the bar at Cons late in the evening, and on bleary-eyed panels in the too-bright light of day.
What is it authors wish they knew? How hard it is to find the right combination of stories. How miraculous it is to find the perfect story. (That does happen once in a while.)
What authors most need to know is to keep writing and mailing. Keep being original on the page and traditional in the envelope.
There are no secrets. Only hard work.
If it was easy, everyone would do it.