Tales from the Slush Pile
A tale of hope and woe and ultimate failure…
Between late 2001 and early 2003, I wrote five stories that I sent around to print and online science fiction magazines.
I wasn’t put off by the slush pile and the difficulties of getting out of it. There is good advice out there about how to give yourself a decent chance, and how you can improve your writing.
The second of those stories collected some encouraging personal comments as it rang up one rejection after another. I don’t have any illusions that it’s a great work of art, rejected by clueless editors, and that I’ll show them all by publishing it myself. (Although I did publish it myself.) The story was rejected for valid reasons, and I think I learned from the feedback. I mostly agree with their assessments, although I think they could have been more forthright in acknowledging the limitless potential of my raw but obviously huge talent.
Okay! It’s time to send this thing out into the world!
Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (8 days)
Form rejection, but at least a quick turnaround. I always sent my stories to F&SF first, because it was one of the “big three” markets, and they were so much faster than the other two. At this early and optimistic time, I was still proud of rejection slips as a rite of passage.
Asimov’s Science Fiction (73 days)
I’d heard that Asimov’s had two form letters: The “good one” was slightly more encouraging than the bad, or “you can’t spell” form. I got the bad one.
I waited over two months for this?
3SF (12 days)
A British magazine that only published a few issues. The editor was kind and gave me some personal feedback, even after I committed the faux pas in her discussion forum of mentioning sending it to another magazine first. (Editors want to pretend they’re always the first to see a story, she said.) She thought it was too predictable, and the two characters sounded too much like American teenagers today. (Where the story was set in the future.) She closed with: “That said, I thought your writing was very smooth, and the characterisation came over well, so I really do mean it when I say send something else.”
Wow! I’m totally on my way up!
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (3 days, 43 days)
I love the name of this magazine. I was thrilled to make it to a second round of reading on this one, but still a reject.
“Good, but the end was very predictable. Not a bad read all the same.”
“Nicely written, but didn’t quite believe the central character. Nancy’s turning point needs to be clearer.”
Analog (35 days)
Form letter. Cold, impersonal form letter.
Sci Fiction (25 days)
Form letter. Cold, impersonal, soul-crushing form letter.
Strange Horizons (29 days)
“Thank you for submitting “Picnic” to Strange Horizons, but we’ve decided not to accept it for publication. The plot was cute, but the story reads much too long for the amount of narrative action it contains.”
More personal comments, from a high-profile online mag. There’s still a chance for this thing!
Interzone (59 days)
Form rejection. That’s okay, I’m dead inside now.
On Spec (74 days)
Form with some checkboxes: humor may have been too prominent/only element, unsuitable for On Spec, and not fresh enough. Handwritten comment: “It’s nice and lightweight, but not really our style of humour.”
Reassuringly cordial, but what else would you expect from a Canadian magazine, eh?
Speculon (17 days)
No response — found out the market died not long after receiving my story. I guess they couldn’t take it anymore: I pushed them over the edge.
Paradox (118 days)
“Thank you for submitting “Picnic,” but I’m afraid I’m going to pass on this one. It was a well-written tale but not quite right for Paradox in terms of its subject matter. The science fiction I have been seeking is more the “soft” or sociological kind than the high-tech, space-faring variety. In any event, a recent change to the Paradox submission guidelines now makes it a prerequisite that all speculative fiction submissions have at least some integral historical content.”
I’m sure it was more on-topic when I sent it.
Tales of the Unanticipated (188 days)
I like this magazine. It’s locally published and they’ve been publishing about one issue per year since 1986. Long wait time, but they are up front about this and they provide detailed feedback in a handwritten letter. Being a fan of Larry Niven’s older work, I thought this comment from the editor was high praise:
“I find ‘Picnic’ enjoyably reminiscent of 1964-1975 Larry Niven, the years when he could do no wrong. It shares Niven’s wry view of the galaxy explored by human tourists used to adventure in comfort. But Niven in his prime would have made the narrative tighter overall — 3,500 - 4,200 words vs. your 4,800 — while also working in one more wild idea. If anything that my staff and/or I has said moves you to try a rewrite, I will cheerfully give the results another read in a future reading period.”
And that seems like a good, dignity-salvaging note to end on.
And there you have it: a journey of 684 days for the manuscript, from January 25, 2002 to January 27, 2004. Despite my commentary, I didn’t resent the long wait times. That’s part of the business. It’s going to take them a while to wade through all the muck they receive every day.
Now, after all that, if you’re burning with curiosity about the story, you can judge it for yourself!
(For more practical thoughts on that pile, including some advice on escaping it, here’s something from real life slush reader Sarah E. Olson, who reads for Apex Magazine : It Came From the Slush Pile.)