Slush Lesson


uncanny

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you’re an aspiring author and want to really improve your chances of being published, slush-editing for a good market is one of the best things you can do. Slushing for Apex was a great learning experience for me, and sparked the SLUSH LESSONS I’ve reposted here since they first appeared on the old Apex blog.

In brief: 30-60 submissions a month is essentially 1-2 stories a day, so while it’s a volunteer position (as was Apex’s), it’s pretty easy to keep on-top of. In exchange, it’s 1) a great learning experience if you’re a writer to see why X story gets pushed up and why Y story gets rejected outright, and 2) it’s a great way to build personal relationships with great authors and editors.

I slushed for Apex for almost five years, including under Lynne and Michael, and it was one of the best experiences if my career thus far, personally and for how it helped me look at my own fiction. I joined up with Apex originally for the love of short fiction, and to get to read some really great stuff, and to better understand the industry from the inside. Through that position, I got to attend several conventions (for free!), talk about slushing and working for a small press on panels, and meet a ton of amazing authors and fellow editors in the pro rooms. It also led to working as an interviewer for the magazine, and to a paying gig with Apex Book Company as a book formatter.

Since that day when I submitted my application to Apex, I’ve never looked back. If you get a chance to get in in the ground floor of Uncanny, do it! I’d apply myself if the Little Guy wasn’t already stretching my time too thin. So take a look and see if this might be for you!

Advertisements

(This was originally published on the Apex Magazine blog in April 2011.)

How do you measure your success as a writer?

Is it the number of times you’ve been published? Or the quality of the publication your work appeared in? Is it how much you’re paid for your work? Or is it the number of award nominations you receive for it? Is it how many good reviews you’ve gotten? Or how much you like your own work? Or what groups you belong to? Or what panels you’ve been on? Or how many times you’ve been a guest at a convention? Or the number of times you’ve been on Oprah? Or the New York Times’ bestseller’s list?

This is a particularly hard question to answer for a writer who’s only just started out in the field. When sales are few and far between and the rejections are piling up, how do you measure your progress? And how do you know when you’ve slipped your toe across that golden finish line to receive the honorary title of having “made it”?

When I was reading Stephen King’s On Writing, the one thing he said that stuck with me more than anything else was that selling your first book (or even first story) is only the very first step in the race. That’s where the real work begins. It made me stop to consider the truth of that statement, because the more you think about it, the more you recognize that it’s not even about that first sale. It’s about everything. Success is a moving target. The writing folks I know who are much further along on their literary path than I am have no fewer worries, no fewer goals, no sense that they’ve done all they can yet. Those books on their shelves? There could be more. Or they could be selling better. Those pro-sales? If only they were more consistent! Looking from the ground floor up, it can seem funny that a professional author is no less concerned about becoming successful. They sure look successful to me! But as I grow my little publication list, I start to feel the same way. Five years ago, I would have been thrilled to know I had even one sale under my belt. Now? Still happy, but frantic to find the next one. It’s a bit like hunger: you have to keep eating to be satisfied, because the moment you stop is the moment you start getting hungry again.

And that’s a good thing. It means we’re always searching to better ourselves, improve, work harder, try different things. It helps us grow to have a mirage to trail after, hoping some day to sink our fingers into its shimmering promises of perfect satisfaction.

But what about when you’re fresh to the game? If making a sale or even a pro-sale is the only thing signifying any kind of success, it’s going to be a long, hard road. A good road, and one that many, many now well known authors have traveled, but it sure won’t do anything on its own to encourage you. There’s a reason why so many authors say, “If you’d rather be doing anything else, this probably isn’t for you.” So what’s a newbie to do?

In some ways, just recognizing that “success” is a moving target helps lighten the burden of feeling as though the only way you’ll be “successful” is if your books are snatched up Harry Potter style and turned into a seven (or eight?) part blockbuster movie extravaganza. That may come, if we’re really, really lucky, but for now, at the very beginning of the journey, that pressure only makes it harder to write crap (like we have to in order to get better). Our first attempt at lit writing isn’t going to be as densely literary as Ulysses, and our first attempt at science fiction isn’t going to be as inventive as Dune. We may get there after decades of work; a particularly talented few of us may actually hit that prowess much earlier; and most of us may never get there at all. And that’s okay.

Tangible goals are nice, too, because you can quantify and control the outcome yourself. A sale is something beyond your control, but getting a story submitted somewhere is all in your hands. Michele Lee has a great article on the Apex Blog about how to set goals (and the expectations that go along with each kind of goal). Planning to hit a certain submission count in a year is a great way to get yourself out there and certainly increases your chances of making a sale over leaving your work in the “to submit” folder on your desktop.

Writing is a very volatile career, even—it seems—for seasoned pros. There will be a lot of ups and a lot of downs, no matter where you are on the path. But it’s the journey that matters in the long run, not that gold-leaf, quivering finish line in the distance. It’s also helpful to see that even established authors go through the same struggles, as you’ll find in either Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better or Gary A. Braunbeck’s To Each Their Darkness.

What do you think? How do you approach the tantalizing idea of “true success”? Does it matter to you, or is it something you’ve stopped worrying about defining a long time ago? In your career—no matter what stage you’re at—what event has brought you closest to that moment of perfect satisfaction, even if only for a day, an hour, or a few minutes?

(This was originally posted on the Apex Magazine blog back in December 2010.)

This is your brain: “I’m going to write that story I’ve had on my mind all weekend! It’ll be so fun!”

This is your brain on “inner editor”: “Wow, this is terrible. Is that even a word? There’s too much description, here. This is probably the worst thing I’ve ever written. The dialogue is clunky, the characters are flat, and nothing’s happening in the plot—why do I even bother? I should probably just give up.”

Any questions?

I’ve always been told that the inner editor in my head—described by so many how-to-write books as the arch nemesis of the writer—is an evil thing, best removed either entirely from the writing process, or at least compartmentalized into post-rough draft work. It’s a voice like Honest John’s, quietly whispering negativity into your ear, trying to make you slip off track and lose sight of your end goal. “Throw it away!” folks have told me; “Drown it out!” others have said. The overarching impression is that the inner editor is a no-good, washed-up, has-been jerk whose only real interest is to undermine your confidence and make you give up.

But I’ve always rebelled against the idea of completely shutting out the inner editor. I admit, I’m a bit of a contrarian. For me, re-reading a passage and deciding to rewrite it on the spot is part of my process, a guilty pleasure I rarely admitted to other writers for fear of being told—yet again—“You just have to tune that voice out or you’ll never finish.” The thing is, I know how to finish. I can complete a draft. What I struggle with is returning to a draft I’ve rushed myself through without respecting that slow, sinking dread I feel in my stomach when a scene or a character’s actions or passage of dialogue just doesn’t feel quite right.

Not everyone writes like this, and I’ll be the first to admit it’s slow and sometimes painful to edit as you go. Other writers I know are much more comfortable returning to edit a story they whipped out in a single go, and do a great job of working out the snarled knots they find to make a finished, polished draft. There are many ways to approach writing, I’ve found, and many authors who support different processes. I couldn’t deny that folks had a point about that quiet little voice that only comes out when I write: the inner voice also gives me a lot of crap, and can be very discouraging. So how should I think about the inner editor? Force for good? Or force for evil? Does the inner editor have any place in a rough draft?

This past weekend, I picked up a copy of Samuel R. Delany’s book about writing (subsequently titled, About Writing). While I was reading, I came across this statement:

If you’re going to say it, you must build up calluses against criticism—criticism from readers, from other writers, from reviewers, from editors, and from critics. Yes, praise is fine and fun. […] But the day-to-day diet, from others and, more important, from the little critic we all carry on our own shoulder, is a grim one. And it has to be so. (Delany, 108)

Prior to reading that statement, I had never thought of myself as having an inner critic. I knew I had an inner editor, but who was the inner critic? Both make me doubt myself, but are they different? Or are they the same?

I had also just finished reading his essay “On Doubts and Dreams,” included in About Writing, in which Delany had described that doubts are a good thing to have while writing. Doubts make you think, make you evaluate, make you question—sometimes rightly—parts of your work that aren’t really doing what they need to do. Or, in his words, (with the physical examples trimmed out): “Indeed, whenever you find yourself writing a cluttered, thin, or cliché sentence, you should doubt, and doubt seriously. […] What does this doubting mean? It means that a writer may just let any one of them stand. […] It means you don’t give any one of them the benefit of the doubt” (Delany, 98).

These contrasting reflections, tied together, opened up a perspective that works for me by dividing the two inner voices. The inner editor, as I’ve experienced her, is more like the editors I’ve met in real life, the ones who are well read, thoughtful, and offer encouragement as often as criticism. There’s no doubt that they question what you’ve put down, but they also don’t insist that you change something you want to keep. They respect you as the creative mind behind the work, and see themselves as a lens through which you can re-approach your writing with fresh eyes, to doubt some of those things you had left for granted, and ultimately consider their job to be making you—the writer—look better on the page. It’s a collaborative effort, not a combative one.

But then, I realized that my inner critic isn’t wholly my enemy either. Don’t get me wrong; she is a bitch. But she’s a bitch for my benefit. Her nasty little cut-downs, her eye-rolls, her snorts of disgust—they build up the calluses I need to survive getting my writing out of the desk drawer in public hands. Likewise, she reminds me with her outrageously false memories of a story being “brilliant” that even praise can be misleading. As a writer, it can be nearly impossible to know at first if a story is good or bad; the inner critic makes her snap judgments—“This is going to win a Nebula!” or “You should probably just stick this in the shredder now before anyone sees it…”—and it will be up to me and the inner editor later to determine if those statements have any merit.

Just thinking like that, I’ve started learning how to listen to the inner editor during a writing session—for my benefit—and tune out the inner critic, whose job is mostly to teach me to tune her out. Take the example I started with:

Wow, this is terrible. Is that even a word? There’s too much description, here. This is probably the worst thing I’ve ever written. The dialogue is clunky, the characters are flat, and nothing’s happening in the plot—why do I even bother? I should probably just give up.

I now see two voices in it, not one. One—the editor—is useful if only because she asks the questions I need to consider, though whether her questions should be acted upon is left to my judgment. The other one—the critic (in bold)—is a distraction I need to ignore. It’s left me much calmer in approaching my writing, because I can see both as good forces, if for different reasons.

Of course, this interpretation is my own, and probably doesn’t fit for everyone. What about you? Do you have an inner editor and an inner critic? Is there a difference? What’s your perspective?