Diary of a Slush Reader: The Search for “The One”

So what is it that gets the slush reader excited? What exactly are we looking for?

It’s worth pointing out that the answers to those questions can vary widely from publication to publication, depending on each one’s aesthetic and artistic mission. It’s also worth mentioning that slush usually has to get the approval of several readers before it gets accepted and those readers don’t always agree. This part of reading slush can sometimes cause friction between slush readers, because our aesthetics don’t always align, and when we fall in love with a piece, we can get very protective of it. For me personally, uniqueness and language are the two things that most often make me sit up and pay attention, the things that make me want to say yes to a story. But in general, allowing for these variations in journals and readers, here’s what tends to get us excited:

  • New situations – If you put characters into situations or predicaments that we haven’t seen before and explore them in an interesting and thoughtful way, we tend to get interested pretty fast. The reader’s reaction to new situations in fiction is not that dissimilar from how we react to strange, new situations in real life. We wonder: what’s going to happen to these characters? How did they get into this situation? How will they get out? How will it affect them? However, it’s important to keep in mind that quirkiness for its own sake can be confusing and annoying to read; that which is strange about a story is exciting only as far as it guides the narrative, action, or characters, and only if it makes sense in the world of the story.
  • New forms (which are an active part of the narrative) – Getting playful with time, POV, and structure is another way you can get your reader to sit up and take notice, this time because our brains have to work harder to keep up with what’s happening on the page. However, you should be careful with this one. The forms you experiment with should function in the story, should make sense in the context of the narrative. Remember that you’re writing for an audience, and your reader has to be able to understand your work without the benefit of being inside your brain.
  • Thoughtful, precise language with a unique voice – This is, in my opinion, the single most basic way to write good stories. Writing, at the core of its very nature, is about words first. It’s not enough just to write sentences that are coherent – literary fiction is about thoughtful, precise language that paints a picture in the mind of your reader. While exceptional language doesn’t always get you an automatic acceptance, you’re unlikely to make much of a splash in the literary world without it. However, it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t have to get poetic in every sentence – be judicious about where you keep your language functional and where you let it sing. If you overwrite, you can cloud the reader’s ability to understand what’s actually happening in the narrative.
  • New perspectives on familiar situations – As slush readers, we get to know and recognize several story types. Some that I see fairly often include:
    • the drug addict narrative
    • the troubled lover narrative
    • the war zone narrative
    • the Alzheimer’s narrative

It is not my intention to say that these types of stories are not important or relevant or that they shouldn’t be attempted or submitted anywhere. What I do intend to say is that these types of stories are common enough that it takes something really different to make us sit up and pay attention. It’s important to read a lot of fiction when you’re trying to make writing fiction your profession, and if you do that, you’re likely to become aware of what tends to show up in journals a lot. So the trick of getting, say, an Alzheimer’s story, published might be just to look at the situation from a perspective that’s different from the one that’s usually published in journals. Of course, this isn’t the only way to make a familiar type of story exciting, but it’s one way.

  • Fascinating characters with distinct voices – Here’s another way that good fiction is similar to real life: people want to spend time with people who interest them. If your character is boring to you, he will probably be boring to your reader. If your character is interesting – and this does not necessarily mean that he is likeable – your reader will want to find out what he does next. One fairly basic way to make a character interesting is simply to make him specific. The more unique and real a character seems to a reader, the more interested she will be in finding out what happens to him. A common issue slush readers see in submissions is vagueness of character. My theory is that a lot of writers think that a less specific character is easier to identify with because the reader can insert herself into the story. But in reality, what tends to happen is that the reader gets bored because she has nothing to identify with.

The best advice I can give to any writer, though, is the same as the best advice I ever got as a writer: write about what fascinates you. Write the stories that you want to read, but haven’t found yet. Write it the best way you know how to write it. If you’re excited about it, and you’ve done the best work you are able to do, the odds are that someone else will get excited about it, too. The biggest part of getting published, after ensuring that you’ve made your work as absolutely tight and polished as you possibly can, is just being persistent. Cast your proverbial net wide enough, and eventually you’ll catch some nice fish.

-Rachel


Rachel Wright is a PhD student in Creative Writing at Georgia State University. She has also studied at University College Dublin. Her work has appeared in The Stinging Fly and she was a semi-finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in 2009.

Photo by Brendan DeBrincat

2 thoughts on “Diary of a Slush Reader: The Search for “The One”

  1. “The forms you experiment with should function in the story, should make sense in the context of the narrative.”

    This is key. I recently passed on a story from the slush pile for this very reason. Although the writer did experiment with form, the form did not have any deeper relationship to the narrative (it wasn’t “active,” as you put it).

    It’s something I try to keep in mind myself.

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