Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Freak Filter

Part of being an assistant editor means reading slush. "Slush" is the pile of unsolicited story manuscripts publishers receive from hopeful authors. It's not a pretty name; it's not generally a glorious pursuit. Slush sits in the assistant editor's inbox, dribbling memetic juices all over your mind-space. It occasionally belches, but it doesn't need to. It makes its presence known through sheer virtual weight. That is, Slush is ever-present in your mind as something to do, something that will never get done, a taxing, burdensome, obese thing that drags at your thoughts and threatens your sanity.

But occasionally, you come up with some real gems. Lo'ihi Rising from issue 15, for example—drawn from the slush pile by diligent slush delver, Sara Ellis. Or The Absence of Stars—winner of the Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press Award, and also dredged up by Sara Ellis.

We've been trimming the slush pile recently at IGMS. It's looking almost svelte, now. While I'm taking a brief break from reading slush, I thought I'd compose this to let hopeful authors out there know what we, the assistant editors of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, hope to find as we push through the slush pile. Also, what we hope NOT to find.

Scott M. Roberts

I like fiction in which the protagonist is capable and active. Even if it's a tragic story of death, sadness, and woe, the protagonist should be out there either fighting against the Bad Stuff, or actively pushing more Bad Stuff to occur. I have little patience for protagonists whose only contribution to the story is to be sympathetic and abused.

Speaking of abuse—there's a definite limit to how much I can stomach. If you choose to make your protagonist a serial killer, you had better bring some major writing chops along with that axe and buzz saw. It takes pages of really excellent writing to make up for the bad karma of one explicit scene of violence.

I give stories about a page and a half. Within those 375 words, I look for a clear conflict; a sympathetic or engaging protagonist; and competent writing. It's a matter of economy: I'm looking for stories that engage my interest quickly because I don't have a lot of time.

I like experimental prose, to a point. The device must serve the story: if your story is clearer because of the experimental style, then I welcome it.

Much of what I see in the slush pile is grim, gritty, or grisly. Want to stand out in the slush? Be funny.

Bad dialog will get you rejected faster than just about any other element. I am looking for dialog that reveals character. Note that this is more than just indicating that a character is Southern by having them use the word 'y'all,' or by dropping the –g in gerunds. Writing in dialect, especially if the narrator is a participant in the culture that uses the dialect, is liable to get you rejected. Remember, British people don't think they have an accent, and Irish writers rarely write Irish characters as having a hunky brogue.

Eric James Stone

What I like to see: Stories that do a good job of examining X in the question "What if X?" Stories with likeable characters facing overwhelming odds and finding an unexpected way to succeed. Stories in which the protagonists are willing to sacrifice themselves (and sometimes must actually do so) for the good of others. Stories that are funny.

What I don't like to see: Stories with main characters who do not engage my interest. Stories that take too long to get to the main plot. Stories that go from Point A to Point B without any twists along the way. Stories that fizzle out instead of bang at the climax.

What kind of stories I pass on [to the Editor-in-Chief]: Stories that make me think about cool ideas I never thought of before. Stories with engaging characters doing interesting things. Stories that keep me reading all the way to the end because I want to know what happens next.

Sara Ellis

I like stories that surprise me. I don't mind if a cliché is used, if there is a neat twist. What makes your vampire/werewolf/sorcerer's apprentice/space colonists story different from all the others? I once got a mutinous murder on a spacecraft story (cliché), but told from the perspective of a sanitation robot (twist!). I like detail, that makes the character/world real to me.

I like caring about the point of view characters, even if they are flawed. Why are they flawed? I hate stock villains. Villains you can empathize with, even just partially, are always more effective. I also love the themes of sacrifice, honor, redemption, and breaking/questioning tradition. I am inexplicably partial to stories about robots, empathetic monsters, and adolescent boys going through tough times.

I love captivating first paragraphs, and dislike impotent last lines. For most short stories, you have two pages to capture my attention. Do not waste these on exposition. Do not throw away first paragraphs with exposition. I like being shown why or how a character is a certain way, as opposed to simply being told. I like natural, realistic dialogue that comes across as sincere, as opposed to being convenient to move the plot along. I do not mind stylized, snappy, or
humorous dialogue if it fits in with the story and is creative.

One of my biggest turn offs in a story is when female characters are only described physically, or always initially described physically just because they are women. Especially when this only goes as far as letting us know she has great breasts. I hate stock beautiful women in a story that are not fleshed out (ha!). Violence and exploitation of female characters that is not important to the core of the story is a big pet peeve. It usually comes off as lazy or, uh, exploitative.

I also do not like stories where it feels like important or clarifying information is being withheld so it will feel like a surprise or a twist later. Being confused makes me impatient. Another minor thing that pulls me out of a story is "shoutouts." Shout outs to favorite bands, television shows, writers, etc. that are not integral to the plot. It doesn't usually ruin a story, but it often pulls me right out.

I like stories that make me feel passionate about how it will all end.

--Scott M. Roberts, Asst. Editor