By Rachel Funari

As a one-time assistant editor for a leading commercial genre magazine, thanks to the slush pile, if I never read another mystery story, I will not feel the less for it. “Slush” is the inside term for unsolicited manuscripts, and slush stories are, for the most part, unoriginal, sloppily written, and messily presented. When I began as an assistant editor, I read the manuscripts, for poor quality of writing aside, I do have a flourishing sense of curiosity, and it masqueraded as a feeling of generosity toward struggling writers. But I soon figured out that I was not helping anyone by continuing on with the stories because my initial negative feelings towards manuscripts were always confirmed, and potential authors would probably prefer a prompt response to an unnecessary read, for I was not reading the manuscripts fast enough to uphold the promise of a three-month response time. By the end of my time with the magazine, I barely read most of the manuscripts and writers heard from me within three months.

Rejecting manuscripts is not pleasurable. Being a writer myself, I’ve received my share of rejection notices, so I empathize with writers who take the risk and send in their work. But, as an editor, I learned that, though most submissions magazines receive are of poor quality, good ones can get passed by if the presentation is not professional, publishing etiquette is not followed, and simple common sense and courtesy are not shown.

The process of manuscript evaluation varies. Some editors read all of the slush manuscripts; others pass the pile over to their assistants. In many cases, your story will never even get to the editor unless you get an agent to send in your story for you, you write in your cover letter that you’ve published four novels or that in 1972 you had a story published in this magazine and are just now getting around to trying it again, or you are already a regularly contributing author. These accolades will help your manuscript avoid the slush pile altogether, but they will not get your submission accepted. You probably won’t even end up with a faster response. What you will most likely get is a personal rejection letter rather than a form letter, a letter of generally two or three lines which says, “Thanks for submitting, I enjoyed it, but it isn’t what we’re looking for right now.”
try us again” or “best of luck elsewhere.” Probably, avoiding the slush pile gets you a much more careful read, but if your story isn’t right or good enough, it isn’t going to get picked. Definitely feel gratified to get the personal rejection letter’it means that you can write, you came close, but just not close enough, or else you hit it right on, but this is just not the kind of story this magazine prints.

Imagine receiving a bulging and tattered business-sized envelope, bursting because a thirteen-page story is folded in thirds and stuffed into it. There is no cover letter, no SASE, no title, the manuscript has been typed on a 40-year-old manual typewriter, and as a means of editing his story, the unfortunate author has taped scraps of paper with corrected sections of type over the story, so that it looks like a ransom note. Hello, common sense! This is not what you want your submission to look like. If you stick to the following guidelines, your manuscript has a good chance of not becoming the joke of the day at the editorial offices.

Cover letters: Do tell your previous publication history. This information can help an editor to know how to judge the enclosed story: is it competing with the manuscripts of regularly published authors or with the other slush authors for the spot of a first-published story? (You’re better off competing for the latter as your competition isn’t anywhere near as stiff.) As for the rest’who you are, how long you’ve been reading the magazine, how you’ve just come to writing now that you are retired’all that is gravy. The importance of the cover letter is that it looks professional and reads well: if you can’t put a decent sentence together in your cover letter, it is likely that you can’t do it in your story either. Do not ask for writers’ guidelines in the cover letter of your submission. You should have wanted them before you decided to submit. And avoid the line ‘I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.’ If you had so much fun writing it, then you probably weren’t working hard enough to produce a good story. Not to mention that it is a very unoriginal line.

The packaging: Do enclose a SASE, business-sized, if you do not want your manuscript returned — not a postcard, not an e-mail address, not a small envelope. And do affix the stamps or else they are likely to get lost. Do write in your cover letter that you have enclosed a SASE. This way, if your manuscript is found without a SASE, it will be assumed that the office lost it and you will be sent a response anyway. Do tell if your manuscript is disposable or not. If you do want your manuscript returned, enclose an 8×11 envelope (at least).

Do not fold your manuscript into a business-sized envelope no matter how short it is so that it can nicely fit into a flat pile if need be. Do not print your story out on fancy paper or send fancy envelopes or use fancy fonts — don’t make an editor put your manuscript down because her eyes hurt. Don’t send more than one story at a time or in close succession. Though many magazines do accept multiple submissions, if an editor doesn’t like your first or second stories, is she likely to give your third and fourth their careful due? Do not Express Mail your manuscript: it seems arrogant or obsessive. Do not send artwork with your story unless asked for. It won’t be used and you may get it back with coffee or blood stains (paper cuts).

Of course, you can do everything right, but professionalism does not a good writer make. When I went to writers’ conferences and symposiums, I continually heard laments from aspiring writers that the publishing industry does not look favorably upon new authors. As assistant to an editor who could not find enough new authors to publish, I know that the editor isn’t the problem. Ask yourself why you want to be a writer. If you don’t read, if you don’t think language is amazing, and if you don’t see writing as a craft in itself rather than as a means to an end, then you probably shouldn’t be writing.

The one overriding aspect that I have distinguished between the stories I recommended and the stories I rejected is that the former ‘show’ a story, whereas the latter only ‘tell’ a story. It is difficult to articulate what this means, but it has to do with skill and talent. Most slush stories follow patterns that jumble together the following basic elements: a description of characters’ physical features, an explanation of their pasts, a description of their personalities, and unrealistic dialogue indicating the relationships between characters. Good stories, or novels for that matter, do not rely upon a narrator explaining a character to the reader, but show personality through interaction and reaction, reveal characters’ pasts through their present thoughts and emotions, intersperse descriptions of setting and time throughout the story, and create suspense through gradated revelation as to a characters’ motivations and personality quirks.

The stories that were sent to my office were mainly about the same one-dimensional characters: the abused wife obsessed with cleaning, the husband who kills his wife because she’s gone to fat, the stereotypical mobster, and let’s not forget the drunk, fat, ex-policeman, snidely-comic private detective who has to figure out the illegal mess the husband of a beautiful, blond, buxom woman has gotten into. All of these characters are boring because they aren’t real people. Successful stories are about the same types of characters, but they are people with compulsions and neuroses and subtleties and contradictions. They are caught in worlds they don’t understand, forced into situations they have no answers for, made desperate by people they love, made obsessive by people that have no room for them. No matter whether your story is about an ordinary person or an extraordinary one, your voice needs to be unique, your character whole and full, your storytelling revelatory and involved, your reason for telling this story clear and revealed. Otherwise, why should I read it? When you sit down to write, you should ask yourself, Why must I tell this story? Why must my character be the hero or anti-hero of this story? What do I have to say about this story, or this life, or this world that needs me to write it? What is my point? If you can’t answer these questions, then you shouldn’t be writing the story. And if this is the case, then all above advice is moot.

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