(This was originally posted on the Apex Magazine blog in 2009.)
Just like every other writer out there, I’m always on the look out for things that will improve my fiction. Whether it be advice in a writer’s magazine, inspiring tips in a how-to-write book by a favorite author, or a variety of websites, critique groups, or outside inspiration, there is always something new to learn. Slushing, however, is one of the best sources for insight into improvement.
All authors seem to make similar mistakes, and I’m no exception—I see myself rejecting stories for things I know I have in my own fiction. That’s why I began making this list, and why I’m sharing it with you.
1. If it’s Science Fiction or Fantasy, does it have some hint of that in the first page or two? Time and time again, I see stories in which the speculative element doesn’t appear until more than half-way through the story. In almost all of the stories I’ve seen pass through our ranks to the second or third reading, you know almost immediately it’s SF/F/Horror. It doesn’t have to be blunt: even a subtle foreshadowing or the perspective of the POV character can insinuate that this is sf/f/h before you have so much as mention an alien, a dragon, or a deranged serial killer.
2. Is it a “Surprise Ending”? Surprise endings almost never work, and it’s not because they can be predictable. The story has to spend its bulk leading up to the “shocking surprise” at the end, usually to the detriment of the tale itself. It’s an inefficient structure weighted too heavily on the finish, which is usually the best part of the “surprise” story. The problem is that the idea presented in the finale should have been the idea explored throughout the story, instead of being tucked away at the end.
3. Is the setting well-thought-out and developed, even if the story is set in modern-day? This may be a slightly more personal preference, but most of the stories I’ve seen pass through from slush to second and third readings are stories with rich backdrops. This doesn’t mean they spend paragraphs describing the landscape or the society—in fact, it’s usually the opposite. Most of the backdrop is revealed through the characters as they live—the background (as strange as it might be) is as natural to them, and as intricately connected to them, as our environment is to us. How often do we stop to consider the impact of having to have at least three meals a day due to the structure of our digestive system? Our lives revolve around this means of gaining energy, but we don’t think about it because it’s so engrained in who we are. Meanwhile an alien visitor who absorbs energy from light might find all the technology, architecture, and instruments involved in our breakfast/lunch/dinner lifestyle very odd indeed.
4. Do the characters act realistically? This is, of course, always a point of debate between writers and readers, from what I’ve seen, but it is still an issue I find often jarring while slushing. If the first instinct of a reader, upon witnessing your character do something, is to sit back and say “What?!” there’s something inconsistent in the way the character has been presented. Either the action needs to change, or there needs to be a hint earlier that the character is fully “in character” when they perform the action.
5. Is the tense correct? Over and over I see mistakes with tense. Stories which begin in present tense often fall back into past tense irregularly, which makes the story look (and read) as though it’s been poorly edited. And it’s not just in present tense stories, either. I’ve seen past tense stories that flop all over the place with tense. I’ve done it often enough myself to realize it’s worth mentioning here.
So there’s a taste of a few things I’ve learned while slushing. There are, of course, many more smaller things, but these ones stuck out in my head the most, because I see them so often—both in my own writing as well as the slush pile.