Put Down the Slush Pile and Back Away Slowly! An Apex Rejection Theatre Production

For those who are not already aware, I have a tendency to talk, on Facebook, about the slush pile reading I do in my capacity as a submissions editor with Apex Magazine. I tend to do this early in the morning, and am generally possessed of snark. Most submissions editors/slush readers tend to talk about submissions–or, more accurately, vent about them–in some capacity. Though we all refrain from citing specifics, using titles, or naming anyone (because that would be mean, and violate both ethics and the editorial guidelines for pretty much every speculative magazine I can think of offhand).

It’s a thing.

And it is usually confined to one or two status updates when I do it. However, last night, reading through my corner of the Apex slush pile at around 5 in the morning, as you do, I ended up doing the equivalent of a partial LiveTweet of my reading.

And given that this ongoing stream of Apex reactions exists, I thought I would share the set of status updates with those of you I did not already inflict this on share this with. As a window into the wonderful world of slush pile reading.

A terrible, terrible window….

Ever wondered what slush pile reading generally looks like? Well, god help you, you can now see for yourself what it looks like when a reader with a low threshold for bullshit goes on a small tear (each paragraph below was an individual update):

God damn it. Have been looking at the same two stories in the Apex slush pile for a couple of weeks now (which should tell you something immediately since I usually reject an Apex story within 2-3 days, sometimes up to a week if I’m busy). Turning both of them over and looking at them from all angles, as it were. They’re both good on concept, and written by writers who know what they’re doing. But the writing just *isn’t* there yet, with either piece, and it’s absurdly frustrating. Because as leaner pieces, with more attention to prose and metre, as well as mild structural and worldbuilding fixes/cleanup, these would be things I would be recommending up. But as things stand, I absolutely can’t. Fucking hate it when that happens….

Well prospective Apex submitter, thanks ever so much for stating up front in your cover letter that you’re submitting that piece to multiple publications, in clear ignorance (willful or otherwise) of Apex’s policy against simultaneous submissions. It’s a good thing then that since we won’t be taking your appallingly written, thinly veiled pop culture/”hot button” issue polemic story that other people will have an opportunity to snap it up. Good times. Good times….

And sometimes you read an Apex submission and you think to yourself: “Wow are we not the market for this.” Not with malice, nor any ill will, really. You just recognize that the submitter chose the market because they like the market and misjudged whether or not their story lined up with what Apex runs. Happens a lot, actually. No matter how much anyone says “Read the market to see if your work fits” (which is excellent advice, nonetheless), fairly few people can judge, flawlessly, where their stories fit. If they could, we’d all sell everything we sent out to the first market we tried.

And then there are cover letters that tell me, by virtue of naming the last market a submitter sold to, that I know before I even open up the story that the story is going to be absolutely wrong for Apex. And it inevitably is not for us. Of course, sometimes that’s because of prose issues. Sometimes it’s because of structural curiosities and problems. And sometimes … sometimes it’s because you open up the story and it’s a dully written, golden age SF equivalent whose only claim to anything dark (or otherwise appropriate for Apex) is an undercurrent of lamentation for the things people don’t do anymore and a loss of connection, which is in and of itself vaguely antithetical to the golden age SF ideal–but that momentary disconnect between golden age SF gosh-gee-whiz-ma’am futurism and soporific/just-fucking-kill-me-now nostalgic meandering is balanced out by the presence of women in the story solely to be presented as objects–and sexualized/prize objects to boot. Hurray, your story fails the Sexy Lampshade Test, mister! [Edit: The proper name for this is the “Sexy Lamp Test,” as coined by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Error owing to 5 am posting, and what have you.] You’ve just won a free rejection! And I think we can all agree that that’s a case where *everyone* wins.

And on to 1980s style SF in the Apex slush pile. Well, at least we’re moving in the right direction? Still not right for Apex, but points for taking us out of the golden age of SF Apex submitter!

Oh give me a home, where the good stories roam, and the protags and secondaries are gay. Or lesbian. Or, really, any QUILTBAG orientation. It’s been ages since I’ve seen anything non-het protags in the Apex slush….

And then you open up another story, and you can’t even get far enough in to find out if there are any non-het characters in the story because the prose just makes you want to headdesk. Also, seriously, seeing a lot of SF in the Apex slush tonight. Unusual, if interesting. Though more in the “Why are we getting so much SF this week?” vein rather than an “Ooh, I am intrigued by your story. Tell me more of your protagonists and their valiant/fraught/otherwise engaging struggles.” vein. Just to be clear. Because I feel clarity can only be achieved through repetition. And bluntness. And small, oddly constructed sentences, paired off against run-on sentences. The last submission told me so. And the last submission is never wrong. Until the next one arrives, of course.

And in the final story of tonight’s Apex slush pile (no, I didn’t cover them all–consider yourself spared) I would like to introduce you to my friends Bob and George, who will be performing under pseudonyms to protect the innocent. Also the potential careers of the actors unfortunate enough to be roped into tonight’s performance. Said performance will involve interpretive dance, sitting in for proper prose. Humorous interaction. Handwavy biology in service of humour. Did I mention humour? And a story that is overall reminiscent of the works of Grendel Briarton, or Reginald Bretnor as he was non-pseudonymously known. One of the few writers in genre who could get away with stories that were vehicles for truly disastrous, appalling puns. (Show me someone else who could have gotten away with publishing flash fiction in F&SF under Ferman with punch lines like “[it was] a furry with a syringe on top”–no, seriously, good luck with that.) That time will never come again. I believe specifically because SFWA voted in a proclamation stating that if there ever were to be another Bretnor practicing in the field the membership would hunt him down, tie him to a stake, and set him alight using the wealth of his own unpublished mass of flash fiction pun stories as fuel. I may be paraphrasing that decree–it’s been a while. But you get the gist of the thing.

This edition of Apex Rejection Theatre has been brought to you by alcohol. Because god I could do with some after tonight’s round of reading. And this was not, by any stretch of imagination, the worst set of things I’ve seen. This batch was tame. Just wait until we hit serial killer, cannibal, or cannibal serial killer season again. (For those of you who are wondering, they tend to show up more frequently in summer. Not sure why.) In the meantime, stay tuned for next week’s performance, to be hosted, by popular demand, by the risen ghost of Alistair Cooke.

Now, none of that should dissuade you from submitting to Apex. Nor anywhere else. (There are more than a dozen submissions editors at Apex right now–the odds of your story being assigned to me are mercifully slim.)

And, no, I will not be doing this with the slush for the QUILTBAG anthologies. I will be highlighting things that I would like to see more of, and/or commenting on the kind of things I’m seeing in the slush pile. Apex Rejection Theatre (that title only appeared last night, but it may make future appearances) exists because the slush pile at Apex contains some truly terrifying things at times, and thus provides excellent entertainment value. Also, I’m less likely to be in the same country as the Apex submitters, and thus there is a smaller chance they will decide to hunt me down and kill me for ragging on their work (international borders tending to be excellent discouragement for this kind of thing).

Survival instinct for the win!

Also, those of you who are back and forth on submitting your fiction to magazines, or discouraged about doing so? Just send it. Honestly, you have at least some chance of seeing your work in print if you submit. If you never submit, you’re absolutely never going to see it in print–because no one knows it exists. Which is quite sad, really. And I speak for all editors (except the ones who are not me) when I say that we would all like to see your work, rather than not, and at least have a chance of deciding if we want it or not for whatever projects we’re working on.

And this statement goes hand in hand with the understanding that when you submit, be prepared to hear how an editor thinks you’re going to need to fix your story. Editors are there to help put your story into the best possible shape. Though, fair warning, if you’re subbing to Apex, the policy is that we’re only looking at taking things that are as close to being ready as possible–there simply isn’t time to do massive developmental work on a bevy of stories given Apex‘s production schedule. Some developmental/clean-up work, sure. But only a little. And that’s true for most pro-rate and semi-pro magazines, but it varies from venue to venue.

So polish your pieces until you think you can polish them no more. And then take it well when an editor still finds things to fix. That’s the way of submissions. (It’s a very zen thing, really.) The work is never done, and you cannot flawlessly edit your own work.

Now go. Go submit. And much luck.

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