As of this morning, I've read 3,357 story submissions for Clarkesworld Magazine. It's not a nice, round, significant number, but it's a big one. I started to build up that number on September 20, 2008. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the slush. Or, um, something quite the opposite of "glory." In most cases.
Because I am here for you, I'm going to share five things I've learned from reading the slush pile. I'm not going to stop at just telling you, either. I take these things so seriously that I'm going to apply them to MY OWN SELF.
1. I want you to succeed. I can't speak for all slush readers, but I think many of them feel the same way. I write blogs like this one because I hope to help you get published. I admire you when you keep trying. I remember the stories that didn't quite work out, but had a lot of potential. When that happens, I look forward to reading the next story that writer sends in. The next four items in this list are all about how to make the next one better.
2. Remove the backstory. Unless there's NO CHANCE of the reader understanding without some background, really, really don't keep all of that backstory at the beginning of your story. Ideally, it should be shown in small doses later, if at all. Those first three to five pages of not much happening are often the only pages that get read when a story is in the slush pile. A story doesn't have to start with explosions, but it should draw the reader in, and make her curious. A big lecture at the beginning pushes the reader out. My top reason for rejecting stories is: "The story begins too slowly."
3. Let the ending be complete. Abrupt endings are unsatisfying. By "abrupt," I mean that things are happening, characters are acting, and then they suddenly stop, and it's over. The story doesn't give any sense of what has changed for the character, or any suggestion of how things might go on from this point. Why did the character just do all of those things she did in the story? Did she get what she wanted? Or did the result of her efforts turn out to be disappointing? Even an open-ended story should give the reader some clues; there should be things to ponder, different opinions to form about what just happened and how it might affect the character. If a slush story has been good enough for me to read all the way to the end, an abrupt ending can be anywhere from frustrating to heartbreaking.
4. There's a connection between the beginning and the ending. What you're doing in a story is taking a character in one state, at the beginning, through the steps necessary to reach another state, at the ending. Think about a news story, with its ideal explanation of who, what, when, where, and why. I'm going to put them in a different order. Who is this character, and when and where is she located? What does this character want? Why does she want it? Who and/or what is stopping her from getting it at first, and what does she do to get it? And then there are two important additions: Does she get it? Whether she does or she doesn't, how does she feel about that? It doesn't matter what structure you use to answer those questions, but those are the things a curious reader would like to know. If you want to be really thorough, think about this, too: Who is telling the story, why is she telling it, and when is she telling it? That could help with your point of view choice.
5. A person who has read thousands of story submissions doesn't have any patience left. I'm very sorry, but it's true. I get fidgety. I've read the beginning of so many stories, and I've seen so many of the common ideas that come through, and I've been so disappointed by stories that started well but ended badly. You might not believe the enthusiasm I feel when a story shows me something new, something expressed beautifully, with ideas thought through so that I don't get distracted by implausibility. I LOVE an excellent short story. I have low tolerance for a mediocre one. If you're dedicated to writing and publishing short stories, please read the best ones you can regularly, and study them. Know what effect you're trying to achieve with your story, and do your best to achieve it. Don't try to polish the same story forever; do your best with it and send it out, and then write another one. But continue to read and learn as you go on.