Tuesday, May 1, 2012

It Came from the Slush Pile

It is now about half-way through the reading period for the annual Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword & Sorceress anthology–the deadline is Saturday, May 12. This year it's number 27, or–as it will no doubt be on the book cover–XXVII. I'm getting very tired of Roman numerals. I'm also guessing the original use of Roman numerals means that Don Wollheim didn't expect the anthology to go on as long as it did. It has now outlived both him and Marion and is well into its third decade.

Marion loved reading slush. Raul, who picked up the mail on his way to work every morning, used to complain that she should at least say "good morning" before her demand "Is there any mail?" He finally managed to get "good-morning-Raul-is-there-any-mail?"

My job was to keep track of everything, and when it was all paper that was a big job. I can remember times when my bedroom had multiple stacks of manuscripts and different sized SASEs (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelopes). Yes, Marion had an office, but things were less likely to be knocked over and strewn across the floor in my bedroom. Electronic submissions are wonderful.

Actually the computer makes editing the anthology much easier. I have a spreadsheet, where I keep track of submission and their disposition, and a folder in the e-mail account where any submission that follows the guidelines will land automatically. So every day I open up the spreadsheet, go to the "Anthology-To Be Read" folder in the mailbox, and log in the submissions. Then I start reading them.

One of the most frequent reasons for rejecting a story is that I didn't care about the characters. This doesn't mean that it's a bad story or that another editor won't like it; it just means I'm not buying it for Sword & Sorceress. Marion had a rejection she called "convenient earthquake" for these, but I really don't think it's helpful to tell a writer that you don't care if an earthquake swallows up their characters on the last page. Given that a secondary goal of the Sword & Sorceress anthologies is to encourage new writers, I try to make my rejections less brutal than Marion's.


Another pretty much automatic rejection is for bad grammar. If I'm continually pulled out of the story by the fact that the writer has no clue how to use commas, I'm not going to buy it. If you want to be a writer, learn how to write! I'm an editor, not an English teacher. I strongly recommend The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. I have that, as well as The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed with easy reach on the shelf above my computer.

A third major class of rejections are the stories that I read through to the end and then go "Ewwwww!" I know dystopian fiction is popular these days, but if I like your characters enough to follow them all the way through the story, I don't want something horrible to happen to them on the last page.

Every year, however, I find stories that I love in the slush pile: stories with new ideas and stories with a new twist on old ideas. I find new writers who will be among my favorites for years to come. These are the times when I love my job. And these are the stories that will, God willing, keep me editing Sword & Sorceress into its fourth decade.

Sword and Sorceress 26–as well as volumes 22 through 25–are available from Amazon.com, Kobo, and Kindle. We hope to make volumes 1 through 21 available again too, but that's a long-term project.