I had heard from several reliable sources** that being a slush reader was helpful in learning how to be a better writer, so when Cat Rambo, the fiction editor for Fantasy Magazine, posted that she was looking for volunteer slush readers, I applied for the job right away. Apparently lots of other people had heard the same things I had heard, because she got lots of applications and didn't choose me, but in a completely awesome move Cat recommended me to Neil Clarke, who then asked me some questions of his own and included me in the Clarkesworld crew. :)
In the last month, I've read 124 submissions, and recommended maybe a dozen or so to Neil for publication, and one of my recommendations was the first from the latest round of submissions to be accepted.*** I'm almost as proud as if I'd written the story myself! Clarkesworld only publishes twelve stories from the slush pile each year, one in each monthly issue. There's a lot of competition to get in. Clarkesworld slush readers aren't allowed to submit stories there, so I have no direct advantage in getting my own stories published. Indirectly, though... I'm learning more than I expected even after hearing that this would be so helpful.
It's been a revelation for me to see the variety of stories that are submitted. I will never go into detail about submissions I read, but I will write general posts about the experience, and I think I'll try to break it into posts about different elements of writing. I'm trying to explain this stuff to myself as I go along.
Here's the range I've seen. Truly abysmal stories don't come in all that often, but we do get them. Those are the stories that have poorly constructed sentences, flimsy ideas, and/or plots that are not just predictable, but copied from existing B-movies. Better than that are the stories by people who are clearly trying, but aren't getting the right effect yet. Some of those indicate that their authors have a lot of potential but need practice. Both of those groups are likely to arrive not in standard manuscript format, with unprofessional cover letters and erratic spelling, grammar, and punctuation. The majority of the stories I've seen have been competent--written well, submitted professionally--but lacking something that would make them amazing. The absolutely stellar stories are more rare than the awful ones, but they make all of the reading worthwhile. Those last two groups are the stories I really want to understand. What is the difference between competent and stellar? The authors are writing with the same language, so what is it that makes one story okay and the other great? I know it when I see it, but I want to comprehend it. I feel very lucky to have this opportunity to read slush. Regardless of the quality of the stories, I respect all of the authors for having the courage to submit their work, and I hope they can all achieve their goals.
Watch for more posts on this subject! I hope to be able to share something that the competent authors can use, if I can begin to understand it better myself.
*Slush refers to stories submitted to the magazine through the open submissions route, as opposed to the solicited manuscripts route.
**As in authors who totally rock, such as Tim Powers and Elizabeth Bear.
***That's "The Jisei of Mark VIII" by Berrien Henderson.