Thursday, July 29, 2010

Windy Words of Advice from a Writer Turned Editor

By Dario Ciriello

Everything you've read about slushpile readers and editors is true. Not only must you keep from drowning, but you have to make good decisions too. How does an editor do it?

When I put out the anthology call for Panverse One in May of 2009, I was flooded with twenty stories in the first week, fifty by the end of the month. And not just stories, but novellas of between 15k and 40k words; worse, since I’ve always railed against slow response times, I’d stated right up front on our guidelines page that I’d always respond to subs within 30 days.

Fortunately I’m a fast learner—and a fast reader-- and figured out how to live up to my promise and get through my slushpile quickly. Everything below is my approach, but I suspect that most editors operate in a very similar manner. Here's what you need to know to give you the best chance of selling that story.

To survive, any slushpile reader or editor must learn to triage. Here’s how I do it:

When a story comes in, I send an immediate acknowledgment and glance at it in HTML before I even download it. You really can tell a lot from the first few paragraphs: if they show poor writing, or tell me this isn't within my guidelines, I mark it for rejection.

If the first paragraphs are okay, but there's no clear hook or something to grab me, I'll skip ahead a few pages. Often the story quickly emerges as dull or with fatal flaws in plot logic or world building; sometimes the premise is unlikely; or the writer shows they only know Science Fiction from TV or movies, are channeling the most tired sort of Sword and Sorcery, or have made no effort at owning their world. Bounce.

It's true: the first glance at a story is a brutal one—the editor’s looking for a reason to bounce it. But the reason an editor does this is so that they can focus their attention on those stories that deserve it. In fourteen months and almost 400 submissions, of which I’ve accepted just thirteen, I’ve found that only about ten percent of submissions need to be read to the end to make a call.

Many writers would think that’s unfair: “You didn’t give the story a chance! Things really start happening on page such-and-such!” Sorry. If the story doesn’t grab the reader at the very beginning and hold them to the end, the story ain’t working. Period.

But bear in mind that holding a reader’s attention doesn’t necessarily mean a breathless, action-packed opening. An intriguing character or situation will work. Sometimes a writer’s voice alone can grab a reader. The opening lines of Janice’s own The Shifter, illustrate this point perfectly.

Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack and make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don’t like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it’s close. And they squawk something terrible.

Simply put, my single most important criterion for acceptance is story. If a story grabs me and makes it hard for me to put it down, and the author doesn't screw up beyond what light editing can fix, they probably have a sale. We read to be entertained, to be taken out of the here-and-now for an hour or a day. Tell me a story.

That’s the procedural stuff.

Another thing which editors often say, and which I now grasp to be true: you often don't know in advance what you want until they see it. This can get tricky when you’re faced with a well-written and highly publishable story that you personally like a lot. It can get trickier still because an anthology, unlike a novel, is a moving target: each story you accept shapes the whole, so that as the slots fill up, the balance between the individual stories in an anthology becomes a factor in the editor’s mind.

Finally, it's also clear to me that when editors say that they really DO want to find a nugget of gold in the slushpile.... it's entirely true. Sending an author, especially a new author, an acceptance, or asking for a rewrite and having the story come back with its issues resolved and in great shape, is a golden moment: as a writer myself, I know how that author feels; as an editor, I can promise you that if we appear hard at the front end of the process, it’s so we can reward those authors who really merit it, and give readers stories that will make them remember that author’s name.

A few extra tips:

Read a publication’s guidelines. This is so important, yet a blinding number of writers who submit stories clearly don’t.

Cover letters. With a story (as opposed to a novel), I have to say that these are essentially useless. The best are short, polite and to the point, just a line or two including the name of the story, maybe that it’s unpublished, and a closing line. No cover at all is fine. The worst thing you can do in a story cover—and so many do it, entirely ignoring our guidelines—is tell me what the story is about. Nor do I want to know the author’s life story or the genesis of the story itself. Publication credits? Keep them very brief, but know they don’t influence me one whit. Nothing you put in a cover will improve the chances of acceptance; but it is possible to annoy an editor a good deal with a rambling, boastful, or fawning cover.

To conclude, here’s a checklist; it’s far from complete, but if you can honestly answer yes to every item, I’d say you’ve got a far better chance than most of getting a sale. Good luck!
  • Does your story meet the publication’s subject guidelines?
  • Have you observed their formatting requirements?
  • Have you proofed your work carefully? (Don’t rely on spellcheck!)
  • Is your cover letter short and polite?
  • Does the opening contain a hook?
  • Do you open with story rather than backstory?
  • Have you cut all unnecessary backstory?
  • Is there enough setting description in each scene to ground the reader?
  • Is there credible and sufficient character motivation to drive the plot?
  • Do the stakes start high and rise as the story progresses?
  • Does the antagonist get the breaks while the protagonist has to use their wits and fight for every inch?
  • Are you engaging all the reader’s senses?
  • Does each line of dialogue advance the plot, reveal character, impart information, or (even better) do several of these things?
  • Does each scene serve a purpose? Is the ending satisfying?
  • Does it resolve the primary conflict?

Dario Ciriello is a graduate of Clarion West 2002 with a number of short stories published. In mid-2009 he founded Panverse Publishing, a small press focused primarily on novellas and with a mission to publish new, pro-level authors. Panverse’s first volume, an all-original novella anthology titled ‘Panverse One’, received several excellent reviews in venues such as Locus and Asimov’s Science Fiction. A second title, ‘Eight Against Reality’, has just been released, and ‘Panverse Two’ is due to be published in September. For more information, please visit the Panverse website.


  1. None of my work is currently ready for submission, but you have certainly given me some good information to hold in mind for when it is.
    Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Lydia and Brad! And good luck with your own writing.

  3. Thanks Dario for the great advice. I especially found helpful how detailed it was.

  4. Hi Dario,

    As someone who has gotten a very kind rejection letter from you, I appreciate the advice. I particularly like the checklist.

    I'm curious to know what you think of The Four Danger Signs To Search For, an io9 post on sci-fi writing:

  5. Thanks, Natalie and William!

    William, thanks for pointing me at that. Generally, I'd agree, and Janice covered similar territory not long ago. Oddly, her post just yesterday has some really great thoughts on using adverbs as flags to deeper issues:

  6. Thanks very much, Dario.

    An excellent presentation and summary.

    Best of fortune with Panverse! :-)

    Sincerely, Paul C

  7. Very helpful. Thanks, Dario!

  8. Thanks, PC and Satima--glad you found it useful. Write on! :)

  9. Thanks Dario! Fun to hear an editor's perspective (and help me out in a busy week to boot!)

  10. You're so welcome, Janice--thank YOU! It was fun :)