How to Stand Out from the Slush Pile
By Kami McArthur
I’ve had the opportunity to navigate the slush piles of a couple of writing contests, so today, I’d like to offer some advice on how to get your story out of one. For these contests, I read the first 1-3 pages of a submission, and then decided whether to reject it, or hold onto it for further evaluation. This is a list I made after I navigated my first slush pile.
Your story’s starting:
1. Make sure you follow the proper manuscript formatting. For the contest I'm working on, a template of the proper format was available for download. Nonetheless, the majority of submissions don't follow it. Some people don't indent paragraphs, don't even have paragraphs, or use weird fonts etc. Don't add pictures to your manuscript—keep it simple and professional. Save and send it in the proper electronic format, which for us was a pdf or word document.
For this contest, if the story wasn’t formatted correctly, it was immediately rejected.
2. I have 1-3 pages to judge whether or not your story makes it out of the slush pile. Make sure by the end of the second page (preferably on the first page) I know who your character is, what the setting is, and that I have read some conflict. Otherwise, it’s rejected..
Setting in particular seems to get left out. I’ve read scenes where the setting is never even hinted at—I don’t know if the characters are in a hospital, a bar, or a circus.
3. Use character names. Too many new authors “hide” their characters’ names. A bunch of vague pronouns doesn’t help me figure out who is doing what. Ex: "He (who?) held his hand over his (his own mouth or someone else’s?) mouth. The chief (is this “he” or a different person?) couldn't believe this was happening. He (the chief?) struggled. Then the man (the “he,” “chief,” or someone else?) forced the hand away from his (whose mouth?) mouth.”—who is doing what? How many people are there?
4. Don't open your story with a dream. It's such a letdown. One submission I read was really good, and I was going to let it advance, and I got to the end of the second page and the first two pages were a dream! Don't even open your story with a short dream. It's too cliché in the slush pile. If you NEED a dream in it, don't do it in the first two pages.
5. Make sure your character is actually doing something on the first page. Make sure there is action, movement, and better yet, make sure there is conflict. Too many submissions start with a character just sitting and thinking about something, usually something that happened in the past.
If possible, have at least two characters interacting in the first scene. It's way more interesting than the 50 other stories that start with one character thinking.
6. Avoid flashbacks. Number 5 is usually paired with something like this: "It all started a month ago," or "Maybe I should start at the beginning," or "This all started last week." –and then the story goes back to the real “starting” or some sort of flashback. If that is where the story started, start there, and then you won't have to tell me “how it started.” I'll see it.
7. Don't start with a character running away from something really vague. There are way too many stories that start this way. It might sound like a cool opening, but after you’ve read 12 of them, you realize it’s not as cool as you first thought.
8. Don't start with a long “telling” explanation of something, like "The city was surrounded by mountains, and we were told to never leave the city. The mountains have been around since the beginning of time when the gods got angry and decided to keep us locked up in one place. Back when my grandmother was alive, she used to tell me stories about people who left the city and never returned...(on for 1 1/2 pages)" While this info might be interesting, I don't have a clue where the protagonist is, or what he or she is doing. There's no immediacy. I'm just being told information. The slush pile is loaded with this opening. At least give me like a page of something concrete and immediate before “explaining,” or “telling” me something.
9. Don't start a story with your character waking up on an ordinary day doing ordinary stuff. Again, that's not really where the story starts. But too many stories start there.
10. Avoid purple prose. First off, if you can write detail that appeals to the senses, do it, because too many submissions are missing strong imagery in the opening. If you can write striking metaphors or similes, put one in the opening also. But don’t go overboard. I read one submission that took a paragraph to describe one action about ten different ways. Only about two things actually happened on the first page.
11. Don't submit your writing exercises as a story. I've seen a few submissions that I think were supposed to be practice exercises--like that exercise in creative writing classes where you have to try to describe something without saying what it is, or where you use only dialogue to tell a story. Those are great exercises, but (in most cases) they shouldn't be sent in as professional pieces.
12. Don't include a bunch of pointless info about your character. Reading two paragraphs about how your character's choice of music is different than his mom's isn't going to help me get to know your character, and it's not important unless your story involves music (in the case of this submission, it didn’t).
Some people try to “find” their character by giving them too many quirks and random details etc. But those are only the surface of the character—instead try to focus on how your character changes in your story, and what you need to establish first to show that change.
13. Follow the submission guidelines. In our case, they state that the story should be appropriate for a general audience. That means that the story that starts with people having an affair and uses the f-word about 12 times in the first page is probably out.
14. Use correct English and spelling. Watch for anything that sounds awkward.
15. Unless otherwise stated or inappropriate, do state your writing credentials somewhere—a cover letter, query letter, or just the body of an email. Even minor writing credentials put a better flavor in the editor's mouth because they imply you have some idea of what you are doing.
Above all, use correct formatting, start with immediacy (not explanation), and have the setting, character, and conflict established in the first 1-2 pages. That will put in you in the top 10-20% of the submissions I’ve been going through!
Also, keep in mind that great writers have broken a lot of these rules, but unless you are a prodigy or a well-established writer, avoid breaking the rules I’ve listed.
Good luck! And if you would like more information on how to write the starting of your story so that it gets out of the slush pile, you can check out the book Hooked by Les Edgerton.