The Slush Pile: Where Reading Starts to Hurt

This essay was written by Patrick Icasas.

“Pass.”

It’s 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, and I have this evening to finish my assigned stories. I click through to the next. It’s a sci-fi piece with a clever title that promises a fun parody.

I read through the first paragraph, and I’m immediately disappointed. It turns out to be an existential piece in a sci-fi backdrop, which is a big disconnect from what the title made me expect. I read through the rest, hoping that it’ll at least be compelling enough to deserve a “maybe” vote, with the caveat of a title change. It’s not.

“Pass.”

I click through to the next story, hoping for the best. But the first sentence alone has two typos, and the author can’t seem to decide which tense he wants to use. I don’t even make it a third of the way in.

“Pass.”

A literary piece comes up, and I open it, wary of more navel-gazing and existential angst. I’m pleasantly surprised to find sound characters and clever dialogue, and a unique take on an every day situation. It has its flaws, but it’s one of the best stories I’ve read that evening.

“Maybe.”

And so my evening goes, the same as a dozen other members of the Flash Fiction Online (FFO) slush team. We spend our weekends and evenings reading through piles of submissions (electronic now, thankfully), looking for the gems that will move on to the next round—the team review.

It’s long, tiring, and pretty frustrating at times. You hear so many stories about the horrors of slush from editors, agents, and other writers. But unless you actually sit down and read through the slush pile yourself, you’ll never know how much of a slog it really is.

Minor problems like typos and grammar are the most annoying. Not because they’re there, but because they’re so easy to fix. You can use all the flowery language that you want, but if you mistype “skull” as “scull”, you’re not doing your story any favors. And competition in the slush pile is so fierce that you’re going to need every advantage you can get.

Surprisingly, it’s not the bad stories that frustrate me the most. It’s the “not quites”. I’ve lost count of the stories that had great potential—a relatable character, a unique premise, or beautiful prose—only to have the author go in a completely different direction and lose my interest.

The reason it’s so frustrating is because we want to help authors get published. Forget what you’ve heard about slush readers cackling in smug satisfaction as they reject story after story. My team and I agonize over every choice, voting up pieces despite their flaws. Every so often I’ll get that one story with a unanimous vote, but more often than not choosing a story is a compromise. There’s a lot of back and forth as we discuss flaws and strengths, and how stories compare. Each member of the team is chosen for their analytical ability, so these discussions can run pretty deep.

In the end, our editor can only choose a handful out of hundreds. I’m happy that many of my favorites were eventually published, but most have not.

And then the next month comes, and we go through the entire process again.

Why do we do it? I’ve asked myself that question several times—mostly when I’m knee-deep in bad stories. Every single member of the team is a volunteer. All of our revenue goes to paying our writers and maintaining the site, so none of us is gaining any benefit other than reading stories and helping other authors.

For my part, I joined FFO because I wanted to see what slush was like. I was curious and wanted to learn more about the publication side of the fiction industry. But that doesn’t explain why I’m still around. I am getting better at analyzing stories, which helps my own fiction, but that’s a benefit, not a reason.

To be honest, I don’t know why I do stick around. Inertia, maybe? But what I do know is that whenever one of my favorites gets published on the FFO homepage, I get a little thrill knowing that I helped get that piece into the spotlight.

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Patrick Icasas is a freelance writer, marketing professional, aspiring author, and a slush reader at Flash Fiction Online.

4 thoughts on “The Slush Pile: Where Reading Starts to Hurt

  1. Patrick,

    I really liked this piece. Being in charge of the slush pile sounds like grading papers, and that’s pretty painful. Thanks for sharing about the hard work that goes into selecting writers for publication, I think we writers often forget that editors aren’t out to get us.

    1. Thanks Chris(ty)! Although sometimes I think being in a writing group can be a harder experience. At least in slush, I don’t have to give the author my feedback face to face!

  2. Believe it or not the only typo in my mystery is “skull”. Yup, I missed it in line edits – spelled it scull Argghh. An astute reader pointed it out to me, in person. I was sure he was wrong and scurried through the pages to check. He was right. I smacked my own skull. Too late now,though, it’s published that way. I loved reading this, Patrick. You are a noble volunteer! Something keeps you at it – don’t you wonder what that is? Good luck in your future readings. May your choices live long and prosper.

    1. Haha, that’s okay Susan. I have a 10,000 word story that went through 6 or so rounds of proofreading just to be EXTRA sure it was perfect, only to find more typos right after I hit the submit button. It never did get published, so at least my mistake isn’t in the public eye to see (small comfort).

      Thanks for the supportive feedback!

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