We’ve all been there: the Slush Pile. That netherworldly waste land of hopes, fears, and dreams. We write our stories, pen our poems, and send our art out into the art-hating world of television-loving football fans. And yet. And yet, somehow, authors are discovered through the slush pile every single day. At the New Yorker, hundreds of poems and stories come in every day. Every now and then an editor will reach out to the author, if their submission’s good but not quite ready, and request another story. Often, nothing comes of it, but every now and then this leads to the author eventually publishing. Another one of our beloved mags, The Southern Review, gets anywhere between fifty and a hundred stories a week and maintains that 95 percent of accepted stories from the slush. This means there’s hope! So, dear writers, how does one stand out among the huddled masses?
Below, you’ll find a few recommendations for making your story stand out. This is based on our own experience reading slush at TNY, along with some recommendations from our co-contributors and friends who’ve manned the slush over the years at FSG, Random House, Tin House, and other journals of repute. Keep in mind this is entirely unscientific, highly subjective, possibly dishonest, and all for the love of art.
Cover Letter: it’s extremely important. Hard pill to swallow, but many slush readers don’t even look at the work if the cover letter isn’t professional. Of course, always look up the editor’s name and include it. There’s lots of well-worn advice about how to address the letter, etc, but things that we’ve always found important are: where were you born and raised? Some readers admitted that if the author was from their home town, that was enough to stick with the entire piece, no matter what. Sounds arbitrary? It sure is! But something’s got to make you stand out. Same psychological principle applies to your alma mater. Any kind of personal connection, or something that makes you, the writer, seem like a real person, and not a slush-pile filling robot, makes the reader want to hang around with your words a few minutes longer. If you have graduate degrees, list them. If you never went to college, list an author or two who has inspired your work.
Time to Cheat: list your publications. It makes the reader think that you’ve at least gotten a start on this thing called suffering. More importantly, and this is where the whole ethics of this game come into question: try writing a line or two thanking the magazine for their kind words of encouragement on your past story (even if this never really happened). Slush readers will often write something on the stories they really liked, but still rejected, and if they think you’re one of these “almost” writers, they’ll be more likely to give your piece a lengthy read. The thought process is this: if the author’s written something close it’s likely they’ll write something even better in the future. If you’ve made revisions to an old story that received one of these comments, it can’t hurt to resubmit, with a copy of the rejection letter, indicating what was revised in order to strengthen the piece.
The Art Itself: it has to be perfect. Go over every single line. If you read it, and you find yourself thinking “I could do it better, or maybe it would be better if,” then the piece probably needs a bit more time. Sit on it. Sleep on it. Read it again in the morning. Then omit all needless words (Long live Strunk/White) and sharpen it into the diamond you know it can be.
Best of luck, writers!