(This was originally posted on Curious Fictions on May 2, 2019 -- I am trying to rescue posts before the site disappears!)
I've been slushing now (quietly! modestly!) for an online sci-fi podcast venue since October! Something of an accomplishment for myself, particularly given some early hiccups involving brain problems or, as we refer to them around here, the Brain Wasps, colourful microscopic parasitic wasps whose larvae occasionally munch through essential areas of volition and memory in my neural tissue, leaving gross little tunnels of poop and despair behind. Ha ha, it is to laugh, I don't really have parasites, ha.
(Quick discussion of process: for this venue, the process goes:
- I log in to the submissions manager page (which has story titles and status, not author names)
- I look for stories that are not tagged by other slushers or the assistant editors
- I tag it with my label and open it up
- I read it and make my decision (bump, no, or ? maybe ?) (the 'maybe' button is an 'I'm out of my depth in terms of, say, a representation of a marginalized group, or something else, and I would like to call a friend' tag; the assistant editors might then pass it to another specific slusher)
- I make a few notes on the submission detailing my decision ("Beautiful prose, interesting setting, loved the final stand by the sentient cat aliens")
- My decision is then reviewed by the assistant editors and I move on to another story!)
At any rate, I thought I might write up some observations about what I've seen! (Note that none of these apply to my own short fiction writing, which has apparently fallen victim to the wasps. I mean metaphorical wasps. Ha, ha, ha.) (But I hope my loyal readers can learn something from it, because Gord knows I can't.)
Titles keep repeating. Even titles that I assumed would be unique (phrases, say) repeat. One that I thought was absolutely a one-off showed up three times. (After the second time, I started a post-it note for keeping track.)
Ideas also keep repeating. Not just premises ('What if we found a black hole, and — '), but complete and entire plots, including virtually identical characters. In particular, recently, there's been a lot of 'robot discovers a terrible secret about robothood and blows the whistle,' or 'dutiful bureaucrat/capitalism' instead of robots; and I've seen about a dozen 'an anomaly in space causes some person(s) to vanish, except they can still communicate with their spouse(s) or children back home.' 'I learned to care about an alien as if it were a human' is also a popular one.
I will still bump stories with ideas, plots, motifs, characters, and gimmicks that I've seen before if they grab me!
There are some immensely bad gimmicks out there, though. Part of me thinks "Oh, are people just not aware that these were used, badly, in 1950s-1970s era sci-fi, and now come across as dated, bland, and smug?" and part of me thinks "Are people aware of this, and using it on purpose?" As a general rule I'd say if an author must riff, spoof, or parody something that was groundbreaking for sci-fi in 1953, they have to bring something fresh to the 2019 version; otherwise it just comes across as stale. New words crammed into an old template is not a guaranteed winner, even if the template was once SHOCKING and NOVEL.
Despite what people assured me I would see, the vast, vast majority of incoming stories are not terrible. Not in the slightest! I would say a solid 80% of them are perfectly fine. You cannot point to any sentence or paragraph and say 'Here's what's wrong.'
About 10% are pretty bad though. Incompetent gimmickry, as above, for instance. Shoddily proofread. Or (sigh) oozing with blatant misogyny, ableism, classism, and racism, sometimes with aliens lightly and perfunctorily disguised as a hostile race, or else a pitiful or bestial race that needs saving by colonizing humans; heavy-handed allegory; A Lesson To Be Learned For Us All About The Perils of Technology; infodumps from wise robots or dystopian sages or long-defunct information systems in abandoned bunkers declaiming page after page of clumsy philosophy; hyperdetailed worldbuilding without anything actually happening; military sci-fi with a dozen perfectly interchangeable characters who all sound and think alike, on a Difficult Mission with a target but no goal; fanfic with the serial numbers filed off (badly); fanfic with the serial numbers still on (oh no); women used as objects or rewards or props or currency; women written as if the author has never met a woman; women who ramble about their breasts in zero-G; women who die at once for Motivation Purposes; women who cannot be motivated unless a baby is endangered; women who offer to sacrifice themselves because, at 35, they are too old to Breed For The Colony...
a) Occasionally I'll get a real 'Yikes' story full of bigotry and hate... and then click back to discover that it's a reprint. Who's publishing this stuff? STOP IT THIS MINUTE.
Submissions are mostly blind, so no, I do not know who is writing these stories.
About 5% of incoming stories are great, and get bumped after I get to the end of the story.
The last 5% are amazing, and get bumped after I've read a couple of paragraphs.
And of course, when I say 'good, bad, great, amazing' that is all totally subjective; we're not given a slushing course; we're not given a point system to add up and subtract individual components of a story; it's understood that the process is deliberately designed this way, to have a lot of first readers with individual tastes, who are familiar with what's already published by the venue. I am positive that stories I've passed have gone on to immediately get published by other places!
In terms of fit, some stories are wonderful but have stylistic choices or important formatting or other intrinsic structures that make them better suited for print than audio. This venue does print the story along with doing the podcast! But, the story should be able to stand strongly alone as a podcast, because some people only can, or want to, access the story in audio. I bump these stories with a note that I think it might lose those components when read aloud, and let the higher-ups decide.
For my money, what makes a story good in audio includes:
Brief, vivid descriptions (rather than long and leisurely paragraphs)
Dialogue! Especially if the characters all sound identifiably different from each other
But not entirely dialogue; this is still a narrative, not a radio play
A chronologically linear timeline, or, if not, then one that's pretty easy to follow
Not too many named characters
Not too many neologisms or heavy jargon use
Not too much epistolary-type stuff (we've had some come in that are in the form of exchanged letters, which is manageable, but if it's too fragmented it's a little hard to keep track of in such a short story; I could see it working in a novel sometimes
14. And, although this isn't strictly audio, a clear sense of who's involved and why they're doing things that make it a story worth telling. Which I know doesn't make sense, but like... you know it when you see it? Too much exposition at the start (weather, setting, the 257 exterior vents of a spaceship) is several minutes of speaking time. I have trouble seeing overly fast pacing, but I notice slow pacing right away. And I don't like the term 'stakes' but I will grudgingly use it here as a proxy for 'This person has done several things sequentially, but what... are... they... doing?' because I see that a lot. If at least one, and preferably more than one, character, isn't working towards something, the story feels a little unfocused? It's just people ambling around, doing things. Even if the things are, individually, interesting things (fixing a space antenna, etc). My favourite stories I've bumped show people making choices that lead to real outcomes (and they don't have to be interesting, action-y, sci-fi-y outcomes!), and we the reader/listener get dragged along in finding out the results of those choices, either because it's something of which we feel we have An Strong Opinione ("NO DON'T INVESTIGATE THAT DISTRESS CALL") or we've gotten attached enough to the character that it gives us some feels ("I KNOW HE'S YOUR ONLY CHILD, BUT STILL").
14.a) "I woke up in the morning and the world looked glitchy" isn't a story, even if the story goes on to describe several other glitches; it's just observation. "I woke up and the world looked glitchy, and I knew that was due to an error in my cheating chip that might fuck up my space hero qualification exam at 2 pm" is a story. (Not one I've read, just a random example, but if you want to write it, be my guest.) I'm not a stickler for 'the character has to change, the character has to have an arc,' but a great story will have a direction, it will recognizably point to something.
If I come up with any other observations, I will probably do another roundup! It's always an adventure in Slushland.