28 January 2015 ~ 0 Comments

Slush Retrospective

written by David Steffen

For anyone who hasn’t been following along, Diabolical Plots was open for fiction submissions for the first time in December 2014 to pick 12 stories to publish one per month for a year as our first fiction offerings. This is my first time editing fiction or handling a slushpile of my own (as opposed to being a slushreader for a magazine run by someone else).

Also, this is a long post–I tried to give useful headings so you could skip to the parts you’re interested in.

WHY NOW?

Anthony Sullivan (my co-conspirator here at Diabolical Plots) and I decided together that we wanted to give this a try. We’d been talking about it off and on for years. So why did we actually move forward with it now? The answer to that is simple–money. We knew that if we wanted to do this, we wanted to do it big–professional rates as defined by SFWA (currently 6 cents per word). We don’t have anything against markets that pay less, but we figured the best way in our control to increase the upper quality of the slushpile is to pay professional rates. And we wanted to make a market that we would be excited to submit to.  We would love to become a SFWA-qualified professional market.

The reason we can go forward with this fiction venture now is because of generous donations both one-time and recurring from users of the Submission Grinder. Those donations go first to site maintenance costs like hosting as well as secondary costs that help us keep up with market news as well as we can. But we’ve been saving what we can to put towards projects that require money like this fiction venture. We could have run a Kickstarter campaign but we both liked the idea of providing something of value and then seeing if people would like to support it, rather than the other way around. We plan to launch a Patreon campaign in the near future–if that and the recurring PayPal donations combined reach a threshold, then we will keep publishing fiction past the first year, if we reach the next threshold above that we’ll buy 2 stories/month for the following year, and so on. I’m not opposed to something like Kickstarter, but I like the Patreon model better for what I hope will be an ongoing venture because its focus is maintenance funding, ongoing income instead of the one-off burst that Kickstarter will provide–at some point a magazine has to hit Kickstarter again and one success does not guarantee another.

MAKING THE GUIDELINES

Our guidelines are somewhat unusual for several reasons. One is that we were only open for a month to buy a year’s worth of fiction. Part of the reason for this is that we intended from the beginning to read all of the slush ourselves, and we knew this would be time-consuming, so we would rather do it on a short-term sprint than to be reading slush around the calendar.

Another oddity is that we only allow one story per author per submission window. There were a few reasons for this. One is to encourage authors to pick their very best work they have available that fits the rest of the guidelines. Another is to make any progress in the slushpile a permanent step–rather than rejecting a story by an author and getting another story from the same author again.

Of course the biggest oddity in our guidelines is the requirement for anonymity–there are a few markets that require this–among pro SF markets I believe Flash Fiction Online and Writers of the Future are the only others. But we’re even more strange in this respect in that there were only two staff members doing all the reading and there wasn’t a separate person to do author correspondence. Our homebrew submission tracking software had to be quite a bit more complicated because of this–it had to hide the author’s identity from us until we’ve made our final decision of accept or reject, and had to allow some basic way for an author to query us to make sure their story was received but without breaking anonymity.

The reason we wanted to make the slush anonymous is that we wanted story to trump all. We wanted to completely remove the possibility that personal relationships with an author would sway our decision one way or the other. And we wanted to remove the consideration of marketing concerns–it’s not uncommon for a publication, especially when starting up, to publish stories from established authors with big fan followings to attract readers. The reasoning behind cherry-picking known authors is that the fan following will get more eyeballs on the magazine and help make the launch more successful.  But personally, we felt that these stories can feel phoned-in because the story didn’t make it into the publication on its own merits. We have nothing against established authors with big names, of course. They got to be big names because they knew what they were doing. But if an author you recognize is in our table of contents, it means that we thought that story was in our top twelve and the name has nothing to do with it.

THE SLUSH

In the 31 days we were open, we received 378 submissions–34 of those on the first day of submissions, 27 of those on the last day of submissions.

17 of the submissions had clear violations of the guidelines. A few of those were stories with names attached against our anonymity requirements. Most of those were stories that were clearly too long for our 2000-word maximum, sometimes by several times. And the one submission that was a synopsis of a non-speculative children’s book that was also triple our maximum word count allowed. I did have to wonder, as I was rejecting these stories unread and with a note pointing out the guidelines violation, what these authors were thinking. Did they not read the guidelines at all? Did they think their story was so good the word count limit was irrelevant to them? Either answer is not particularly endearing . Because of our one-submission-per-author-per-window policy that was the only opportunity those authors got this time round.  Once those were taken out of the running that left 361 valid submissions.

I’ve read slush for a few different venues–Flash Fiction Online, Drabblecast, and Stupefying Stories. Overall the quality of the Diabolical Plots slush was much higher than I expect from past experience, and there wasn’t the glut of serial killer stories and stories about protagonists killing their spouses. This could’ve been because I tried to warn off these things in the guidelines, or because the one-story-per-author rule made authors more selective, or could just because we didn’t specifically ask for the offensive like the Drabblecast guidelines do.

The stories that were rejected in the first round were rejected for a variety of reasons. A slow or uninteresting beginning to the story is an excuse to start skimming–a bad sign, especially when dealing with stories less than 2000 words. Stories where nothing happened, or stories with low stakes. Or ones without strong characters. First and foremost we wanted stories that made us feel something, whether that was humor, fear, fun, love, but it had to make us feel something.

By January 8th we’d finished the first round of reading and held 67 stories for the second and final round of consideration. I didn’t keep statistics on the proportion of personal rejections–but I’d guess them at maybe 10% in the first round. I only commented if I had feedback that I felt would be useful to the author.

EDITORIAL CHANGE

Around this same time I started drafting up the contracts based on Lightspeed’s very author-friendly publicly posted contract. Up until this point we had been pretty focused on the editorial side of things and the technical side of things (tweaking the submission system), but at this point we started getting into the publishing side of things, particularly on the topic of risk and legality. We realized that Diabolical Plots should be registered under an LLC to minimize any risk to our personal finances. And as part of that discussion, Anthony realized that he needed to step down from the co-editor position. We didn’t have a falling out or anything like that. He just realized that his role as co-editor wasn’t going to work out with other aspects of his life. So from that point forward I am the editor of Diabolical Plots.

Anthony will still be a big part of Diabolical Plots and the Submission Grinder and will continue to fill the same invaluable role that he has filled since we first teamed up in 2009–handling all of the technical side of the website administration, and doing the lion’s share of the software development that has made the Grinder the useful tool it is today. In fact, he is hard at work on an overhaul of the Grinder site that will make it easier to maintain as well as providing a lot of shiny new features that will make it even better than it is now. We’re aiming to launch this site overhaul to the public around the same time that we launch our first fiction publication–that date is yet to be determined, but will probably be in a couple months.

THE HOLD PILE

By January 8th we had finished reading and resolving all the first round submissions and we only had the 67 stories in the hold pile left to resolve. By the time Anthony reached the decision that he needed to step down, I had re-read the hold-pile stories and ranked them numerically with plans to compare lists with Anthony. So when I became the sole editor, I was already ready to go and could resolve the whole pile in one fell swoop. I made sure to give personal rejections to all the stories that made it to the hold pile because I hate it when my stories are held for further consideration but then rejected without a word.

I had enough good stories in the pile, and planned to buy so few, that I didn’t venture into any major rewrite requests. If the story wasn’t good enough as-is, then I didn’t accept it–I have made a few small suggestions for small changes and will probably do a few more as I progress from acceptance to publication. There were a lot more stories in the pile that I would’ve loved to accept if the budget had allowed, so there were some very hard decisions in this pile.

In the final twelve stories I was interested to see that there were several author names that I knew from seeing their published stories in pro markets. For at least one of the authors, this was the first pro sale. Judging by names, of the final twelve, seven of the authors are women.  I’m glad to see both sexes so well represented–I know that some publications have a real problem with getting enough women-authored stories in their slushpiles (to the point where they have to make campaigns specifically to bring in more women authors) so I was glad to see that.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Before I do anything else, I need to sort out some business details, defining what Diabolical Plots actually is. Once that’s in place I can finalize the draft of our contract and send it to the twelve authors–in the meantime I’ve requested and gotten preliminary notes from all twelve to let me know the stories are still available.  The twelve authors are free to share their news as widely or as narrowly as they wish so you may have already heard a few of them.

Once the contracts are signed, then I can publicly announce the table of contents–I’m really looking forward to that. And then I can seriously consider what kind of launch date we can manage for the fiction offerings, but I’m still planning to coincide that with the launch of the Submission Grinder overhaul, so it will depend somewhat on that as well.

WHAT ABOUT YEAR TWO?

You may notice that all of our planning so far has been focused on providing a single year of fiction, talking about the budget for a year, the schedule for a year. That’s because, at this point, we don’t have the capital in place for another year of fiction. We’re hoping to change that. Ideally by gathering recurring donations of whatever size through Patreon and PayPal to give a steady stream of funds to kick off the second year and beyond. If the end of year one approaches and we don’t have this in place yet, then I’ll consider doing a Kickstarter campaign to get year two funded and continue to focus on getting recurring donations so that big one-off campaigns don’t need to be run every year. If we get enough to be able to afford to publish two stories a month, then we’ll expand to that. And beyond that we’ll consider expanding in other ways. The sky’s the limit if there is enough interest and support. I’ll be posting sometime in the not-too-distant future about our Patreon campaign to this end. In the meantime, recurring PayPal donations either on the DP page or the Grinder page are the best way to help support both our necessary costs and our harebrained schemes like this.

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