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.

Interview: Frank Dutkiewicz

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

IMG_20120830_182040_092We asked Frank a long time ago if he would be so kind answer a few questions for us. He said he would as soon as he found a little time. Months went by with excuses like I have to wash my hair, and I need to clean my fingernails, or I got to pick up the dog poop in my yard today, on why he couldn’t give us a few minutes. So we popped in for a visit where we threw a burlap bag over his head, hogtied him, threw him in the back of a trunk, and took him to an undisclosed location to a dark room with hot lights glaring in his face.

 

Thank you for joining us today.

Pleasure to be here. Could you cut the plastic zip-ties around my wrists, please? I can’t feel my fingers.

 

When I first started reading your stories several years ago, your material was barely marketable. You’ve had 2 stories in Daily Science Fiction and you climbed to the top of the Writers of the Future contest. What happened in the interim?

Life. A new job, growing kids, and other responsibilities (car and house maintenance) that take precedence. Writing is but a hobby for me , an activity to help sharpen my dulling mind and keep me preoccupied in a job that keeps me away from home for long stretches of time.

On the writing front: not much. I’ve taken on new responsibilities that are tied to my ‘hobby’ but grant me less time to create new works of fiction. In other words , I am submitting less than I have in the past but I’m not quite out of the game.

 

You were slush editor for Unidentified Funny Objects anthology and the On the Premises humor contest. One of your Daily Science Fiction stories was humor and “Intergalactic Nuisance” was borderline riotous. Why humor?

Because I like it. There is no shortage of great works of speculative fiction but not a lot of it is humorous. It’s difficult to pull off and opinions on what is, and isn’t, funny, vary. I need not go any further than my slush reading duties at UFO to prove that. Alex Shvartsman (UFO editor) has a half-dozen slush readers for his annual project. Alex has told me that he has yet to receive a submission that received a unanimous yes from all his helpers.

 

Rom Zom Com. I’m guessing that stands for romance, zombie, and comedy. Is that like Shawn of the Dead and Warm Bodies?

Couldn’t tell you, I never saw either movie before. I just saw their guidelines. They were looking for humorous zombie tales and I just happened to have one in my files I wrote for an in-house contest for one of my writer groups. I submitted it and they bought it.

 

Why is it significant that other review zines don’t cover Daily Science Fiction? Or to put it reversely, why is it significant that Diabolical Plots covers Daily Science Fiction and is the only review zine that does?

I don’t know why other review zines ignore DSF. I was reviewing for Tangent Online when the publication first came to life. I recommended that we at least try to review it but the editor wanted nothing to do with it. As I recall, he said they had too much material to review and that their business model likely doomed them to obscurity and predicted it would close soon. I disagreed and felt the publication deserved a measure of recognition for their herculean effort. So after to being rebuffed by the Tangent Online editor, repeatedly, I asked David Steffen at Diabolical Plots if he’d be willing to host my reviews.

The reason why it is significant that Daily Science Fiction is covered (I am grateful to David for posting the reviews all these years) is that the DSF editors and their authors deserve the satisfaction to know that their work has been read. It’s a good publication, outstanding in fact. The price for subscription is affordable (free). Their distribution is innovative (daily email), and the talent is first class. They attract the best speculative writers and publish more first time authors then any professionally rated publication. The editors of DSF deserve more than just a review or two, they deserve an award for all they’ve done for speculative fiction these past few years.

 

You’ve been reviewing Daily Science Fiction for 4 years. They publish 20 stories a month, so that’s a lot of grunt work, even if 4 out of 5 stories per week are flash. Why stay on this beat for so long?

Commitment, stubbornness, loyalty , take your pick. I did it for so long because I enjoyed reviewing and reading DSF.

 

Lois Tilton cranks out that kind of volume and more, but she reviews full time. How do you accomplish that feat and hold down a full time non-literary job at the same time?

It is taxing, I confess. Without the help of my colleagues James Hanzelka and Dustin Adams, I would have thrown in the towel long ago. My first review received a positive response from many who read it and from the editors of DSF. Encouraged by the feedback, I vowed to keep at it and decided I would continue to do so as long as my reviews were within six months of current published works. Alas, that mark was crossed this summer (I had a lot going on). My reviews of the publication have ceased (I have one last month I need to finish). I enjoyed doing them very much but they had started to become a chore to maintain, so with much regrets, my next review of DSF will likely be my last.

 

You’ve been reviewing the Writers of the Future anthology for 6 years. Again, why the longstanding interest in that market?

My first one was written as an analysis of the winning stories. I started reviewing the publication about the same time I started to submit to them. At the time of my first WotF review, Diabolical Plots first came online. I asked David Steffen if he would be willing to post them. He was all over it.

The reviews of the contest are written from the perspective of a long time reader (I’ve been a fan of the anthology since it first debut decades ago), a submitter to the contest, and with the experience I’ve gained as a reviewer over the years. Studying the anthology to write the reviews has helped me to improve my standing in the contest , 2 finalist finishes, a semi-finalist honor, and over dozen Honorable Mentions.

 

What did you take away from your role with Unidentified Funny Objects?

Two things: Humor is subjective and I’m not as funny as I once believed. It is also the first true slushreading job I’ve ever done. I have sympathy for those who do it on a regular basis and no longer get offended when I receive a rejection now. I also have had this theory confirmed:
a) Not everyone will agree on what is funny and…
b) Everyone can agree on what isn’t funny

We got a lot of submissions where you could feel the writer giggling as they jotted the funny idea in their heads on their computer screens. There was a lot of eye rolling, head shaking, and groaning done as I read the slush. It became clear to me that humor isn’t for everyone.

However, we also had a few I thought were brilliant but not enough of my colleagues shared my opinion. Truthfully, some of the funniest submissions we received (IMO) didn’t make it in. Not everyone’s funny bone responds the same way, I guess.

 

Same question for the On the Premises contest.

I adore On The Premises. The editors are the slushreaders. They whittle down the submissions to a handful and send them to the judges to read. The prize money, although not pro-paying, is enough to make it alluring. They’ve made it a blind read contest , the authors names are not known to the editors or judges during the contest. I’ve come to regard it as a great place to practice if you like to submit to contest publications like Writers of the Future or Glimmer Train. What helps to make them unique is the editors will (for a fee) critique your story if you fail to make their top ten. I’ve learned a lot about my submissions from their critiques.

I had become such a regular to OTP (as a contestant and guest judge) that they made me a permanent fixture there as a fulltime judge, an honor I haven’t taken lightly.

 

Same question for Tangent.

It was an experience. My time there was short but I learned a lot from it, both positive and negative.

 

Why all this slushing and reviewing? Do you have your eye on a full time editing gig?

*snort* not unless I hit the Powerball jackpot, but what a dream. Can you imagine running your own professional paying publication? Got to have the money and time to burn to be able to do that.

 

Did you gain anything from participation in the Critters workshop? Why did you drop out?

Critters is an excellent place for beginners to start. You learn to critique and absorb real criticism from total strangers , both a prerequisite if you expect to stand a shot as a contributor in the speculative fiction industry. It’s also a great place to find friends who share in the passion of writing science fiction and fantasy. I recommend it to everyone to give it a try.

The reason why I don’t participate anymore is because I moved on and made room for other stuff.

 

Same question for Hatrack.

Hatrack is a good place for writers to congregate. It’s more personal than Critters and the feedback is almost immediate. Most of the stuff I’ve published came about thanks to a Hatrack writer’s challenge.

 

Same question for Codex.

Codex is that secret club your friends will tell you about that you can’t get in (you have to had made a professional sale or completed an accredited writers workshop to be eligible to be a member). They have some tough in house contests over there. Joining them is like being the big shot in middle school who learns he’s a nobody the first day of high school. It can be a little intimidating.

 

Care to share some invaluable, free wisdom with aspiring writers?

Sure. You’ll see this advice sooner or later…

…if you want to make it as a writer, you got to treat writing as if it is your job. Set goals every day , minimum word counts to target or a certain number of pages to complete, even when don’t feel like writing.

The best advice I can give you is to IGNORE that advice. Treat writing as if it’s your job? Jobs suck. The only reason why anyone goes to a job is because someone pays them to show up to do work. So unless you’re earning a living as a writer, you should never treat writing as it is your livelihood (or job).

Hobbies though, hmmm. We love our hobbies. We’ll spend money on a hobby. We’ll take classes, arrange for lessons, and read books so we can get better at them. Hell, most of us have schemed to get out of work so we can spend more time on a hobby. Hobbies are enjoyable things to do.

Writing requires passion. Sure, you can be passionate about your work but you’ll crave diving into a hobby. People love doing a hobby and you have to love writing to be any good at it. Hobbies are easy things to step away from and pick back up later (sometimes you just need a break). You can’t do that with a job. You’ll get fired. The fact is if you set it in your mind that you have to get a minimum amount done every day you’ll come to resent writing. Any job that is that demanding and is one you do for no pay, is an easy job to quit, and you really don’t want to quit anything that you pored that much passion into, do you?

So treat your writing as some do golfing, or bowling, or painting, or crafting. Do it because you want to. Do it because you want to get better at it. Do it because you hope to be good enough to have it become your job one day (it has happened before). To get that good requires patience, a long term commitment, and a ton of passion.

 

Thank you for your time.

Can I go home now?

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Diabolical Plots To Become Professional Fiction Market

written by David Steffen
Diabolical Plots has been continuously providing nonfiction content related to speculative fiction since I launched it in 2008. Reviews, interviews, “Best of” lists, relating to magazines, books, TV shows, games. It was founded by me in 2008 on a very simple Blogspot page. Anthony and I joined forces in 2009 and, among other things, moved to the much nicer site that is still used today, commissioning the iconic mad scientist artwork by the wildly talented Joey Jordan.
In January 2013, Diabolical Plots launched the fiction writers’ submission-tracking and market-finding tool, The Submission Grinder.
This post is to announce the news that Diabolical Plots will trying something entirely new, expanding to become a professional-paying publisher of original speculative fiction! We’re not open for submissions quite yet, but we wanted to share the exciting news and let you prepare your very best short stories that are 2000 words or less for submission. For full guidelines see <LINK TO GUIDELINES>.
And Diabolical Plots the fiction market now has a market listing on the Grinder <LINK TO GRINDER LISTING>. We’ve put in requests to Ralan for the same.
This is all a grand experiment to see what kind of interest we get from writers and from readers. At this point we’re aiming for a single original story of 2000 words or less once a month for a year. What happens after that depends largely on how much interest. We have set up a Patreon page <LINK TO PATREON PAGE> with some goals for breaking even and goals for expanding our offering to more stories. If we get enough support through Patreon or through PayPal (and support of the Grinder all goes into the same place so Grinder donors, thank you as well) and iwe enjoy doing this fiction thing, then we’ll keep on going after the year is up. If not, we will surely have learned from the experience , and we will have helped the twelve authors find a venue for their work.
So, thanks for all the support over the years, everyone. We hope you’re as excited about this grand experiment as we are.

Our Hugo/Nebula Eligible Work 2012

written by David Steffen

The SF award nomination season is here. The Nebulas (the writer-voted award) have been open for a while and close in February. The Hugos (the fan-voted award) opened on January first. Both sets cover works published in the 2012 calendar year. About this time of year, every writer and their dog posts a list of their eligible works.

I won’t tell you to nominate these works. I haven’t heard of anyone nominating us in the past and I don’t expect that to change. Of course it’s all of phenomenal quality, because we wrote it and stuff. 🙂

And don’t worry, I’ll write up a separate post in the near future to make recommendations of what I’d like to see win the awards. I figured it would make sense to separate them so that I wouldn’t have to try to objectively compare my own work to theirs. In THAT post I’ll also ask for nomination suggestions from people, but we’ll keep those out of this post.

 

Best Short Story (Nebula and Hugo)

Marley and Cratchit by David Steffen at Escape Pod (free)

This Is Your Problem, Right Here at Daily Science Fiction (free)

Constant Companion at Drabblecast (free)

Door in the Darkness at Stupefying Stories

Never Idle at Specutopia

Mysterious Ways at Uncle John’s Flush Fiction Anthology

 

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

Marley and Cratchit at Escape Pod, read by Emma Newman

Constant Companion at Drabblecast

The Quest Unusual at Cast of Wonders

Turning Back the Clock at Beam Me Up

 

Best Fanzine Hugo

Diabolical Plots by David Steffen, Anthony W. Sullivan, Frank Dutkiewicz

 

Best Fan Writer Hugo (follow links for examples)

David Steffen

Especially notable are the “Best of” podcast lists.

Frank Dutkiewicz

Especially notable are the “Daily Science Fiction” reviews; we’re the only ones who regularly review them.

Carl Slaughter

Quite a few notable interviews.

 

Best Fan Artist Hugo

Anthony W. Sullivan, for Canny Valley comics

 

Best Related Work Hugo

The Priceless Value of that Story You Hate by David Steffen

 

Go! Nominate!