I spent Sunday afternoon feeling very literary. A friend of mine who is the editor for a prominent online Science Fiction/Fantasy magazine invited 6 writer friends to join him for an afternoon of reading and evaluating short story submissions to the magazine. (He's new to the position and the magazine has a backlog of submissions--some writers have been waiting for over a year to hear a "yes" or "no" on whether their story has been accepted.) So he filled a room with pizza, beer, wine, lemonade, and dessert and we plopped ourselves around a table and read for 5 hours.
It was challenging as this was not slush-pile reading. (Slush pile reading is the first go through of the huge pile of collected manuscripts. It's called such because it's easy the first go around to eliminate a bunch of crap--or slush--found there based on little more than reading the first page, first paragraph, or for the really bad writers, the first sentence.) The stories we read yesterday had already made it through an assistant editor's hands so all of them had merit. The challenge was to separate the very good from just the good.
For the first hour or so the room was quite as we worked through the manuscripts, marking an "X" across ones we didn't feel measured up and assigning a value of 1-10 for the ones we thought should make it to the next round. After a while though, patterns started to emerge, and we couldn't help but giggle.
"Oh my God, this is my third clone story," exclaimed one reader. "What's with all the clones?"
"This person just spent 3 paragraphs describing the color purple," said another. "Really, let it go and move on."
More silence. Someone snickered and we all looked up. The reader looked at us. "This one is written from the point-of-view of an elephant," she said. We all agreed that should be an automatic go-through. (Kidding.)
Then there were the sentences we read aloud to amuse each other. A hazard of Sci-Fi or Fantasy writing is writers get carried away with unpronounceable character names and places. Inserting an apostrophe in place of vowels for a name is a favorite trick, such as "S'djme." As a writer in our group said, "They think anything with an apostrophe and a vaguly sounding Celtic name is going to get them thr0ugh." So there would be sentences that read, "S'djme rode the Vrturn, descendents of the noble Miturian Roskslors, toward Ti-quothis clutching the Namr'iste Alqutian in his fist." Huh?
My friend the editor grabbed a fresh story from the box, read a sentence and tossed it in the discard pile. "It was written in present tense," he explained and we all laughed.
I had a hard time with it. Out of the 12 or so stories I read yesterday, there were maybe 3-4 that were a clear "no" for me. I liked all the others and had a difficult time choosing. It came down to who had the best package. One story I liked quite a lot had a weak opening and horrible ending--but the middle was quite intriguing so I considered saving it. But in the end it would take so much editing to get it to work it probably wasn't worth the time. A lot of us felt like one woman in the group who placed a manuscript in the "no" box with a sigh and the comment, "I so wanted it to be good."
At the same time, out of all the stories I read, there was only 1 for me that stood out as an absolute, "YES! This one must go in!"
Even though there wasn't much talking during the day, it was fun to just be around writers and their energy for the afternoon. I need to do more of that. I've become a bit bored lately with writing and have been thinking I need to attend some conferences or workshops or just reinvolve myself with writers communities to stir up some energy.
Meanwhile, kudos to the writers who made it to the next round and for those who didn't, take heart. We still really liked your stories.