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Five Ways to Stand Out in the Slush Pile (Without Gimmicks)

I was on break at a writing workshop in Tomales Bay, California up near Point Reyes searching for seashells to bring home for my two preschool-aged children when I noticed something peculiar about my process. I didn’t have a container with me and only had fifteen minutes until the next panel discussion, so I clambered down the rocky seawall and scanned the ground quickly, only able to take what I could carry in my hands. I’d look down and grab anything that caught my eye, at first focusing on gathering a variety of shapes and patterns—a good mix of conical whelks and augers, larger mussels, and smaller bivalves (especially fully intact). As I searched, I’d put down treasures that I’d previously chosen whenever I found something better to replace them, the same type of shell, perhaps, but with a more unique texture or design.

But then things got interesting. Ooo, that seaweed looks neat and has an intricate swirl. Ooo, check it out, crab claws—definitely bringing home those (more shells discarded to make room). I grabbed some sea glass that was pretty, but in the end it didn’t make the cut because it wasn’t distinctive enough. Then, just as I was heading back, I stopped in my tracks: whoa, a skull! I was definitely not out there looking for bones, but out went six perfectly beautiful shells because I absolutely needed to bring home that kelp-encrusted otter skull. Jackpot.

Now, it’s probably because I was at a writing retreat that this conjured the slush pile in my mind, but think about it. Editors and readers often go through hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions a month, and the process is pretty similar to my little seashell collecting operation. Here are 5 essential ways to help you make the cut so you don't end up back on the beach.

 

1. Surprise the Editors and Readers

Readers want what they don’t know to want because it’s so interesting that it never occurred to them to look for it. This does not mean, however, that you should attempt writing something flashy or gimmicky in the hopes you will get noticed, because that will only bring you the wrong types of attention (e.g. this writer is trying too hard). So how can you help your work be more eye-catching without gimmicks? You could memorize this 20-pages of tongue-in-cheek lit mag advice over at BuzzFeed, or you could just read on…

 

2. Stay Out of the Suburbs

You have to set your story somewhere, and you can bet that a reader is not going to be excited right off the bat if it’s somewhere called Pleasanton. Does that mean you shouldn’t ever write a story set in the suburbs? Of course not. But you’re going to be in a pile of lots of identical looking shells if you do, and your story is going to have to work quite a bit harder to stand out, whereas the otter skull story is inherently interesting and has less to prove. The editor or reader is automatically rooting for that story from the get-go.


3. Avoid the Cancer Story, Among Others

Again, you might have come up with a really good cancer story, but this is something editors see frequently (also breakup stories, stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, also young people angry at their parents and having generalized ennui). Despite Man Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James recently decrying a tendency of some publications to favor stories about the ennui of suburban white females, this is still probably a bad career strategy overall—that market’s pretty saturated, for one, and frankly, pretty dull as a premise. But, writers beware…

 

4. Don’t Write Difference Just to be Different

Hey guess what: You might actually be a suburban white female (as I am), and I’m definitely not negating that experience. I’m suggesting that it might be more interesting to explore that familiar territory in a more compelling way (like at the morgue, or out hunting, or in the middle of a tornado). What I am decidedly not suggesting is that you try to adopt the voice of a culture you don’t understand or participate in to try to stand out, as it very likely will not accomplish what you want it to. Do, however, people your stories with diverse, interesting, nuanced, non-stereotypical characters, because that’s our world.

 

5. Be Impeccable

Notice I didn’t bring home any broken shells (poorly edited stories, early drafts), and I ultimately discarded that sea glass that was merely decorative (lyrical prose but lacking substance). Free yourself to make your writing strange with ghosts, talking anthropomorphic doorknobs, or angry piranhas, but it still needs to be polished and good. Read it over and over and over again (then read it to a friend), and if it still makes your heart skip and your body tingle when you’re done, then maybe you’ve got something there.

 

What do you think? Do you have other tips and ideas about how to make a story stand out in the slush pile?