Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 25: The Seven Deadly Sins of Slush Stories

Nancy Fulda fills in for Dan for this week’s episode (he was sick, she was in town, huzzah!) but she’s more than just “filling in.” She’s FEATURED. Nancy is the assistant editor for Jim Baen’s Universe, and as such is probably the one who rejected your story. Nancy is also the editor-in-chief and founder of  Anthology Builder, where you can create collections of short stories you want to read, and have them printed and bound for you. She tells us the sorts of things that will get you rejected, maybe after a page, maybe after a paragraph, and perhaps even before the very first line has been read.

This week’s episode is brought to you by Schlock Mercenary: The Scrapyard of Insufferable Arrogance. Pre-orders are open now!

Disclosure: Nancy is, in fact, Howard’s sister-in-law. That might be why her stuff is getting so dang much relevant linkage in this entry.

Writing Prompt: Write about a passionate egg.


52 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 25: The Seven Deadly Sins of Slush Stories”

  1. Great pod cast!

    okay, so I haven’t listened to it yet. But I know it is going to be good,
    and if it isn’t, at least I get to be the first comment.

  2. This was a very good episode, both in terms of useful imformation and entertainment. Thank you writing excuses.

  3. There was an egg. Its name was Edward. Edward had a torrid affair with ketchup, but it was one that would cost him his life. ..

  4. @CM — actually, if the podcast wasn’t great, your posting would be automatically removed by the Truth On The Internet (TOTI) monitors. Haven’t you ever wondered why the Internet only has truthful postings? It’s all because of their work. Little noticed, less honored, they check every single fact and allegation and opinion on the Internet to make sure that only the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth gets posted.

    So you know you were 110% accurate in calling this a great podcast.

    And you know I couldn’t post this if it wasn’t true.

  5. A Passionate Egg? Poetry or prose?

    The story of The Passionate Egg is a harrowing tale,
    for all such love must always fail…

  6. :)

    In the bath I was – unfortunately – struck with more inspiration:

    Of what use were those oaths so earnestly sworn –
    when its fate was to die, before it was born?

    (I’ll try to keep any more – if I’m inflicted with more – to myself. :) )

  7. Can someone please explain what info-dumping is? The podcasters assumed we all knew, I am new however to this podcast (and to the writing world), and have no clue what it is. Thanks!

  8. Okay so beginners can write what they’re passionate about and they should just keep writing and success hinges on if you can give a bored to tears slushpile editor an “Aha!” moment as their bleary, rheumy eyes scan your little story at 3am?

    So writing professionally is both trenacity and a crapshoot? Is that it?

  9. I was right. The pod cast was most excellent.
    However, I think we got a bit to much info on that egg thing…..hmmmm. yes. Most defiantly.

    If TOTI really finds every untruth, we are ALL in trouble.

    “When I was a little boy, they called me a lier. But now that I am grown up, they call me a writer.”
    ~Isaac Bashevis Singer~

  10. oops! I meant ‘definitely’ not ‘defiantly.’
    I guess we could have a passionate egg who is both definitely and defiantly in love with Bacon.

  11. Aww. Baen universe is full and not accepting submissions. :(

    No wonder Nancy had time to do the podcast.

  12. @Mike? I think the point is that professional performance in any field requires tenacity, personal commitment, passion — drive. Publication, the public recognition and reward, requires all that and a healthy dose of luck. Statistically, there are a lot of manuscripts in the slush pile. But if you believe that your manuscript will make it, and if you keep on producing and submitting — you can beat the odds. Bradbury told us 90% of everything is crap. Your job as a writer is to make sure that your submissions are part of the 10%. And then the editor picks the one percent that they have space for. And if your submission isn’t picked here, you try somewhere else — and write something else. That’s it. Sorry, there is no secret password, just a lot of work.

  13. I commented to Mike B, that this was piece of gold for me from this podcast:

    Nancy: “Some of the best advice I’ve heard is you start the story where something changes.” (thanks for the transcript Mike!)

    I struggle with beginnings, and that seems the best advice I’ve heard. Start with movement, start late, start where things change.

    I also liked her corollary: “If you hook too hard, your hook is so interesting that the rest of the story is a complete letdown. So you actually have to be careful about that too.”

  14. Which will teach me not to get in a hurry when posting — at least I remembered the proportions. Revise, revise, revise. Thanks!

  15. Interesting podcast, but really could have done without the shameless plug for Schlock. You already mention it every single podcast, now you’re devoting over ten percent of the ‘cast to that one line – I understand the need to promote your work, but an entire spiel about a sale/release you’ve got going right now is really irritating, and not at all what I tune in to your ‘cast for.

  16. Speaking of truth, are you guys sure you want to stick with that, “Dan was sick” excuse? Seems Nancy doesn’t think he was sick. And I quote, “Alas, Dan Wells was absent, since he seemed to think a birthday and his book release were more important than listening to me blabber about the slush pile. *pout*.”

    I’ll be alerting TOTI to this ASAP. Although I did place an order for my UK version of Serial Killer. Thanks for that link.

  17. I just realised the cruelty in making a podcast for writers, proving them with the ability to post responses and then denying them an edit-button.
    I bet Howard’s behind that.


    The cast was excellent, as always.

  18. Sturgeon’s Law is, itself, crap.

    Here’s why. He was talking, not about slush, but published fiction, trying to defend SF from attacks by the literary elite by saying that the all genres are filled with crap so it’s meaningless to use it as an argument against SF in particular.

    More here: http://johndbrown.com/2008/12/is-90-of-everything-really-crap/ , but I think Nancy revealed the truth of the matter when she said numerous times that many of her criteria were specific to her editorial tastes.

    A tiny man with a ring
    Said I’ll save the world from this thing
    He traveled to Mordor
    But in very short order
    Was trounced by the chatty bling bling

  19. John – I think that’s the best limerick I’ve ever read. Thank you so much for that fantastic start to my day. :)

  20. John – Are you done writing that book? I’d totally buy that!

    I guess the secret is hard work, as you can’t quite make your own luck all the time.

  21. @Sof: I don’t plug my work every single ‘cast. We each talk about the work we’re doing, but plugs are rarer. Pre-orders for Schlock books are a time-constrained thing, and anytime something like that happens for one of us we record an ad or two. You’ll also be hearing an ad for Dan’s new book next week. Early sales are even more important for him than they are for me.

    The ads aren’t why you tune in to the podcast? REALLY? Wow. This changes EVERYTHING.

    Seriously, we already know that. We try to record our ads as humorously as possible so that we can get the word out while still entertaining our listeners. Clearly you weren’t entertained. But I let your comment through so you could see how cold and alone you are in your whining. Also, so I could poke cruel fun at you and abuse my moderatorial powers.

    @David Noceti: It was Dan’s birthday, but he was also sick. He was sick ON his birthday. So sad! We’re glad he decided to not get us sick though he had been planning to show up.

    @John Brown: 78% of statistics are made-up. But not this one. Probably.

  22. One would think that a minute or two of ads (far and away more than is the norm) would be fair exchange for the free podcast these gentlemen work to get out each and every week…

  23. Jin, it’s coming along. I think I’ll name the main character Fido. (Or I could use Bingo which I learned not too long ago was JRR’s initial choice.)

  24. @D496: An info-dump is pretty much what it sounds like: it’s when you dump a whole lot of information into the story at once. It could be a narrative section explaining something about the world or the characters (or any detail of the story), or it could be disguised as a conversation like they mentioned in the podcast. The problem with this is that readers don’t have a lot of patience for long, boring explanations about things they’re not already familiar with, especially if they haven’t been given a reason to care about those things. That’s why you should only info-dump after you’ve already hooked your audience, and even then it’s probably better to find some other, more interesting way to communicate what you need them to know.

    Feel free to chime in and round out or correct that answer, anyone. After all, I’m still just an amateur here myself. :)

  25. An info-dump is usually when you spend fourteen paragraphs talking about how your Faster-Than-Light works, or how the four sexes of the Aalksdjnbpoiewh race function to produce offspring or the twelve hundred year history of the Axe of Noble Severing before it fell into the hands of your hapless hero…. Often, it’s extraneous info that is of interest to absolutely no one but the author. In other cases, it’s info that’s vital to the story but that all too often means the story has serious issues itself. If you plot is dependent upon some aspect of those four sexes and you have to reveal that information to us in an infodump, it’s probably not a very good plot. Novels can get away with this a bit easier than short fiction, since there’s much more room to reveal the information and even an infodump is only a small portion of the whole.

  26. Great post, very insightful. I also liked Nancy’s voice–she should do books on tape.

  27. Ruthann did a good job. I’ll add — Infodump? Expository lumps scattered across the page? Tell, don’t bother showing? The most egregious ones are where the author suddenly drops out of narrative to give us the background history, descriptions, etc. in full dry textbook format. I usually figure either they had these really great notes from their planning (for the planners) or they had to figure it out (for the pantsers) and for some reason they left their unrefined work out there in plain sight. Sometimes they are dressed up with humor, sometimes they are disguised as quotes from “the Encyclopedia Galactica” or other little-known sources, but all-in-all, they are dumps of information that the reader has to climb over, skim past, or simply toss across the room, thus interrupting the flow of the story. And yes, some well-known authors do commit this. When you are a well-known author, feel free. In the meantime, please avoid infodumps, because you (and I) are still attracting readers, and can’t afford to run them off with big, stinking piles of infodump right there in the middle of the story.

  28. @Howard: Plug away. You guys do us a great service and I always did think that the plug song was silly. The way I see it you’ve earned the self-promotions, shameless or otherwise. Maybe the Sof’s of the world would like to start paying for the episodes. I for one try show my appreciation for what you guys do by supporting the work you produce and linking back to you guys for others to find.

    And sick on his birthday, aye? Smells fishy to me, but I’ll accept it as truth. :o)

    Keep up the good work and congratulations on the good sales.

  29. Just pondering the connection between worldbuilder’s disease (or is that a syndrome?) and infodumping. It seems to me that there is likely to be a relationship. Perhaps infodumping is likely to be a symptom of worldbuilder’s disease? After all, I spent all this time figuring out the 29 generations of the royal family, etc., I’m sure my readers will be interested in hearing their lineage — and therein begins an infodump?

  30. Worldbuilder’s disease keeps you from writing. Infodumping keeps you from getting on with the story. Of the two, infodumping is the lesser evil because hey, you’re WRITING. And when you’re done the infodump can be edited back out.

  31. One small addition to the discussion about Jim Baen’s Universe submissions. Nancy mentioned this in passing in the podcast, but there weren’t many details about it. One method for making submissions is to work with the Baen’s Universe Slush on Baen’s Bar. This can be particularly good for beginning writers, because the slush pile also has Baen’s Universe Slush Comments — where people will help you improve your submission. So while the over-the-transom submissions are closed right now, the Baen’s Universe Slush is still open. Go over to http://bar.baen.com/ and log in. Take a look at Baen’s Universe Facts, where Sam Hideka and others discuss story writing and the slush system, and then try out this combination of writers’ workshop and slushpile. Who knows, your story might get RTFed (selected for the editors to look at)?

  32. Great, Mike – thanks for the link.

    I believe Baen’s universe also has a couple of “introducing” slots for the magazine that would be worth looking into for new writers. I don’t remember whether that was part of Baen’s Bar or not.

  33. The only way to get into the introducing slots is through the bar, I think.

  34. Oh, great. Now I’ve got to start a story with a shadowy board-room discussion that lasts for all of ten lines before a guy with a machine gun and a motorcycle bursts through the window. The plot will then go from there.

  35. Info dumping. That would be an interesting podcast topic–not just what it is, but what it is a symptom of and strategies for avoiding it.

    I personally define an “info dump” as anything that interrupts the story to get across information, necessary or unnecessary. Basically, it’s anything that makes your writing sound more like a textbook and less like a novel, and I hate it. I might differ from some of the people here, but I think that there is never a time when you need an info dump, and that if your reader really does need that information, there is always some other way of getting it across. When I write my stories, my goal is to get to the end without ever info dumping, not once.

    In a previous Writing Excuses episode, Patrick Ruthfuss had some very interesting advice. He said that if you withhold information from the reader in the right way, it creates a sense of mystery that generates interest in that piece of story. When you finally do reveal it, the reader is thrilled rather than bored.

    I suppose it’s analogous to some of the geeky conversations we’ve all had with people who are less inclined towards sci fi / fantasy. Have you ever been really, really eager to tell people all about this great story that you read, or that you’re writing, only to find that you’ve monopolized the conversation for the past half hour and everyone else is losing interest? An info dump is like that. You’ve got to find a way to make them interested in it, and often times that means restraining yourself and withholding the information until there is a more appropriate way to get it across.

  36. (Please don’t derail the rest of the comment-discussion by letting this comment through; I’d send this via email but a cursory examination doesn’t show one, so this seemed the most expedient method of addressing what I have to say:)

    Howard – regarding your response to my criticism about the advert:
    That was extremely unprofessional. I made that comment in good faith to provide you with honest, hopefully useful feedback. Your response was churlish, sarcastic, gave the impression that you can’t handle criticism, and set up a heavy incentive for anyone else who dislikes an aspect to just not bother telling you, and not come back. … why do all that, when it would have been so easy to just be polite, or even ignore the comment altogether? I mean, look at the choices:

    You have a listener (a potential customer) who has made a mild complaint. You could:
    A) Ignore the comment. Nothing happens.
    B) Acknowledge the comment with the explanations you gave – minus the sarcasm, and the last paragraph. Listener has a positive experience from giving feedback, feels heard and appreciated, and will likely continue listening. You look professional and accepting of criticism, and your more fanatical fans take the criticizer down a peg or two for you anyway. Everybody wins.
    C) Make sarcastic remarks that dismiss and belittle the listener’s complaint, alienating them (and potentially anyone else that had a sympathetic opinion), make yourself look like the childish bully who can’t handle mean words, drive listener away. Everyone loses.

    I know you’re a smart guy. So I can’t for the life of me work out why the hell you chose option C. It seems my comment really got up your nose, which I find surprising – it wasn’t particularly harsh, nor even directed at your work, but rather at an action you made. I would expect you’d deal with far worse in your career as an artist. I’m sorry to harp on, I’m just flummoxed that you’d respond like that. That’s the kind of response I’d expect from a teenager in a forum, not a professional on their own webpage. This is how you’re representing your professional self. Sure, it’s a message board, so it’s a little more relaxed and casual, but that doesn’t mean you act unprofessionally. How you conduct yourself still reflects on your professional image. Maybe I just caught you on a Bad Internet Day, but that was not an appropriate – not even an adult – way to handle that.

  37. It was a bad internet day, Sof.

    Your comment was not taken as “good faith, useful feedback.” You came across as mean-spirited, and your posting appeared ignorant of the facts of the matter regarding the frequency with which we openly advertise our own work.

    My only fault was responding in kind.

    Unfortunately your response is ALSO in kind, so moral high ground has been lost to both of us. Your haranguing reeks of personal attack. Sure, you’ve toned it down some, but you’re using fightin’ words. “Teenager,” and “extremely unprofessional” while perhaps justified are loathsome epithets in this setting and you know it. Yet you brandish those words freely.

    You’ve let me drag you down to my level. Or perhaps I’ve been dragged down to yours. Shame on both of us.

  38. Argh infodumps. I just started a novel by a major scifi author, and the first chapter was nothing but a giant infodump. So booooring . . . apparently anyone is vulnerable.

  39. Superb cast, looking forward to the second Nancy Fulda episode – which I am just about to listen to (luxury!).

    I know it’s three years later but, HT, you have gone up in my estimation (again) with your handling of Sof’s post, smacks to me of someone who should spend more time writing fiction and less looking for fault in others.

  40. Welp, this editor sounds like a douche. Looks like I’ll be getting writing advice elsewhere. I already have enough of a time with my own inner critic, thanks a lot. Specifically about the dystopian bit.

    Was that necessary? No.

  41. Just for the record, I stop taking an editor seriously that judges a genre, by how other genres are written.

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