Thursday, December 12, 2013


AS MOST OF YOU WHO VISIT MY BLOG know, I’ve been posting my writing primer, The ABC’s of How NOT to Write Speculative Fiction as I revise it. I just finished with the letter ‘D’ for Dramatic Tension. The ABC’s are meant for those writers who are just starting out and want to save time learning the craft. I hope they're a good reminder for us all.

I’ve long held the belief that we learn to write in three stages. The first stage is where we have this great idea, a story we want to tell, but we don’t have the tools with which to tell it yet. The second stage might take years, where we learn the techniques of writing – how to handle plot, dialogue, tension, etc. – all those things that I focus on in the ABC’s. The final stage is about story. This is where many writers get bogged down. It doesn’t matter how polished your work is if the story doesn’t deliver the way it should.

I’ve started reading the On Spec slush. To date, we’ve received over 300 manuscripts. We may receive that many again before the window closes. Welcome to Letters to the Slush Pile. These are some of the things I want to say about what I’m seeing, or not seeing, in certain manuscripts (which shall remain unnamed, along with their authors). They’re meant for those writers who are at a higher level of writing and who wonder why we reject their work (or ask for a rewrite with no promises). At On Spec, we often disagree on what works and what doesn’t. If you think I'm targeting you personally, likely I'm not, as these are common issues (ie. I'm seeing them in more than one story). I'm penning these letters to be helpful. 

Here's my first Letter to the Slush Pile: 

Dear ------,

Thanks for sharing your story ----- with me. Listen, you can write, that much is obvious. Your work is polished, you have the technique down pat. I didn’t ‘snag’ anywhere, your prose moved along well. 

The thing is… I liked your protagonist, but I wanted to like him more. He was inconvenienced by his situation – which was interesting – but that was all. It didn’t strike me that his problem bothered him too much. I would have connected with him more strongly if he had been really affected/upset by his trouble and if it mattered a great deal. I also needed to understand more about his world. I know it’s better when readers are allowed to figure these things out as they go along, but for me, it came too late – at the end. My advice to you – give your reader more. More drama, higher stakes, and a greater understanding of the setting. 

If you choose to revise with these in mind, I'd be happy to look at it again. All the best – Susan.


  1. Yep, it's that middling "I sort of know what I'm doing but can't figure out why my work isn't getting accepted" part of being a writer that is maddening. There are some books on plot I wish I could go back and give to myself 10 years ago -- it would have saved me so much grief!
    Worse, I don't know what my ten-years-in-the-future self wants me to read right now. Probably letters like this one...

  2. Thanks, David. I think a lot of writers wonder what editors are thinking, when they fail to buy their work. I hope these letters are helpful and give some insight. :-)