Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Escape from Slush Mountain!

My wife and I have been reading short stories for a trio of themed anthologies. All told, we had about 500 submissions. This translated into roughly 1,000,000 words. Keep in mind that we're a small press just launching into anthologies, without any social media when we launched. We're offering a penny a word, not terrible for a small press, but a long way from pro rates. It's safe to extrapolate from this that if you're submitting to a more established market, or a higher paying market, your story may be in competition with a thousand others. The editors aren't looking at a slush pile. They're looking at a slush mountain. 

How can your story get to the top of that mountain? 

For the most part, we read stories in the order we received them, usually a month or more after we got it. Whatever was in your cover letter? We've forgotten it. There's really no point in a summary of your story, or a long and elaborate bio. By the time we reach your story, we're reading it completely fresh. If you're story 300 in a sequence of 500 stories, your work isn't only judged on its merits, but by whether it's standing out from all the stories we've already read, and by whether we think it's likely to be better than any of the 200 stories remaining. It's a pretty high bar!

However, plenty of submissions that jumped ahead of others in the queue simply because the title stood out. Beth Goder sent us a story for Rockets & Robots called "Dinosaur Portal Mayhem." I trusted "Dinosaur Portal Mayhem" to be one heck of a wild ride, and it was! I'm excited it's going to be in our book!  

For every "Dinosaur Portal Mayhem," we'd get five stories with titles like "The Journey." I don't think we actually got a story called "The Journey," but too many titles are essentially brown paper wrappers giving no hint at what's inside. Sometimes, these unassuming titles sit above great stories. Still, I recommend swinging for the fences with your title. Win over the editor by showing what you can do with just three or four words. 

That said, a good title is never enough to keep the editor engaged for long. The keys to keeping an editor reading past your first page is a sense of urgency. By urgency, I don't mean cliffhangers or action sequences. I mean that you aren't wasting a single word as your story opens. Every line is devoted to telling us who we're reading about, where they are, and setting up the problem soon to arise. The editor will notice that you've got a story you really want to tell. 

To find out if you've got this sort of urgent, information rich prose, circle every noun on your first page. If you can read your list of nouns out loud and have them hint at the story without any further context, you're on the right track. 

I just sold a story to Asimov's called "Lonely Hill."  The nouns in the first three sentences include Buck Heglund, North Carolina, RV, generator, and flying saucer. A person, a place, a problem. Person, place, and problem are the mirepoix of storytelling, the flavor base that supports the real meat of the story.  If you have a list of mushy, bland nouns--girl, room, chair--get yourself better ingredients. 

Person, place, problem. Dinosaur Portal Mayhem.  Follow this formula, and you've got a real shot at escaping from Slush Mountain.