Write great protagonists!
I'll be at LDSPMA
Tips organized by topic
Read about me
Editing Services
Read Testimonials
Learn the "bones" of story

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

How to Stand Out in the Slush Pile 101

Submission piles in the writing industry are lovingly nicknamed "slush piles," because most of the stories are . . . more like slush than stories. Here are some tips to make sure your opening is more story and less slush.

1. Make sure you follow the proper manuscript formatting.

For some of the submission piles I've been involved with, a template of the proper format was available for download. Nonetheless, the majority of submissions didn't follow it. Some people don't indent paragraphs, don't even have paragraphs, or use weird fonts etc. Don't add pictures to your manuscript—keep it simple and professional. Save and send it in the proper electronic format, which is usually a Word document.

For some publications, if the story isn’t formatted correctly, it is immediately rejected.

If you cannot find the formatting guidelines, you are usually safe using standard manuscript format, which is the traditional way of formatting.

2. Unless you are an advanced writer, communicate character, setting, and conflict (or tension) quick.

Most submissions get rejected in a matter of paragraphs or pages. Often pieces that get rejected are missing either a sense of character, setting, or conflict (or tension) in the opening. Sure, some stories get away without having all these things, but they better be hecka good in other ways. When I say "opening"--for some, that's the beginning paragraphs. For others, it's by the end of the second page.

Setting in particular seems to get left out. I’ve read scenes where the setting is never even hinted at—I don’t know if the characters are in a hospital, a bar, or a circus.

When it comes to conflict, you don't necessarily need a bomb going off. In fact, you may not need a ton of conflict on the page itself—but you need the promise of significant conflict to come, or in other words, you need tension.

Here are two posts that may help with that:
Tension vs. Conflict
Are Your Conflict Significant?

3. Use character names. 

Too many new writers “hide” their characters’ names. A bunch of vague pronouns doesn’t help me figure out who is doing what. Ex: "He (who?) held his hand over his (his own mouth or someone else’s?) mouth. The chief (is this “he” or a different person?) couldn't believe this was happening. He (the chief?) struggled. Then the man (the “he,” “chief,” or someone else?) forced the hand away from his (whose mouth?) mouth.”—who is doing what? How many people are there?

4. Don't open your story with a dream—usually

Dreams can be such a letdown. One submission I read was really good, and I was going to set it aside, and I got to the end of the second page and the first two pages were a dream! Don't even open your story with a short dream. It's too cliché in the slush pile. If you NEED a dream in it, don't do it in the first few pages.

Of course, like all of these, there are exceptions, but whenever you break a rule it's got to be really good and you've got to have a good reason for breaking it.

5. Make sure your character is actually doing something on the first page.

Make sure there is some movement, and better yet, make sure there is tension. Too many submissions start with a character just sitting and thinking about something, usually something that happened in the past.

If possible, have at least two characters interacting in the first scene. It's way more interesting than the 50 other stories that start with one character thinking.

6. Avoid flashbacks.

Number 5 is usually paired with something like this: "It all started a month ago," or "Maybe I should start at the beginning," or "This all started last week."—and then the story goes back to the real “starting” or some sort of flashback. If that is where the story started, start there, and then you won't have to tell me “how it started.” I'll see it.

7. Don't start with a character running away from something really vague. 

There are way too many stories that start this way. It might sound like a cool opening, but after you’ve read 12 of them, you realize it’s not as cool as you first thought.

8. Don't start with a long “telling” explanation of something, like "The city was surrounded by mountains, and we were told to never leave the city. The mountains have been around since the beginning of time when the gods got angry and decided to keep us locked up in one place. Back when my grandmother was alive, she used to tell me stories about people who left the city and never returned...(on for 1 1/2 pages)" While this info might be interesting, there's no immediacy. I'm just being told information. The slush piles can sometimes be loaded with this opening. At least give me like a page of something concrete and immediate before “explaining,” or “telling” me something.

9. Don't start a story with your character waking up on an ordinary day doing ordinary stuff. 

Again, that's not really where the story starts. But too many stories start there. Give me some tension.

10. Avoid purple prose. 

First off, if you can write detail that appeals to the senses, do it, because too many submissions are missing strong imagery in the opening. If you can write striking metaphors or similes, put one in the opening also. But don’t go overboard. I read one submission that took a paragraph to describe one action about ten different ways. Only about two things actually happened on the first page.

But don't write purple prose. If you don't know what purple prose is, it might be a great idea to spend some time researching it on Google this week. Basically, it's overwrought, melodramatic description.

11. Don't submit your writing exercises as a story.

I've seen a few submissions that I think were supposed to be practice exercises--like that exercise in creative writing classes where you have to try to describe something without saying what it is, or where you use only dialogue to tell a story. Those are great exercises, but (in most cases) they shouldn't be sent in as professional pieces for publication.

12. Don't include a bunch of pointless info about your character. 

Reading two paragraphs about how your character's choice of music is different than his mom's isn't going to help me get to know your character, and it's not important unless your story involves music (in the case of this submission, it didn’t).

Some people try to “find” their character by giving them too many quirks and random details etc. But those are only the surface of the character—instead try to focus on how your character changes in your story, and what you need to establish first to show that change.

I have a bunch of posts on character that you can find in my Writing Tip Index.

13. Follow the submission guidelines.

In one submission pile I worked with, the publication was meant to showcase local writing, so if someone from Arkansas submitted, we couldn't take the submission. In another, the guidelines stated that the story should be appropriate for a general audience. That means that the story that starts with people having an affair and uses the f-word about 12 times in the first page is probably out.

14. Use correct English and spelling.

And watch for anything that sounds awkward.

15. Unless otherwise stated or inappropriate, do state your writing credentials somewhere—a cover letter, query letter, or just the body of an email (depending on submission guidelines). Even minor writing credentials put a better flavor in the editor's mouth because they imply you have some idea of what you are doing. At least that's been my experience.

With that said though, ultimately the story is what needs to be amazing.

Above all, use correct formatting, start with immediacy (not explanation), and have the setting, character, and conflict or tension established in the opening. That will put in you in the top 20% of submissions, from my experience.

Also, keep in mind that great writers have broken a lot of these rules. In fact, great writers usually do break some rules. But this is "How to Stand Out in the Slush Pile 101," and unless you are an advanced writer, you should put your best foot forward by following these guidelines

Good luck! And if you would like more advanced information on how to write the starting of your story so that it gets out of the slush pile, you can check out the book Hooked by Les Edgerton.


  1. Your email is the first that I have read for the new year. I find it timely on where my 2nd draft can better -- especially #7. May I share this post with a closed Facebook group I belong to?

  2. Fabulous article and perfect timing for me as I jump back into writing after a long break. I ran across your informative post while honing up on my writing skills and catching up on my favorite — go to writing craft blogs. It’s time to dive back into revising one book and pick up where I left off on the very rough draft of another. Your post is a tad premature as I’m not quite ready to query either one, but each piece of advice you offered is spot on and should be applied at every stage of writing. It’s better to get it right now, so when I’m churning out the query letters, hopefully I will improve my chances. Anything I can do that separates my MS from the slush pile is worth the effort and I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve my writing. Thanks for the tips. I’m gonna head over and read your tips in the index. This list was extraordinary. It amazes me that some people really don’t follow simple instructions. I appreciate every little edge I can get.
    Melissa @
    Sugar Crime Scene

    1. Melissa,

      Hope you enjoyed your long break! And glad you found me :)

      And yes, I agree, it's always great when you can get right to begin with . . . or in the second draft or third draft . . . as opposed to a much later draft.

      Yes, quite a few people don't follow the guidelines to be honest.

      Hope you find something helpful in the index ^_^


I love comments :)