What I’ve Learned From Slush Reading at PodCastle

PodCastle (the Fantasy Fiction Podcast) recently had its 9th birthday (that’s old in Internet years). It’s a year since I joined the PodCastle team as an Associate Editor (slush reader). This is what I’ve learned about the submission process since then. (The slush is another name for unsolicited stories).

Cover Letters
For something that should be so simple, some writers spend a lot of time worrying about this. I’m a fan of something like this:

Dear PodCastle,
[Story Title] is x words long and hasn’t been previously published. I’ve had stories published in A, B, C. Thank you for your time.

or

[Story Title] is x words long and was previously published in D in 2016. I’ve also had stories published in A, B, C. Thank you for your time.

You could address the letter to the editors (but in PodCastle’s case it will be the slush readers who read the bulk of the stories). If you’re going to address the editors by name, it helps if you get the names right. PodCastle’s editors have changed recently. When PodCastle had a man and a woman as co-editors, occasionally I’d see a cover letter addressed to Dear Sirs or addressing only the male editor by name. That doesn’t look good.

Don’t summarize your short story or attempt to explain it.

Don’t list all 17 of the venues you have ever been published in (especially if most of them are non-paying markets). List 3 or 4 of your most prestigious or recent publications. Or don’t mention any at all.

Alex Shvartsman has a detailed post on cover letter advice.

Read the Guidelines
PodCastle uses Submittable, which helps to ensure we don’t get people attaching 50 PDFs as their submission. PodCastle’s guidelines are pretty standard. We don’t want multiple submissions (wait until you get a response for your first submission before sending another) but we do accept simultaneous submissions (sent to another magazine at the same time). If your story is longer than 6000 words, send a query before submitting it. PodCastle sometimes does run longer stories.

Titles
Submittable presents slush readers with a list of story titles and authors. At PodCastle the slush is read in order it arrives, but it’s tempting to skip ahead and look at the stories with the most interesting titles. It’s hard to get excited about some of the plain titles, especially when I’ve found there is a correlation between good titles and good stories.

Beginning writers often give their stories one-word titles or The Something titles. Neil Clarke compiled a list of the most common titles sent to Clarkesworld. If your story is called Dust or The Gift, chances are it won’t be a memorable title.

What does it matter if you have a boring title? Surely the story is what counts? And the editors will fix the title if they buy the story. Well, maybe. I know that when people post links to stories online, I’m more inclined to read stories which have interesting titles.

So what makes a good title? Something that makes you want to read the story. This will obviously differ for people, but something that suggests a conflict, a contradiction or a strange scenario can work.

“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman.

I am Graalnak of the Vroon Empire, Destroyer of Galaxies, Supreme Overlord of the Planet Earth. Ask Me Anything.

If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love

Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast

Middle Aged Weirdo In A Cadillac

How I Mounted Goldie, Saved My Partner Lori, and Sniffed Out The People’s Justice

Half a Conversation, Overheard While Inside An Enormous Sentient Slug

The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles

The Carnival Was Eaten, All Except the Clown

John Joseph Adams has a good article on different ways to come up with short story titles.

Why I Stop Reading Stories
I don’t read past the second page for roughly half of the stories I see. Most of the time I can tell from the first paragraph that the story isn’t right for PodCastle. It’s not that the stories are terrible, it’s that they’re not good enough.

Slow openings are common — characters waking up, characters pondering their place in the world, characters wondering why their life is so boring, paragraphs of what the character is like without anything happening. Sometimes the writer tries to open with ACTION, then a paragraph later cuts to a flashback, which can completely kill the story’s pace. Of course if you write in an entertaining enough fashion, you can get away with all of this, but you’re making things harder for yourself.

One of the Shimmer slush readers wrote a great article about making the reader care about the opening of your story. You need to establish who your main character is, what they want and where they are.

The other main indicator is the quality of the writing at the sentence level. Again, this is a subjective judgment. I’m not necessarily looking for lush or baroque prose (I like lean and transparent prose), but I want something that stands out. Memorable lines or insights or ways of revealing character.

Stories that cover common tropes need to be extra awesome. Strange Horizons has a list of common stories they see.

PodCastle gets a lot of stories with deals with the devil, vampires, zombies, three wishes, retold fairy tales, magical hijinks in the workplace, patient and psychiatrist stories. These tropes have been used so many times that you need to work extra hard to make your story stand out.

Really Bad Stories
The majority of the stories I see are okay, but occasionally there are stories That Should Not Have Been Written. Horror magazines usually get sent awful serial killer, spouse revenge or rape stories. Fortunately PodCastle doesn’t get many of those. PodCastle’s particular curse seems to be brutal barbarian stories. (Usually from male writers who seem unaware the world has changed since the original Conan stories were published). If your story features naked slave girls or savage natives due for some civilization by sword point, then PodCastle probably isn’t the market for you.

Rejectomancy
If you’re a practitioner of the Art of Rejectomancy, then you shouldn’t read anything into the fact that your story’s Submittable status has changed from New to In Progress. That doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is looking at your story yet. If a new slush reader joins PodCastle, they will be added to the assignment list which can update the status of stories in the queue. PodCastle aims to get a first response within a month of submission. (This can vary by time of year). If you get a bump up to the editors, a final response can take up to a few months.

What PodCastle is Looking For
As well as looking for great stories, PodCastle wants stories that work well in audio format. If your story relies on typographical tricks or has an overabundance of characters it is going to be difficult to translate into audio. One of my most reprinted stories has line numbers in it and I know it’s not suitable for audio.

These aren’t necessarily the opinions of the editors, but from what I’ve noticed with stories I’ve passed up, flash fiction is a hard sell. PodCastle occasionally publishes shorter stories in miniature episodes, but these are not as common as regular episodes.

PodCastle has published stories from writers with a diverse range of backgrounds and looks for stories set somewhere other than Generic White Middle Class Americasville, Generic Fairytale Land or Generic Dungeons & Dragons Land (you’re making it hard for your story to stand out if the opening is set in a tavern!)

Other than that, of course, the best way to work out what kind of stories PodCastle is looking for is to listen to a few episodes.