Over the Transom: What Makes a Story

I don’t like the word slush. It calls to mind the vast quantities of snow, sleet, freezing rain and wintry mix that have collected everywhere in mounds of white-slowly-turning-to-grey after a recent spate of winter storms. It summons visions of dark, semifrozen pools whose depths are treacherously unknowable until it’s too late. And worst of all, the name slush pile as applied to a publisher’s unsolicited submissions recalls the image of weary editorial assistants mechanically slapping form rejection letters on manuscripts laden with the hopes and dreams of their authors.

I don’t like the word slush.

It calls to mind the vast quantities of snow, sleet, freezing rain and wintry mix that have collected everywhere in mounds of white-slowly-turning-to-grey after a recent spate of winter storms. It summons visions of dark, semifrozen pools whose depths are treacherously unknowable until it’s too late. And worst of all, the name slush pile as applied to a publisher’s unsolicited submissions recalls the image of weary editorial assistants mechanically slapping form rejection letters on manuscripts laden with the hopes and dreams of their authors.

I should know, I was one of those assistants long ago.

I don’t like calling AE’s submissions “slush” because it suggests that they form an undifferentiated mass of content, when the truth is they are anything but. Like most things in the world, submissions follow the rule of tens. For every ten stories we receive, maybe one is worth a second look. And of those, roughly one in ten makes it into the magazine. Perhaps it’s folly to try to mess with golden ratios such as these, but I’d like nothing more than for a larger portion of the stories we receive to spark a spirited discussion, and more of those to lead to a conclusion that’s more than just “interesting … but not right for us” but rather, “We have to buy this now.”

So I’d like to talk here, and in an ongoing way, about some of the trends we see when we regrettably have to pass on a story that otherwise charms us. For it’s true that roughly eighty percent of writing a good story is avoiding writing a bad one. And in the distilled short form that we trade in, every flaw is magnified. This won’t be a writing advice series — there are plenty of places you can find discussions of how to create characters, invent settings and craft sentences, both online and in bookstores. Besides, the only real rule is that if you break any rule brilliantly enough you’ve still written a great story. This is the view from the editor’s chair — specifically, from the editorial board of AE. It may be of limited applicability to other venues, but my aim is to provide some insight into our own acquisition process. With science fiction being a famously egalitarian genre where anyone is welcome to try their hand at spinning a tale, I hope that any writers in our audience will find it useful. For those of you who are mostly here to read the stories that we feature, I hope it’ll be interesting to read about how we read.


I want to start off with something that may seem obvious, or even tautological: We’re looking for stories that tell a story. Science fiction may be the literature of ideas, as we’ve all heard often enough, but an idea — however novel, however ingenious — is not sufficient. Neither are gorgeous language or arresting imagery on their own enough to tip the scales.

So when does a story lack a story? Sometimes it’s easy to tell: Nothing happens. We receive submissions that paint a vivid picture of a moment in time, depict a compelling dilemma, or present a passionate argument. Sometimes they may take an unconventional form, such as lecture notes from an alien professor or a grocery list. (All right, we haven’t actually received a grocery list story yet.) Each piece may be engaging enough for what it is, but it’s not a story. We have no context for the moment captured in the snapshot either to understand how we got here or what it means to the people caught in it. We may be drawn in by the challenge that the characters face but we don’t see whether they overcome it, or how. And if we wanted unalloyed opinions about what the world should be like and how we should behave in it, we’d read the Op-Ed page. Write us a story, not a message.

More often, a submission is actually chock full of events and still doesn’t qualify as a story. There may be evocative vignettes, but if the author is too coy about the core of the story it’s almost impossible to connect the dots and understand the narrative that runs through them. Here’s a hypothetical synopsis: An anonymous figure is hiding somewhere, slowly bleeding out. Twenty years ago she (turns out, her name is Sheila) was walking through the park on a summer day and bought an ice cream cone. She’s on a spaceship light years away from the park and They are getting closer. She was there, fifteen years ago, when we brought the doomsday device online. Now there’s a gun to our hero’s head. With a shaking hand, she raises her own weapon. But it’s not a gun; it’s an ice cream cone.

The fear may be palpable, the glimpses of the fictional device may be fascinating, and it may leave you with a sudden craving for maple walnut ice cream, but what was it all about? Hard to tell. There may be a truly interesting story lurking in there, but it’s not the one we read.

Sometimes the sequence of events is easy enough to follow but it just doesn’t add up to anything: George wakes up, performs his morning toilet. Eats a dull breakfast. Sits in traffic on the way to a soulless job. Someone is rude to him at lunchtime. He finishes his routine tasks for the rest of the work day and goes home. He falls asleep to some mindless entertainment. In the morning he gets up and does it all again.

Now, you may say: This story isn’t even science fiction. That’s true, but even if George lives on another planet, takes his showers by walking through a sanitizing arch in his dome-shaped house, commutes to work in an autonomous flying pod, and the incident at lunch is that a robot misassembles his Kerzzok’vin burger and fails to acknowledge its malfunction, it’s still not very good. Nothing happens that really matters — not even to the character who’s living through these events. The next day he’ll experience the same frustrations and have another unsatisfactory midday meal. Maybe one day he’ll get his revenge on those malicious robot cooks — now, that might be the starting point of a story that goes somewhere. It’s probably still not a very good story, but at least we understand why we’re reading about this day of all days. It takes what would otherwise be a very static tale and gives it some momentum.

So what is essential to a story? There are lots of opinions about this — some say a story must have a protagonist; it must have three acts; it must have tension — I say a story must have change. Tension is good because it can force the change. A traditional act structure is just a useful framework for showing us the before and after, and how that shift comes about. (It’s also not necessarily effective in stories of the length that we publish.) A protagonist is good because that’s often how we perceive the change — either it’s in the character’s own attitude and outlook on the world, or something in the world around him that irrevocably alters his life or the lives of others. And the best stories have both kinds of change while showing how they are related — a change in circumstances gives rise to a change in the character.

Which means that if you show us George, pushed past his breaking point, and you can make us cheer for him to finally put those accursed robots in their place, then you may have a winner.

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