It’s one of those months. I’m reading two lots of slush, one for a themed contest and one for a high literary publication that seems unable to hang onto slushpile readers – and I’m reading for Her Circle, as I do all year round, and finally I’m working through a batch of novel synopses for a small scifi publisher whose normal reader has gone sick.

There’s nothing like reading as an editor to show you why most people don’t get published.

To begin with, for the themed contest, I’m able to reject two batches of stories instantly – these are the stories that don’t feature the theme, and the ones where the theme has been shoehorned into an existing story. The first are easy to spot; a single skim shows that quite a few contestants just don’t understand what a theme is, or believe that a theme contest means everybody has to write about the theme except them. The second lot are quite easy to pick out too – sliding a theme into a story you’ve already written isn’t as easy as people seem to think. The joins show, sometimes very badly and its always the case that some other aspect of the story will be stronger than the inserted theme, which makes the story seem oddly balanced, like a person torn between rice pudding and chocolate icecream and ending up with a dollop of each on the plate.

As for the literary contest – it’s amazing how similar the stories are. If I didn’t know better I’d say that some tutor had gathered up three or four university classes and set them this competition as their term’s project. They are polished works, no doubt about it, but there’s almost no originality, and most of them either fade into bathos or end with some oddly equivocal scene that leaves it to the reader to decide how the narrative arc actually plays out. Ambiguity is much harder to pull off than it seems, and when you’ve read five stories in a row where people leave a party together but aren’t talking, or walk down a road together but aren’t talking, or get into bed together but aren’t talking … well you get the picture.

The scifi is difficult. I don’t like judging writing from synopses alone, and with science fiction it can be almost impossible to tell if a plot is a zinger or a flatliner unless you’ve got a sample of the writer’s prose in front of you. On the other hand, there’s very little ambiguity about the endings, which is refreshing, and while the world-building and science elements are often not fully thought through, or not fully expressed in the synopsis, there’s a level of imaginative play that the literary submissions rarely achieve. I’ve picked two that seem worthy of further exploration and suggested to a couple of the other writers where the major weaknesses in their outlines have prevented them making the cut, but I don’t think I’ll take this work on again. I wouldn’t want my own novel evaluated on synopsis alone – although of course this is exactly what many agents do – and I’m struggling to trust my own instincts based on a one page outline and whatever writing credits the poor author has included. One thing it does reveal though, is how often people just can’t follow instructions, and I sympathise with agents and publishing houses who do this every working day – the guidelines are not arbitrary, they help the reader measure like against like and if you break the rules, you’re more likely to end up in the pile of rejects than impress a tired reader with your inventiveness.

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