Secrets of the Slush: An Interview with Editor and Author, Michael Nye
Michael Nye lives, eats, and breathes literature—when he's not playing pickup basketball, anyway.
As a former or current editor of esteemed literary journals such as Boulevard, Missouri Review, and River Styx, he knows a thing or two about busting through the slush pile. He's also a gifted teacher (full disclosure: he was my literary Yoda when I was in my MFA program) and badass author in his own right.
Don't believe me? Pick up a copy of his short story collection, Strategies Against Extinction, and read "Sparring Vladamir Putin." Try to keep your face from melting off with glee. It's one of my favorite stories ever, and that was before Donald Trump turned Putin into a permanent fixture of our current news cycle.
Oh, and that Michael Nye jumper? Smooth as silk.
So I interviewed Michael to help you be a better writer, get inside the head of an elite editor, and have a little fun along the way.
You have to read a lot of bad stories to find the gems. How does the metric ton of critical reading affect your writing? Did reading a bunch of slush ever degrade your prose?
Reading for a magazine has been the best and most valuable part of my training as a writer. I don't have a sophisticated guess as to how many stories I've read over the years, but it's well into the thousands, maybe over ten thousand now. So, even if I couldn't tell you exactly why, I have an immediate "this is working" reaction to page one, or (and this is even better) a "why is this working?" All the rookie mistakes are easy to avoid now, but I get to read and experience what my contemporaries are doing in real time: what other writers are working on right now. That's tremendously helpful as a writer, exciting as an editor, and fascinating as a reader.
And I hope it doesn't degrade my prose! I think it most helps with remembering to write something, or aiming to write something, great rather than good or good enough.
Let's walk through the process. There's a slush pile. Then some junior readers or interns or students or whoever read through it to get the obvious crap out of the way, and then you get whatever remains from that filtration process. Correct me if I'm wrong here. With this filtration in place, how many stories did/do you typically read in a week or a month? What's your personal record for most stories in a month or a week?
Most literary magazines receive their submissions directly through the slush pile. 99.9% Every place I've worked has had writers or literary agents send directly to the editor; every place I've worked has generally not liked this, and even those pieces, generally, get turned down. A love of discovery drives literary magazines, finding gold Sierra Madre-style, and though editors like myself will complain about submission piles, we secretly love it.
Yes, most magazines have readers, interns, or screeners who act as "first readers." Depending on my mood, I'd say 50% to 90% of submissions are really that bad and don't need to be looked at by a senior editor or the editor in chief. This may sound harsh, but here's the math: the Missouri Review receives 12,000 submissions per year, and of that, publishes 40 pieces. 40! And it's a quarterly! If you include their excellent Poem of the Week feature, TMR publishes a little bit more than that, but still, it is very difficult to crack a magazine. At TMR, the interns who read were encouraged to pitch two stories (out of 20) every week. Was every batch great? Of course not. But it encouraged them to find what is good about a story, rather than what was bad, and that makes for really generous, thoughtful readers. And ultimately, stories.
At River Styx, I read all the fiction. I'm sure I had a week where I read 50 to 60 stories. At TMR, I read work that had received several thumbs up, so I read fewer stories, but I also read better stories, stories that required more thought and engagement. Those stories would be passed among the senior editors and discussed in detail. No week is the same for a managing editor, so on one week, I might read 40 stories. The next week? Nothing. It just depends.
Do weird "themes" emerge when you're reading, like you would get a lot of stories in a single month with writers as the narrator of the story? Any other frequent cliches or "theme rashes" that are worth mentioning?
Oh, man. One year I saw a half dozen stories about Lazarus. Not the department store but THE Lazarus. Why? No idea. Now there are a ton of Karen Russell knockoff stories — weird, quirky stories with one really fantastic element that's ultimately not that interesting. There are always a ton of nonfiction essays that are broadly My Year As a White Person Doing Humanitarian Work in Africa Made Me Woke, which always includes a digressive and boring love story that ends in heartbreak. A few years ago, there were more Carver knockoff stories, some kind of working-class ennui, with two people sitting around doing nothing and complaining in a stripped down vernacular. But maybe I took the blue pill, and I'm forgetting a few of the crazier trends that I've seen over the years.
Is it true that you can tell in about one page if the writing/story is any good? How long does it take you to say "screw this, I'm out?"
Yes, it is true. Or, maybe, more accurate, I can tell from page one if a story has the potential to be good. Bad stories are bad on page one, and it's obvious. Good stories have a quality of being intriguing, engaging, and captivating on page one. Even if the work or style is not familiar to me or even my taste (or, more importantly, the magazine's taste), page one indicates that something compelling is happening. I believe Sven Birkets over at AGNI wrote about his method: a stack of 50 manuscripts, read just the first page, and if he isn't interested, he rejects it.
I don't have a preconceived idea of how long I will read a story until I give up on it. I usually hit that point, and then try to push ahead another couple of pages, in case I'm wrong. I'm usually not, but I can be. Also, once I reach the halfway point, I always finish reading a story. Like anyone else, I'm always curious to see how a story ends.
What is the most common writing issue that makes you say "I'm out" when reading a story? We're looking for the top mistake for writers to avoid in their submissions.
This is hard to explain, but I would say rhythmless writing is what gets me out immediately. Clunky word choices, cluttered syntax, constipated thoughts: all sorts of things that show the reader that the story just can't dance. I realize this is not a particularly helpful rubric, but good stories just have a quality of having a great ear. Great stories sound good. They know the distinct voice of the author, narrator, and character, and signal the reader that the author is in complete control of the story. Every good writer I know reads her/his work out loud as they write and revise, and that quality jumps out when reading for a magazine.
To give a snarkier answer: stories about writing professors or, frankly, any university professor is a hard stop for me. I've recently read an excellent story that is about university professors, which is forthcoming in the next issue of Boulevard, but on the whole, it just screams "I HAVE NO IMAGINATION!" and the character almost always acts in the most expected ways. But, hey: art is all about breaking the rules, right?
What is the etiquette of bypassing the slush pile because you know the editor? Like, if I wanted to submit at the Missouri Review while you worked there, should I just respect the process, or drop a line and say "hey pluck me off the slush?"
The etiquette for bypassing the editor really depends on the editor. This is very personal, so what works for me probably doesn't work for other editors, so take all this with a grain of salt.
In short: don't. We have guidelines. Please follow them. Second: ask. A quick email saying, 'hey do you mind if I send this directly to you?' would be great. I'd also prefer that the work still goes through the system: postal, Submittable, Submission Manager, whatever the magazine uses. It's really easy for me to grab a story this way, while at the same time, maintaining the integrity of our tracking system, which is important.
Writer-friends who have sent me work directly know a few things about me that make this system work. One, I have never been The Decider. I can't just publish your story because we're pals. Two, I will not endorse your story if I don't believe in it. I may deliver the message gently, but if I don't think your story is right for my magazine, I will say so. Third, your chances, while certainly improved, are still pretty low. Again, I go back to how hard the reality of publishing in a literary magazine is: the competition is fierce.
Basically, to make a tortured basketball analogy, I'm the point guard. I can bring the ball to the strong side, pull the entire defense to my side of the court, and then make the best swing pass to the opposite corner where you are standing wide-open for the easiest three-point shot in the game . . . but you still have to hit the shot. That's on you.
Challenge: you have to teach a group of high school students to become great writers, but can only use three short stories in your curriculum. Which ones do you choose?
I'm going to do my best to not overthink this question, though I know already that I'm going to overthink this question. With the caveat that there are probably 200 acceptable answers to this question, here goes:
"Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin. To write about America, to be a great writer, a person must think about race and class. I don't see how that can be avoided. And this is one of the best stories, ever, to do both. Further, it's about suffering and family ties, elements that resonate in every great story: not just "who am I?" but who am I in relation to others? It's also a story about artistic expression, how art can help us to express and externalize pain. Baldwin is also one of the great American writers, and the sooner high school students are exposed to his work, the better.
"The Rest of Her Life" by Steve Yarbrough. This is one of my favorite, if not very favorite, stories to teach. The separation between narrator and character knowledge is tremendous, as too are the movements through time, which spans over twenty years in this story about a teenage protagonist whose father murdered her mother. The story is very much a crime drama and can show students how great literature doesn't have to be "boring."
“The Ceiling” by Kevin Brockmeier. Pretty simple setup here: a marriage crumbles, their eight-year-old son is caught in the middle, all while a massive obsidian ceiling that started as a speck in the sky starts coming lower and lower on their town. Which, of course, everyone ignores, even as buildings and trees start collapsing and the sun is blocked out, and everyone is on their hands and knees because they can't stand up anymore. What is the ceiling? What does it mean? It means a great many things and for students to see that stories don't have to be realistic, that writing can be strange and wonderful and peculiar, is a lesson that I hope they would carry with them for a very long time.
Entire industries have been built on "How to survive the slush pile" or how to get accepted at literary mags. You were a guy actually doing the accepting. Other than "write something fucking fantastic," what is your best advice? What is a breath of fresh air to an editor? Just as some examples that come to mind, maybe having a unique setting or simply taking the time to make sure the story is FINISHED (I bet you've seen a lot of early drafts as people clamor to get published).
Your question points out the problem: industries built on "gaming the system." What if literary magazines, and books and publishing in general, is truly a meritocracy? Editors see clever all the time. Trying a sensational first page, an explosive moment, a gotcha!, is pretty transparent. Not to overstate the obvious, but writing fiction is incredibly difficult to do well. There is no trick. There is no magic elixir.
So what jumps out? Confidence. A confident narrative voice that guides the story, and consequently the reader, along with the story. It has all the qualities that we would learn in a writing workshop: good language, use of point of view, significant and memorable details, an engaging character(s), and so forth, but it also has a "something else" to it. The rhythm of the writing has a power to it, whether that power is understated or emphatic, that sucks in the reader. The story can't be put down. And to get to that point requires many drafts of one story, many hours spent reading and writing and revising, not just the story in front of the editor, but the writer's work altogether. Don't be clever. Don't be slick. Don't think about the editor. Write the fierce story that demands to be read.
You are a self-confessed book-thrower. Have you ever thrown a short story, or otherwise destroyed the paper it's printed on? I could see you turning a bad story into paper airplanes and launching it page by page into a roaring fire.
I'm an expert thrower! Usually, I read short stories in literary magazines, and the print versions are usually in the same size and shape of a paperback, the aerodynamics of which are fantastic for chucking in a parabola across the room. Then, my dog wakes up and sniffs the magazine and looks up at me with a "what did it do?" expression.
Book throwing works best when the story takes such a gross, terrible turn from the direction it was going, or suffers a total failure of imagination, a breaking of the fictive dream, etc., that when as a reader I suddenly feel cheated, tricked, or insulted. Sometimes all three, and more.
My hope, of course, is to read something that I tear through, read cover-to-cover, and as soon as I'm done, I close it and just think "wow."
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