Getting stories read takes support from a whole load of different people – editors, slush readers, reviewers and countless more. Jared Cooper, as well as being a writer and a fellow member of the Reading Excuses writing group, fills several of these roles. So to give you some insight into other parts of the business, I present an interview with Jared…
Tell us a bit about yourself and where you fit into the world of stories.
I’m just a Jersey kid who likes to write. I was blessed with a string of passionate English teachers who showed me that I could tell stories. This process resulted, somehow, in me dropping out of high school and writing a novel at 16—which no agents wanted, rightfully so.
The next few years are a college-shaped blur, but over the past year or so (I am 24) I’ve really committed to my writing. I have a published short story, read slush for Lightspeed, review books for Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing, and have made a handful of great connections, so I consider myself having taken good first steps in my writing career.
Your dissertation relates to short stories – could you tell us what it’s about?
Many writers will tell you: begin with short fiction. The elements of the craft are all there; it’s easier to read and dissect short stories; and getting some published gives you a nice boost of experience for when you work on novels. At the very least, you become familiar with the demons of rejection and persistence, ideally building a thick skin as well as your writing skills. It’s a good argument, to start short, and I wanted to show why with my thesis.
The idea was, essentially, to demystify the great machine of sci-fi/fantasy short story markets, and get some hard facts to show that writing short stories is a great way to break into the field. I love science fiction and fantasy, and there’s a big community around it, which was a big factor in my research.
What have you found so far in your research?
That writing is hard, man. One of the most fascinating statistics I examined was acceptance rates. Semi-pro ‘zines generally have an acceptance rate of less than 1%. But does this mean every story has a 1 in 100 chance of being published? Not at all. Every story is judged on merit (speaking broadly, of course), and one in every hundred of these happens to be considered worth purchasing and publishing. It’s a highly demanding, competitive arena, which is essential for a new writer. It’s fantastic, because anyone can do it, with a little guidance.
My research showed me the benefit of reading, sometimes very closely, what gets published. If you want to write something, the best thing you can do is read everything you can that’s most like it. The more you find stories to love, the more your mind shapes the stories you’ll end up writing, which is a wonderful organic process.
But you still have to know the mechanics. Thus, we come to the slush pile.
How does slush reading work in practice?
Each magazine is different, but most I’ve seen or participated in have a tiered system. The first readers read everything that gets sent in, and if they think it’s good enough, they pass it up to the editor and their assistants. Usually it’s just two or three “levels” like this, because the vast majority of stories die before the first readers. Lightspeed has a 1% acceptance rate, and out of the first 300 stories I read for them, exactly 3 of those were accepted for publication. It still intrigues me to see that statistic proven in practice, considering every story is judged on merit.
You learn all these crucial things for what makes a good story: strong openings, clear concepts, good dialogue, good endings. The more you consume, and the more you see stories that get attention for being well-done, the better idea you have of what to do. The taste of the magazine is a factor, too, but it almost always comes down to craft.
What gets a story past you to the next stage?
Once a story is sent to the higher levels, it gets kicked around by the editors and assistants, deciding if this piece that looked worth a second glance should be published.
A lot of stories die there, too. Part of what preserves that 1% statistic is that there are no “near wins” with fiction; a story doesn’t just make it. The editors may not be unanimous, but in almost every case, the positive feedback has to overwhelm the negative. Having said this, one of the three accepted stories I mentioned was a requested rewrite, which does happen, but only if the editor is confident in your skill.
My experience is still lacking, a bit, so I leaned more on how much I felt the story fit the magazine’s taste rather than how highly I rated it. Although it is extremely validating to see veteran editors give similar comments to my taste profile.
It’s very educational, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to write short fiction. Keep your eyes open for magazines looking for slush readers; it will be the best investment of your time as a beginner.
What are you writing fiction-wise at the moment?
I mentioned writing a novel at 16. That was a project I spent about four or five years reworking and rewriting, and then let sit. This year, I’ve taken all my favorite parts of the story and split them into short pieces. A handful of those are being sent around, accruing feedback, and in rare cases, getting published!
I’m also about 36k words into a new novel, about 10k into a novella, and I have an array of short pieces, old and new, in various stages of completion and critique. Right now I’m developing my schedule and getting as much done as I can—and, currently, finishing school.
Last question – what have you enjoyed reading recently, and what was good about it?
I just finished Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and it was fantastic. Jeff shot straight to my favorites list, and it’s great because I’m hunting down authors who have extensive short fiction publications, or have written about writing. VanderMeer’s done all that; he’s a great fountain of knowledge, and I can confidently recommend that almost anything he’s worked on will improve an aspiring writer.
But really, if you want to write: find fiction to love. Find writers who talk passionately about the craft, whose ideas you agree with, and let them show you their favorites. And if you can, slush read. Developing your craft is a continual process, and often exhausting, but my thesis has shown me that it’s not an industry to be afraid of. Anyone can do it, if they want.
Jared W. Cooper is a Jersey-born editor, reviewer, and short story aficionado. His work has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction, and his reviews can be found at Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing. He can be found on twitter @jaredwcooper, and at jaredwcooper.org,