Saturday, May 17, 2014

Saga of a Slush Pile

Posted by: T.C. Mill
Beginning this past March, and ending, Muse willing, June 1st, a friend and I have been enjoying--or at least experiencing--our slush pile debut. 

We set out with good intentions and with lust to publish the smut we wanted to see in the world.

This crusade, undertaken by my friend "Pasi" and I, started with an adventure in a Belgian bookstore. From America, I sent Pasi electronic messages of encouragement to explore what's being published romance and erotica-wise in her native land. She and her girlfriend promptly went to investigate the contents of some bookshelves...and returned disappointed, even to the point of horror. They bore tales of yawn- and groan-worthy heteronormativity, overabundance of "alpha males" who really just seemed  to be entitled jerks rather than attractive lovers, prose so purple it became ultraviolet. I wanted to comfort her by pointing out a lot of excellent erotica exists out there, too--but my confidence was suddenly undermined by reading the Bad Sex in Fiction award winners. 

The fact is, our disappointment ran all the deeper because we did know some excellent writing existed. When I was younger I'd had the patience to shift through a lot of meh and some downright yucky books to get to a core of authors I really loved, and as an older reader, I began to expand my list judiciously with the guidance of a lot of reviews and more than a few anthologies (for which my habit, at one point, became "read cover to cover, write down the authors of the stories that didn't make me rage outright, hunt them down and never read the antho again, because of the rage outright bit." Sadly, even my best pre-screenings have failed to catch some rage-inducing reading experiences such as romanticized date-rape by the 'hero'). Meanwhile, Pasi had been getting most of her smutty and romantic fix through fanfiction. And we realized: between Pasi’s background in fanfiction and fandom culture, and my experience with the small press and self-publishing, we not only knew there were underappreciated writers out there who could do much, much better if given the chance, we also knew how to provide that chance. 

NewSmutProject Icon

Thus, the New Smut Project was born.  Our goal: to bring the best aspects of NC-17 fanfiction and small press work—character-relevant sex, thoughtfulness, wordplay, and passion—in two collections of original erotica.

We sat down to write our submission guidelines. Aside from as much snickering about “submission” as might be expected when kinky individuals like ourselves sat down together, this went well, because we also shared goals for the anthologies. A prolific fanfiction writer with a Masters in psychology, Pasi wanted to see deeply-characterized erotica, where sex ties into the deepest motives and needs of the people having it, rather than the actions of cliched or cardboard "f*ckbots." For my part, a bit over a year ago, I first played with the idea of a collection of erotic shorts that each featured a character saying “No.” Because real people sometimes have boundaries in the bedroom, and respecting them doesn’t make their sex lives any less interesting or hot, but it's hard to find erotica or romance that reflects that fact! Now, we felt, the time had come.

When we posted our guidelines, we added two additional pages of storylines that made us UGH or SQUEE!  We figured we might as well be clear (plus we just enjoyed hashing out our preferences in such exquisite detail), although we also were a little concerned nobody would read all the way through. Perhaps we were being excessive. I remembered the words of my sister, who edits two fantasy webzines: "Less is more. Too much, and even smart people won't read it. And no matter how much detail you put in...people will still mess up." 

For all that, we did have a healthy bit of back-and-forth over the next few days, further explaining ourselves and answering questions from a combination of experienced writers who had spotted our submission guidelines and from new and fanfiction writers interested in embarking on original fiction, but unsure how to start. Did we offer contributor's copies? (Yes!) Did we accept reprints? (Yes!) Did we accept stories about heterosexual couples? (Yes! And every other relational arragnement you can imagine!) 

On the other hand... Suffice to say, we did get some submissions that obviously didn't fit. More advice from my editor sister: some people are just trying to psych you out, and submit stories purely for shock value. That seemed to be the only explanation for why, after having guidelines that we were pretty sure bled our concern for consent and a general feminist flavor, we got multiple stories in the slushpile that featured the exploitation, assault, and worse of female characters. We quickly added yet another post about submissions, trying to balance encouraging new writers (some of whom spoke with such an air of timidity it seemed they thought we were looking for reasons to reject them) while setting healthy boundaries around things we really didn't want to see. 

As more newbies came to us with their questions and uncertainties, I found myself saying over and over again, "Look, just send us what you've got. You care, your heart is in the right place. I guarantee you won't be the worst we've seen." Sometimes I added, with fervent faith, "In fact, you might be the best."

And somewhat surprisingly to me (although perhaps not to Pasi), some of our absolute favorite, OH MY GOD YES!-inspiring stories did in fact come from new writers and fanfiction writers stretching their muscles with original fiction for the first time. Meanwhile, cover letters laden with prestigious credits sometimes came attached to fiction that, while often technically proficient, just didn't grab us.

I've always known that reading, especially when it comes to romance and erotica, is a matter of taste. And my tastes are somewhat specific (at the least, I get the sense they're not catered to by certain predominant trends in the genre). Diversity of viewpoints is part of the game when you launch an anthology of "character-driven" erotica. It's been extremely fun to see different writers' interpretation of our themes.

And just recently, I've had the breathtakingly awesome experience of reading two stories in a row, and for each one, thinking, "This is my fantasy in words. Did I write this in my sleep? --But no, I couldn't have; this is everything I want but so much better written than I could have done it."

And I look forward to getting to share those stories with the world. 

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