Special Guest Friday: Gray Rinehart!

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Gray Rinehart is the “Slushmaster General” for Baen Books and the Associate Director of the North Carolina Aerospace Initiative at NC State University. His fiction has appeared in TALES OF THE TALISMAN and ZAHIR. Gray is also the author of one nonfiction book (QUALITY EDUCATION) and a variety of essays, articles, and papers. He retired from the United States Air Force in 2006; during his career, his assignments ranged from refurbishing space launch support facilities to commanding the Air Force’s largest satellite tracking station to writing speeches for top Air Force leaders.

Gray’s alter ego is the “Gray Man,” the famed ghost of Pawleys Island, South Carolina. His web site is http://www.graymanwrites.com. Welcome to Magical Words, Gray!

Some Writers Make My Job Easy, And I Hate Them For It

First, a bit about me: Since May 2007, I’ve been reading unsolicited manuscripts, partials, and queries — the dreaded slush — as a Contributing Editor for Baen Books. Because of Baen’s fortified position in the sub-genre of military SF, self-described “genre chick” Alethea Kontis dubbed me the “Slushmaster General.” I like that, since my Air Force career stalled out before flag rank was even a possibility.

Now, with special thanks to Misty, David, and Faith for putting up with me at a couple of conventions and inviting me to submit a few words, on to the subject at hand . ..

I love being associated with a great publisher, and I genuinely like the work I do for Baen — but I don’t like it when authors make my job too easy.

“Hate” is really too strong a word for my feeling; yes, it’s in the title, but it’s hyperbole. If you make my job too easy, I won’t actually hate you; in fact, I probably won’t invest much emotional energy in even disliking you. In truth, we might get along as people, outside the strictly business relationship — offer to buy me a drink at Dragon*Con in a couple of weeks and I won’t turn up my nose at you — but if you make my job too easy then I’m likely to dismiss you as a writer.

This bears some explanation, because who doesn’t like their job to be easy? What kind of masochist must I be to want my job to be harder?

Since I’m an engineer by training (yes, really), let me explain it this way: the difficulty of my job is directly proportional to the quality of your story. Bad stories are too easy to reject, and besides, I want to read GOOD stories. In other words:

Good story = enjoyable reading = hard to stop reading = hard to reject

Bad story = temptation to gouge out eyeballs = precious minutes of life wasted = easy to reject

Bear in mind that I’m only supposed to pass along the top 1% of all the stories I see. (That percentage is similar to the percentage of business proposals accepted by venture capitalists, as I’ve pointed out on my own blog.) Every time I pick up a new manuscript, I want it to be good; unfortunately, some writers submit stories that are so hard to read they end up being easy to reject.

How can you tell if you’re a writer who makes my job easy? If you’ve been writing and submitting for any length of time, you probably know at least some of what I’m going to say. But since so many writers seem to forget these points, they bear repeating.

You make my job easy if:

1. You never read the submission guidelines. You may, in fact, ignore their very existence. You may be thinking to yourself, Submarine guy wires? Why does a submarine need guy wires? Or maybe you did read the submission guidelines, but you think they don’t apply to you. You’ve written a fine historical romance set in the Old West, and even though our guidelines say we publish only science fiction and fantasy, you figure your story has a chance. After all, they’re “guidelines,” not “commandments,” right?

2. You consider yourself above the petty details of correct spelling, proper grammar, or sane punctuation. Maybe you assume that it’s my job to correct your errors for you, and in some sense you’re right. If you’ve written a strong enough story, I look past the occasional misplaced quotation mark or misspelled word. But if I can’t decipher your prose because your manuscript looks as if a four-year-old typed it, or because your sentence structure reads like a transcript of a poor translation of a dead language, or because you decided that each chapter would be a single long paragraph with multiple points of view and non-attributed dialogue, then you’ve made my job very easy.

3. You put too much science in your science fiction. A fourteen-page description of the fusion reactor that powers your starship does not make a compelling narrative. It’s also possible to put in too little science, by having things happen that are physically impossible; for instance, a spaceship “in orbit” does not stand still. In fantasy, it’s also possible to pack in too much of your research: if your elves-and-werewolves story is set in Macon, Georgia, in 1885, it probably doesn’t need to include every bit of information you gathered for your PhD dissertation on the antebellum South.

I’ll stop there, to avoid having this post grow to unmanageable size, and leave you with one plea: MAKE MY JOB HARDER! If you do, in the end we’ll all be happier.

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7 comments to Special Guest Friday: Gray Rinehart!

  • Great post, Gray. Good to see you here. Let me ask you a couple of questions: Aside from these clear (and very helpful) presentation issues, are there more stylistic things that turn you off to a story? Some editors don’t like stories in present tense or first person. Anything like that? And are there certain things that you find yourself looking for when you’re wading through slush? Certain types of characters or narratives that catch your attention? Thanks! — D

  • Slushmaster General, thanks for visiting MW. I’m happy to hear that there are enough of us out there who torture your eyes daily. I’ll endeavor to avoid joining the ranks. I’ve a couple quick questions for you.

    With the strength of Baen’s military sci-fi line, has there been any talk of working towards a military fantasy line?

    What sub-genres are you actively looking for when reading slush?

    Thanks again.
    NGD

  • Howdy, David, and thanks for letting me play in y’all’s sandbox. And best to you, NGD. I’ll try to address your questions together:

    1. I don’t mind first person, but I find that it often reduces the tension because it’s obvious that the narrator lived through everything in order to be telling the story. I’m open to different styles, but if the style calls too much attention to itself then it’s hard to get into the story.

    2. Even though military SF is our specialty, we publish all manner of SF and fantasy and are open to considering anything. Lately — like everyone else — we seem to get much more fantasy than SF, so a good SF story will stand out. While I don’t envision trying to establish a separate “line” for it, NGD, one of the novels I recommended was a well done military fantasy: a nice blend of high fantasy and military history in a tight milieu story. (No word yet on whether we will make an offer.)

    Bottom line for what we want: We like to focus on the fundamentals: interesting characters in difficult circumstances doing exciting things for high stakes, where the good guys win. Hope that helps!

    Best,
    G

  • QUOTE: interesting characters in difficult circumstances doing exciting things for high stakes, where the good guys win.

    Shame you don’t publish Sci-Fi romance, because, aside from being more Space Opera and less hard sci-fi, that pretty much describes my current WIP. :)

  • In other words, the treatment and cure of macaw basilisk cloacal fungus in a story about the adventures of a mutt and a raven basilisk is just TMI. :)

  • Mr. Davis, I’m reminded of a comment I believe came from one of the big magazine editors, which I have to paraphrase because I don’t remember it verbatim: let us decide whether we’re going to accept or reject your work, rather than deciding on your own in advance. If your story is strong enough, it could find a place here.

    And Mr. Kellogg, the adventures of the mutt and the raven basilisk might prove interesting, but the procedure you describe sounds more like material for an article in the Journal of the Faerie Medical Association.

    Thanks, and all the best,
    G

  • Beatriz

    Gray, I don’t have any stories to make your life easier, but I’ll make an offer to buy you a drink at Dragon Con!

    Bea