Friday, July 4, 2008

Diary of a slush pile reader

In my salad days, when I was green in judgment and cold in blood, I thought it would be fun to read slush. I could read all day, but I could put down any manuscript which didn't hold my interest and there would be no need to critique them. Plus, every now and then I'd find a ruby in the rubble. What wasn't to like?

Then I read Slushkiller, Teresa Nielsen Hayden's Making Light article that mentions the proportion of nonsaleable to saleable manuscripts in the slush pile - 99 to 1 - and makes it clear that a significant portion of the 99 are, shall we say, not an easy read. I still didn't think it would be that bad, though whenever I read about editors who got proposals for plagiarized work or bizarre stories like a garbage can lid's love affair with an empty box, yes, I could see how that might make someone not eager to dive into the slush pile headfirst. It also couldn't be easy to read sad or hopeful cover letters.

But that wasn't the worst thing that could happen to a slush pile reader, as I realized when I read this hilarious article, Confessions of a Slush Pile Reader. That would be the writer who hung around in the lobby, waiting for the editorial assistant (OK, he only wanted to get his manuscript back, but still, that's a bit unnerving). Then there were the people who called, asking for the editor. The assistant's solution to this is brilliant. And then there's the great Kilimanjaro of the slush pile itself - not just a mound of manuscripts, but the repository of dreams (and nightmares). I thought that sending bribes or manuscripts printed on colored paper was the weirdest thing people could do. Note to self : people will always surprise you that way.

I don't think I'll ever want to read slush again. But I'd love to read more great articles about other people reading it.


December/Stacia said...

This is a very mean confessions, but... I once traded mss with someone I knew casually online, years ago when I first started writing. Now, I know my work at the time wasn't fantastic, but hers was abominable. Really, really terrible. Idiot Plot, uberstalkery hero, stilted dialogue, obviously heavily influenced from Bridget Jones' Diary (right down to the cooking scene, the "I genuinely like you" scene, etc. etc.)

I kept it. I read it whenever I felt down about my own work, because it reminded me that at least I wasn't that bad. I actually really wish I still had it and it wasn't lost on my old laptop, in fact. It's a cheap and mean laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.

Angela said...

I'd love to see & sort a slushpile myself, if only for a day. I think we often hear about 'how bad' some MS's are in there, but deep down we think, na, it can't be that bad. There's instructions everywhere on how to prep a manuscript, right? And there's so many writer's resources, the dark gloom of the slush must be an urban myth.

Bare minimum, seeing the horrors inside the slush would make me feel much better about my own work, I'm thinking!

How Publishing Really Works said...

Trust me: trawling the slush pile is not a fun thing to do. I used to work as an editor, at a book packager which specialised in illustrated, esoteric adult non-fiction. We published books about meditation, religion, prediction, mythology, retreat, and tantric sex. Despite this, submissions included novels, pornography, and proposals for books about cars, weaponry, and computing. The most fantastic submission was a heavily-illustrated children's story book, in verse, about trolls. All written in Dutch, with no translation provided.

Truly bad slush quickly stops being funny and starts being scary. Don't these people read, or think, or even understand the most basic of guidelines? Trust me, if you can (to paraphrase Jim Macdonald) write two consecutive pages of text which is mostly coherent you're already in the top ten percent.

Marian said...

Maybe we, as writers, assume that other writers are like us - that they're mostly sane and query according to the publisher's guidelines. This may not be a safe assumption when it comes to the slush pile.

Another scary part, for me, would be getting manuscripts that had, uh, fluids of biological origin on them (I think Janet Reid has a blog post about this).

So if I ever feel like reading slush, safer alternatives would be or PublishAmerica, which prints its slush pile.

Kim said...

I'd love to wade through that pile for just one day - but I have a feeling it would be as depressing as anything by the end of it.

I used to judge in couple of contests, but I gave it up this year when last year I had to literally force myself to finish entries - I imagine that's how a slush reader feels. I was getting angry at the authors because some of the mistakes in those entries were straight out of Writing 101. It was as frustrating as it was sad...

Marian said...

Were you required to read all the entries through? Couldn't you stop at the point where it was clear that the writer was functionally illiterate?

This is one reason I'm always a little skeptical of those new and startup publishers who claim that they read every submission through and/or offer a commentary on it.