How to Escape from the Slushpile

I used to work at a Major New York Publisher (all right: it was Tor Books). First, I worked in production, then as the Publisher’s Assistant.  Both jobs were fast-paced, chaotic, exhausting.  Sometimes I needed a break.

Those were the days I’d take a manuscript from the Slush Pile.

Slush manuscripts are the unsolicited manuscripts that are received every day at a publisher.  At that time at Tor, if memory serves, we got from 5 to 20 a day (the sheer volume of slush goes a long way to explaining the response time at most publishers).  And most of them were, I am sad to say, execrable. Not just bad, but outstandingly bad in a variety of ways.  There were the manuscripts for which the author sent teasers (MY BOOK IS COMING! WATCH THE SKIES! HOOPLA!); there were the books that included blurbs from the author’s barber or barista or cable repair person; there were the books that, to draw attention to themselves, were printed in purple ink on yellow paper and tied with ribbons; there were books that came with boxes of cookies.

Clearly, the first lesson is: don’t do any of these things.  In fact, most How-Tos will explicitly tell you: white paper, good margins, black ink, double spaced, etc.  Short, smart cover letter.  No bribes.

But even the manuscripts that looked reasonable were often startlingly bad.  Not just in the mechanics of spelling or grammar. The larger issues of plot and character and style were a mess.  And derivative?  Seen it all before? Oy.

So the second lesson is: write a good book.  That’s the simplest instruction I can give you in terms of getting out of the slush pile.  Because there is not more joy in Heaven at the redemption of one lost soul than there is in the hallways of editorial when a reader finds a book worth championing.

Of course everyone believes that his or her book is good, right?  I don’t want to give particular examples of this wrongheadedness; that’s not kind.  So the best thing I can tell you is: get people you trust to read your work before you send it in.  You don’t have to be in a workshop, but you do have to have readers who read.  The kind of people who come out of a movie telling you, not just that they liked or didn’t like it, but why.

As fabulous as it is for your ego, what you don’t want for your your first readers is people who are awed that you wrote a book at all.  You want readers who like you enough to make sure you don’t go out in public with your slip showing.  And when those caring people give you feedback, consider it.  Let your readers help you make it a better book.  It may be your ticket out of the slushpile.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

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How to Escape from the Slushpile — 7 Comments

  1. A good critique group is worth its weight in gold, not only for the honest feedback, but because other writers talk shop. You can’t help but learn something by osmosis. This with the caveat that the members of the group are honestly trying to get good work published. I’ve been to some groups who want to sit and gossip about the neighbors while drinking tea and rationalize it as character observation. Or the group of memoir writers who are convinced their journey through life in suburbia is utterly fascinating to the entire world.

    Audition your critique group!

  2. You can also find some online critique groups, and if it is a good fit for you it can be a lifesaver, especially if you do not live in a major metro area. If you -do- live in a metro area, there are often classes run by arts organizations or adult ed groups. I teach at one, the Writers Center in Bethesda, MD (writer.org). And I do solemnly assure you, I get every class to pursue clarity, vigor and focus, and you do not leave the class without a grasp of character and plot.

  3. This would explain why so many authors include acknowledgments that specifically thank their critique group.

    I’m not a writer but I do read those (well the shorter ones.)

    Although trying to puzzle out the in-jokes can be a trial.

  4. If the Laws of Slush are true for novels, they are true-on-steroids for short fiction. When I was reading open sumbissions for the second LACE AND BLADE, I got so many flavors: Plain Slush, Derivative Slush, Bottom-of-the-Trunk Slush… and some very odd porn.

  5. I write games, which is a similar field with similar lessons.

    Step 1: Write your game – at least enough to be playable.
    Step 2: Teach other people to play your game. If you can’t, go back to step 1.
    Step 3: Rewrite your game based on Step 2. Is it still fun, or has someone found a ‘trick key’ or perfect strategy?
    Step 4: If your game survives Step 3, put it into a page layout program (Word doesn’t count…) with at least rough mockups of the explanatory diagrams needed. Solicit for beta testers. These will be people who try to learn the game without you being present.
    Step 5: Send to beta testers. Watch about 98% of your beta test copies elicit no feedback.
    Step 6: If you get usable beta test reports, they will almost certainly be negative – things to fix.
    Step 7: At this point, it’s time to find someone else to hand the game off to – this person is a developer, and is closest to being an editor at a major book company.

    It’s the developers job to handle feedback reports and take critiques, determine their merits and change the game draft to reflect them. Also, most developers will start talking to production and print buying about component lists.