Thursday, April 25, 2013

My life in the slush pile.


Back in the twentieth century when I started out in publishing, publishers did not insist that all submissions be agented, and direct submissions, aka the slush pile, served as training wheels (more like hamster wheels as it turned out) for young editors. In my beginner's job at Bantam, I was assigned a desk in the secretarial bullpen where a monster stack of manuscripts waited for me. My job was to read them to see if any might be worth passing on to one of the older, more experienced editors. Conscientious and wanting to impress the senior editor who was my boss, I began to read, at first assiduously finishing one manuscript after another. Here is what I confronted:
  • The quasi-literate who loved "big" words but used them incorrectly.
  • The sub-literate and illiterate sandwiched at random between the religious visionaries, the sexually shall-we-say peculiar, and the politically febrile.
  • The demented, the deranged, the delusional and the dangerous—the last represented by submissions from jails and penitentiaries.
  • The would-be writers who had no idea how to shape a scene or introduce a character much less write a line of dialogue that any human being might actually have uttered.
  • The wannabes (that word didn’t exist then) to whom punctuation seemed a galactic mystery as did sentences containing both a subject and a verb.
 I was no literary snob and my reading choices embraced everything from Willa Cather to Mickey Spillane—but the slush pile almost did me in.

No matter how fast I plowed through, attaching Bantam’s form rejection letter to the top and placing them in the required SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope), the pile never diminished. Every morning and every afternoon (two mail deliveries a day back then) the mail room guy dumped another stack on my desk. They were typewritten, smeary, often single-spaced, sans margins, punctuation or paragraphing; some were hand written, scrawled in pencil in old-fashioned school notebooks, the kind with the marbelized black-and-white cover. They were held together by rubber bands, string, yarn and, once in a while, ribbon.

 The pages were occasionally pristine but more predictably smudged, dog eared, defaced by icky, unidentifiable substances, or dotted with coffee stains and cookie crumbs left by previous editors who had read—or made a valiant effort to read—the submission in question and, as they say in the trade, “passed.” 

I soon learned to read the first one or two pages, maybe scan a few more, then flip to somewhere around the middle to see if anything had improved and, if any shred of hope remained, look at the last page to see if a more careful reading might be called for. (Dream on.)

The only response from these would-be authors was an occasional complaint that they’d left a piece of white thread on page 125 and, when the ms came bouncing back, the piece of white thread remained in place. Why, they wanted to know, hadn’t the entire ms been read? How could we (the nameless editors because no one ever signed a name to a form rejection) reject their masterpiece without reading it in its entirety?

Let me count the ways. :-(

As the years passed, I moved on and so did the slush pile: to agents who weren’t about to pay a young assistant to slog through the slush—in a short while, it was their unpaid interns. This new, "improved" system provided a double benefit: neither publishers nor agents had to hire salaried employees to sift through the slush pile and submissions had now been vetted before appearing on an editor’s desk.

As time passed, we arrived somewhere in first decade of the twenty-first century and reading the slush pile had gone from paid labor to unpaid labor. A sort of progress, I guess, but one last glimmer of progress beckoned: the internet. The quick and easy upload that earned Amazon a 70% cut every time a 99c book was purchased. The magic of the internet had managed what had long seemed impossible: it  turned a huge time and money sink into a profit center.

Lest you think me excessively bitter and cynical, I will add that the SP was not 1000% hopeless. There are writers who have made it out. Stephanie Meyers (Twilight) was rescued from an agent’s SP. Philip Roth back in 1958 from a Paris Review SP (you can look it up on Google). And Kathleen Woodiwiss, one of the queens of the Bodice Rippers, was originally pulled out of the SP as was Rosemary Rogers.

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4 comments:

  1. Wow, never thought about a white thread put in the middle of pages.

    Twenty-five years ago I submitted a poorly written, steeped in pain, manuscript detailing the abuse I received as a child. I cringe when I look at it now - I hadn't resolved my past and I was emotionally bleeding on the page. Several agents sent me kind notes suggesting that, while the story had promise, I could benefit from a few writing classes. They were correct. I'm grateful they took the time to write a note. As I study the writing industry, I realize the kindness of those notes. I can't imagine reading slush pile manuscripts all day long. Makes the value of a note all the more precious.

    I'm working on my memoir again, from a different perspective. As I write I'm learning more about dialogue, scenes, descriptions, and voice. My manuscript is getting stronger, and I'm hoping that, when I send it out, this time one agent may accept it. Not sure I'll try the white thread idea though. :)

    Thanks for your post.

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    1. Heather—So sorry to hear about your difficult childhood but you were/are wise to allow for the time needed for perspective. The improvement in your manuscript is proof of that.

      Reading the slush pile turned out to be a valuable education for a young beginner. I soon learned what worked and what didn't and wonder how many of those would-be writers put in the time and work necessary to produce professional-quality work.

      Good luck with your new manuscript!

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  2. I remember submitting my manuscript to agents when I was just sixteen. I remember writing my query letter and referencing my age in it. I also remember the stacks of rejection letters I received. Several of them were obviously not form letters though because they told me how amazing it was that I'd completed a manuscript at my age, and to keep writing because my potential was obvious and that I just needed a bit more experience. After reading your description of the SP, I find it amazing that they took the time out to send a heartfelt handwritten note to a teenager with a dream. I wish I had kept those notes now.

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    1. Jenna, that's really impressive. Your ms must have shown enormous potential. Sometimes if something was promising, I'd write a few words on the form letter. I knew I wasn't the only one, either. It was always such a relief for us beleaguered and overworked SP readers to come across a ray of hope in the midst of the torrent of slush.

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