Friday, February 5, 2010

A Glimpse at the Slush Pile

by Scott Rhoades

Greetings from lovely San Francisco. I grew up near here, so it's always fun to "have" to take a business trip back. I'm getting some good work done, and catching up with friends I haven't seen in far too long, and this weekend I'll see family and at least one more friend before heading back for Utah County. Orem's not a bad place to live, but I always hate leaving California.

But that's not what I came to tell you about. I came to talk about the draft. (I'm sure somebody will get the reference...)

What I mean is, this week I wanted to write about a way to get a glimpse into the slush pile.

Some of you might remember that a while ago I wrote about my adventures on, a place to review manuscripts by other writers, sponsored by The U.K. arm of HarperCollins. One of the things I mentioned was that it gives us a chance to look at what other writers are writing and submitting. This is important. It's a rare look at our competition, and to learn what they are doing right or wrong. It's as close as most of will ever come to looking over an agent or editor's shoulder as they slog through their submissions. And you don't even have to sign up to be able to read what people are writing.

Here are a few lessons I've learned.

Wake-Up Call
I've read on a few blogs that agents don't like to see books that open with a character waking up. I understand why. In one recent stretch of about fifteen manuscripts, I saw six that started with a character waking up. About half of those characters woke up with hangovers or other effects from a hard night of drinking, partying, or getting beaten up after drinking and partying. Two of the remaining three were awoken by loud noises. The last one was kind of interesting. The character woke up, but then there was a series of things the writer said the character didn't do, written in an interesting way that actually kind of worked. But if you're starting with your character waking up, chances are pretty good you're not this last guy. If you want to catch an agent's eye (or a reader's), probably the worst thing you can do is start with an unoriginal opening that makes the agent doubt that the rest of your story will be any better. Oh, and don't trade your wake-up opening for the weather. That's just as common, and is probably even worse because there's not even a character involved. Being woken up in the gutter by rain while sleeping off a night of drinking...not a good idea.

Too Good For This World
Every once in a while, probably a couple times a week, I come across a book that is written in a strange, unusual way. Usually, the author thinks he or she (but it seems to usually be a he, for some reason) is writing something of high literary value. When commenters mention rules of writing, such as using standard punctuation or capitalization, or making the story actually make sense, these authors reply indignantly that they are creating High Art(tm, patent pending) and that the conventional rules don't apply, and if the commenter had a brain, they would recognize this fact. This is just plain juvenile. It reminds me of the "deep" poetry written in high school and college English classes that doesn't make any sense but would if the reader understood the poet's sensitive soul. Don't do this. I have nothing against literary writing, or even experimental writing. I was an English major, and a good portion of my reading is classics, even now, long after my school days. Oh, and it's surprising how many people who do this are attempting to write literary Sci-Fi. More on that in a minute. Unless you're James Joyce, don't write like this. And I can pretty much guarantee you're not James Joyce. I suspect that these are the same people who reply to rejections with nasty notes telling the agents or editors that they wouldn't know a good book if it bit them in the a--ah, hold on while I get the phone.

I'm back. Where was I? I forget. Might as well go on to the next point.

Know Who Thou Art
When a writer posts their work on Authonomy, they label it with the genre. It surprises me (and probably shouldn't) how many people list their books as both literary fiction and science fiction or literary fiction and fantasy or literary fiction and romance or--you get the idea. If you do this in a query or submission, I can almost guarantee that it will mark you as an amateur. Know your genre. There's no reason why genre fiction can't be literary (look at Ray Bradbury's best work); in fact, it will have a better chance if it has some literary value and is well written. But that doesn't make it literary fiction. If an agent reps literary fiction only, do not send him your literary science fiction. In the publishing world, genre fiction is not literary fiction. They are different animals.

The Font of Knowledge
Non-standard fonts are hard to read. It's not clever to submit your manuscript in a crazy-looking script font, in a deep red of course, because your story is told as the journal of an insane ax murderer. Medieval fantasies do not have to be told with a medieval font. Readers want to be able to read the thing. If a publisher likes your work and wants to do something interesting with the fonts, they'll know how to do it so the book can still be read. Unusual fonts do not make you creative. They make you unread.

Strunk & What?
Before you put your work out there, whether submitting or giving the public access to it on Authonomy, check for errors. Check again. Have a knowledgeable friend check. Then check again. Yes, it's true that several blogging agents have said that they don't get too upset if there's a typo or two in a manuscript, or a couple missed commas, or whatever. That doesn't mean you can put your work out there packed with errors and expect an agent or editor to recognize your genius and help you fix it after signing you. If you were too busy playing with the gum stuck to the bottom of your desk in school, it's not too late to start learning the mechanics now. It's expected of a professional writer.

I could go on forever (and some of you might think I already have). I've seen a lot on Authonomy. Still, my total reading on that site doesn't equal what many agents see in a day, which means they see these problems far more often than I have. But don't take my word for it. Whether you participate in the Authonomy site or not, there's a lot to be learned from browsing it.


Tiffany Dominguez said...

Ha! Totally agree, Scott. Great post. I'd never noticed that about beginnings with people waking up but it's true. I can't even believe the stuff that makes it to the top 5. So many errors, POV shifts, and just overall poor writing. It's fun to network, but it's very rare I find a quality read.

Andrea said...

Interesting experiment - thanks for sharing. For me, it highlights what agents and editors have been saying about submissions on their blogs. I liked what you said about genre, that's sometimes the part I struggle with in writing my own queries.

Bethany Wiggins said...

What an awesome post!!! I am guilty of the starting with a wake-up scene. Oops!

Thanks, Scott.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the slush pile tips. I'll try to avoid these faux pas.
Happy Valentines Day,
J. Aday Kennedy
The Differently-Abled Writer

Scott said...

Tiffany, I know what you mean. I read somewhere that, if you want to make the Editor's Desk (the top 5 at the end of the month, for those who aren't familiar with the magical world of, you have to plan to spend about four hours a day on the site, exchanging reads. It's not always the best of the site that rises to the top.

I still think the site is worth while, mostly as a means to see what others are writing. It's also nice to get the feedback, although feedback tends to be more gushing than helpful because people want you to gush back at them. Sometimes, though, you get some gushes that are obviously sincere and make you feel good, and some helpful critiques.