Monday, December 3, 2012

Sorting the Slush Pile

This post first published on October 16, 2008 and will resonate with every editor who has ever processed book manuscript submissions.
Reviewing manuscripts and looking for ones that seem to say “pick me, pick me” is a time-consuming, but necessary task for any publisher. In a small house such as mine, it can be overwhelming. And, boy, do we have to live with our mistakes.

After reviewing countless manuscripts over the past ten-plus years, I have developed some trigger points to make this process more efficient. Not all concern editing, but many, such as these, do.

1. Before I actually read a novel manuscript, I just look at it: the first page, then, by flipping through, the next 20-30 pages. The amount of white space will give me an idea of when dialog kicks in. Readers today are accustomed to stories that engage fast. Dialogue isn’t the only way to accomplish a launch, but it’s a good indicator. Think about how movies often set up under the opening credits.

2. Next, I take an impression of stylistic things which I have come to see as tip-offs to amateurish writing: all caps for shouting, spelling out sounds (KEEERASH or KABOOOM), overuse of dashes and ellipses, and (perhaps worst of all) rows of ????? or !!!!!

3. Another stylistic thing that puts me on alert is the excessive use of space breaks. Noting a space break every three or four paragraphs can indicate that the writer doesn’t know how to transition from scene to scene, or to move time along. In third person viewpoint and often in romance novels, a space break alerts the reader to a shift in POV, which is fine. Still, overuse of this technique can produce a choppy read. If I see a lot of it, I make a mental note.

4. Now I read the opening…just the first paragraph or two, then stop and think: does this engage? Did someone say something or do something that makes be want to know more?

Then I recap: little to no dialogue in the first 20 pages, lots of ellipses, dashes and space breaks and a ho-hum opening. Everything’s subjective, of course, but for many submissions, this is the end of the line. But, for the sake of conversation, let’s say that it’s a fence-straddler or there is something fresh about the story slant, and I decide to read on. What else comes into play?

1. How’s the dialogue? The chit-chat among the characters is crucially important. Is it real? Does it ring true? Or do we hear a university president with really poor grammar? A teenager who sound like an octogenarian?

2. Does the dialogue “work” or is there too much of what my first writing teacher called “salt and pepper” chat? Dialogue needs to show character or move plot, action. Perhaps you can have just a little pointless chatter for flavor, but be sparing.

3. What’s the cliché count? The occasional cliché can be okay, and even effective, but too many will kill reader’s interest and give the piece a stale, dated feeling. And clichéd situations are deadly. My particular un-favorite is when the character looks in a mirror and describes herself…that one’s been done to death!

4. Is the cast of characters a cast of thousands? If there are too many characters, the reader will find it hard to keep them distinct. I subscribe to the theory that you have three levels of characters: the main ones, the supporting cast, and the background, what a lecturer once called the “spear carriers.” Are their names distinct? And in the case of the background characters, most won’t need names and may not even have dialog. We don’t need backstory on the waitress who will never reappear in the story. Again, take a tip from the movies. Watch the credits roll, after the stars and the supporting cast, you will see roles such as “man on elevator” and “taxi driver #1.” So we don’t always need to know that the waitress is named Doris and her bunion hurts…she can just serve the pastrami sandwiches and exit the scene.

That “No, thanks” pile is discouraging for both author and publisher. Publishers need product, yearn for stories that captivate, inspire tears and laughter and make us feel the writer peeked into our personal thoughts. Every once in a while, I find one of these -- as I did this weekend. Huzzah!
Billie Johnson, Publisher
Oak Tree Press
Read more at the Oak Tree Press Blog

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  1. Congratulations on your find, Billie. And congrats to the author as well.

    Thanks for this insider's look at combing through the slush pile. Very informative.

  2. Thanks Billie! Definitely some good info here. I think that I'm guilty of the space break one at the very least - hopefully I'll be able to fix that in the coming drafts! Saving this for future reference.

  3. Loved this post, Billie! Thank you for being so generous and frank with your our insight and tips here. I certainly plan to put them to good use!

  4. Thank you for the insightful look at your method. I think that even for combing through the slush pile, you give a lot more to prospective authors than some editors. I read in an interview with John Joseph Adams that he can tell by the first sentence whether or not he's interested in a manuscript. If the first sentence doesn't draw him in, bye bye manuscript. It's so helpful hearing different methods because it puts you on alert on several different fronts. Great post!

  5. I'm about to start reading/evaluating manuscripts for a publisher, so this information is useful. Thanks.

  6. Billie, send me any cozy mysteries in your slush pile. I'll help you!

    Drawn in by the first sentence? That sounds like one of those editing legends, don't you think?


  7. This is one to keep and share! Thanks.

  8. Billie,
    This is really interesting. I'm a freelance editor who works with authors before they submit their manuscripts (or more often, self-publish). I enjoyed the fascinating glimpse into the life of an acquisitions editor.

  9. I don't suppose that was Headwind you found last weekend, was it?

  10. This is going to be a great month of getting tips from some of the best blog pieces posted here in 2008 and 2009. It is always good to be reminded again and again.

  11. Excellent points. Writers need to learn pacing and structure, which are visible on the page even without anyone reading actual words.

    Terry's Place

  12. Yes, I'm a busy reader and don't wait anymore for a story to get good. It has to be good from the start!

    Morgan Mandel

  13. Points apply equally to editor and writer. Avoiding that "no thanks" pile in the first place would save a lot of grief. Writers, take note of the insight supplied in this post.

  14. I love this post. Writers often don't understand how it's possible that an agent or editor could set aside their submission so quickly. They'd understand a lot better if they spent a month evaluating slush!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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