stacks of paper

Getting Through the Slush Pile

Last Saturday, I attended the NC Writers Network’s Spring Conference in Greensboro. I’ll post soon about the whole experience, but today I’m thinking about the final event of the day: Slush Pile Live.

What is Slush Pile Live?

The conference planners invited attendees to turn in the first page of their novels, anonymously. Participants sat in a classroom. At the front of the room, someone read each submission to a panel of three editors. Each editor raised a hand at the point when he or she would have stopped reading the submission, had it been in the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts.

stacks of paperWe’ve all heard that editors at publishing houses receive an overload of manuscripts and look for any excuse they can to stop reading. They’re not likely to keep going, hoping a manuscript will improve, or to dig deeply looking for a kernel of value they can salvage, when they have 200 other manuscripts to get through that day. I knew that my manuscript should be as perfect as possible, and in particular the opening should be.

That said, seeing the process live and learning of potential pitfalls still surprised me.

Common pitfalls

A few themes emerged as the submissions were read:

symbol of person throwing paper into trash canRepetition. Even the repetition of a single, noticeable word (not a necessary word but an adjective like “pleasant,” for example) caused multiple editors to raise their hands. The reason behind this is that the repetition distracts the reader and knocks him or her out of the story. A more extreme case was repeating specifics (like referring to a red Honda Civic multiple times instead of doing it once and then writing “the car”). A variant is coming back to a topic over and over, as if you are beating the reader over the head with it.

Too much narrative. Instead of keeping the reader in the scene, watching as the action unfolds, the writing switches to a description of what happened, or a summary. For the reader to stay in the scene, the reader should learn as the character learns.

woman at laptop biting pencil in frustrationToo much description. When the story contained too many adjectives, unnecessary details, or description so long that the story stopped moving forward, the editors lost interest. In one case this was three separate references to how cold a day was. Sometimes one editor would give up, while another would keep listening but later admit he or she had been hoping the story would go somewhere, but had considered raising a hand earlier.

Cliches. Even one tiny cliche would cause all the editors to raise hands. They said this, like repetition, knocked them out of the story. And, while it might be difficult to avoid all cliche, a cliche on the first page signaled that there would be many more. I was surprised by some of the phrases that turned out to be cliches—things I might use without thinking twice, like describing a hand as a claw or the wheels turning in someone’s head. Even the description “Coke-bottle glasses” is a cliche.

My turn

A week before the conference, I had received my manuscript back from a developmental editor. While I trusted her, I was having trouble with how much she had cut—it seemed like I wasn’t allowed any description at all. I had decided to turn in the first page of my novel as she had revised it: pared down to the characters’ thoughts and dialogue in the moment.

word hope on a piece of paper, atop a crumpled piece of paper in a handDuring the conference, I began to realize that my editor hadn’t cut description, necessarily, but had cut narrative—places where I left the scene to explain things to the reader. I grew more interested to see how the pared-down version would fare in Slush Pile Live. Then my turn came.

One editor raised his hand almost immediately, whereas the other two made it through my entire first page. The critic cited impatience to learn more about the topic introduced in the opening paragraph, and frustration with my switch (for three sentences) to what’s happening in the space around the character. He also had misunderstood what the first paragraph meant. The other two editors corrected him as to the meaning, and said they’d been intrigued enough to wait to learn more, figuring I would return to the opening topic momentarily.

One editor did point out that theirs were only three opinions. Other editors might like or dislike material according to their own tastes. But the pitfalls they identified seemed likely to be problems for any editor.

They suggested reading to learn: read books that awe you and try to figure out how the author did it, and read manuscripts from inexperienced authors (perhaps as an editor or beta reader, or as a volunteer reading contest entries) to notice what doesn’t work, that you might find in your own writing.