The Realities of Slush
Yes, it’s real, though in the age of email it’s not an actual pile, but an overflowing inbox of potential treasure. What’s treasure, you may ask? Treasure is fresh, powerful writing (ideally, coupled with an exciting concept!) that makes you pay attention in the middle of a busy day.
While some agencies in recent years have made it a practice not to respond to queries if they are not interested, the agency I work with takes responses very seriously. It’s a question of courtesy and respect. But reading unsolicited queries is only a small part of the work that awaits a literary agency each day. The agency’s current authors are always a priority, and they write manuscripts, then revise them, then revise them again. Those all must be tended to. Then there are pitch letters to write, editors to meet, contracts to negotiate, exciting phone calls with new clients. Because of these constraints it can sometimes take the agents longer to respond. And they hate that. Trust me. But those are the realities of the slush pile.
Given those realities, here is the way I read slush pile submissions:
“Awesome” does not always mean “perfect.”
This should be sort of heartening to hear, I think. Sort of. The truth is, every manuscript is going to need some work. I am definitely a perfectionist. Still, if I sought perfection in the slush pile, I probably wouldn’t even bother. I am looking for “awesome,” not “perfect.”
But. That doesn’t mean that writers should relax too much and start getting indulgent. The more polished the project is, the more revisions it has been through, the closer it is to its own truth, its own authenticity. With too many imperfections (clunky exposition, passages that feel stilted, a too-busy plot, weird formatting or obvious lack of proofreading, etc.) there is always the risk that my view as a reader will be obscured by all the problems, and that I won’t get to the awesome at all. If the writer gives me too many reasons to say “no,” he or she will save me time, because it will mean a quick rejection. On the other hand, if both the voice and the narrative hook are making my fingers tingle, and the writer’s skill and talent really come through, I am not going to let an imperfection or two get in my way.
“Maybe” means “no.”
I read quickly. I have to! I was offered this internship, I was told, because the agency was impressed with my knowledge and passion for the young adult and children’s book market. So, in order to maximize my reading time, I feel justified in relying on my own taste and gut instinct. The truth is, I could spend the entire day second-guessing myself. That’s what I did when I first started reading. I didn’t want something great to slip through my fingers! But you learn to become efficient, or you won’t get anything done.
At conferences, writers always ask agents and editors, what are you looking for?
I think the answer for every reader is, they are looking for “wow!” Book lovers just as you are, agents, editors and interns want to be bewitched by a story. And so they chase a feeling of magic, a tingly kind of this is it.
For me, if I request a manuscript, and then keep checking the inbox to see if the author replied yet, despite my crazy to-do list, that tells me something. It means that likely I am going to make time to read this one. And then, if the rest of the manuscript is just as exciting, when I talk about it at the meeting, I am going to beg the other agents to consider it. That’s the kind of “yes” a writer should want.
Sometimes the writing is “nice” or “competent.” But I have learned “nice” and “competent” isn’t good enough. If, as I read, I find my mind wandering, and I find myself thinking, with some guilt, about all the other things I should be doing now, that’s not a good sign. But even if I catch myself thinking, “well, maybe this project could work,” I have learned from experience, that I might as well stop reading.
Does it sound harsh? It shouldn’t.
Think about it: do you really want a “maybe?” If we are not truly excited about the project, how can we champion it? How can we ask an editor to fall in love?
Such passion must start with the first reader. It starts with the slush pile.
Well — really, no. The kind of passion that fuels the most powerful of stories, it starts way before all that, doesn’t it? It starts on the writer’s side of the desk. But that’s a whole another post :)
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