I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

Slash The Slush Piles

I would love to start a campaign - who will join me? - to rid the world of the term "slush pile", which is ugly, inaccurate and tatty. It really is time that we scrubbed this stain of a word from our vocabulary.

How did writers, who love and celebrate a precise and beautiful use of the language, ever accept the widespread use of this term? What is the origin? Can we as writers at least stop using it, in the hope that publishers and agents also resist?

Here are the other meanings of the word slush, which are terrible bedmates to have: partially melted snow or ice; soft mud; slop; mire; grease or fat discarded from a ship's galley; a greasy compound used as a lubricant for machinery; maudlin speech or writing; sentimental drivel; a drink made of flavored syrup poured over crushed ice.

OK, granted, the last one there doesn't sound so bad, especially when we're sweating it over our keyboards on a heavy, summer day. But really, every time I hear the term slush pile trotted out in the press it just makes me feel sick and tired. Can we not find an alternative such as 'the undiscoverd well', 'the hidden goldmine', or 'the literary hopefuls pile'?

7 comments:

jta said...

Hello, Shameless--I hear your pain, and I think you're right: it is a nasty term. But it's understandable, too. A lifetime ago, back in the sixties, I went to work at one of the houses in New York, when they were expanding into the enticing new world of trade paper oringinals. As a young, wet-behind-and-in-front-of-the-ears, entry-level nobody, I was assigned to be what was known then as a "first reader"--reading over-the-transom, or unsolicited, mss. The slush. Actually, it was called the shitpile back then, most often. And these were the good old days--when publishers took unagented mss and actually read them.

I started the job with all good intentions, hoping to mine every gem from the mountain (literally) of ore, not to say dross, determined to read each one thoroughly enough to discover the latent quality I was sure inhered even in rough or less-than-mature work.

I soon realized the error of my ways. What I found, and it's still true today, was an almost comical assortment of enormities that weren't worth postage, much less the time of an editor. Truthfully, I didn't finish reading the first page of most of them, or even the first sentence of many. Most fell into six main categories: the illegible, the illiterate/delusional, the plagiarized, the meandering abstractions, the literate but unmarketable, the original/outer-directed/honed. The last category was very, very small.

I wasn't prepared for the anger that quickly arose in me in the face of those mss. But think about it: you're reading hundreds of them, all day. I'd think, "Why would you even send this to a stranger, much less expect it to be published at their expense? Don't you have anything better to do? Toilets to clean?" Flannery O'Connor was once asked if the universities didn't stifle writers. Her answer was that they didn't stifle enough. She was right.

But don't despair. The slush offers opportunities as well. The slush is actually your friend (granted you don't have to read it.) The thing to remember is that a well-written, focussed piece of writing that is flawlessly presented will stand out like a nova in the black of space. Your beleaguered reader will be filled with gratitude, and you may be sure of a close reading.

So, use the slush:

1.Use standard ms form: 10 or 12pt Times or Courier, double-spaced, 1" margins, pages numbered, no staples, pins, clips or binding, first page begins halfway down. 24# WHITE paper.

2.NO CORRECTIONS--send it clean. It goes without saying that there should be no errors--zero.

3.Edit your work before you send it. There is no later.

4.Be sure the work applies to someone other than yourself. That is, it should be so interesting to others that you can reasonably imagine them spending their hard-earned money on it, giving up a movie, a few pints, etc etc. Be realistic.

5.Realize that even good work gets rejected, because of market considerations. So if you believe in a piece, don't give up on it. But--cast a cold eye on it, too. No doubt it could be better. Everything can.

6.Don't despair. Today's slushpiles reside at lit agencies, and agents are strongly motivated to find good, salable work--it's the way they earn their daily bread. This gives you an advantage, if you're good, and smart. And lucky.

Sorry this comment has gone so long, but it may do someone some good. I hope it takes some sting out of the word "slush."

Shameless said...

Hi jta, interesting what you say, and it's definitely valuable. I'm so glad we evolved from 'shitpile' - goodness gracious. I just hope we can find a new term - the actual pile itself is not the problem, it's how we refer to it. "Call your old car a bitch and as sure as eggs she won't start," was what my father used to say to me. Same with the slush pile. Maybe people wouldn't send in a load of slush if they got the message that the slush pile no longer existed. Is that too wild an idea? By simply changing a concept (taking away the negative reference) we can actually attract better things? Judges in writing contests with fancy titles often talk about the surprising high standard of the entries. In fact, in the ideal world it's better to have no pile at all - it's good or it's not - it's in the bin or it stays on the desk. We know that's not possible with the staffing at publishing houses. The problem is this whole concept that there's this big pile of manuscripts that never get read, that stink and that actually makes the poor readers assigned to the pile angry. Something has to give. Shitpile to slushpile to ...?

Minx said...

....amazing new novelist one hopes!
I don't like piles of anything - makes me think of of haemorrhoids -itchy and annoying.
I like to believe that there is an agent/publisher somewhere who is just waiting for my ms to plop onto their desk and make their day.We Brits have incredible unmined depths for waiting in queues, just think of it as waiting your turn. Reject the word 'slush' from your vocab and replace with LUSH (Look Up,See Here).

jta said...

Well, there you go. I never thought of it that way. Maybe there is some self-fulfilling dynamic going on there. The readers will call it what they will--and there's no stopping them--they tend to be a salty and much put-upon bunch--but in "public" discourse maybe a less negative term would help everyone concerned. Still, it's not going to be easy finding one that's neither too pejorative nor too rosy.

Actually, "the well" isn't bad...

Gentleman-hobbs said...

But living in a country where even the word for slug sounds poetic, les limaces you are spoilt

arrogantcow said...

"Slush pile"... I don't know, I think it sounds rather romantic. As opposed to "shredder pile", which is much more apt today.

nicki said...

I have to take issue with publishers moaning about the poor quality of the slush pile.

Having attended writing classes and belonging to a good writing critique website http://www.youwriteon.com where you can read the work of new authors, I am only struck by how amazing it is that almost everyone produces imaginative, well-constructed work. Where are all these terrible writers submitting to slush piles that are so lambasted?

Certainly not submitting to new writing schemes, such as the CWA’s Debut Dagger, or the RNA, both of which claim to have difficulty shortlisting from such a lot of high quality entries.

Isn’t it possible that publishers read so much they are looking for too much? After all, out of all the books published, how many do you just love so much you want to tell all your friends about them? Those sorts of authors are rare indeed. It doesn’t mean that everyone else is talentless, it simply means it didn’t appeal to you.

I don’t have to mention all those now huge authors whose books were turned down. I won’t even bring up the ‘no-one buys books about boarding schools and wizards any more’ comment. Brilliant writing that hooks the reader anyone? Who cares what it’s about.

Publishers are a pretty conservative bunch. Perhaps they are the ones at fault – looking for the wrong thing?

I know a couple of people who have judged short story competitions – not reading a whole novel, but certainly trawling through a lot of stuff very quickly. And they say the ones that stand out are those that are simply original. Thus something different for their tired old eyes wins, rather than the best writing as you quickly reach a level of having seen all this before.

I do think publishers' denigration of slush pile authors are doing writers a disservice. Perhaps they don’t appreciate that it could be less of a case of nothing being any good and more of a case of cynicism setting in early. Could the answer be a lot more help for new writers, not trying to keep the door firmly closed?