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Slush Behind the Scenes

Heidi recently wrote in to ask about the complexities of reading slush:

Before I started my YA novel, I learned about publishing, editing, agenting, etc., and was amazed at the examples of poorly written query letters making the rounds on the internet.Reading the examples of slush gave me hope – sort of a “what not to do” lesson in query writing, and I believed if I submitted a well crafted query it would naturally stand out among the rest. I imagined my letter receiving attention it might not have, if it weren’t for the dreck surrounding it.

But what if my query letter, well crafted or not, took on the qualities of the slush simply because it was part of it? Do agents find it easier to remember the delicious breadsticks they were served with dinner, despite the fact the rest of the meal was a disaster? Or because of it? I am sincerely not trying to trivialize agenting, I am just fascinated with how complex the process for selecting appropriate material is.

This is a really good question, and something I think about all the time. Literally, all the time. Writing and publishing are such human endeavors. There’s no way you can make a robot that creates great writing. In the same vein, you can’t really automate the process of submissions that feeds projects into traditional publishing. For everyone who writes, there are many readers who evaluate that piece of writing before it gets made into a published book.

As one of these people, I have to always keep my wits about me when I approach the slush. The slush is, indeed, a very peculiar thing to have in your inbox. It is made up of, alternately, people who’ve been querying for years, people who’ve been querying for minutes, published authors, unpublished writers, people who have no clue what they’re doing, experts, people who have never written before, people who can’t stop writing, really fantastic ideas, ideas I’d imagine were caused by some epic acid trip, future rejections, and future clients.

The nature of the slush is constantly shifting. One day, I can sit down and go through a skid of really great queries. The next, there’s a grouping of not-so-great ones. There’s no logic, rhyme, or reason to any of it. Rest assured, though, that good queries stand out. Even this, though, is problematic. And not in the way that Heidi is imagining.

There is one phenomenon that happens to anyone who reads slush. I call it, in jest, “slush psychosis.” After reading a lot of slush — and let’s face it, most slush tends to be pretty hard to read and pretty undesirable — I tend to latch on to the few queries that are actually well-written, that pitch projects with a clear premise, that, well, stick out from the rest.

And stick out they do, no worries there. But the “slush psychosis” part of it is…are these particular queries sticking out because they’re really good, like, going-to-be-a-book good, or just because they’re made better by the bad stuff around them? Well, I can’t always answer that question.

To avoid “slush psychosis” and to always be as keen and receptive as possible when I read slush, I try to stick to the following rules:

1. You gotta be in the mood. If I’m in a bad, bitchy, tired, or impatient place, I do not read submissions. The slush tends to magnify feelings like this, and it’s hard to give all of my submissions a fair look when I’m not feeling open. So I have to check in with myself before I sit down to slush.
2. Limit your slush time. After an hour, I pretty much lose my judgment, good or bad. Again, it’s not fair to the writers who query me if I’m not as receptive as possible, so I keep my slush runs short.
3. Put things in the Maybe Pile. If something catches my eye, rather than requesting it immediately (okay, so I’ve been known to request things immediately from time to time, but it’s rare), I flag it in my inbox as something for the Maybe Pile. This means I want to give it a second look. The Maybe Pile look doesn’t happen after I’ve spent my hour in the slush, though, because:
4. Come to the Maybe Pile with fresh eyes. If I’ve flagged submissions for a second look, I want to consider them carefully before requesting the full manuscript. This means I need to be sharp. I try to do a round of slush, then come back to the Maybe Pile from that round the next day. From there, I turn the Maybe Pile into rejections or requests.

As you can tell, I am pretty strict about how I handle my slush. I don’t want to miss out on anything awesome or be unfair to the writers who trust me and are putting their creative work in my hands. Looking through submissions is a very human business…and human often means flawed. And you can’t control it from your end, at the end of the day. So I try my best to control it from my end and make sure you’re getting the best read possible.

The other thing I do, religiously, if I find that I’ve been reading lots and lots of submissions in a row, is I “cleanse my palate” by reading published books. If I read too many submissions or too much slush, I find that my standards tend to dip a little and meet what’s in slush. To keep myself razor sharp, I recalibrate with published fiction and by rereading my favorite books.

Have I missed out on projects that went on to sell because I haven’t been in the mood to read slush that day and was quick to reject? Yes. We all have. Some days, my imagination stretches more than others. Have I requested projects because of “slush psychosis”? Sure. Again, we all have. And I don’t know if these are two situations that will ever go away. But this is a really good question, and I wanted to give you a peek into slush and its unique challenges here.

(Also, as much as I admit that this is an imperfect process, this isn’t an open invitation to requery me, just so see if perhaps I was having a bad day when I passed on your project. It’s the best system I have, I stand by my decisions, and it works for me.)

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