Slush Pile Secrets

Heidi wrote in to ask about the complexities of reading slush (or what I like to call “slush pile secrets”– read more about slush pile meaning):

Before I started my YA novel, I learned about publishing, editing, literary agencies, 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.

slush pile
Slush pile secrets revealed!

The Nature of the Slush Pile

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 literary agencies. 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 pile. 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up of, alternately, people who’ve been querying for years, people who’ve been querying for minutes, published authors, unpublished writers, people who have no clue what they’re doing, experts, people who have never written before, people who can’t stop writing, really fantastic ideas,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 book rejection, and future clients.

Good Queries Do Stand Out

The nature of the slush pile 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 (check out some examples of successful queries). 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.

Slush Pile Secrets: My Process for Reading Slush

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 pile 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. (If you have questions about literary agent response times to slush, follow the link for more info.)

Cleansing the Palate

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, this is something that happens at all literary agencies. 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 my slush pile secrets and the unique problems that go along with them.

(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– more on how to resubmit. It’s the best system I have, I stand by my decisions, and it works for me.)

Help your writing stand out in the slush pile. Hire me as your developmental editor. My Submission Package Edit covers the first ten pages, query, and synopsis–everything an agent wants to see.

26 Replies to “Slush Pile Secrets”

  1. I love and appreciate the checks and balances system you have set up for yourself. I’ve often wondered if submissions carry a stigma because of negative connotations with the word slush. It’s nice to know that slush can, sometimes, be more like the sweet blue raspberry slush-y that you get at a convenience store:)

  2. I would never want your job… eeks! But you have a great system going. Thanks or the peek into your world. 🙂

  3. As a teacher I experience paper psychosis, where sometimes a C+ paper looks like an A paper simply because I’ve just finished a set of D- papers. Sometimes I shout “Glory Hallelujah!” when the simplest thing, like a semicolon, is punctuated correctly.

  4. “There’s no way you can make a robot that creates great writing.”
    There goes my plan B.

    great post– thanks for the insight.

  5. A wonderful peak into your world. Thanks. I don’t envy those who read slush. It is heartening to see you have a system set up to keep yourself receptive. Sometimes I wonder which is more difficult, writing the perfect query or reading queries (perfect and not).

  6. Great post! Do you ever get tired and hit the wrong key? Like, “Damn, I meant to put that in the maybe pile,” and find you’ve hit DELETE instead?

  7. Thanks for this great look into your slush reading process. As writers, sending our queries out into the big, bad world is kind of nerve-wracking. It’s hard to remember sometimes that there’s a real, breathing person on the other end who has to look at not just your query, but the hundreds before it and the hundreds afterwards.

    This does make me feel better 😛

  8. I’ve often wondered how an agent deals with slush. I have friends who read slush for short story publications and usually there’s more than one editor and they limit how many submissions each one has to work through. I’m trying to imagine being just one person with a continually filling in-box.

    Kudos to you for keeping yourself honest and being a fair reader.

    Are you SURE we can’t re-query? 🙂

  9. LOL about people taking this as an invitation to requery – can you imagine! Not only would the slush be neverending, but it would be repetitive, too. Oh, man.

    This was a great post – I’ve often wondered about how agents manage their slush piles without getting burned out. Thanks for the insight, and for being frank about how you keep yourself honest when it comes to dealing with our submissions. It’s comforting to know that you have a system for making sure you’re in the right frame of mind to consider everything fairly.

  10. I really liked steps three and four. They’re good advice for making any big decision. You have to think about it for a while, come to a decision, and then think about it again, just to make sure what felt right yesterday or the day before still feels right today.

    Great post, Mary.

  11. HA! Love #1. Thank you for sharing a glimpse behind those slushy curtains.

    I’m also brought back to the post you did a few months back about how agents are paid, and how much motivation must be behind every step of agent slush review.

  12. So question, then, are more of your clients brought on board as a result of conferences? I don’t think I know this answer to this, if you’ve stated it in another blog post or interview.

  13. Great post. Thanks so much for giving us this peek. It does help to know there’s a system. 🙂

  14. Wow, that’s intense. Thanks so much for this glimpse into your process. I’m guessing most agents probably have something similar that works for them. I applaud you for being as open as possible when reading slush–I’m sure it isn’t easy.

  15. I really commend you. I love to read and write, but I find it hard to read a lot of queries or first pages. After a while, they start to merge and sound similar and boring. Kudos to you Mary!

  16. Thanks for giving us a peek into your slush pile methods. It’s nice to know there’s a “maybe” pile.

  17. Loved this post. It’s always good to get a peek at the other side of our letters. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Mary Ann Duke says:

    I, like Zach, have had paper psychosis. All my teammates do. We commersiate about it. Also, the time of day is a factor for me. The later at night that I grade papers, the less charitable I am. An almost “B” paper might get a “C minus” around midnight.

  19. Mary Ann Duke says:

    I didn’t spell that C word correctly. Yikes.

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