I recently finished a round of slush reading (for anyone who doesn’t know, I read slush and edit for a small press) and I got to thinking that my fellow writers might be interested in some of the info from that adventure.
When I get slush it’s sent to me by my senior editor, who goes through each submission to make sure it fits our basic criteria (the author read and followed the guidelines, it’s within our required word count, it’s a genre that we a) publish, and b) are looking for at that time, and the writer shows a very basic facility for putting words together in a coherent sentence). If it does, it gets emailed to me, and I have the task of reading the first 20 pages or so, filling out a questionnaire, and either recommending it for a full read or not. If I do like it enough to recommend a full, I’ll also google the author, to make sure that, a) the book isn’t already in print with someone else, and b) that the author doesn’t sound like a raving lunatic on their blog. So, that’s the process. Now to the info…
I don’t know how many subs there were in total, but on this go-round I received 18 subs. Of those, I gave one a ‘highly recommended’, and then recommended two others, but with caveats, because they showed some promise and deserved a shot, but I was doubtful about that promise being sustained over the entire book.
For the slush that I did not recommend, here are some of the reasons that I passed…
- No mastery of the basics.
- No sense of voice.
- Not polished enough.
- Talky without saying anything of import.
- Didn’t grab me.
- Can’t relate to or care about the characters in any way (please note, I don’t have to like them, but I do have to care).
- Info dumps
- Dialogue isn’t snappy, doesn’t flow, is unrealistic.
- An overabundance of typos, spelling mistakes, wrong homonyms, etc.
Now, most of these things are not deal-breakers on their own, but – and I speak from experience when I say this – in most cases, where you find one of these issues, you’ll usually see several more. Case in point, there were at least four, and often more, of the listed problems in each and every one of the manuscripts that I did not recommend.
A quick note on deal-breakers…
I’ll start off by saying that I have several, and they come in two categories. The first category is writing deal breakers – the things that I absolutely have to have in a manuscript in order to say yes. They are, in no particular order…
- Compelling characters with realistic problems (realistic of course being relative to the universe they live in)
The reason these are deal breakers is that, for me at least, they are the things that carry the story. Grammar can be fixed, description tweaked, and plot holes can be patched up with a bit of thought and effort. But a writer’s voice infuses every moment of the story from beginning to end – it sets the tone, it guides the way, and it carries you along with it. Without voice, a story is just a collection of words. The reason this is a deal-breaker for me is that voice can’t be taught – a writer has to find their own voice through experience and experimentation, and if they haven’t found theirs yet, there’s nothing I can do to help them.
Along the same lines, a character needs a voice just as much as the story does. Dialogue plays a huge part in characterization, and also does a large part of the work in driving the plot forward, and so it needs to be strong enough to do all of that. It also needs to sound realistic, both when it comes to choosing diction appropriate to each character, and also in its rhythm. This last part, the rhythm part, is the hardest, because as far as I can tell, a writer either has an ear for dialogue or they don’t, and if you don’t, an editor can’t teach it to you. This is a deal-breaker for the same reason as lack of narrative voice is – if the dialogue isn’t where it needs to be, there’s nothing I can do to help the writer improve it, except to say go and watch everything that Joss Whedon has ever written, and really listen to how his characters talk, then try again.
When it comes to compelling characters, the reason this is a deal-breaker is much simpler. Characters are the guts of your story, and going through a novel-length manuscript to fix what should be the driving force of the story is an extensive job because changing the characters will likely affect everything else, and that’s simply too much work for an editor like me. Between a full-time job and my own writing career to worry about, I simply don’t have the time to fix a problem that big.
The second category of deal-breaker is, uh… I’ll call them writer deal-breakers, and there are only two…
- Being a crazy person.
- Being arrogant, aggressive, or otherwise difficult to work with.
These might seem rather self-explanatory, but you would probably be surprised by how many ways there are to go wrong here. I was going to go into a bit of detail explaining some of the issues that fall into these two categories, but I realized as I started to write that this post is hedging into War and Peace territory already, so I’ll save the details for another post, assuming anyone is interested in them.
And that’s about it. If you guys have any thoughts I’d love to hear them.
* This has happened many times. Either my senior editor will make an offer for a book, only to find that it was sold a couple of months before – in this case, etiquette dictates that it should have been retracted from our press. Or, we’ll google, and find out that it’s been self-published but no one bought it, so the author decided to try traditional publishing. For the record, once it’s published and hasn’t done well, that ship has sailed.