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Workshop:Playing With The Big Boys - Slush Pile Reading For Publishers' Row
by
Anne Phyllis Pinzow

Anne Phyllis Pinzow is a script writer who makes her main living as a newspaper reporter and editor.  But she has done just about everything in publishing from agenting to book editing and back to writing again. 

 

 

Few could understand why I'd jumped at the chance to do this or why I actually liked it but when slush pile reading came into my life, I needed the money, badly, and anything that would bring me much needed funds, legally, was "fun."

But, I digress. I have experienced two different forms of slush pile reading on what was known as Publisher's Row in Manhattan and from what I understand, they are both part of the very long process in determining if an unsolicited (and sometimes a solicited) manuscript is worth publishing.

Form number one seems almost out of some poor defenseless writer's nightmare but for some reason, I thought it was just so horrible, it was funny.

It was nearly 1990 when, in the offices of a popular mass market paperback publisher, I was led through a plush carpeted labyrinth of offices to a tiny windowless gray room with floor to ceiling shelves filled with manuscripts.

Crammed inside was a bare metal folding table with a hard wooden chair I had to sidle around the desk to get to. The only other feature was an air vent and the only source of light was a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The editor I was working for made a five foot pile of manuscripts on one side of the desk (I'm only five foot 1 myself.) I almost expected to hear the clank of a lock slamming closed when the editor left me there. I was sure I had died and gone to Heaven!

I was instructed to read each one of the manuscripts until I didn't want to read it anymore. If it kept my interest through the entire manuscript, then it would go to the next stage. If it didn't keep my interest then it was automatically rejected. I went though about 15 feet of manuscripts. They were all rejected. I believe I was paid $75 for the day's work. 

Most of the time I didn't have to read past the first sentence to lose interest because of the lack of spelling, grammar and punctuation. Other times I couldn't get past the first paragraph before boredom struck. Anything that was handwritten (and there are fools who still do that) I didn't even bother to read past noticing that it was not typed (all that work for an instant rejection). 

Some of these manuscripts were represented by literary agencies but they were not the top ones or had poor reputations or were new, meaning no credibility and so the manuscripts were treated as unagented.

The second form of slush pile reading was done for manuscripts which actually got past this sort of reading mill and I was allowed to do from the comfort of my home.

I was asked what my interests were; science fiction, historical romance and fantasy topped the list however I was given other subjects as well.

The way it worked was I would get $25 for any manuscript under 300 pages and $35 for anything up to 500 pages. Anything over that would be $50. This, while bubkis, was still something in the 1990's.

My job was to read the manuscript, write a synopsis of it and then write an opinion telling what I did or did not like about it and if it needed fixing, how to fix it.

I'd get only two to three manuscripts at a time to read through. Again, some of these were agented but there were unagented manuscripts as well.

I would read the first chapter, skim to the middle chapter and read it and then skim to the last chapter and read it.

However, if the story was just so fascinating that it grabbed my imagination to such an extent that I couldn't put it down then I'd read the whole manuscript. That never happened though my interest had been held through to about the middle of a few.

As a slush pile reader for "the big boys" there was not one single manuscript in about three years of doing this (we're talking hundreds of manuscripts), that made it past me. I had set my own criteria which was that it had to hold me through the entire book, it had to fascinate me, it had to grab my attention and bring me into the world of the characters I was reading so that I could close my eyes and actually see them -- just as published books have often done.

The stories had to be credible, the plot, logical and without any holes, the characters, three dimensional, believable and consistent within the context of the tale. I had to want to know what was happening to them beyond the end of the book. I had to see the characters develop, be changed by their experiences. If there was no "moral" then there had to be a good reason for that. 

I wanted to see foreshadowing, I wanted to see craft, visual, auditory, sensual and even olfactory cues that would move the story. I wanted to see work by writers who knew, not just how to write a sentence but how to fashion words to elicit the response they wanted. The story had to move me and effect my perceptions.

For example, if I write the phrase "blue with black trim and white lining," every Sime~Gen fan gets a cue. This means something. Another cue with strong story connotations for those unfamiliar with Sime~Gen, is the phrase "what an interesting smell you've found." If I write "Ten Commandments" that also means an entire saga. And though I'm not a fan "I'll be back," brings to mind other riveting tales.

There is background to all of these symbols built into the first story they appear in so that when they resurface, everyone knows what they mean and they become household words, archetypes.

Beyond that, the stories had to be marketable, in touch with the times by being timeless. For instance, I recently purchased a gift for myself, the three dvd boxed set of the "I Spy" series.  The show is 40 years old yet the episodes still grab my attention and I love watching them because they all tell a valid tale while the lack of modern spy gadgets does not detract from the story.

It's that type of thing that I was looking for. These are high standards yet considering how much money a publishing company is laying on the line to take a chance, I would never dare suggest that they publish anything less. Publishers don't need to find books to produce. They need to find books that will make them money.

And yes, it's merely my opinion, however, my opinion was what I was being paid for. I was not being paid to make it easy on writers. I was paid to make it more difficult for them.

Why was I chosen for this job?  What had I done that my opinion was so highly regarded the several big publishers I worked for would pay for it and trust me not to reject something that could make money?  

I had worked as a copyeditor and staff writer for a mid-sized daily newspaper. I had a Masters Degree and was working part-time for a literary agent who recommended me for this job.

I also had written about two dozen scripts for industrial videos that had been produced and had three short stories published. 

And in addition, I had won national recognition for one of the three weekly columns I had written for two years.

No two slush pile readers have the same background or taste.  A writer never knows who will be judging their manuscript before the editor who might purchase it will see it.  But my credentials are typical:  College graduate, professional experience in writing, editing or publishing and a habit of voracious reading.  

 

HOMEWORK: 

READ: Slush Reading by Karen MacLeod, who has been editing professionally.  

Create a resume for yourself as if applying for a slush pile reader's job.  Most slush pile readers are new college graduates in English Literature looking for their first job.  Many companies start people on the track to becoming editors by setting them to read slush.  

When you have a few such credentials to list on your resume, go looking for jobs that would let you get your toe in the door of the publishing industry.  

Remember, being interviewed and rejected for a job can teach you a lot about the kind of people who do get the job.  That will teach you how to craft your manuscripts to pass the slush pile readers.  

Read the other lessons by Anne Phyllis Pinzow.  Especially her Rules for good reporting.  

 

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