Writers Workshop:

IT CAME FROM THE SLUSH PILE
(Original version published by Writers.com, August 2002)

An extremely rare event occurred last week. Michele "The Merciless" Patterson, assistant editor for Horror Garage sent a submission on to me with a positive recommendation. I liked the story and bought it. The author is completely unknown to me and listed only three previous sales in his cover letter -- two to now defunct e-zines and one to a new Australian SF magazine.

How often does this happen? About once in 1,000 submissions. And this is for a measly small press publication with a circulation of no more than 5000 that pays $100-200 per story. Start considering how many more submissions a top-of-the-market fiction magazine gets and how much larger the ratio of unsolicited submissions-to-acceptances.

There are always some stories that are fine stories, but just not suitable for the publication. But, by and large, most of that slush is simply unpublishable.

Slush. If you are writing in hopes of submission for publication, you've probably already come across the terms "slush" and "slush pile" You think using the word slush to denote unsolicited manuscripts is somewhat demeaning to writers? Trust me, it's an accurate description of the mucky mire that an editor can get stuck in.

Not that an editor -- at least on the book publishing or commercial magazine level -- will ever have to slog through the stuff. More and more publishers are refusing to even look at unsolicited manuscripts. It's simply a waste of limited editorial time and resources. Where slush is still accepted, freelance "readers" can be employed (at very low wages) to screen slush, interns might be first readers, and Editorial Assistants (the bottom of the editorial totem pole) are often slush readers. In some houses there's even a gathering called a "slush party" where a group of (mostly) EAs are coerced into going through stacks of manuscripts quickly. (If you get the idea that only the first page or few pages are read, you are correct. It's usually enough.)

The *idea* of slush is wonderfully democratic. It's a way for anyone to have a shot at success. This chance is expressed even more poetically in the phrase "over the transom." Transom is short for "transom window," which, in the U.S. anyway, means a small hinged window above a door that can be opened for ventilation. These transoms were quite common in the days before air conditioning. A writer could, perhaps, use a transom left open to slip an unsolicited manuscript into an editor's office. Nowadays, without literal transoms, editors still call an unexpected ms. "one that came in over the transom." A transom, real or metaphorical, is therefore an opening, an opportunity, at least a possibility. Keep that lovely thought in mind because a transom is also the " transverse top-beam of a gallows..." (OED, 2nd Ed., 1989). Still poetic, perhaps, but far from optimistic.

It's not that one doesn't want to find that shining literary gem in the mud. That's an editor's dream -- to discover that obscure writer of genius, to find unknown talent that would (without editorial perspicacity) never be revealed or rewarded. There is great hope when the neophyte starts reading slush.

My first excursion into the slush pile started with that rosy outlook. I was The Writer's Friend, I wanted to Provide Opportunities to New Talent, to Nurture the Emerging Buds of Dark Literature. In the first six months I got over 1000 submissions before I stopped counting. But I was determined to answer each one -- and (eventually with the help of an assistant editor) I did. Most with some sort of written note.

And, I have to admit that I learned from the experience. When you see the same mistakes over and over, you learn. But, really, a couple of thousand learning experiences are enough.

It was probably inevitable that on my next editorial excursion, I insisted on having someone else handle most of the slush. By the time "Horror Garage" came along, I didn't even have "open" submissions for the first two issues. I opened to unsolicited manuscripts only after Michele -- who lives over 1200 miles away -- agreed to receive and read them. (One thousand miles is about the minimum distance you want between you and slush.)

I also gave up the high-falutin' ideals and realized my job was to find and publish good-to-great fiction. Period

Why the change? Burn-out is, of course, one cause. But its also the *extremes* . Along with the plain old the almost-but-not-quites, the ho-hum middling stories, the decent but not-for-us stories, and the purely bad stories, there were also the extremes of the truly dreadful, the incredibly uninformed, the really rude, the out-and-out lunatic, and, occasionally the scam artist.

I'm a sensitive person. I could only take so much. Think you are made of sterner stuff? I'll give only *one* example of each.

The Truly Dreadful:
These redefine "unforgettable fiction" in ways you never imagined and certainly try to forget anyway. I vaguely recall a plot that featured a tentacled, toothy-mouthed monster that lived in the toilets of a men's restroom at a large airport. I think you will understand if I do not go into detail although I must admit that it did give me insight into a particularly masculine fear. The style and level of the writing, by the way, were roughly equivalent to the usual contents of the antagonist's dwelling-place.

The Incredibly Uniformed:
This includes folks who send in a bad-to-dreadful story with a note saying something like, "This is the first thing I ever wrote. My wife thinks it's really scary. You can call me at 000-000-0000 after 5 PM and tell me when you are publishing it. I'll tell you my real name then so you can make the check out right. (Count Scarcula is not my real name. HaHa. I don't want anyone to know I write horror stories.) I'll let you know my address then, too. I'm mailing this on Monday so I figure to hear from you Thursday afternoon. Say Hi to Steve King for me!" It usually is less grammatical and more misspelled than the example.

The Really Rude:
Michele sent a polite rejection note via e-mail to someone who had submitted the same way. He sent it back to her with a computer virus attached.

The Out-and-Out Lunatic:
You hope the worst of these are safely incarcerated somewhere and will never find you, your children, your cats, or anything you hold dear. Others (like people who claim to be vampires) are less scary and more amusing. Somewhere in between amusing and institutionalized lies the letter (not exactly a submission, but -- ) I received written on deep purple paper in feminine and ornate gothic calligraphy. Its sender assured me that she would soon be sending me one of her stories for my magazine, but felt -- after reading an issue -- we had already established a deep psychic connection. She promised to visit me some night in her astral body so we could consummate this relationship in an erotic manner. (Okay, she was a bit more explicit than that, but you get the idea.) Luckily her astral projection abilities were on the blink and she never sent a story.

The Scam Artist:
I received a story with a polite cover letter asking me to respond as soon as possible because of the special circumstances involved: the writer was a prisoner and to be executed in less than a week. I was doubtful about this claim, so I checked the Web and discovered that he was, indeed, a convicted killer -- although details of his sentence weren't to be found. I did reply, with a rejection, quickly. I told him that if he would like to write about himself, what he was facing, and why he had turned to writing horror fiction, I might publish it posthumously. It might be truly illuminating. I'd need the name of his attorney, of course, along with his essay. Not surprisingly, I received a reply back in which he indicated that he had received a stay of execution. Well, it DID get him a fast reply.

We all have slush pile stories like these. Many, many, many stories like these --

Perhaps you can see why Michele and I are probably more thrilled about finding a suitable story in the slush pile then the author is with making a sale. I just hope Michele doesn't get over-"experienced" any time soon...)

-- Paula Guran


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Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.