It Came from the Slush Pile
"I got a cover letter in the form of a jigsaw puzzle, where I had to piece it together.
I put together the first couple of pieces and said, 'I can't believe I'm wasting my
time on this.' So I didn't." - Shawna McCarthy
The slush pile. The words evokes a certain kind of horror for writers, a kind of
literary limbo where their manuscripts wait to be sent to publication heaven or
rejection hell. And the editor is God.
This is the dance they do: The writers write. They submit to an agency or
publication. Their unsolicited manuscripts (that is, stories and books not requested
in advance) become the slush pile.
The readers read. They reach into the stack of manuscripts and read until they find
themselves uninterested. They reject. If the writing is clever, the plot filled with
tension and momentum, if the reader reaches the end with a satisfied smile, the
reader accepts. The writer is published.
But sometimes writers, against all advice and heedless of literary guidelines, take
it upon themselves to make their manuscripts stand apart from the hundreds of
others on the slush pile.
"A manuscript came in a pizza box. [The writer] compared his manuscript to being
like a pizza, because it could be enjoyed at any occasion. I have to say, I had a hell
of a time getting it out of the pizza box." Jessica Wade, Ace Books
To put it bluntly, most unsolicited submissions are forgettable and bland at best
and laughable at worst. Writers know this. So a few misguided scribes separate
themselves from the slush pile with tricks.
The quotations inserted within the article say it all. But these are not the only grab-you-by-the-lapels-and-make-you-read-me methods some writers use to get the
editor to pay more attention to their manuscript than the others.
Food turns what some writers believe a mere manuscript submission into a care
package. Writers have sent chocolates, champagne, coffee, even cake--not that
this get the reader's attention. Both an agent and the editor of Realms of Fantasy
magazine, Shawna McCarthy says, "I think it's pretty stupid to think that anyone
is going to eat candy that comes from a stranger."
John Joseph Adams, assistant editor at the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
(also a writer here at the Medicine Show), mentions "canary colored paper" and
"black submission envelopes."
Gordon Van Gelder, the editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction,
previously worked for St. Martin's Press. There he found himself in possession of
a manuscript that "came with a full-body shot of the author in dominatrix regalia.
The agent's letter read 'The author is very interested in meeting with you.'"
"When I used to work for Galaxy magazine, we received a manuscript that had
been seized at the border for health reasons. The whole envelope was sealed in a
plastic bag when it arrived. You can see dead cockroaches there in the bag. We
then forwarded it to a competitor's magazine." - Gardner Dozois, editor of The
Year's Best Science Fiction
Of course, Van Gelder did not purchase the book. "That way lies madness," he
"Madness" may not be the right word, but certainly no editor, agent, or reader
wants to work with someone who's sanity is in question. "An author said Olivia
Newton-John…was secretly communicating with him through license plate
numbers. I didn't know whether to reject him or call the FBI," says Greg Cox,
formerly an editor at Tor Books.
And though most writers who seek to jump the slush pile queue are blessedly sane,
something about their antics smacks of immaturity.
Readers feel that this strange ingenuity the writer uses to make their work stand
out would be better served within the pages of the manuscript, not the packaging
or presentation. "Save the creativity for the book," says Cox.
Such stunts are unnecessary, suggests David Hartwell, an editor at Tor Books. "If
you're reading slush, you're reading everybody's slush." In other words, no tricks,
no gimmicks, will help clear the path to the reader's desk.
"I received one death threat, postmarked Norristown, the location of
Pennsylvania's largest insane asylum."
- George Scithers, editor at Weird Tales
So why do readers subject themselves to the threat of bodily harm or the lure of
Adams says, "Reading a good story is entertaining; reading slush is work. It can be
tedious and frustrating at times, but overall, it's not so bad. I mean, hey, I get paid
to read all day, and my opinion helps determine whether or not a story will be
"Imagine digging through massive piles of manure, but every once in a while you
discover a 24 karat diamond," says Doug Cohen, assistant editor at Realms of
Fantasy magazine. "That is the true joy of slushing…discovering something that
makes me want to turn off my brain and read." He adds, "the more I slush, the
more I learn as both an editor and a writer. "
McCarthy has, after years of slushing, a more negative view. "It used to be a
challenge to find the silk purse among the sows' ears, but now it's not funny
But McCarthy's magazine continues to accept unsolicited manuscripts. Adams
says, "I think that unless a magazine has an open submissions policy, it's doomed.
The slush is where you discover new talent, and without an infusion of new talent,
a magazine will wither and die."
Cohen says, "I would say that the real benefit is that it provides the magazine with
options. Very few established writers or previous contributors will write a story
that is good enough for the magazine every time. But if good slush stories are
being sent in each month, even if it is just one out of 200, it makes the magazine
"Three people showed up [at the Tor office] to deliver an art portfolio in Conan
garb…cloaks, loincloths, and swords. One said, 'I am Gorthor of the Hill People,
and my companions have traveled long and hard through many trials to bring this
to you,' I said, 'Thank you very much.' The portfolio was sent back that day." -
Greg Cox, editor formerly at Tor Books
The most outrageous stunts and sublime gifts do not get your submissions
rejected. However, "I have never in my 40-plus year's experience had a writer pull
some kind of joke-y thing in the slush pile and have it work," says Hartwell.
Trying to trick the reader into turning your attention on the submission, rather than
the manuscript itself, makes writers come across as unprofessional. And what
writer needs a reader asking him/herself, "Do I really want to work with this
Some of the tricks writers pull are reminiscent of the antics of actors trying to get
the attention of the producer - sometimes it gets them the audition, but that rarely
means they'll get the part. Some writers seem to think that a publisher will be so
impressed by the gimmick that they'll overlook the deficiencies of the manuscript.
"Stupid stunts turn off the editor," says Cox.
"I pulled out the manuscript [from the envelope] and a great big stiff cardboard
finger sprung up. This is someone that was so certain they would be rejected, they
would be getting their revenge in advance. I was lucky - it could have been a pipe
bomb." - Gardner Dozois
So now that the industry has chastised the risk-takers for going over-the-top with
their submission process, how can they, and other writers, scale the mountain of
Hartwell had suggestions for writers that pique his interest when reading a submission.
- "Write one or two pieces of really good short fiction., If you do that, the editor
will read your manuscript before anyone else's."
- "Get a personal recommendation. If Robert J. Sawyer comes up to me at a con
and says I know this talented writer and you've got to read her right away, I will."
- "Direct contact." When editors are at conventions, writers may inquire about the
status of their manuscripts. Hartwell says he discusses submissions with writers "if
they're not being rude."
Van Gelder says that nothing stands out more [on the slush pile] than a well-prepared manuscript…with standard formatting."
- Use double-spacing, with a clean printer cartridge. Stick to 12-point type--Darrell Schweitzer, an editor at Weird Tales magazine, says he bounces
manuscripts unread if the font is too small. And make sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
- George Scithers, an editor at Weird Tales magazine says, "The most frequent
reason we reject a story is that it doesn't hold interest." Cohen agrees. "The only
way to stand out from the slush pile…is to write a really good story"
A (WARNING) NOTE ABOUT COVER LETTERS:
Your cover letter is the way in which you introduce your manuscript to the reader.
And like any formal introduction, the letter must be polite and make the reader
want to continue the acquaintance.
Here are some cover letter mistakes that should not make it in to your next
- The cover letter said "[The story] was not about science fiction, it's about truth
and beauty, but you will like it anyway." She was honest and saved us the trouble
of reading the whole thing. George Scithers
- "I have had my story notarized, so that if you attempt to read it… " That's as far as
I read. I send back a letter and said, "That's as far as I've read." Clearly the author
would be more trouble than he was worth, and I didn't feel like conducting a class.
- George Scithers
- [An author] described his character as, "He was a very forgettable individual."
And I didn't read any further. - Shawna McCarthy
- [The author] sends this letter, all caps, saying she would not send the manuscript,
but if I really wanted to see it, I could fly out to Oregon, where she would take it
out of a safe-deposit box, and I could read it where she could watch over me. -
Gordon Van Gelder
- That unctuous thing that people do is put in the cover letter: "I'm not an artist, I'm
a businessman, and we can get rich on this book." - Gordon Van Gelder
- You shouldn't send in your fantasy manuscript in pink paper with pictures of
unicorns and stardust sprinkled on it. - Greg Cox
- We got apologetic notes saying hang on because [the manuscript] gets really good
at chapter 16. - Greg Cox
- You don't need to tell us how many times the book has been rejected. We don't
care, and you're not doing yourself a favor. - Greg Cox
- Although it seems counterproductive, you get stories with letters that tell you that
you're much too moronically stupid and imbecilic to appreciate this wonderful
story. - Gardner Dozois
- I've seen manuscripts hand-written, even written in crayon. - Gardner Dozois
- Sometimes people send headshots along with their manuscripts, as if they were
actors auditioning for a part. We make fun of those. - John Joseph Adams
- "This manuscript is so important it will surely herald the Second Coming." This is
not unique. - Lori Perkins, agent