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Monday, June 18, 2012

The Slushpile Survival Guide

A Manuscript's Odyssey, Part 4

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

How do you help boost your manuscript up out of the undifferentiated muck of the slush pile so that it gets the level of editorial attention you want? The rules are simple and should seem familiar...

In fact, they're so simple and familiar that as I was writing this column, I got déjà vu all over again, broke off for a few minutes' search, and sure enough, I wrote a column about this years ago. Liberally sampling from my own earlier article, then (and bearing in mind that it was written back in the days of printed manuscript submissions and print publications):

[...] The following numbers are gleaned from conversations had with a number of major magazine editors back in the late 1980s but still should be reasonably indicative.

In an average month, Joe Editor, head honcho at Stupefying Stories Magazine, [Huh? Was I prescient or what? ~brb] receives 600 manuscripts and publishes eight. How does he bridge the gap between the two numbers?

- 100 manuscripts are rejected on receipt, because they're either
  • addressed to the previous editor who quit five years ago, thus indicating that the writer has not looked at a recent issue of the magazine
  • addressed to "Ms Jeo Edtori," and if the writer can't even get that much right, what hope is there for the rest of the manuscript? [I will tolerate misspellings of my name -- after all, I've been listening to people mangle the pronunciation of it all my life, so what's a typo or two? -- but I've decided I will no longer tolerate submissions from people who can't make the effort to get the name of the publication right. ~brb]
  • addressed in crayon, or submitted in an envelope covered with cutie-poo pony and butterfly stickers, in the apparent and misplaced hope that this will somehow draw attention (it does, but not the sort of attention you want) [This still happens, only now it takes the form of photos, graphic images, or animations and Java crapplets embedded in the cover email. Doing so still indicates that the would-be author is a hopeless putz. ~brb]
  • or have a return address indicating the submission is from a known crank or jerk that Mr. Editor would never in a million years publish even if he or she was the last living writer on Earth or any of the nearer planets [This is one area where technology has made an enormous difference. Thanks to auto-responders and email filters, it's now possible to establish a "Known Twits" list and stop the real jerks before they ever make it as far as your inbox -- until they figure out what's going on and get a new email address, which they always do. ~brb]
- 100 manuscripts are rejected based on the first line of the cover letter, which begins, "I know you don't usually publish stories about..." and then goes on to describe a topic that, yes, Stupefying Stories never publishes stories about.

- 100 manuscripts are rejected based on the rest of the cover letter, which either describes the submission in such tedious detail as to remove all desire to read the manuscript or else includes palpable bullshit or even threats. (Yes, people have been known to send cover letters that include lines like, "My good friend Gordon Dickson read this story last week and said you'd really love it," [Gordie died in 2001], or "Don't even TRY to steal my story because I have COPYRIGHTED it and I have a VERY GOOD LAWYER!!!!")

- 100 manuscripts are rejected based on the first page of the manuscript, which either shows that the writer has no knowledge of standard manuscript format, thinks a hideously overused cliché is a marvelously original title, has sent a stained and shopworn wad of paper that's obviously been bouncing around for awhile, or is simply so bad a writer as to be beyond all hope of redemption. [Okay, the "stained and shopworn paper" thing never happens anymore, and I don't agonize over standard manuscript format as that's just more cruft we have to strip out in the process of coverting the ms. to .epub. However, the "is simply so bad a writer as to be beyond all hope" part is such a big topic that it deserves its own column, and will get that column soon. ~brb]

- 100 manuscripts are rejected based on the first two pages of the manuscript, which are decently written but such an obvious setup for a "twist" or "pun" ending that Mr. Editor jumps to the last page and—yup, sure enough, the narrator is a lobster in an aquarium in a seafood restaurant! And given that the whole story hinges on keeping this fact hidden from the reader until the very end, this is also where Mr. Editor's interest ends.

Which leaves Joe Editor with a considerably more manageable stack of 100 manuscripts, in which to find the eight that are well-written, interesting, the right length, and not too much like something he already has in inventory to be worth buying. And if he has the budget for it he'll probably end up buying ten manuscripts, just in case next month's batch of submissions only includes four acceptable stories.

There now: that doesn't look so daunting now, does it?

...to be continued...
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