February 19, 2004

The Slushkiller

Editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden writes about why fiction editors reject manuscripts:

Making Light: Slushkiller: The context of rejection: If you’re an author, the arrival of a rejection letter is a major event. If you’re an editor (or an associate editor, assistant editor, editorial assistant, or intern), 90% of all rejections are something you do on a quiet afternoon when you don’t have something more urgent breathing down your neck. O Yawn, you say, O Stretch, there’s that catalogue copy finished. I’ve got—hmmm, about two and a half hours left in the day. Nothing else urgent? Okay, it’s time to blight some hopes and crush some dreams. You grab a stack of slush envelopes and start going through them.

Unless you’re a senior editor with intern-like beings below you on the food chain who open and process the slush for you to look at—a splendid luxury!—a substantial fraction of your time is going to go into opening the packages, logging in the name, title, agent/no agent, genre, and date rejected, and then repackaging the rejected manuscript with a form rejection letter and a copy of the Tor Submission Guidelines. Manuscripts are unwieldy, but the real reason for that time ratio is that most of them are a fast reject. Herewith, the rough breakdown of manuscript characteristics, from most to least obvious rejections:

1. Author is functionally illiterate. 2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc. 3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him. 4. Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, incentiary, reeking havoc, nearly penultimate, dire straights, viscous/vicious. 5. Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs. 6. Author has a moderate neurochemical disorder and can’t tell when he or she has changed the subject. This greatly facilitates composition, but is hard on comprehension. 7. Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless. (At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)

8. It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels. 9. Nobody but the author is ever going to care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book. 10. The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic. (You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)

11. Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us. 12. Author is talented, but has written the wrong book. 13. It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.

14. Buy this book.

Aspiring writers are forever asking what the odds are that they’ll wind up in category #14. That’s the wrong question. If you’ve written a book that surprises, amuses, and delights the readers, and gives them a strong incentive to read all the pages in order, your chances are very good indeed. If not, your chances are poor.

And then her readers write. And write, and write, and write. And write some more. There is now nearly a megabyte of prose in the comment thread.

It's remarkable as a social (and sociological) event. It's book length. And there's a lot of good stuff in the comments.*

But it really, really needs a good editor :-).


*My favorite is the reaction to the "suppose you could submit manuscripts by email" idea...

Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 08:22 AM:

John M. Ford wrote: Wow, slushspam....

DEAR SIR OR MADAM:

I HAVE ENCLOSED AN OUTLINE AND THE FIRST THREE CHAPTERS OF MY NOVEL THE AFRICAN PRISONER. IT'S THE THRILLING, FAST-PACED STORY OF AN ORDINARY BANK CLERK IN LAGOS, NIGERIA, WHO ONE DAY FINDS HIMSELF IN POSSESSION OF SEVENTEEN MILLION DOLLARS ($17 MILLION) IN FUNDS LEFT BEHIND BY A CORRUPT BUREAUCRAT WHO DIES IN A PLANE CRASH. IN A DESPERATE ATTEMPT TO RECLAIM PART OF THE MONEY, HE MANAGES TO MAKE CONTACT WITH A KINDLY AMERICAN WIDOW WHO LENDS HIM THE USE OF HER BANK ACCOUNT. WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN EXCITING, DEADLY CAT-AND-MOUSE GAME WITH NIGERIAN CON MEN, PRIVATE DETECTIVES, AND THE FBI BUNCO/FRAUD DIVISION....

Posted by DeLong at February 19, 2004 01:21 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Good info. It is easy though to publish a book nowadays. Some writers do it themselves. The problem is not writing, it's getting read. You as a blog writer know that.

Posted by: Ricky Vandal on February 19, 2004 01:36 PM

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Wait, I think I've read that book before. All you have to do is send them $200 and they send you a manuscript/treasure map to the gold!

Posted by: Azrael on February 19, 2004 01:46 PM

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John M. Ford, author of "Scrabble With God" and _Growing Up Weightless_ and _The Last Hot Time_, posting to a blog? So when are you going to get, say, Bob Rubin posting here?

Posted by: rilkefan on February 19, 2004 02:05 PM

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Teresa Nielsen Hayden is one of the editors of Tor books. Not only does John M. Ford (yes, that John M. Ford) comment in her blog, but so do Neil Gaiman, Jo Walton, Jane Yolen, and scads of other professional SF writers... [You should've seen their discussion on Mary Sues]

Posted by: Lis on February 19, 2004 02:12 PM

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my only quibble is the double-triple refrence to neurochemical problems.

Posted by: sammy on February 19, 2004 03:29 PM

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Go read the thread, Sammy. I explain why it's relevant.

Posted by: Teresa Nielsen Hayden on February 19, 2004 05:40 PM

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And yet an unemployed woman, writes a story about a young boy going to college to learn magic,(not prestidigitation), and becomes an almost instant millionairess.

Posted by: big al on February 19, 2004 06:22 PM

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ack! my eyes!

Posted by: vachon on February 19, 2004 06:37 PM

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I admit I didn't expect the thread to get quite so long myself when I was first pointed toward it by a friend, but...in hindsight, I'm not sure it could do anything but accrete in this fashion. :-) I almost wish I hadn't missed the Mary Sue discussion.

And Teresa, add my vote to the list of people who would like to see some form of hardcopy form of Making Light in the nebulous future. Maybe even an annual collection? "The Year's Best (Writing) Fantasies and Horrors"? *ducking*

Posted by: Yoon Ha Lee (yhl) on February 19, 2004 10:06 PM

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What is "nearly penultimate" actually supposed to be?

Posted by: Anon on February 20, 2004 10:15 AM

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