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On Both Sides of the Slush Pile

On Both Sides of the Slush Pile by Gail Hayden (from The Market List #6)


... Finally, this is better, that one do

His own task as he may, even though he fail,

 Than take tasks not his own, though they seem good.

--Krishna addressing Arjuna, The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Sir Edwin Arnold


I have passed much of my life on both sides of a variegated stack of manuscripts, called "the slush pile" in both fondness and cruel mockery.

I have read for agents, for publishers of full-length works, and for a group of well-known fiction magazines--where I stirred through both mystery and science fiction stories as a first reader.

As a writer, my stories and novels have set forth on their own wayward treks into the swamps of the editorial sub-terrain.

Probably you have been told many times what the defenseless and hopeful manuscript goes through after you, its creator and master, plunk it nervously into the navy-blue USPS box.

Maybe the package doesn't get opened right away after delivery. Not everyone takes the time to pull a submission out of the envelope the very day it comes. The editor, after all, may be on deadline. There is very likely no secretary, perhaps no first reader to cull through the stories. And, in your case, there is no familiar return name scrawled on the brown-paper outer skin of that shining and vulnerable work of art.

The editor is busy proofing the issue coming out the month after next or has a dentist appointment, or is leaving early since it's Friday.

Well, since it is Friday, she grabs a handful of manuscripts to read at the beach. Is that too many? Oh nevermind, take them along. Your manuscript gets left behind, however. It hasn't even made it to the bottom of the pile yet.

Monday. The editor separates the SASEs from the stories she has read over the weekend and stuffs the envelopes with her bright yellow rejection slips. "Thanks a lot for sharing. Better luck elsewhere. Leave us alone." Well, did she read them? That really depends...

We all have different temperaments, don't we now? Even editors. The one you've sent your manuscript to is utterly pragmatic. Another 30 stories will arrive today alone and she only went through seven at the shore. So maybe she'll spend the morning looking over another handful. Let's fastforward some months and say this is the day your manuscript, tired of being crushed by the weight of so much heavy bond and so many dreams, leaps from underneath the topmost batch and lands on the editor's pathetically small desk.

The grande dame editor scans page one, her mind somewhat distracted from the content, then focuses on a sentence with great force of mind. Ah, good, it's in English. Subject, verb, object, all in a row. Not that the words need to be so regularly laid out, if there's an astute rationale behind the elimination of the generally tidy rules of grammar.

Our arbiter stands, meanders to the lunchroom, pokes her head into the offices of several colleagues to say hi, then hands her quarter over for a cup of murky stimulant. Back at her workstation, with your manuscript once more in hand, she trudges on through the prose arranged so lyrically--so ardently--on the page.

She's not reading every word, you see, because by now it's ten-thirty and she has to get to the gym by twelve-fifteen. Anyway, you really can't read them all, not completely through. But skimming diligently, she can tell she likes the premise more or less. It's different and the characters stand out. The sentences are rhythmical and strike the mind so as to provoke some (but not too much) thought.

Yes, it's a fine story, but there are two time travel pieces already in her collection of those to look at more closely; yours would make three. One of those she's set aside was sent by a writer she has been building as a cover name and yours would make one too many for the coming months. The editor rereads your first page again. Well, it's catchy, but not outstanding perhaps. She glances at the date on the cover letter. She's held it three months already, and doesn't care to hold it another two. She extracts the SASenvelope and commands a yellow form from her drawer.

"Try me again," she writes in the margin of her reply, quickly adding her initials underneath. Your return letter lands softly on the heap in her outbox. The machine in the mail room will seal the envelope. Ms Editor reaches for the next story with one more impatient glance at her watch, She skims to page three: eroticism in old Samoa? Whatever was the author thinking of? Soon yet another story bites the dust, flung aside in less than a minute. The sentence structure is pathetic. If there's a story there, it has yet to be written.

Home from your nine to five, two days hence, you fit the key into your mail box lock. Your own familiar handwriting trumpets that you have heard from a publisher. In a trice, you rip open the letter! Disappointment. "Oh well," you think. "I have seven other stories out there, too. And she did write `Try me again.' I'll send her something later tonight!"

Your darling story, somewhat tattered in its self-esteem, tries to put its best words forward at a less posh publishing operation the following week.

Here, the no-nonsense editor makes a point of invariably responding within two days. He reads your story through, absolutely fuming. Time travel, and nothing at all new! The characters are twits. Your SASE swings around and hits you in the back of the head. Could Mr. Editor have had time to read it and mail it back quite so fast? He has checked a little box on the reply form that tells you he has found your plot prosaic, your characters flat, and your grammar beneath the standards of a third-world illiterate. You must have been a moron to even try him with that trash.

Back into the envelope goes that once shining story. A few days ago it still had some pride. Now, while it feels it has a certain amount of craftsmanship about its paragraphs, it doesn't quite have the confidence it had when it first braved the professional markets some months ago.

After seven weeks of boredom sitting next to a scruffy typewritten document--the meaning of which is all too elusive--your story is picked up by the next mediator of its fragile fate. It trembles and tries to present a courageous front. "Oh, this is good," the editor mumbles, reading onward. Your story gamely adjusts itself, helpfully proffering its words to the man who shuffling the pages with such evident interest.

"Okay," decides the editor when he has come to the end. He logs on to his Internet account and copies your E-mail address into a note-form. "But remember," he warns you. "I pay copies only."

That night you arrive home from the daily stress and strains of the workplace. with not a single envelope waiting for you downstairs. Oh well! After watching the news, you rush to boot up and activate a flash session to retrieve your mail.

Eureka! Someone loves a story that you wrote. Once upon a time you knew it was good; now you know it again. Copies only? That's okay. Sometime in the future, those one-cent-a-word sales are bound to come forth. You reply with great enthusiasm: Shall you send the story file tonight?

Then back to the drawing board. With that story in demand, you must write others...


In sorrows not dejected, and in joys

Not overjoyed; dwelling outside the stress

Of passion, fear, and anger; fixed in calms

Of lofty contemplation;--such an one

Is Muni, is the Sage, the true Recluse!--Krishna, Ibid.


In other words: Getting published is pretty much a fluke. So long as you can afford the postage, keep pumping out your work. (But don't whine too much.)

Copyright © 1996 by Gail Hayden. All Rights Reserved.

  • Posted by Admin
  • August 9, 2012 11:46 AM PDT




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