Slushpile Tips From a Conference Slushfest

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I attended a small writing conference over the weekend. I took lots of notes and, over the next few weeks, will share several things I learned. Today, because I'm playing catch up from being away, I'm going to share the easiest topic to relate: tips learned from a slushfest.

What's a Slushfest?

This popular writing conference event attempts to provide writers a glimpse into what happens when an agent (or the agent's assistant, actually) attacks the slush pile of unsolicited submissions. As much as agents want to find the next best seller, they do have a lot of queries to plow through, so there are certain things that cause them to pass on submissions.

In a slushfest, attendees anonymously provide the first page or two of their manuscript, and the experts (authors, agents, editors, publishers) read until they find something that would make a professional reject a submission. Then they explain why they stopped reading.

Tips From the Slushfest

Some of the reasons from this weekend's event include:

  • No Setting - the manuscript starts with something happening but there was no sense of time and place
  • Nothing is Happening - the manuscript covers time and place but at the expense of action; there is no action for several paragraphs
  • Use of Gerunds - gerunds are -ing verbs (walking, singing, working, watching) and they imply the action takes place at the same time as other actions in the sentence which often is impossible
  • Explanations - the writer steps out of the narrative to explain something to the reader that the reader should either already understand or will get later as the story unfolds; this also applies to providing the backstory of what's happened up to the point that the story begins
  • Uncommon Words - a word in the protagonist's point of view that the protagonist probably would not say in conversation or thought; a word that's not typical of how people communicate
  • Contemporary Terms - words that don't fit the time frame of the story
  • Scene Shifts - shifting to a new scene too soon, in this case by the second page
  • Awkward Phrasing - sentences that run too long or are phrased in a difficult way
  • Commas - lack of commas where they're needed or commas where they don't belong
In case you're wondering, they stopped reading my story based on an uncommon word--admonishment. They felt like I'd used a thesaurus to choose it. I hadn't, but in this case, I had failed to write as my protagonist would speak instead of how I speak. It happens.

As you can see, lots of issues can stop someone from continuing to read your manuscript. This can be disheartening to observe--out of roughly twenty-five manuscripts they only got to the end of the submission on two of them.

The point? Keep plugging away and make sure you've fine-tuned your work before submitting.


JoAnne Simson said…
Thanks! This is helpful advice! Two out of twenty five is discouraging, but I suspect it's about the normal rate of "acceptable" first pages. And even the other two probably wouldn't make it to the agent's respond pile.
Unknown said…
Ah, so you were the admonished writer? I thought the sentence sounded good, especially when the characters (in the story) are considered.

I remember being told to avoid cliches like the plague.
JoAnne, yes, I imagine the percentages are worse than 2 out of 25.
Jayne, LOL! Yes, that was me. I’ve changed the word, but it’s a word I use all the time. A friend pointed out that Christians would be more familiar with the word. Don’t know if it’s due to that or my academic background, but it’s a word I use.

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