Sweeping Back the Slushpile: a First Reader's Primer As Told To Kent Brewster (Reprinted with kind permission from http://www.speculations.com/slush.htm.) Note: This relates specifically to short story submissions, though many of the criteria also applied to novel writers Welcome to the first reader's desk here at Pusillanimous Prevarications. PP's ninety-year tradition of quick, efficient slushpile response now rests squarely on your shoulders. Are you scared yet? You will be.... First, some simple math: you'll be looking at 800 to 1,000 unsolicited manuscripts each month, 40 or 50 a day, and we print one magazine every two months. The marketing department wants recognizable names on the front cover, so we can publish an absolute maximum of four unsolicited pieces per issue. So don't even think about letting more than one per week get past you to the editor. Furthermore, since reading slush consists of approximately ten per cent of your duties, you'll need to get through those manuscripts in half an hour to an hour per day. How is this possible? Simple. Don't read the manuscript. Yes, that's right. Don't read the manuscript. Most of your slush will bear marks of unprofessionalism that will indicate total unsuitability for our needs, many visible to the trained eye before you even open the envelope. You're armed with our Standard Rejection Form, saying that the enclosed manuscript "does not meet our current needs." Use it if any of the following conditions are true: Is the envelope smaller than an 8 1/2" by 11" piece of paper? Reject it. Remember Budrys' Law: nothing good ever came folded in half, or, horrors, in thirds. Is the envelope taped shut? Send it back. Have you ever in your life received an empty envelope in the mail? This one's paranoid and will be in your face with query letters in a week. Does the author claim membership in SFWA or HWA on the outside of the envelope? Boing. This guy's a desperate egomaniac. Are there any cute graphics--stamped, drawn, or included on any stickers--anywhere? Any decorative seals? Political associations? Environmental concerns? Bounce it; you don't want to deal with this person, since he's dumb enough to try to foist his political views or artistic tastes on an editor. Open the envelope. Use a sharp letter opener. Never stick your finger into an unopened envelope; you don't know what sort of evil surprise lurks inside. If there's a stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) in there and any of the conditions in the list above are true, stuff Form Number One into the SASE along with the front page of the manuscript--nobody ever sends enough postage or a big enough envelope for the whole manuscript, so don't worry about it--and seal it shut. Do not lick a strange envelope for the same reason you don't blindly stick your finger in one: you don't know where it's been. If there's no SASE, dump the entire package into the recycling bin. Do the same if there's metered postage on the SASE; the post office won't take it after the date that's on the tape. If there's a postcard included, tear it up and reject the manuscript. The author is questioning your ability to reject his manuscript in anything less than record time; you'll show him! If you still haven't rejected it by now, you're going to have to take the manuscript out of the envelope. But relax; most will include one of the following glaring errors, relieving you from the responsibility of actually having to read the manuscript: Is there a paper clip holding the manuscript together? If not, reject it. This goes double for staples, twist-ties, wire-o binding, and any other method. If there is a paper clip, remove it and proceed to the next step. Under no circumstances should you ever return a paper clip with a submission, even if there's enough postage and a big enough envelope. Is the ink less than darkest black? Or does this appear to be a photocopy, no matter how good? Bounce it; the author's either too cheap to buy a new ribbon or toner cartridge or--worse--is submitting this manuscript to several markets at once. Is the author using a pseudonym? Reject the manuscript. How could it possibly be any good if he doesn't want his name on it? Is there any copyright information whatsoever on the manuscript? This guy's a paranoid rookie who thinks you're going to steal his work; send it back and save yourself the heartache. Does any font except ten-character-per-inch Courier--the kind that looks like a typewriter produced it--appear anywhere in the manuscript? Reject it; he's trying to ruin your eyes. Same goes for anything less than pathologically correct formatting: keep a ruler handy to measure those margins! Does an exact word count appear at the top of the page? Hoo-boy. This one thinks each and every one of his stinking little words must be present and accounted for when you cut your check. Boingeroo. Was the author dumb enough to admit he's an "associate" or "affiliate" member of SFWA or HWA? Bounce it. Also bounce any that just say "member, SFWA/HWA" and not "Active Member." If you haven't bounced the manuscript by the time you've reached this point, fear not. You still haven't looked at the cover letter. Cover letters are where a surprisingly large number of the authors who do manage to produce a professionally-formatted manuscript and mail it to you without slipping up reveal their true colors. Here's where you're going to nail anyone who encloses a cover letter that says anything more or less than "Dear Editor: Here's [name of story], about [approximate count] words. Kindly consider it for publication within Pusillanimous Prevarications. I enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope for your response; please recycle the manuscript when you are finished with it." Red flags to watch for in cover letters: Is there a plot summary, High Concept--"It's like Star Wars meets Interview with the Vampire"--or other sales pitch for the story? Reject it; the author thinks it's too weak to stand on its own merits, saving you the trouble of deciding. Does the author include more than three publishing credits or any credits whatsoever in any market that pays less than a nickel a word? Or is there a complete resumé attached, with work, educational, and professional credits? Bounce it; this guy's applying for a job, not trying to sell you a story. How about personal information or political affiliation? Was the author inspired to write the story by the plight of the homeless, his experiences in the Persian Gulf, or out of a need to finally "get the demons out"? Shudder. Run away, fast. Does the cover letter kiss the editor's ass? Send it back. Your editor has a big enough ego as it is. Finally, does the cover letter creep you out personally in any way, shape, or form? Is there any hint of desperation or personal trauma in the writer's tone? These are the ones we really want to avoid; disgruntled postal workers have nothing on frustrated writers when it comes time to break out the AK-47 and go a-hunting. Very important: do not yield to the temptation of personalizing the reject notes you send to these poor unfortunates. Any crumb of reinforcement you throw them will result in a redoubling of their efforts; we want them to go away, quietly and forever. Now put every manuscript that makes it this far into a separate pile; if you're doing your job, there shouldn't be more than five or six a day. Once you've rejected everything else, come back here and continue. At this point you're going to have to take a big swig of coffee and actually start reading. First, though, make sure you've got an ample supply of Form Number Two, the one that says "Although this submission does not meet our current needs, we see promise in your writing and would encourage you to send your next." Got 'em? Good. Now ... empty your mind and begin. As soon as you see anything, no matter how trivial, that causes your attention to wander from the prose, stop. Drop in a Form Number Two and go on to the next envelope. This shouldn't take more than a minute apiece; when you're done, your desk should be clean. On rare occasions--once or twice a week--you'll make it all the way through a manuscript without losing track. These and only these go to the editor, and God help you if they suck. Yes, yes. We know. This seems like a cruel, heartless process. That's because it is a cruel, heartless process. Think of it as evolution in action, nothing more than nature, red of tooth and claw, taking its course. The slushpile is a giant herd of antelope, sweeping gracefully across the Gombian plains. If it isn't held in check, it'll strip the tender African soil bare. And you, my friend, are the lion. If you see an antelope with a limp, take him out. Remember, it could be worse. You could be the editor. He's the one who actually has to buy this stuff.