Monthly Archives: March 2008

The View From the Other Side of the Slush Pile

Many years ago, when I was a college student searching for summer employment, I realized that I had essentially no marketable skills. I spent the summer working through a temporary agency, and I was almost always assigned out as a receptionist.

My final placement that summer was with a small, middle/highbrow publishing house, focused mostly on literary fiction. I spent a week and a half filling in for the receptionist, but when she came back early, they didn’t end the assignment, probably because they had committed to use me for two full weeks. My supervisor, whomever she or he was, gave me an empty office (unassigned, really; it was extremely cluttered) to work in, and showed me the slush pile. It really was a pile of manuscripts; several piles, , actually, some of them in the process of collapsing into each other. For the next two or three days, my job would be to get through as much of it as I could.

There I was, 19 or 20 years old, never having taken a college-level literature class, with no more than five minutes of training, reading the manuscripts hopeful authors had poured their souls into. My instructions were simple: If I thought a manuscript was worth an editor’s time, I had to read the entire thing, fill out a one-page form, and prepare a synopsis. If I decided at any point while reading a submission that it should be rejected, I could stop immediately, fill out the form, and send it back to the author (if a self-addressed, stamped envelope had been enclosed), without writing the synopsis. My incentives were clear: The path of least effort for me would be to make decisions quickly, and reject almost everything.

In other words,

iminurslushpile.jpg

(LOLcat built from original photo by sutefani in orlando, under a Creative Commons-Attribution license by way of Flickr.)

Although I reviewed a number of manuscripts, I remember only two: one I rejected, and one I flagged for review by somebody competent. The one I rejected was some kind of thriller, and I read about half of it before I finally gave up, turned off by what seemed like an interminable technical discussion about the architecture of nuclear power plants.

The novel I sent up the ladder was a drama about high school students, set in the contemporary rural South. I hated it. I didn’t like the style, I couldn’t identify with the characters, and it was sexually graphic without being the least bit titillating. It was, however, very well written, and I found myself unable to put it down — like watching a slow-motion train wreck, I wanted to see what (horrible) thing happened to these (idiotic) characters next. When I was done, I decided that I had no idea whether this was the kind of thing my employer would want to publish, but I thought somebody probably would. I filled out the form, wrote the synopsis, and left it for the professionals to deal with. I have no idea whether they, or anyone, ever published the book. I was also too stupid to try to maintain the contacts at the publishing house, which might have been useful to an aspiring writer.

As a wannabe novelist, I should have been horrified that someone like me was making decisions about the slush pile, but at 20, I was sufficiently vapid or arrogant not to be bothered by it. I’m horrified now, of course, but now it’s too late. The guy who wrote the nuclear plant thriller probably would have been the next Tom Clancy if a competent editor had looked at his novel and thought, “It gets a little wordy, but if he’d be willing to cut four pages from Chapter 14, we could have a blockbuster on our hands!” Maybe another publisher did. But I have this uncomfortable feeling that when the time comes to send out Meet the Larssons, my karmic debt is going to have to be repaid.

In other news, I’ve been too busy at work this week to post until now, so I haven’t been able to comment on the death of Gary Gygax, one of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons. I started playing D&D regularly when I was about 11, and played consistently until I was around 16, and then intermittently until college. Many thanks, GG. Here’s a link to Uncle Monsterface’s tribute song (thanks to GeekDad for pointing me to it), which captures the sentiment exactly.

To see the previous posts in my rejection slips series, click here, here, here, and here.

Search Engine Fun

Apparently, my January 25 post is the number one search result on the Google for why i hate biglaw, which I think is very cool, even though I don’t hate biglaw myself and don’t say in the post that I do.

Update: Fame is fleeting.  As of 5:07pm Central, someone else has claimed the number one spot, and I have been demoted to number 2. Bummer.

Response to Weekend Assignment #205: Those “Other” Pets

Scooz me

I’m in an unreasonable amount of pain this morning from a wrenched muscle or a pinched nerve in my back, the result of a slip on the ice on Thursday. Just about the only thing I can do without suffering unspeakable agony is type, which makes this an excellent time to get my homework done.

The assignment this week (as always, from Karen at Outpost Mavarin) is to discuss our experience with pets other than cats and dogs. Our only pet these days, and the one constant companion Mrs. Unfocused and I have had since 1990, is BPF: the Big Pink Fishie, familiar to readers of this blog because of the LOLfish I made in response to a dare from Nathan at Polybloggimous (prior posts here and here). The new LOLfish at the top of the post is the first part of my response to my assignment.

When Unfocused Girl was four, we caved in to her increasingly desperate demands for a pet she could hold. After rejecting fur-bearing creatures (Unfocused Junior and I both have allergies), birds (allergies, noise), and turtles (salmonella), we settled on hermit crabs. The first pair, Rosie-poo and Butterfly, lived for several months. None of their successors, Rosie-poo 2, Butterfly 2, Rosie-poo 3, and others whose names none of us can recall, lasted more than a month or two, so eventually we gave up and accepted our lot as a Family With Fish.

Unfocused Girl is now deeply into the Warriors series, and I think she would feel a little odd having a kittypet anyway. If we were to get a cat, I suspect she would leave the back door open all the time, to encourage it to escape to the forest and achieve its true potential as a Warrior for Thunderclan in the fight against Shadowclan. But we can’t have a cat, so the question is moot.

I had cats growing up, though, usually between three and six at a time. We didn’t realize I was allergic to cats — everyone just thought I was a sneezy kid (another reason why the Seventies are often referred to as the “Oops Decade”). Some of the names we gave to the cats we had were a little unusual. The two cats that were generally “mine,” because they slept in my room and preferred to sit with me while I was doing homework or watching TV, were Sesame and Dammit. I was little when we got Sesame, and I named her after Sesame Street. Before we adopted Dammit, she was a nasty-tempered stray who used to invade our backyard and terrorize me when I was small; the Unfocused Mom always ran out into the yard, yelling, “Get out of here, damn it!” and the name stuck. They were good cats.