How to Climb out of the Slush Pile and Get Noticed Today

by | Viewpoint

The slush pile is home to some truly terrible manuscripts. Nevertheless, it’s where you’ll end up if you send unsolicited work to publishers or agents. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. You must get your work out there somehow. But you also must make sure your work stands out from the rest. This concise guide will help you do just that.

Let’s Define It

The slush pile-usually more than one pile, actually is that somewhat odious pile of unsolicited manuscripts that agents and editors receive over time. Most agents and editors don’t even bother to read the slush pile themselves. Instead, they turn to low-level interns or employees known as “publisher’s readers,” “first readers” or just “readers” to do the job. If one of the readers finds a diamond among all the coal, they’ll kick it up to their boss. They do this in hopes of receiving some credit should the manuscript turn out to be a home run.

So now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about how to outshine the competition.

Formatting Matters

Agents, editors and publishing houses typically have formatting preferences, though they might not always make this clear. If you’re submitting somewhere and you’re not sure what format to use, it’s a good idea to stick to a default format. You can’t go too wrong with:

  • Double spacing.
  • Output as either PDF or in Word doc format.
  • Use Times New Roman or Courier with 12-point font.
  • Use one-inch margins all around.
  • Include your name in the upper left-hand corner of every page.
  • Only post the total word count on the first page.
  • Number all pages.

Note: Screenplays are, of course, formatted differently. Industry-grade screenwriting apps like Final Draft and Fade In will handle the formatting for you.

Nail the Query

Query writing is an art, and it takes practice. But here are a few general guidelines:

  • You need a hook so you can get the reader’s attention right away.
  • You need to know who you’re sending the letter to make it personal.
  • You need to include the title, genre, and total word count.

Make Your Submission Stand Out

Working your way out of the slush pile requires a powerful manuscript and some forethought. So go into the battle with the best material you possibly can. Below are some guidelines to help you along.

1. Make sure you’ve written a story.

You’ve polished your manuscript, you’ve gotten rid of all the typos and you’ve formatted it properly. But what have you written, exactly? Is your work of fiction actually a story? Does it have:

  • A protagonist. A central character who moves the story forward through conflict with him/herself, other characters and/or the environment?
  • Conflict. There are many types of conflict, both internal and external. A good rule of thumb is that every scene must have a conflict of one kind or another. If your manuscript has passages that are conflict free, cut them. You don’t need them, and they’ll just bore the pants off your reader.
  • A plot. Does your story go anywhere? Does your protagonist end up where they started off? A good story has a plot that goes from A to Z. One hack to plotting is to ask yourself at each key juncture, did my protagonist get what they wanted here?

The answer should be either, Yes…but, something happened or No…and something happened.

A non-story is a character sketch, and there’s nothing wrong with character sketches. But typically, they’re not what agents or publishers are looking for. In the same vein, beautiful, lyrical working is not enough, nor is flowery prose.

2. Do the boredom self-test.

Read your manuscript. Are there any points at which you find your attention wandering? Make a note in the margins. For instance, if you find yourself losing interest at page 100, you can bet your reader got bored on page 95. Go back to the Yes…but/No…and format to spice things up a bit.

3. Know where to start the story.

Many new authors write long-winded introductions to their main character, setting, etc. This is unnecessary and can even hurt you. We can get to know your protagonist as the story unfolds. Look at chapter three or even four and ask yourself, Can I start the story here instead? Often, you can.

4. Avoid Cliché.

It’s a cliché to say, but you should avoid cliché. Some words and turns of phrase are cliché, but concepts can become cliché as well. I’m sure you can think of several examples. Here are but a few:

  • The drug addict who must overcome their addiction to achieve some loftier goal.
  • The orphan who goes on a quest to find her true parents.
  • The hardboiled detective who must solve a mystery to save the love of his life.

There’s nothing wrong with using these concepts, but you must be able to put a unique spin on them-a hook, in other words.

5. Use Flashbacks sparingly.

Question: if the most interesting part of your story happens in flashback, why not just make that the whole story? Is framing it as a flashback accomplishing something? Is it really key to the plot? The trouble with flashbacks is that they can become narrative dead-ends. Worse, to a reader, they can feel like a cheap way to add emotional weight to a story.

By keeping to these guidelines, you’ll improve your chances of being selected by a reader and you may even get yourself out of the slush pile. Remember, the slush pile is home to a lot of very, shall we say, sub-par writing. Do all that you can to make yourself stand out and you stand a fighting chance.

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