Thursday, February 18, 2010

Jumping the gate

This is kinda-sorta related to a link Sarah sent me today (go read it - Sarah's comment on the post is excellent), via my usual leaps of illogic. The aspiring author's expectations seem to be set somewhere between "If I'm good enough, they'll see my brilliance and love me" and "They don't love me: they must hate me."

It's the same kind of thing that causes Joe Beginning Author to obsessively parse out rejection letters in the hope of divining some notion of the 'real' reason for the rejection (otherwise known as rejectomancy): we at the outskirts of the industry have no idea what actually goes on between when we send our story in and when we get it back. Some of us even harbor the quaint notion that we're going to get an unbiased read. We're not. (That's not to say there's a big hairy blacklist and if you put a toe over the invisible line you get smacked. It's more that slush readers have this humongous pile of unread stuff threatening to bury them, so they're looking for reasons to kick the story, not reasons to take it.)

Publishing does have a hefty image problem in the science fiction community, and deservedly so: as far as I can tell no-one really knows what happens between when a story is bought by a publisher and when it emerges sometimes years later as an actual book with cover art and everything, or if the people in the editing side of things know, they aren't telling us peasants slaving over manuscripts.

The result: we work on inference and observation. We see that everyone who's anyone in the field knows everyone else, and the obvious conclusion is that they pass information around and form a kind of quasi-monopoly, except for the designated pariah who dares do things differently. Naturally, writers being writers, the tendency is to leap from that to conspiracy and active collusion, and from there to an ever-growing blacklist and rumors of strange favors as a prerequisite along with the arbitrary "rules" like "thou shalt not commit prologue" and "thy urban fantasy shall be told in first person by a kick-ass female; mind thou that she be hot stuff"

Authors tend to be prone to conspiracy theory and paranoia anyway - a secretive cabal pulling the strings makes a much better story than random crap happening to some poor schmuck. Not falling into the conspiracy trap means finding out what I really can expect, and not letting myself fall into either the "They just don't understand my brilliance" trap or the "They hate me and I've been blacklisted" trap. Realistically, I'm not even on the radar - there's no way I'm going to be actively targeted.

On the flip side, I can expect that most places my manuscripts wind up, the first person who looks at it is likely to be an idealistic, poorly paid intern, and given the physical location I'm dealing with and the reluctance to move to electronic submission processes, probably one from a specific location and culture. If I start with something guaranteed to piss that sort of person off, I'm going to get bounced.

As to how to hook the poor sod reading the slush pile, who mostly wants to get away from the reams and reams of mind-bogglingly awful and is looking for reasons to cut the whole experience short and move to the next one, that I'm not so sure about. Sarah's advice yesterday helps, but what else is there?

How do we jump ourselves past that gate?


Anonymous said...

Check out how other books start, then do something enough different to not make the poor slush reader whimper.

It's tough giving advice to you guys, at this level. You know to not start with the Encyclopedia Galactica. Or the main POV character as an old man tell in the story to his grandchildren. Or a board meeting just chock full of absolutely necessary information.

Hopefully you know to not have you main character as the sole survivor of a village massacre. Honest. Good motivation, used by about a third of the manuscripts we read.

Waking up in a strange place. Why don't weird things ever seem to happen when we're awake?

And the weather. Be careful to not over do it. I've been taken on tours by Happy Little Breezes and watched lightening flash dramatically , showing who's not smart enough to get in out of the rain.

I can't speak for other slush readers, but I will skip a horrible start and try to find the story. But I don't think most will. And if I have to skip the first ten pages, all you'll get is a note to that effect, with the rejection. You won't end up in the publisher's inbox.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam, you are very good to those writers who send in stories to your slush pile.

Anonymous said...

Umm, only some. At least 75% get the bare, bland rejection letter. I still have a faint hope of finding gold in there, somewhere. When you lose that, it's time to quit. I've been lucky to find enough to keep me going. Even though Toni doesn't buy many of them :(

Anonymous said...

And for the paranoid out there, a bare rejection doesn't mean "Too awful to even comment on." It sometimes means "To busy to comment at length, sorry."

Francis Turner said...

Part of the problem it seems to me is that we all know that a certain fraction of would be authors (not us of course! or our friends but maybe some of their friends and definitely a bunch of people we have nothing to do with) can't take criticism gracefully.

Editors know this as do slush readers so they find it hard to be plain about why they reject stuff. I mean you and I are grown ups who can understand that "your handling of pederastry is not going to appeal to our readers" is not in fact a sign of a closed homophobic mind or someone who has no sympathy for the abused. It's a flat out commercial fact and we would simply accept it and look for a different house where the readership would like such a tale. But those others.... They get unbalanced when told that and start stalking you or suing you or something,

Ditto with the ones who start with 3 pages from Encyclopedia Galactian 2455AD and then talk about the weather on the planet Zarquon before the pirates attack and destroy village where the hero(ine) lived. Tell them that the opening is piss boring and they'll send you a 500 page essay explaining why this quite beginning is critical to the narrative contrast and post wildly on blogs that you are a philistine who can't grok the next generation of literary talent.

Who can blame editors and slush readers for seeking the low risk way out when the price for misjudging whether the author is stable or not is so great.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam and Francis. Very interesting posts! Its great to get a PoV from the other side. Damn if I'm not going to have to start my novel with the village massacre another way ... just joking:)

It still makes me wonder what's going on when I look at my latest form rejection letter from Asimovs.

It's hard to get really useful feedback on your work.

Critique groups so rarely give you something that is balanced by industry knowledge, and too often are influenced by various hobby horses and not a little bit of personal conflict.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Start with sex -- provided it reflects the tone of the book

Start with someone being attacked WHEN waking up -- no, it's not Freudian, why???

Start without someone being attacked in the shower -- that's too scary to write, honest.

Start with your character killing someone, particularly if they REALLY don't want to kill him/her.

Matapam -- weather? Oy -- you mean like Draw One In The Dark and Gentleman Takes a Chance? Oy oy oy. There goes my trump card!

Anonymous said...

Sarah, like anything, done well, it's marvelous. That's why everyone writes theirs like that. I mean, look at David Weber. He breaks all the rules.

But watching his fans try to do the same is painful. Trust me.

I think that why half the writing rules exist. Some one does it perfectly. Then everyone else tries. After the third manuscript the Editors start whimpering. After three hundred, they write a New Rule.

Stephen Simmons said...

Beginnings I've never had a problem with, for some reason. Catchy beginnings of ideas seem to pop into my head regularly, whether or not actual stories will ever materialize to follow them. For example, one day three years or so ago, before I ever started thinking of myself as potentially "a writer", a really neat 150-word rant by a girl who couldn't seem to hold a job just bubbled to the surface out of the blue. I wrote it down, for no reason other than the fact that I thought it was funny. My daughter used it as a monologue as part of her audition for the Governor's School for theatre, and the director loved it. Now, three years later, it's finally growing a story.

My problem seems to be endings. Way back when I took my first seminar in FORTRAN programming (punched cards and all), the professor had a poster above his desk that said: "When you're up to your *** in alligators, it's hard to remember your initial objective was to drain the swamp." I still have that problem. Once I have the alligators taken care of and the swamp-draining equipment in place, I tend to feel like I'm done; at least two editors have now felt otherwise.

Kate said...


Oh yeah. Slush reader headache after the always mood-appropriate weather (it always rains after the slaughter of the whole village, of course - and the barbarians had a board meeting beforehand to plan their attack) means the poor story is starting way behind.

(should probably not mention the Encyclopedia Galactica entry about said barbarians)

Kate said...


It sounds like Matapam is a lot nicer than I was. Once my eyes started crossing, that was that.

Kate said...


If not for the occasional diamond, no-one would dive in the cess-pit that is raw slushpile. I didn't believe how bad it could get until I started slushing.

Kate said...


Oh yeah. Remembering that the form rejection can mean "There's nothing wrong with it, it's just not for us and we don't have time to do more than this" can be something of a challenge.

Kate said...


Oh yeah. Plus, of course, for some of them if you were open about it you'd be shit-listed all over the planet. For some reason "Dear Author, we have now finished decontaminating everything your manuscript contacted. Please don't send us anything ever again. We have no desire to become a toxic waste zone." doesn't go over very well.

(Okay, there aren't THAT many of those. There don't have to be.)

Kate said...

Chris M,

I think all of us would love more information from the "other side". So often we're working from not much more than rumor - although I can believe the tales of slush parties where the... ahem... readability of the rejections drops as the pizza and beer supplies dwindle.

This may be why so many publishers have gone agented-only. The slush ate their interns...

Kate said...


Okay, okay, I get it. The sex needs to be upstanding and upfront. (muttering) Spoilsport. You just don't want to have to clean up when people's heads start exploding because they got to the sex in the middle...

How about being attacked while having sex, in bad weather? That gets all the bases, right?

Um. Maybe not...

Kate said...


Exactly! Most of the top writers break all the rules. What the lesser lights often don't get is that it's bloody difficult to get these things just right, so we blunder in and do horrible things and make the poor overworked, underpaid slush reader cry. (usually the cry goes something like "What kind of idiot thinks this is good!")

Kate said...


That quote sums things up rather well.

Sarah will probably tell you that editors like there to be a bit of an afterglow when all the action's over, so they can bask in the happy feeling of a job well done.

They probably want to see the alligator-skin boots and the drained swamp. And have a post-drainage cigarette.

And if I mangle my metaphors any more, someone will probably hit me.

Anonymous said...

Kate, maybe, you, me and Amanda should have a contest for who can write the worst mudwrestling scene. It could be outside in the rain, maybe even on a hill. One cop, female. One Bad Guy, charming. One pair of handcuffs.

Kate said...


DAMMIT! You've totally derailed the mad terrorists in the Jovian habitat and sent them careening down a muddy hill into a natural amphitheater. And now they're really mad, because the cop is winning, her t-shirt is wet and it's quite clear she's... um... stacked, the charming Bad Guy has lost his shirt, and there's something complicated happening with the remains of said shirt and the handcuffs that I don't think Charming Bad Guy is going to enjoy.

Or maybe he's going to enjoy it too much.

There goes my attempt at a JBU contest story... Watch it swirl, swirl, down the drain...

Dave Freer said...

I guess I'd probably fail matapam's slush...

" Under the harvest moon, at the crossroads between East and West, a woman stood, weeping. She looked constantly to the north, to the place where the earth-shaker opened the gate and drowned her land and her people. The dogs at her side waited, patient and faithful. Every now and again one leaned against her and she, without thought, put a hand down to caress the silky red ears. She drew strength from them and they gave it, willingly. She had no other worshippers now.
She stood at the great crossroad, looking at the gate that failed, until moonset. And then, as the red fingers of bloody dawn slid across Anatolia, she turned to choose her way. And as always, looking at the cross-road, she took the third way, because that, then, and always, was her choice.
The dogs followed Hekate down.
She was their Goddess."

Which is a prologue, has no action, tours pretty dawn, and she is the sole survivor (well OK - of an entire culture)

Anonymous said...

Tch. See, everyone?

No action, he says, as he stuffs poetry and emotion into a mere 145 words.

You had me worried, with Dragon's Ring. But you saved most of the villagers, and made a nuisance of them.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Yes, you have action and emotion, Dave.

Weirdly, Matapam, the "all villagers die" thing and the girl survives beneath the wood pile appeared twice of three times in our writers' group over its span of ten years existence. Which was probably ten percent of novels written by the group, and goes to show you some themes are ingrained in us. I think.

Stephen Simmons said...

I didn't kill ALL the villagers, I killed all the barbarians. I only offed 2/3 of the villagers. And the rain wasn't for mood, it was practical -- tropical midsummer heat does VeryBadThings to bodies in large numbers, and I needed time before the village became uninhabitable ...

Kate said...


Really... This is the example of why some people can break all the "rules". You give us context, emotion, tension all in one teensy bit, and we want to know more.

Jane Newbie would mangle the same thing so much. (So would I, but that's another story)

Kate said...


Yeah. What you said.

Kate said...


"Everyone dies except X" is probably something that got hammered in by experience. It's kind of like "unwanted orphan" where the orphan part gets arranged with a large axe.

Kate said...


You know, tropical rain and bodies and all... that probably gets nasty even faster than just leaving them out for the open biology classes.

Mind you, all the fungi that spring up and the insects make really interesting patterns, and the colors are quite spectacular. But you don't want to inhale anywhere nearby.

Stephen Simmons said...


That was my general intention, yes. I want to make the village utterly unavailable to the survivors, just give them a very brief period to salvage a few things they'll need.