Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It Came From The Slushpile!

I’ve beat up on editors for unprofessional behavior towards writers, and I’ve beat up on writers for being wussies about rejections. Today, girls and boys, dragons and butterflies, we’re going to look into everyone’s favorite punching bag... The slush pile.

Or rather, we’re not just going to look into the slush pile. We’re going to look into beginning writers and why they really, really – really, really, really – need a second opinion. And not just from their dog or girlfriend. Particularly in these days when anyone can just throw their work on Amazon or self-publish for nothing. Because you run a risk of making a really big – not to say huge – mistake if you do it without vetting.

There is a peculiar arrogance to a beginner writer, a particular certainty that their work is the best thing since sliced bread, peanut butter and the invention of the rotto tiller – the sort of brass faced “read me, I’m wonderful” that nine times out of ten means this person can barely string a sentence together, has half a dozen words in the first paragraph that don’t mean what he thinks they mean, and is either playing with a world/idea that has been done to the point of nausea or most of the world is still in their heads and what’s on the page is a disjointed mess.

Conversely, the beginner writer who slips their work at me reluctantly and only after I asked to see it is, nine times out of ten either already publishable or very close to it.

I thought this was a peculiar curse of publishing, which makes the current system – dependent on self-confidence and self promoting – a peculiarly counterproductive one. But it turns out it’s actually the curse of any task whose completion doesn’t show immediate and concrete results, at least according to this article:

For those of you unwilling to click through, the idea behind that article – which is research supported – is that the less skilled you are at a task susceptible of personal evaluation (i.e., not whether you mowed the lawn or not) the more likely you are to think you are extremely competent at it.

The thesis is that until you gain basic competence you don’t see your own errors. I have to say I have found this to be true for myself at any variety of crafts (from crochet to embroidery) as well as at art and writing. It is not till I learn SOMETHING about the tasks that I start seeing all the errors I made in the early projects that, when I did them, seemed perfect.

Apparently this correlates to the four stages of competence theory, which can be summarized as follows, in progression:

1- Unconscious Incompetence
The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit.

2 - Conscious Incompetence
Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit.
3 - Conscious Competence
The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration.
4 - Unconscious Competence
The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. He or she may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

These four stages correlate completely not only with my writing, or my progression in art – where I am, at best, in stage 2 – but with such tasks as fine-chopping an onion without either cutting myself or being excruciatingly slow.

Unfortunately confidence seems to move in inverse progression through the set. People in the stage of unconscious competence, often assume that they’re not very good at all because they still see how much further they have to go. This unfortunately means that if you get to stage four without showing your work to anyone, you’re not going to have the courage after that.

It also means that slush piles might drive most if not all editors insane. I’ve read some of these and the sheer volume of unadulterated, imaginably bad... Raw sewage that hits those is almost unbelievable. A lot of it is literally incomprehensible. And then there’s any number that’s just understandable enough to be repulsive.

Oh, come on, Sarah, you’re saying. Surely writing doesn’t fall to incompetent-but-unaware. I mean, people have been reading their whole lives, so they know what makes a book/story.

Uh... yeah, theoretically. But the problem is when it’s your book/story you have to be playing chess on both sides – to learn to be both the writer and the reader, and not to read into your stuff more (or sometimes – ick, trust me – less) than you put in. Until you get there you’re often unconscious incompetent. Very, very incompetent.

Unfortunately this is also, often, the bane of writers groups, because there is an effect associated with that. As you’re going through the stages (as the first article mentions) you’re not capable of evaluating anyone who is above you. This means unconscious incompetent will rate down conscious competent who will accept it because he/she underrates him/herself. This is one of the reasons I’m STRONGLY against anonymous or semi-anonymous, large online critique groups: after a while a certain tyranny of hte unconscious incompetent rules and destroys anyone who might have had a shot. Writers groups should be small and personal and you should be able to evaluate the person’s opinions in relation to where the person is on the writing journey.

And then you won’t risk letting your little monster into the wild, trailing excess adjectives, incoherent sentences and unresolved plots and making half of the readers scream “Oh, no, it came from the slush pile!”

Do you see yourself in those stages at all, or is it just me? Do you see the stages in others? How do you think this affects self-promotion ability? And do you have any slush horror stories to share? (I brought some slush-tentacles, if pressed to share mine.)

*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*


Cedar said...

I fondly remember the year I spent volunteer reading slush for Baen… and yeah, I'd do it again! LOL

I also remember a certain small writers group I was involved in. I miss that a lot.

Dave Freer said...

I have to agree with all of this. I'm still hovering between 2 and 3 myself. The frustrating thing is being able to see the potential of a story but lacking the skill to do it credit. (To be fair, I see this some of my favorite published authors - "It's a good story... but if they did XYZ it would be IMMORTAL"-- and knowing I can't do myself either

MataPam said...

The air was warm and sticky while the sky was a vivid blue. Blazing white clouds puttered across it like a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle cruising on some lonesome desert highway with the tumbleweed and cow skulls scattered about like they undoubtedly must be.

they came, like the angry heralds of a hell in which nobody believed anymore, at least nobody Everett cared to remember six months into her assignment to the least envied position in a fleet that had a long list of bad slots.

The apparently endless passage led to the surface from the cavernous dungeon, its walls built of tarnished metal that was neglected for thousands of years. Halogen lights, miraculously intact by ancient technology, were suspended from the ceiling.

No, not my writing. For better or worse, it didn't occur to me that I should keep some of the gems of slush until I was almost done with the slush pile. My writing is brilliant . . . Oops.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

There is such a thing as "happy incompetence" and sometimes I envy those slushers and small vengeful gods of the critique group...

For the record I miss my critique group too, even when we were all stumbling around in phase 2

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I'd rate you at four. I think I have forays into four -- which scare the crud out of me, because writing feels "too easy" -- but it's entirely possible I'm really at one, which would give me the same feel.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


If that snippet ended with "And out of the distant horizon, the trailing horror emerged, so horribly mangled it couldn't exist and yet it did, dragging itself ever closer to the hapless reader..." it would be perfect.

Jim McCoy said...

I'm not really sure where I'm at. The biggest problem I have is finding a decent first reader. The stuff that I write SOUNDS decent, but then again, I know what I meant to say and I DO have to admit to a lack of impartiality in my writing.

I guess the best estimate I have was provided by a college professor. Professor Anderson was a great guy. He had also been the editor of a literary (stop gagging, I'm sorry) magazine. His advice was to submit at least one of the pieces I wrote for him for publication. The downside to this was when he followed up by saying, "But good luck finding a market for it. It's too racy for Reader's Digest and too tame for Hustler."

That...errr...should...uhh...tell you what the problem is I guess. The problem is also that it was a humor piece, so it REALLY doesn't fit anywhere.

The other problem is that Prof Anderson edited a POETRY magazine. I must be at least level two there, because I can't write poetry for beans and am WELL aware of the fact. I'm wondering if he wasn't overestimating my work or not.

I will say this much though. I've been forced into peer editing situations enough at school that I know I can write better than a lot of the classmates I had as an undergrad. I know that's not saying much, but hopefully (maybe) it means that I'm at least a stage 3?



Synova said...

I think that a significant factor leading a writer to think they're much better than they are is that it's so hard to read what you've written yourself without being influenced by knowing what is supposed to be there. It seems like it is, even when it's not.

I leave stuff out and tend to rush ahead without giving each new idea or development time to settle in.

MataPam said...

Just pure ignorance of the "standard form" of works of various lengths can trip up a person with otherwise good writing ability and a good story idea.

Sarah and Amanada combined last fall to beat me over the head enough times that I now have some comprehension of how short stories work. I'm still better at novels, having a longer trail of amateur efforts behind me, and some good, professional critics, now unavailable.

Chris L said...

Hi Sarah,

Nice post. I see pieces of my history there. I spent a bunch of time having great ideas and writing rubbish about ten years ago. Of course at the time I knew for sure I was Tolkien unearthed. Then I just stopped.

I started up again last year and have had a small amount of success with shorts. Like Dave, I can recognise when I'm not doing justice to a legendary idea (though possibly on a different level), but hey, if I don't try to write it, who will?

Agree with Jim that humor pieces are difficult to place. I write a lot of them.

Louise Curtis said...

I'm a huge fan of the large online crit group, because I think a incompetent writer CAN spot flaws in others. It doesn't take a genius to say, "I have no idea who your main character is" or "Uh...I do not think that word means what you think it means" or "Wow! SO boring."

After a little while in the slushpile, even someone at the very beginning of their writing talent will have an epiphany about their own writing - something along the lines of, "It's possible my writing isn't as instantly polished and tension-filled as *I* thought, either."

And the inner editor is born.

I think everyone who wants to submit a novel should have to (a) Read three books in their genre, and (b) Read three randomly-selected opening chapters by unpublished first-time novelists.

Oh, and (c) Edit their work, leave it a month, and edit it again *sigh*.

Louise Curtis

Stephen Simmons said...

My opinion of my own work fluctuates wildly from day to day. I have produced rare flashes of stuff that was genuinely *good*, both in my opinion and in those of others. But even those, I spent half the time that I was writing them wondering, "what the heck was I thinking? No one would want to read something this nutty ..."

Then I would look back at it a few days later and think it was the best thing I ever wrote ...

My biggest problem is tha I need the Muse you posted over on FB. I have a number of half-written pieces that I can't seem to bring endings into focus for. I have to know the ending before I can start discovering the path between here and there.

Kate Paulk said...

Everyone needs a mentor who is better than they are, and they need to listen to that mentor.

I floundered and tried to figure it out for myself for ages, but once Sarah and Dave started kicking me and showing me how to do the things I was trying - and failing - to do, I started getting better a whole lot faster.

Good first readers, good mentors and a good critique group all matter.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


That is a problem in our brave new world of self-publication, etc. See, reality checks used to be provided by editors who were far more reliable than groups, because they had money in the matter. It might be best to submit to small presses and such, till you know better how you stack up.
Of course, the very fact you have doubts means you're not incompetent and unaware. OTOH, if you're like me you'll ALWAYS have doubts.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Exactly. Hit the nail on the head. So you either need a very good reader or to let things sit for... a few months. Also, have I pushed Dwight Swain on you? Because if I haven't, get Techniques of the Selling writer. It will give you a sort of a mental checklist to work from, and help you on the way to stand outside yourself and read, as it were.
Alas the temptation to rush past what are for you "boring parts" remains forever. Dan still has to make me write proper endings, because once I can see the end, I rush ahead.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Novels are easier. They just are. Shorts are a far more demanding art form. And poems more demanding htan that. Also, evil.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris L

Eh. If you're like me you'll always fall short of the idea. if you don't aim high, you'll never get very far.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Depends what you mean by "beginner". The problem is what can only be described as "Small Gods of Workshops" who have created a parallel dimmension of what they decided is "good writing." Almost any faceless workshop allowed to run riot ends up in that. They're easilly recognizeable. They'll obsess over ... semi-colons. Or tell you you can't publish a book where the main character's name starts with S or something like that. Also, alternately, if you come in and you're not a raw beginner, they set about -- consciously or not -- to take you down a peg. OR they REALLY are that ignorant. Here we have to pause in admiration of a contest judge two years ago (why was I entering a contest for beginners two years ago? To help out a friend by padding contest numbers and also to maybe make constacts in a new field) who told me I was ignorant and had poor vocabulary. Why? Because she thought when I used "Stolid" I meant "Solid". And while that word might have been a bit "pushing it" because I realize it's not that common, there were others I no longer remember which were quite common words, but HER vocabulary sucked. I've seen this type of thing happen in workshops and beginners simply don't know how to fight back against it. Or take a workshop (in town) which a friend and I joined and where she was informed her SF novel WASN'T SF not a bit of it, and could never be published, as it didn't resemble star trek. I was told, with a pittying pat on the shoulder, my novel had no hope because it wasn't fantasy. It had no elves or gnomes in it. Mind you, there were mistakes aplenty in that novel, but THAT wasn't it.
You are righ though on your "must have read" and "must edit" requirements.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


From what people who HAVE read your work tell me, you're not incompetent. Now, where you are I don't know, but please remember humor is HARD. So more learning is needed for THAT.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Calumny. We hardly ever kick you. Love pats at most.

As for who is better, at this point I'm not even sure.

T.M. Lunsford said...

As I slowly stretch my wings in the world of publishing, I'm beginning to see what you mean here. Most of the writers I follow on Twitter are published or in the process of having their book published within the next year and they hover between 2 and 3, as do I (Usually more 2 than 3 for me). It's comforting for me as a newbie to see that my anxiety about my work is a symptom of the job rather than of me.

But a scary number of people out there are 1. Even published writers. Over at they reviewed two such example written by authors with multiple credits to their names, from credible houses. Which I think points out an unfortunate loophole that sometimes creeps into the system. Books 1-5 can be good, so the editors accept the other books because they're for a smaller press and don't really think about the quality of the book because they come with a name behind them.

Chris L said...


I'm finding there's "standard form" and then there's 'standard form'. A lot of mags will say in their guidelines something like: "We want edginess, and weirdness, and something different, and only your very best stuff that doesn't have a standard, cute as pie ending, but is still rockin' and kicks ass."

What they really mean is, "We want something slightly off form -- but not too weird, cause dude, that last stuff you sent… Seriously, WTF?"

I actually prefer them the state what they don't want, like "Please don't send in ANYTHING WITH A HAPPY ENDING, or even the slightest suggestion of a brighter future. And definitely don't send us stuff that will make us laugh because that crap is only for semi-pro scum!"

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


It's not even that. The editors are overworked, the process is glitchy, and there is an unfortunate me-toism at work. Part of this is that I've noticed authors at 1 can sell really really really well and get incredible advances because the editors are impressed with how confident they are. Then the books tank and they're either fired, or the houses... play games to make sure they succeed. I'm sure there's some bestsellers whose names spring to mind.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yeah, but to be that frank, they would have to stop lying to themselves, and that's so not on. They'd rather believe they are edgy and without formulas than that they're -- yawn -- following alternate form 2. Um... maybe next week we should do "We decode editors, so you don't have to."

Stephen Simmons said...

Sarah, those people have only read things I liked well enough on cold re-reading to show to my daughter, and which she also approved of ... there have been other things that made me want to re-format the computer after re-reading them.

Humor is a defense mechanism. Especially when you're a geeky kid with four bigger brothers ... :-)

Chris L said...

I guess you just have to read what they publish to get a proper feel. I must admit I am a slow reader. I sometimes don't even read the stories published alongside mine.

And I never read my own.


Decoding sounds fun. Perhaps we can make little decoder rings.

These two phrases together mean...give up for good!