I think that every prospective author should do time as a slush reader — a volunteer slush reader, in fact.
This sounds like a fate worse than death for most of us. If you are an aspiring writer who thinks that this could be fun, then you are one of the ones who must do this. Because while you might be convinced that all writers deserve a chance at being published, a quick month or two of reading slush for any publishing company (assuming they even do slush anymore) will quickly correct this misconception. Despite what a lot of people believe, not all writers are created equal.
Look, I suck at this writing thing. I don’t have subtle subplots, secondary story arcs or a deeper meaning in my novels. My characterization is pretty intense, but in no way do I think my characters are like real people. They’re not realistic because they aren’t real, they’re fiction. They’re meant to be enjoyed. Serious readers will read my crap and say “Srsly bro, WTF?” (okay, serious readers will write a dissertation about why and how I screwed up, but whatever…) but the average reader should be able to read it quickly and be entertained by it. At least, that’s my hope. I don’t want to write the GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, I want to write that dime store novel that people lacking MFAs can read. I’m perfectly okay with the “low brow” reader, because (quite frankly) that’s what I am at heart. I like adventure novels, I enjoy a Mack Bolan/Longarm novel (Longarm is hilarious and fun, though short), and I usually don’t mind some of the “dumbed down” versions of Shakespeare (“usually” being the operative word. I keep laughing when I read the renovelization of Romeo and Juliet and nobody freaking dies…).
But… slush is where your mettle is tested. If you can go into slush, read without prejudice, you will quickly realize that 95% of the stuff in there is absolute crap. Oh, it’s got plot. There’s some tremendous story building in it. Characters with so many dimensions that you need a TARDIS to navigate them. But there simple is no story. There’s nothing. It’s a pretty book with absolute NOTHING going on. I’ve read and reviewed these books. They’re called “literature”. Screw that noise. Shakespeare is literature. Jane Austen is an aneurysm with a shot of whiskey. To this day I can’t stand Tolkien and need to get piss drunk after reading The Two Towers.
One of my former coworkers, upon finding out that I was a published author, tried pitching me his novel. I had to remind him that 1) I’m not a publisher, and 2) I doubted that I would be able to help him sell it anyway. He continued to tell me all about his novel about a world where it is half dark and half light, where one side always faces the sun and the other always is in darkness (to which I remarked, “Oh, like Twilek!”, further establishing dominance with my awesomely sized geek wang, and drawing a blank and confused stare). He then proceeded to tell about one very religious society which controls all he metals and the other, which is an atheist society who controls something else (I forget, because by this time my eyes were glazing over… I have ADH-Oh Shiny!). Then in the sequel–
…and this is where I cut him off. “What happens in the first book?” I asked.
“Oh, I told you.”
“Say what? All you did was describe the backstory.” I replied. “Where’s the actual novel?”
I think I’ve mentioned this incident before. It was evident by the look on his face that he had no idea why I couldn’t see how important his novel was. In truth, it could have been that he just absolutely sucked at pitching said novel, but I don’t think that was it. Like many novels in slush, there was a decided lack of story in it. And an aspiring author might not realize that they might be lacking something in their novel until they delve into the dark pit of despair that is the slush pile.
Where am I going with all this, you might be asking yourself. Hell if I know. I just think that before you submit your novel to a publisher (or more likely, an agent), you should read what other people are submitting. Not what is published, because that was probably submitted over four years ago (I did mention before that publishing moves at the speed of a glacier, right?), but what is being submitted at this time. Not for story ideas, god no. Your ideas are your own, keep it that way. But see what is going on in these stories. Do they have a story? plot? Characters? Are they entertaining, or written to make the poor plebes like us scratch our heads and say “WTF?”
And knowing is half the battle. The battle of wills, with the will being “Will I survive this slush experience?”
So ask yourself, aspiring writer. Do you feel slushy?
Well, do you?
Yeah, I went there.