Those who follow my blog by now should be super aware that I’m an editor. I’ve edited for 5+ houses, but I’ve also been a literary agency intern and assistant. I wanted to take a break from all my book reviews to discuss some of my experiences on the agency side in regards to the slush. One of my first thoughts after getting a peek at the slush during my internship was that I wish I’d gotten that experience earlier in my editing career. I think it’s useful experience not just for aspiring agents, but also editors and writers. It gave me a whole new respect for acquiring editors and a better understanding of the acquisitions process. I found there was a lot to be learned from the slush.
As an editor I don’t deal with acquisitions, just the edits that come after. That means I often heard tales about the slush, but until I interned with a literary agency I never saw it for myself. The most surprising aspect of seeing it? How many of the subs had decent writing. Sure you get authors who don’t follow guidelines and aren’t in querying shape yet, but I was surprised by how many subs I read that had passable writing. I was expecting a lot more of it to be nowhere near ready. My first dive into the slush to find something to pass to my agent caused me to struggle to decide what to pass on since as an editor I was so used to taking something no matter the quality and polishing it. As I got more experience with the slush, it became much easier as I learned to pick out the best writing and most eye-catching stories. The editor in me could see possible edits for many submissions, but as I learned through experience some of them just needed too much work. I was used to making editing decisions after acquisitions, not deciding what to acquire, and that was the big learning experience for me. I learned how to spot quality in the slush and pick out the gems.
A lot of those rejected submissions could have used one more editing pass before querying. I saw a lot of subs that were almost there, but not quite. In the competitive marketplace they needed to be better than passable. Which leads me to another point. Agents have a lot of submissions to choose from. I got picky fast about what to pass on. Agents have limited time and have to spend that time wisely. Some manuscripts were tempting, but needed enough work that I feared the author wouldn’t be able to pull off the big revision needed. (Hint, that’s what makes R&Rs so great for agents. It lets them get a revision on something that interests them but isn’t ready yet. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t.) In a submissions box with a lot of passable writing, it was the great writing that stood out and the stories I couldn’t put down. The takeaway? If you think your story would benefit from another editing pass before querying, do it. Get it as polished as possible. Get fresh eyes and feedback on it and don’t rush your revisions.
Another surprise was how hard it could be to say no to a submission. As a writer receiving rejections is hard, but I hated having to say no to an interesting story that initially got me excited. Usually the no was because the writing needed too much work and the overall plot lacked something or just wasn’t for my agent or me. Sometimes a first chapter would capture my interest and get me excited, only for the following chapters to be underwhelming. Sometimes you have high hopes for a submission and really want to like it, but it just doesn’t work out whether it be due to personal tastes or the quality. Digging through the slush is like searching for gold. You might see something shiny only to realize it isn’t the gold you were searching for. And sometimes something surprises you and turns into unexpected gold.
As a writer you will often hear the advice to read as much as you can in your genre so you know what’s been done and what’s popular. In the slush it was easy to spot trends and common openings or plots. For example, In romance I saw a lot of women hesitantly returning to their hometown only to fall in love unexpectedly, often with someone from their past. I saw that trope way more than in my editing pile. Spotting the trends and popular tropes makes the slush a great learning experience for writers.
Before I end this, I’m going to tell you all a secret. I love the slush. Like a lot. It was so exciting to search through it to find a gem I loved. There’s a thrill to not knowing what I will find or read. I’ve gotten to the point of recognizing new books scheduled for publication that I read in the slush and even if it wasn’t for me personally, I’m still happy to see a book get published. As I search for a new agency position, it’s by far what I miss the most about the agency side of the industry.
So remember, if you are looking to improve your understanding of the slush or want an inside look as a writer, apply for internships. You might learn something surprising.