By Helen Marshall
As both a slush pile reader and a slush pile submitter, I've come to recognize that there is far more human reaction and interaction going on behind the seemingly opaque process than most people think. Sure, we've all gotten our egos crushed by computerized line-ups, form rejection letters, and uncaring silence. But the truth is that the writing community is not that large. It pays to remember that behind most form letters is still a pair of eyes that took the time to browse your story. There are all sorts of considerations editors pay attention to -- the experience of the author, the quality of the story, the genre of the story, the subgenre of the story, the cover letter, the manuscript format, whether the editor has met the author. This means that there's no cut and dry policy for catching their attention.
That doesn't mean there aren't ways to ingratiate yourself to your editor. Here are my top five suggestions for people submitting to the slush pile.
1) Know who you are submitting to.
Practically every online magazine advises you to read their submission guidelines thoroughly and, ideally, check out a couple of issues. We know it's hard to spend the time doing the research. After all, you have a day job and you just spent your free time actually writing your poem/story/novel. But as I said above, the community isn't that large. Chances are, you'll be submitting again so the research now can save you time, postage, and heartache later down the road. Besides, there are so many guidelines that are ambiguous. Everyone says they want to publish "edgy" and "experimental" work. But what does that mean? Do they want something dark? Something with sex? Something politically apt? Something with a standard, publishable form? Something with hyperlinks and graphics and flashing lights? The only way to find out is to read their work and see for yourself.
2) Listen to what those guidelines say.
Perhaps one third to one half of the submissions I receive are in proper manuscript format (or something like it). Many people send me exerpts in the body of the e-mail (with crazy fonts . . . ugh); many don't send synopses; some lack critical punctuation or formatting; some are in file types completely unreadable. Yes, we're willing to meet you halfway on some of this stuff, but would you show up to an interview with mustard stains on your jacket, your shirt untucked, and your fly down? No? Don't send us a manuscript that looks like that. Take your time. Make sure it's professional looking, clean, proofread (as much as possible), and including all the information we ask for it. First impressions are everything, and it honestly goes a long way.
3) Take time on your cover letter.
Some places read them first; some after the story; some never. I normally glance over cover letters once before reading the story, because they serve as a kind of meet-and-greet with the author. Editors of small presses, for example, wonder what it would be like to work with the author. Will they be attentive? Combatative? Rude? Detail-oriented? Easy-going? Casual? You get a sense for some of this from the cover letter. Personally, I respond best to those cover letters that seem genuine and not overly pitch-y. I don't need a hook or something quirky. The story should have that. I also hate being yelled at or scolded in a cover letter. Do NOT tell me that if I don't publish your book then I'm not strong enough, or bold enough, or experimental enough. Don't threaten me. Don't guilt trip me. Just be nice, polite, and then get the heck out of the way. Oh, and please please please get my name and the name of my press right. I was recently addressed as Bram. I have no idea where that name came from. Trust me, that stuff irritates all editors. And it happens a lot.
4) Be tactful to the editor.
I try to respond with something personal for every submission (though some inevitably end up more personalized than others). This tends to open up a kind of conversation with the author, which can be intensely rewarding or incredibly frustrating. I appreciate it when someone sends me a little note back thanking me for my time. I don't appreciate the second pitch or the third pitch or the fourth pitch that can sometimes follow. The best thing you can do for yourself (specially if the editor recommends you resubmit that story or other material) is to be polite in response . . . even if you strongly disagree with their comments. Starting an argument about why that editor was wrong is a surefire way to shoot yourself in the foot. And, look, honestly, sometimes we do get it wrong. We misread. We don't read far enough. We misjudge the market. But it is far better to say: "You thought x? I guess what I was trying to do with y did not work out as I planned. I'll keep that in mind for later revisions." Don't say: "Are you blind? What about y? Didn't you see y? Who do you think you are, saying that about x."
5) Be tactful after the fact.
This is sometimes tricky because rejections hurt. They can sting like a sonovagun. And we often want to share our pain with our friends and colleagues. But there is a fine line between commiseration and condemnation. If you get that story published somewhere else and find, wow, the editor really did miss y but the rest of the world got it . . . you don't need to tell the editor. You don't need to tell the world about the editor on your blog, at your launch, during your signings, etc. Once again, the community isn't that big. Repeat it again: The community isn't that big! Put it on a tape and play it over and over and night if you need to. People hear what you're saying, and you never know when it might come back to haunt you. Even editors have friends who might be reading your blog, at your launch, getting a book signed.
A brief example: I read a novel submission that I really enjoyed. It was funny. It was quirky. It was well-written with a sympathetic character and decent narrative development. But it wasn't really the kind of material we publish. (We don't tend to do light horror or horror/comedy though I can think of exceptions.) I wrote what was my nicest rejection letter to date. And it was a bit strange, because how do you say "This is great, but it's not for us" and make someone believe you? It's tricky. But I was actually looking forward to the author writing back to me so I could recommend some places to try and genuinely show my support for his endeavour. Instead, I found the rejection letter up (with my name and my press's name) on a rejection letter blog. The commentary wasn't as horrible as on some rejection letters . . . but it could have been. It's very easy to set up a Google alert and we knew the day it was posted. And we saw it. And we know exactly who sent it in. Might it colour our consideration of further novels from the author? Sure. Might your blogging about a crazy/unfair/stupid/blind editor also attract attention? It's possible. So be careful, and be aware of what you're sending out into the universe. Because it can come back in ways you can't predict.
So that's maybe a little dark and gloomy. But the point to carry away from all this is that the Internet allows a level of personal interaction unheard of previously. It may feel anonymous and cold, but it's really really not. We want our authors to succeed. We want our slush pile submissions to succeed because it's so much more fun for us when they do. We want to be on your side. Just meet us halfway. . . .
Helen Marshall spends the majority of her time pursuing a Ph. D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto where she gets to travel across England to examine fourteenth-century manuscripts. Of course, her fascination with the making and writing of books extends well into the present. Her poetry has been published in ChiZine, NFG and the Ontarion Arts Supplement. "Mist and Shadows," published originally in Star*Line, appeared in The 2006 Rhysling Anthology: The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Poetry of 2005." "The Gypsy" and "Crossroads and Gateways" both received honourable mentions in the 2009 Rannu Fund Contest, while four other poems were short-listed. She works as an editor and slush reader for ChiZine Publications.