The Slush Formula

Writers, can you estimate the chances that your story will make it through the slush pile?

I’ve come up with a formula.

Some background: A couple of years ago, I saw a post on a forum somewhere by a writer who said their story had “zero chance” of being passed on to the Publisher.

They may have been right, unfortunately. But why?

The chance that I will recommend a story to the Publisher is directly related to the quality of the story, the clarity of the storytelling, and the appropriateness of the subject matter. Each of those is a subjective measure, yes — what I think is a great story you might think is mediocre; what’s crystal clear to you might be indecipherable to me; etc. — but all three must be present in sufficient measure for a story to make it through.

Factoring & Expansion Formulas

It’s really not as complicated as all that. (Image: “Factoring & Expansion Formulas,” by CMLorenz16, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

Thus I express the probability of any given story being passed on to the Publisher as

P ≈ Q * C * A

So if a story really has a “zero chance” of being passed on, it is only because one or more of those factors approaches zero.

The good news is that’s rarely the case. (For us, “zero chance” is only when someone submits a memoir or children’s book or something else we don’t publish; then, appropriateness = 0.) So writers who have an accurate assessment of the strength of their story, how well it’s written, and if it’s appropriate should be able to estimate their chances pretty well.

But the thing to realize is that for the probability to be high (we’re talking percentages here, so it will almost never be 100%) each of those factors — story quality, writing clarity, and subject matter appropriateness — must rate very high indeed.

That’s the challenge.

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Campaign Chronicle, 6 Weeks to Election: STAR TREK, Slush Reading, and Politics

Or, how years of telling people “no” may have made me a poor political candidate.

I’m afraid I don’t know how to tell people what they want to hear.

First, a story from this past weekend. On Saturday I went to Lazy Daze, the annual arts festival here in Cary, armed with a few brochures — yes, I finally broke down and spent some money — to hand out if the occasion arose. It was a lovely day, and I saw a couple of my opponents out and about, one of whom was working the crowd pretty hard. (I did not see my third opponent, who reportedly was also campaigning hard — and in a way that might be considered a bit devious.)

Anyway, I wandered the booths and examined the wares, bought a great 2016 calendar featuring some spectacular calligraphy, and at one point a gentleman walked by me and said, “Nice shirt.”

Since I was wearing my STAR TREK United Federation of Planets shirt, I turned and said, “Live long and prosper!”

To which he replied, “Qapla’!” (If you’re not up on your Klingon, that means, “Success!”)

We both laughed, and I mentioned that a friend of mine is the founder of the Klingon Language Institute,* so we chatted for a minute and I asked if the fellow lived in town. No, he said, but his in-laws did — and when his mother-in-law happened by, you better believe I gave her a campaign brochure!

So my STAR TREK shirt led to a campaigning opportunity, which was probably the furthest thing from my daughter’s mind when she bought it for me.

Broken mask
Sooner or later, it seems every politician’s mask breaks. (Image: “Broken mask” by Josef.stuefer, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

My other campaign stops have been less successful, though, and I think I may have figured out why.

One stop was sort of a pro forma meeting, because I anticipate the group’s endorsement will go to a particular candidate they have worked with for some time. It was a quite pleasant meeting, though, and I feel I at least provided a little entertainment value.

At another stop, however, I definitely turned off some potential voters by — again — refusing to commit to specific courses of action without knowing all the facts. My “if I don’t make a promise, I can’t break a promise” message fell rather flat, and one attendee approached me afterward to explain why they were disappointed in it.

I was surprised. Even though the halls of government are littered with the shards of once-shiny promises that wound up shattered through neglect or by design, and though the fingers of the electorate are bloody from picking up the broken pieces and trying to fit them together into something, anything, useful or beautiful, it seems that people are willing to accept and even desire more promises without substance, goals without plans. I wonder if it’s a matter of needing hope, even if it’s a slim hope, even if it’s ultimately a false hope.

If so, I’ll say it straight out: I’m not the guy to give anyone false hope.

My day job, when you get right down to it, is to disabuse people of their hopes. Every person who sends in a manuscript to Baen Books hopes it will attract our attention, hopes we will accept it and publish it and help them achieve that dream of publication. But the raw facts are that we publish a limited number of books every year, only a small portion of those can be by new authors, and we receive many hundreds of submissions in the slush pile for every potential “new author” slot.

I applaud every writer who slogs through completing a manuscript, toils over that manuscript to ensure it’s as good a story as it can be, and takes the risk of sending it in for us to evaluate. But I still have to tell almost every single one of them “no.” And even when I write to someone whose work is good enough for us to consider at length and in depth — whose manuscript two, three, or even four of us will in time study and pick apart — I have to tell them that the answer may, in the end, be “no.”

In other words, I make no promises. I do not try to bash any writer’s hope, and I do not try to crush any writer’s dream, but I will not give any writer an unrealistic expectation.

And so, I will not give any voter an unrealistic expectation.

If that is what you need as a voter, if you are desperate for some slim hope and willing to take the risk of almost certain disappointment, then I apologize that I cannot be the kind of candidate who will feed that need. I hope (and I mean that without irony) that you find and support the kind of candidate you need.

But if you are a voter who can tolerate deliberation, who can stand deep examination of issues, then I hope you can understand my position — and maybe even support me.

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*Dr. Lawrence M. Schoen, if you must know.

Reminder: Election Day for the Cary Town Council race is October 6th. Help spread the word about my campaign! Share this post on social media or forward it specifically to anyone you know who lives in North Carolina, especially in the Research Triangle area or the Town of Cary. For additional updates and info, sign up for my newsletter using the form in the right sidebar or visit the election page on my website. Thanks!

Spending Disclosure: As of this date, my campaign has spent a total of $44.

This blog post was “paid” for, at the cost of $0 and whatever time it took Gray to write and upload it, by The Gray Man: Service, Leadership, Creativity.

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Advice from the Slush Pile: Start Short, if You Can

(This post is adapted from a newsletter article I sent out last October. If you’re not getting my newsletter, you can subscribe here.)

This advice may seem quaint, and like any advice it won’t apply to everyone, but if you’re thinking of writing as a pastime or a possible career, I suggest you consider starting with short stories and working your way into longer and longer pieces — because time is precious, and you want to use it to your best advantage. I offer this suggestion as the “slush” reader for Baen Books, having now examined literally thousands of submissions.

After the Edit
(I can honestly say I’ve never treated a manuscript like this. And thankfully never received one back with quite so strident a rejection. Image: “After the Edit,” by Laura Ritchie, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I am frequently surprised — and sometimes shocked — at submissions in which the author appears to have poured out their storytelling heart in 100,000 or more words without having practiced writing anything shorter. It’s not that they have a bad idea, or sometimes even that they write poorly (although this happens more than I’d like), but that they haven’t written enough to know how to tell a complete, coherent story.

It’s as if a would-be doctor tried to perform thoracic surgery without ever having dissected a frog.

That’s one reason I suggest that people start writing short stories and work their way to longer, more complex stories. But the other reason is even more basic: write short stories because you get to “THE END” faster.

Instead of taking months to produce a disjointed, confusing, lengthy text, learn how to write a smooth, straightforward narrative in days or weeks by limiting yourself at first to shorter forms. Then try longer forms that take weeks or a month to write. Learn to switch smoothly between points of view as your narratives grow in scope, and learn to tie up the threads of parallel narratives as your stories grow in length and complexity. Work your way up to forms that take months to write. Time is precious: spend it wisely!

And in keeping with the principle that time is precious, I’ll wrap this up. Thank you very much for spending part of your time here. Good luck to you!

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The Genre Chick Interviews the Gray Man

My friend Alethea Kontis has been running a series of interviews this month, and graciously included me in her coterie of interview subjects. Alethea it was who, upon hearing that I would be reading slush for Baen Books, suggested that rather than “slushmaster” my unofficial title should be “Slushmaster General.”

One click will take you to Genre Chick Interview: Gray Rinehart. Hope you enjoy it!

Many thanks, Princess Alethea!

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When [DELETE] is Better Than [SEND]

Most authors are quite considerate people, especially those who realize how small and tight-knit the science fiction and fantasy community is, but every once in a while one takes out their frustrations on your friendly Slushmaster General. We call this showing off one’s authorial (un)professionalism.

Consider this love note I received after sending one of our standard “thanks, but no thanks” e-mails:

Oh really, then perhaps you’ve missed the fact that every professor to janitor who has picked it up loves it and has asked for a sequel.
Did you even read the synopsis? Clearly you’ve not even taken the time to read that.
This book is the diamond on the ground you fail to look down and see.
It’s on many levels and those who read it see this fact.
I’ll enjoy proving you wrong once Oprah picks it up, FOOL!

Sincerely,

It’s good to know that at least the author was sincere.

Beyond the grammar itself, the most amusing part is the bit about the synopsis, because the author’s submission did not include one. I even went back and checked — my notes said “no synopsis,” but last it was possible that I missed it. My notes, it turned out, were correct: the synopsis wasn’t there, so of course I didn’t take the time to read it.

I understand the cathartic thrill we can get from writing an e-mail like this (I’ve written a few myself). And, given the fact that I see hundreds of submissions every month, the chance that I will remember the author’s name in a few months is actually quite small. Still, I believe this falls into the category of e-mail that, once you’ve written it, is best to “delete” rather than “send.”

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Latest From the Slushpile: Authors, Proofread Your Cover Letters

At Baen Books, we receive many more electronic submissions than paper submissions, and in both formats we get all manner of different kinds of cover letters. Most of them are fine, along the lines of “here’s my book, it’s this long and in this genre, thanks and hope you like it,” but some stand out — and not for good reasons.

Most surprising in the electronic slush are the letters addressed to other publishers. That’s understandable for a physical letter, at least for those of us who have mixed up letters and put them in the wrong envelopes, but when I picture the author filling out our online submission form it’s much harder to savvy.

How likely is it that an author would fill out the Baen Books online submission form at the same time that they’re filling out another publisher’s online submission form? (Forgive me for the tricky, rhetorical question.) I realize that it’s likely a cut-and-paste error from a word processing file, but when you’re on the Baen web site, using the Baen submission form, it shouldn’t be too hard to make sure your your cover letter is addressed to Baen.

Thankfully, that situation is very rare.

Much more common in the e-slush is the cover letter that offers to send the full manuscript when the author is uploading … a full manuscript. That’s right, an author submits the complete manuscript (which our guidelines request), and their cover letter ends with a statement like, “The complete manuscript is available upon request.” Pardon?

Of course, I understand what happened in those cases, too: the authors cut-and-pasted the letters they usually send when they only submit a query or a partial manuscript. Still, it’s a matter of attention to detail … and if you don’t have the details right in your 1-page cover letter, are you sure you have them right in your 500-page manuscript?

In the end, it’s not surprising that some editors skip cover letters entirely. But if you’re going to include one, make it as good as you possibly can.

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A Baen’s Bar Patron Describes My Work

‘nother Mike, one of the long-time patrons of Baen’s Bar, recently suggested some alternatives to the “Slushmaster General” title bestowed upon me by Alethea Kontis, viz.,

  • Admiral of the Slush
  • Grand Master of the Slushy Barrens
  • Explorer Extraordinaire of Slush

In the same message, he presented this “appropriately melodramatic” (his words, not mine) portrayal of the slush reader’s trade:

His steely eyes blazed through his thick goggles as he stared over the mounds and bales of slush, looking for that rough-cut diamond he knew was buried somewhere in the stacks. He knew that it was out there, somewhere, just waiting for him to find it. Despite the storm of distractions, the allure of comfortable working conditions, and all those other temptations trying to pull him away from his true work of rooting through the unending piles of slush, he would persevere until he found it. And when he did, he would turn it over to the readers, those ultimate judges of value, who would decide whether this was a true diamond to be worked by the magic of the editors or just another hunk of glass to be cast aside.

I don’t know about all that, but “Grand Master of the Slushy Barrens” has a nice ring to it ….

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Damaging Your Credibility as a Writer

I went to a Public Relations & Marketing seminar this week in Chapel Hill, and had the pleasure of listening to a luncheon speech by Marty Clarke, author of COMMUNICATION LAND MINES. His web site is http://www.martyclarke.com/, and I highly recommend him — he’s a terrific speaker.

Marty asked whether or not we agreed that a single typographic error or misspelled word on a resume could prevent a person from getting a job interview. We all said, “Yes.” So he asked why we weren’t as careful with e-mail as we would be with a resume — with proofreading instead of just relying on the spell checker (“Spell check is your enemy,” he said), and doing whatever we can to ensure that the message we send out doesn’t inadvertently destroy our credibility.

I don’t recall the entire question exactly, but he asked something along the lines of, “How many of you have received an e-mail from someone higher up in your company and when you read it you thought, ‘How did you get to where you are if this is how you choke out a paragraph in your native language?'”

I ask the same thing sometimes with respect to some of the novel manuscripts I look at for Baen. I should ask those authors whose manuscripts are riddled with spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors if they take as little care with their resumes. Because in this case the manuscript is their resume.

Then again, sometimes a gem of a story lies hidden inside a very rough manuscript — so I have to look beyond some pretty bad writing to see if the story itself is good. But I wish those writers would take a little more care to present themselves better — that they would polish that gem so it sparkled the first time I saw it.

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Happy Discoverer’s Day … and A Publisher’s Public Slushpile

Those who know me well know that I prefer politeness to political correctness, so my personal reference to Columbus Day as Discoverer’s Day is not (I repeat, not) (I tell you three times, NOT) the usual anti-Columbian protest on behalf of the American aborigines.* Rather, when the government decided that Presidents Washington and Lincoln would share a holiday with all the others who have occupied that office, I decided that other holidays named after famous people should also be renamed to share with those with similar accomplishments. The obvious exception to this is Christmas, since I can’t find anyone else in history who has changed the world as profoundly as did Jesus Christ.

End of rant/sermonette, and Happy Discoverer’s Day to one and all.

In other news, I was pointed to what appears to be an experiment by Harper Collins to let the online reading public sort through their slush pile for them. Called authonomy, it’s “a brand new community site for writers, readers and publishers, conceived and developed by book editors at HarperCollins.”

From their FAQ page,

authonomy invites unpublished and self published authors to post their manuscripts for visitors to read online. Authors create their own personal page on the site to host their project – and must make at least 10,000 words available for the public to read.

Visitors to authonomy can comment on these submissions – and can personally recommend their favourites to the community. authonomy counts the number of recommendations each book receives, and uses it to rank the books on the site. It also spots which visitors consistently recommend the best books – and uses that info to rank the most influential trend spotters.

…. HarperCollins hopes to find new, talented writers we can sign up for our traditional book publishing programmes – once we’re fully launched we’ll be reading the most popular manuscripts each month as part of this search.

In a way, this is similar to the process on Baen’s Bar whereby short story submissions to Jim Baen’s Universe can be critiqued and catch the eyes of the editors. The electronic slushpile for Baen Books works a little differently — the submissions aren’t available to every member of the Bar.

I’ll be interested to see how the Harper Collins experiment works out.

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*Disclosure: I may fall into this category myself, having a percentage of Cherokee blood; I’ve never gone the route of documenting how much to see if I qualify for tribal membership.

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ConCarolinas Schedule

Opened my ConCarolinas schedule this morning to find that I’m assigned to a half-dozen panels, including one I specifically didn’t want to be on. So here goes:

Friday
6:00PM – Best Books You’ve Never Heard Of – NOW ACCEPTING SUGGESTIONS 😮

Saturday
9:00AM – Fantastic Animals – That is, animals as characters in fiction … done well and poorly
10:00AM – The Science Panel – What’s up in the world of science, especially with respect to story potential
5:00PM – Putting the Science in your Science Fiction – A nice follow-on to the 10 a.m. panel

Sunday
11:00AM – Where’s My Personal Jetpack? – In which I whine (and channel Daniel Amos*) about not having a rocket pack
3:00PM – Cover Letters – What to do and what not to do, as demonstrated by the slush pile

The con is the 30th of May through the 1st of June, in Charlotte. Visit the ConCarolinas web site for more info.

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*Quick, without resorting to Google: who was Daniel Amos?

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