I Do Not Have Time to Read This Crap:
Editors talk about Slush
by Anne R. Allen
On my British editor’s desk is a rubber stamp that prints, in red ink, the words “I do not have time to read this crap.” Its blood-coloured imprint adorns several submission letters that lie scattered around his office.
I feel sad for the rejected novelists, although of course their manuscripts were returned long ago with a polite rejection letter. So I asked him, and some of our other editors—how does a fiction submission avoid the dreaded red stamp and get a sympathetic read? Unfortunately, the sympathetic part seems fairly subjective—mostly based on personal tastes—but here are a few major mistakes that our editors say will propel your novel directly into the “crap” file.
1) Death threats in your cover letter
My editor hopes to compile his collection of bad cover letters into a comedy script some day, so I mustn’t steal his thunder, but suffice it to say that threatening publishers with various forms of witchcraft and/or body mutilation if you are not immediately given an advance the size of the company’s annual budget will not get your novel published.
Although you may achieve immortality in an upcoming sketch on Radio Four.
You also want to avoid personal insults, suicide threats and/or generally whinging about your rotten life. It’s about your novel. Only about your novel.
2) Amateurish writing.
This doesn’t happen. Fiction writing is a craft. Take classes. Read how-to books. Join a critique group. Go to workshops and conferences. Chances are, you shouldn’t send out your first novel. Keep it in a drawer and write a couple more. Some day you’ll thank me for telling you that. I personally learned this lesson the embarrassing way.
3) Not reading contemporary fiction.
You need to know who’s publishing books like the one you’ve written, and where to find them in a bookstore. Film and TV references give you away as a non-reader. If you’ve written a forensic science whodunit, compare your sleuth to Kay Scarpetta: don’t just pitch your work as CSI: Peoria.
Specific genres have specific rules. Learn them. The only kind of fiction that can break rules is literary fiction, but if you prefer to read Grisham, don’t attempt the magical realism of Garcia Marquez or the kaleidoscopic character studies of Michael Cunningham.
4) Lack of research
If your novel is set on this planet, in its past or present, you can’t get away with made-up details.
Whether your book is a wildly creative vampire tale, a guaranteed three-hanky romance, or a Christian Rapture prophecy approved by George Bush himself, screaming anachronisms can keep your work in the slush pile forever.
If your story happens in ancient Rome, don’t dress your characters in silk, feed them spaghetti, or name them Beavus and Buttonius-Cranium, no matter how cool it sounds.
5) Bad grammar and haphazard spelling
No editor is going to waste a minute of her overbooked time reading a whole novel written by somebody who can’t be bothered to use her computer’s spellcheck function. Or hasn’t found out where to put an apostrophe.
Get somebody to proofread for you. It’s hard to spot your own mistakes, because you know what you meant to say and your brain often sees the correct version instead of what’s on the page.
And, the editors remind me, never rely on spellcheck alone, or yule seam a compete full.