Category Archives: slush

Reaching out

For most of the time that I’ve been in publishing, I’ve found clients in one of four ways: the slush pile, referrals from clients, seeking out authors for ideas I’ve come up with, or convincing a person I’ve come across to write a book. I’ve long been reflexively skeptical of supposed innovations on the query system—everything I tried for a long time turned out to be a huge waste of time that generated no better results than just letting the slush come to my inbox.

But four or so years ago, I looked at my list and my slush pile and realized how heavily they both skewed toward a narrow range of voices. And as I looked for ways to fix this problem I listened to a lot of wise people (including the fine folks at We Need Diverse Books) on the perils of any system in which gatekeepers simply wait for things to come their way.  So now I try to actively participate in things happening outside my inbox, making sure that writers know that my door is open (and my list inclusive).

Authors looking for an agent have a lot of great opportunities now not just to seek an agent, but to reach out to the best possible fit for them and their work. Many wonderful agents participate in these new ways to find clients (and quite a lot of them were on the bandwagon before I got my head out of the sand). And for me, they’re a good way to proactively seek submissions from a diverse pool of authors so I can make sure that my client list supports a wide array of voices.

TwitterLogo_#55aceeTwitter pitch parties like Brenda Drake’s PitMad still involve authors querying agents, but it means I get to find those projects that seem like a good fit for my list and invite the authors to send their queries my way.  And resources like Manuscript Wish List, co-created by Jessica Sinsheimer and KK Hendin, allow me to highlight book concepts that I’d love to see, which gives me a chance to proactively seek a broader and more balanced list, both via the Twitter hashtag and their fantastic website (for which you can find my profile here).  And I’m really excited about the upcoming Twitter event #DVPit, which Beth Phelan created to “showcase pitches about and especially by marginalized voices.”  If you’re a writer from a marginalized community looking for an agent, I strongly encourage you to check out that link before Tuesday, because it looks like it’ll be a great event!

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the sheer volume of emails in my Weekend Reading folder, many of which come from sources like the above. I look at my To Read list right now and tremble in fear. But I love knowing that the chances that I’ll find a gem that I have a vision for among those projects is far higher, since I’ve already done some of the work in getting authors who have written the kinds of books I’m looking for to reach my way.


Common query and writing mistakes to avoid

I’ve been seeing a lot of no-no’s recently so here we go: what not to do. Buckle up.

  • Long queries that ramble on will significantly hurt your chances. Agents receive a lot of queries, and we don’t have a lot of time to read them. Get to the point—4-5 short paragraphs max should be enough. We don’t need a scene by scene rundown of the book. The idea is to hook us and make us want to actually read your book.
  • On a somewhat related note, before you add your writing credentials to your query, ask yourself if they’re truly credentials worth mentioning. If you have an MFA and your short fiction’s been published, by all means let us know. If your grandma read the first 5 chapters and loved it, we don’t need to know.
  • There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing, but for the most part, we usually won’t represent a book you’ve already put up on Amazon. Publishers want original works, which means we want original works. So write an amazing new manuscript and send us that!
  • Word count isn’t important except when it is. Stay in the average range for your genre and category. This helps show that you’re familiar with your market. Yes, of course there are exceptions, but your 600,000 word thriller isn’t one of them.

The good news is that we outline our query instructions here. Unfortunately though, a good query doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good book, so here are a few common writing pitfalls to avoid.

  • Infodumping is a big no-no, and I often receive SFF sample pages that make this mistake. Blurting out everything about your world and characters at once is telltale sign that your novel isn’t quite there yet. Conversely, many sample pages read like an entirely different language with invented concepts and terms that strewn throughout the prose with no explanation. Can’t represent what I can’t understand.
  • Don’t overly describe your characters’ actions and emotions. The reader doesn’t need to know all the little movements that entail Joe boarding a bus. Likewise, the reader doesn’t need lengthy explanations of Joe’s innermost feelings. Better yet, don’t tell me your characters’ emotions at all. Good writing describes; truly great writing evokes.

Finding an agent is hard enough. Give your work the best shot it deserves by steering clear of the literary atrocities above. Have any other tips for our readers? Share ‘em in the comments.


Cold weather books to keep you warm

For those of us on the East Coast, it has been another rough winter. I’ve started to compare being outside to spending time in a freezer. In the suburbs, everything is layers of ice on bottom followed by layers of fresh snow on top that eventually freeze because we haven’t seen a thermostat above freezing in what seems like weeks. There have been mornings where the temperature outside is zero with wind chills far below. My crazy husband is marathon training and running outside. What? This is what we call a different kind of slush pile (#publishingpuns)! All I want to do is stay inside, drink hot chocolate (or wine, even better) and read books.

It got me to thinking about great books that evoke the cold. I was thinking about THE SHIPPING NEWS by Annie Proulx, a favorite of mine where the weather is a lead character. Or SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW (one review on Amazon highlights “the language of snow and ice”) or the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. The seventh book in the series is called THE LONG WINTER! How did people live back then with no heat?

So, I’m wondering what your favorite cold weather books are. Or just your favorite books that you like to snuggle up with on a cold winter’s day. Please share, and stay warm!






A thought.

One of my favorite things about working in publishing is the opportunity to read and consider so many queries daily. Admittedly, sometimes the mountain of slush is a bit daunting, but there’s nothing better than finding a gem amongst them, than finding just the sort of things you didn’t know you were looking for. It amazes me, really, how many ideas, characters, worlds and surprise endings there still are out there. In all the years humanity has explored the written word, with all the people who do now and who have ever considered themselves writers, original and wonderful stories keep emerging.

For me, it’s impossible to even imagine what the next perfect book would be about. I’ve read my fair share of dull and god-awful novels, that I drudgingly plow through (unlike Jim, I find it hard not to finish something I’ve started. Guilt complex, I suppose). I’ll spend time bemoaning the dearth of any new fiction to grab me, but then something great always comes along. Regardless of how we might read our books in the future—on paper, e-reader, or some new, heretofore uninvented method—there will always be writers to break the mold and come up with something brilliant and new.

So I guess my point is this: keep writing and keep sending in your manuscripts, because without this ever-producing world of letters, who knows what else would come to a screeching halt? Sometimes it’s the craziest ideas that produce the best book, and others the most mundane sounding plot can come across as quietly and fantastically lovely. You never can tell and that’s why I keep opening my queries with anticipation.


No one would ever say that.

One would think that since we, as a population living in communities, speak almost every single day, often to several different people on various subjects in a multitude of tones and emotions, the easiest thing to sit down and write would be dialogue. One would think this, but then, one would be wrong. I receive a vast number of queries that are winners as far as synopsis or narrative introductions go, but fall devastatingly flat once any of the characters try to speak to one another. Even inner monologues are troublesome.

Why is that? We can write realistically about dragons and wizards and time travel and dangerous situations that none of us have ever or will ever experience, but when it comes to simple conversation, suddenly the words become wooden or entirely unnatural sounding. It takes a certain skill to be able to write dialogue that sounds right—that sounds as if it is something that each particular character would actually say.

Obviously, there have to be some liberties taken, as a novel that recorded absolutely realistic dialogue would get boring very quickly. I’m the first to say that not every conversation I have is riveting or full of interesting and witty phrases (don’t be too shocked), nor are the thoughts that I have constantly worthy of note. A good writer, however, will meld these two necessities together—one, that the characters sound like real people saying real things and two, that the pacing remains in sync with the rest of the narrative—and their book will be better for it.

Bad dialogue, I find, is often cliché-ridden, devoid of any contractions, too expository or explanatory, boring or any combination of these and more. How do you, as active writers avoid falling into these traps? How do you give your dialogue and monologue valuable and characteristic qualities? For my benefit, and for the benefit of readers everywhere, I implore you.


What’s the story

I’ve noticed something recently in many of the queries I receive: the writer wants to tell me all about the emotional journey of the story, but they aren’t telling me the actual story. Quite often, it feels like I’m given a general premise and a resolution but I don’t actually know what happens between the first and last pages.

Let’s think about this a bit. What is a story? It’s action, plot, and characters that are going places and doing things. Ideally for the writer, the problem is with the pitch (easy to fix) rather than with the entire book (not as easy to fix). Remember: the emotional journey of a character is reflected in the action of the story. But the story itself is just that—action, characters making moves that are always working towards a goal.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. (Note: this is not a real query):

(Protagonist)’s life has not been easy, but she’s made it through. Surviving a decidedly rough upbringing, she must cope with the pain of her mother’s violent drug abuse from a very early age.

Okay, we’re getting somewhere…

Vowing to never fall into the same traps as her mother, she relocates to a new city to start her entire life over. She must battle each day to find happiness and contentment, and not let her demons rule her life.

Keep going…

However, she feels that the memories of her past are never far behind. Throughout the story, she has to learn that we’re all human and that her mother needs her help. Ultimately, she forgives her mother and gets her into treatment.

Wait, hang on. What actually happens in the novel?

When it comes to distilling your entire novel into one paragraph for your query—a task I do not envy—you must zero in on the main characters and plot points. The emotional journey of a book is important, but when it comes to the pitch, be sure to convey the actual story first, and bring in the broader themes after.


The slush pile

by Jane

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled “The Death of the Slush Pile.” How incredibly sad, I thought.

One of my very first jobs in publishing was managing the slush pile at Bantam Books. I didn’t do much; all I was told to do was to log the manuscripts in, put them on a shelf and then two weeks later, reject them after nobody had looked at them. I hated doing it–those writers had worked so hard and yet, even all those years ago, there was nobody to read their work.

From that time on, I have had both respect and curiosity for “slush.” Even today, in a very difficult publishing market, I firmly believe that the slush pile can hold “buried treasure.”

And aside from the very public examples cited in the WSJ piece, we at DGLM have proven that there are wonderful projects to be found if one is patient and persistent enough to look.

Jim McCarthy discovered Carrie Ryan in the slush pile. She wrote The Forest of Hands and Teeth, which Jim sent out on a Friday and sold the following Monday. He also found Victoria Laurie, one of his first clients in slush. Jim has sold 18 of her books in the last six years.

Mike Bourret found three of his biggest clients in slush: Lisa McMann, author of Fade and Wake, among others; Heather Brewer whose first book among many, was Eighth Grade Bites; and Sara Zarr whose Story of a Girl was a National Book Award finalist.

Our very own Mary Doria Russell lay in a colleague’s slush pile for almost a year and when he didn’t respond, her first novel, The Sparrow, was passed along to me–and the rest is history.

So, no matter how busy I am, I have not forsaken the slush pile–and, hopefully, even in difficult times, I never will.