Slush Pile Lessons Pt. 2

For those of you who don't keep up with my non-stop 140-character fangirling statements and publishing muses on twitter, I had the wonderful opportunity to return as a slush reader for Brenda Drake's PITCH MADNESS contest this past weekend. We were Slush Zombies this time, trekking through the pile, splattering blood and guts everywhere as we searched for fabulous stories.

There were a LOT of fabulous stories. That's the hardest thing about a pitch contest like this, especially for the competing writer, because there are lots of writers to compete with. But it's also pretty dang cool because it shows how many talented writers there are in the world, and how many totally awesome books could end up on bookstore shelves someday.

(I'm looking at you and your book.)

Without further ado, I wanted to share some of the things I learned digging through the slush pile. A lot of it is similar to what I learned last time (which you can read about in detail in this post), but this time there was one big difference for me: I'm a contracted writer now, as well as a senior in college with a hefty work load, so I had a lot less time to devote to reading submissions. Which meant one very important thing: every pitch and first page I read really had to pop with brilliance on the first read-through, or I'd likely skip to the next one to keep searching for a "yes." (In case it's unclear, we Slush Zombies were the gatekeepers -- the ones deciding which pitches the team leaders would look at, and which they would never see.)

So, without further ado, here are some quick tips for those of you who find yourself on the other side of a Slush Zombie:

1. Stare at this beautiful man all day and be just like him:

2. Be specific in your pitch. If your novel is about a nine-hundred year old Time Lord who travels through time and space in a police box, fighting aliens who wield toilet plungers, make sure you say that instead of just: "It's a story about a time traveller." Specifics make a pitch much more interesting and go a long well in helping a story stand out.

3. Make the genre clear. When you submit to a contest like this or send a query letter to an agent, there's usually a spot where you mention what the genre is. But genre should also come across in the writing. A sci-fi should have some element in the first page that makes the reader go "oho! there may be cyborgs in this novel," or "this may be set on a spaceship," for example.

You don't want your reader uncertain whether your story is a contemporary set in NYC or a fantasy set in a Celtic-inspired world where animals talk, because such uncertainty takes away from your story. By the end of the first chapter, at the very least, the genre really should be clear.

(Bonus point: Come up with a title that sparks the genre!)

4. Double-check spelling. First impressions are really important. Yes, if your pitch is brilliant and your writing is stellar, spelling mistakes are easy to overlook, but why test fate? Triple-read your submission. Maybe even have someone else read it to double-check if you missed anything.

5. Double-check instructions. Always, always, always read the instructions for a pitch contest, or an agent's instructions about submitting a query letter. If someone asks to see your first page or first couple pages, make sure you send them! Sometimes stellar first pages can hook an agent who otherwise didn't see much of a spark in the pitch.

And, last but not least, remember to revise revise revise your pitch and first page. End the excerpt on a cliffhanger, maybe. Make the pitch and pages so brilliant, no one will have any choice but to keep reading out of curiosity.

That's all for now!

                                                   KICK SOME QUERY BUTT LIKE UMBRIDGE.


**ADDENDUM (3/20 at 1:06pm PST): I just wanted to make sure readers understand that there are always, always, always exceptions to the tips I mentioned above. There are no rules when it comes to writing. These are suggestions based on my experience, but publishing is highly subjective. :)**


  1. Stephanie this was pretty cool to read. First, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to read through the slush, and second, thank you for updating us with your tweets. It was fun reading them and panicking over them lol

    I'm one of the many that didn't make it, I learned about it the same day and didn't get a chance to "research" pitches... I used a question, eek! Anyway, it was a great experience and reading this post just reinforces everything that I learned so far ;)

    1. I'm so glad this was helpful! Yes, trust me, LOTS of people didn't make it. And remember, publishing is very subjective, so that definitely doesn't mean yours was bad or anything. :)

  2. First, thanks so much for volunteering your time to help out. Brenda's free contests are such a valuable service to the writer community.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the post...except for one point. Or least I hope it's not entirely true. Largely because the novel I submitted to Pitch Madness and that I'm currently querying violate it.

    I'm hoping that sometimes, readers are a little patient. That they will continue reading, even if the genre isn't clear from the first page. Or if it turns out to be something different from what they thought. I hope that if they like the writing they'll keep reading even if the writer takes them someplace unexpected. I guess I'll see how it works out for me.

    Great post and thanks again for your efforts on our behalf.

    1. You bring up an excellent point, which I should've mentioned in the post--there are exceptions to every rule. Stellar writing ALWAYS beats the other stuff, so yes, even if genre isn't clear from the first page (and there are really a lot of books that fall into that category), plenty of readers may still enjoy the novel! Making the genre clearer earlier on is just something that, in my experience, tends to make manuscripts stronger, so I wanted to encourage people to try that. But there aren't really rules when it comes to writing, except writing something great. :)

  3. ME GUSTA THE "Very Potter Musical" MEMES :) And thanks for the advice!

  4. And don't make your main problem whether or not your MC will die. We know he/she won't! Sorry. This is your blog. My pet peeve took over.

    Thanks for the advice, Stephanie! I also gusta the clips. Didn't realize Umbridge was so jacked.

    1. LOL Alisha - although, um, mine does die at the end LOL!!

  5. Loved this post... and your bonus advice about finding a title that depicts the genre has stuck :)