Sunday, August 11, 2013

Lessons from the Slushpile and Other Readings

A few months ago I volunteered to be a slushpile reader for Champagne Book Group. Every so often, an unsolicited manuscript CBG receives is forwarded to me, along with an evaluation form. I read the story, complete the evaluation, and send it back to CBG's editors. I don't say "yes" or "no" to publication; I simply provide my perspective as a (somewhat educated and experienced) reader. 

More recently, I also volunteered to judge manuscripts in the annual EPIC awards competition, for e-books published in the last year; I've read several fiction and non-fiction books and made a recommendation as to whether these books should survive to the next round of competition.

While my mom would wonder why I continue to take on unpaid work, for me, the benefit is already clear: one of the best ways to learn how to write well is to read. A lot. Reading good writing is often the best lesson, but reading books and manuscripts that aren't so well done has taught me a lot, too. 

Here are a few of the lessons I'm learning from all this reading:

1. Good stories can be spoiled by poor writing mechanics. I've read several manuscripts and books that had beautiful, interesting, even thrilling stories to tell, but mistakes in basic grammar, spelling, syntax, and punctuation were so distracting I couldn't stay engaged. 

2. Without a good story, the best, most pristine writing will fall flat. I've also read work that is impeccably written, only to discover I could not bring myself to care about the characters or about what happened next. 

3. Craft should never draw attention to itself. When I say to myself, "wow, that's terrific dialogue," guess what? I almost always put the manuscript or book down for a while. The moments of noticing brilliant technique are also moments of breaking the spell of the story. It doesn't mean we "tone down" our craft. I think it means we need to keep it all in balance -  plot, characters, dialogue, setting, craft. When they all help one another, instead of drawing attention to themselves, it means I postpone other work or coffee breaks to keep reading.

4. On the other hand, sometimes a work breaks all the rules and is still outstanding. One manuscript I recall was filled with errors, had confusing point of view shifts, almost no plot (a lot of people talking to one another about their lives and memories), and the main character was decidedly unsympathetic. Still, for some reason, I couldn't stop reading. Some alchemy of storytelling occurred despite all the problems and I became a reader lost in the world the author created. 

For you seasoned writers and authors, I doubt any of these lessons will surprise you. They might not surprise those newer to this art form, like me. Even so, I find myself deeply grateful that these authors were courageous enough to share their work, to be read and considered and evaluated by others. I thank them for reinforcing some core lessons and for surprising me with their talents. It's an honor to be in the audience. 

Elizabeth Fountain is the author of An Alien's Guide to World Domination, available from BURST Books and on Amazon.
Find her at her author blog,  Point No Point and on Facebook. 


Anonymous said...

I think its called payback. Many believe beyond the massive pay we receive (g) we owe the profession for the opportunity to share our stores, given so few make it (<.02%).

I too volunteer to help CBG via mentor newbies and other endeavors. Plus help local struggling authors in a writers group. If ya search, you'll find a lot of authors out there doing the same. As a general rule most in the profession want to give back and help others. Not sure why its so strong in this particular endeavor, but it is.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Liz, you are right. There is much to be learned from books that don't quite make it due to bad execution. While reviewing for CTR, and critquing locally, I too have found engaging, even compelling, writing in which huge errors abide. Those authors need help from the editing process.

I used to pray my manuscripts would arrive in NYC right before a big blizzard so the editors would sit on the floor, scotch in hand and fall in love with my stories. It took work, not snow, but I finally made it out of the mire that once was a part of my fuzzy presentation.

Liz Fountain said...

Big Mike, I agree. There is a strong ethic in this work of writers helping writers. That's one reason why I love it. And Julie, it takes such courage to send one's work, the work in which we invest our time, blood, sweat, tears, heart, and soul, to anyone else for editing or critiquing or judging. I'm amazed and appreciative of all our fellow writers who keep doing so, like you!


Nikki said...

Liz, lovely points to ponder. Writers tend to be wonderful about sharing their skills--but I've seen the same thing among artists, picture framers, engineers, auto mechanics, guitarists, sound technicians, knitters--anyone who is passionate about they do. It's wonderful.

Can I say something about craft not calling attention to itself? Part of the reason you see craft is because you are so invested in it. The general reader will not see "great dialog." He will hear "real people." You know the craft, so you recognize it. Example: The first time I read this passage in Tony Hillerman, where he says about a character's recently deceased wife: "Emma. The sure knowledge he would never see her again sat on his shoulder."--I cried. And the second and third time I read it, I cried. Later, after I'd been critiquing and editing for a while, I cried and said, "Man, this guy can write!"

Liz Fountain said...

Nikki, you raise a great point. As a writer myself I pay attention to craft differently than many other readers might. I'm thinking of a housepainter I know who sees the effort someone put into a beautiful job, whereas all I see are the results. He also spots mistakes where I don't.

So... does that make us better critics of one another's work, or worse, I wonder? Should we seek "real" readers as part of our process of developing a manuscript? Thanks for the thought-provoking comment!


Richard Hacker said...

I haven't read slushpiles, only other writer's manuscripts on request and judging contests. I've always found the most frustrating thing about judging literary contests is the twenty pages built around a great story idea which the writer has not quite been able to successfully execute. I want to find the person to give more detailed feedback and encouragement than the judging process and format typically afford. Of course, the writer is anonymous, so I'm left hoping he or she will take the critique to heart and give the story wings.

Liz Fountain said...

Richard, I can tell you that the two times I entered the Pacific Northwest Writers' Association annual literary contest, the feedback I received from judges was like gold for me. It helped immensely in revising my work. So the contributions of those judges (whoever they were!) did not go in vain.