MisCon 28: It Came from the Slushpile
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: It Came from the Slushpile
Panel members: Sheila Gilbert, Patrick Swenson, Betsy Wollheim
Panel description: Join our esteemed editors as they relive some of their more intriguing cover letters and writing samples received through their years on the other side of the publishing spectrum. We’ll learn what works and what doesn’t and how to make sure yours is the best it can be.
PS: When I was editor of Talebones, we never closed to submissions.
BW: However, DAW has terrible response times.
PS: Don’t do this: spiral bound and pink paper. I also had one with crayon. But I did have a great cover letter from a fifth grader. There’s no excuse these days not to follow standard formatting. Google “manuscript preparation” and find William Shunn.
Moderator: I’ve seen many types of formatting. What type of formatting do you prefer?
BW: Double space, printed, and include page numbers.
PS: If it’s double spaced with a good font, I will read it.
BW: It doesn’t matter what the font is as long as it’s readable.
SG: Don’t get hung up on font. I’ll look at it as long as it’s easy to read and clean with no mistakes.
PS: Back when everything was done with typewriter, the rule was that if you had more than two mistakes on the page, you had to retype it. Also in the old days, they used 12 point Courier because it was easier to establish column space.
SG: Now we can just change the font on the computer.
BW: My father once sent an ambiguous letter to C.J. Cherryh. Fortunately she assumed correctly that he was going to publish her books. Many DAW writers came from the slushpile.
SG: Find the right publisher for your work. I knew there was a brand new author who managed to sell their story to several countries before it got published.
PS: Here’s a cover letter I received that started with “Sounds of Christmas Music is a brutal horror story…” Sometimes I got submissions from the Department of Corrections…
BW: Never respond to anyone from prison because you don’t know what they’ll do. Sometimes we’ll get really crazy stuff. Once we got a submission written in ballpoint pen and fully illustrated. In it, the Hindenburg was burning…
SG: And it was drawn like a teenager with a banana sausage tree and a flying gurney.
PS: Another editor I know received a velvet lined box with the manuscript inside.
BW: Don’t tell us that your manuscript is going to be the next bestseller. We’ve also gotten submissions where they’re asking us to send them $100,000 before they would send the manuscript.
SG: Don’t tell us who you want starring in the movie of your book.
PS: I got a submission where they were writing as if I were dead. It began with “Dear Departed…”
Moderator: How many submissions do you get?
BW: About 100 novels per week. It has increased with electronic submissions. It also increases when economic times are hard.
SG: You can tell if it has been a hard winter because in the spring, there will be a flood of submissions from Canada.
BW: I don’t like “Sheena in the jungle” type stories where the main character is a scantily clad Amazon.
Q: Do you get a lot of NaNoWriMo novels?
BW: I don’t read a lot of them because they’re first vetted by other readers.
SG: We have interns. If they like one of the stories, they can do a pitch to us on it.
PS: I also get a lot of cast off stories from whatever anthology had recently closed. I would get a lot of flash horror stories when a flash horror anthology closed. Or a lot of zeppelin stories when that anthology closed.
Q: Do you get a lot of those cast off stories from Reader’s Digest contests?
PS: No, I don’t recall.
SG: Short stories are different from novels. 44,000 words is not a novel. Research your market first. Is it for a magazine? Or is it too long for it? Look at the guidelines and what they publish. We don’t like to encourage bad things.
Q: What positive thing influences you?
BW: At the minimum, write at a professional level.
SG: A cover letter can destroy your chances if it’s bad. You can include credits if they’re professional sales.
PS: Let the writing speak for itself.
Q: Have you ever gotten any form cover letters?
BW: I’ve been confused with another editor.
SG: Me, too.
Moderator: What do you personally want in a manuscript?
BW: I’m just looking for a good book.
SG: No trends.
BW: Don’t jump on the bandwagon. Write what’s inside you.
SG: We’re only concerned with a book that grabs us with its characters and ideas.
Moderator: If someone submits a novel, what’s the minimum word count?
Moderator: What’s the maximum?
BW: Tad Williams’ manuscript was too large for a normal paperback so we had to use special paper. Patrick Rothfuss had over half a million words for one book.
SG: We were happy when we could do a trade paperback for that one.
Q: I’ve gotten the advice that we should just keep sending stuff because editors like to see writers improve.
BW: That’s wrong. Only send the best that you can make it. The exception to that is one author whose friend submitted it for her by bringing it to DAW.
Q: How do you know when your manuscript is ready for submission?
BW: Get critiques from friends, writing workshops, etc.
Q: Do you like to see short story writers grow with continuing submissions?
PS: I don’t have time to read all of it. I encourage when they do get better, but not when they continue to make the same mistakes. Write the best that you can. Have it seen first by writers groups and beta readers.
Moderator: Also, don’t write the same story over and over again.
SG: Some get an agent and then send something else.
Q: With 100 submissions per week, how many of those become new authors?
BW: About 0.001%. Most of them are not agented. Most are not written at a professional level.
SG: Anyone can say that they’re agented. It’s probably not a good idea to have your spouse, sister, etc. as your agent. Now some agents only take you on once you have a manuscript accepted. So don’t be afraid to submit unagented. Except for vanity presses.
PS: Agents act as extra gatekeepers.
Q: If you’re no longer agented, should you mention that in your cover letter?
BW: No. But we don’t care. Other editors might.
SG: Also include your writing credits.
BW: Some agents work with Tor but not DAW. Or vice versa. If you want to submit to DAW, find an agent who represents DAW authors.
SG: Some agents are shady.
PS: Look in Locus to find some reputable agents.
Q: Also make sure the agent actually reads your work and doesn’t just pick it up because you’ve got a contract.
Q: If I send in a submission and it gets rejected, can I edit it and send it back?
SG: Only if you specifically get a letter back that says that you can revise and resubmit. If it’s a form letter, then send your work elsewhere.
BW: If the revision is drastically different, you can resubmit. But not if it’s only slightly different.
PS: You also can’t submit it to different editors in the same company.
Q: What if you have no writing credits? What should you put on the cover letter? And what is “professional writing” anyway?
BW: It’s good writing. Unfortunately, it can’t be defined.
PS: Don’t summarize your story in the cover letter.
BW: Send your entire novel so we know that you can finish writing it. There are many different examples of professional writing which varies with style and voice. Dickens and Nabokov are different, but both are professional writing.
Q: Can you mention that you’ve been a finalist in a writing contest in your cover letter?
PS: As for cover letters, don’t send propaganda or letters looking like ransom notes.
[This session ended with PS reading a truly bad cover letter containing crossed out information, handwritten corrections, misspelled words, all caps for italics, and rambling and inappropriate digressions.]