Empirical Storm Troopers , Or, A View From The Slushpile

Let me direct your attention to this excellent piece by Teresa Nielsen Hayden on the woes of being a slushpile reader, combined with some sensible advice on how not to be so sensitive when receiving a rejection letter.

( hat tip to John Scalzi, who wrote an equally interesting piece on why most ‘new’ authors are in their 30’s and 40’s. His article you can read here. )

Here I quote only one segment of very quotable paragraphs from Mrs. Nielsen Hayden. Read, by all means, the whole thing here.


If you’re an author, the arrival of a rejection letter is a major event. If you’re an editor (or an associate editor, assistant editor, editorial assistant, or intern), 90% of all rejections are something you do on a quiet afternoon when you don’t have something more urgent breathing down your neck. O Yawn, you say, O Stretch, there’s that catalogue copy finished. I’ve got—hmmm, about two and a half hours left in the day. Nothing else urgent? Okay, it’s time to blight some hopes and crush some dreams. You grab a stack of slush envelopes and start going through them.

Unless you’re a senior editor with intern-like beings below you on the food chain who open and process the slush for you to look at—a splendid luxury!—a substantial fraction of your time is going to go into opening the packages, logging in the name, title, agent/no agent, genre, and date rejected, and then repackaging the rejected manuscript with a form rejection letter and a copy of the Tor Submission Guidelines.

Manuscripts are unwieldy, but the real reason for that time ratio is that most of them are a fast reject. Herewith, the rough breakdown of manuscript characteristics, from most to least obvious rejections:

1. Author is functionally illiterate.

2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.

3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.

4. Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, dire straights, nearly penultimate, incentiary, reeking havoc, hare’s breath escape, plaintiff melody, viscous/vicious, causal/casual, clamoured to her feet, a shutter went through her body, his body went ridged, empirical storm troopers, ex-patriot Englishmen, et cetera.

5. Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs.

6. Author has a moderate neurochemical disorder and can’t tell when he or she has changed the subject. This greatly facilitates composition, but is hard on comprehension.

7. Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.

(At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)

8. It’s nice that the author is working on his problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.

9. Nobody but the author is ever going to care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book.

10. The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.

(You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)

11. Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.

12. Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.

13. It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.

14. Buy this book.

Aspiring writers are forever asking what the odds are that they’ll wind up in category #14. That’s the wrong question. If you’ve written a book that surprises, amuses, and delights the readers, and gives them a strong incentive to read all the pages in order, your chances are very good indeed. If not, your chances are poor.

My comment:

It is important for all new writers to remember that editors reject manuscripts because they hate you personally, and brood on how to destroy you and your dreams, unsleepingly, gnawing on themselves in their malice in the dark tower of the Flatiron Building in New York.

No, excuse me, I am confusing New York editors with the Witch-King of Minas Morgul. In real life, a rejection letter is just that. Your writing did not meet their needs. You did the same thing to the butcher last Wednesday when you decided to buy hamburger rather than steak. You did the same thing the cabbie when you decided it was not too far to walk. People don’t buy things not more suited to their present needs than other available options.

If the facts of reality cause you pain, it is because you are weak and spineless, too unprofessional, in fact, to be a writer. Therefore go away into another profession, and let the professionals accumulate their rejection letters stoically, without having to wait in line behind you.
Otherwise learn to take a blow in the face without complaint, you whining sissy.

Someone might ask: But, dear John C. Wright, creature alike of Sparta and Vulcan, were your feelings never wounded by a cruel or thoughtless rejection letter?

To which I answer: Feelings? What are these things called “feelings” of which you speak, flesh-being? I am an author! We are not made of such stuff as lesser men, for the icy blood of the cold netherworldly gods courses in our veins.

Seriously, no, I never felt anything personal about a potential customer rejecting my work. It means he did not like it or did not need it.

It is work. You do not get emotionally involved in work. It’s not personal.

The closest I came to an emotional response was one agent who rejected my manuscript without reading it because he did not like my cover letter. The agent scoffed at the triteness of a fantasy novel where a Dark Lord menaces the earth, but yours truly had not mentioned that I subvert the reader expectations throughout the novel, or how my take on this tired cliche was different. My cover letter, as it turned out, did not describe the good points of the novel (This was LAST GUARDIAN OF EVERNESS).

So, in effect, he did me a favor, by pointing out the weakness of my sales technique. I wrote him a thank you note. He had, after all, taken the time to write a personal note rather than give a form letter, and once you are no longer grateful for that, you do not have enough character to be a professional. Do you understand what I am telling you, O all ye would-be writers out there? Real professionals are grateful.

(and now I should get back to writing my novel about Empirical Stormtroopers. Will they prevail in the Epistemology Wars over the Rationalist Guard?)