Slush Pile

Slush Pile
Pam Uphoff

Back in pre-history, when men lived in caves and Aliens built the pyramids, if you didn’t have an agent who could get your manuscript in front of an actual editor, you used to have to just mail it in and . . . wait. They called it the slush pile, and dreaded it . . .

It wasn’t so bad, when every publisher had a slush pile. But the ratio of bad to good manuscripts was so high that . . . well, the slush piled higher and deeper (this was before the internet.) Every once in awhile there’d be a concerted rush to do something about it. A party with every low level secretary, clerk, and part-time student (this was before the slave labor known as unpaid internships) was rounded up and the pile of boxes was attacked.

At least that’s what I’ve heard. By the time I got into it, the other publishers were, one-by-one ceasing to accept unsolicited manuscripts. Baen was still accepting them, so they started _all_ coming to Baen. And then Master Innovator Jim Baen decided to do away with the paper slush and go to all electronic submissions.

Writers took to it with elan. But _someone_ still had to tell the writers that Baen wasn’t interested in purchasing their manuscript. There was a backlog almost immediately.
Time for the next innovation: Volunteer slush readers to high-grade the manuscripts for the paid reader, who decided what to send on to Jim.

The qualifications for the volunteers were simple. Jim Baen had to recognize your name from Baen’s Bar and be reasonably sure of your tastes in books and general acquaintance with the rules of grammar.

I gleefully leaped in. Didn’t even stop to put on the high waders. First book? Bad. Second manuscript—Resonance, by Chris Dolley. Loved it. Just. Flat. Loved. It. Finding a good one on the second trip to the pile gave me a totally unrealistic optimism for the rest, that lasted for years. I can imagine Jim Baen sighing “She thinks she found one that easily? Highly unlikely.” But then he bought it.

It was about this time of year in . . . 2004? That Jim offered me a part time job as a paid slush reader.

The electronic pile was 3000+ deep. Two or three years backlog. A slow month had 50 manuscripts submitted. To make progress, a hundred manuscripts a month had to be evaluated.

Now, some of them were easy to reject. There was a pastiche on Johnathan Livingston Seagull that I can’t seem to forget. All about a penguin agonizing over his inability to fly. The manuscripts with the bad grammar and spelling. All the incredibly bad starts. Really? A happy breeze wafting about introducing the reader to the main characters? That was even more painful than the hero standing on the cliff, cape whipping in the wind as the storm darkens the sky and the lightening flashes. Staring out over the lands that . . . something. I ought to have kept count of those noble fellows. Really. At least there was only one Happy Breeze.

Hmm, I have a file, kept for my amusement. For better or worse, I did not keep the writers’ names. So, sadly lacking in attribution, here are a few samples of the starts of submissions:


A cold winter evening in October 28 2057 in Washington DC , the world has changed dramatically since World War Four erupted over night causing the beginning of many disasters which has changed the World in many ways and bringing the humankind to a devastated economy loop of global ruin and no world peace since the commencement of the first nuclear bomb inflicted by the Middle East which started a chain of events and an all-out nuclear war between all the countries throughout the world, causing a domino effect which become the worst catastrophe in history, a tragedy so huge it is difficult to comprehend and yet high political figure knowing that not dealing with the world powerhouses of Nuclear Dictators who are trigger happy and the other countries with no other solution but to react and also push the button created a ticking bomb ready to explode to the next phase of adversity, No one, not even the leaders of the world countries did anything to pacify and calm the outbreak of nuclear violence that has destroyed the world as we known it and causing unexplained earthquakes, large tidal waves and frozen rain storms in some areas with boulder the size of hailstones coming from above to the earths soil.

The air was warm and sticky while the sky was a vivid blue. Blazing white clouds puttered across it like a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle cruising on some lonesome desert highway with the tumbleweed and cow skulls scattered about like they undoubtedly must be.

A red clouded dark sky hangs above the city bestowing a fiery, desolate, crimson hell.

The first sentence was innocuous. This is 2nd and third:
The apparently endless passage led to the surface from the cavernous dungeon, its walls built of tarnished metal that was neglected for thousands of years. Halogen lights, miraculously intact by ancient technology, were suspended from the ceiling . . .

The alcohol is starting to kick in, I think. But for some damned reason I feel myself spiraling down into a foul mood. Strange, I’ve always been a happy drinker. If I got like this every time I drank, I just wouldn’t drink. I’d find some other way of taking the edge off. Pills probably—there’s a thousand different ways to get high with pills.

… they came, like the angry heralds of a hell in which nobody believed anymore, at least nobody Everett cared to remember six months into her assignment to the least envied position in a fleet that had a long list of bad slots.

Maureen scrambled down the eroded slope toward the beach and he thought she looked like one of the denizens of the place: a small rodent, a scurrying crab, or a lame bird.


The really bad ones were easy enough to reject. It was the almost ready to go ones that took up the time. There were several writers who submitted multiple almost ready manuscripts. In an ideal world, Jim would have had the staff and the time to groom a few of them into publishable, prolific writers. Chris Nuttall was one of them, he’s publishing Indie now, and doing very well. Check him out, if you haven’t already.

Anyhow, I survived five years of reading slush, and I’m no weirder than I ever was. But I don’t worry nearly as much as I used to, about my own stories. I _know_ there’s a whole heap of worse out there.

So, here’s a few, quickly assembled from Amazon if you are interested:

Chris Dolley—Resonance
Grant Hallman—Iron Star
Dennis E. Smirl—Not Without Honor

There are a bunch more, including I think _The Blood of Ambrose_ by James Enge, that I believe was submitted under a different pen name. At least the sample rings a whole lot of bells. And there are even more that haven’t been published. Unfortunately. C’mon, you guys! David S. Watson? I need to reread the first two, and where are the rest, eh? Pamela Moore? Nanamarvian needs her story finished. Indie publishing is much better than letting it languish in a drawer somewhere. It might only sell enough for the occasional night out, but what’s it doing just sitting in a computer file somewhere, eh?

Prowling through my old reports is making me wish I’d kept copies. Where’s Argentum, Tagger, Whispers on the Wind? Oh wait, there’s Ninja B Goes to College . . . this is dangerous, I could drop some serious money if I keep looking . . .

*And strictly for the lovers of Grade B SF movies, grab a beer and try this one:*

Bill Wyza—Montana Jack and the Vampires of Mars.

71 thoughts on “Slush Pile

  1. I’m pretty sure I’m the person who actually came up with the idea of the barflies being the first line of defence. I’m definitely sure that it wasn’t happening, then I suggested it, went away from the bar for a while and when I came back, it was all happening.

    Do I get a prize or something? The Scott Robinson Memorial Slush Pile? A free book? Oh well, it was worth a try.

    1. Catch Toni at a con when she does her Baen Roadshow, make your case, and you’ll probably get a free book. She’s like that.

    2. Genius is never appreciated in its own time. Look aat I have yet to receive pennybone in royalties for the tactical melon baller, let alone a Guns & Ammo cover.

    3. There were several of us who independently made more-or-less the same suggestion at around the same time. I’m not sure how to tell who was truly first, because I never searched the Bar to find out.

      I recall a later conversation on the Bar in which Jim, Eric Flint, and [another-Baen-person-whose-name-I-don’t-recall] each identified a different Barfly as the originator of the idea.

      1. I think it was around th etime of one of the great crashes as well. So I don’t think it is possible to search. I’ll just keep telling myself I was first and have been robbed of the glory.

  2. I vaguely recall from some historical retrospective on the whole slush vs agent thing that agents didn’t really come along in any significant way til the 1950s, and the inciter wasn’t the threat of being buried alive in slush, tho I’ve forgotten what cause the article cited (something more financial, IIRC) and am too lazy to hunt it down.

    But I think the idea of using Barflies as the first line of defense is brilliant. As folks of known-compatible tastes, that puts ’em a cut above the average agent right up front.

  3. The Graham Smith character in Resonance is a former coworker, I swear. only in Texas, and not a seeming mute.
    As an example of his OCD, he had a Ford Ranger/Mazda B3000, and when he’d get out, he would lock it, and to make sure, lifted the handle 5 times, then walk to the passenger door, and do the same 5 lift test, then back to the drivers door, repeat the walk around/door rattle 5 times (he had a 5 obsession it seems). Locking the building up at night it was the same thing. he’d rattle the locked doors and cabinets the same way.
    Since he has left us, and especially as we do not working nights on our side any more, I often show up in the morning to find doors and things that should be shut off still open or on. Once, for the whole weekend, the back of the building was wide open.
    “That’d never happen if Jeffery was still here” – boss “Unless he was on Vacation” – me

    1. I went to a job interview at the local office of a fairly large company – Diebold, who make voting machines and bank equipment. I showed up at the scheduled time, waited in the reception area for half an hour or so, then walked down the hall saying “Hello? Anyone here?”

      There was nobody else in the building. I even checked the ladies’ bathroom. Computers were up, doors were unlocked, cars in the parking lot… I wondered if it was some kind of bizarre test.

      I drove back home and called them later that day. No answer. No answer the next day either.

      Okay. Either it was a *really* passive-aggressive method of backing out of an interview, or aliens abducted them all…

      1. makes you think you might shoulda done some fun and entertaining things.
        Reset home pages
        change background settings
        Move cubicles around
        shut lights out in those areas they were on, on in those off.

        1. Or gotten onto the computer in the largest corner office and composed a report critiquing their security measures. Include your salary requirements for the position of Head of Security and Common Sense.

      2. I once had an interview with the Oregon state liquor commission for a job. Four hours long. Totally rocked it.
        The next day I call and ask about it, and I’m told (I’m NOT making this up at all).
        ‘Oh, we redid the job requirements, so that interview didn’t count, as the job has changed’.
        I asked them when the requirements had changed.
        ‘Last week!’
        My response was ‘Then why was the interview even held?’
        ‘Oh, because it was all ready on the schedule.’
        Me again ‘So you made me take a day off from work and sit through a four hour interview, for a job that no longer exists, for no reason at all?’
        I them told her to go perform an anatomically impossible act and hung up.
        Yes, I had an interview, for a job that no longer existed, just like in a Monty Python sketch.

        1. I had a similar interview. Near the end they said thanks, but they “really weren’t looking to fill a position at this time.”

          Oh, really? The expression when I asked to whom I should address the bill for my consulting fee was priceless. Hey, if they want to me to vet their HR processes, I expect to get paid.

          Unfortunately that’s not the only time I’ve had to ask that…

          1. Yeah, I had an interview like that once, back when I was young. They wanted me to write up the process for automating a piece of equipment, to ‘show I knew what I as talking about’. I didn’t realize until much later that they just hired a tech to implement what I had told them. They were just cheap sobs who wanted to rip off my experience.

      3. I had something similar happen, except the place was locked up and I never heard of them again. I always wondered if they just went down the tubes.

      4. See, that sort of thing would have made me wonder if I were in some REALLY bizarre interview; that I was being observed to see how I would react.
        If I recall correctly, there was a Michael J Fox movie in which he wandered into a vacant office and became an executive.

      1. Pam, I suspect that in terms of quality the books that fought it out of slush were probably in the top 10%. Not that 9% of that to top 10% didn’t get missed, but at least it meant you were a fair bit better than average and had a story and readable prose. I comfort myself that I did it 3 times, getting to being published the third time. (Two personal letters from senior editors for books that fell at final editorial meetings. I had no idea, when I got those that they were rare. I thought this happened to everyone.) I never did get to publication with short stories though. I’m probably not good enough.

        1. Maybe ten percent were good enough that I read them completely. One percent got passed on the Jim, and later, Toni. I really don’t know how they justified paying me.

    1. I got past the first reading, and was bounced on the second. It was a glorious few weeks waiting to hear back from Baen. The book got self-published on Amazon and actually did well enough. I’ll try again on another book.

  4. Thank you Kate.

    As I prepare to take another stab at a cover letter (which I am finding extremely difficult) seeing these examples gives me some heart. Whoever gets to review our book should make it past the first page. 😉

    [Was that first one really one long run-on sentence? Wow!]

  5. I handled the slush pile (and most everything else) for a small press back in the 90s. Even for us, the pile would get so overwhelming that we would go the “party” route on a semi-regular basis. We’d make great progress for the first hour or so, but then liquor and dramatic readings would slow our progress considerably.

    1. Same, early 2000’s. Published two-three times a year, people would *save up* their works and submit… all at once. Had to put a cap on how many we’d take per person (and then had to make sure the same person wasn’t submitting several times under different names… as happened). I thought 3,800 in a week was bad (all shorts, novellas, poems, and 2d art- but mostly print, only a few hundred art). All seven of us read every. Bloody. Thing. And yes, we did it in (barely) under three weeks to the printers, layout, formatting, and all.

      Yes, drinks and dramatic readings. Oh, the drama. *chuckle* I can only imagine *my* works as dramatic readings. *grin* And I am morally sure they were, at some point before I got wrangled in to work rather than write.

  6. I rather liked the imagery of clouds scuttling about like Volkswagens.
    Too bad it rapidly deteriorated from there.

    I freely admit having a soft spot for clichéd melodrama. The brooding figure on the cliff with a storm raging in the background appeals to me.

    1. It only really works if he then lops off the head of the orc climbing up over the lip of the cliff. Using it as a method of data dumping history is a major letdown. After the first twenty “gazing over the land that had once been his father’s and grandfather’s. Before the evil wizard/vile usurper/eldritch horror descend on the innocent people of . . . . ” you get a bit jaded.

      1. Ach. No, that wouldn’t work well at all.

        But as part of a prologue, with the figure on the cliff being the Dark Lord standing alone for just a moment…
        Then the giants lumber up, and the winged furies come boiling out of the clouds, while the defenders learn that metal armor does not guard against lightning and the thunder drowns the calls of their trumpets…
        Yeah, I’d totally buy that book.

  7. Never got involved in slush reading back then, but as I recall we were in the process of getting ISS up and running so I was a might busy.
    Did participate in a practice common to some Baen authors (cough…John Ringo…cough) of using Barflies as first readers. Snippets would get posted and ripped apart. Errors of detail pointed out, some even got corrected before publication. One notable scene from a little work titled Ghost inspired Jim to inform Mr. Ringo that Baen had first refusal rights so he’d better see the thing on his desk post haste.

    1. Speaking of – wasn’t it in the second Wands book where John had the little scene of the slush party?

      Not being a con-goer, did this really happen? Publishers coming to cons and drafting unwitting, unpaid victims to reduce the piles?

  8. I once submitted to a slush pile, got a simple ‘no thanks’ with no reason given. Years later I showed the rejection letter to a friend of mine, who wrote for that publisher and she was surprised, it was a signed by one of the main editors. Apparently I had made it out of the slush pile, and she was surprised they didn’t say what they did not like about it.

    Years later, after several rewrites, and learning a bit more, I put it up on Amazon and while it is by no means my best selling book, it’s still sold over a thousand copies, and continues to sell, with no real promotion or advertising.

    (As for why it was rejected? I now suspect it wasn’t PC enough, given what I’ve since learned, but I’ll never really know for sure)

      1. If they had just told me that they liked my writing, but didn’t like that story and given me reasons, I would have gone on to try and write something that they liked.
        Instead I just gave up on dealing with publishers. I figured if they couldn’t be bothered to give me any feedback, I must really suck. So I only wrote for myself and my friends after that. Whenever someone would say ‘hey, this is great, you should get it published’ I’d tell them to go do the work and I’d split the profits. No one ever took me up on it.

        So it was a complete lark when I started putting stuff up on Amazon, I never ever expected it to sell, much less in large numbers. (Well large for me 🙂 ) I see the indy romance and horror authors talking about 100K sales a year to 1 million, and I’m pretty impressed.

  9. That first sample… I was thinking, “Breathe, breathe, you have to breathe!”

    What’s the opposite of “comma splice”?

      1. Am I alone in thinking Bulwer-Lytton gets associated with a great deal more crap than he deserves?

        1. Possibly, but the contest is, um, dates to 1982 and is run by the English Department at San Jose State. The inspiration was the opening sentence of _Paul Clifford_ and a grad-school assignment. You can probably blame _Peanuts_ and Snoopy’s “borrowing” of the opening words for Bulwer-Lytton’s modern reputation.

          1. I don’t get why “It was a dark and stormy night” is considered so horrible. As first lines go, it does an admirable job of setting the scene and the mood.
            Sure, it’s cliche NOW. So are holes containing hobbits. I’d be very surprised if Gibson’s famous opening line to Neuromancer wasn’t directly inspired by the line.

            😉 I’ll cede that much of what came after the opening line was rather exaggerated purple prose, and worthy of some degree of mockery.
            But it’s the first line that causes people to point and screech like monkeys, for as far as I can tell, no discernible reason.

            1. Well, most stormy nights are going to be dark. Here’s the entire opening sentence:

              “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

              1. I don’t see anything wrong with that…

                Of course there’s always the “Wine-dark sea” thing. I’m no drinker, the only “wine” I know of is sort of reddish, and nothing like the color of the Atlantic or Pacific oceans, which are the only “sea” I’ve ever seen…

                Could be sort of like the “the sky was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” I visualized a sky of black and white static, kept expecting some kind of explanation as I read, and finally shrugged and gave up…

                1. I decided that in ancient Greek times they probably didn’t age the wine past ‘fermented’ – New wine can be a very deep, dark purple, (much the color of bunch of ‘red’ grapes – which is darn near black, depending on the skin/pulp ratio, which was probably much higher before irrigating grapes. Also wine would not be drunk out of glass – put some red wine in a clay drinking cup… and it’s pretty dark. This was also (yucky detail) probably before filtration, and before the use of clarifying agents (like albumen – which is why custards got developed as such a diet item (to not waste the yolks). It was dark purple murky muck drunk out of non-transparent probably wine-stained containers… dark.

  10. This addresses why I think good first readers and writers’ groups are essential. I have submitted directly to publisher as well as to agent, and the form email saying ‘Thank you for your submission, but it doesn’t meet our needs at this time’ gave me NO clue as to where my work fell short, or even if it was read.
    And that’s also why I try to give comprehensive feedback when I’m a beta reader.
    And it’s also sort of why I like to contact the author directly if I read something that gags me, instead of ambush reviewing.
    I wonder if I would be any good at clearing slush?

  11. ‘So, sadly lacking in attribution, here are a few samples of the starts of submissions…’

    You write things of horror, real horror! My heart froze, skipped a beat, as I dreaded to discover what I had once sent to that slush pile. It still might be there, for I truly dared not to read a word, well, beyond skimming the paragraphs as hastily as I could.

    Regardless: *Shivers and cries of woe, of WOE!*


    “… they came, like the angry heralds of a hell in which nobody believed anymore, at least nobody Everett cared to remember six months into her assignment to the least envied position in a fleet that had a long list of bad slots.”

    If they are heralds of a hell that nobody believed in anymore, it is not much a hell isn’t it? It sounds more like an annoyance, and although I do get the point of trying to tell about the outside society, it just does not work in this example.

    So even at the risk of providing additional examples of slush pile quality:

    ‘Back home nobody believed in it, the thought itself was ridiculous… but they came, like the angry heralds of hell itself. After six months to her assignment, six months at the least envied position in a fleet only known for its long list of bad slots, Everett recalled nothing but horror, pain, and death. Oorah.’

    Better, maybe?

    1. Eh. I don’t think anything could help that start. Sometimes those bland uninformative standard rejection letters were the kindest thing I could send out.

      1. I got one that was even more uninformative: A single line saying, “We don’t publish this sort of thing.” Which left me going “wut?” since I had done my research on their publishing house and knew exactly what they published.

        Or the one from a famous SF magazine that said, “We publish good science fiction” which left me smacking my forehead and saying, “I forgot–this story was to go the the *bad* SF magazine. What a newbie mistake.”

        So I loved–as much as they can be loved–the standard rejection letter that gave nothing away.

  12. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment, because I still read slush. But I too, wonder why didn’t Tagger ever get published, and I wish several others had made it past the cut. An amazing Steampunk-style meets MHI one comes to mind, too.

    1. They only have so many slots to fill. And . . . perhaps more experience in judging what will sell. But yeah. There were several I thought they should have snagged. And that I wish the writers would Indie publish now.

  13. I really liked Resonance.

    My income has been a bit low lately, so I’ve been reading free ebooks. Unfortunately, I doubt I remember it verbatim, but one of them started like: “The full gibbous moon shown on a completely dark sea.”

  14. Resonance was utterly fantastic and captivating. Excellently and evocatively written.

    It also put off a friend partway through the first chapter – because it reminded her of growing up under her histrionic/narcissist of a mother, gas lighting, etc.

    Looking back, I can see why. At first the protagonists life is like a giant non-stop gas lighting prank where nothing can be counted on to remain the same.

    1. > put off

      That brings something to mind I’d already realized with movies, but hadn’t applied to books yet.

      Back when I was much younger I’d read everything of interest in the city public library, the library at a nearby military base, and the county public library. I’d read most of the interesting books several times. I bought what few new books showed up in the grocery store or department store (no book store in my town then). The school library had no SF at all, so it was useless.

      Since I had a major reading habit, I read what was available over and over, and I read stuff that wasn’t very good because there was nothing else to read.

      Now… a couple of clicks and a PayPal account, and I can read anything I want. So my tolerance for bad writing is much lower than it used to be; I don’t have to put up with that sort of thing when the selection of available material is so large that just picking the next book from the firehose is a nontrivial task.

      (back in the say, you sat and *watched* a movie; if it was at a theater you could pay to see it again, but if it was on TV you might never get to see it again. When VCRs came out you could record the movie, back it up and re-watch bits, or the whole thing, any time you wanted. Which is a *much* different “movie experience.” And where you might get a new movie at the theater every two weeks, you could walk home from the video rental with half a dozen to last you over the weekend… and you could pick what you wanted to see from shelves of them, instead of what the theater got for cheap)

  15. Your remembrances have deepened my sympathies for Pub World, especially the low-paid and unpaid denizens thereof who are tasked to sift through such submissions. Truly, there’s no one so badly off that someone else hasn’t had it worse!

  16. Many years ago, someone asked Bennett Cerf, who was the chief editor at Random House, why he kept a slush pile. He replied: “‘Cry the Beloved Country’.” Alan Paton’s masterpiece came to Scribner’s through the transom and landed in the slush pile, where it was found by a reader in the office.

    Thank you for another interesting post.

  17. Pam Uphoff is quite an attractive writer her own self. This article was admirably readable, amusing, felicitously phrased — perfect.

    1. Pam Uphoff is an excellent writer. I bought the first of her wine of the gods series during the instapundit labor day sale and got sucked right in. I’m on number three now, and would be further along if I wern’t also reading other stuff I bought during thgat sale…

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