Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Slush Pile

Nothing you did to achieve a career as a writer or. later, for your career as an editor,prepared you for the immense, plodding reality of the slush pile.

The books and articles you read about the necessary steps to advance in either discipline  spoke of slush piles, often in the sense of suggesting your own work could land in such places, often through mere accident rather than some inherent fault with your material.  The slush pile was--and is--to the publishing industry what the carbon footprint or the ozone layer are to global ecology.

Archaeologists are fond of taking core samples from areas that seem worthy of study, polar regions for instance or such areas as the channel between the central and southern coasts of California and the Channel Islands somewhat to the west.  These core samplings reveal virtual dioramas of what the area was like at a specific geological or temporal moment.

Slush piles are analogous to core samplings; they reflect the state of amateurishness in writing ability orbiting about at a particular time.  They represent degrees of sincere learning, monumental hubris, gifted beginning attempts, and a disheartening spread of misinformation.

As mankind needed to evolve out of the primordial ooze, writers need to evolve beyond the slush pile to the point where an editor will make some comment, extend some line of potential salvage.

Your work has surely been in slush piles, has with equal certainty been tosse3d salvage lines which resulted in publication.  As an editor, you've made a few significant finds in the slush pile, and some near misses for which you wrote letters and extended some measure of contact, in one or two cases to disastrous consequences.

This essay is neither to brag about discoveries or reminisce about disasters of epic crossed purposes but instead to discuss the slush pile as a learning experience.

Until you reached (earned, merited, outlasted competition) senior editorial status, a significant task involved reading slush pile submissions until you could bear to read no further, then write a report offering a synopsis of the work, the amount of editorial time necessary to bring it to publishable quality, the fit--if any--with the list of the publisher paying your salary, and such additional potentials as its life in the backlist and additional potential so far as subsidiary rights were concerned.

The work day was not long enough for you to do this slush pile reading, attend to your actual editing or copyediting chores, attendance at and preparation for editorial meetings, and meetings with authors, thus you frequently brought slush pile material home to read, then make notes, all of which left you in a relative state of disinterest toward dinner, followed, if you were fortunate, with a window of an hour or two for your own reading and writing before sleep advanced upon you like a panhandler in a parking lot.

Some of the materials in slush piles defied your attempts at identity, which made your job somewhat less taxing.  Others showed a willingness to commit small torts against logic and/or language.  Still others caused you long moments of discomfort in which you first noted stylistic and content inelegance and then, before moving on to the next submission, recognizing your own culpability in performing such approaches to storytelling.

You'd begun married life in a one-bedroom apartment in the Hollywood Hills which, if a bit crowded, was not uncomfortable, but the discovery of a remarkable apartment in Santa Monica with two bedrooms, a splendid patio, and an expansive sense of comfortability came into play.  The rent was twice as much.  Remembering your own ease at producing paperback novels, you nodded your best what-the-hell nod, then left the Hollywood Hills for a triumphant return to the city of your birth, Santa Monica.

The slush pile was disheartening.  When you are dealing with it, you begin to see why police officers seem so world weary, why shoe sales persons speak with such distaste about smelly feet, why lawyers complain that their clients lie to them.  You reach a point where your first line of defense is to write review-like reports, taking some pleasure in your diagnostic ability and the opportunities taken and ignored wherein to write witty observations.  But soon you are hit with the sense that your writing, while of some value to the publishing company, is not reaching the audience you'd hoped for.  And in a full recognition of the inherent irony, you realize you are using in your pulp novels to help pay the rent the same egregious tropes you are bemoaning in your editorial reports for your day job.

For a time, short but still valuable, you take pleasure in knowing you are seeing at first hand mistakes beginners make, mistakes you are being warned off of in ways the books you read cannot describe.  You are as close to the trenches as possible.

True enough, one day, you find something and you think, yes, this could work, and soon you are off to New York, tracking down a literary agent unlike any you have previously met.  He answers the door still wearing pajamas and a dressing gown.  Ah, he says.  Come in.  I was just having tea.  Perhaps you will have tea.  The tea turns out to be the same brand your maternal grandmother preferred.  Well, the agent says, perhaps we have ethnicity in  common, your grandmother and I.  Here, he says.  We'll see.  He extends a bowl of sugar cubes, watches you carefully.  You know what this means.  You take the cube of sugar, put it between your teeth, sip the strong brew.  Well, he says.  Shall we talk business?

"Five,"  you say.

"I can't believe you are sent here to offer me five."

"Frequent flyer miles,"  you say.  Then you say five again.

Later that night, you call the publisher at home.  How much, he asks.

You tell him you almost had the deal at five.

"Five is not bad,"  the publisher says.  Tell me about the almost.

You tell him you had to go up a tad.

Tell me about the tad.

One.

Wait a minute.  You offered him five hundred?  I thought you were talking five thousand.  You went to one thousand?

You had, indeed, gone to one thousand.

Take the rest of the day off.  Go to Katz.  Buy a corned beef.

You reminded him it was already ten your time.

All right, sleep in tomorrow.  You're a senior editor now.

You did not mention that it was the pajamas and dressing gown and bedroom slippers that gave you the idea to offer five hundred which, when you did make the offer, the agent said, "It's like you flying out her from California to tell an old man to go fuck himself."

"A thousand,"  you said, prepared to go higher, believing you were not in fact telling him to go fuck himself, believing you'd found something in the slush pile that would keep him in tea for many years to come.

On the plane back to Los Angeles, you had time to consider the slush pile as a learning experience most writers do not get.  They cannot see the ant-like behavior of the writers who produce the material that goes into the slush pile.

From this remove, years later and six publishers later, you still can't say which part of you profited the most from the slush pile, the writer you or the editor you.  Perhaps neither.  Perhaps the teacher you, the you you'd not expected to become as a direct result of you being the editor you'd not expected to become, which, of course, you'd become because of the writer you'd become, which you'd reached the point of not taking for granted, not at all.

A few years later, when you came back to Los Angeles from New York, having placed the massmarket rights for the project you'd found in the slush pile, your publisher called you in and told you to go buy a car, some medium range Mercedes-Benz.  "And don't give me that crap about not wanting one because it's a German car.  I've seen that goddamn Volkswagen of yours that--that--"

"Samsa."

"What?"

"Gregor Samsa.  Bug.  Vermin, really."

"Right.  Bug.  I've seen that damned bug.  Get yourself a real car."

You actually got a VW Camper, which the publisher snorted at as another Samsa.  But because it was not as expensive as a Mercedes-Benz, he threw in a year of insurance, which was renewed for another year, and who knows how long that would have gone on if you hadn't taken on a few projects that did not do so well.

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