Friday, February 21, 2014

An Insider's View of the Slush Pile

I asked one of my terrific interns to talk about what it's like reading manuscripts for me. I think her comments will be useful for anyone querying me, or indeed any of the TBA agents. 

Hello, everyone! I’m Molly Ker Hawn’s intern, or one of them, anyways. She’s asked me to drop by and talk a little bit about what I do as an intern, specifically about how my work with the agency has changed how I read and what I look for when I read submissions. The hope is 1) that you’ll find it interesting, and 2) that some of that knowledge will be useful to the aspiring authors among you. 
When Ms. Molly requests a full manuscript from her slush pile (the industry term for unsolicited queries), she then sends the manuscript and attached query to me or one of the other interns. It’s my job to read the manuscript and submit a reader report, which contains my thoughts on the plot, pacing, world-building, characters, style, and other pertinent details. To the best of my ability, I am supposed to pick out the trouble spots and weigh them against the relative merits of the manuscript. Then I suggest what I would do if I were Ms. Molly—pass completely, ask the writer to revise and resubmit, or snatch that puppy up before anyone else can. (And before you ask, yes, Ms. Molly reads them all herself as well. We just help her keep an eye on the peaks and valleys. 
In addition to interning with the Bent Agency, I am also a blogger. I can’t give identifying details, but my blog focuses primarily on young adult and middle grade literature, which makes me a perfect fit for Ms. Molly. Interning for the Bent Agency has definitely sharpened my ability to pluck at loose plot threads, nudge uninteresting characters, and blast away weak pacing. It has also intensified my joy when I do find that perfect story, both in the slush pile and in the review pile for my blog. I see how hard crafting a compelling and well-written story can be, and I genuinely want writers to succeed.
With that in mind, here are a few pitfalls I’d like to see you writers to be aware of before you start querying.
Write your passion. Paying attention to market trends can be helpful. Vampires and dystopian societies, for example, are hard sells right now. It would be very tempting to ditch your dystopian darling in favor for a, say, twisty sci-fi with parallel universes. But please, unless you can’t get that sci-fi out of your head, don’t do it. 
If you’re not into your own book, I can tell. Your plot will be paint-by-numbers, your characters stereotypical, and your twists formulaic. If you don’t care, I won’t care, and neither will Ms. Molly, any potential editor, or any potential reader. Write the stories that won’t leave you alone, that keep you up at night, that get your blood pumping. When you infuse that passion into your work, I can practically smell it coming off the screen.
Show, don’t tell. I know most of you have probably heard this so many times you feel like it’s tattooed on your forehead, but it’s important, especially in a market that heavily supports first-person narratives. Don’t tell me what characters are feeling; show me through their actions. Don’t have the narrator tell me “I saw; I heard; I felt.” Instead, skip the verbs and show me what they’re sensing. As a reader, I want to feel like I’m inhabiting the skin of the story. I want to be there in the nitty-gritty. The last thing I want as a reader is to feel disconnected and distant.
Make me care. In addition to the above two points, I need to care personally about the characters. This doesn’t necessarily mean your characters need to be likeable. Unlikeable characters can be fantastic if done correctly (Writing an unlikable protagonist requires understanding), but no matter what I must care about what happens to them. Give me their desires and fears, their needs and goals. If they don’t feel real, if I don’t care what happens to them, then your plot loses all tension. Give me a character I can care about, and I’ll follow you to the end.
Be internally consistent. This goes for characters, plot lines, and world-building. People by definition are contradictory, foolish beings, but their actions will always reflect their thoughts, motives, and desires, though those things may change from scene to scene. (But if they do change, clue your readers in, yes?) Plot lines and their accompanying twists can (and should) be exciting and fresh, but they must also make sense. World-building is fun, but it can’t be slapped together without thought of history and consequences. 
Bottom line? I want to be locked in on your story like a missile on its target. Give me reasons to invest and remove anything that could distract me from becoming infatuated with your plot, your characters, your world. As an intern and a reader, I want to find stories that make me squeal, blush, yell, and dance. Make me connect with your passion, your plot, and your characters, and I will champion your work to Ms. Molly and beyond.


  1. Awesome advice! Great points that I need to be more aware of and refine in my own writing. Thanks for this spark of "go get it done!" Very grateful.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Very helpful.

  3. Thanks for the advicve. I found it very hopeful!

  4. Great post! Thanks for the insight.

  5. Thanks for the great advice. It is helpful to hear from inside the trenches.

  6. I generally ignore people who tell me to write something because it's "hot" in the marketplace. My take is that by the time you get that "timely" book finished, its time is over. Writing your passion is the only way to go, because life is too short to spend that much of it feeling dispassionate.