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Up from the slush

September 15, 2007 |  8:06 am

The book publishing industry today operates much as it did in the early 1900s, except the role of editor Maxwell Perkins usually is played by someone like Sarah Silverman. Agents and editors still want to see submitted work on paper, so one of the industry’s quaintest and most onerous remnants is the “slush pile” — the mound of unsolicited manuscripts that accumulates in depressing drifts in an agent or editor’s inbox. Somebody has to read them, usually an underpaid assistant fresh out of college, and write a rejection letter that creates the illusion that the writer’s precious work was read and thoroughly evaluated before being tossed aside like a plate of medieval table scraps.

True, once in a great while a story surfaces that gives hope to all. Publicists love to claim that some languishing manuscript was plucked from the slush, noticed and published to great acclaim, its lowly “Seabiscuit”-like pedigree stoking the dreams of writers everywhere. It does happen. The bad news: It probably won’t happen to you.

That said, “award-winning” author C.J. Lyons — her awards were for romance novels; her first medical suspense novel debuts in April — has some tips. She occasionally hosts an online workshop called “Break Free of the Slush Pile: Queries, Pitches and Hooks.” It’s a chance to learn from someone who got her first two contracts via the slush pile.

C.J. sent along some tips for slush pile avoidance. Chief among them:

“Write the damn book! Agents and editors report that 80% of the manuscripts they request never show up on their doorstep — or if they do, it’s months to years later. Why? Because the writer pitched the manuscript before it was finished. Think elephants have long memories? It’s nothing compared to an agent’s or editor’s memory of the time you wasted.”

Martin J. Smith

Smith is a senior editor for the L.A. Times’ West magazine.