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  • Dave Butler

The Slush Pile

By Dave Butler

I recently returned from my first in-person writer’s conference (this one, the Wine Country Writers' Festival in Penticton, British Columbia ( in more than three years. To say that it was a pleasure to again be amongst avid writers and readers would be an understatement. And of course, there was wine…

Aside from the fact that the festival took place in my home town, which in itself brought back fond memories of high school English classes, where I had my first glimpse into narrative, satire and character development, it was inspiring to be back with other writers and poets who were excited and passionate about their craft.

During the festival, I was a member of a fun panel on the writing process with fellow authors Miranda Krogstad, Andrew Buckley, and Laura Thomas. We’d not met until we sat down at the panel table, but I was fascinated to see the differences between our approaches – when we write, where we write, how and when we use beta or first readers, and how we deal with writer’s block.

I also gave a workshop on plot development in environmental mysteries and thrillers (sharing a “what if?” decision tree tool about which I’ve written in a separate post here on Free Range Writers). I loved encouraging lively discussion and sharing opinions, and engaging with participants in a fun exchange of questions and answers.

However, one of the most fascinating sessions in the festival took place on the last evening, when I participated in the slush pile exercise.

For those who are unfamiliar with slush piles, this is how they’re defined by Wikipedia:

“In publishing, a slush pile is a set of unsolicited query letters or manuscripts that have either been directly sent to a publisher by an author, or which have been delivered via a literary agent representing the author who may or may not be familiar to the publisher.[1] The responsibility of sifting through slush piles is usually reserved either to editor assistants or to outside contractors called publisher's readers or "first readers". If the reader finds something of interest and can convince a senior editor to accept it, they may earn credit.” (Wikipedia)

Normally, if your writing is in the slush pile, it means it has some … uphill challenges.

In this festival, imagine a panel of four experienced publishers and editors sitting on a slightly raised dais at the front of a large ball room, facing the audience. Another author and I stood on the floor below them at standing microphones, our backs to the four, also facing the audience.

One at a time, we were given the first page of manuscripts to read aloud (as an aside, I – like most authors I know -- like to practice before doing public readings; in this case, we were

reading cold, which was a new and demanding experience). These single pages were submitted anonymously by members of the audience, and we had no idea whose work was whose.

As we read, the publishers and editors behind us listened intently, at least one with her eyes closed, but any of them could raise their hands as soon as they had heard enough. When at least two of the four raised their hands, we heard a signal from the audience – “stop!” We ceased reading immediately, no matter where we were in that first page. Despite what my fellow reader and I thought was some quality writing, I don’t recall either of us finishing a complete page before we were told to stop.

The opportunity to learn came when the publishers then explained why they had raised their hands, why they’d heard enough. For some, it was too much ‘tell’ vs. ‘show,’ while for others, it was too many characters too soon or cliched descriptions. It was surprising to hear the number of times that the panelists talked about their dislike of starting the story with a dream, or with a character just waking up. In one case, we heard all four express their distaste over the discovery of a woman’s body in the opening paragraphs.

Once the feedback for each page was complete, the panel’s chairperson asked if the author in the audience wished to identify themselves. Some did, some didn’t. For the most part,

those who did courageously raise their hand (“that was mine!”) thanked the panelists for the frank and honest feedback and were able to explain what they were trying to do. One woman was asked by a publisher to submit more of the story, which I’m sure was worth the price of the festival ticket. However, the author of the first manuscript we read took great umbrage to the feedback he received, stood to aggressively disagree with the publishers, then left the room. It was a startling reminder that successful writers need to have thick skins.

For those of us who listened carefully to the feedback from the publishers, it was a fascinating and rare opportunity to learn and to ponder our own writing.

But most importantly, it was a much-needed reminder for all of us that we must grab our reader’s attention in those first few paragraphs of a story.

If we can do that, they’ll keep reading.

If we can’t, our work will be delegated to the bottom of the slush pile, or to the round metal can beside it.

That’s pressure.

(editor's note: The Wine Country Writers' Festival will occur Sept 22 - 24, 2023 if you're interested. It's a great time of year to be in BC's Okanagan Valley)

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