Monday, March 20, 2006

How to Deal With the Slushpile

So you finish your masterpiece, then you hand it over to an eager agent who gushes, "This is a slam dunk!" He assures you that publishers will fight for the rights, and they do. Overnight your salary quadruples. Soon you find yourself struggling to find time to write in between trips to see your new pals who live and work near a lovely beach in Antigua.

But before that inevitability comes to pass, you may want to check out this podcast from Poets & Writers magazine [the one titled "How to Publish Your Short Story"]. It's a panel discussion between several editors of lit magazines and a live audience of aspiring writers. The results are sobering, but also insightful. You get to hear from several bigwig — and probably slightly jaded — editors (The New Yorker and Paris Review) and from a few who seem to be a bit more hopeful and enthusiastic. A theme that runs through the dialog is the vast, vast, vast ratio between manuscripts they receive and manuscripts they print — basically the dreaded slushpile. [Speaking of, thanks to Slushpile for the link.]

But before you listen and weep, I'll offer my own perspective on the chances of getting published:

When I was in college and I told my father what I wanted to do for a living, his response didn't make any sense to me. The words that came out of his mouth didn't even process in my young-adult mind, as if he were speaking a foreign language. He said, "How many people get jobs in that business?"

"Well, I don't know," I said. "Probably not a lot."

He was nonplussed.

So I asked: "Do you think that's important?"

He looked at me like he'd suddenly discovered that he'd raised a stupid child. Well, I'm not stupid. I could see that this conversation wasn't going well, so I decided to take a bold approach. That usually works better with good old Dad, anyway. So I said: "I know that some people make money in the business. Probably not very many, though. In fact, probably only a tiny handful actually make enough money to live on." — I paused. — "Only the very best make it, I think."

He looked cautiously interested.

"I'm going to have to be the best, Dad. That's all there is to it."

He smiled. Nothing more was said. It didn't need to be.

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