Thursday, November 10, 2011

Slush Pile Secrets Part 2 - The Bell Curve

One more post to give you context before I get to my "We don't need no stinkin' editors!" post:

The Slush Pile Bell Curve

I don't have a typical experience of the slush pile. My experience comes from three areas -- teaching (which I talked about last week), script analysis for a couple of managers and small producers, and judging competitions.

These three jobs have one thing in common which is not a part of the normal slush process: You have to read every single solitary manuscript carefully from beginning to end, and then analyze it. Every. Stinkin'. One. Every. Stinkin'. Page.

I never had a job where I got to stop reading after the first couple pages and stick a rejection slip on it. No matter how bad or inappropriate the manuscript was, I had to do a full and fair analysis with ratings according to a specific rubric, and very often detailed explanations of those ratings.

This gave me a learning advantage over those who could stop reading and reject as soon as they saw a manuscript wasn't right for the list. I think they got a warped view of what they were rejecting, because they never really had to think about it -- even when they did read the whole thing.

Me, I got a look at the bell curve, in detail. Actually, make that several different bell curves: I judged some competitions for published fiction, as well as those for writers with no sales or production credits, and most of my script reading clients were not open to unsolicited submissions. (But they were open to illiterate Hollywood types with connections.) And as I said last week, in education, I saw manuscripts which would never make it into the slush pile. So I got the full spectrum.

For this post, though, I'm going to stick to the kind of stuff I saw in competitions open to unpublished/unproduced writers. That is, approximately what you'd see in publishing's slush piles.

Level 1 - Maybe 5-10 percent were complete non-starters. Major major issues, and didn't even feel like a book or screenplay. Just rambling in an unrecognizable format. Signs that the writer had never read a book or screenplay, or seen or film, and was possibly crazy -- but the writing was too bad to actually tell.

Level 2 - The next 25-30 percent had major issues, but the author had some sense of story. I would classify these as like beginning student stories. The manuscript might have formatting or serious language issues, but mostly these writers could spell and form sentences and follow directions -- at least to the extent that you could figure out what they meant. And the story had scenes and dialog and a structure and some kind of character arc, though these items were fragmentary and often went off the rails. In other words, the rudiments of a story were there, even if they weren't done well.

Up to this point, things like cliches and shallow characters or poorly thought-out ideas really didn't matter, because the problems were more fundamental than that.

Level 3 - The middle 25-30 percent tended to be more correct in terms of formatting and usage, and showed more mastery of those fundamentals. But the stories seemed to struggle for consistency and follow-through. They might begin to show signs of more advanced elements, like pacing and subtext and voice, but were pretty shaky. And here is where the writing was just good enough that cliches, weak character motivations and poorly thought out ideas were obvious.

Level 4 - The next 25-30 percent had all the fundamentals in place, plus the characters were better defined with proper motivations. The author showed an ability to use pacing and timing and tools. But there were still problems with cliches and shallowness. And though they might be developing a voice, it wasn't well developed -- and might be generic or imitated. And these stories often lacked subtext or subtlety. But the main thing these stories suffered from, especially toward the top of the batch.... polished ordinariness.

This level seems like a choke point in the development of many writers. While some catch fire at Level 3 and zip right on through to Level 5, way too many writers, I am sorry to say, stall when they get here. Level 4 is where you get to be the big fish in a small pond. It's where you have learned all the rules and have learned to apply them. And if you have learned to stifle your own voice -- stifle your uniqueness -- you will never get beyond here.

Level 5 - The top 5-10 percent or so were stories which I would like to read if they fit my tastes. Here is where the characters were complicated and had motivations which drove the story. If there were cliches, they had a little more oomph to them and strayed more into the area of archetypes. Here the author had a voice, and the story had a theme and subtext. The voice, theme and subtext might not be fully developed, but it was there and gave the story some weight.

The really interesting thing about this top tier:

All the other levels showed authors making progress in fundamentals. Spelling, sentence structure, formatting, neatness, following directions. Understanding and implementation of any rules (like avoiding passive voice or adverbs or using "show don't tell"). All that got better as you progressed from Level 1 to Level 4.

But at Level 5, fundamentals took a step back. Oh, not a big step back. Nothing at this level was embarrassingly bad. But they were almost always more sloppy than Level 4. They were not as tightly edited, and the authors were more likely to let it all hang out, and use all the adverbs they wanted to, and get creative with capitalization.

This seems related to the fact that these authors had a much more developed voice. And they could express what they wanted to express much better than the polished and pretty sentences of the top Level 4 writers.

Now that may sound ironic to you, but I remember hearing about a phenomenon like this in competitive skiing and biking:

I'm told that if you take any skiing competition and line up everybody in order of how well or badly they did, and then looked at their equipment and training and such, you would find a similar break down as above. Those at the bottom had crappy, hand-me-down equipment. Those in the middle had better equipment, and those just above the middle had spectacular equipment, and those at the top -- the very best athletes who won competitions -- had equipment which was good enough but not great.

Great skiers don't look for an edge in things they can buy. They know it isn't about the skis. It's about how well you know your skis and how they differ subtly from other skis, and how much control you have over your body, and how observant you are about snow and geography and physics. How strong your legs are, how flexible your knees and back are. And how well you can compensate for any of these being a little off.

Now, given that this post is context for a later post about quality and editing of indie writers, I can hear some disgruntled voices in the background:

"Well, sure a brilliant writer may not proof his own work fully, but that's because those errors are always corrected by someone else in traditional publishing! So it's no excuse for being even a little bit sloppy!"

Mmmmmm maybe.

Consider this:

The writers in that top group who did a sloppy job? They did it in spite of the fact that they've already been told not to. They aren't listening. So they're gonna do it anyway.

And screaming and ranting and frothing at the mouth is not going to change that.

Because, and let's be honest here, their work is better than the group below them, and their attention to voice and story, rather than editing, is one of the reasons it's so good.

I'm just sayin'.

Next week, though, when I get to the "We don't need no stinkin' editors!" post, I'm going to talk about those in the lower ranks, and how editors are not the way they move up.

See you in the funny papers.


Anonymous said...

Nice post -- I wonder if it comes down to the idea that you need to know the rules so that you understand the rules you are breaking. Then you can break them with authority!

Tammy Jones said...

Awesome post and it's absolutely true. The best stories aren't 'perfect', they have heart and depth. Thank you!

The Daring Novelist said...

Actually, I think the problem is that rules are only tools -- just ways of seeing. Rules interfere with learning when the are treated with too much respect.

The only way to really learn a rule and understand how it works is to break it. Break it now. Break it intentionally and to excess. At worst, you get it out of your system, at best, you come to an understanding of what is behind that rule.

(Check out an earlier post: Only One Rule: Pay Attention!)

Martina Boone said...

This is a phenomenal post. And, I suspect, very true. I often see the same thing in our first five pages workshops every month, and in the judging entries I have done for several contests. The bottom line is that there is no amount of polishing that will elevate a mediocre manuscript. Nor will a lack of copyediting deter someone from buying something spectacular. The trick is getting to the point of spectacular. I'd love to believe we're all capable of fabulous writing, but...


The Daring Novelist said...

Martina: thanks!

You know, here is the thing about this new world of publishing: The field has become much broader. And just as with blogging, we CAN all reach our own niche.

The question is only whether what you are passionate about matches the work you need to do to get there.

Marilyn Peake said...

Fascinating! I've noticed for years that the most genius, excellent fiction goes against many popular beliefs about writing, and that it's probably a huge mistake for writers to cling too tightly to those beliefs.

Anita Saxena said...

Very interesting. Thanks for the break down.

ModWitch said...

Really interesting. Thinking about something I know in detail - data analysis. Same tiers. 10% shouldn't be let anywhere near data, ever. Then three or so layers of progressing competence. But way too many of the "layer 4" analysts are data monkeys. Pretty graphs and they answer all the usual questions. Efficient and boring.

Level 5 analysts were the ones that walked into meetings, put something (often ugly) up on a white board, and made everybody *think*. And they annoyed the heck out of the level 4 guys. The very best of the Level 5 folks matched the polish of the best data monkeys - but one of my very favorite jobs was plucking a future #5 mind out of a random group of employees or interviewees. They just had... *something*. And I was pretty darned sure it was innate.

So - are level 5 writers born or made? I know it's not that simple, but what are level 5 writers before they're level 5? In data geeking, I'd say a lot of people took a small trip through level 2-3 and then jumped. And if they didn't jump pretty fast, it wasn't gonna happen. Writing might be a whole 'nother thing...

The Daring Novelist said...

A couple of differences between writers and data analysts: I suspect typos matter more in data analysis. And the middle group still has jobs in the field.

The thing about traditional fiction publishing is that only the outliers had a chance. That's different in indie publishing.

IMHO, Level 5 is a relative thing. I'm thinking about the story about Harlan Ellison: level 5 there was a story which matched the cover. For some fan writer who can only regurgitate favorite moments from their favorite tv show, for their fan friends to read, Level 5 may be merely in regurgitating the right details.

It's all about reaching the level the passion demands, and then finding the niche that suits it.

(That's not going to be next week's point, but it is a relevant point to the idea of writing quality. I'll probably make it the week after.)

Lee McAulay said...

I had a similar experience many years ago as a recruiter - I saw ten thousand CVs in a year, and now I can tell in a single glance whether one's good enough or not. Difficult to understand until you've had that experience.
This is the first time I've seen it spelled out in terms of writing, so thank you. Looking forward to the remainder of this series and applying what I learn to my own writing :-)

The Daring Novelist said...

Lee, it's funny how universal it is. Although my point was that when you judge at a glance, you miss a LOT. It's great for getting through a huge pile -- it's lousy for learning.

This is why I think most of the advice we get from people who read slush piles is warped and useless.