The Other Side of the Slush Pile
As a writer you probably spend much of your time preparing your
manuscripts for submission. But what happens to your darlings after you send
them to seek their (and your) fortune? Are your words reaching the hearts
and minds of the jaded agents, editors, and judges? Or are they being
This article discusses what it’s like to receive submissions by
describing my own experience in the area. My co author and I run a poetry
contest at our website,
Tapestry of Bronze.com. Twice a year we
hold an Odes to the Olympians contest, in which we select one of the
twelve Olympian gods and ask for poems to be written about that particular
Why Do They Want Your Writing?
You may wonder why we run this contest. This, by the way, is a good
question to ask regarding all the places where you submit: Why do the agents
– editors – judges really want manuscripts? In most cases it is
because they want to sell the manuscripts further, either to publishing
houses or to the general public. They want specific manuscripts because they
don’t feel capable of selling just anything to their particular contacts. An
editor of science textbooks would probably not know what to do (at least not
professionally) with a romance novel.
As we are running a contest, we don’t expect a profit, at least not
directly. We do hope to build up some good will and publicity for our series
of novels (currently only available in Greek). But we have other motives,
too. Our competitions pay homage to the many competitions of ancient Greece,
which brought us the great sporting events of the Olympics, but was also the
spur for the creation of many plays and other works of art. We want to
encourage the same dedication to excellence.
We particularly want to support educators teaching mythology, so each
contest has two levels: those for poets under 18, and those for adults. In
order to make sure that the poets are under 18 we ask for the birthdates of
those entering in this category.
So far the contest has been successful, for we receive hundreds of
entries, as well as gratitude from educators and poets for holding the
Ask yourself before you submit something, what other motives your
targets might have besides money. A political agenda? A desire to further a
religion or some other cause? Does your manuscript help support those
Will Submissions Arrive?
When we began the Odes to the
Olympians contest – dutifully honoring Zeus in
our first competition – we were afraid no poems would show up. This initial
insecurity is probably shared by most agents and editors and judges. We
thought our contest was cool, but that didn’t mean that others would think
so. And even if they would, we weren’t sure how to reach them.
A greater worry troubled us: what if none of the poems we received were
good? We didn’t want to give prizes to bad poems. So we reserved the right,
when posting the rules, to award nothing, if no poems merited first place.
However, we really did not want to be in that position. Declaring “no
winners” could make it appear as if we were lousy at publicity, or cheap, or
suffering from some other type of disorganization. Poetry contests without
winners are bad poetry contests.
This anxiety must be shared by those depending on other slush piles. In
fact, their anxiety must be greater as they review submissions, because
their careers, their publications and their companies depend on them finding
the right manuscripts.
Not surprisingly, we didn’t have a huge number of submissions during the
first contest. Fortunately, several that came were very good and we were
able to choose winners. Since then, the number of submissions has increased
dramatically and a lack of entries is no longer a concern.
The Submissions Arrive
After a new contest is posted, the submissions start to arrive at the
e-mail address dedicated to the contest. I begin by scanning each poem
briefly, to see if the poem meets the requirements for the contest. Most do,
but there are always a few poems that have nothing to do with the deity
being honored. The last contest was for the goddess Demeter, but someone
sent a poem honoring Zeus and another sent one for Aphrodite. Another poet
sent in four poems in separate e-mails, none of which had anything to do
with any of the Olympian gods (as far as I could tell).
I wonder what these poets are thinking. Did they simply not read the
instructions? Or did they read an old version of the instructions? Or did
they think that we would be so moved by their poems that we would consider
awarding a poet who praised Aphrodite in a contest dedicated to Demeter?
Most probably, though, they were just hungry for someone to read and
appreciate their poems. I can understand that. I respond with e-mails that I
believe are polite and kind, thanking them for their poems but reminding
them of the rules of the contest. Occasionally someone tries to argue, but
I review the rest of the information in the e-mail. Mostly I want to be
sure that I have enough information to classify the poet as an adult or in
the under-18 category. I have to ask this question frequently, which shows
that many don’t follow instructions. I send off an e-mail thanking the poet
for his or her poem, and then, if necessary, request the missing
Most respond with the information quickly and without ado. This last
time, one of the poets was “wounded” - poets are a particularly sensitive
species - when we asked if she was in the adult category. Her poem was too
good, she was sure, to belong to the under-18 category – had we even read
I replied that no, we had not read it. I explain that we try not to read
the poems until after they have been processed – stripped of their names and
put into the right categories – and placed into a file with all other poems
in their category. (Furthermore, that day we had received over 30 poems.)
My response seemed to mollify the poet in question.
The Contest Closes
Shortly before the end of the contest period, I prepare the html file
that goes on the website announcing that the contest is closed. When the last day of
the contest is over (making allowance for the fact that people live in
different time zones), I post this file.
A few poems arrive, alas, after the contest is closed. These poems are
not allowed to participate in the contest. A competition has rules, and
those rules need to be followed, or else it would be unfair to the other
Processing the Poems
Next the poems are copied and put into two files. At this point all the
extra formatting – strange fonts and colors – is removed. Each poem is
assigned a number. I copy over the files again, and this time strip out the
names. I send the files without names to my collaborator.
Then it’s time to read the poems. This takes many hours, because there
are hundreds of poems. I have to take many breaks to keep them from blurring
together as I read.
It’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even in poems that really
are not very good, bits of creativity excite me. Still, I have to do this,
or the task will never be done, so I start writing “NO” beside some of the
poems. The “NO” appears for a variety reasons. The poem may simply contain
inaccurate information about the god or the goddess. The poem may lack
rhythm, or have a rhyme that is forced and hurts the meaning. Often a poem
contains a great verse or two, but the others don’t work as well. One poem
is quite good but, alas, it goes over the line limit. (There has to be a
line limit or some poets would submit epics.) The too-long poem gets a “NO”
Other poems get a “MAYBE” written beside them. These poems are better
than the “NO” poems, but they aren’t so good that they are automatic
winners. And yet I think I may have not read them carefully enough; that I
may have missed something. Some poems take longer to digest.
And then, a few gems appear. Poems that unite theme, and language, and
evoke a deeper feeling. Poems that somehow show instead of tell. I write “I
LIKE THIS!” beside a few. I review the MAYBES again, too, until I have one
or two that I think are candidates for First Place, and others worthy of
My co author undertakes a similar procedure, without ever having seen the
names of the poets. When ready, we e-mail the numbers of our preferred poems
to each other. Sometimes there is quick agreement; other times we discuss
and need more than one phone session to determine our choices. We pick the
winners – with an extra double-check to make sure that students are not over
18 and that we have e-mail addresses – and the honorable mentions.
Another point to take away from this column: for your manuscript to climb
out of the slush pile, it often needs to please not just one set of eyes,
Informing the Winners
Then we inform the winners. Even though this is all done by e-mail, we
can feel the delight in their responses. We share in their joy – it’s a
We ask a few administration-related questions. We want to know the names
of local newspapers, so that we can release press statements. We need the
winners’ addresses so that we can send them their certificates (which
include pictures of olive wreaths, the traditional prize in such contests in
Classical Greece). We also ask how they would like to be paid. The amount of
the prize is $50 (US), but as we are an international contest – we don’t ask
where poets are, but some contestants obviously hail from places such as
Kenya, South Africa, New Zealand and India – not everyone can handle an
American check. If they can’t, we suggest PayPal or an Amazon gift
certificate or perhaps a wire transfer to a local bank account.
I struggle to get the new html page ready, to showcase the poems of the
winners and the honorable mentions. I try not to misspell anyone’s name;
alas, I still do it occasionally, upsetting those whose names have been
distorted. A quick edit improves things, and happiness is restored.
Prepare for the Next One
In the meantime, my co author and I decide which deity we’ll honor next,
and which picture we’ll use on the webpage. I struggle again with the html
but somehow manage to prepare it and upload it. The process begins again.
I hope this article helps you see the other side of the manuscript
process – at least from the POV of a contest judge. There’s one last point
that I want to make: the judges, the agents, and the editors are people too,
with feelings and faults, hopes and sorrows, aspirations and
Questions? Comments? Do you want to use this article? If so please
contact Victoria Grossack at grossackva at yahoo dot com.
This article is the sole property
of the author. It is produced here with the author's permission. The unauthorized use or reprinting of an article is
illegal, and will be
prosecuted at the discretion of the