Shoveling the Slush

I had the pleasure of hearing agent Jon Sternfeld speak at the South Carolina Writers Workshop conference this weekend. As the newest member of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, Jon is responsible for reviewing the slush that comes into the agency. The term “slush” refers to unsolicited submissions of writers seeking representation. And as Sternfeld points out in this post at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog, thanks to the digital revolution in publishing, the slush pile is growing:

Even more amateur writers are giving it a shot because it literally takes minutes to submit to an agent. As I have said ad nauseam to my colleagues, because everyone knows the alphabet, just about everyone thinks they can write.

What if there were a test that wannabe novelists had to pass before they could submit to agents? It would be an easy thing to implement. Many agencies now have online forms that writers must use to submit their queries. What if agencies added a simple, ten-question test that you had to pass before you could get to the submission form? It might go something like this:

1. The main character of a story is called the antagonist.

o True
o False

2. Who wrote The Great Gatsby?

o Ernest Hemingway
o John Steinbeck
o F. Scott Fitzgerald
o Saul Bellow

3. The denouement occurs during which part of the story?

o Beginning
o Middle
o End

4. Which of these sentences is punctuated correctly?

o “Open the door”, he said.
o “Open the door.” he said.
o “Open the door”. he said.
o “Open the door,” he said.

5. Every story must have a villain—that is, an evil person who is out to destroy the main character.

o True
o False

6. Which of these sentences is generally considered to be the best constructed?

o She walked quickly toward the exit.
o She walked very quickly toward the exit.
o She hurried toward the exit.
o She walked hurriedly toward the exit.

7. Purple prose should be avoided in fiction.

o True
o False

8. Choose the word that correctly completes this sentence: She opened the door to reveal the surprise and said…

o Walla!
o Voila!
o Valla!
o Woila!

9. Commercial fiction is more artistic than literary fiction.

o True
o False

10. The weather should always reflect the main character’s mood—that is, it should be rainy when the character is sad, and sunny when the character is happy.

o True
o False

What do you think? Are these questions objective enough that publishable writers should know the answers? Are they too difficult or too easy? Would such a test reduce the number of queries agents receive from unqualified writers, or would it be too easy for people to find the answers?

Being able to type letters into a word processor doesn’t make a person a writer, any more than being able to cut a tuna fish sandwich in half with a kitchen knife makes a person a surgeon. A quiz to weed out the dilettantes from the serious writers would give agents more time to devote to those of us who actually sort of know what we’re doing. And that would be a good thing for agents and writers alike.

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2 thoughts on “Shoveling the Slush

  1. It would be nice if there were some sort of test that could save a poor agent’s eyes…but with screening tests, you always run the risk of weeding out someone who actually does have something important to say or a compelling voice.

    A year ago, for instance, I edited a novel for a first time writer. She didn’t have a clue about the proper use of punctuation–but once I fixed that technical problem, her story was really good. She had a particular knack for character development.

    I hate to think her work would be bypassed just because she hadn’t brushed up on her grammar.

    Debra

    1. That’s a concern I have, too — creating the right quiz to keep out the people you want to keep out, yet let in the people you want to leave in. But then, I don’t think any author should submit to agents until they’ve showed it to critiquing partners, beta readers, or an editor. Debra, the first-time writer who submitted her work to you had the good sense to know she needed an editor. That’s what I’m really advocating — that writers educate themselves about the business of writing before they approach agents. You don’t have to know punctuation to be a good storyteller, but you should learn punctuation if you want to be paid for your writing.

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