At the April 9, 2022 Slush Pile event, our panel of three editors/agents responded to twelve very interesting entries. Noah Stetzer, a poet and editor at Bull City Press, Tracy Crowe of Tracy Crowe Literary Agency, and Ty Stumpf, a poet, editor, and chair of the English Department at CCCC—all treated us to an afternoon of good humor and great insights. Jody Savage read the entries for all of us to hear and assess along with our panel.
Dialogue got a lot of attention. Noah Stetzer urged us not to use dialogue for either background information (as an “info dump”) or for delivering backstory. As Ty Stumpf pointed out, real dialogue doesn’t sound like that. Instead, Tracy reminded us, dialogue needs to be in each character’s voice, and what they say and how they say it clues us into their character. And makes us interested in their characters. Dialogue can and should convey whatever conflict underlies the scene. Everyone agreed it needs to sparkle. Ty has his students watch movies and read scripts for examples.
We were reminded too that some editors, perhaps many, automatically reject any MS. that opens with a line of dialogue. It just doesn’t give readers an easy entrance into the story—they have to figure out time, scene, and setting.
Some of us were introduced to the term “purple prose.” That is, in one otherwise intriguing entry, the author made a good start with an imaginative metaphor but it went on for the rest of the paragraph, pulling us out of the story’s progress and leaving us to be impressed with how clever and ornate the metaphor became. In a couple of other entries, the prose wasn’t “purple,” but needed to be condensed. Agents and editors expect authors to have already edited their prose—and poetry—for efficiency and clarity. You might have a great story idea, but it’s not their job to come in and clean up your prose or poetry.
Several entries introduced their characters too early or too close together, leaving our editors confused as to who was who. In one story, one of our editors was impressed that the author had focused on a well-known building so effectively that it became the third character in the scene.
The three poems that were submitted were well received. But the poets were urged to pare them down—or as Noah said, “poetry means whittling things down. Poems behave like dreams, where information and events happen in different orders, not a, b, c, d.” he asks the poet to really interrogate whey the breaks are happening. He often just reads the last word of each line to see how it works.
In one poem, everyone felt that its strength came later on. Tracy called the line that stood out as the turning point of the poem “the money line”! A useful term for us. Up to that point, the poem was somewhat prosy, or as Noah described it “too much throat clearing upfront”—another useful term.
The best entries—and none were bad!!!–had authentic voices in both dialogue and narration. Many were praised for having original ideas or characters. One story really flung around the “f” word, and I was impressed that our panel felt it acceptable because it made the dialogue so authentic.
So congratulations to us all—our panel, our reader, and especially the intrepid souls who submitted their work.
But a note of caution: About three-quarters of the entrants were asked to resubmit because they initially did not follow the guidelines. Agents and editors aren’t so nice. These good works would have been rejected without being read. So, FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES!
Good work, fellow writers!