Garbage In, Garbage Out: What You Read Matters


In December of 2017, the publishing company where I did a lot of contract editing, Loose Id, announced their closure. The four women who own the company handled it very well, with much more grace and responsibility than most publishing companies that have closed in recent years. They made the decision to shut down before they had to shut down, well before things were in crisis. And so the entire situation is being handled smoothly.

The demise of the company isn’t what this is about (though we could probably fill dozens of blog pages about why smaller publishing companies are going under). What this is about has more to do with ten years of reading slush.

As part of my duties, as with all the editors, I read from the slush pile and recommended whether we should acquire or reject manuscripts. During that time, I’d also gone back to school for my MFA, which required additional reading and writing. For well over a year, I was reading, on average, a quarter of a million words per week. That’s 250,000 words a week. The equivalent of three full length novels. And that wasn’t counting my writing or my actual editorial work. Some of it was very good (the grad reading), and some of it was very bad (the slush pile).

As you might imagine, I was a bit burned out after that. I fell out of the habit of reading, except what I needed to do for work. If you’ve ever had the experience of reading a slush pile regularly, you may be able to anticipate where this is going.

If you’ve never had the singular joy cough of slogging through a slush pile, you don’t really have an idea of the dredge that lives there. Now, there are some gems and there are some diamonds in the rough, yes. Not everything in the slush pile is awful. But a lot is.

Much of the slush pile, though, is made up of authors who aren’t quite ready for publication yet. Not necessarily bad writers, but green writers. This isn’t terrible in and of itself. But remember when I said I had been burned out on reading? I was. And that meant I wasn’t doing any pleasure reading. So all of the input into my writerly brain was the stories of green (and bad) writers.

The result was that when I did finally get back to my writing, I found my words lacking. I would read the work I did in grad school and compare it to the work I was producing. There was no contest. It was easy to see which was which… which was better. And let me say, it wasn’t what I was producing currently.

All successful writers always advise to read as much as you write. My experience is an abject lesson in why that’s excellent advice.

I feel as if there are two things that writers need to do: write and read.

I’m not saying we must read Tolstoy or Faulkner. But we must read good, quality writing.

Writing hones the skill. Reading feeds the subconscious–not just the stories, but the style, the craft. Writers must read.

Writing hones the skill. Reading feeds the subconscious--not just the stories, but the style, the craft. Writers must read. #amwriting #amreading Click To Tweet

What are you reading right now? What’s on your To Be Read pile?





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  • Reply
    March 8, 2018 at 11:39 am

    What is on my read pile? Well, I’ve been working on a Bradbury Challenge so I have an anthology, an book of essays, and one of poems going at any one time. The essays right now are a book called In Defense of Sanity which collects essays by Chesterton. The poetry is A Treasury of Favorite Poems which is a big book that could get me halfway to the 1000 days. Right now I’m in Blake. It has a lot of Blake. He is actually the most collected poet in it. I may take a break after Blake and switch over to a slim collection I have of Caviler poets (Dover Thrift Editions are your friends). I’m also reading a romantic mystery novel called Twenty-Eight and a Half Wishes.

    I didn’t mention the anthology above because it is what inspired me to comment. Currently I’m reading The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015. I won’t say I think they are garbage but I am not sure they were the best choice. I have read the first six and only one worked for me as a story. All are well written. In fact, I wish I could write with the page-turning involvement of the first story. Yet, it didn’t work because the ending…well, if the author gets around to writing an ending that wraps up what got me reading so intently I’ll give it a shot.

    I realize the O. Henry Prize is probably dominated by literary fiction and so far the stories are very representative of what I imagine when I think literary fiction. They language is great and on a garbage in/garbage out measure reading and absorbing these stories will not fail me in terms of exposure to language and good writing. Yet they fail on the standard of a Judy Blume quote I read on Facebook yesterday:

    Become emotionally involved. If you don’t care about your characters, your readers won’t either.

    I do not think these writers were emotionally involved. I generally have not been. Only the first story really engaged me and then it just…ended. I don’t think involved writers can just end without wrapping up.

    It is sad to me that a volume of stories winning a prize named after O. Henry, whose ability to close is what is so remembered, so far only has one story with a strong resolution. To its credit I think it has a resolution that O. Henry would appreciate for its twist.

    So I am learning language here but I need to make sure the next anthology focuses more on storytelling. That is probably a good lesson in and of itself: not only do you need to read things worth reading but mix up what their worth is. If you have read a bunch for language then next read for dialog and then read for story.

    • Reply
      March 12, 2018 at 12:07 pm

      I think it’s really important to make the distinction between good advice for writers of commercial fiction versus good advice for writers of literary fiction. Judy Blume’s quote is advice to people who want to write for commercial success. Without being disparaging, literary fiction is not written with this goal, so Judy’s advice is not necessarily applicable.

      While commercial fiction writers can learn from any good writing, what makes for good writing in literary circles does not always (often?) work in the commercial world. So judging literary fiction by commercial fiction standards isn’t really fair, since their aims and goals are different.

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