The Nerve-racking Experience of the Live Action Slush

As an aspiring writer there are few experiences more terrifying than having your fledgling work read out loud in front of a live audience, while a panel of American Idol-like judges sit and the front of the room, waiting like rabid dogs to tear it to shreds.

Welcome to the Live Action Slush.

Photo by samer daboul on

One of my favorite writing conferences is Calgary’s When Words Collide. I started attending back in 2015, following members of my writing group up to Calgary, Alberta for a weekend in August just to check it out. At the time I was an aspiring writer, and I did a lot of writing, but most of it hadn’t seen much in the way of public exposure.

If you believe the 10,000 hours to mastery concept, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Company, 2008), you know that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to truly master any skill. One of the conditions that comes along with this notion is that the practice must be accompanied with useful, critical feedback.

That critical feedback is often what’s missing for a lot of writers.

Literary agents and publishers who accept manuscript submissions directly from authors, have huge numbers of submissions to sort through. Typically an agent can receive between three and ten thousand queries per year. That accumulates into what’s commonly referred to as a “slush pile.” This is a hold over from the days when manuscripts were paper-based and agents would have piles of potential Pulitzer Prize winners to read though.

Agents, editors and their minions read through these very quickly. Often they’ll read only the first page or so, and they do it looking for any excuse to toss the manuscript into the “no” bin.

Unfortunately, with that many queries to get through, it’s rare that anyone takes the time to offer feedback on any given manuscript. So as an author, you’re stuck waiting for weeks to months to hear back and then when you do, it’s often just a polite form rejection (if you get any rejection at all).

The Live Action Slush exercise opens up that process, so the audience gets to see what it looks like from an editor or agent’s point of view.

At the front of the room sit a panel of about four or five judges with experience in the industry… conference guests who are editors, agents or sometimes very successful published authors. Writers can submit the first page (double-spaced) of their work into a pile. A reader randomly choses from the manuscripts and reads them out loud to the audience, including the judges.

As they listen, the panelists will raise their hand if they reach a point where they would toss the manuscript into the reject pile. If three or more panelists raise their hands the audience will shout out “stop” (or sometimes something more cruel or entertaining like “die”) and that’s it.

The judges then explain what it was that they didn’t like about the manuscript and why it would get a “no.” Some of the most common offenders include:

  • Too much up front backstory
  • A slow or unremarkable opening… a character wakes up, looks out a window and surveys the land
  • Grammatical or structural flaws in the writing that trip the reader up
  • Shifting points of view
  • Common openings… a dream, two characters sparring
  • As you know, Bob…
  • etc.

Occasionally, you get story that makes it though to the end. In these situations the panelists will explain what they liked about the story.

I’ve even seen instances where agents/editors will invite the writer to submit the manuscript based on the live action slush reading!

The judging is also blind. Writers submit anonymously and so if your story is massacred, no will will even know you wrote it. You get the feedback, while you quietly look around the room with your chin up as if to question who wrote such rubbish!

What you learn, not just from your own work but from listening to everyone else’s submissions as well are where the pitfalls are, and perhaps more importantly, you get to see what works and hear why it works. You also get feedback on what agents and editors are seeing up to that moment… what the current trends are. If three agents say, “I liked the manuscript by I have ten zombie romances that I’m trying to sell right now and another hundred in my current slush pile,” it’s probably not a good year to submit your zombie romance.

The judges don’t always agree, either. Sometimes rather loudly. This goes to show how much of the process is subjective and that sometimes a rejection from one person may simply be an unfavorable opinion.

Regardless of how the experience turns out, live action slushes are a great opportunity for feedback on your work. When I wrote the opening to First Command, I certainly had my live action slush experiences in mind.