From Still to Shelf: Reading Like an Artist

By Benjamin A. Rader

Reading slush is a difficult job: most of our readers are writers themselves, so evaluating manuscripts for publication often involves quieting the aesthetic we apply to our own work and letting the new manuscript tell us how to read it.

"One part restraint, one part literary potential, and two parts education, the manuscript selection process at Stillhouse aims to find that wholly new, original piece of art, while pushing readers to revise their ideas about how art works."

Whether they work for Media or Editorial, every staff member at Stillhouse begins as a reader. Readers assess manuscripts from a craft perspective, yet also aim to somehow quantify the emotional experience of reading the book.  Striving to maintain a reading staff with a diverse range of creative backgrounds and editorial styles is essential. A collection of diverse voices and selective eyes is part of what makes the selection process nuanced and thorough.   

Our selection process begins with the Submittable portal. Once a writer submits his or her manuscript, the Submissions Editor assigns it for first reads. First readers perform a close reading of each work to evaluate its voice, story, structure andmost importantly—literary potential. Readers are required to read at least the first 30 pages or three chapters of a manuscript before rejecting it, though they may not recommend any manuscript for publication without reading it completely. Each reader must use the  Reader Response Sheet to record the page at which they stopped reading and an explanation, rank the manuscript on a scale of 0 to 10, and indicate whether or not they think the book has publication potential, using examples of the text to support their decision. Readers also provide notes about the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript to aid their justifications.

Stillhouse Staff (left to right): Madeline Dell'Aria, Kate Lewis, Hannah Campeanu, Katie Ray.

Stillhouse Staff (left to right): Madeline Dell'Aria, Kate Lewis, Hannah Campeanu, Katie Ray.

Occasionally, we find a manuscript with a voice and concept readers love, but that needs significant developmental editing. Because Stillhouse is a small operation, we work with writers to develop their manuscript over the span of (at least) one year before publication, and occasionally longer than that. In first reads, readers are tasked not only with evaluating the manuscript for what it is, but also imagining what the book could be. They are asked to imagine what the work will look like in one year, its potential for evolution.

If the majority of readers assigned to a manuscript think it should be published or if the manuscript is designated as a “maybe” (a consistent score of 5 or 6), it’s sent to another group of readers for second reads. Second readers have often worked for Stillhouse for several semesters, proving their ability to critically analyze work at the sentence and developmental level. The process for second reads is the same, albeit more stringent; second readers almost never use the “maybe” designation. If a second reader recommends the manuscript, it moves on to the prose or poetry editors. Three different categories of readers must agree on the work before Stillhouse's head editor, Marcos L. Martínez sees it. 

The measured selection process, in addition to providing a pool from which to draw books, serves another crucial function: education and artistic maturation, the Stillhouse ethos. Every time a reader disagrees with another reader, they are growing and evolving their own literary voice and their craft.  Since readers inherently understand the importance of artistic development, they actively work to push against their own aesthetic. By pushing and pulling, with each manuscript they argue for or against, readers hone their editorial eye and further develop Stillhouse's collaborative aesthetic. One part restraint, one part literary potential, and two parts education, the manuscript selection process at Stillhouse aims to find that wholly new, original piece of art, while pushing readers to revise their ideas about how art works.

It is difficult to quantify the type of work we look for, though perhaps one of our greatest strengths is that we aim to offer writers a safe place for work that other publishers challenge; those works that are impossible to sell to the big publishing houses because they “aren’t marketable” or easily categorized.

Can't place it in a genre, or fit it in a box? Yeah, we love that.


BenRader

Benjamin A. Rader is the Submissions Editor at Stillhouse Press and an MFA candidate in the fiction program at George Mason. A year prior, he was awarded a teaching fellowship for his short fiction and poetry at Seton Hall University. His work is forthcoming or has appeared in The Northern Virginia Review, The I-70 Review, filling Station, The Tulip Tree Review, and others.