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Slush life

A new online project aims to reinvent the writers' workshop and circumvent the slush pile -- changing the way new fiction gets published

(Christophe Vorlet)

CONSIDER THE FICTION writer. She pours months into a story collection or novel, working on it in solitude with no pay or promises in place, hiring baby sitters while home, skipping dinner parties. But after a lot of toil she's pretty sure she's the Great American Talent. She and her agent send it off to a publisher. Then, much later, comes the note of rejection, so brief and impersonal it has the stench of a template in Microsoft Word.

But the lone thwarted writer now has an alternative, albeit a virtual one. A new online project called The Frontlist ( aims to create a new kind of writers' community (to alleviate the solitude) and a better pipeline to publishers (to improve the odds of success).

Of course, writers' workshops, which offer an opportunity for feedback and a community of like-minded souls, have been around for decades. The Frontlist, based in England, hopes to improve on the old model. First, it allows writers to submit a work of fiction for critique by the rest of the site's members. Those users write comments -- with the ability to make detailed annotations on the text -- and assess the work's overall quality with a couple of paragraphs and a numerical score. (To prevent freeloading, members are required to comment on a few works by others before getting feedback on their own, and to read reviews of your own writing you need to pay a one-time fee of 10 pounds.)

The key additional benefit is that unlike your average workshop, The Frontlist, which now has 400 members, promises that the highest-rated works will wind up on the desk of an editor or agent.

"The current way that new writers submit manuscripts to publishers is dated, is extremely resource intensive, and is highly frustrating," says Tom Lodge, a PhD student at the University of Nottingham who is the principal developer and founder of The Frontlist. "Writers send off their work...and wait." As Lodge points out, it's not only aspiring authors who stand to gain from a more efficient system; agents and publishers who face a daunting mountain of unsolicited manuscripts, universally known as the "slush pile," ought to "love the idea of a pre-filtering mechanism."

That will depend largely on the quality of the filtering process -- and of the submissions. The writing posted to the site so far is mostly genre fiction, particularly crime, and it isn't exactly Alan Furst or Elmore Leonard, though there would hardly be a point if it were. (At this stage The Frontlist only allows users to submit a chapter or two from a novel -- the thinking being that an extract is digestible for the critic, and a novel, rather than a story, is what publishers want.)

In one submitted excerpt, an insurance investigator has fallen on hard times, and an old flame has reappeared to complicate matters. He teams up with a haggard old private eye to prove that a corrupt insurer only exists on paper, and winds up involved in something more sinister. The chapter, which tends toward hard-boiled detective cliches, received high scores and encouraging comments. Some of the critiques on the site seem to be perfunctory -- "keep it up!"

Jason Cooper, at the time a senior editor at the British Picador, which publishes Cormac McCarthy and Bret Easton Ellis, signed on initially to read the top-ranked material (he has since moved on from Picador and is no longer involved in the project). Cooper was drawn to the concept's great potential yet acknowledged that it will take time for the site to build a membership and a reputation. The "hit rate," meaning the odds of publication, is likely to be very low, he said. But then, he added, that reflects the ratio of manuscripts to published novels throughout the industry.

The respected London agency A.M. Heath and the Friday Project, an English company that has published writing culled from the Web, have since volunteered to vet the screened material. Scott Pack, commercial director of the Friday Project, says, "Our deal with The Frontlist gives us unique access to a significant pool of talent." Lodge hopes more publishers and agents will become involved as the site grows.

"What it needs to truly give it literary credibility is a first success," says Sloane Crosley, associate director of publicity at Vintage/Anchor Books. But, she adds, publishers are "hyperconscious that you never know where the next wonderful voice is going to originate." Lodge agrees, pointing to the example of J.K. Rowling, who essentially emerged from nowhere with the first installment of the Harry Potter series.

The Frontlist has an American precursor of sorts: Zoetrope Virtual Studio, a site launched by Francis Ford Coppola in association with his fiction magazine, Zoetrope: All Story. The Virtual Studio, which debuted in 2000 and has more than 86,000 members, is now a forum primarily devoted to screenwriters and filmmakers, but it also allows writers to post their short stories and novellas and to critique one another's work.

The Zoetrope site maintains an automatically updated list of the top-ranked stories and also the top-ranked reviewers. Submissions are sometimes considered for publication in the magazine. And Krista Halverson, the managing editor of Zoetrope: All Story, says that two stories from the magazine originated in the studio.

Part of the appeal of sites like Zoetrope and The Frontlist seems to be that they function as a kind of online literary salon -- a social outlet to relieve the loneliness of writing. New Hampshire-based writer Myfanwy Collins, who used Zoetrope as a workshop for a story that has been accepted by The Kenyon Review, says that as with any writers' workshop, on Zoetrope "you will get out of it what you put in." She can name a number of members, like Roy Kesey, who have published books and appeared in prominent literary journals, such as McSweeney's and The Iowa Review.

Like Wikipedia and other new collaborative Web ventures, The Frontlist and Zoetrope Virtual Studio depend for their success on the collective talent and judgment of their members. While a collective might have built an impressive encyclopedia, it remains to be seen whether it can judge good, marketable fiction from bad.

Evan Hughes writes daily for the Ideas blog, Brainiac (, and has written for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and The New York Observer.

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