Monday, 6 July 2015

Stats from the Slushpile: A Decade of Dreaming

By Nick Cross

Hello again, slush fans. As anyone who's seen my Museum of Me series will attest, I like to keep hold of stuff from my past and inflict it upon share it with my loyal readers. Now that I've been writing seriously for a decade (actually slightly more, but 10 & 3/4 years didn't sound as good) it felt like time to take stock of my journey so far.
And what a journey it hasn't been. Well, not in the way I expected when I started out. For much of the time, I was driven by the conviction that my current book would soon be published, and I'd be on my way to fame and fortune. I was desperate but not entirely deluded, and got damn close on several occasions. Yet, my route to actual publication (and a smidgeon of critical acclaim) has come via a magazine, which wasn't a medium I'd even considered when starting out.

In writing this blog post, I also realised how many unresolved "issues" I have with the publishing industry and my position within it as an author (my position as an employee is thankfully much more settled). I thought this would be an easier post to write than my piece on stepping outside your comfort zone, but it was much, much harder. The reality of being on the slushpile is something that confronts all of us in the modern publishing world, where books go in and out of print constantly. It's a harsh environment, with sudden, glorious highs and some sickening lows that make you want to jack it all in and do something sensible with your life.

And yet, I'm still here, still writing and contemplating yet another jump into the world of submissions, false hope and form rejections. So, in tribute to that heroic and inadvisable urge, I present some infographics to chart each book from my decade of dreaming:


(Click images to enlarge)

The New Janice Powley was my first attempt at a novel and (so far) my only YA. I didn't know much about writing a book, so I just sort of wrote scenes as they came into my head, hoping to stitch them together later. This turned out to be a considerable job, as when I started to type up my hand-written first draft, I discovered I'd written more than 140,000 words! Over many months, with the help of a friend who was a trainee editor, I whittled it down to 80,000 and (mostly) got it to make sense.

In hindsight, getting two full manuscript reads of a book that, nowadays, would be little more than 99p Kindle fodder was an amazing achievement. But of course, I didn't see it like that - I wanted to be published, dammit!



Back from the Dead (a zombie horror comedy) was my golden ticket - the book that was going to get me out of obscurity and onto the bestseller lists, allowing me to give up my job (which at the time I hated) and settle into life as a full-time writer. Clearly, none of those things happened, and there's a part of me that still blames myself for blowing my big chance (however unwarranted that criticism is).

After I won a place in Undiscovered Voices 2010, a lot of things happened in quick succession: I got an agent! I rewrote 80% of the book! I got a publisher interested! I rewrote half the book again! I became clinically depressed from all the stress and expectation I was piling upon myself! I had the worst year of my life!

Be careful what you wish for.



The zombies had died a death, but my agent wanted us to strike again while the iron was hot. Even though I was still horribly messed-up and depressed-down, I launched into a new children's novel. The setting for Die Laughing - a world in which no-one could laugh or be happy, for fear of sudden, violent death - closely mirrored my daily life, where I had become gripped by the fear that I was about to die (a common symptom of depression, apparently). Thus, Die Laughing became my magnum opus and possibly the last book I would ever write.

To be fair to my agent, I'm not sure how much of my mental state was visible in my emails to her, as I apologised at monthly intervals for missing my deadlines for delivery of the first draft. The irony being that, when I finally did finish it, she took her own sweet time to decide that she hated it and would not represent it unless I made significant (and in my opinion disastrous) changes.

Feeling confused and betrayed, I terminated our arrangement, wrote another draft on my own terms and sent it out to some editors who'd expressed an interest. But my confidence in the book had long departed.



SuperNewman and MegaBeth (a riot of slapstick superhero silliness with a bittersweet subtext about mental illness) marked the point where I got serious again. No more would I be weighed down by the fear of rejection - this book was going out to as many people as possible. But I didn't want to just go through the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and send blanket queries to everyone, no matter how inappropriate - I would select the recipients carefully and tailor the submissions. As anyone who's done this knows, it's a lot of work! I also kept ever more detailed statistics, which you can see reflected in the infographic.

The average time taken to reply to an initial submission works out at 5.4 weeks, which was less than I'd imagined. Actually, most agents replied within a month, and there were just a couple who took a really long time, which dragged down the averages.

The rewrite story looks very similar to the one I experienced on Back from the Dead, but it wasn't really. Yes, the book still got rejected at the end of it, but unlike the fear and loathing last time, reworking SuperNewman and MegaBeth was one of the best writing experiences of my life. In just six weeks I took the book down from 45,000 to 15,000 words, replacing one of the main characters and keeping only the most awesome parts of the original story. There was something very freeing about that.

* * *

Consider all this, then, as an exorcism of the last ten years - the blog post I had to write before I could finally move on. The past is long gone and the future again twinkles with hope and expectation. Meanwhile, in the present, I'm taking every step to make sure my latest book doesn't disappear without a fight. A decade on from when I started, the options available to me as an author have increased dramatically, and there are all sorts of alternative funding and publishing methods available if the traditional gatekeepers aren't interested. It's time to stop dreaming and take my fate into my own hands.

Nick.


Nick Cross is a children's writer, Undiscovered Voices winner and Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures Magazine.
Nick's writing is published in Stew Magazine, and he's recently received the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.

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