by Jo Wyton
Notes from the Slushpile attempts to make some sense out of the mad scramble for a publishing deal. As the newest slushpile guinea pig, I'm going to attempt to take you all with me... This is the first in new series Surviving the Slushpile, where we'll highlight some of the highs and lows of the slushpile journey.First up, it's the start of the slushpile adventure - the first submission.
Ah, the sigh of relief. One of life’s pleasures. And one that you shouldn’t look forward to any time soon if you’re about to take your first adventure onto the dreaded slushpile…
By the time you post your first submission, you’ve been at work for months. You’ve been out and bought a copy of the Writers and Artists Yearbook, and scrambled around online to find out who is still accepting unsolicited manuscripts. You’ve had a little cry at how few people are on your list. Double checking which agents deal with books like yours wiped you out, and means you’ve had to cross out at least two-thirds of your potential agents, ensuring you’ve had a little cry at how few people are left on your list now. You’ve attended workshops and masterclasses, talks and conferences. You’ve had business cards made up and made sure there are always three in your wallet, just in case. You’ve prepared your elevator pitch, and now avoid using elevators at all costs, just in case you have to use it.
Just some of the handy market guides you can bury yourself in come submissions time
This process has left you sitting at your desk, staring blankly at a list of agents in front of you. (Your copy of the Writers and Artists Yearbook is being eaten by the dog in the corner.)
Next you write your cover letter, painfully aware of how little writing experience you have to add into the ‘biography’ paragraph. You desperately try to remember the name of that competition you won when you were eleven years old before realising that writing that into your biography is worse than useless – it’ll be in the bin before the agent has stopped laughing long enough to breathe. Hmm, you think, I wonder if I should include that letter I had published in the Gazette last year, complaining about the state of the roads?
Desk whilst writing novel...
You then set about composing a synopsis. This keeps you awake for weeks on end, and is rewritten and restructured more times than all of the novels on the slushpile put together. How do I tell them that Arthur dies without introducing him? But then if I introduce Arthur, I need to tell them about his obsession with Mary. Oh, but if I tell them about Mary then surely I need to tell them about the extra toe on her left foot and the way her cheek dimples when she laughs? And how do I make it clear that halfway through the story everyone gets turned into sheep?* You draw a sketch to try and make sense of it, figure out your plot doesn’t work and try to ignore the niggling feeling that you should really rewrite your novel again before sending it off to the top agent in the country.
*Just to make it clear: this is not the plot of my novel. I hate sheep.
By this point, your brains are smattered all over the walls and you’re wondering what on earth made you think you could write a novel in the first place.
Eventually, after months of distress, a stomach ulcer and two children suffering from abandonment issues, you seal the big brown envelope containing your submission. (You quickly tear it open again to check you remembered to include everything, realise you did, and end up running around in search of a new envelope.)
Now it’s time for the big moment: the walk to the post-box. Never, since children first emerged from behind the sofa after hearing the word ‘Exterminate’, have steps been so warily taken. Palms sweating, legs jittering, stomach wobbling from all of the junk food you’ve been forced to eat whilst preparing your submission.
Desk after writing submission...
But then, you’re there. The darkness of the post-box awaits. You edge the envelope closer and closer, not quite wanting to let go, until that friend you’ve been irritating with your slow-motion posting grabs it and shoves it in.
Oh, dear. It’s gone.
Two weeks later, and you’re anxiously hovering by the front door, crouched down, hands held out like you’re playing backstop for the Yankees.
Even though all the talks you’ve been to have explicitly told you that any agent who wants your manuscript will phone you at the first opportunity, you wait for the post anyway, because you never know.
A month later, and your thighs are the size of Linford Christie’s from crouching in front of the letterbox every morning. Still nothing. Maybe they never received it? Maybe it’s fallen down the back of a filing cabinet, or been eaten by the office iguana? Maybe the agent is still laughing about that competition you won when you were eleven. Perhaps you shouldn’t have included that after all...
And so it goes on, until, most likely, you receive your first rejection.
Don’t worry. Nobody gets accepted the first time they try. Those first few attempts are for learning, in the same way that your first few attempts at writing your novel were for learning. The chances of writing the right novel at the right time and putting it in the hands of the right person are slim, but possible. The chances of all of that happening on your first attempt?...
But that’s OK, because you’ll get there in the end. Network as much as you can – make sure that when you write that cover letter, you can tell the agent where you met them. Practise pitching. Drink lots of tea. Eat plenty of chocolate.
Hide some wine under your desk for when that first rejection comes through. Then put the rejection in the bin, or in a draw, or pretend you’re Stephen King and stick it on a spike on the wall.
And while you’re doing all of that, don’t forget the most important thing:Start writing something else.
The more I’m surrounded by writers who have successfully put their foot on the rocky first rung of the publishing ladder, the more I believe that voice is the thing that will have an agent on the phone, asking to see the rest of your manuscript.
Plot can be altered and grammar can be checked, but if your novel doesn’t have a strong voice, all you’ve got is a well-written cover letter and a synopsis for a book that could be brilliant if only the writing was better.
It’s easy to forget that the best way to get published is to write a truly great story – one that’s different from the hundred other submissions burying it at the bottom of the slushpile. If you can get that right, then all you need is just a little bit of luck.
When I finished my first novel (albeit for the seventh time), I packaged it up and sent it out. Of course, rejection was inevitable. I recently found my first one under the bed. It was still in the envelope, paper-clipped to my submission. I read it. Lord above. My sister rescued me some hours later from my hiding place under the desk, where I was curled up in a small ball, shaking with embarrassment. OK, OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it was definitely an excruciating experience to read it again. I’d forgotten to check the most important thing – the novel wasn’t good enough. I’d gotten caught up in my eagerness to send it out, instead of putting it away in a drawer like I should have done, and starting work on something better.
Rejection number one!
Now I’m two manuscripts further on, and I’ve been putting off submitting my most recent effort for some time. I’ve rewritten and re-plotted, dug myself into the ground with adjectives and been pulled out again kicking and screaming Hallelujah. (True story. Sort of.) Nobody can know that their novel is great (let’s face it – if you do, it probably isn’t), but I do know that if I re-read it in four years I won’t end up curled up on the floor in a ball of embarrassment.
So now, I’m left sitting at my desk, staring blankly at a list of agents in front of me...
Here goes nothing.