Wednesday 5 October 2011

Surviving the Slushpile ... for the very first time

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.

The phone lines might be down, or the agency might be suffering an unexpected power cut. They might write to request your manuscript instead of calling. Right?
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.


  1. Jo, this is hysterical! I was just nodding away, ‘yep, I avoid elevators at all conferences or anywhere in Notting Hill’, ‘yep, for every submission I need two envelopes for the - did i forget my SASE, my signature, my sanity - panic’. Good luck with your subs.

  2. I collected my rejection letters into a file that was two inch thick - but now it's disappeared! I've been looking everywhere for it. I hope I didn't set fire to it by mistake.

  3. Jo, i'm glad that i'm not the only slightly neurotic writer out there. Although I do the letterbox crouching thing when it my birthday, and now I’m getting older it’s always disappointing with fewer and fewer cards. Maybe it good practice though?!

  4. This is so raw and honest and funny because it's true.

    Hang in there and keep going.

  5. You'll get there, Jo!

    The ripping the envelope to check everything is in it made me laugh: how many times have I done that? Eventually I decided to never, ever seal an envelope until just before that slow walk to the post box (then live in fear that I remembered to seal said envelope).

    But email subs are worse: once you hit 'send' it is gone...

    One point: personally, I've never had an agent phone if they are interested. It has always, always been email.

  6. I'm with Teri on the email front. Much as I love the ease of email I have to open the Sent folder everytime to check that I've added the contact details, spelled the agent's name right, spelled the book title right, even spelled my own name right (Oh Yes! I do it too. That double n is so easy to miss.)

    And then I discover something. And what do you do? Send them another email? Hope they don't notice? Ahh! The things we expectant writers think up to torture ourselves with. Oops, there's another. Should I really end a sentence with a preposition?......

  7. I've been running down every day to check the mail for the last four months. I sent out nine and only five have returned so far. Now I'm beginning to wonder if/how to write a follow up letter.

  8. Jeannette - I devised my own OEP (official internet policy). I don't put the name in the 'to' box until I check EVERYTHING - it is too easy to twitch on the wrong button and send it half done. Unfortunately I frequently breach said policy.

    Heather - after four months, I think you should most definitely send a follow up, very politely of course - I know at least one writer who would have missed out on her first publishing deal if she hadn't done so (her sub had got lost). I'd say after about three months it is reasonable to do so (unless their website specifically states they take longer, or don't reply).

  9. Yes I’m avoiding it.
    I did ring two publishers and found one dummy had made it through two readers and was sitting on an editor’s desk. They then assured me they are a very small publisher and I shouldn’t get my hopes up. The other publisher sent it back the next day.

    It feels a bit like sitting on a knife edge one wrong move and it’s all over.

  10. Fantastic post and could empathise with everything you said. There is a that particular sound as your rejected ms comes flopping through the letterbox. I hate it. Good luck am sure you will get there soon.

  11. Email is great in so many ways, yet there is a downside to rejection by email vs. post: I once checked my email on Holiday. On my birthday.
    (I'm sure you can fill in the rest!)

  12. Ha, one of my rejections was sent on my birthday luckily it came in the mail and I didn't get it till two day later; I did check the date though.

  13. i've got one of my rejections pinned up above my computer - just because it was funny and kind. i recently glanced at it again and realized that i have since gotten to know that editor and she had no memory of the rejection!

    yes, hang in there, jo.

  14. Ah yes! I've forced myself into a new habit - even when you think it's finished - sit on your script - send it to someone you trust. Send it to 3 people you trust. It won't be finished. Rewrite it, then sit on it again. Trouble is, at this rate, I don't think I'll ever send the blooming thing to my agent...

  15. yes, having wine/pair of broad manly shoulders/hot bath easily to hand is helpful when it comes to rejection. Funnily enough, (I'm laughing as I type) I've just had an e-mail rejection and eaten a M and S chocolate refridgerator square - which helped.

  16. Great article! I smiled all the way through it!! I suddenly don't feel such a fool! I have just begun the journey myself and have even started a blog to make sense of it all -

    You have given me hope and a grin on my face! Now who could want more!!

    Thank you!!


  17. I'll watch out for big towers of smoke coming from your house then Candy...

    Honestly, the longer I sit thinking about this business, the harder it makes me giggle! It's like a CV, isn't it? Four years at uni, and it all comes down to whether you can write a cv. Except I don't remember drinking THIS much coke at university.

  18. Fabulous post, Jo. On the whole I'm glad that email has mostly replaced the post for manuscripts. But I have the same OIP as Teri, and I can attest to the fact that it isn't foolproof, alas.

    As for voice, Jo, you've got it in spades. You'll be basking in requests soon, I'm sure!

  19. ... the voice ... and those thighs! mmm

  20. That's so I can chase after the agents as they run away from me Candy.

  21. Great to hear from you, Jo - still on great form, I see.
    Seriously thinking of rewriting my novel as a YA JUST so I can join you wonderful people at Slushpile ...

  22. You're welcome to the slushpile any time Jan!


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