2/16/2009

Slush piles

For many years before I was first published, I frequently encountered naysayers who'd get a kick out of shaking their heads and chuckling at my naive desire to sell a book. "Publishers and agents get hundreds of manuscripts sent to them every single week," they'd tell me. "The chances of even getting noticed are just about bleedin' zero. Save yourself the trouble, it's a fool's game."

This is at least partly true. Publishers and agents do get hundreds of submissions every week. Outlines and queries of all kinds. First chapters of novels, complete manuscripts, synopses for six-part epics, you name it. What remained as yet unknown to either myself or the naysayers was that the majority of this unending deluge of submissions was written by people who'd have trouble remembering their own names, let alone how to spell them.

I had my first glimmer of this when I became a member of a writing workshop at the start of the Nineties, a government-sponsored scheme for the unemployed (you'd be surprised how many people in British sf wound up in schemes like that, including a few authors I know). One chap in particular liked to draw pictures of puppy dogs and sunshine in crayon on every page of his manuscripts before sending them out. I asked him why, and he said it was because it would make his story really stand out. Jeez. Another guy used to type up angry, abusive letters and send them to the agents and editors who'd just rejected his stuff. I remember him well, because he was angry and abusive to just about anyone he encountered in the workshop as well.

I began to suspect that perhaps much of that insurmountable mountain of slush I'd heard about might not be so insurmountable after all.

Rather more recently, Harper Collins set up a website called Authonomy.com, which allows anyone to upload unsolicited manuscripts and then read the submissions of others, using a scoring system to mark out the ones they liked. It was, in effect, the slush pile reading the slush pile. Those getting the highest consistent scores got the attention of a real life editor.

Which all sounds fine and dandy, except I signed up just to take a look at some of the submissions that had been posted to the site, reasoning that it was pretty much the only way to experience a genuine slush pile without actually stepping into an agent or editor's office. I wanted to see exactly what I was up against when I was shopping my first novel around more than ten years ago.

Anyone with even a smidgen of writing ability who's convinced themselves they'll drown in a sea of slush and never be noticed will come away from authonomy.com imbued with a warm, fuzzy glow, since most of the time you only need to look at the first paragraph of pretty much anything uploaded there to understand why a lot of novels are rejected on the basis of that paragraph alone. Or the first word. Or even the first crayon drawing of happy bunnies and sunshine to make the editor/agent feel good.

This is not to say, of course, that the road to publication merely means avoiding the use of crayons or learning to spell your own name. There's a lot more than that, like reading lots and lots of books, or carefully crafting your plot and your words, and all the other stuff that goes in the box marked 'hard work'. But even so, it's worth remembering a dozen monkeys with typewriters have a serious chance at coming up with something more entertaining than about three quarters of what's to be found in the average slush pile. And if you don't believe me, check out this post on The Swivet, which got me thinking about the subject of this blog.
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