Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Strategies for Submitting to Slush-piles

Considering this should just be a case of sticking your slush-pile submission in the post, it's surprising how many people have different approaches to making slush-pile submissions – some phone or e-mail an agent to ask if they can make a slush-pile submission, others actually send a letter asking if an agent or editor would be interested in reading a standard slush-pile submission.

For me, once I was ready to start submitting a particular novel to slush-piles, I never e-mailed or phoned or sent covering letters in advance – I always believed doing so was simply giving someone a further chance to reject me; or, even worse, giving Royal Mail a further chance to mess things up.

To find out who to make slush-pile submissions to, I would go through the UK list of literary agents in either The Writers' & Artists' Yearbook or The Writers' Handbook and highlight every single one who didn't specifically say they wouldn't consider publishing the type of novel I'd written – so, for instance, when I was getting ready to submit Broken to slush-piles, anyone who didn't actually say in very clear terms they wouldn't publish contemporary fiction was going to get a slush-pile submission from me.

Once I'd highlighted this list of agents I intended to submit to I'd then print out enough copies of my opening pages and synopsis to cover every entry on the list. This may sound a bit over-organised, but, often, the last thing you want to do after getting a load of rejections is keep sending your novel out. If you've already got everything set up ready to go, it's easier to keep yourself motivated no matter how low you're feeling about the rejections you're getting – feeling low is okay; giving up because your ego's taken a bit of a kicking isn't.

After that I'd go on-line and look at the web-site for the literary agency I was about to submit to, first off to check their submission guidelines hadn't changed, secondly to either find a named contact or find out more about the named contact given in The Writers' & Artists' Yearbook or Writers' Handbook; if I could reference my novel to a novel the named agent had previously brought to market, I'd do so. I wouldn't be insincere, though – if I hadn't read a particular novel, I wouldn't make reference to it. Also, I wouldn't mention a novel just for the sake of it: with Jonny Geller, for instance, I considered mentioning the fact I'd loved Jake Arnott's debut novel, The Long Firm, (which I genuinely had) but decided not to because I didn't think it fitted Broken's market, so stuck with mentioning two other novels he hadn't handled but would definitely have heard of: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and The Lovely Bones.

Once I'd checked the agency was definitely still accepting slush-pile submissions and I'd found out a little information about the person to send them to – or the submissions department, as seems to be the popular way at the moment – I'd adapt my covering letter so it didn't seem like a form letter I was mass-mailing to every single agent out there, then get my submission in the post.

Although I was probably a bit anally retentive in this respect, all my slush-pile submissions were put together in the following order:

Covering letter
Header page for novel, including my name and address, title of novel, word-count of novel, my name
Opening chapters of novel, each page with my name in the bottom left hand footer column, page number in the central footer column, and title of novel in the right hand footer column
Header page of novel's synopsis, including my name and address, 'title of novel – synopsis', my name
Synopsis, with each page showing my name in the bottom left hand footer column, page number in the central footer column, and 'title of novel – synopsis' in the right hand footer column
Presentation wise, all of the above was printed on 100gsm white paper in Times New Roman 12 point font, and I always folded my stamped addressed envelope around everything to keep it all neatly together (never use paper-clips or, even worse, a staple or some sort of binding, to keep your pages together – I've no idea why it's a big no-no, it just is).

When I first started submitting to slush-piles, I would post out one submission, wait for a reply, then post another. Because this approach seemed to take forever, by the time I was submitting Broken, I would initially send submissions to three agents. Then, as soon as the first rejection came back, I would send a fresh submission out. This way, I always had at least three submissions in the post at any one time.

If I didn't hear from an agency within six weeks I would send off to another one, and I never chased slush-pile submissions I didn't get a reply to: The way I looked at it, if an agency couldn't be organised enough to put a standard rejection slip in the self addressed envelope I'd sent them, I didn't really want to be represented by them anyway, so what was the point in chasing them up?

I would keep doing the above until I'd run out of agents to submit to. Or, in the case of Broken, until I finally had representation. 

In terms of what to expect in response to a slush-pile submission, in most cases, you won't get any more than a pre-typed compliment slip saying something like 'this isn't for me' or 'I didn't love this enough'. Don't take these personally. I've had well over a hundred, and the exact same submission that caught Jonny Geller's attention with Broken had already collected more than thirty compliment slip rejections; if I'd thrown in the towel after twenty, I very much doubt I'd be a published writer now. No form of rejection is ever pleasant, but, if you really are serious about becoming a published writer, you just have to find a way to cope with it – it never ends, being honest, and if you end up in shreds over someone sending you a politely worded rejection in the post, how are you going to cope when the one-star reviews start appearing on Amazon? Because, even if you're sitting on next year's Booker winner, you're still going to get a smattering of those.

My advice is always think about why you're being rejected, always challenge yourself to make your writing better, always get on with writing something new while you're sending a novel out, and always make sure your slush-pile submissions are as well written and professionally put together as possible.
And, if you would like me to give you my opinion on what you're sending out, don't forget to e-mail your covering letter, first ten (double spaced) pages of your novel, plus your synopsis, to Alternatively, if you've got any questions on submitting to slush-piles or writing that aren't covered here, feel free to drop me a line. If I can help you out at all, then I will.

Best wishes,
Daniel Clay