Monday, 11 October 2010

Welcome to Daniel Clay’s Blog on how to Submit to Slush-piles

I'm the author of Broken, a novel published in 2008. This blog isn’t to tell you about my writing, though. It’s to share everything I learned in the years I spent submitting to slush-piles before getting representation through a slush-pile submission. Whether you’re new to writing novels or have been trying to get published for years, I hope you find the information here helpful, and make use of my offer to look at your work and give constructive feedback.

Although this blog isn’t meant to be about me or my writing, I am going to use this top post
to tell you about my writing background, explain why I’ve put this blog together, and set out my reasons for offering to look at your covering letter, synopsis, and the first ten double-spaced pages of any unpublished novel you’re presently submitting to slush-piles.

First off, about me and my experience with slush-piles: I was very young when I decided I wanted to be a writer. Part of the reason I’m able to say I’ve spent twenty-plus years knocking around on slush-piles is because I started submitting to slush-piles when I was fourteen or fifteen (I was coming up thirty-seven when I got my first deal). Being completely honest, until I was in my late twenties, my passion for writing far outweighed any talent I might have had, and the material I was sending out wasn’t anywhere near good enough. Then, with hindsight, I had a few years where I was writing at a publishable standard, but not producing novels good enough to get published.

Although this learning curve isn’t one we read about much in the press, it’s not all that uncommon for writers to need to work on their writing for a number of years before they start producing publishable work, so part of the message I want to get across in this blog is, if you’re just starting out, don’t be put off by rejection – so long as you keep pushing yourself to improve, the chances are you will, and very few writers ever get published without encountering their fair share of rejection along the way.

Something else I want to get across, if you’re someone who’s been writing for a while but nothing seems to be happening for you, there’s no reason why it won’t, so keep striving to write new stuff while all the time trying to improve what you’ve already written: I’m proof you can be rejected over and over again, and still end up with a deal.

Because I started submitting to slush-piles long before I was writing at a publishable standard, despite my claim to have spent more than twenty years submitting to slush-piles, I probably only spent eight years submitting stuff that might have been of a quality to interest editors and agents; for three of these years I had an agent (not my present one), so wasn’t sending anything out. For another of these years I was working on a re-draft an editor had asked me to do, so, again, I wasn’t sending anything out.

In essence, although I was trying to get representation for a long time, for most of this time I either wasn’t writing at a good enough standard, or, for one reason or another, not in a position to look for representation.

During the years I spent trying to get a deal, though, I always worried it was never going to happen. I didn’t work in media or publishing, I’ve never been to university, I haven’t done an MA in writing, and whenever I went to a writers’ conference and asked published writers how they’d made their breakthrough they always seemed to have had some pre-existing link to an editor or agent or some really impressive claim they could put in their covering letter, such as a great career as a journalist or TV producer; a few had worked as editors or agents as well.

For the majority of years I was sending stuff out, I worked as an assistant management accountant, which isn’t exactly the most eye-catching detail to put in a covering letter to an editor or agent in terms of proving you’ve got what it takes to write a great book.

During this time I also asked a few agents if they could show me slush-pile submissions that had grabbed their attention. Even though several of them had good reputations for discovering unpublished writers, not a single one could: Maybe I was asking the wrong people, but it seemed each time they’d brought a new writer to market, the writer hadn’t come to their attention through a slush-pile submission, but by some other route such as winning a high-profile short-story competition or networking or simply happening to know someone who knew someone else, etc.

So, then, another thing I want to get across in this blog is that it is possible to get a deal through a slush-pile submission alone: I’d never met my agent before he read my slush-pile submission for Broken, and I never met any of my editors before they offered publishing contracts for it, so it really doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is: if you’ve written something that catches the right person’s eye, anything can happen for you.

Also, although I’m not claiming my slush-pile submissions were fantastic, you can at least see the covering letter and synopsis I used for Broken on this blog and perhaps use them as something to judge your own against.

In terms of the information in the posts on this site, other than snippets of personal experience, there’s little here, if anything, you can’t find for free elsewhere on the web or pick up very quickly at a well run writers’ circle or conference. Let’s face it, although there are a lot of differing opinions on the best way to go about it, putting a slush-pile submission together and posting it off to an editor or agent isn’t rocket science, and it’s a well covered subject.

Many blogs and websites, though, tend to touch on different aspects of the subject in a series of ever shifting writing-related posts, so what I’ve tried to do here is create a static blog that should be effective as a one-stop-shop for a writer who doesn’t even know what a slush-pile is, let alone how to go about submitting their fiction to one.

If you’re a writer who’s ploughed through all the how-to books and articles available elsewhere, been to conferences, attended writers’ circles, etc., other than the fact this has been written by someone who knows what it’s like to get in from a long day at the office and find a load of standard rejections all over the doormat but still put in two hours writing that evening, there’s probably little here you won’t already have read about in one form or another.

This is one of the reasons I’m offering to look at your covering letter, synopsis, and the first ten (double-spaced) pages of any novel you’re presently submitting – because I’d like the blog to be useful to anyone who’s submitting to slush-piles, and, from my experience, one of the worst things about the process isn’t the lack of information on how to go about doing it, but the lack of free constructive feedback available. Definitely, all the years I spent submitting to slush-piles, I felt I was constantly being told what I should be doing by people who’d never been through the process themselves – or, via writers’ conferences and literary consultancies – being asked to pay for the opinions of people who had rarely, if ever, searched through slush-piles in a professional capacity, or, even, submitted their own fiction to a slush-pile.

So what will I do if you send your work to me? I will read from start to finish at least once. While I do this I will look for typos, inconsistencies, view-point glitches, and anything that doesn’t make sense (to me), then let you know, as constructively as possible, my thoughts: You’ll get specific editorial notes in the Word files you send to me, and a quick overall summary in the e-mail I send it back in.

In short, I’m offering a fresh pair of eyes and an unbiased opinion, and an hour or so of my time.

Now I’ve made it clear why I’m doing this, let me make it clear why I’m not doing this:

I’m not charging a fee to do this in any way, shape or form, and the offer to read work is not an opening gambit to sneakily get you involved in a fee paying service of any sort – if there’s any benefit in this site for me, it’s that you might, at some stage, and completely of your own choosing, think about buying a copy of Broken and then run around telling everyone you know they should buy a copy as well.

I’m not thinking of setting up as a literary scout at some stage and then using this site as a starting point to get clients.

I’m not planning on setting up a literary consultancy and then charging unpublished writers for feedback: I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of taking money from unpublished writers – I would never have submitted to an agent who charged a reading fee, for instance – and it’s important to me the content on this site and offer to read work is 100% free to any unpublished writer who chooses to use it.

Nor am I working in league with any agent or publishing house: My own agent and editors have absolutely no involvement in this site and under no circumstances can I recommend you to them or forward your work to them.

Nor can I offer to read any more than your covering letter, synopsis, or first ten (double-spaced) pages of your novel, not even if I think it’s got the potential to be the best thing I’ve ever read. I’m sorry, but I’ve got my own novels to write, a day job, a stack of published novels I’m desperate to read, a football team to support, a wife to annoy, and we’ve just bought a puppy, so there’s simply no way I could find the time. Plus the aim of this site is to help unpublished writers get their slush-pile submissions as polished and honed as possible, not provide a feedback service for complete novels.

So then, to summarise, I’m a published writer, I’ve put together a fair few slush-pile submissions in my time, and, if you’d like to, you can get my opinion on your slush-pile submission, and there are no charges or fees involved.

So far, the site’s been live for about a month, and, possibly due to the fact I’m spending no money on advertising and have written it with readability in mind rather than optimizing it for search engines, there’s been very little traffic, but if it ever gets to a stage where lots of people are sending and I’m struggling to keep up, I’ll put a post at the top of the site saying I won’t be accepting for a while due to a backlog and try to provide an estimate of how long it might be before I’m ready to start giving feedback again. If there is no such post at the top, please feel free to send your submissions to me at (please see the next post for details of file formats, etc.).

Also, if you’ve got any general writing related queries you can’t find answers to, feel free to drop me a line. I probably won’t be able to help, but I will if I can.

And that’s it. I hope you find the blog useful. And good luck with your writing and finding a home for it at some stage in the future.

Best wishes

Daniel Clay