Monday, November 28, 2011

Greatest hits: The slush pile and how to emerge from it

**Recently I was talking to a friend about this blog and I mentioned that there wasn't much for me to do any more, as I've answered a lot of questions over the past four years. She suggested that I post some 'greatest hits' for the newer readers. So here's the first of them. Let's hope I can find others! And thanks to my friend K for the suggestion.**

Reader kaz posted the following question in a comment, and I thought it was worth pulling into the main site:

"I’ve placed three first novels in the past few months, with good prospects for others." How do you find new authors, Agent S? Do you just stumble upon them in the 'slush pile'? If so, what makes them stand out from the crowd?

I have stumbled across some in the slush pile; others have come through referrals from existing clients or are writers I've met in the course of work.

Those who came from the slush pile have a few elements in common:
1. Fantastic query letter. You'd be surprised how often the covering letter says something like, 'Here is my novel. I hope you like it' and that's it. All the written communication from an author is an indication of how they write, from their cover letter to their emails and all points in between. I'm sure that often writers don't know that they shouldn't do this (hence one of the reasons for this blog - to shine a bit of light on what authors need to do), but they really shouldn't. Because a letter like that makes me think that the author can't articulate what their novel is about, they can't tell me who they are or what they want from their writing, and they certainly can't tell me why they approached my agency. Writing a query letter is a skill, and good writers refine their query letters several times. There are workshops on it in the US, and you may find the odd one at a writers' centre here too.

2. The author has taken their time with the manuscript before sending it in; it is usually the fourth or fifth draft or beyond by the time they send it in (and they say this in the query letter). They may also have done some courses, such as QWC's 'Year of the Novel' or a program at Varuna. This indicates that are realistic about how much work is involved in writing a novel and will therefore be more realistic about the publishing road ahead.

3. They are great writers. Their prose may shine like a jewel; or maybe it doesn't but they tell such a fantastic story that the prose is not the focus.

4. They are polite in their communication with the agency and respectful of the amount of time it may take us to make a decision about their manuscript. This point is actually quite important, because I, at least, feel that I'm 'auditioning' writers for publishers (and that does not mean that I think agents should be treated as if on a pedestal - although I do like my grapes peeled occasionally). Writers who are unreasonably difficult with their publishers often never get published again, because the Australian publishing culture is quite genteel and really doesn't take well to foot-stompers. So if someone is routinely shirty with me, I know exactly how they'll behave with their publisher and what that will mean for their book: usually, not much. It takes more effort to be angry than to be reasonable, and it's easier to be reasonable when you remember that agents and publishers aren't the enemy. We love books - that's why we work in publishing. We just don't have 24 hours a day to read submissions, so it will take us some time to get back to you. If you respect our request to give us three months to read your submission, we'll respect your writing. If you, instead, call after two weeks to complain that we're taking too much time, that doesn't really bode well.

1 comment:

Derek said...

All good points. I think that writers - and I say this with a manuscript on circulation at the moment - need to understand that the creative effort of producing their book is just the beginning. It's an industry and rightly demands standards of professionalism.