It has been said many times  that 90% of the slushpile is awful. And this doesn't mean 'not publishable in the present climate' – it means 'absolutely bloody God-awful; awfuller than Rebecca Black's Friday if it were sung in duet with Justin Bieber and accompanied by Ann Widdecombe doing an interpretive dance.'
I've never seen a slushpile and I have no idea whether this is true. I find it difficult to believe – surely it can't be that bad? And if it is, then wouldn't agents just tell people to give up and stop wasting everybody's time? While first getting rejected, I almost wished someone would just come out and say 'Look, this is rubbish. Stop kidding yourself. You'll be selling potatoes for the rest of your life and you've got to accept the fact that's all you're good for.' I just wanted to know, one way or the other, whether I was deluding myself.
Except agents don't tell us anything of the sort – and now I'm very glad about that. If I were an agent, there's no way I'd be dictating who should stop writing and who might have some very carefully concealed talent that will emerge twenty years later.
This is not just because people might come round and boil me in a vat of green ink, and not just because composing individual letters would be boring and annoying, but because writing ability is not something that remains fixed from the moment we learn how to hold a pen. The writer who sends in a grubby hand-written tale with a narrator that turns out to be goldfish might wise up, work hard for the next several years, read hundreds of brilliant books in their genre, write something that hits the zeitgeist and find out how to submit it properly. (Or they might set up a funny Twitter account and get a book deal in two seconds.)
Writing is a bit like singing, in that people are expected (or expect) to be able to do it naturally, as though ability is doled out at birth and you either have it or you don't. How often have you heard someone state that they 'can't sing', as if that's the way it is and there's nothing they can do about it? And yet it's possible to learn to use your voice just as it's possible to learn an instrument. If you'd always wanted to play the violin, you wouldn't sit there and bemoan the fact that you couldn't. You'd save up for lessons and practise a lot. You'd expect a fair few tortured-cat sound effects at first but they'd all be part of learning and improving.
It's fine – indeed, inevitable – to have a tortured-cat stage of writing too, but this doesn't mean everything we ever do will be rubbish. By communicating with other writers, by reading everything in sight and studying how favourite and not-so-favourite authors do things, and most of all by sitting on our arses and getting hundreds of thousands of words onto the page, even the most unpromising of us can work on our craft.
It stands to reason that a lot of us are going to make a mistake and send something out before it's ready. It would be pretty grim if agents took it upon themselves to tell us to give up, just because we didn't know what we were doing, yet. At the time, I thought it would be a relief to know that my submissions were the pits – but I'm glad no one went so far as to say so.