Why don't they just tell us?

It has been said many times [citation needed] 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.


Neil said...

I was frankly shocked when my agents told me that 99% of their submissions are from 'people who can't write.' It takes time and a lot of practice to reach your potential as a writer. And it is still only a small proportion of that 1% who get a deal - all we can do is hone our craft to make sure we are a part of that 1% and then rely on luck - that an agent or publisher likes our voice or sees a gap in the market for what we are writing. But agents will seldom tell people to just give up, because the next thing someone writes could be that undiscovered gem that makes it all worthwhile for them.

Karen said...

Very well said. Any knockback or rejection in the early days used set me back weeks even months.

If an agent had told me to stop writing I probably would have!

MorningAJ said...

Given how awful some of the published stuff is I'd hate to read the other 99 per cent then. I'm currently reading something that is, quite frankly, a pile of trite, formulaic junk. But it's a tried and tested formula - so the author obviously got a deal.

The good thing is - I know I can write better than that. So I'll keep writing.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

So true. When I started sending poetry out, in my twenties, I was even put off when someone said, no thanks, but please send again! I never did. Pathetic, but true.
LOVE the 'tortured cat' phase!!!

Helen Black said...

My agent always says that the vast majority of the slush pile is poor... part of the reason why he pays a reader.

That said, I'd think he'd be the first to say he'd never put anyone off. Who can say how someone will improve over time.
HB x

Anonymous said...

I agree, Caroline. I always thought the literary world needed the equivalent of Simon Cowell, who you could send your work to and he'd say exactly what he thought of it.

Looking back, thank god my early manuscripts never saw the light of day. 6 years later i am having some success which i might never have found, if i'd stumbled across a forthright agent.

Having said that, one agent's rejection was ferocious (to me) and devastating. I guess we need the odd harsh one to toughen and up. What doesn't kill you...


Jennifer Shirk said...

Wow, I had no idea it was that high a pecentage. But then again, writing is soooo subjective. I think some writing isn't necessarily that bad but doesn't "move" or interest that particular person.
Maybe. :-)

Debs Riccio said...

Loving the tortured cat (in an empathic way I mean) as I'm feeling very 'raw' still from my latest sting of rejections letters. I've got to the point where I'm questioning my ability (again) and wondering if this 'gift' I thought I had might just be a whole pile of delusional crap...never thought I'd need Mr Cowell but maybe I do...then again maybe I'd rather stay deluded... then again...Aaaarrrghhhh!

Geraldine Ryan said...

So many people are put off by harsh comments. I think it's the stickers that get by in the end.

Diane Fordham said...

I enjoyed your post Caroline...thank you! Well said Geraldine - I have to say I am glad I didn't give up all those years ago. Writing is like everything else - the more you do the better you get at it! I write short stories and rejections don't get me down like they used to. Not that I like them any better! But, I figure, keep on writing, send those stories out and if you do stick it out you do see those acceptances rolling in!

chillcat said...

Once admitted to the den of a well-known agent I snooped around for the slush piles I expected to be touching the ceiling. No sign of! It does make one appreciate agents/publishing houses who have forms to fill out, sent by email, and a rather more selective submission process. I don't think I could face a slush room every day and sometimes I think agents/publishers are the most generous and unrewarded of people. Does anyone agree? ciao cat