How to Avoid the Slush Pile by Stefan Vucak

First of all, what is a slush pile? Well, in the golden days of publishing, it used to be a large waste bin next to the submission editor’s desk where he would heave your cherished book, probably without even reading the first page. Today, it’s likely to be the delete button on his e-mail inbox. Either way, it’s bad news, which won’t do much for your day – if you’re lucky to hear from the editor. If you haven’t heard from him for a month, it’s still bad news. Rule number one: Even when submission guidelines tell you that you will receive a response within three months – if they’re interested – it’s hokum. If you catch an agent’s or submission editor’s eye, he or she will get back to you promptly, most of the time.

You have written your masterpiece and you are all fired up to mail it to every agent and publisher in the world, traditional or e-book. If you are self-publishing, you needn’t bother reading further. Except for one small thing. If you have tried the submission cycle and haven’t gotten anywhere, perhaps you should look at your book and ask yourself why it’s being rejected. Just a thought.

Someone told me a long time ago that writing the book is the easy part. I had a good chuckle at that. I spent a better part of six to nine months writing the damned thing. How can it be the easy part? All right, let’s look at your book using a very simple checklist.

  • Is it finished? Amazing how many writers approach an agent or publisher with a half-baked potato.
  • Is the book properly formatted? The generally accepted manuscript format is 8.5” x 11” white paper with 1” margins all around, double spaced. An agent or publisher may have additional requirements. Before submitting, it is prudent to make yourself aware of what they are.
  • Is the internal layout correct? This means, do your chapters start on a new page using Word’s page break function? Do you have tabs, extra spaces at end of a last sentence in a paragraph, manually centered headings, not spell checked? Starting a paragraph using the Tab key?
  • Has the book been thoroughly edited? Lots can be said about what ‘thoroughly’ means, but I think you get the idea.

There are a few more things, but I’ve covered the main slush pile candidates. If your Page One has any of these tripwire items, well, you can guess what will happen. An agent or editor might be forgiving enough and ask you to resubmit after you have corrected the thing, but I wouldn’t count on it. Editors and agents get dozens of submissions a day. The better ones do. Even if your book is the next Gone with the Wind, if you haven’t presented it correctly – slush pile.

Having been careful and diligent, you have done everything right, and you’re ready to send the thing off. I hate to burst your bubble, but you have just done the easy part. Okay, so what’s the hard part, you might ask? Making the submission, of course. I can hear that laugh already. What’s so hard about making a submission? Churn out a letter and post the damned thing. Remember that bubble I mentioned? Time for another checklist.

  • Do you have a polished submission letter that will sweep that agent or editor off his feet?
  • Does the submission letter contain the agent or editor’s correct name? Not much good if all it says ‘To whom it may concern’, or ‘Dear Sir’. The latter will go down well if the recipient happens to be a lady. It tells the person you haven’t bothered to research the agency or publisher.
  • Have you written a short and long blurb for your book? At the back of every printed book is a blurb, a paragraph that tickles the reader to buy the thing. Same thing with your e-book. You’ll need this with your submission letter or e-mail.
  • Is your book synopsis done? This is where many writers suffer agonies of withdrawal symptoms. They can write a Gone with the Wind, but they cannot write a two-page synopsis even if their life depended on it.

Anyway, the above four items will be the first thing an agent or editor sees. If you cannot get past the submission letter, well, the slush pile. Depressing, isn’t it? No, these are merely things you must take into account as a necessary part of getting published, and every item has to be handle properly. Let’s leave the submission letter for a moment and talk about the book blurb. You must write a paragraph, boiling your book down to about 100 words or so, that tells somebody what the book is about, injecting drama, suspense, tears, a shootout – whatever is the theme. Think about making a sauce. Your pot has all the necessary ingredients and is half full of water. To make the sauce, you boil the mess until only a gooey residue is left on the bottom. That’s your book blurb.

Don’t despair. There is an in-between step – the synopsis. It’s your sauce half done. It is easier to do, as it narrates in two pages what goes on in the book, or it should. Think of it as writing a very short story. All the elements of your novel must be in it, but reduced to the absolute minimum. When your agent or editor reads the thing, you want him to drool over it until he gets to the very last sentence. Then you boil down it further to get your blurb. By the way, most sauces don’t pan out the very first time – pardon the pun. Same with your synopsis and blurb.

As I said, a badly written synopsis will send your submission into the bin, but how do you write a good one? The problem most writers encounter when agonizing over this, is that they are in information overload. Having written the book, your head is overwhelmed with its contents. One method to overcome this problem is to get back to your outline. This is what you started with, right? It is a ready-made summary of your novel, and you should make use of it. Translating your outline into a synopsis requires turning it into a short story that will keep the agent or editor on the edge of his seat. Keep it short, tight, and to the point while relating the interesting bits – including the ending! Don’t omit that in the belief you are dangling a bait for the editor. Of course, if you haven’t written an outline, you’ll suffer.

Right, you’ve done both of these things and whoever sees them will be hooked. That’s good, because now, you must write that submission/query letter. There are lots of articles out there telling you how to write a killer query letter. I won’t bother repeating the rules, except perhaps one or two.

  • Never say you are a beginning author and you deserve a break. The agent or editor will be so overwhelmed, he’ll burst into tears as he tosses your submission into the slush pile.
  • Make sure your query is spell checked and has no grammar bloopers. Instant death.
  • Do be sharp, to the point, and stick to the three components: book blurb, a brief bio, and any writing credits. And do say ‘I look forward to hearing from you’, because you are.

Having done all that, you will still get rejection slips, or maybe never hear from anyone, but if you follow these guidelines, at least you will know that you have been professional in every respect and can hold your head high. After all, what do those bonehead agents and editors know!

Guest Blogger Bio
Stefan is an award-winning author of eight techno sci-fi novels, including With Shadow and Thunder which was a 2002 EPPIE finalist. His Shadow Gods Saga books have been highly acclaimed by critics. His political thriller, Cry of Eagles, won the coveted 2011 Readers Favorite silver medal award, and his All the Evils was the 2013 prestigious Eric Hoffer contest finalist.   

Stefan leveraged a successful career in the Information Technology industry and applied that discipline to create realistic, highly believable storylines for his books. Born in Croatia, he now lives in Melbourne, Australia.
Shadow Gods Saga:

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