Monday, September 23, 2013

How to Avoid the Slush Pile by Stefan Vucak

First of all, what is as 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 dump your book. Today, it’s likely to be the delete button on his e-mail Inbox. Either way, it’s bad news.

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.

Someone told me a long time ago that writing the book is the easy part. 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? An agent or publisher may have specific 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.

If your Page One has any of these tripwire items, you can guess what will happen. Editors and agents get dozens of submissions a day. Even if your book is the next Gone with the Wind, if you haven’t presented it correctly – slush pile.

Having been diligent and done everything right, you’re still not ready to send the thing off. You have just done the easy part. Okay, so what’s the hard part? Making the submission, of course. What’s so hard about that? Churn out a letter and post the damned thing. 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’. 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? 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.

The above items will be the first thing an agent or editor sees. If you cannot get past the submission letter – the slush pile. Let’s leave the submission letter 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.

There is also 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. This should be done as 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.

A badly written synopsis will send your submission into the bin, but how do you write a good one? 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. Include the ending! Don’t omit that in the belief you are dangling a bait for the editor.

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:

  • Never say you are a beginning author and you deserve a break.
  • 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.

Having done all that, you will still get rejection slips, or maybe never hear from anyone, but at least you will know that you have been professional in every respect. After all, what do those bonehead agents and editors know anyway!

Stefan Vucak is an award-winning author of the sci-fi Shadow Gods series of books. His contemporary political thriller Cry of Eagles has won the coveted 2011 Readers Favorite silver medal award.


Twitter: @stefanvucak

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