Wednesday, 22 October 2008

What are you doing on the slush pile?

Attended a talk by my agent Sarah yesterday where she was telling a group of aspiring writers the do's and don't of writing children's fiction. Most of her key points are on her website so I won't go over them here. But also do read her blog, especially the past ones.
Firstly, it made me aware of some painful statistics, which YOU MUST IGNORE but put things in perspective.
Sarah gets 300 submissions a week. Only 3 does she typically find engaging enough to read to the end. That's 1%.
Of the 3,000 odd submissions she's received since she set up (this is all on her blog, that's why you should be uptodate at ALL TIMES) she's only taken on 3-4. That's 0.1%.
Sarah's strike rate is very high. Everyone she's submitted has sold, so far. This proves she's very good at picking winners, or at least the front pack.
How to get into this front pack?
I certainly don't profess to having any secret clue, but do read Stephen King's ON WRITING. It's utterly essential.
Study. Read everyone else who you'll be sharing shelf space (i.e your competition) with and work out how and why they work. Attend courses and learn the craft. Swordfights and battles for example, MEAN NOTHING in fiction. It looks all very glamourous on film, but that's because film is visual. The greatest strength of writing is the INTERNAL WORLD of the protagonist. What's going in on his/her mind? Read any of the Sharpe novels and much is made of the night before the battle. The anxiety, the fear, the tension is all there. The event itself is splendid, but that's because we've had the night before to build emotion into it. Action does not move plot, RESOLUTION of the action (did they win or lose) moves the plot.
Lord of the Rings is another case. The defeat of Sauroman is OFF PAGE. It doesn't actually matter to any of the main characters, doesn't move the plot along and frankly, it's consequences are not significant to the Ring bearer's quest. Frodo's journey is predominantly internal. What's at stake is his heart, his friendship to Sam, his steadfastness against the allure of the ring, with Gollum as his shadow self, the Frodo that Failed. This is playing to the strength of the form, this is what novels do best. We love him because he's small and big hearted, he's scared but heroic. That's why Strider is second fiddle. He has no real emotional journey to make. He's a hero at the beginning, he's one at the end. His rise to kingship is mainly external, done by deeds rather than internal growth.
Also, enter competitions. This is how Harriet and I got Sarah's attention, not through the slush pile. The Yearbook has a long chapter on these. They are in a way MORE important than the list of agencies. Enter them and when you've got a couple of wins under your belt (even one) THEN contact the agent. It proves you're better than the rest. Which is what you have to be.
DON'T RUSH. If any of you from last night's talk are reading this, be warned. Wait until your ready to blow Sarah's socks off, then send it to her. She gave you a lot of very useful info last night and there is NO WAY you've incorporated even half of it into your writing. To make sure you've done all she asks is half a year's work, at least. I know because it took me half a year with her sitting at my shoulder to do it. So, if your finger is hovering over the SEND button, please reconsider. Can you honestly say you've already done everything she's told you?


Margaret said...

Hey, that's really inspiring - thanks for posting about it.

Tracy said...

Great post, Sarwat.
It was lovely to meet you and Harriet last night.
Sarah's talk certainly gave a lot of food for thought and you're right to say we must take our time, perfect our craft, revise, then revise again, and only then submit.
As someone who came tantalisingly close but was ultimately rejected -(Actually, I'm not going to use that word. I shall re-phrase to - asked to go away and do some more work on it because the potential and promise is there, but told that I must take my time, not rush, get the work as good as I can.)- hearing the statistics you've mentioned in your post really helped put it all into perspective. It's hard not to take things personally, but ultimately, if it's a no, we have two choices, ignore the advice or aim higher. I for one am going to aim higher.

Anonymous said...

Great advice and agree. But just interested to hear what you think about the likes of Stephenie Meyer who wrote Twilight in two months and got an agent within six months? Are they freaks of nature?

Jon M said...

Hi Sarwat, wish I'd been there! With you on the making it the best it can be...and then go away and make it better! Then redraft it and leave it for a bit...need I go on? :-)

Anonymous said...

Ah, wish I could have gone. Too bad I live in the wrong Birmingham.
Those stats are crazy.
How'd I get so lucky?

SarwatC said...

Haven't started Meyers's books yet, but the first two are on the shelf. Will probably see the film though.
Hmm..wrote it in two months. EVERYONE writes their book in two months (like Jeffrey Archer). It's full of passion, action and no logic. It's the rewriting that takes ages (i.e it all making sense). Write HOT. Rewrite COLD.

Seriously I've spent so so long on the rewrites. No much of the original book (the one that got me an agent) survives. Which is a good thing.

I find it extremely irritating people who said they bashed it out over the weekend and 'oh look I've won the Booker/a million quid'.
It's jealousy, but it's also 'Oh yeah, pull the other one, it's got bells on'. Probably 50% of both.

The reason you're rolling around in moolah is because I persuaded you to join Greenhouse and trust Sarah. Remember?
Please deposit my finder's fee into the dollar account, Sarah has the details.

SarwatC said...

Dear Tracy,
Should have picked this up as it's also quite important (IMHO) and that's "taking things personally". There's a fundamental contradiction here because of the medium we're engaged in. We're writing about ourselves, because if we're looking for any sincerity in our writing, we having to draw it from within. So to be criticised IS to be attacked personally, no matter what everyone else says. It's not a question of time and effort, it's HEART. Sarah asked me to cut a scene that, when I wrote it, I was in tears over. It was a deeply touching scene, but she thought it was pure slush. I was devestated, but out it went.
Unless you're writing Janet and John the only hope you have of being published is to write something personal (but NOT autobiographical, that just scares EVERYONE).
It's the common heritage we all share, the MONO-MYTH (using Campbell's language). I think I've picked this up already somewhere, but be wary about the trap of the Hero's Journey. It's completely valid and true, but there's a risk of just understanding the surface 'external' aspects of what it means, like a checklist of THINGS YOU MUST HAVE.

joelmead said...

Books like Adventures In The Screen Trade by William Goldman and Robert McKee's Story are also very useful for writers. I do have a copy of King on Writing but I admit I've never finished it…