Getting Through the Slush Pile

Your Query lands on the Literary Agent’s desk and you hope for representation? No, that’s wrong. Your Query lands somewhere in a pile of Queries like this…
So, what are your chances of having your <great, edited, beta-checked, fabulous) novel accepted? From my research, I would guess about one chance in a pile of Queries this tall. Some calculate that the chance of making it through the Slush Pile is 1 in 100; then 1 in another 100 to have it accepted by a publisher. Others put the chance at 1 in 6000. It all depends upon which literary gatekeeper you refer to.

I had a non-fiction book accepted my Macmillan Publishers and it did very well (with four reprints). Then I self-published my first thriller and it received great reviews, yet these did not translate into spectacular sales. I wonder if the title—3 WISE MEN—put off the non-religious readers, even though it is hardly religious at all?

My latest novel awaits representation from a literary agent and I believe in the book enough to pursue this route until I find the right one. Plus, I want a wide audience to enjoy a contemporary novel that addresses global imbalances in wealth in a post-COVID world, along with Cold War drama and high-tech espionage. My new novel aims to be current and intriguing, with enough tension to keep you awake, and enough humour to enjoy the literary journey. In the next few posts, I will use extracts from the book to wet your appetites. And, if you are keen, I am looking for a few more Beta Readers to give me feedback.

Getting to Know Your Characters

Here’s a question I have to ask myself often—how well do I know my characters? Yes, I can describe them (features like hair, makeup, dress, etc.) but do I really know them? A few years ago I met a long-lost half-brother. We talked and he was quiet, reflecting on a father he hardly knew. But, I never understood him until he told me about a letter he had written to his father. The response he got, and the way he reacted, gave me clues about the depth of his feelings. When I saw my half-brother walk away, he had the same gait as my father and my eyes were opened fully to his character. In writing, there is that elusive search to reveal a character by his or her actions, rather than through description. They give away their true identity with a gesture, body position, speech and response. In my latest novel, many of my characters are build upon people I know quite well, but others have to be fabricated from observations, etc. My goal is to have none of my characters appear flat (as in this cartoon). And, here’s a secret, one of the key characters in my book is a little like me—Oh, very well, a lot like me!

Easier to Trim or Add?

I watched one of those self-promoting videos in which there was a discussion on whether it is easier to trim words from a novel or add them. At first, I agreed with the notion that trimming was easier—after all, there is something immediate to work with. In my first novel, I found trimming easy to do as part of the editing process. This happened for me with my latest novel too. However, and this is where I differ, once I have done a heavy edit and trim, I find it easier to add to the plot and, therefore, the text. Like the tide creeping in, my additions give more depth. I guess others prefer to work the other way (and reduce their lengthy manuscript). To summarise:

  1. My draft manuscript finished at 76,000 words
  2. Trim/Edits dropped the word count to 74,000 words
  3. Adding more plot detail and two more chapters for improved depth of plot, etc. lifted the word count to 84,500. The key lesson is to let your manuscript be open to the changing tide of thought, refinement and additions. The words may go out and drain the book length; or come back in—often with crashing waves of inspiration—to enhance your writing and complete it. Only you will know for sure when the landscape of your novel looks best. For some, it is when the tide has gone out; for others (like me), it is when the tide is in and covering the early draft.

Average Book Length is Hardly Average

In an earlier post, I discussed book lengths. An interesting aside—when researching this topic on the internet, pay close attention to the date of the article or discussion. Here’s why:

You will notice that this research, based on the New York Bestseller list (see full article here) shows a very clear trend down from 467pp (in 2011) to 273 (in 2017)! In my new thriller, my draft manuscript hovered around 74,000 words. Now, following severe editing and adding critical plot and character details, it is sitting at 82,000 words. At this count, the book feels ‘right’. What do I mean by feel? I mean exactly that. Pick up a 74,000 word book and it feels a bit on the thin side. Now, try the 82,000 word novel and it has a good heft; a sense of substance, and I know I will be reading a story with a well—developed plot and depth of detail. Of course, this assumes that the story is well—written, and the plot exciting, with many twists and turns.

New Thriller Editing—Beta Readers!

You may be wondering what stage my new thriller is at? It has been sent out to a few selected Literary Agents and I am still waiting for it to be picked up for representation. Meanwhile, I have not been idle in my writing! I continue to make minor edits, based mostly on beta reader feedback. This process has been most helpful. For example, over this past weekend, a good friend of mine (who is an avid thriller reader) sent me his annotated suggestions to my draft. I took a few hours to review these and make a few changes to the manuscript. During this process, it forced me to review a few paragraphs, add some character text, change a section from first to third person, etc. Feedback is like sparks that light up new ideas and I find the process so helpful as a writer. It improves the book. “Beta Readers are…a rare species that writers needed to treasure and conserve once found.” (see more here)

I feel like a ribbon on a kite

The more I listen to (literary) agents the more I feel like a ribbon on a kite. Which way does the wind blow today?” Many will identify with this comment. After all, one day you Query Letter is not up to the task, the next your word count is too low; another day you chose the wrong sub—genre, and the next you made a grammatical error.

One thing you need to keep reminding yourself is that the ‘answer is blowing in the wind.’ Just hang on to that kite!

Like you, I am hoping that the wind will blow my way. I have published before, have self-published, have a couple of blogs going and believe in the book I have finished enough to stay clinging to the tail of the kite I am chasing!

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