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I get asked a lot if I had an "in" before getting a publishing contract, such as a referral to an agent, a published author friend who chatted me up to an editor, etc. The answer is no. I didn't know a single person in the publishing world when I first started submitting my novel. 
 
I knew I wanted an agent, because I had no desire to negotiate contracts myself. But I also knew I'd try some publishing houses, too, just in case one like my book. Unfortunately, I didn't know much beyond that when I started out. I bought a copy of Writer's Marketplace and read it from cover to cover. It introduced me to query letters, agencies that were seeking new clients, and publishing houses that accepted unsolicited manuscripts. I also went online and scrounged up information on which agencies repped my favorite authors, adding them to my Wish List. Then I began the first of countless attempts at a query letter.
 
My first query letters were bad. I mean, laugh and point bad. The beginning of my novel wasn't good, either. I started with backstory, and kept riding that Backstory horse for several chapters (which was far beyond what any sane agent or editor would read). Needless to say, my rejection rate was 100%.
 
I'd heard rejection was part of the game, though, so I didn't give up. I chopped at the beginning of my novel, hacked at my query letter, and tried again. And again. And again. How I'd come to hate those "Dear Author" form letters, but finally, I received requests for my full manuscript from two people. One was an agent who'd rejected me previously, and one was from a small-press publisher. Finally, my chance! 
 
A few weeks after I sent the agent my novel, she emailed me a detailed reply saying that while she liked my characters and my writing 'voice', my book wasn't strong enough for her to take on. She cited numerous things that didn't work for her in the story. At the end of her critique, the agent invited me to resubmit if I wanted to revise based on her suggestions. 
 
To sum up an otherwise very long story, I decided to revise, but it took me three BIG revisions. I ended up deleting over thirty thousand words and rewriting about twenty thousand new ones, before the agent signed me. It worked out, though. Three months after the agent took me on, Harper Collins gave me a two-book deal for my novel, Halfway to the Grave. Later, Harper bought three more books in the series. And, as Halfway to the Grave made two bestseller lists, is now in its third printing, and just sold German rights, you could safely say I'm happy I did all those revisions :).
 
In short: You don't need an "in" to get a publishing or agent contract. No matter what you hear, networking is not the way to go. Spend your time writing, revising, and querying instead, because the slush pile still works.
 
So, who else is a Slush Pile conqueror? FFF members, feel free to start a new post telling how you beat the Slush Pile odds. Watchers, please tell us your success stories with the slush pile, be it magazine articles, short stories, requests for fulls, whatever. Let's spread some holiday Slush Pile cheer :)

Comments

( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
sj_day
Dec. 8th, 2007 05:39 pm (UTC)
And, as Halfway to the Grave made two bestseller lists, is now in its third printing, and just sold German rights, you could safely say I'm happy I did all those revisions :).

I just wanted to say congratulations!! I'm thrilled for you. :)

Sylvia
jimhines
Dec. 8th, 2007 07:08 pm (UTC)
Ditto the congrats -- that's great news! Who's your German publisher?
b_sheridan
Dec. 8th, 2007 07:11 pm (UTC)
The first edition of my Timeless Wish was a Slush Pile success story. I queried Berkley on it and got a request for the full back in two weeks. That was amazing enough but when The Call came about two months later I was stunned to the point of babbling like a total idiot to the editor.

An agent had also requested a full of that book and I told the editor I wanted to contact the agent before making a final commitment to her offer.
frost_light
Dec. 11th, 2007 07:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Sylvia!
green_knight
Dec. 8th, 2007 05:44 pm (UTC)
The myth of the 'in' is just that, a myth. I say that as someone who - through participating in rec.arts.sf.composition and going to cons and just generally hanging out with writers - Knows People (and very nice folks they are, too). But it don't count diddly-squat towards publication, other than giving you writing skills and a general idea how the industry works - because if it were true, it would be _writers_ who were sent piles and piles of slush so that they could put forward one of their new bestest friends to their agents and publishers, which would mean that ultimately they'd be recommending their direct competition and...

Pretty much a horror scenario, isn't it? It's one thing for a writer to tell their agent or editor 'I've read this mss by my dedicated friend, take a look' but while it might get your chapter read _faster_, it will still have to stand on its own feet.

And that's a good thing. Consider the alternative.
lalam
Dec. 8th, 2007 05:59 pm (UTC)
Oh, Jeaniene you have given me hope! I hope to make AT LEAST the slush pile:) I hope that eventually when I finish my MS I can send it on and someone will read it and enjoy it and like my writing 'voice'. *sigh*
tltrent
Dec. 8th, 2007 06:27 pm (UTC)
I have to admit that networking really did work for me, up to a point. My editor was searching through her network for writers that might be able to produce a dark fantasy series, and my name came up. But, as green_knight points out, one's work really does have to stand on its own two feet eventually. If my proposal hadn't been something she and her team ultimately wanted to invest in, they would have picked someone else. (And there were at least 40 other someones they could have chosen from, so I count myself very lucky indeed!)

On the other hand, I've also had networking "fail" b/c the editor wasn't jazzed about my work, probably with good reason at the time. The writing is definitely the most important thing, and I think it's best to start there. Networking is all well and good, but the writing is the thing.

janni
Dec. 8th, 2007 06:39 pm (UTC)
When I sent out the first short story I sold (to one of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover anthologies), I knew no one at all who was doing this seriously. I remember saying to a friend, "They probably won't want this story. They don't know me, after all"; and my friend unhelpfully responding, "Yeah, you're probably right."

Since then I have had a few story sales that resulted from networking (though even then, they wouldn't have sold if the writing didn't stand up) ... but then Bones of Faerie sold because an agent I'd never met and wasn't referred to by anyone liked the book, offered to represent it, and sold it to an editor I'd never met. It really is about the writing in the end.
melissa_writing
Dec. 9th, 2007 04:55 am (UTC)
If you felt inclined, more would be great to read :) I know I read one of your shorts in the Gothic anthology, & IIRC, you have text in the MG readership too. Correct?

I think the short fiction to novel or MG to YA would be interesting to read too . . .
janni
Dec. 9th, 2007 04:13 pm (UTC)
I'm brain muddled from book revisions, and so not quite clear ... more short stories or more of a post about selling stories? :-)

I've sold ... 30 some odd short stories now, for a mix of MG, YA, and adult. Most recently in Cabinet des Fées, then in Gothic! before that ... I love short fiction, and miss having more time for it now that I'm writing novels as well.

Hmmm ... when I'm done revising, a post on writing short fiction might not be a bad thing, too. :-)
melissa_writing
Dec. 10th, 2007 01:32 am (UTC)
More of a post on your journey :)

BUT a post on short stories would be cool too . . .
janni
Dec. 10th, 2007 01:39 am (UTC)
Right. Will try to do so once the revisions are done! (Which one way or another will be within the week!)
lipstick_menace
Dec. 8th, 2007 06:55 pm (UTC)
"My first query letters were bad. I mean, laugh and point bad."

what was it that made your final query letters so much better than the first ones?

=♥=
frost_light
Dec. 11th, 2007 07:12 pm (UTC)
It actually wasn't that my updated query was so much better. It's just that it didn't suck so much that my sample pages went unread, lol. The query that Rachel requested a full from was very short. VERY short, like three lines for the description of my novel. Rachel said it looked confident and made her want to read my sample pages, which she liked. But if I hadn't sent sample pages, it probably would have gone in the reject pile again.
lankywriter
Dec. 8th, 2007 07:01 pm (UTC)
thanks, Jenniene, for sharing this. It's not an easy road, is it? I admire your hard work and perseverance. Three long revisions is a lot! I've had to do the same thing with a couple of manuscripts and though just one of those sold, the experience was priceless. I learned so much.

Rachel Vater is my dream agent, and I will be querying her one day soon. I pitched to her in Seattle last July and in less than ten minutes she gave me the best advice I'd ever been given on a work in progress. I've since rewritten the book I pitched and am eager to pitch her the new and improved version. 8^) Actually, the book I pitched in July is now book 2 of the series, and is much revised. 8^)

All the published writers I know started out in the slush pile. As everyone's said, it's the quality of the writing that stands out.
jimhines
Dec. 8th, 2007 07:06 pm (UTC)
With short fiction, I think it took me about 25 submissions into the slush pile at Realms of Fantasy before finally cracking that one.

In terms of novels, that's a weirder story. I had an "in" with a smaller press, and I submitted there along with some of the larger publishers. Basically, the book got picked up both by the small publisher and by one of the big ones through the slush. The slush side took two and a half years, but it did result in an offer, and I knew absolutely nobody there.

I may write this one up in a longer post, because I know that probably didn't make a lot of sense.
melissa_writing
Dec. 9th, 2007 04:52 am (UTC)
Yes, longer post. *nods* We like that. (Although your short version makes sense, more details would be lovely.)
johnlevitt
Dec. 8th, 2007 07:08 pm (UTC)
I went the whole query and rejection route. My query letter could have been better, but it wasn't bad. Likewise the ms. I eventually found an agent whose editorial advice improved the ms tremendously, to the point whwere she could sell it.

The whole process did take quite a while, however.
irysangel
Dec. 8th, 2007 07:22 pm (UTC)
(Third printing! Wow, congrats!)

I'm a total slush pile girl too. I knew absolutely no one in the industry. I wrote a book, queried the hell out of it, whined when none of my partials/fulls turned into magic, and so I wrote another.

That one didn't take many queries before it found an agent, and later, a publisher. My query letter had no writing credits on it. Zero.

Great post. :)

- Jill Myles
_hallow_
Dec. 8th, 2007 07:56 pm (UTC)
Jeaniene, I am SO adding this to my memories to show to any friend who is lamenting being rejected or taking a rejection too personally. I can now say "see, here is someone who was rejected but who took the revision suggestions and was signed up by that same person and is not a bestseller." It's a great story and a great example of the hard work that authors go through to get to their dreams.

And while I'm at it, congratulations! :-D
legionfalcon
Dec. 8th, 2007 08:37 pm (UTC)
I have to agree. This is great advice, and a good pick me up for writers that are struggling. Thanks so much!
rkvincent
Dec. 8th, 2007 09:24 pm (UTC)
I'm a slush pile survivor. Sort of.

By the time I started submitting Stray, I actually knew several published authors, and two of them sent my submission to their agents. But both agents turned it down, so my eighteen other queries went straight into the slush pile. My future agent, Miriam Kriss, found it, read the enclosed chapters, called for more, read the rest of the book, and offered representation all in a single day. Seriously. Over a twelve-hour period. From a cold query.

Long live the slush pile!

Rachel Vincent
melissa_writing
Dec. 9th, 2007 04:51 am (UTC)
I love this. If you felt inclined, it'd be cool to read a longer version of this how-it happened story :) Yanno, start a new post . . .
dpeterfreund
Dec. 8th, 2007 11:50 pm (UTC)
I hate the myth of the "in." When I started writing, I knew absolutely ZERO people in the publishing industry. Not a soul. I met people as a result of joining RWA, being a regular at eHarlequin, and going to every conference I could afford.

But that didn't change where my submissions ended up. There were thousands of other unpublished authors at those things as well.

So I wrote four books, sent them out, waited, got rejections, etc. I wrote another book and sent it to an agent who had rejected previous novels but expressed interest in seeing something more from me. By this point, I had met her, but that didn't change my getting rejections from her! She took on that book (I also got offers from a bunch of other agents I'd never met before). She sold it.

Good books trump connections any day.
melissa_writing
Dec. 9th, 2007 02:14 am (UTC)
I have obeyed & uploaded said reply in a new post, my dear.

M.
sarahtales
Dec. 9th, 2007 09:16 pm (UTC)
What a great story! And hooray for Halfway to the Grave's triumphant progression.

I am not sure whether I count as a Slush Pile conqueror or not! I did know some people, through sheer luck and wandering haplessly around New York being vaguely in publishing like a sad little intern lamb, but I was much too shy to ask even if they thought querying their agents would be a good idea. Then I read Kristin Nelson's blog until I became dazed and queried her in a fit of late-night insanity. I was sure that would be the end of it, since she didn't know me from Adam and there was, you know, midnight madness in every line of my query, but it all worked out.

I was offered representation by another agent through a contact at the same time as I was offered it by Kristin: Kristin asked for quite a bit of pre-sub revision and the other didn't. I went with Kristin and like you, I'm happy I did those revisions. :)

Maybe you can say I chose to be in the slush pile? Maybe I should stop pouring not-even-midnight madness onto all your screens...
melissa_writing
Dec. 10th, 2007 03:59 am (UTC)
Choosing to be in the slush pile seems pretty awesome to me :) And obviously it worked. Congrats.
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

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