Getting to the top of the slush pile

Yesterday evening I was out celebrating with some writing buddies from my old creative writing MA class because one of our number has got a book deal with HarperCollins in the US. A big cheer for David John. Well done, mate and well deserved.

It gives me hope because it’s tough out there for new writers. David hasn’t got a UK deal yet, which is bizarre as his book is a thriller set around the 1936 Berlin Olympics and, with London hosting the 2012 Olympics, you’d think UK publishers would be snapping it up. I expect a UK deal will follow soon but publishers do seem to be risk averse at the moment. And new writers are a risk. It’s understandable, I guess, in the current economic climate, but not helpful to those of us trying to get our first publishing deal.

So how do you get to the top of the slush pile? How do you differentiate yourself?

1. First off, it helps to have a high concept idea or a unique selling point. By high concept I mean like Vampirates. (This is particularly the case with children’s or YA novels.) You need a strong, marketable idea with a plot you can sum up in a sentence or two. Another writer friend Liz Trenow comes from a silk-weaving family and her book, currently being pitched, is set in a factory manufacturing parachute silk during the second world war. It’s a quirky take on the genre and her knowledge of silk is a great USP. It makes her, the author, marketable as well as the book.

2. You need a brilliantly written, well structured novel. That means sympathetic characters, page-turning plot and a strong voice. Get feedback from other writers before you send it out to an agent. This could be through an online community like Writewords, people you’ve met on a writing course or a professional literary consultancy like Cornerstones. Criticism, when it’s constructive, can be enormously helpful. There will be some criticism that you just don’t agree with but often people will pick up on something that you’ve felt unsure about yourself. Listen to that. Sometimes you’ll know there’s a problem in your work but you can’t quite pinpoint it. That’s when you need a fresh pair of eyes to look at it. Your book needs to be the best it can be before you send it out.

3. When approaching an agent, presentation is important. (Read the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for guidance.) Check for spelling mistakes and make sure it’s in the format that a particular agent or publisher prefers – usually three chapters, a synopsis and a covering letter.

4. But for an agent to get to the book, you need to stand out in that covering letter. Showing professionalism, that you take your craft seriously, will get them to sit up and take notice. Having done creative writing courses / retreats / an MA will help. If you’ve won or been short-listed for a writing competition, mention that. (Writing magazines often run such competitions.)

5. Belonging to a writing organisation will also help distinguish yourself from the crowd. For instance, I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Such organisations are great for networking with other writers. But often they’ll get agents / publishers/ published authors to give talks. And if you’re approaching an agent or editor, having met them or having heard them speak somewhere is going to get their attention. It means you can say: ‘At the SCBWI conference this year, you said you’d be interested in seeing a good ghost story…’ That kind of personal connection is invaluable.

Good luck!

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