Here are the odds.

It starts with thousands of us. Not ten, or a hundred, nor a creative writing class’s worth. It’s more like a legion, or several, with millions of words between us. It’s not just you at it, either. It’s me, and it’s him down the road, her in the next town — the vicar in his vicarage. It’s your grandparents’ awing memoirs. It’s stuff by vampire fans, fans of boobies, fans of football games of the seventies. Actually, it is all of us, us writers and poets and journalists. Us playwrights and students and columnists.

So they’re long odds, really.

All of us, we have our works in progress and our half-finished drafts, our ideas on envelopes, in phones, the insides of a flash new moleskine. Our final versions, word docs with long tails — passworded PDFs and hardback envelopes stuffed with query letters, three chapters, four wishes and a frigging tonne of stamps.

All of us, you and me, we each have our target postcodes and dreams. We also have the reviews we imagine while showering. The launch party. The mushroom vol-au-vents. That’s a lot of hope combined. And so the odds get a bit longer.

Our millions of words have to filter through a fine-comb funnel. A metre-stacked slush pile, manned by someone who also has to send all those read-receipts because we’re all so neurotic about postmen. And these readers have seen every kind of handwriting from far-flung addresses. They’ve had to deal with unreadable, unreturnable junk and greasy prints on typewritten A4. Queries two days after they’ve received a first query. Millions of words through a fine-comb funnel — and the slush gets deeper, and decisions get easier. The odds get shorter still.

Publishers’ readers, they can only work off their proclivities and taste. You don’t fit the bill, it’s a form letter without a why. So you never know why. And it gets tougher yet because the slush reader’s cynicism has been sharpened on a strop of bad letters and writers’ egos. They want the next big thing, sure: they crave it. It’s not us versus them — it’s an interdependent setup. But lengthy exposition — infodumps — and crappy first paragraphs; cliches and casual racism, these are the things we send to try them. Things that make a ‘no’ easy.

And yes, their nos come easy. They didn’t like the first page, or the sixth when they checked come to that. And nos come from other things. The last book they read was a belter; does yours hold up?

The odds get shorter, and shorter.

And we, me and thee, we sit at home and take it all so personally. It wasn’t even a bad go — it just caught a reader as they rubbed their eyes at 4.15 on a Friday afternoon, when they’ve had a beer for dinner and a suggestive text from home. They don’t want your manuscript, leastways not all of it. And anyway, your title’s silly, and derivative, and there’s another, something brighter, much further down the pile.

Those bloody odds.

But we go on, don’t we? Possibly a bunch of masochists. We query and we scream — we celebrate with our pals and we say, well, I worked damn hard on that last draft —

Even if we always submit and find a typo in the first page.

I write all this because I’ve read slush. Once upon a time, I was that bastard gatekeeper. I know how the jokes go, the shared banter, the blackly cruel remarks. The fright at deranged writers — some of you are — and the If only he’d put that there, or made that a little clearer. While I wasn’t really qualified to judge, I had chance to.

In fact, agents and publishers’ readers use any excuse to say no. It’s a lesson the writer learns hard and fast. It’s where the odds are cut out altogether. The first thing to strip away the skin, the romanticism of writing. The very thing that exposes the gulf between written and read. And that’s how come I know the odds pretty well. That’s how I know it sometimes isn’t enough to be good.

But don’t forget: agents and publishers don’t want to say no.


10 thoughts on “Odds

  1. And it’s that, all of the above, every last word, that makes me so humble. I’m published (now, who knows what will happen – they might hate the next manuscript) because I got lucky. I’m not better than other writers, not more technically precise or grammatically perfect, nor the writer of a stonkingly good query letter. I’m just lucky. And having read your post, I feel even luckier.

    Good luck to everyone who’s putting stuff out there. Luck, and dedication, is all you need.

  2. Hi, Matt – i caught the RT from @bubblecow – nice post. It really does feel like an uphill battle and it’s hard not to take rejection personally when you have poured your heart and soul into your writing and revising. But this post is a good dose of reality. It’s always good to have a plan B ;-)

  3. I adored this piece… a nearly-rambling, poignant confession of peeking at both sides of the coin. Seeing the word ‘strop’ in a blog made me smile, and the “suggestive text from home” line provoked a bout of genuine laughter. Reading these sentences almost brings on depression but, yes, writers rather thrive on angst and are often more critical of their own work than the most distracted publisher’s minion… er, reader. it is a weird line to walk, to say the least. Thank you for this insightful bundle of nits and sideways encouragement.

  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention Odds | Matthew Hill's website -- Topsy.com

  5. –Jane

    Hi! On reflection, I sound like a great big fat miserablist about it all. Actually I wanted it to say, yes, it’s a slog, but we perservere because there’s nothing like the hope. And because we enjoy it. Sometimes.

    I came this close to being there — published — when the publisher in question went kaput. That was luck, too.

    But I don’t mean to demean those who are published. I certainly don’t want to humble anybody — make them feel bad about it. There IS of course more than luck involved, and perhaps I should’ve made that clearer.

    I definitely don’t want to sound like I resent those who’ve made it. That simply wouldn’t be true.

    Good luck with your next manuscript. Your last line here should’ve been the last line of my post.


    Thanks! On some levels I am one of the most self-critical twerps you’re ever likely to meet. When I get a rejection letter, I tantrum and sulk for days. I don’t mean to elevate myself above anybody with the words here. Hopefully that isn’t the case.

    Perhaps, actually, this was aimed more at the people who don’t write/submit their stuff to publishers/agents. A great many people think it’s really easy to get published. That’s probably what I meant to say.

    Need some conviction.


    It’s always rambling, and you’re too polite. Needless to say, I don’t think I made a very good reader. Much happier on the writerly side of that coin, isn’t it. Not least because you don’t have to think about bottom lines and return on investments and so on.


    Thanks for commenting!

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  7. Pingback: The Odds, Originality, and Short Stories — Ruthanne Reid, Author

  8. Really good post. Summed up a lot of what I’ve been thinking lately.

    I went to a publishing do recently and they went through the odds and it was depressing stuff. But that didn’t put me off – it just spurred me on. Not that I think I’ll make it over anyone else or resent those that have but that something makes me continue. I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.

    I’ve been a script editor – reading the slush pile – too. I loved it but I know it’s different when you’re on the other end.

  9. (Came from Twitter).
    People often ask me what it takes to get published and my first response is to say that you just have to get on and do it. There’s not much difference between most published and unpublished writers in terms of talent, as one commenter said. Many people want to “have written” a book, but don’t realize the work involved, both before and after the book is out. When you get rejected, you have to think hard about what that person said (if you’re lucky enough to get feedback), take it on board and keep going.
    Having said all that, it’s important to remember that published writers were all unpublished at one point and there is hope for everyone.

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