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.