The term slush pile has always sounded so harsh to me—like a mountain of muddy sand with a few gems in it. But through my experience as an acquisition editor, I realized that it isn’t hard for professional writers to shine like a gem in the middle of hundreds of un-requested submissions.
As much as I was looking for a compelling plot, I was also looking for what it would be like to work with you. After some time in the slush, I began to read between the lines of the query to determine the professionalism of the author. You may not realize it, but the way you write your query says a lot about you.
As much as I loved my time in acquisitions, I was often surprised by the lack of professionalism of some authors. The less than savory interactions I had lit a fire underneath me to write this blog post. I’m not going to talk about the semantics of how to write a query letter here. Instead, I’m going between the lines to show you what an acquisition editor recognizes about the human being behind it.
First, let’s take a look a fairly famous query letter and I’ll let you know exactly why I would reject it:
Dear Sir or Madam,
Will you read my book? It took me years to write, will you take a look? It’s based on a novel by a man named Lear, and I need a job so I want to be a paperback writer.
It’s a dirty story of a dirty man, and his clinging wife doesn’t understand. His son is working for the Daily Mail. It’s a steady job, but he wants to be a paperback writer.
It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few. I’ll be writing more in a week or two. I could make it longer if you like the style. I can change it ‘round, and I want to be a paperback writer. If you really like it you can have the rights. It could make a million for you overnight. If you must return it you can send it here, but I need a break, and I want to be a paperback writer.
Believe it or not, I got query letters like this. But let’s take a look and see what this letter tells me about the human being behind it.
First clue: “Dear Sir or Madam,”
What this told me: The Beatles don’t care to work with Immortal Works specifically.
This kind of greeting shows that this query was sent out to hundreds of agents and editors en masse. It takes homework to figure out the name of the editor or agent you are querying. But if you get my name right, I’m going to assume that you have a reason for submitting to me, and I’ll be more willing to trust that your story fits within our guidelines, represented genres, and audience.
Think this isn’t a big deal? We once received a submission addressed to Mrs. Rose. Nobody in the company has that name. It received an automatic rejection. Sorry. We are looking for the author who wants to work with us enough to put in a little bit more effort than that.
Second clue: “It’s based on a novel by a man named Lear”
What this told me: Fan-fiction? We don’t publish that. The Beatles didn’t do their research.
You would be surprised how often we receive submissions that we can’t accept. Immortal Works has specific submission guidelines just like every other agent and publisher. Everyone has different rules. Take the time to find out the genre or content qualifications of the person/publisher you are querying. And even more importantly only send in the requested materials.
When authors failed to submit correctly, I immediately wondered if they were difficult to work with. Sometimes I would receive an entire manuscript with no query letter. If they couldn’t follow simple submission guidelines, would they meet editing deadlines? Would they make content edits that we request?
Third clue: “It’s a dirty story of a dirty man...”
What this told me: This weak description makes me wonder if the Beatles know their craft.
Part of being a professional is doing your job well. If a single page query isn’t interesting, could I expect the entire novel to captivate me? Probably not. Do your best to hone your craft. Get feedback. Edit, edit, edit! Spend time making your query and your novel as good as you can possibly can before sending it in.
Fourth clue: “It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few.”
What this told me: The Beatles think they’re an exception to the rules.
Writing a word count far outside of genre standards says “I’m special and deserve an exception.” There’s a difference between confidence and arrogance. To the author who recently rejected the advice that his 180k word novel was too long by saying his “characters needed to breathe and it would ruin the themes” to shorten it, we read you loud and clear. If our first bit of advice is instantly rejected, we wonder how the editing process would function with you.
Fifth clue: “I’ll be writing more in a week or two.”
What this tells me: Earlier the Beatles said it took them years to write a single book. They’re not exactly being honest.
Once, an author queried me, saying they already had an offer for representation but wanted to shop around their novel with us. The manuscript was weak and littered with errors. I genuinely wondered if they were being honest. Another author claimed to have an offer and wanted my counter offer within the next few days or he was going with the first offer. However, his twitter posts to this day still mourn his long dry spell of rejection letters and lack of publication. With social platforms, it’s not hard to find out the truth. Having another offer of representation doesn’t make you more desirable. Dishonesty will get you blacklisted.
Sixth clue: “It could make a million for you overnight.”
What this tells me: The Beatles are kind of a diva.
We don’t want query letters that scream “I’m special.” We want query letters that show “I’m a hard worker.” Don’t project incredible sales outcomes, You can’t control that. Instead, show us exactly how you plan to market. If a writer compares their book to Harry Potter, I think “This author thinks they’re an anomaly.” But comparing it to a thoughtful, current comparable title tells me that you work hard as an active reader and are fluent in your genre.
Saying things like “I never get writer’s block”, and “future New York Times Bestseller” (Yes, those have actually appeared in author bios) don’t necessarily impress me. They might make me giggle, and shake my head, but ultimately aren’t convincing.
Seventh clue: “If you must return it you can send it here, but I need a break.”
What this tells me: The Beatles are likely going to argue with my rejection letter.
You would think that remaining amiable even in the face of rejection is an obvious concept. We genuinely appreciate the kind and respectful responses we get from many of our prospective authors. However, we’ve also seen a fair share of surprising reactions. Here are just a few examples.
-One author tweet blasted me after getting a rejection letter.
-Another author emailed me after I rejected them to say they had received an offer for representation, and how I must have skewed judgment because they were obviously good enough to be published.
-Another responded to a rejection saying “I’ve been published before. You can’t treat me this way.”
-And a final favorite was the rejected author who argued with our rejection, then sent the same manuscript back six weeks later. After being notified that it was just as rejected as before, he argued with the editor saying he had never seen the rejection letter that he originally argued with.
If you were memorable for the right reasons, I’ll recognize your name if a new book comes through my inbox. But being rude and argumentative closes doors.
These examples are the slush we are talking about people. So, take heart, and know that it’s not that hard to stand out from the crowd in a good way. Be professional, humble, and kind and you’ll be that gem we dig up one day and shout “I found it!”
After working as an acquisitions editor for Immortal Works, Rachel Huffmire recently changed positions to serve as marketing manager. Rachel is also an author at IW. Her published books include the award winning Shattered Snow, a time-travel re-telling of Snow White and it’s recently released sequel--Spinning Briar. Her third installment will be released in 2021, along with a brand new YA series about Jinn set in the Mojave Desert.
You can learn more @ rachelhuffmire.com.
What is Your Best Piece of Writing Advice?
On your first draft, never hit delete. You can’t create and edit at the same time. Those processes use two totally different parts of the brain! So write your first draft without your inner editor trying to tidy up your ideas. If you decide to make a significant change, make a brief note, then continue writing where you are as if you had written it that way all along. As author Shannon Hale says- “I'm writing a first draft and reminding myself that I'm simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
How many books written before you were first published?
Shattered Snow (my debut novel) was my sixth fully completed manuscript. I had 72 rejection letters under my belt and had pitched in person to seven different agents and publishers. When I finally had the idea for Shattered Snow, I wrote the book in one month, edited for three months, and had an offer for publication within my first month of querying. I fully believe I had to learn how to write, learn how to accept rejection, and find the right story to tell.
When do you find time to write?
Whenever I can squeeze it in. I write on my phone while I’m rocking my baby to sleep. I write on my computer while my kids eat lunch and I’m bouncing my baby’s rocker with my foot. I write in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. I write when my husband tells me to sneak away for a few hours to Starbucks and buy myself a spiced caramel apple cider. I write in my head while I’m doing dishes, then madly type it all down when I finally get to a keyboard. All the little moments really add up.