Query Week 2: Greetings From the Slush Pile

17 Feb


Greetings from the Slush Pile

Guest Blog by Vanessa Di Gregorio


Hey everyone! So I’m Vanessa, and today I’ll be guest-blogging about what happens after an agent has your partial or full manuscript. And yes, that means I’ll be talking about the dreaded slush pile (dun dun duunnn)! As an intern at a literary agency, hopefully I’ll be able to give you guys some insight into what goes on over on the other side of the fence.

So, what happens after your manuscript has been requested? Whether it be a partial or a full manuscript, you need to be patient. Agents get a ridiculous amount of queries at any given time, and will request for quite a number of partials. If you’ve reached this stage and are rejected, don’t take it to heart! This is a VERY subjective industry. Agents will only take on manuscripts that they are passionate about.  And what about agent interns, you ask? Well, while our own personal taste certainly comes into play, we also have to consider what kind of manuscripts would work for certain agents at the agency. For example: I help manage two different slush piles at the agency I am currently at. After reading material from the clients they have already signed on, I have a fairly good sense of what they would like in a manuscript, and what they don’t.  And interns will only get this responsibility if they prove that they are good at it.

Now, what about rejection? Why do so many manuscripts end up on the chopping block? The reasons vary. Sometimes people just aren’t starting their story in the right place. Other times, the protagonists aren’t engaging enough. Or the writing style is just not something that particularly appeals to the agent. If I feel that I can offer some sort of advice to the writer, I will. So don’t think that agents who reject you are heartless, or have terrible taste, or are the vaguest at offering you advice! Agents need to be vague in their advice when they are rejecting you because it isn’t their place to tell you want they want. The specific advice comes after you have been signed on. So they will give you broad advice that can help improve your story instead of specifics (which can be much more subjective).

Also, keep in mind that agents get drowned under a sea of slush, and have to do a hell of a lot of digging to find something that catches their eye. And with all that slush to plow through, sometimes we don’t have the time to read your entire partial (blasphemy, I know! But this shouldn’t be new to you). After around 2-3 pages, it’s easy to get a sense of whether or not we’ll take you on. And if we read more than that, it’s because SOMETHING has caught our interest in some way. It can be a well-written character, a great P.O.V., a plot that just hooks; it can be so many different things.

If we still reject you, it’s probably because it might need too much work at that particular moment. So if an agent says something positive, or mentions that your manuscript needs more work, keep that in mind – and listen to them. They aren’t your bff’s telling you that your story is totally awesome and will sell millions. They are strangers to you and your work, and will give you their honest opinion. Some agents will even mention that they would love the opportunity to read your manuscript if you rewrite it. In fact, I did just that recently. The query was absolutely AMAZING – her summary was just so intriguing! But then after receiving her partial, I was disappointed. The story begins and falls flat, but there is one short scene in the middle of the first chapter that I thought was absolutely BRILLIANT. And I thought, why couldn’t THAT be the beginning of the book? So while we ultimately said no to her manuscript as it currently stood, we did tell her that if she rewrote her manuscript, we would love for her to resubmit it.

Just to give you an idea, out of all the partials I read through, only around 10% of these will get a request for a full manuscript. Slim, I know. BUT DON’T DESPAIR! Chances are, if you have a crit partner for your work, you will be at a tremendous advantage. The reason for this very small percentage is because most people send their very rough first drafts… Which NO agent wants to see. So as long as you have given your work a thorough look-over and edit, you will be WAY ahead of a majority of people.

And here are some reasons WHY I have ended up rejecting some manuscripts from the slush pile… and since I love making lists, what better way than in a list of DON’Ts?

  • DON’T have a ridiculous amount of typos. No, seriously. This may sound like the most OBVIOUS thing in the world, but you would not believe how many people send in partials that are CLEARLY first drafts (and full of typos/simple grammatical mistakes). Likewise, don’t mention that you are sending your first draft (that is actually kind of insulting). Now, I’m not saying that all first drafts are horrible – but the majority of writers should go over their manuscript and polish it up after writing it. If an agent requests a partial, remember: make it as polished as you can. You are trying to show an agent what it is you are capable of.
  • BUT (and this is a biggie) – DON’T just polish your partial and leave the rest of the manuscript alone. It should ALL be equally polished. If there is one thing agents hate, it’s thinking that your work is BRILLIANT, only to see that the rest of your manuscript is a great big mess. Agents don’t like being fooled.
  • DON’T write a 3-page synopsis that sounds exactly like Twlight/New Moon. It isn’t appealing. It’s fine to compare your work and point out similarities in theme with other titles, but don’t show how good you are at taking an already published story and changing the setting and character names with your initials slapped on top.
  • DON’T mention how characters are of a certain background if it has absolutely NO relevance to the story – and especially don’t make it a selling point for your manuscript. Example: If you are writing a novel about faeries, don’t mention how they are Irish as opposed to British when the story takes place in California. Because then what you have are American faeries who have different hair colours. UNLESS their background is somehow relevant to the story, don’t mention it as a selling point.
  • DON’T look up body parts in an anatomy book when you’re trying to be sexual/erotic. Let me just say, IT DOES NOT WORK. Please, PLEASE use urban dictionary if you are trying to write something erotic. Don’t start naming various parts of the body using terms that only doctors would use. It just makes the reader (and the agent) laugh. And then cry a little on the inside.

And, just in case you still feel insecure, my fellow intern Rachel (gotta love her) showed me what I think is a great guide for writers who just can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong when querying called, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected by Jessica Page Morrell.

So, hopefully I haven’t scared any writers away from dreams of publication! Remember, agents aren’t personally slapping you in the face when they reject you. And the slush pile isn’t some black hole where all your manuscripts go to die. If you have received a partial request, pat yourself on the back – your query letter was good! If you have received a full manuscript request, do a few fist pumps. And if you get signed, remember – there is still a long way to go. BUT, you’ll have someone in the industry who LOVES what you’ve written and will do everything it takes to get that book published. And then that slush pile won’t seem so evil anymore, cause it’ll all be worth the wait. And I think THAT deserves a happy dance.


Vanessa is currently an intern at The Rights Factory, a literary agency located in Toronto. She is also taking courses in a publishing program, and is trying to figure out where in the world of publishing she wants to end up in. Currently, she is working on a YA novel.


20 Responses to “Query Week 2: Greetings From the Slush Pile”

  1. Sarah J. Maas February 17, 2010 at 12:29 AM #

    This is awesome!!! Fantastic post, Vanessa!!! 😀

    • Vanessa February 17, 2010 at 12:43 PM #

      Thanks Sarah!!!!

  2. Angela February 17, 2010 at 3:09 AM #

    I have a question that came up when I was checking out The Right Factory website.

    What is the difference between a solicited and unsolicited manuscript?

    • Vanessa February 17, 2010 at 12:49 PM #

      That’s a great question actually (for the longest time I had absolutely NO idea)!

      Unsolicited manuscripts aren’t asked for. Basically, if an agent or a publisher asks for your manuscript, it is solicited (because they requested it).

      If you just send in your manuscript, it is unsolicited.

      I hope that makes sense!!

      • Angela February 17, 2010 at 5:40 PM #

        Wow, thanks! That totally makes sense now. 🙂

      • Vanessa February 17, 2010 at 6:53 PM #

        No problem!!! Glad I could help!

  3. svonnah February 17, 2010 at 7:27 AM #

    Way to go, Vanessa! That was an awesome article! Thanks especially for the book recommendations. Is the Rachel you mentioned the LTWF Rachel?

    • Rachel S February 17, 2010 at 10:34 AM #

      Vanessa, I really enjoyed this article. I especially liked how — and I never even realized this — when you read partials/fulls of manuscripts the agent DOES like how that effects what the agent DOESN’T like. (I mean I knew it depended on taste, but I never really thought about it.)
      Great job and I can’t wait to see more of you. 🙂

    • Vanessa February 17, 2010 at 12:51 PM #

      Actually, the Rachel I mentioned is the only other intern at The Rights Factory right now. We’re in the same publishing program as well!

      And thanks!! I had stupid amounts of fun writing that article!

  4. Rowenna February 17, 2010 at 10:06 AM #

    Thanks for your insight! It’s easy to get frustrated as a writer, but seeing what the other side of the desk looks like makes it much easier to understand why it’s so important for writers to develop patience and perserverance.

    • Vanessa February 17, 2010 at 1:04 PM #

      Thanks! Being an aspiring author myself, I totally empathize with writers who submit their work to the agency, and I try to give as much input as I can. Agents often put their clients first, and so sometimes manuscripts and partials in the slush pile will get put off. So it really is all about patience, and keeping your head held high!!

  5. Jeni February 17, 2010 at 11:07 AM #

    I learned so much from your post. Thank you! Loved the behind-the-scenes look at why some requested partials/fulls get rejected. You made several points in this post that I haven’t seen elsewhere.

    • Vanessa February 17, 2010 at 1:12 PM #

      Awesome, thanks!!!! 😀 I had a lot of fun writing this post! And I’m glad you found it helpful! I think that it can be easier to learn from mistakes (hence the list of don’ts as opposed to a list of do’s).

      I know it can be disheartening to receive rejections as a writer, but it can also be disheartening to agents as well at times to dish out the rejections. I know ultimately it sucks WAY more for the writer, but it can be frustrating on both ends. I really do think having someone give you honest feedback is the most important thing before you submit a query/your manuscript.

  6. junebugger February 17, 2010 at 1:05 PM #

    Great post! I’ll make sure never to use an atonomy dictionary! LOL

    • Vanessa February 17, 2010 at 1:14 PM #

      Ahahaha, thanks June! Avoid those anatomy books like the plague! (unless you’re actually writing a book ON anatomy, of course :p)

  7. Rachel G February 17, 2010 at 1:48 PM #

    Way to go Vanessa! 🙂 Also, thanks for the shout-out. I feel famous now!
    In addition to how much I’ve already told you I love the post, I’ll add that when I write rejection letters to authors I try to put myself in their shoes and write something that I would appreciate hearing– “This isn’t a right fit for us” is ok, but is a pretty unsatisfying answer, so I always try to give a solid reason or two in the letter for why their manuscript specifically was rejected, or I make general comments for fixing the reasons why it was rejected (like you said).

    • Vanessa February 17, 2010 at 5:25 PM #

      Thanks Rach! And I had to throw you in there! That book is just so good!

      And yeah, that is never something someone wants to read. I can only imagine how frustrating it is to see a line like that in a manuscript.

  8. Ali McDonald February 18, 2010 at 2:20 PM #

    Dearest Vanessa,

    Really enjoyed reading your blog! While submitting to agencies can be a frustrating business for writers, a few lucky ones do get through. As an agent, two-thirds of my clients are “slush pile” discoveries and they are absolute gems 😉 You’ve done a brilliant job illuminating the uncertainties of query letters. May your sage advice aid those talented writers out there in finding representation for their work.

    Looking forward to reading your next post!

    Much love from TRF,


    • Vanessa February 18, 2010 at 10:42 PM #

      Aww, thanks!!!! But all of my sage advice comes from you, Ali, and the rest of the TRF crew!!

  9. Jessica Rising May 10, 2013 at 4:07 AM #

    Hi Vanessa! I loved this post. Thank you so much for the look into the other side of things. I was a little confused as to your use of the term “slush pile”, though. I always thought that was the pile of unsolicited manuscripts only, but it seems that it means both un and solicited? Thanks for the clarification!

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