Rough diamonds (pictured above) don’t look much like the polished stone in the ring. Rather they look like bits of quartz stained with darker minerals. When cut and polished, that baggie of stones will be worth about two million dollars. These are Canadian diamonds, dug from kimberlite pipes in the barrenlands east of Yellowknife. There are three operating mines in the Northwest Territories and several more in the works in other parts of northern Canada. Together they have made Canada the third largest producer of diamonds in the world, after Botswana and Russia.
For years, few people believed in the possibility of finding significant diamond deposits in Canada, let alone in the Northwest Territories. Those that did are now fabulously wealthy. The story of their perseverance, talent and luck makes fascinating reading.
Perseverance, talent and luck; those three words are often used to describe what it takes to be a successful writer. The joke is often made that any combination of two will suffice (usually to explain why a book we personally dislike is doing so well) but the truth is you need all three to succeed for any length of time.
The same is true for readers of slush.
Books come to publishers in a number of ways. They may be solicited from established writers with a track record of success. No matter what shape the first draft is in, the publisher has some confidence he can produce a solid final product. Similarly, agents may approach a publisher with a manuscript. Sometimes the writer has a publishing history; sometimes it is a first novel. However, the publisher knows that, if the agent is reputable (not all are), she will have already helped polish the novel. Again, the editor can look at the piece with somewhat different – and more positive – perspective.
Then there is the slush pile. I’ve already written about why submissions don’t succeed but the real question is: why do they? Few unsolicited or unagented novels are in publishable form. Even those that are generally well-written and well plotted with interesting characters in a fascinating setting can’t go off to the printer without some additional work. Lots do, I know, which is why the vast majority of self-published writers make less than $500 a book. It’s not just lack of promotion.
Many potentially good novels don’t look that good at first glance. Writing may be grammatical but clumsy; voice may be interesting but inconsistent. Plot holes big enough to swallow a Florida bedroom threaten to derail the whole exercise. Characters may change for no sound psychological reason. Imbalances between dialogue and description, too many details obscuring the telling one, an insistence that ‘I suffered for my research, now you must suffer too’ all can obscure the underlying value of the book.
Finding a good book in the slush, is a bit like finding a few diamonds in the glacial till beside a frozen lake. It’s not easy but it can be done.
Perseverance is essential. The biggest failure of many submitted drafts is the story doesn’t start on page one; usually it doesn’t start in chapter one. It’s why we almost always ask for the first three chapters. Everyone knows they should start ‘in media res.’ Unfortunately, many people think that means, start with an exciting event and then spend twenty pages explaining how we got to that point. Others don’t bother – they give you twenty pages of back story before anything happens at all. Back story can be very interesting – in a boring sort of way. When I get bored, I want to stop reading.
But my rule is: if the prose is not unreadable, keep going to the end of three chapters. And it’s a good thing too. I recently slogged through a chapter and a half of ‘history of the universe’ stuff, when suddenly a scene exploded off the page. I asked myself if I needed to know all that backstory to know what was at stake in the scene. The answer was clearly no – the scene implied all the history of these people: their goals, their different culture, their varied technology. And I’m glad I persevered; that novel went from no way to maybe in a few pages and I’ll likely ask to see the rest.
Talent is also required. As a slush reader you need to have the ability to recognize a good story when you see it. It probably helps if you’ve had some success as a writer – but that’s no guarantee. A good critical reader, who lacks the ability or interest to string together a narrative, can still recognize the kernel of a good story. The real talent of a slush reader is to view narrative outside the box of what has been successful before.
We’ve all heard the story of the many rejections J.K. Rowling received before the first Harry Potter novel was bought. I suspect, in many cases, it never got beyond the slush because the readers couldn’t see Harry’s ‘magic.’
I have no doubt I will miss a gem because I failed to see it in the muck, which is why I don’t read slush when I’m tired or irritated. I need to be able to turn my editor off and let the text speak to me. Sometimes I won’t hear it; often it has nothing to say, but once in a while, it whispers, even shouts: “I am a story.”
Luck comes into play. On one level, it is a matter of luck that a good book gets sent to me rather than someone else. It may be that I was the first publisher they came across in their marketing search, or, maybe, another publisher (bigger and more prosperous) had the bad luck to be tone-deaf to this piece or too slow to respond. Finally, I need to be lucky enough to be in the right frame of mind to see the value of a perfect 58-facet diamond in a lump of gravel. I try to increase this luck by always going back to any submission that tweaked even a glimmer of interest.
Perseverance, talent and luck. Diamond miners need it – so do writers and publishers.
The mines in northern Canada have to sift through about a ton of kimberlite to find a single carat of diamond. The bag above represents about one good day’s production from a mine that is now a kilometer across and 350 meters deep and uses 50-ton trucks to carry rock from the mine to the processing plant. Here’s a picture of the Ekati mine – in case you ever wanted to see what a billion dollars looks like.
P.S If you’d like to help me find some more diamonds, support our latest project – an anthology of political science fiction called “Strange Bedfellows” – by donating to our Indiegogo crowd sourcing. There are lots of nice benefits and it’s sure to give you a nice warm feeling.
And thanks to all those who have already contributed or spread the word on Facebook, Twitter or in their blogs.