Debut Novel Plucked from Slush Pile: Does That Ever Happen?

Posted on Wed, Apr 17 2013 9:00 am by P.S. Duffy

The scene is familiar to most writers of fiction: a panel of agents and editors sit side by side at a table facing a room overflowing with writers eager for publication. The doors close. The room goes quiet. Introductions are made, and the panelists hold forth on what agents and editors look for in submissions and what makes or breaks debut fiction. For me this scene took place several times at my first AWP conference last March. There were two recurring themes: getting an agent is crucial; getting pulled from the agent’s slush pile, next to impossible.

When the sessions ended, panel members were mobbed by writers anxious to pitch their work to someone in the flesh. At one point during the Q&A, someone asked if being in the audience would count for the query opener “Dear Agent X, we met at the AWP in Boston”? Everyone laughed. They nearly applauded when one of the agents smiled and said, “Well … sure. Why not?”

During the sessions, the mood among both the overworked and overwhelmed agents and editors and the equally hard-working writers swung between hope and cynicism. Agents and editors want good fiction. Writers want to be published. Everyone knows that the two are very different enterprises.

The message from the panels was: do your homework—write the very best work you can, research agents, write a reasonable query. Do not address it “Dear Agent” with 30 other agents in the “send” list. Do not use cute icons. Do not send cake.

The message from the audience was: we know. But can it happen? Can an unknown author with no connections really get picked up from the slush pile?

Even the panelists were hard-pressed to come up with examples, so there were times when I wanted to jump up and say, “Yes! It can happen! It happened to me.” Because it did. An “unknown author with no connections,” I had my first piece of fiction pulled from the slush pile of the second agent I queried, and my novel, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, will be out in hardback this October from W.W. Norton in the U.S. and from Penguin in Canada.

We writers know the world out there is harsh. So often, success stories begin with the words “I received my big break when…” and involve a well-published MFA student or short-story writer, or someone who had a chance encounter with an agent at a conference, or who is a friend of a friend of someone whose cousin is an editor at Random House.

It is true that as a science writer with a previous career in neurobehavioral research, I have scientific publications, but I didn’t mention them in my query because, unless you are faking your data, they say nothing about your ability to write fiction. True as well of the short memoir I wrote about my family’s time in 1940’s China, though, that I did mention. 

When, in my 50s, I followed my heart to try my hand at fiction, I did what many readers of this post have done and are doing. I attended class after class, joined the Loft, joined AWP, went to conferences, read everything I could on craft and publishing, joined critique groups, and all the while researched and wrote the novel—the novel I wanted to write, not the one I thought would satisfy the market.

When I felt it was ready, some eight years in, I spent a month or two researching potential agents on the Association of Author Representatives website and crafting my query. I picked two agents—both fairly young, both featured in the Poets and Writers “Agent-Editors” series in an article titled “The New Guard.” I liked that concept. Both were at smaller agencies and represented at least 60 percent fiction, much of it in my genre (literary) and published by the major houses. Both had agented a few New York Times bestsellers, so I assumed that though young, they truly were up and coming and had strong contacts with fiction editors.

I pasted my much-reworked query into an email and hit “send.” I straightaway got a form rejection from one agent, and a day later, an email from the other asking me to send the manuscript. Too stunned to cry, I read and re-read that simple request, and finally pressed “send” again, manuscript attached. Several revisions later, the agent sent the manuscript out, and a few weeks later, we were reviewing publication offers.

After one AWP session, I told this story to some of the panelists, and they themselves were heartened—as if their mantra, “We’re always hungry for fresh voices, for the next unknown author to come our way,” was magically fulfilled. Maybe it was magic. Maybe I hit the agent on a day when she was just hoping there would be a query about a novel that takes place in France and in Nova Scotia during the First World War. But then too, there were the eight years it took to get me, a fiction novice, to the point where I felt ready to hit “send.”  My story is not unique, I’m sure, but in the reams of words written about publishing and rejection, I like to think it offers hope.   

P.S. Duffy, PhD is the science writer for the Neural Engineering Laboratory at Mayo Clinic and lives in Rochester, MN with her husband, Joe. She is the author of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, a debut novel coming out in October, 2013 from W.W. Norton in the U.S. and in November from Penguin Canada.