So you’ve just finished writing your novel. Before I go any further, let me stand and applaud you – I have the utmost respect for any writer, new or established, who goes the whole mile and finishes a manuscript of novel length. Even those books that are less than excellent deserve a hearty round of congratulatory cheers for their creators. Finishing a novel is not easy.
Unfortunately, the hard work doesn’t stop there. Once the novel is written, the next phase of hard work begins. The first of which is to find an agent to represent you and/or a publisher to get your magnum opus out into the wild (or at least the bookshops, which are often mistaken for the same thing).
Here, then, are a few tips to help you on your way. To those of you who read the following and think “Well, that’s obvious”, you’re right. Unfortunately, the obvious is all-too-often overlooked in favour of the optimistic, or the downright foolhardy.
Tip number 1 – Research
Before you submit your work to an agent or a publisher, do some homework, first. It’s absolutely no use submitting a far-future sci-fi story to an agent who only represents romantic fiction. It doesn’t matter how good your story is, it’ll be rejected, and you will have wasted months waiting for the reply to your submission. It happens more than you would think – we receive many titles that are obviously aimed at the younger end of the young adult market, despite us not being a YA imprint.
Tip 2 – Don’t be impatient
The agent’s first priority is to the clients already on his/her list – the publisher’s is to the authors and books he has already committed to publish. New stories coming in are important, of course, but in the majority of cases it’ll be months before you get a response. How many months? Read the submission guidelines on the agent’s or publisher’s website – they’ll probably mention it there. If not, it’s perfectly permissible to ask the question when submitting your manuscript for consideration.
Tip 3 – Read the submission guidelines
“Submission guidelines” is a bit of a misnomer, actually. Whenever you read “submission guidelines”, substitute those words with “Rules of Engagement, Never to be Broken” (unless you’re already a successful author selling in the hundreds of thousands, in which case, “guidelines” means what it says).
A little more detail on this tip is warranted, I think:
* If the guidelines state “send your manuscript as a Word or RTF document, single-spaced”, DO NOT send a physical copy to the office, double-spaced because that’s what you read in a “how to get published” book you bought in the ’70s. Many editors and slushpile readers like to read submissions on electronic readers, these days – sending a physical copy will not only get you to the bottom of the reading pile, it may well keep you there.
* If the guidelines state “Send the first five chapters, along with a 2-page plot and character summary”, do that. Don’t send a 15-page synopsis, along with the entire manuscript. If the publisher or agent is impressed enough by your sample chapters, you’ll be asked to send in the rest.
* If the guidelines state “send your manuscript to the office address listed below”, that’s what you should do. I’ve had authors hunt down my home address and send copies there, without asking. That’s not showing initiative – that’s just downright creepy!
Tip 4 – Write a professional query letter
Your book may be the best thing ever written, but that does not mean you should forget the rules of written English when composing your introductory letter. Be polite, be professional (“Dear Mr Treeblossom”, rather than “Hi Steve”, unless you already have an existing relationship). Check your spelling and grammar. It’s astounding how many submissions are received accompanied by query letters that appear to have been written by a hedgehog with learning difficulties – your introductory letter is a sample of your writing, and will be treated as such, so don’t allow yourself to fall at the first hurdle.
Tip 5 – Don’t trash your genre
Seems sensible enough, doesn’t it? Yet it is not uncommon to receive query letters that do not just hype the manuscript, but also trash the competition: “this novel is much better written than any of the rubbish currently being published” – that presumably includes the rubbish being marketed by the publisher you’re currently courting…?
Tip 6 – Use sensible filenames
If submitting electronically, use a filename that tells the reader what it is they have – eg.”Final Conflict by Jimmy Johnson – first 5 chapters.doc”, rather than “FCv1 17-04-2007.doc”. It helps the publisher or agent when they’re looking for your file, and anything that helps them, helps you.
Tip 7 – Use endorsements wisely
If Famous Writer X has read your work and liked it, by all means mention this – for instance, “Jim Jones read the final draft of Mystery Mansion XIV and told me it was ‘the best example of a haunted house story’ he has ever read.” Needless to say, don’t invent endorsements, and don’t mention that your friends and mother thought it was great – they don’t count, and it’ll make you come across as an idiot, or at least a tad naive.
Tip 8 – If you have previously published work, mention it
It adds to your credibility as a writer. Though not essential, it may help you stand out a little from the next submission in the pile. Also mention any awards, or other relevant information. “I trained as a particle physicist before writing my novel” is relevant for sci-fi imprints; “I was employee of the month three months running at Acme Widget Corporation” isn’t (though, you know, well done).
Tip 9 – If a publisher is inviting submissions “through an agent only”, don’t send your manuscript direct
This rule may be ignored if you have been invited to do submit directly by the publisher (when you met them at a convention, or other event, for instance). Don’t be tempted to invent a fake agency – it often happens and it’s not difficult to spot. A fake agency tells the publisher that you’re not necessarily the most honest of people, suggesting you may not be the easiest person to work with.
Tip 10 – Check your manuscript before you send it
Your novel should be in its finished state, if at all possible. We know the best way to spot an error in your work is first to press Send, but sending a panicky follow-up email three days later asking for the original to be deleted as you’ve made some changes doesn’t make a great impression.
Tip 11 – Include your contact details
Sounds daft? An enormous percentage of manuscripts are sent without contact details. Your manuscript is almost certainly going to get separated from your initial email by the time it gets read, so include on the first page, your name, address, telephone number, email address, title of the story, genre and wordcount. If you’re submitting through an agent, include their name, agency and contact details as well.
Tip 12 – If your manuscript is rejected, but you’re asked to submit something else, be elated
Your book is being rejected, but you are not – it means that the agency or publisher sees something in you they can work with, even though that particular book is not right for them. If it takes you a year to write your next piece, when you submit it again, make sure you state “though NOVEL X was not right for your agency/imprint, you asked to see my next work, which I am enclosing/attaching”. Most writers are not asked to submit something else – if you are, it’s great news!
There are many other pitfalls to avoid, and many other ways to get your story noticed, but if you take note of the above, your submission will be in a better condition than a lot of submissions received. First impressions really do count.
This article first appeared on the SFX blog in May 2009.