Friday, 26 June 2015

Submission guides - how to beat the slush pile

Having finally 'come down' from the Winchester Writers' Festival I am gradually thinking through some of things I leaned, not only about writing, but the writing business side - agents, publishers, what they look for and so on.

Today I thought I'd tackle guidelines. I'm pretty sure I've discussed this subject in the past when talking about submitting poetry and if you want to stand any chance of an agent or publisher reading your work, you must adhere to them. I am amazed at the people who still flout the simple stuff, do their own thing (because that's the way they work) and ignore what is required. If a guideline asks for two chapters, don't send them three, if it states they want the first 5,000 words, don't send them 6,000. Stick to the rules. Some other pointers:

  • If you have any queries, ring and ask. This is much better than assuming.
  • Make sure you have a completed manuscript. Don't just send what you've written so far.
  • Wait until your manuscript is the best it can be. Check the spelling, the punctuation and look for inconsistencies. Get someone to proof read for you.
  • If the guidelines specify that your submission should be in 12pt Times New Roman and double spaced send it that way. There may be other guidelines. Stick to them.

It was interesting to hear agents walk about submitting a synopsis. Some agents don't even read them, just the cover letter then go straight to the first line of the manuscript. However, if they ask for a synopsis, send one (and stick to the guidelines on this too). If you have never written one, as I hadn't, research them online. It is confusing though, because you get lots of information which often conflicts. The agent Scott Pack said he didn't want to be told the genre or which age group it was written for because he would make that choice! That is different advice to what I found online..

Likewise, with covering letters, don't say things like 'I've tried everyone else and now I'm trying you', Keep it business like, say a bit about yourself, mention who on their list you like and read, so they know you have done some research. Again, research it and don't waffle!

If after all this your manuscript survives that initial process the agent will look at you first line. And that can still make or break you. Without a great first line your manuscript may well be binned without any other words being read.

It's heartbreaking. It's brutal. But it's true. You've spent a year, two years, or more on a piece of writing and it may never get more than a cursory glance. You have to do everything in your power to make your writing stand out. In the workshop I attended on 'Planning for your Success' with the excellent Simon Hall, we did a whole section on first lines alone. Look at other books, how they start. Practice a few one liners yourself. In the workshop we all had a go at writing them. Mine was 'If only I'd met you on the first day.' There were great ones written by others. All made you want to read on. That's what you have to aim for.

Finally, there is the bit you have no control over and that includes (don't laugh), the mood the agent is in on that day - known as timing! If your manuscript arrives just as he or she is packing up to go home they may not want to bother. If they've had a rough day, likewise. And there is also the fact that they may have just signed someone with a similar idea to yours. However brilliant your work may be they are not going to sign you.

If you receive feedback (and not all do give it), read it, learn from it and carry on.

After all this you may be thinking you will never get published. However, if you stick to the guidelines, do a good covering letter and synopsis and have a brilliant first line, you have done all you can to improve your chances. After all the writing you will have done on your novel, don't blow it by ignoring the guidelines, and do pick an agent who fits your genre. (Look at The Artist & Writers Year Book). One suggestion is to go for a smaller publisher. Those with big names on their list are less likely to pick you up unless you are brilliant.

Now go write and submit!

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