I’ve been meaning to write a kind of FAQ for a while now, in case my experience of writing and getting published would interest aspiring authors. Before August 2013, I was one of those, i.e. someone who’d written a book, at turns proud of and disgusted with it, sending out multiple submissions to agents and receiving multiple rejections. I had no special help finding representation; no contacts on the inside to give me a leg up. Which proves the theory – that every newly published author has connections – completely wrong.
Did you finish writing your book before sending it out on submission?
Yes. Not only did I finish it, I polished it. The polishing took me through 4 drafts and became an ongoing process as I began to receive feedback from agents. Never send out a first draft; it’s a waste of your time and an agent’s time. Novels are complicated, sprawling creatures. A first draft is you getting to know your characters and, just like real people, it takes time to understand them. You need to know what makes them tick, what motivates, excites and horrifies them. In my opinion, characterisation comes before all else, even worldbuilding.
Your world could be the most fascinating, unlikely place, but we humans are social creatures – we want to read about ourselves, lose ourselves, find ourselves. Without believable characters to populate your world, it’s not going to hold a reader’s interest. This kind of understanding only comes with revision so be patient. My first draft was a bloated, overwritten thing and I had to strip it right back to the skeleton before rebuilding it into something viable. If you’re serious about making writing a career, these are essential skills that can only be acquired through practice.
Secondly, agents hate partial manuscripts. Imagine reading fifty pages of a fantastic story, asking for the rest of it and being told, oh I’ haven’t written it yet. What a waste of time. If an agent loves your work, you need to follow it up fast because they’re unlikely to wait. My own agent receives thousands of submissions a year. It’s a highly competitive environment and being asked to send your full manuscript is an unmissable opportunity. Make sure to seize it.
What does a good submission look like?
So you’re happy with your novel and ready to start querying. But it’s unlikely to be read if your submission package is unprofessional. In a competitive environment where an agent has limited time to delve into the slush pile, only those subs that look presentable are going to be taken seriously. First off, that means spelling and grammar. Yes, it’s elementary, but also crucial. What does a sloppy cover letter say about the rest of your manuscript? An agent isn’t going to take the time to find out. A good cover letter is short, professional and to the point. Some examples of what to include aside from your name and contact details:
• Title of manuscript
• Genre of manuscript, i.e. adult epic fantasy
• An elevator pitch to spark interest; this is not the place for a full synopsis. Elevator pitches are difficult. How do you sum up your 130,000 word story in a sentence or two? It might take a while to get it right, but being able to pithily summarise your book is a valuable ability that will forever come in handy. (I still haven’t honed mine to my liking, by the way)
• A couple of author comparisons (not essential, but it helps to give an agent an idea about where your book will sit in the market)
• Your credentials (not a list of every previous publication, but anything pertinent. I mentioned my MA in Creative Writing, for example)
Avoid testimonials unless they’re relevant, i.e. you’ve had over half a million reads on Wattpad. Be polite, do your research. It’s good practice to address an agent by name, rather than ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ which sounds like a blanket email. Most agencies have websites with info about what each agent is looking for. It only takes a few minutes to choose an agent who you think your book might fit, and it’s a good start to a potential future relationship.
You’ve nailed the cover letter. Now onto the synopsis. Like elevator pitches, synopses can be tricky. Keep it to a page / 500 words, which will only give you space to sketch out the major characters, plotline and conclusion. It’s not necessary to expand on every subplot, no matter how clever they are. And (this is a big one) do not end the synopsis on a cliff hanger. There are no spoilers in this business – an agent needs to know how the story wraps up. Done well, a synopsis not only shows you have the ability to summarise succinctly, but it also gives a flavour of your prose style and ‘sells’ the book.
The last thing to include in your submission is, of course, your fifty sample pages. Do doublecheck that’s what an agent wants and don’t send more – it shows you haven’t read or don’t care about submissions policy. It goes without saying that those fifty pages should showcase the very best of your writing. It’s your chance to show an agent what you can do.
When it comes to searching for agents, the Writers and Artist’s Yearbook is invaluable. I went through with a highlighter, marking every agent that accepted SFF. Many do not and will state so.
What about your personal experience of finding an agent?
It’s wonderfully exciting when you’re asked for the full manuscript, but it doesn’t guarantee acceptance. I probably sent out 20 queries (might have been more) over a two year period and was only asked for the complete manuscript 3 times. No #1 was by none other than the agency that represented J.K. Rowling. I leaped about in joy for a good while, but after 8 weeks, I began to suspect a big fat NO. I wasn’t wrong. It’s believed that agents will only give personal feedback if they request the full manuscript, which is generally true. In this case, however, all I got was it lacked tension.
I was furious and upset. What did they mean, it lacked tension? What on earth was I supposed to do with such vague feedback? It took me a few days to calm down and to understand that little sentence actually made a great deal of sense. When I looked at the story again, it did lack tension. Tension doesn’t necessarily mean peril. A lack of action wasn’t the problem. Instead I realised that my protagonist was too reactive, too passive. A certain amount of reactiveness is fine when your MC is just starting out, swept up in events beyond their control. But in my case, my protagonist never instigated anything; she didn’t have a clear objective in each chapter. I’d overlooked a fundamental part of the human character and therefore leeched away any possibility of narrative tension.
That one small sentence prompted a major rewrite and made the book ten times stronger.
Manuscript request #2 also resulted in a long wait and an eventual no. Between #1 and #2, I’d received more positive rejections with scribbled notes like ‘you’re a good writer, but my list is full’ and ‘promising, but I don’t have enough confidence in this story.’ Frustrating and encouraging in equal measure. I was getting somewhere.
The email containing Request #3 said something along the lines of: ‘we’re all very intrigued by your book. Please send the rest.’ So I did. Barely 3 days later, my now-agent sent me the best email I’ve ever received. It was an offer of representation, but so full of effusive praise, I thought it was a scam. Yep, that’s what rejections do to you. Honestly, my first knee-jerk thought was: here’s a shark preying on a sensitive, desperate author. I had to find the website and reassure myself that it was legit. I went to meet my agent in London and the rest is history.
Each rejection is a knife in the heart and you have to learn to harden it. Because if your book gets published, there will be 1 star reviews. Rejections also carry with them terrible doubt. What if the book isn’t good enough? What if the market is saturated with this kind of story? Should I even bother to start Book Two? In reference to that last one: it’s probably safer (and a better use of your time) not to. It’s a common saying that the first book you write goes in the drawer and it’s the second that gets published. True for me, at least.
It might be a platitude, but do not give up. Single-minded determination got me where I am and it will get you there too if you’re willing to learn, take feedback on board, practise your craft and deal with rejection. No one can deny that the creative industries are a subjective business. There’s luck involved as well as talent, i.e. being in the right place at the right time. I was picked up by an intern looking through her agent’s slush pile and it was blind luck that I’d landed on that particular slush pile, as submissions were divvied out between all the agents. As an example of just how subjective this business is, I received a bog standard NO from an agent AFTER I’d been offered a publishing contract. It was the only time I got to feel smug.
Yes, it’s a bugger of a process, but it’s not impossible. If it’s your dream to write professionally and you want to go down the traditional publishing route (as opposed to self-publishing, which comes with difficulties of its own), then expect a good deal of work. You’re not alone, however. Most published writers were once in the same position and though I’ve learnt a lot about publishing (and had several illusions shattered along the way), I’ll not forget the journey I undertook to get here.
Next time: Finding a Publisher, signing a contract and the road to publication. Just when you thought your submissions days were done…