Tag Archives: Submitting Manuscripts

Writer, you must submit!

“In this digital age, it’s never been easier to prepare your submissions and have have them all done and dusted in a very short time.”

IF you’ve ever really done the work on a manuscript in the manner outlined in Write, Regardless!, allowed it to absorb your imagination and your heart; lost sleep over it and swung from thinking it’s the worst thing ever written to moments of confidence that it says something, you’ll know when it’s time to give it a chance in the wider world. If you haven’t done the work, you’ll be full of doubt about your manuscript’s quality, tempted to ask everyone what they think, and so out of touch with your inner bullshit monitor that you won’t know how to sift the feedback. Here are some tips about finding if you’re ready to submit your work to publishers and literary agents.

Submitting season

In this digital age, it’s never been easier to prepare your submissions and have them all done and dusted in a very short time. After a standard three-month wait to see whether the marketplace, right now, is interested in your manuscript, if your work has not been picked-up you’ll have a choice: publish it regardless or shove it in a desk drawer and try to forget about it.

Publisher or agent?

There are plenty of pros and cons about whether writers need an agent. You don’t need a real estate agent to sell a house. It’s the same with selling intellectual property. Writers can research the various submitting opportunities and send our work in directly, or we can hand the process over to someone to do the work for us. The submission materials you need to prepare are the same.

The agency pathway

There are the standard agencies that list the genres they will represent; then there are writing programs that operate as agents by matching writers with publishers; and then there are writing competitions that serve a similar purpose. Whenever your work is being represented by a third party between you and a publisher, it’s a literary agency-type process. Be under no illusion – the author pays for this process upfront with a reduction in their advance or the competition entry fee; or at the back end as a percentage of royalties. Literary agents are best treated like real estate agents: assertively and courteously, with everything in writing before the ‘For Sale’ sign goes up.

The shock and awe principle

I deal with the submission process by using a little military energy known as shock and awe, because it cuts through the crap. Writers can get stymied by business strategies, the main one publishers deploy being the ‘don’t send your manuscript out to more than one publisher/agent at a time’ advice. The ONLY person this principle benefits is the person looking at your great book submission. They have removed all competition by making you afraid to call the cavalry. When I submit a manuscript, I send it to all relevant publishers/agents at the same time, and I give the process three months maximum. This is how real estate has been sold forever, by creating that critical mass all property sellers desire. Intellectual property sellers have no reason to think or act differently. Literary agents certainly don’t act on this advice – they create bidding wars between publishers whenever they can.

Direct-to-publisher submissions

Right now, major publishers have open doors for unsolicited manuscripts, uploaded via their websites. Usually once-a-month, these opportunities have snappy names like Penguin’s Monthly Catch. They require writers to have a formatted manuscript, a synopsis and a writer’s biography; some idea of the target audience and similar titles on the market; a social media platform (don’t say I didn’t warn you about the need for one); some skill in public speaking and communicating, and a couple of contacts in the publishing/media industry (warned you about that one too).

“While there is still a publishing industry, writers who have done the work on our manuscripts should have a go and submit our books for consideration.”

Fab formatting

There is a basic manuscript style in the English language, which is generally a one-inch page margin, plain font, page numbering and double-spaced text. This is not publishers being picky, it’s a format that is easy on the eye for people who read a lot. There are international variations and your state or national writers’ resource centre will tell you what is standard for your part of the world. There are no excuses for writers who don’t adjust their manuscripts to a publisher’s specifications. Sent a single-spaced manuscript of 250,000 words when they wanted 80,000 maximum, double-spaced? Whoosh! There goes your book back into the slush pile! Make it legible, plain (no sample cover art by Uncle Brian), with a decent working title and give it to them in the format and file type they ask for.

Super synopsis

A synopsis is not a blurb on the back of a published book, taunting the reader with hidden details about the story, it must allow a publisher to appraise your plot at a glance. If you’ve done the work plotting your book, a synopsis will be very easy to write. If you cannot write one, chances are your manuscript is not ready to submit. Explain your exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement, and do it in the word-count they ask for.

Brilliant biog

Publishers are seeking background information about you as a writer, not necessarily where you went to school or your employment history, unless these relate to the manuscript you’re submitting. Write your biog in the third person, show them your stuff as a wordsmith, and stick to the word-count they ask for (are you seeing a pattern here about not pissing them off?).

Insider knowledge

Many submission opportunities ask writers to name a few existing books that are similar to ours. Don’t get on your high horse and claim you’ve written something so original there is nothing like it in the history of literature. The chances are there’s a few similar titles out there in the hundreds of writing genres. This is publishing industry shorthand to understand your manuscript quickly. You’ll be asked to nominate a genre and a format. Is it a long-form memoir? Is it a narrative non-fiction novella? Is it a short story collection? Be real and be honest.

Screen-savvy author

Agents and publishers have been known to request authors submit audition-style videos to see if we are media-friendly. Don’t panic! If you need to create a short audition video, you can film yourself on your mobile phone camera. Choose a quiet, well-lit but shaded location that prevents the sun directly hitting your face, hit the front-facing camera symbol and select video. Next, hold the camera up horizontally like you’re taking a selfie, pause, breathe, and introduce yourself before reading your writer’s biog in the first person while looking into the camera lens. This will make it look as though you’re addressing the viewer right in the eye, and give you a confident air. Email or message the clip to your desktop, then upload it with your book submission. Keep it simple and keep it short.

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BE COOL It’s only a contract.

The fast response

Be prepared to have an agent or a publisher interested in your work very quickly. Like enthusiastic house hunters, they can act fast if they want to get your work off the market. This is not the moment to tell all your other prospects your work has been picked up. No real estate agent cancels further inspections on the strength of an enthusiastic potential buyer… no way! Some publishers/agents will ask for a few weeks to read and consider your work because they like the sound of it. If so, calmly tell them you have made other submissions, but say that you have not been offered any contracts. If they are genuinely interested, they’ll get reading and perhaps send you one. If you need help interpreting it, contact your writers’ centre or arts-law centre for advice.

Be cool about contracts

Good publishing contracts are not lengthy – they don’t need to be. If you’re offered a contract, it should never ask you to assign copyright of your work to another party, but it should require you to warrant you created the work you have submitted. You should be allowed to negotiate a timeframe to submit your final drafts, and you and the publisher need to agree on the date the book will be published. They can set a time limit (and perhaps a fee scale) on author changes to the manuscript ahead of publication. This is to ensure you’re a proactive, organised collaborator… if you’re a literary vacillator, you’ll pay for the privilege (remember when I warned you getting to grips with plotting would serve you even if you’re traditionally published?). The contract should stipulate an advance against royalties (which is getting extremely rare in publishing these days) and a royalty percentage of book sales for the author.

Silence is the new no

If you haven’t heard back from a publisher/agent after three months, they’re telling you no. It’s not courteous, it’s not commensurate with the effort you have put into submitting your work to them, but it’s the truth. They have rejected that manuscript and you’ll never know why. Accept this and move on. Here are some tips on dealing with literary rejection.

Having another go

If you’re keeping your eyes and ears open to publishing opportunities, you are sure to find a few more publishers/agents to submit your work to while you’re waiting for a bite from your first round. When I do, I always submit. If you have your submitting materials ready to go, it takes a few minutes and keeps another ball in the air in your juggling act. After two rounds (over six months) it’s likely you’ll know if you’ve had enough silence.

Recap

WRITE REGARDLESSWhile there is still a publishing industry, writers who have done the work on our manuscripts should have a go and submit our books for consideration. Be efficient with your time by preparing your work quickly and submitting to all publishers/agents you can find accepting work. Follow their submission guidelines to the letter. Mark a day in your diary three months from your critical mass of submitting. If you have not heard back from any of your submissions, it might be time to move on and publish your work, regardless.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Pitching practice for writers

SERVED UP Making a meal of your hard writing work.
SERVED UP Making a meal of your hard writing work.

WHEN I was a teenager with a head full of writing dreams and acres of my very own fantasy novels in my wake,  one of my favourite pastimes was designing the covers of my latest books, long before I’d even written a word.

Despite the fun of emulating the great cover designs of the day, this process was a handy short-term distraction from the long-term graft of capturing ideas and writing them into shape.

When I returned to fiction writing five years ago, I was determined to avoid this salacious trap and eschewed all musings on titles, covers, blurbs and similar ego-massaging pastimes.

I just wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Then I read, and read, and read.

When I eventually began making submissions to publishers, who asked me to describe, define and sell my work to them, I reached the point of forming what’s known as a pitch.

Time for a little dreaming, then. Here’s what I learned …

Titles always change

Manuscripts need to have a file name on your computer, so you (and anyone you submit them to) doesn’t lose them, but that’s all they need. Nailing that one great title for our work is a great way to inspire us to create a whole pitch-ready work, but don’t get precious about what it’s called if a publisher or agent has other ideas. Jane Austen’s working title for Pride and Prejudice was, simply, First.

Blurbs are best

The sales tool used by publishers on the back cover of printed books, traditionally known as a blurb, is the benchmark for pitching language. Strike a balance between the raw courage of “it’s Jurassic Park meets Star Wars” and the blandness of “this is the best novel written about dinosaurs in space”. Go back to the storytelling strategy of your plot and work that into your blurb, with all its tensions, turning points and battles.

Give away the ending

Publishers and agents know good storytelling, but don’t expect them to suspend their disbelief about yours. The main difference between your pitch and the eventual blurb of your work is that you must let the publisher/agent into its secret. This takes courage, because when we reveal our work’s one big secret, the thing we feel will make people love it, it feels like giving away all our power. Be brave and let it go, because your plot’s turning point may be the key to keeping your work out of the slush pile.

Keep images to yourself

One heartening and inspiring tool I make use of is imagery. I like to find one strong image which I imagine would work on a book cover. It evolves through the writing process, of course, but sometimes I find images so arresting they end up informing the story and characters. I never submit these images as part of my pitch, but I work with them,  keeping them in mind whenever I am asked what my story is about.

Have an answer ready

Family and friends love to know what we’ve been spending our writing time doing, and they’re  a great test audience for verbal pitches. Most writers squirm when asked about their work, but a little preparation and practice helps to have an answer ready when someone asks: “So, what’s your book about?” As with the blurb, go back to your plot. If you can’t answer this question to a friendly audience, you are probably not ready to pitch it to a publisher.

There are only seven great stories

The great Arthur Quiller-Couch was one of the first modern writers to maintain there are a limited number of story archetypes embedded in human existence. Other thinkers have fleshed-out his approach, but the basic premise has not altered. What you are writing will be found in one of those story brackets. It’s your job to stretch the medium into new territory. That’s possibly what being original means.

What’s it like?

Publishers and agents often ask for a few examples of existing titles our work is similar to. Don’t snap straight to “it’s entirely original”, have a look at the marketplace, both the new titles and the classics. There will be echoes of your work in there. Use them to define what you’re writing. See what major genres the publishing industry has divided the book trade into, and work out where you fit. If you don’t know, publishers probably won’t waste their time working it out for you.

Break the rules, a little

WRITE REGARDLESSCreating and sending multiple pitches can get very boring. Have some fun and break the rules a little. I recently sent a pitch to a publisher who said “no unsolicited material”, and they looked at it! Doing this each and every time is probably not a great way to get a book published, but now and again, mix it up. There is really nothing to lose when you think about the crazy odds of the publishing trade.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

A thousand ways to say no

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ANYONE who has ever done anything out of the ordinary, against the very will of societies and economies (like writing a book, crazy you!), invariably meets with the head-shaking, heartbreaking moment of dashed dreams which occurs in the wake of the average rejection.

In a sense, if you’ve put yourself in rejection’s path, you’ve already done more than most people. Trouble is, rejection rarely feels that way.

I have little time for those writers who try to mollify emerging creatives with cries of: ‘get used to it’ and ‘we’ve all been there’. To leave it at that is to ignore the genuine pain that rejection inflicts, and the possibility of finding ways through the hurt to a place of understanding.

So, for the rejected, here is my best advice, from one who stands with you.

J.K. Rowling had it good

The latest in a long line of success stories that gets trawled-out to give hope to the rejected is that of the author of the Harry Potter series, but don’t be fooled. Yes, Joanne Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was resoundingly rejected by multiple publishers, but she was signed with a literary agent at the time, and the rejection process came to an end after around twelve months. That is not an abject state of rejection. During her short rejection ‘purgatory’, Rowling had a sounding board, a guide, and a mentor in her agent, something most writers never encounter, so don’t feel too sorry for her.

Rejectors like to keep it interesting

These days, publishers and agents rarely engage in reasons why they reject your work. It’s likely you’ll never even receive a reply. If (and it’s a big if) you get feedback, don’t believe it immediately. “An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell,” went the rejection of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows, a book which went on to sell 25 million copies. “Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling”; “You have no business being a writer and should give up”; “We feel that we don’t know the central character well enough”, and “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years” all featured in rejections of some of the bestsellers in publishing history. Check out some more at this great site.

Publishers have rejection shame of their own

I once worked for one of the many publishing houses who rejected Dick King-Smith’s bestselling childrens’ book The Sheep-Pig, the story which was so successfully adapted for the screen as Babe. I can assure you the company still carried a certain amount of shame about its decision a decade later. Think of the hand-wringing and guilt-tripping amongst those publishers who rejected J.K. Rowling!

Be ready for rejection

There are only two ways to endure rejection. The first and perhaps the hardest is to be a megalomanic who has absolutely no shred of self-doubt. The other is to know the true value of your work; to have spent time and energy making your manuscript the best it can be within your skill level at this time of your life. When it gets rejected, you’ll be able to send it to another publisher straight away if you know it’s the best work you can do right now. If you don’t know this for sure, you’re possibly sending your work out too early.

Keep faith with your stories

The greatest damage rejection can wreak is if the writer gives up, leaving the characters they have worked on unread, unloved, and, in a way, unborn. Not every manuscript in history gets published, but every character needs to be loved by at least their creator. Even when all seems useless, revisit your own creation, laugh and cry at your characters’ highs and lows, keep them alive through your own faith. Think about self publishing if you’ve tried every avenue, like Virginia Woolf and Beatrix Potter did. Accept your own work. If you don’t, it’s possible no-one else ever will.

True criticism will fill you with power

If you ever get truly constructive feedback from an agent or a publisher, it will resonate with you on a very deep level and you’ll know immediately how to fix your manuscript. Nothing on earth will be able to hold you back from making the changes. If the feedback doesn’t move you on this level, question everything about it.

Keep some rejections to yourself

Loved ones, who always think what we write is Booker Prize material, believing mirrors that they are, need a break from our rejections sometimes. Don’t register every ‘no’ with blood-letting. Find other writers to share the pain with.

WRITE REGARDLESSSend it out again

I try my best to have a few balls in the air at one time. It provides a sense of potential, so that when a rejection lands, there is still hope on its way from some other source. For many writers, even just a tiny bit of hope is all it takes to keep going.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!