Publishing part 2 of 5: Submissions


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After researching and carefully selecting the publisher (or agent) to whom you are submitting your book, you must now prepare your submission.

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The guidelines

I know I talked about this in last week’s post, but it is incredibly important and, as such, bears repeating. You absolutely need to tailor your submission package to what they are asking, and you need to send it the way they ask it to be sent, and pay very close attention to what they are requiring; if they ask it by email, they may wish to have all the text pasted in the body of the email, or to have it as separate attachments; they will probably ask you to write the subject heading in a specific way so they can identify it as a submission, and they are most likely to ask you to send a specific file format, labeled in a specific fashion to make it easier to trace. You MUST follow these guidelines to the letter.

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The pitch

Before you do anything else, the very first thing you need to work on is your pitch. A pitch is a bit like a logline, in that it must be short, and reflect the content of your story. It must be more than just that, though; it has to be said in such a way that it intrigues and makes the reader want to read the rest of your book.

First of all, to be good, a pitch must be short. If you are able to make it fit into a single sentence, that’s absolutely great. But if not, you should try to make it two, maybe three sentences at most. This is something you want to keep short, so you can memorize it and recite it comfortably in under 30 seconds.

A great pitch has three essential elements. The first is, of course, what makes it similar to the logline in that it must give a good idea of what your story is about, without giving a whole synopsis.

Secondly, try to include the stakes. What makes us care about the outcome, what gives your story a sense of suspense.

Finally, you have to be clear what it is which makes your book unique. What makes it different than any other that might have been similar to it? What makes it more interesting than the others? This is one of the most important things your pitch must have.

Also, avoid rhetorical questions in the “What if?” style. Your pitch should be proactive and affirmative, and chances are questions just add useless words and dilute your meaning. After all, the question isn’t what makes your book unique, your answer to it is.

Signing the deal

The letter

To present your manuscript, you will need to write a letter. There are two kinds of letters, not to be confused with one another: the cover letter and the query letter. Most of the time, the publisher will ask for one or the other in their submissions guidelines, but there are other ways to tell which you need.

The cover letter is used when you are submitting a full manuscript with a synopsis (long or short). It is a letter of presentation, and its most important characteristic is its brevity; you should try to keep it to a minimum, no more than half a page, and one or two paragraphs. It serves the purpose of introduction, and must intrigue more than inform. Since the publisher usually has the manuscript in hand, there is no need to go on and on about its merits; simply introduce it, and let the publisher judge its merits.

In a good cover letter, you should have your pitch, a short list of your prior publications, the title of its manuscript, its genre (and subgenre, if applicable), and its word count. If this is a publisher which accepts simultaneous submissions, you should also mention whether or not it is submitted exclusively.

The query letter, on the other hand, is used either on its own, or when it accompanies a synopsis and sample rather than a full manuscript. It is somewhat longer than the cover letter, but be wary of making it too long; ideally, it should fit in a single page, and if you cannot manage that, try to make it fit in no more than two pages.

In addition to the information contained in the cover letter (pitch, prior publications, title, word count, and genre of your manuscript), your query letter should also have a short blurb or summary, a brief explanation of why you think this publisher (or agent) is the best choice for your work, and, in addition to your publication history, list your other writing credentials, if any. By the way, your writing credentials do NOT include: friends and family liked your manuscript; other unpublished materials; or the fact that you got high marks on your twelfth grade English class. They can include the fact that you majored in English or creative writing, or that you have been teaching it, or that you have previously worked for a publisher or literary magazine.

While there is no prescribed order in which to give that information, I find it best to always begin with your pitch. As in a work of fiction, you want to hook your reader from the start.

There are some common pitfalls that you must avoid. First, remember, this is a business letter. Write it as such. Avoid things like writing it in your character’s voice, or being overly familiar (for example, do not address the recipient of the letter by first name). Do not be self-deprecating; if you have twelve unpublished manuscripts, or you have attempted, unsuccessfully, to query 33 other publishers or agents, don’t mention it!

Writer’s Relief has a great list of pitfalls and mistakes to avoid, I strongly encourage you to take a look. Don’t forget: this letter is the first impression you will make, and especially if it does not accompany a manuscript, it will mean the difference between being read and not. Finally, and I hope that when I say this, it is so obvious to you that you will roll your eyes, but you should never just compose this letter in your email and send it off. You should write this letter as carefully as you have your manuscript, which of course means giving yourself time to edit carefully, and showing it to someone else to make sure it is clear, coherent, and free from spelling and grammar mistakes.

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The synopsis

Next comes the synopsis. This is basically a summary of your novel, with a few very important distinctions.

First of all, you must tell your whole story, until the end. This is not a teaser, and it’s not a blurb; it serves the purpose of letting the publisher or agent know if your story has major structural or conceptual flaws before they invest time they don’t have in reading the manuscript.

Also, while blurbs and pitches can reflect style, and voice, your synopsis should be written in the present tense, in the third person, no matter what choices you made concerning narrative voice in your manuscript.

While they both share the above characteristics, there are two essentially different types of synopses: the short one, and the long one. The publisher or agent to whom you are submitting will let you know which kind they want, if only by telling you generally how many pages it should have.

The long synopsis is probably the easiest to write. It usually has a length of anywhere from three to ten page. Typically, it is a chapter to chapter breakdown of your entire novel. You have to include all the important plot points, as well as the subplots and the development of your characters. If you’re someone who likes to outline, then you’re in luck; you can start from your outline and go on from there.

The short synopsis, on the other hand, is a completely different animal and must be approached in a different fashion. When I started doing this, I worked it from my outline, and shaved and shaved until I had it down to the essentials. This is an incredibly painful process, and one that does not necessarily yield the desired results. This is because, as authors, we have already been through a process of elimination when we edit and revise our novel, and we know that what is left, all of it, is essential to appreciate the plot as a whole.

However, the short synopsis must be no more than one page.  That’s one. It’s very, very short. And it’s not the place to include subplots and secondary characters. You need to present only what is absolutely necessary to the main plot, and no more. The best way to do this is to start from nothing, and write the bare bones to build on until you have exactly what you need, which can be summed up to these five parts of your story:

1- The initial situation, which is basically the who, what, and where of your story, the beginning of it.

2- The trigger, which is the thing that starts the chain of events of your plot. Picture a row of dominoes, which represent the elements of your plot; the trigger is that flick of your finger which starts the chain reaction that is your story, what changes something from a stagnant situation to a series of dynamic events.

3- The one or two major plot points which make the link between the trigger and black moment believable.

4- The black moment, which is the moment towards the end of the story where everything seems lost, and success appears impossible.

5- The climax and its resolution, which is basically how your story ends and how it affects your main character.

Again, all you need to include here is these elements, and the emotional changes your character goes through because of them. Leave out subplots and secondary characters!

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The manuscript

Whether you’re asked to submit a full manuscript or only sample chapters, you will need to format it appropriately. Before I start, just a word on sample chapters, because not everyone is explicit as to what that means in their submission guidelines: sample chapters are usually the first three chapters of your book, or the first sixty pages of script, if you have especially long or short chapters, or some other kind of division than chapters. They are not three randomly selected chapters throughout your novel!

Unless otherwise specified in the submission guidelines, this is the standard formatting for a manuscript. Of course, if they ask for something different and specific, you must format it to fit their own guidelines!!! The standard presentation for a manuscript is double-spaced, left aligned (NOT justified!!) text, written in 12 point font with Serif (which is a font that has little bars at the bottom of letters, like Courier or Times New Roman). Times New Roman is actually a great font to use, because it’s pretty standard. Do not use a fancy or elaborate font! The purpose here is to make it easy to read, not make it look fancy!

Number your pages in the upper right corner. Besides the page number, on every page (in the header), write your name and the title of your book, one on top of the other. Use page break instead of hitting “enter” to separate your chapters. Do not center your chapter titles, but align them to the left. Indent the first line of your paragraphs. Make a cover page, which lists, centered, you name (your real name and your pseudonym, if you use one), the title of your book, the total word count, and the genre(s).

Finally, when you’re done, if you are emailing, unless otherwise specified in the guidelines, save your file as a .rtf file, because they are compatible with older versions of Word as well as other software. If you are sending it by traditional mail, print only on one side of the paper, and do not clip, staple or otherwise attach the pages together. Just put a neat pile in the envelope.

This might seem like a lot of information, and a little tedious to format it that way, but it really is to ease the speed-reading process. Again, and I cannot stress this enough, if you fail to format your manuscript (and the rest of your proposal) the right way, it will not be read!

Next week, in part 3, I will concentrate on the most common reasons for rejection, what to do while you wait, how to manage your submissions, especially if you are a prolific author, and what a publishing contract looks like.

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