Publishing: Submitting to Agents & Editors

Afterwards – Now what do you do with that novel?

by Karrie Balwochus

Following the lessons Diana and Lisa have worked so hard on, one just might find themselves with a finished novel. After sincere rejoicing and breaking out the bubbly in celebration, don’t stop there.

Your work has just begun, my friend. The first thing you want to do, is give yourself a short break from your work — to get a little distance from it so when you go back you can view it with a fresher eye.

The second thing to do — start working on ideas for your second project! Don’t lose the rhythm you have finally obtained. Get writing on that rough draft, devoting time to your first project as well. But this is where your first project is now in the final furlong of the homestretch.

One of the things I like to do, after giving myself a break from my newly finished project, is checking my story verses Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY. I like making up index cards to make sure I didn’t miss any important elements. Many times if there is still a rough scene or two, I can figure out how to fix it that way.

I also begin my final line edits, looking very hard at the technical aspect of writing. Are things foreshadowed properly? Do I have quotes (especially memories of dialogue, something someone said that was important to the story) correct? Should a sentence have a comma or a semi-colon? Did I chose the correct word or overused any words? Did I use too many of the verb "to be" (was, were, etc.)? The list goes on and on. But I proof my manuscript hard, using both the computer and printing it out and line editing by hand, reading it aloud! That is very important. Reading aloud will help you hear difficult sentences and spot problems that you didn’t catch the first time.

READ, READ, READ, EDIT, EDIT, EDIT!!!

If you can, get a friend to look at it for errors. But be careful about free advice (I don’t mean to insult anyone). Remember, you are the writer and this is your story! Friends can be well meaning, but too many suggestions for changes can cause you to lose that story you’ve worked so hard on. It stops being yours and becomes a compilation of other people’s advice. Always listen to what others tell you but believe in yourself and your own intuition.

Okay, now that that’s said and done, we move to a very important phase. What are you going to do with that story to get it published?

First, research your market. Most writers are avid readers and books we have read inspire us to write our own. So, if you have a favorite book or author, look at that publisher – you know the style they like, and what they are publishing. But this is no guarantee. Publishing rarely has any hard and fast rules.

There are three things I want to highlight here. Submitting directly to editors at publishing houses, submitting to agents, and entering contests. I also want to touch on making contacts in the publishing world.

CONTESTS

First, contests. Why enter contests? There are many writing groups who sponsor very respected contests every year. But research these with caution. Many contests, as our members have discovered, are only scams which require a purchase of their book or anthology in order to see your story in print. The best resource for contests are recognized writing groups. Romance writers are usually very familiar with Romance Writers of America sub-chapters who sponsor contests all the time. Many of them might offer a small cash award, but the most important thing is that the final judge could be an editor or agent.

That is why you enter contests – to get your work in front of the people who count. To get valuable feedback, and get your feet wet.

My writers guild, the Golden Triangle Writers Guild (GTWG), sponsors an unpublished writers contest every year, which gets your work in front of editors and agents. But in order to enter the contest, you have to attend the conference. Be aware of rules like these before you enter. There are many groups who sponsor contests with conference attendance or without. Decide what you want.

Plus, entering contests is very important for one reason. If you do not have a publishing record, being able to state if your story won a contest or even reached the finals is a telling factor in a query letter to an editor or agent. For example, a query letter that I sent to an editor awhile back reads as such:

. . . please find enclosed the partial of my fantasy romance, Spirit of Dragons. The manuscript won its category at the Golden Triangle Writers Guild contest held in conjunction with their annual writers conference. A second entry of mine also won the Science Fiction/Fantasy category. . .

No publishing record, but by telling the editor about my victories in the contest, I have demonstrated that I am serious about my profession and there is a valid reason for the editor to view my work.

So, contests can be very valuable for catching interest when you are submitting on a professional level. But when entering, please read the submission rules carefully. Every contest is a little different.

SUBMITTING

Submitting to an editor or agent can get a bit tricky. There always is a huge debate, do you submit to an editor? Some believe that without an agent, you might as well hang it up in today’s publishing world. Others believe that agents won’t help first time writers because they have nothing to bargain with. Personally, I’m starting to lean towards getting an agent first (and no, its not because I have one now — hehehe).

I started out submitting primarily to editors. But with all the changes in the publishing world, houses combining and buying each other out, it seems that market is shrinking at an alarming rate. What kills the first time writer when submitting to editors, is that once that house reads your submission, and rejects it, you can never resubmit it, even with an agent. And yes, editors keep track of who submits what and when. So that rejection now becomes a bolted door for that particular story. I don’t like my stories sitting on a shelf and I can’t do anything with it because of rejections. In the example above for my story SPIRIT OF DRAGONS, the editor rejected the story and now it sits. If I get published in something else, it might give me a publishing record opening the door for submissions to other houses, but for now, I can do nothing with it (Normally, I might submit to other houses but fantasy romance is a genre that is very limited — only one house will look at a fantasy romance by an unpublished author, they rejected it, so I have to wait). If I had submitted it to an agent first, she might have helped me fix it so it wouldn’t have been rejected.

Submitting to agents can be just as tricky. While I understand the objections of those who say an agent has to leverage to promote an unproven author, they do have an advantage. They know what their editors are buying. The editor has the advantage of knowing someone they respect has already read the manuscript and likes it.

When I signed with my agent at last year’s guild conference, I had the opportunity to see her in action. She not only met with writers, discussing their work, but she also darted about the conference, talking with various editors every chance she got. She pitched her current authors to them and learned about what they liked and what they were looking for. She was not only searching for clients to represent, but making contacts with editors in order to sell her clients.

Submitting to an editor or an agent is ultimately up to you — but I encourage you to look at both and seriously consider an agent first so you don’t hamstring yourself with rejections.

HOW TO SUBMIT

Submitting can be something that appears easy but in actuality is loaded with pitfalls.

The dreaded slush-pile is something to be avoided at all costs and it is a fact with both editors and agents. There is a simple way to avoid this and its called a query letter.

Query letters differ from cover letters because you send these before you send your submission. Sending a not requested submission automatically relegates it to one spot – the slush pile. Sending a query letter gives you a way around that. Don’t forget, always include and SASE with your query.

I’ve included an example of a basic query letter:

Dear (insert editor’s name – be specific!)

I recently had the pleasure of meeting author Linda George at the Golden Triangle Writers Guild Conference. We spoke at length about publishing historicals and it is through her encouragement that I am contacting you. I am an avid reader of Harlequin Historical Romance as well as a researcher of the period and am currently enrolled in private classes with Rita Gallagher. As a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism I have had various medieval research articles published in newsletters over the years. Two of my novels have reached the finals in consecutive years in the annual GTWG contest.

I have completed a novel that takes place in Cumbria, England in the year 1126 that I would like to submit to the Historical Romance division. Approximately 85,000 words in length, By Any Other Name was developed from my study of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the rebellion of Amaury de Montfort against Henry I. The story focuses on Amaury’s fictional nephew Micah de Montfort trying to rebuild his life and the honor of his family name after his uncle’s treachery. But Micah must overcome his fear of betrayal before he can discover love.

I have included a brief synopsis and an SASE for your convenience. Should you have any questions you may contact me at the above telephone number or via the email address below.

Sincerely,

Your Name

Okay, you get the idea. This is a basic business letter, with very important factors that must be included in every query. Let’s go through them one at a time.

First, see my note where I said to put the editor’s name and be specific! This is oh so important! All of you are aware of the WRITER’S MARKET publication. You can get much needed information from this. There’s only one problem – the publishing industry changes so quickly and has such a high editor turnover, the book is out of date the minute it hits the stands. That’s why I joined my writer’s guild. Through the guild, I am kept up to date when editors go to different houses, quit, get promoted (I even hear about it when they get married or have babies! LOL!), or go on to other things. I cannot stress how important it is to have and be aware of contacts in the industry. Find out who the editor/agent is who you are sending to. This letter was addressed to a specific editor but because it was a query and NOT a submission, my letter was easily forwarded to the person who would be most interested in my query (Harlequin is a large publishing company). The second editor replied with my SASE and I sent the submission directly to her.

Make contacts in the industry and use them shamelessly! Look at the first paragraph and note how I cited author Linda George, and related the basics of the conversation I had with her at my writer’s conference. Even though my letter was forwarded to another editor, she was the one who gave me the contact. It was my foot in the door. I showed that I was serious about my profession because at this writer’s conference I took the time to speak with a well known author and take her advice.

I cannot reiterate enough the importance of attending writer’s conferences, guilds or groups, making contacts, and using them. The publishing industry is filled with people believing they can play a symphony at Carnegie Hall without learning anything but Chopsticks. You need to stand out from the crowd.

And standing out from the crowd is exactly what I related in the next part of the letter. The query letter is the chance to sell yourself. To pose the question of why you should be read and taken seriously. By citing my background, and my relationship with Rita Gallagher (who is well known in publishing circles), I entrench myself as a viable writer. No, I’m not playing Chopsticks here.

The next part is selling my novel. After I pitched myself, I then proceeded to pitch my book. I gave her the basic idea (which also helped her send me to the right editor) and I spoke of reasons why they might be interested in this novel. Many people say just send the query alone. But I always toss in a synopsis because that is my preference. It is up to you to decide what to do. I know, if I was reading this, I’d like to give the synopsis a gander.

The final paragraph is again standard — always make it easy for them to contact you. Reiterating the obvious is the normal practice for a business letter.

This query did result in a positive reply and that’s the whole point. Once they returned my SASE with the letter stating who to send it to (they requested the entire manuscript), I jumped all over it. And guess what, because they said, I want to read this the submission became Requested Material!

WHAM! Just like that I have avoided the slush pile. Because they told me to send — I put in big red letters on the envelope REQUESTED MATERIAL. That puts my manuscript straight in the hands of the editor (or agent).

So when an editor or agent submission policies say – requested material only, that’s when you send the query first. But I recommend sending it anyway, simply to avoid the slush pile.

SUBMISSION FORMAT

Submission format is standard stuff with a few variations. This is where the WRITERS MARKET can really help – plus, most publishers now have their submissions standards online. A little research goes a long way.

But here are a few standards to remember:

  1. Editors and agents make their living by reading! It is important that you make reading as easy as possible. Causing eye-strain is not a way to endear you to the editor or agent. Always submit your manuscript on good quality WHITE paper, not off white, not pink…you get the idea. Although, your query and cover letters can be on business style stationary.
  2. Editors and agents are extremely busy people. With houses combining, more pressure is being placed on people to do the job of 10 instead of 2. It’s a hectic life. So don’t bug them with phone calls or query letters. It’s a good practice to include an SAS postcard with your submission. On the back, write the name of the book, the house and who you submitted it to and lave a blank line for the date. Upon opening your submission, the editor will jot the date down and put it in the mail – painless for them, which is a good thing. With the post card, you know the editor has received your submission, wait at least three months before sending a status query letter.
  3. Always be professional. You are in the BUSINESS of writing, remember that and act accordingly.
  4. Submitting work in opposition to the house’s rules, will get you booted out faster than anything. Obey the rules, do not be quick to challenge foolishly. Do not make enemies in this business, for people have long memories.
  5. Patience and resilience. This will get you farther than anything in your arsenal. I can’t stand submitting something and waiting forever for it to be rejected. But that is the way this business works and I HATE IT!!! Now days, sitting on a book for a year is not unusual. And then, when all is said and done, all you get is a rejection for your efforts. But learn from that rejection (and you will get rejected) and go forward. Don’t let them knock you down the first time out. You’ve already beaten the odds by actually finishing your novel. Now, continue to beat them by submitting, learning, and growing. Perseverance is the name of this game.

We’ve discussed the format for submitting your novel before, but here are some basic reminders. Always use double spaced, Courier New 12 point (or similar). Always have one inch margins all the way around. Editors and agents use this format to easily approximate word count. Do not add formatted text. To indicate italics, underline the words. To indicate bold, double underline. The publishing industry still operates with the understanding that was achieved when writers had only simple typewriters and couldn’t do all the fancy stuff.

You should also make note of the header – in the left corner, type the title of the work, if too long, use key words. If your title is THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRIZZLY ADAMS, then perhaps your key words would be GRIZZLY ADAMS.

In the right side of the header, you would put your last name and then the page number.

You must also include a cover sheet for the manuscript. In the upper left hand corner, write your name, address, phone and email if possible. In the center, type the title of your book, its genre, and your by-line. If you use a pen name like I do, type that underneath with the words "writing as." For example:

BY ANY OTHER NAME
Medieval Romance
By Karrie Balwochus
Writing as Kathryn Loch

In the footer, right hand corner, place your approximate word count. We’ve discussed word count before but a basic reminder is to find a page full page of text, and count the words in a line which seems to have the most. If you ‘ve followed the above standards, you’ll find you average ten words per line. Now count your lines on a page. Again, if you’ve followed the above standard you will find approximately twenty-five lines per page. Multiply this line count by the word count per line (25 x 10) and you’ll get 250. Multiply this number by your total pages, say 400 and you’ll get 100,000 approximate words. Remember to round properly if necessary. 97,300 words would be rounded to 97,000. 97,800 would be rounded to 98,000. And so forth. Sometimes computers don’t always work properly, but if you count your words per line, then count the lines per page, multiply, and multiply that total by your page count, you will get the proper approximate word count. Don’t use your programs word count feature.

But there is one last thing you need to be aware of. . .

THE DREADED SYNOPSIS

Maybe I’m going about this backwards in waiting to discuss the synopsis last – but I’m like most writers I HATE IT!!!! I know authors who will clean house, scrub floors and (gasp) do the IRONING before they will sit down and write a synopsis.

What is a synopsis – well, basically, it is a summary of your novel. It is where the writer must break all of the rules they have been taught and "tell" the story instead of show. The synopsis is where you delineate your characters, the situation, and their motivations for getting through the story. You must show conflict and goal, plot and story line, character traits and flaws, and you must do it in a simple and concise way. Write it in too many pages and the editor will disregard your submission. Too few pages and the editor doesn’t get a true feel for the story. Some houses and agents have limitations on the size of synopses. Try putting a 100k word novel into two pages. Yeah, right.

Sometimes, houses will allow you to single space a synopsis, other times they do not specify. When they do not specify, I double space my synopsis to make for easy reading. (Remember, be kind to your editor or agent.)

The synopsis has a few key points which must be included. The hero and/or heroine, their situation, the conflict, their motivation, and the basic plot and story points.

These have been addressed in part in your cover letter. I have found that when I do the index cards for the Writer’s Journey aspects, they help me tremendously in writing my synopsis because they touch on the very important factors of the story.

These important factors are what must come out in the synopsis. This is the time where you take all of the lessons Diana and Lisa worked so hard on, for you must show the beginning, middle and end. You must describe your characters, the situation, and the ending in order to tell the story properly. And do NOT leave out the ending telling an editor or agent if they want to know the ending, they must buy the story. This is commonly done by writers and professionals hate it. It will only serve to get them upset with you and destroy any chance you may have had with them.

Synopses take various forms and perhaps it would be best if we do one last lesson on that specifically, for this is already too long. I hope I’ve been able to answer some questions and made things a bit clearer. As always, any of this is open for question and discussion.

But one fact remains. You have finished that novel, so what are you waiting for? SUBMIT!

One last note, go ahead and submit your query even if your novel is not quite ready to go. It will usually take over a month for them to get back with you.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1) Who is your favorite authors? What houses do they publish with? Have you researched their submission policies? Perhaps, if you have exchanged correspondence with your favorite author, you might learn who their agent is. Research agents and their submission policies as well.

2) What would you like to do, submit to an editor or an agent?

3) Have you gone through your work with a fine tooth comb? Are there any scenes that are still rough?

4) Have you found any contests that interest you? How and where?

5) Practice writing query letters and summing up your novel in a few sentences as well as spotting things that are useful for your own resume and highlighting them.

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