Today’s post comes courtesy of Kathryn Price at Cornerstones Literary Consultancy. I’m big fan of Literary Consultants and am hugely grateful to Cornerstones for their work with me on Fury. The experience did more than simply improve the manuscript. It taught me how to edit.
If you find this post useful, you can find more fabulous advice on Cornerstones’ blog.
Listen Very Carefully, I shall Say Zees Only Once
When I was at primary school our teacher (Mrs Bates, she was wonderful) set us an exercise called ‘following instructions’. It was a bit of fun, really, a list of numbered instructions involving writing your name in various styles and colours, drawing circles around some words and not others, colouring in bits and pieces. There was just one catch: point number one was ‘read all of these instructions carefully first.’ And the final instruction was ‘do nothing except write your name at the top of this piece of paper.’ Cue lots of ten-year-olds reaching the end of their list and frantically trying to rub out everything they’d spent the last half hour painstakingly completing. It was an object lesson that has stayed with me, and one I think we can all benefit from.
Following instructions is crucial when it comes to submitting your work. As a rule, industry guidelines are designed to help you, and to save time by ensuring you’re not submitting material that isn’t going to be read (as well as making the agent or editor’s job easier). But they’re also – deliberately or no – a good way of whittling out authors who might be tricky to work with, and they can help to flag up potential problems with a manuscript. For example, if an agent has asked for just your first chapter and you send them an email saying, ‘I’ve included three chapters because nothing really happens in the first one’, not only may they feel that you’re making unreasonable demands on their time, but alarm bells will be ringing about the contents of chapter one.
Many agents have quite specific requirements and these can be a bugbear, or confusing, for some authors. ‘Agent X wants a ten page synopsis but agent Y only wants to see a page! How am I supposed to know what to submit?’ It can be puzzling when agents’ requirements vary so widely, but at the same time these agents have given very clear guidelines, so submitting to them ought to be easy. (And if an agent doesn’t specify what sort of summary you should be submitting, we can give you some advice on how to produce an industry-standard synopsis that will wow pretty much anyone). The point is that, if you give them exactly what they’ve asked for, it’s going to be that much harder to reject your manuscript on a technicality.
Guidelines are also useful to save time and effort. If an agent states categorically that they don’t accept submissions of women’s commercial fiction, there really is no point in sending off a hopeful letter saying ‘Maybe you’ll make an exception when you read my manuscript…’ You don’t want to waste their time, or yours; this kind of submission looks unprofessional, as though you haven’t researched the agency properly, and can lead to disheartening rejections that may not be a true reflection of the quality of your writing.
The above may all sound very mechanical and impersonal but remember that publishing is a business and people have a lot of work to get through. And if in doubt, keep in mind that good etiquette (which is what it boils down to) will foster good relationships in the long term. An author recently submitted her work to us but it wasn’t ready for a critique, so we turned her down with some feedback. She then sent a big package of material in the post, asking if we could read it anyway – but no SAE. When she emailed asking why we hadn’t responded, we explained that we’d already read a sample and turned her down and that unfortunately we don’t have time to read lengthy material that we’re not critiquing. She asked us to return her work and when we requested an SAE she suggested that we were trying to con money out of her. But our guidelines are very clear: email or phone in the first instance, and always enclose an SAE if you would like your material returned (this is standard practice across the industry). Far from being money-grabbing, by turning her down in the first instance we had saved her the cost of a report that she wasn’t ready for. The whole exchange was time-consuming and left both parties frustrated – and could have been so easily avoided.
So remember, when you submit – you may not just be being judged on the work you’re sending out. Everything you do and each communication you have with the agent is part of the package – yourself – that you’re presenting. Think of it as a job interview where they’re trying to decide not just how good you’ll be at the job, but what you’ll be like to work with, too. That might be a bit scary, but if the agent has clear guidelines, then following them will make your interview prep easier and your chances of landing your dream job that much higher.
Good luck and if you have any questions on the submission process we’re here to help.