Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Proposal

No, not the Sandra Bullock movie. Today we’re talking about manuscript submissions.

When you are submitting your work to an agent/editor, the packet will usually include: a cover letter, the manuscript (or a portion), and a synopsis. If you submitting cold (submitting to a professional who did not specifically ask for the submission), then you should check with their web site or a recent copy of Writer’s Market. Either source should give you the details on what that particular person/company wants.

Rule #1: Follow the guidelines to the letter. Sending something they don’t want, or omitting something they do want, is the best way to make sure your proposal is never read. Deviate at your own risk.

The Cover Letter

This is the first thing your target audience will see. It’s like a written handshake, and like a good handshake it should be firm, confident, and brief.

Here are the basics:

Greet the reader. Dear so-and-so (always triple check the spelling of the agent/editor’s name as a touch of respect). I usually start with a reminder about the meeting which sparked this submission, if there was one. If this is a cold submission (a submission sent to someone who hasn’t clearly asked for it), then obviously you skip that portion. So, something like, ‘We met Write-A-Pazuzza last month. You asked me to send you a sample of my novel.’

Define your book. Tell them the name of the novel, word length, and a couple sentences about it. If you’re having trouble pinning down your 600-page magnus opus in less than fifty words, go read the backs of a few of your favorite books. They typically introduce the main character and his/her main conflict, and possibly a mention of the impossible odds stacked against him/her. The trick is to make it sound interesting.

List your previous publications. This is where you list your best-received books, the bestsellers and award winners. What? You haven’t published any books before? Don’t worry. Being a newbie isn’t a sin. List some of the short stories you’ve had published and where they appeared. Don’t mention how much (or how little) you were paid. Just title, publication, and perhaps the date if it was recent. If you have none of the above, then skip this section.

Say goodbye, Ray. A polite ‘thanks for considering me’ followed by your signature is just fine here. Unless you and the agent/editor are actual friends in real life, resist the temptation to get too friendly here. This is a business letter, so keep it professional. Which brings us to . . .

Rule #2: Don’t get too familiar. Like I said before, unless you and the reader are friends already, don’t get cute. They don’t know you (yet), so don’t give them any reason to believe you are a potential stalker/psycho. No little hearts in the margin. No scented perfume. No pretty stationary with unicorns and moonbeams. Just white paper, black ink, and the facts, ma’am.

The Manuscript

I want to assume that everyone knows the basics like font, size, margins, numbering, and so forth. In case you don’t, there are about a zillion books on the subject. Here’s the basics: times new roman or courier font, size 12, one-inch margins all around, no right-hand justification (this means don’t have your word processor line up the right side of the text to mimic book printing), pages number in the upper right corner or at the bottom. If it’s not too much trouble, I suggest that you add a header to the top of every page that includes the title and your last name separated by a slash (Strangers on Mars/Sprunk).

Now, depending on what the agent/editor wants, you’ll either be sending them the complete full manuscript, or a partial. The full manuscript is self-explanatory. You print out the entire book, including prologues and epilogues, and shove it into a box or a big envelope. Wrap a big rubber band around the whole thing if you’re worried about the pages moving around and getting crinkled.

A partial is just what it sounds like, a portion of the manuscript. A lot of agents/editors ask for the first three chapters. Some ask for a certain number of pages, like the first fifty or one hundred. Either way, follow the directions. When asked for a number of pages, though, try to end the last page at a natural break of some sort, and not in the middle of a sentence. And if page 51 has the perfect break (end of a chapter or scene, big cliffhanger), then they probably won’t mind if you stop there.

I’ve been asked before if you should send the prologue along, too. That’s up to you. Is it exciting and full of delicious tension? Is it vitally important to the story? If so, put it in. If not, then I have to ask why is it even in the manuscript?

Before you print out the manuscript or partial, take a little time for go over one of the most important parts of the submission, perhaps THE most important: the first five pages. Obviously, check to eliminate typos and grammar mistakes, but also read for content. Some professionals claim they can tell within the first couple pages if they’ll like a book (some will admit in private that it takes a lot less than that). So go over the beginning again. Does it have the right tone? It is clear? Does it leave you wanting more? Not every novel will (or should) start off with a murder in a famous museum in the opening scene, but you can still aim for something memorable.

The Synopsis

Here’s a little secret. I hate writing synopses. It feels like I’m trying to take everything that I put into a book, all the emotion and tension, all the angst and heartbreak, and squeeze it into a space that would fit on the back of a soup can. But just about every agent and editor wants one with the submission package, so we just have to suck it up. Hey, maybe you’ll love the experience. If so, dig in.

A synopsis is, in a nutshell, a summary of your novel. Professionals used to ask for longer synopses of ten or more pages. These days, most ask for three to five pages, or even less. Everyone is busy today. Editors don’t have time to read a novella-sized summary of a novel. They want the bare bones. They want to know if the author can put together a story from start to finish.

Beside length, synopses have other specific traits:

They are written single-spaced and in the present tense, no matter what tense your novel is in. So, instead of “Captain Bill broke free of the black hole’s gravity, and steered a course for Epsilon Five,” the synopsis would say, “Captain Bill breaks free of the black hole’s gravity, and steers a course for Epsilon Five.”

The important contents of a synopsis are setting, character, motivation, action, and results. Tell them what the characters are doing, where they’re doing it, why they’re doing it, and what happens next.

If there are specific things about your book which you feel separate it from similar stories, you can slip it in. Does your book deliberately cross genre (a vampire love story set in outer space)? Is your protagonist different from the typical hero? (She should be!) How about the villain?

After the first draft, go back and add some polish. I don’t know if a stellar synopsis ever sold a mediocre novel, but that’s no reason to look sloppy. Add a little pizzazz. Although it’s a summary, you can inject your unique voice into the text. But don’t go overboard. Just a dash is all you need.

Well, that’s about it. I hope this was helpful. The key to publishing, in my humble opinion, is perseverance. It’s not enough to write prolifically or even beautifully; you have to get your work out to where the right people can see it. Good luck!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Finding an Agent

At a friend’s suggestion, today’s blog is about writing conferences. Specifically, how to go about shopping your manuscript at them

I’m no expert, but I’ve been to a few conferences (and one convention, which looked a lot like a conference, but felt somewhat looser in format). I have a few thoughts about how to approach agents and/or editors at these places. I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen some crash-and-burns. Hopefully, I can steer you toward the former.

Some conferences have slots of time set aside where attendees can speak one-on-one with an agent/editor in private. These are worth their weight in gold. If you’ll forgive me, I will give a shout out to the Pennwriters group, which hosts just such a conference event each year. If you live in or near Pennsylvania, it would behoove you to check them out.

/promo off

But what if you don’t have the privilege of a pre-set time slot with an agent/editor? Not to worry. There are some easy steps that can guide you to a successful encounter.

First, study your target. Obtain a list of all the agents and editors who will be attending the conference, and find out what they represent. Some agents like SFF, others won’t go near it. A little homework before the event can save you time, and possibly avert an embarrassing mistake. You can find everything you need to know either online (most agents and editors have a company web page, if not their own site these days), or in a resource like Writer’s Market.

Okay. So you’ve narrowed down the list of agents/editors to those who handle your type of fiction. How do you approach them? Well, it helps to remind yourself they are just ordinary people–PEOPLE WHO HOLD THE KEY TO YOUR WRITING FUTURE! Just kidding. Hey, these folks love books. That’s why they got into the industry. And they want to find new authors. Otherwise, they wouldn’t bother attending conferences and conventions at all. Plus, every agent and editor wants to be credited with finding the next Stephen King/JK Rowling/etc...

There is an etiquette of sorts to approaching an agent/editor you don’t know.

Tip #1: Don’t drink before walking up to them. Not even a bracing shot of Old Granddad for your courage. You want to be lucid and alert, not a whiskey-smelling lush.

Tip #2: Don’t bring your manuscript to the conference. It’s tempting, I know. You’ll keep it in your car, or the hotel room, just in case the agent of your dreams MUST see it right now. But pushing your manuscript into an agent/editor’s hands is the social equivalent of greeting a blind date with a wet kiss and a handful of condoms. If your pitch interests them, they will ask to see the manu, or more likely a sample. That’s a score. That’s what you want. And really, do you expect them to haul your 20-pound proposal all the way back to their office? It’s got a better chance of going in the trash.

Tip #3: Smile. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve watched who approach an agent/editor like they’re going to their own execution. This isn’t a time to be bashful or depressed. You have a small window of face time with which to impress this person. How excited will they be to work with an author who can’t summon up a simple smile? Not very. So plaster on your best (non-crazy) smile and say hello. Be confidant! Be charming!

Tip #4: Brevity is your ally. Have you ever been stuck someplace, like an elevator or a long plane ride, beside someone who doesn’t know when to shut up? I guarantee your target agent/editor has, and they probably don’t enjoy it anymore than you do. It helps to have your pitch already prepared and memorized so you can spit it out without stumbling over your tongue. (What’s a pitch? We’ll get to that.) My point here is that it’s a good idea to tell them what you have to offer, and then . . . be quiet. If the target asks questions, you’ve got the start of a conversation that may, perhaps, wind up with a submission. If they don’t—if they just stand there and blink, or maybe glance down at their watch—then it’s time to make a dignified exit. Be polite. Thank them for their time. And move on. Don’t pepper them with a barrage of details about your book, about how you’re going to single-handedly revolutionize the literary world (I’ve seen this tried. Believe me, it’s embarrassing to witness.) Make your pitch, and leave. Unless they ask questions.

Tip #5: The Pitch. A pitch is a brief statement that tells what your book is about. If that seems rather vague, it’s on purpose. I’ve listened to a lot of pitches, and made a few myself. They aren’t all the same, and there’s no magic pitch formula that can guarantee success. But there are some general parameters. First, mention the title of the book and its genre. Second, mention that’s a completed novel, and not just a work in progress (it is complete, right?). Then give a summary of your book in two-to-four sentences. Think interesting. Think creative. Think about what kind of book would you want to read?

Example: “Mists of Serenity is a completed urban fantasy about Serenity, a high school senior with magic powers she inherited from her dead grandmother. But she doesn’t know she has these powers until her life is threatened by a clan of time-traveling Mongols who happen to appear in her hometown of Roanoke, Virginia just in time to wreck her Senior Prom…”

Okay, you get the idea. Refine your pitch over and over until it sounds pitch-perfect (pun intended). Then read it aloud, as many times it takes until you can recite it at will. Yeah, you’ll probably mess up a couple words when you’re actually in front of an agent/editor, but you’ll get enough of it right to convince them that you know what you’re talking about. The pitch itself shouldn’t take more than 15-20 seconds to recite, in my opinion. Any longer than that and you run the risk of sounding like a motor-mouth, or a used car salesperson. Be like Muhammad Ali: float and sting. And smile.

Tip #6: Reel them in. So you’ve approached a suitable agent or editor, introduced yourself without vomiting, and even blurted out your pitch. If you’ve done your job, they may be showing signs of interest. They ask to hear more. They want to know more about the main character. Does she have a boyfriend who factors into the story? What kind of magic does she possess? Boom. It’s like the heavens have opened, and a choir of angels is singing your name. Awesome. But you’re not quite out of the woods yet. See, the agent/editor has taken the bait, but they’re still a long way from your net. So smile. Be interesting. Be charming. And stop with the I-want-to-wear-your-skin-as-a-bathrobe eyes!

If all goes well, you will asked to submit something, either the entire manuscript (YAY!) or a sample of a few chapters (yay!) with a synopsis, etc… At this point you deserve to feel good about yourself. On the strength of your pitch and your personality, you just gained a foothold into the industry. That’s how it starts.

Tip #7: Don’t take it personal. Even if you do everything right—the prep, the pitch, the smile—there’s still a chance your proposal will be rejected out of hand. Wait? What went wrong? Maybe nothing. It could be a simple case of barking up the wrong tree. Stories are highly personal, a ‘one man’s junk is another man’s treasure’ kind of thing. For whatever reason, your story didn’t pique their interest. It’s not the end of the world. Dust yourself off, check for tire prints on your rear end, and get back in the saddle. For a writer serious about going professional, rejection is part of the game. You’ll either develop a thick skin, or you’ll flunk out and go back to macramé. Actually, after the first thirty or forty rejections, it doesn’t sting so much. Buy me a beer sometime, and I’ll tell you about the box of rejection letters I keep in my attic. And let me tell you; every ‘no’ you rack up on the way to success makes the ‘yes’ all that much sweeter.

Good luck.

Next stop: the submission proposal.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Giving Thanks

Since we're in the middle of the holiday trifecta (TG, Xmas, and NYE), I want to take a moment to give thanks for all that I have received this year.

I'm thankful for my family, my wife, Jenny, and our son, Logan. I never thought life could be so rewarding, but every day is better than the last.

I'm thankful for our extended family; our parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. So many have volunteered their time and energy to help us as new parents. It's marvelous to witness how Logan has brought our entire family closer together.

I'm thankful for Lou Anders and Pyr Books for giving me an opportunity to share my writing with the world. One of my main New Years wishes is to make them very glad they chose me. I'm also grateful to all the other publishers who have taken on the book, and to all those who jump on the Shadow-Train in the coming year.

I'm thankful to my agent, Eddie Schneider, and his (professional) partner, Joshua Bilmes, at JABberwocky for taking in a poor wretch like me. Likewise, I aim to prove myself a wise investment of their time and talents.

I'm thankful for our friends, for their love and support. They make our lives richer.

I wish all of you a safe and merry holiday season, and a wonderful new year.