Is it soup yet?
Whether you are writing your first book or your fifty first, you have to go through the steps of preparing submission package. Each time I do it, I try to perfect it a little more. This isn't just for newbies, but certainly will help them. I've come to the realization that perfecting the art of the query and the synopsis is at least as important as use of strong language or deep characterization within the novel itself. With that in mind, and because it has come up for me twice this week, I am sharing this...I found when I began writing seriously that the writing happened rather easily. I plucked a story from the many ideas I had in my head and I sat down every day and banged it out on my computer. It was so much easier than when I had to do it with a typewriter, back in the day. I had the internet as my constant companion so I didn't have to make notes and head for the library to do research. I wrote the prose itself from trial and error: what did I like the next day when I read it? What didn't work? The manuscript itself, that first one -- which has never been published, by the way, or even submitted for publication -- my first pancake, practically wrote itself.
And as writers we all know that once the first draft of the manuscript is finished, that's when the real work begins.
I'm writing this because I just finished sweating over the submission packages for two different works. Unlike writing the books, preparing them for submission requires an entirely different skill set. There are four stages to this and I thought I'd outline them here, along with my take on the highs and lows of each. Even though I'm a pro now, I still groan when I get to this part. So I thought I'd make it simple for myself, and maybe, clear up some things for people who might be new at this.
1. Get it perfected.
Oh, my goodness, self-editing. Wow. Is there anything more difficult, especially for someone who is tottering precariously over the precipice of full-on OCD? I have this thing... I hate to let anything go until it's perfect. This happens for example, when I'm cleaning the house, (and is the reason I gave that thankless task up altogether) I might take on a room, but then I have to start by removing everything in it and by the time ordinary mortals would be exhausted I'm just hitting my stride... I'm alphabetizing the CDs or the soup cans and drinking strong tea so I can stay awake until I get it just right. The problem is, it's never just right.
Maybe I always like to have a last chance to get it perfect, and knowing this, I have to make some rules about what I can and can't expect from the 50 year old house I live in.
The same goes for manuscripts. Here's my rule of thumb. If I've let the manuscript percolate for a couple of weeks without touching it, then opened that same manuscript everyday for a week and only changed a bunch of words here and there, but found no major jarring places in the plot or contradictions in the characters... If I'm only tinkering, not actually changing anything, then it's time to stop. Otherwise, I'd never let it go.
There comes a time when you have to let it go, say it's done, and move on. (then be fully prepared, if you're successful in the following steps, to tear it apart when your editor tells you to and start over.)
When it's done, it's done. I wish I had a picture of myself as I push that final send button, for laughs. I always look like one of those celebrity mug shot photos. Yeah. Trust yourself, it's DONE.
2. Who will buy?
Now is the time to get out that old vinyl copy of Oliver! the musical, and sing about your wares. Who will buy my wonderful romance, mystery, zombie story, whatever. Hopefully, while you've been writing your stories, you've been reading similar stories. You have, haven't you? Reading everything you can find that's like the thing you've written? This wasn't a problem for me, because like most romance and m/m genre writers, I was reading every book I could get hold of, hoping that with each one I'd find exactly the mix of romance, intrigue, action and adventure I was looking for and -- because it wasn't out there -- I finally decided to try writing one of my own.
Who is publishing the books you've been reading? Well... Maybe that's your target. Maybe you're trying a new genre unrelated to those that are within your comfort zone. Who is publishing the writers you like in that new area. Now, before you chicken out, find out if they're accepting submissions. Some don't accept unsolicited manuscripts. They either want it from an agent, or they want to ask you for it first. They want to hear about you by word of mouth, or read something you've written. And that's okay. For later. Find one that accepts from unknowns and go for it. It's good practice.
If you write a vampire paranormal, and you want, say... Ace Books, who publish the Sookie Stackhouse novels of Charlaine Harris to take a looksee, you're going to need an agent. If you write a vampire paranormal m/m romance and you're thinking Loose Id might be a good fit, you go the their submissions guidelines. And you read them through about four hundred and fifty times to get them EXACTLY right in your head before you go any further... The Loose Id submissions guidelines can be found HERE.
When you're ready to serve up that heapin' helpin of the wit and wisdom that is you, you prepare your manuscript exactly the way they tell you to. Formatted to the exact specifications. Each publisher is different so don't assume. If you don't know what they mean, just ask. They're happy to help you, really, and there's an infinite number of people out there who will answer your questions and very few if any will make you feel like an idiot about it.
Every one of them has made all the mistakes you're about to make. Know this and go for it.
Fortune favors the brave.
3. Write a Query Letter
When I started this gig, I didn't know what a query letter was. I googled and got lots of answers, most of which say to provide your prospective publisher the outline of who you are, and give the very briefest taste of what you've written, this isn't the place to do a synopsis, far from it. This is the place to say:
Dear (Insert name here)
Please accept for considerations my (genre) novel, (novella, short story), (Title.) It is the story of so-and-so, who (High Concept plot outline, meaning in one sentence or three at the very most explain your story.)
I'm (already a published writer. I have these credits to my name with these publishers) or (Not already a published writer but I'm sending this to you because I believe, based on my long and careful research of your company, and the fact that you publish X,Y, and Z) that my book is a good fit your you.
Thank you so much,
(Your name here.)
There isn't a lot, at this point, that you need to say. They get thousands of these. Your plot sentences should be catchy, maybe. I don't have the faintest idea how I got published, but I did. I looked at my original query to Loose Id for Crossing Borders, and it's pretty lame, but they read the book and the rest is history. ;-) A really great query letter is as much an art as a novel's great opening sentence. For a little help, go HERE.
3. Write a Synopsis
If writing a synopsis of your 85,000 word novel isn't the hardest part of preparing the submission package, I don't know what is... How are you going to boil it all down to LESS THAN THREE PAGES. (The one I most recently sent was three pages and four lines, but that was to my editor at MLR and I think she'll cut me some slack.)
I will tell you my secret to this, which comes directly from my kids. Imagine sitting down at the dinner table with them. They're describing the plot of a movie that you haven't seen. Maybe you don't even want to see it, but you're being polite. They start with...
There's this orphan kid, see, and he's living in the closet under the stairs at his aunt and uncles house, and they treat him really badly. Then one day these owls start dropping letters in his mailbox.
If you'll notice, it's all in the present tense, which I have been assured is the way to go. It's like baseball commentary, which is in the present tense, even though it's usually referring to something that just happened, " Ooh, a little nubber right into center field, too bad. If he hits the ball this game is over." Your character is an orphan so you don't have to say his parents died. Avoiding the past tense is tricky, but telling it as it's happening is... I dunno. More immediate, and the more you can get the reader involved in finding out what happens next, the better.
Maybe that's just how I do things. For a little extra synopsis help, you can go HERE.
4. Send it off with LOVE and High Hopes
The query letter is the body of your email. Attach your synopsis, labeled synopsis, Initials first, or however they want it like so: ZAMtitlesynopsis.rtf, and your partial or full manuscript, based on the submissions guidelines, ZAMtitle(partial,fullmanusript).rtf and send it.
Just click on that send button. It will not send itself. Have a little faith and SEND.
In the final analysis...
You have exactly as much chance as everyone else of getting your work opened, examined, read, and contracted, whether you're brand new or a veteran trying a different market. But not if you don't observe the niceties, do the work, calculate the odds, and dive in head first. That submission package is so hard and it doesn't get a lot easier, even with time and practice. Like the Hail Mary pass in football or one of those long-odds buzzer beaters in basketball. Just... Time's short, you know? Life is short.
Prepare it, then send it off with grace... And ONE SECOND LATER...
Do it again...