What to submit when you’re submitting…

This is where it gets down to business. For me, this is always going to be the scary part. The moment your story moves from being something wonderful inside your head to a real piece of critiqued and scrutinised work. The writing part was a doddle. Alright, doddle’s not exactly true, but I enjoyed doing it so looking back on those late nights where I couldn’t stop writing and that time I made a pot of tea last two and half hours in my local cafe, makes those days seem like pleasant, simpler times. When you have something which feels like an entire pack of paper in your hands – yes it’s 1.5 lines spaced, but still – life as a writer gets real.

So what to submit when you’re submitting? And who do you go to? If you’re a debut writer then it’s likely you’ll turn to an agent. Finding a literary agent who loves your work as you do is like having an experienced army fight on your side. Your work is precious, so find someone who feels the same and have them fight for the best deal.

Hold on though. We’re getting carried away. We’ve actually got to find this warrior of an agent first. Writing can feel like a lonesome pursuit, but there’s a lot we can learn from other writers, both in the writing process itself and in submitting, so absorb everything and work out how not to do it, as well as how to.

  • Always do your research. Find out what an agent is looking for. Even though Joe Bloggs sounds like a brilliant agent, if he’s only looking for science fiction and thrillers and you’re writing romance, you might be barking up the wrong tree. You may be in the wrong park entirely. So find an agent who is looking for exactly what you have to offer. Check the guidelines and submit just what they want. This will usually be the first three chapters or the first 50 pages along with a synopsis and a cover letter. Where possible, don’t submit to the general submissions inbox, and if you have to submit there, address it considerately – do not address as ‘Dear Sirs’. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen that. I’ve worked in an agency which is 80% female, let’s not disregard them from the off.
  • Don’t be tempted to submit your first novel before it’s finished. For one thing, if an agent falls in love with your work and asks for the full manuscript (huge congratulations by the way) then you don’t want to hurry along to finish it. The agent will want to see that you can finish the book as well as you started it… they’d also like to know you can finish it, period.
  • Your cover letter is your first step towards the agent, make it as good as you can. You’ve spent all this time and countless cups of tea on the manuscript, so why only spend ten minutes on this crucial introduction? Introduce yourself and your work. Sum up your book in a few sentences. If this is too difficult, it might be a sign that your book is too complex… Then note why you’re submitting to this particular agent. There’s nothing worse than receiving a letter that could be sent to absolutely anyone, so you know that research you just did? Use it here.
  • When introducing yourself, you needn’t tell them where you grew up and the name of your first pet. Only include what’s important and relevant to your work as a writer. If your story is inspired by your challenging childhood and the brilliant three legged dog that brought you through it, then sure, slip it in. But brevity and precision is key. If you warble in your cover letter then what might the story be like…?
  • That is, of course, true for your synopsis too. Keep it exciting and exact. It should be no more than two pages.
  • It can be tempting in your cover letter to explain how your work will be brilliant for, say, children and young adults – particularly animal lovers because they’ll just adore your three legged dog. But don’t worry about that. It’s the agent and the publisher’s job to figure out how to sell your work. You concentrate on relaying the story’s magnificence to them.
  • As a final note to take away, read through your cover letter aloud once you’ve written it and imagine reading it as if it were a complete stranger and you the agent. What tone would you be drawn to? How would you like to be addressed? There’s no need to be overly friendly or to catch their attention with your wit and humour. That’s the job of your writing. Be sensible, considerate and make your work the focus.

That’s what it’s all about really, isn’t it? The work. A true writer will write because they can’t not write. So do it justice with a submission package to match, and, as with many of these things, let’s hope for just a little pinch of luck…



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