Friday, August 14, 2009

Not At Nationals - Common Romance Writing Mistakes Pt 16.

No, I haven't forgotten about this. Almost done folks! Bear with me...

Missed Part Fifteen of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here

  • Getting ready to Submit.

“It stands to reason that you want to get your editor to read your story. Therefore, it's obvious that you want to present her with as attractive a package as possible. How do you accomplish this? By following standard literary manuscript form.”

That's how The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes begins the chapter that deals with the professional side of submitting a manuscript. At this point our story is told, the editing is done, and we're at that scary point of the process where we're ready to send it out into the big, bad world of publishing all on it's little ownsome. Now, in fairness, some of the things you will have done to give yourself the best chance of making it out of the slush pile, is to have researched the market before you began. Not everyone does it that way round, and I'll admit I wasn't one of them the first time out, but when it comes to the romance genre, the best way to get an editor or agent's attention is to have done your homework. In category/series romance, the editor will need to know what line you're aiming for so they can keep that in mind as they read the manuscript. Think of it as a 'ballpark' area. Because in fairness some of the dividing lines between categories can be closer than you might think. In the case of The Bridal Bet, I pitched it at Modern/Presents because there was at least one sex scene in it. Yes folks, I was THAT na├»ve. As it was, when I sold, my editor told me they felt it was best suited to the Romance Line and we therefore had to remove the more detailed sex scenes. Hey – they wanted to BUY THE BOOK – was I gonna say no?! So don't worry too much if you're uncertain about the category/line you would best fit in. A GREAT STORY will sell regardless of whether or not you pitch it at the right line. On the flipside there are also some great stories that don't sell because lines are changing, or there isn't a place for it currently, etc., etc., but that doesn't mean it can't sell somewhere else or further down the line. A big part of selling your story is the right desk at the right time with the right editor. No-one can plan ahead for that. We, as authors, do our part by telling the best story possible and giving the manuscript the best chance of selling by submitting it in a professional manner and after that it's out of our hands. Accept that folks. It's just how it is.

So once you've done your research about the Agent/Publisher/Editor/line or category you're aiming for, there are some basics you will want to follow. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes gives us another useful list for this, which I'll put in colour with my comments below.

1/ Everything must be typed.

Seems fairly obvious, but some people may prefer to write the story long-hand and at the end of the day the person you are sending the story to won't just be reading your story during the course of the day. Therefore everything is typed so they don't have decipher handwriting. Because if they do, it drags them out of the story, doesn't it?

2/ Use good quality white paper.

Again, seems obvious, and may even be a tad of a moot point if you're submitting somewhere where they accept email submissions. But plain white paper combined with typed words makes for ease of reading. The book suggests a 14-pound weight with nothing beyond 20-pounds. I would translate that as not so flimsy it rips as easily as tissue paper, not so heavy you have to mortgage the house to post it. And remember you may have to post it more than once if there are a few rounds of revisions. I can't remember the exact amount I spent posting my first one over three odd times, but I can remember it wasn't cheap. The books says 'onion skin and coarse papers' are unacceptable. Wish I'd known that first time out. I invested in very pretty cream paper with a ripple effect to the touch. It cost a fortune, but I'm a fan of pretty paper. Wouldn't even occur to me to use that now. We live and learn...

3/ Type on one side only, double-spaced.

Basic reason for this again is ease of reading. There's a chance if you have type on both sides of the paper it may come through a little on the other side, making it more difficult. Remember the person reading your manuscript will read a LOT of them. Anything that drags them out of the story (and that includes eye strain) is B-A-D. As well as helping with that, double-spacing allows room for clearly circling words, not just at the read-through stage in editing before the manuscript is submitted, but with the same thing when an editor/agent reads through.

4/ Use a standard typeface.

Ease of reading again. No fancy, floaty or scrawly fonts. Something nice and clear like Times New Roman or Arial or Courier New or even Book Antiqua. And no – the editor/agent won't reject a great manuscript if it's in a font they wouldn't normally use so long as it's clear, simple and neither too small or too large. I'll work in anything from a 12 to a 14 point (more the former and in Courier New if I'm being honest), depending on the font and with the page set at 100%. But again, there's no point worrying too much about the point size not being perfect so long as the letters aren't teeny, because when it comes to word count or page count, an editor is only interested in the COMPUTER WORD COUNT of the manuscript as a whole (in my experience). Just use common sense for this one is my advice. If possible check with an editor or agent or online (in case there's somewhere it's written down that I don't know of) but rule of thumb comes down to ease of reading.

5/ Use standard margins.

Margins are spaces for the editor/agent to make notes when they're reading. One inch top, right and bottom with an inch an a half on the left is The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes advice, but personally I don't see why an inch all round, or an inch a quarter left and right, would make that much of a difference in the greater scheme of things. Again, a WELL TOLD STORY will get an editors attention first and foremost so long as they can read it without getting a migraine. Some editors/agents may like one layout more than another. But prior to selling, so long as your manuscript is neat, tidy, on a medium weight paper, double spaced, single-sided and has a margin all around, you're good to go.

6/ Put your name and address on the first page.

Personally what I did was use the cover page of the manuscript for the working title, next line said by 'Author Name' and then below that I wrote my address in the standard way, complete with postcode and country and I added a contact number and email address. All centred in the middle of the page. When you send a requested full manuscript, it's also worth adding the editor reference number (if there is one) and making sure the envelope you post it in is addressed directly to them. The story itself then started on the next page with Chapter One. At this point they are not interested in dedications as this is considered an embellishment when the book goes to print, sometimes accompanied by a reader letter. If submitting by email, I would recommend having the title of the book in the subject line and sending it to yourself in a blind copy so you can be sure it got there if the company doesn't have an automatic response to emails received. The Mills & Boon offices, once you are published, have a dedicated email address for incoming manuscripts and I do this the exact same way, sending another email straight after to my editor to let her know I've sent it in. Though at this point, in fairness, I don't have to put my address on the cover page. She knows where I live. Scary thought that now that I think about it...

7/ Put your last name and a sequential page number top right on every page.

Erm. Not how I do it I'll admit. I put the working title and 'by Trish Wylie' on two lines on the left hand side of the header and the sequential numbers to the right. The sequential numbers running from start to finish throughout the duration of the entire manuscript from the first page of Chapter One in the same way it would in a book. I also have a footer that contains the words 'Copyright Trish Wylie' and the year, but that's optional and I must admit I don't always do it. For copyright reasons it IS worth having a copy of the manuscript with the date on it but some people simply cover this by keeping a copy on their computer or by emailing the manuscript to themselves so it's dated. Each to their own and so far it's never been a problem for me, but better safe than sorry, right? It's not a bad idea to email a copy of the manuscript to yourself anyway, just in case the equivalent of the apocalypse happens in writing terms and your hard drive fries and takes the manuscript with it to computer heaven. Now THAT'S a scary thought! One that sent me straight out to buy an external hard drive. Any day now I'll remember to use it.

8/ At the end of the story, write 'The End'.

Might seem like a moot point if there aren't any more pages, but the last thing you want is for an editor to go hunting for one, particularly if your story ends in such a way where there is the suggestion of more. Again this is something I don't do any more and again it's a teeny tiny thing. But remember, we're out to get an editor/agent's attention first time out so the less to distract them the better. Type 'The End' and they know they're done. You can be a lazy ass like me after you've sold...

That then brings us to how you package the manuscript and cover/query letters and the required synopsis (shudder!). A COVER LETTER is basically a short introduction. It is NOT your life story, it is NOT personal details, it should be laid out like a business letter. In other words, not how I did it. Again this isn't something that will cost you a sale if you've written a great story, so don't chew your fingernails to the quick over it! And again there is PLENTY of advice on this subject online. A cover letter for a partial is not the same as a query letter/pitch in my opinion. Particularly when the partial is accompanied by a synopsis. In this case it's an introduction to who you are, any writing experience you may have, a brief description of your story that may include some of the themes the line you're aiming for uses, the word count of the story and if it's COMPLETE. By telling an editor/agent the story is complete they know they can expect to receive the full manuscript fast if they request it. And this is another of the reasons I'm very much in favour of finishing a manuscript before submission. The last thing you want is to receive the request for the full and to then have to scramble for weeks or months to complete it, while the story becomes dim in the mind of the editor/agent and in your rush to finish you don't do the best possible job of TELL THE STORY, therefore lessening your chances of making a sale.

A QUERY or pitch is a different beast. It's even briefer than a cover letter and much more matter of fact while at the same time lacking in the details a synopsis may supply, so therefore without any 'back-up' so to speak. In my opinion, one of the best sources for help with agent queries is Query Shark, where you can learn from others mistakes, see how they improved and even send in your own query for a chance at one-on-one advice – if you don't mind it being done for all to see. These are aimed primarily at VERY busy people and at an Editor or Agent meeting during a conference you may have only fifteen minutes to tell them about your story AND fit in a chat about any other work you have or what you hope for from your career. Your query/pitch therefore has to be succinct and to the point. It's an art unto itself and worth putting work into when it comes to both research and practise. It's also something I personally have very little experience with, so I won't try to pretend I do when there are others much more capable of handing out advice on the subject. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes doesn't have much to say on the subject either I'm afraid;

“If you're trying to hit a major market, it's a good idea to query first. A brief letter, saying who you are and what you want to submit, will suffice. Not only might this open the editor's door a tiny crack later, but no response to your query means 'no' – which could save months when your solicited manuscript otherwise might languish on the floor beside the editor's desk with all the other unsolicited material.”

The SYNOPSIS is basically the equivalent of a film or book review, without the personal opinion. It gives the title of the story and possibly even the setting and a little about the main characters at the top of the page and then goes on to tell us what happens in the story in the same order that things occur. One of the best way to practice doing this brings us to:

Task Thirty-Nine: Take a movie you've watched or a book you've read and recount what happened in it from start to finish in two pages or less. Did it include the names of the characters and their relationships to each other? Did it focus on the main characters? Did it tell the story in the order things happened? Were there times when you embellished on the details of setting, surrounding, etc. instead of the characters and what was happening to them? Were the key turning points/main plot points included? Could anyone reading your description relate it to the story and have more than a fair idea of what's going on?

This my friends is what a synopsis is and the kind of questions you need to be asking yourself. In a synopsis the editor/agent doesn't need embellishment or to know about the clothes they wear, the surroundings beyond where they are, scents or sounds, what they ate or drank or any of the other details that add depth to the story. They want to know about the CHARACTERS and WHAT HAPPENS TO THEM during the story. It's that simple and that complicated. But practising with a body of work that is not your own and you aren't emotionally attached to can be one of the best ways of training yourself to write a synopsis. Remember to remove your point of view from it. It's worth reading a few movie/book reviews to see how much was a description of the story and how much was opinion so you can see the difference, but the rule of thumb is that you are NOT re-telling the story in the same depth. A synopsis by dictionary definition is 'a brief summary of the plot of a novel, motion picture, play, etc.' Emphasis on BRIEF and SUMMARY and PLOT.

You can find submission guidelines for most agents/publishers on their websites. Look for them. Read any examples you can find. Look at the most recent book they have bought or released. For Harlequin Mills & Boon in London a submission consists of a SYNOPSIS and the first three chapters of the book (the PARTIAL) and may or may not have a cover letter. Mine did. They don't insist there is one. And you CAN submit by email. For the lines edited out of the New York Offices, Harlequin asks for a QUERY LETTER and a SYNOPSIS, they DO NOT accept partials and it is done by post. Both offices accept original work from authors who do not have an agent and you can find submission details here. NOT ALL PUBLISHERS are the same, NOT ALL AGENTS will represent romance. So DO YOUR RESEARCH.

If submitting by email, follow the recipients instructions to the letter. It's the same by post, but by post you will want your manuscript bound with a rubber band (no staples or binders!) and a large enough envelope to allow it to travel flat, without any folding. If you want the manuscript returned you will need to include another envelope, with your address on the front and the postage paid and in your cover letter you will have to specifically request it is returned.

DO NOT submit the manuscript in multiple submissions to various publishers/editors/agents at the same time. They like to have first refusal. Yes, that can be frustrating when it comes to waiting times, but such is the game of submission. On the subject of waiting times you are going to have to learn patience. Do not expect to hear anything back at great speed. A query may be answered faster, it may not be answered at all. But in general three to four months is the minimum amount of time you should give whoever you have sent the manuscript to before you follow up with a POLITE inquiry. I believe Mills & Boon has an email address specifically for this and in my experience you will at some point receive a brief letter or compliments slip to say they have received the partial/manuscript. The next step on the ladder may be a form rejection letter, the request for a full or a revisions letter. You WILL NOT necessarily receive feedback. In my experience the offer to buy a manuscript comes in the form of a phone call from the editor you will be working with in the future, hence why it's known as THE CALL. Of course if you're with an agent the call may come from them and they will also deal with your inquiries regarding waiting time. It's only when time zones are involved that the offer may possibly come in the form of an email, but they're rare in my experience. Does the call come on a specific day of the week? Again – not necessarily. But I can tell you that the vast majority of books in London are officially bought at the weekly acquisitions meeting which occurs on a Friday. This is when the editorial staff gets together and sit around a big table to 'pitch' the books they have ready. It's the final step on the ladder. To my horror as a first-timer, I was told by my then editor that there have been occasions when manuscripts are rejected at the acquisitions stage. I would assume this is because of an upcoming change to lines or editorial, but thankfully these occasions are rare and if worse comes to the absolute worst, there is every chance you will be invited to submit again as soon as possible to the same editor.

Basically when it comes down to it, you want your manuscript to have the best chance of selling. So you tell the best story you can, you make it as good as you can and you submit in a way the people you're sending it to want, remain patient while it's there, polite in your communication with them and businesslike when it comes to any requests they make. You DO NOT want to prejudice them against your manuscript in any way, shape or form. It's also worth remembering that many publishers/agents don't like multiple submissions to THEM. So no sending three manuscripts at the same time or under different names either. If you're sending to a publisher or agency with more than one editor/agent then there is no guarantee those submissions will all land on the same desk or on several desks at the same time. This can be incredibly awkward for the people concerned. You want to build a one-on-one working relationship with whoever buys from you, so it's best NOT to start off on the wrong foot when this person holds your career in the palm of their hands...

Once you DO sell, a whole new world will open up to you. There will be many, many things to learn and a whole new set of questions to ask. At this point the romance writing community again comes into it's own with the sharing of information. ASK and someone will answer you.

For anyone who might want a template for a manuscript, I have one that was given to me by a friend when I started out and have used for many, many, many books. It is in a Word Doc and you can download it from my website here. Meanwhile, two more topics to go and we're DONE!

  • CHECK BACK for more of this 'mini-workshop'. Got questions about anything in the Blog just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)