Writing 101: So You Want to Write a Novel
Part 4: Submitting a Novel
By Valerie Comer
Copyright © 2010, Valerie Comer, All Rights Reserved
You have a polished manuscript on your hands. It's as good as you can make it. Any changes you're implementing now are nervous ones, making things different instead of better. It's time to release your novel to seek its fortune so that you can focus on the next one.
The first step is to research traditional markets. There are two possibilities: submitting to agents or directly to publishers. Know your genre here, and ask questions if you're not sure of the protocol. In many cases, publishers won't accept unsolicited manuscripts or even queries. A few do.
It is usually better to query agents than publishers. If you've already exhausted the list of possible publishers on your own, why would an agent take you on? You've already shut the doors on your own. Best to go directly to an agent wherever possible. There are several benefits.
There are many more agents than publishers, so you're more likely to find someone to represent you. You can send multiple queries at once (each tailored to individual agents, of course!) which saves time. The agents know which publisher is looking for which type of project, and have an "in" with the editors. A good agent has a far greater chance of selling your novel than you will on your own.
There are bad agents and scam artists out there. RESEARCH to make sure you are querying a reputable firm that represents the genre you write in. Then research some more to find out what this specific agent requires in a query. Nearly everyone has a website these days, and many have blogs and/or are on Twitter. There are websites specializing in information about agencies. You can find anything you need to know.
Many agents accept queries through email. Their website will tell you if they'll allow attachments or want everything in the body of the email. Other agents request snail mail. Make sure you follow their preferred methods.
Here are some items that an agent may ask to see. Some are self-explanatory; others are less so.
This is a one-page business letter, sometimes known as a cover letter, addressed to a specific agent in which you present your novel in one or two brief paragraphs, including genre and length. The description should be as intriguing as you can make it. You'll also include any pertinent information about yourself.
This is all many agents wish to receive. They'll ask for more if they're interested. Other agents want you to send more information right at the beginning. Make sure you know what your targeted agent wants.
Writing a synopsis is something that writers love to hate. We figure that if we could have told the entire story in 1-5 pages, we wouldn't have needed the other 99,000 words of our novels. But a synopsis is a selling tool and as such, it's worth your while to learn how to write a good one.
Agents may ask for a one-page synopsis, a short synopsis, or a long synopsis. Count on writing all three lengths and having them ready to send out as required. A one-page synopsis really should fit on one page, single-spaced. A short synopsis (often three pages) and a long synopsis (five to eight pages) are double-spaced.
At every length, a synopsis should include the main characters, the main plot line with its highs and lows, and the complete wrap-up (not a teaser). In a longer synopsis, you'll have room to introduce selected secondary characters and major sub-plots. Be certain that you've pared details to the necessities. This is a good time to call in the services of a friend or colleague who has not read or critiqued the novel, and who has not heard you talking about it. This reader will be able to tell you if you've mentioned things that need wrapping up and if anything is confusing.
Polish this synopsis until it gleams.
An agent may request a certain number of pages or sample chapters. These should always be the first pages or chapters. Don't pick something from the middle because it is more exciting. If you think your opening pages aren't that thrilling, you should revise them until they do the job of hooking the reader.
This is the time to consider proper formatting of your manuscript. Find out if this agent has particular recommendations. If not, you're usually safe with double-spaced Times New Roman or Courier New font, 12 point. Paragraphs should be indented five spaces and not have extra spaces between them. Turn off widows and orphans under your paragraph settings as well. 1-1.5" margins are acceptable. Chapters normally start mid-way down a new page. Make sure you have a header in place with working title, your name, and page numbers. Your manuscript should look as professional as you can make it.
Some agents wish to see full proposals for your novel. This means that in addition to a query letter, sample chapters, and a synopsis, they want some or all of the following. (Again, read the website to see exactly what they require.)
This is a sharp sentence also known as an elevator pitch. It should be short and concise (under 30 words) and can do double duty as part of your query letter. This one sentence should contain the unique essence of your novel and contain something about your main character, his or her goal, and the conflicts that arise from it. Again, it is worth polishing this sentence, as it has multiple uses.
BACK COVER COPY
This should be a few brief paragraphs that act as a teaser, presenting the situation in the novel, but not giving away too much. What can you write that might intrigue someone enough that they'll want to read the entire novel?
Occasionally an agency will ask you to compare your novel to others currently on the market, identifying your target audience. They may also want to see what kind of platform you have, and if you have any unique ideas of how to market your novel and yourself once published.
Did I remember to tell you to research every aspect of the submission journey? I can't stress it enough.
REJECTIONS & REQUESTS
Many agencies will not notify you unless they want to see more of your work. (The website should tell you if this is the case.) Expect rejections and silence. It will take time to find an agent that is excited about your work. At some point, if you've written a strong novel and a strong query, you'll be asked for either a partial or a full.
You've already polished your entire novel, so it's easy enough to send it in whichever way the agency requests it--partial manuscript or full, email or snail mail. Be prepared for another long wait, and be prepared to be rejected once again. This is normal.
You may look at all the hassles I've listed and think you might just self-publish your novel. Here are a few things to consider.
1. Can you afford the cost of having your novel self-published? Read the fine print!
2. Will bookstores (physical ones or online ones) stock it? In many cases, no, which will really hinder sales.
3. Are you prepared to hand-sell your book? Even in traditional publishing, the author has to do quite a bit to ensure the success of their novel, but they have the support and advice of a marketing team. Here you're on your own.
We've all heard of self-published novels that have rocketed to the best-seller lists. This is not the norm. If your novel is strong, it will find a place with a reputable agent and publisher sooner or later. If no one is biting, perhaps the novel isn't as strong as you thought and you should spend your time writing a new one with all the knowledge you've gained from your first one. Don't push to send sub-standard work into print.
Self-publishing can be a good route if you're writing non-fiction or can tie your book to an already successful speaking career. For most fiction writers, it won't make your dream a reality.
Another option is an E-press or a small independent POD (print-on-demand) press. Either of these can be solid possibilities, but as always, do your homework. You probably won't make as much money as through the larger publishers, but many have a good reputation. This market is sure to grow and is a particularly good option for books that don't quite fit a broader market niche.
If you keep submitting, sooner or later you will find an agent who loves your story and wants to represent you. You did your homework beforehand and only sent letters to reputable agents you wanted to work with, so it's easy for you to say "yes" now. Some will have formal contracts, but others don't. Ask your new agent what to expect next.
The agent may request further revisions to your manuscript, or start sending it out to selected editors right away. A good agent will keep you in the loop as to what is happening with your manuscript, but remember you are not their only client and their purpose for existence is not to hold your hand.
Hopefully one day you (and I!) will get the call that the agent has an offer to purchase rights for your novel. Even once this is negotiated and signed, it can take a year or more for your book to sit on the shelves of your local bookstore.
I hope you've enjoyed this overview of the process of writing a novel and perhaps learned something from it. Above all, this isn't a get-rich-quick scheme. Getting a novel onto shelves requires a great imagination, a huge commitment, and a thick skin. Maybe one day my novel and yours will sit side-by-side on the shelves of a big bookstore.