Tuesday, August 22, 2006

How to get published, part 4: Send it off, start afresh

At last, we reach the final installment of this series. So far we've covered creating an actual piece of work (a factor that a surprising number of would-be writers tend to never get around to doing), editing the work, and finding someone to send your work off to.

Now, it's time to send your work off. But first, you must put it into a format that an agent or an editor wants to look at. You need to format the manuscript, then set about writing the dreaded query, cover letter, and either a synopsis (for novels) or a proposal (for nonfiction).

Manuscript formatting
Your manuscript must be machine-printed, either an old-fashioned typewriter (which I can't recommend personally, but some people are attached to theirs, and is fine so long as the keys are immaculate and the ribbon is crisp and fresh), or a modern word processor with an inkjet or laser printer. No exceptions.

Use a standard serif typeface, such as Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Do NOT use fancy script, gothic, or any other typeface, even for the title. Use size 12 font. Double space. Leave at least 1" margins. Some editors like 1 1/4" margins on the right and left. Yes, it uses more paper, but it leaves more room for marking up the manuscript.

Use only plain white standard paper, the same stuff you put into copy machines. Don't go all out on bright white, glossy, cotton fiber, or heavy 24 lb stuff. It won't help. And do NOT go for any color other than plain white. Color not only won't help, it will hurt.

Put your name, address, phone number, email address, and the URL of your website if you have one (and if it's your author site, not the one with pictures of your dog or your last vacation) on the upper left-hand corner. If appropriate, put an approximate word count on the upper right-hand corner. This is often done with children's books. Space down about 1/3 of the way down the page, and put the title of the book, centered. Often it is done in all caps. Underneath, put "by" and then your name as you want it on the cover of the book. If you plan to publish under a pseudonym, you can put it here, or put, "Daphne Daisyfield (writing as Brick Quartermain)."

On the next page, go down about 1/3 of the way down the page, type "Chapter 1," then go down another two lines and begin your text.

Put in a header that contains the title (or a shortened version), your last name, and the page number. Or the page number can go in a footer at the bottom of the page. Just be sure that every page is numbered and identified as belonging to your book, just in case the editor's assistant drops a stack of manuscripts down the stairs and has to sort everything out again. It happens.

Query Letters
Read the submission guidelines very carefully. Some publishers prefer that you send query letters before you send anything else. Some want a query and sample chapters. Be prepared to send them what they want. Have everything you need prepared ahead of time: query, cover letter, synopsis, and all.

A query letter is a letter inquiring whether the agent or editor would like to read your book. Agents and editors get floods of these every day, so your task is to make your query letter as intriguing as possible without stepping out of the bounds of professionality. Your query letter is your sales pitch. It's your elevator speech: imagine that you just got into an elevator with that very same agent, who turns to you and says, "So you're an author -- tell me about your book." Quick! You have between now and the 20th floor to tell the agent what your book is about! What's THE most important point that the agent should know about your book? That's the substance of your query letter.

The way to learn to write queries is by reading many, many, many examples. Read the blurbs on the backs of books. Read what Miss Snark says about query letters in her Snarkives. Read How to Write a Successful Query Letter on Writing World.com. Read this example on Flogging the Quill. Read this example on Preditors and Editors. Get your mitts on a copy of How to Write Attention-Grabbing Query and Cover Letters by John Wood and How to Write Irresistible Query Letters by Lisa Collier Cool. Study these, then try submitting your query to Evil Editor, if ol' EE is still allowing people to do so, for a thorough rip 'n tear.

Cover Letter
A cover letter is the letter that accompanies your manuscript or sample chapters. If this is the first contact you are making, the cover letter is identical to the query letter. It's a sales pitch. If the agent or editor responded to an earlier query by asking to see your writing, the cover letter thanks the agent or editor for their response to your letter of such-and-such a date and for the opportunity to send the person your work, notes that said requested parts of the work are enclosed along with an SASE for their convenience, thanks them for their time, and says you hope to hear from them soon. Enclosed in the package is exactly what the person asked for, no more, no less, no bribes, no chocolate, no racy pictures.

The most dreaded part of novel writing is the synopsis. In under five pages, single-spaced, present tense, you must summarize your work AND make it sound so fascinating that the agent or editor can't put it down. Sometimes the synopsis must be even shorter. Some agents are so busy they don't want to see an synopsis longer than a page. Find out how long it needs to be and send exactly that. No fair shrinking the font or the margins. Reader can tell, because their eyestrain doubles.

The synopsis is not a place to leave your reader in suspense. Here you reveal all, from the brilliant set-up in chapter 1 to the astonishing twist at the end. The query is a teaser. The synopsis is a spoiler.

As with queries, learning to write a good synopsis requires reading examples and studying the advice of experts. Try Writing the Novel Synopsis by Sheila Kelly, Mastering the Dreaded Synopsis by Lee Masterson, and for examples, Romance Novel Synopsis by Dixie L. Gaspard and Victoria Dark.

For nonfiction, get your hands on Nonfiction Book Proposals Anyone Can Write by Elizabeth Lyon. The full proposal is an involved project that requires a good guide, and Ms. Lyon's book is one of the clearest guides on the market.

Putting it in the Mail
For query letters and anything that's no more than three pages, use a standard number 10 envelope. For short manuscripts, such as children's picture books, use a large manilla envelope that will allow you to send the manuscript flat. Your SASE can be another manilla envelope with enough postage to send the manuscript back, or a number 10 for a reply, with instructions in the cover letter to recycle the manuscript. For novels and nonfiction books, get a padded envelope large enough to slide the manuscript into easily without cramming it. Get the self-sealing bubble-wrap kind, not the kind filled with shredded paper that has to be stapled and gets paper fluff all over when the staples tear out. Enclose your manuscript and an SASE for replies. Take the package to the post office to get it properly weighed and to make sure you put on the right amount of postage. Don't take a chance on your package arriving postage due.

It's not an ending, it's a new beginning
Now that your manuscript is in the mail, don't go all neurotic waiting for a reply. Get busy on your next project and get that in the mail as soon as possible. Then the next, and the next, and the next. That's the only way to stay sane while waiting, and the only way to bring about the writing life you've been dreaming of.

Now get writing!

How to get published series


Nadiah Alwi - Write at Home Mom said...

Wow, I must be lucky to find your blog.

I'm a mother crawling to be a writer.

I think most of your tips are more than useful for me.

Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

Glad to be of help. Please also see:

The Writing for Children Resource Site

Anonymous said...

From the bottom of my heart, thank you! reading this blog made my day !

Anonymous said...

I'm thirteen years old and i've just finished writing a novel. I've been writing since i was little but this is the first one that i've actually finished and i'd like to get it published but i have - well, had - no idea how. now i've read this i think getting something published is no longer an impossible, far off dream but a reality steady closing in on the horizon. my novel still needs a lot of work but thanks to all your helpful tips i think i can get it done and hopefully published. thank you.