All Wrapped Up?
Getting Your Submission Package Ready
OK, so by now you’ve made sure you’re ready (emotionally as well as physically) for querying. You’ve done your research and now you have a list of super-dooper agents who are looking to represent the type of awesome manuscript you’ve written.
Now, let’s look at the last of things about the query process that you can control. HOW you query.
Read the Submission Guidelines!
I cannot stress this enough. For the rest of this post, please imagine I am hollering the words ‘FOLLOW THEIR GUIDELINES!’ at you through a megaphone.
Different agents have different guidelines.
Yup. It’s a total pain in the posterior. Feel free to curse about it. Rant at your partner, or your cat, or even the pot plant that has withered and died because you’ve been so consumed with changing your standard submission package twenty-seven-gazillion times, to accommodate the whims of these aloof beings known as agents, that you’ve forgotten to water it.
By all means throw a hissy fit, consume your weight in chocolate, scream at the ceiling. BUT FOLLOW THEM ANYWAY.
It does rather seem like a power trip, making hopeful authors jump through even more hoops in the vague hope of catching crumbs of attention – but there is a good reason for it. IF they sign you, you’re going to have to be able to revise as per instructions. You’re going to need to follow guidelines, keep deadlines and all that jazz. If you can’t even follow the basic instructions on their website regarding submitting your work, it doesn’t bode well for you as someone they can work with.
But, yeah. When you’re sending out thirty plus of the damn things, it’s a nightmare. And yes, I did deliberately leave agents whose guidelines varied too wildly from the ‘standard’ off of my first-round list. (Especially those who wanted a synopsis that was 300 words or less… Getting it down to 500 almost put me in an institution…)
Standard Submission Package
I can’t possibly detail all the little quirks and foibles every agent might have when it comes to how you submit to them, so let’s just look at the ‘standard’ submission package.
If you have these three things in place, MOST agent guidelines will simply require a little alteration to them. (Possibly fewer pages, or more. Some may only want one of these things initially, others may want two. Some, of course, want you to dance on the head of a pin whilst reciting your times tables… but I didn’t query any of those 😉 )
SO, here are the basics of your submission package:
First Three Chapters
But can you still hear me bellowing through that megaphone? Good.
First Three Chapters
It goes without saying that these need to be as strong, and as polished, as you can possibly get them.
But, what authors sometimes forget is that you really do need to do the same for the rest of the manuscript as well.
I’ve heard lots of stories of authors who got their first three chapters so shiny that agents went blind from their magnificence. But, they didn’t keep to the same standard throughout. So, these authors got full requests on a scale most of us can only dream about – but no offers. As soon as Mr or Ms Dazzled-Agent got to chapter 4, it all went downhill.
It’s really tempting, when you start querying, to see nothing beyond getting a full request. And yes, I’m not going to lie, I know lots of authors who have queried for years and never received one. It can become like the gold at the end of the rainbow. But bear in mind, it is NOT the end of the journey. Not even close. (Even getting an agent isn’t the end of the journey…). So please, remember the ultimate goal here: It’s an offer of rep, not a full request (as great as they are!) so make sure that, if you pass through the first gate, you’re equipped for the rest of the journey.
It’s also tempting to look at how long agents can take to respond to queries, and assume you’ve got plenty of time to edit the later chapters while you wait. ASSUME NOTHING! I had one full request within 24 hours, another after three days, another after a week, and one TWO HOURS after initial query. Be ready. Please.
Most likely the first thing an agent will see. If you don’t nail this, they probably won’t look at your chapters or synopsis. Bear in mind some of them receive hundreds of these a week, so grab them instantly, or they’ll keep on scrolling through their inbox. No pressure…
Now, there are lots and lots of resources to help you write the perfect query letter. My absolute favourite, by a long mile, is Query Shark. But I strongly recommend you set aside days, weeks even, for researching and drafting/redrafting/ripping it up and starting again…
That said, for those of you who have no idea how to start, I’m going to give you a few pointers that might help you cobble together a basic query letter (which you can then adapt/polish as required).
Where to begin?
The basic structure of a query letter goes something like this:
Business/nitty gritty paragraph.
A bit about you, and your reason for querying this agent in particular.
What about introductory preamble, you ask? Well, do you have a compelling personal reason for querying this particular agent? By this I mean an ACTUAL connection, not a fangirling squeal of ‘you’re so great!’? If so, begin with that. If not, GO STRAIGHT TO THE HOOK.
Always remember they receive hundreds of these. You have to stand out. Do not start with wishy washy preamble.
Introductions that merit starting with include:
Dear Agent (but actual name!)
We met recently at a conference, and you expressed a desire to look at my work.
Thank you for your interest in my Twitter pitch, please find my query below as requested.
I have been speaking with awesome-agent-Mrs-X and she recommended I query you directly, as she feels my work will be of particular interest to you.
Let’s assume you do not have a personal connection, haven’t been personally invited to submit, and haven’t had another agent recommend you. An agent does not particularly care who you are, or why you wrote the book, unless the book itself is of interest to them. They do not want to wade through pleasantries, they’re too busy. IF they like the pitch, then they will want to know more about you and the project. But, you really do need to produce ‘the goods’ first.
Let’s consider Bob. Bob has written a book about a new superhero who needs to save the world, and get the girl. Let’s forget for a moment that we’ve seen that trope a billion times before, and look at how Bob ought to go about presenting his work in his query letter.
Here’s an example of what Bob should NOT do:
Dear Awesome Agent X,
My name is Bob, and I live in the hills with my three cats and seven budgies. I have been writing since I was a child, and also enjoy long walks on the downs. I have written a book that talks about a superhero and his struggles, and which will leave the reader breathless with excitement. It also has themes of friendship and love, and lots of exciting fighting. I think you will like it, because you like books about heroes and historical books, and a bit of this book is set in the past.
The book is about Dullas Dishwater. He is an ordinary man who somehow gets superpowers and then falls in love with a girl. He then has to fight the evil villain and save the world and he ultimately wins. It is thirty chapters long, and there is nothing else like it out there at the moment so it will definitely be a bestseller.
YAWN! Do you reckon busy agent even read past the first paragraph?
Here’s the same concept, presented a little differently:
Dear Awesome Agent X,
Fabby Protag has less than three hours to save the world, and the girl he loves. After a freak accident at the helium factory leaves Fabby with superpowers, his life is turned upside down. But, before he can fully come to terms with his new identity, the evil Dr Nastyguy holds the planet to ransom. Fabby must use his new abilities to travel through time and disarm the biological weapon that threatens to unleash a flesh eating virus on the world.
Epic Story (80,000 words) is a work of science fiction and adventure. With its combination of heart-stopping action and slow-burn romance it will appeal to fans of Bestselling Book and Other Bestselling Book.
Now Bob lists his previous experience and writing credits (if any) and briefly gives a little info about himself and why he wrote the book. He then tells the agent why he queried him/her (e.g. ‘because of your interest in books about superheroes and time travel’)
See the difference? In the second example, Bob launches straight in with his hook. He tells the agent about his protagonist, the conflict, and the stakes. Then in paragraph two he gives the agent the nitty gritty (title, word count and genre) and demonstrates that he has a realistic idea of where his manuscript will fit in the current market by citing other similar, and current, books. In the third paragraph (once the agent has already decided they like the sound of the book – or not) he gives his credentials, and a little personal info.
Hook them. Give them the basic info. Tell them (briefly) about yourself.
It’s that simple – and that hard.
When I’ve critiqued submission packages for other writers, I’ve noticed a lot of confusion about what a synopsis is, and what is isn’t.
What a Synopsis Is
A blow-by-blow spoiler filled account of the plot of your novel, as it is written.
What a Synopsis Isn’t
A place to discuss themes, character arcs, interpretations.
An opportunity to use teaser questions (‘Will he be able to overcome?’)
Anybody reading your synopsis should be able to follow the main plot easily, and know exactly how it ends.
Think of your novel like a movie (and check out movie synopses on IMDB for ideas). Start by describing it, chapter by chapter, as succinctly as possible. Then go through and cut out anything that isn’t relevant to the main plot.
The finished synopsis should be approx. 1-2 pages in length (megaphone time…) so you’ll probably need to leave out those tasty sub plots and just focus on the main arcs.
Now, once you’ve done that, get somebody who doesn’t know your story to read it. This is VITAL. I know you love your beta readers, but if they’ve already read the book they CANNOT tell if the synopsis makes sense to someone who hasn’t. Their mind will fill in the blanks/explain confusing sections to them because they already know what you’re saying. So get FRESH EYES on it. Seriously.
Thanks for reading! Happy querying!