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Week Four - Submitting Your Work

October 26, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (4)

Publishing is a reasonably formal business - there are protocols for how book manuscripts should be formatted and how they should be submitted. Some houses provide this information on their websites. Some houses don’t, because they don’t accept submissions from unagented unpublished authors.

Generally speaking, an author previously unpublished in the romance genre will sell a first romance novel on a complete manuscript. That means you will need to write the entire book before you can sell it. There are people who sell on a partial - they tend to be agented and often have a very polished hook to their story. You could be one of them, but sooner or later, you’ll need to write the whole book so there’s nothing lost by planning to do so. Subsequent deals may be done on complete or partial books, with a gradual movement toward contracting on synopsis.

Let’s backtrack and define our terms.

The complete manuscript is precisely that. It’s the whole book, already written, along with a synopsis. It typically is printed out from a computer but is made to look as if it were typed - only one side of each page will be used; there will be at least a 1” border all around; the work will be double spaced and the font will be Courier. (12 point on 24.) There will be a header with the author surname, title of the book and page number - in case some unlucky soul drops the unbound manuscript and has to put it back in order. There will be an average of ten words per line and 25 lines per page, and people in publishing will calculate the finished length of the typeset book on the number of “typed” or manuscript pages. It will also exist in a digital file, most frequently one saved in Microsoft Word. Even if the book is purchased on the hard copy, the digital file will be required contractually from the author, to save keystrokes in typesetting.

(There is an escalating trend toward digital media in publishing, but generally speaking, publishers will only accept digital files of completed manuscripts from contracted authors. Agents can submit digitally to most of the big New York houses, but few accept digital submissions from unpublished authors. Small press and electronic presses, of course, may have different expectations.)

In contrast to a “complete”, a “partial” is a taste. Not everyone accepts partials, so you need to read the guidelines before you submit. A partial is generally the first three chapters of the book and the synopsis, altogether about 50 pages as described above. It is submitted, when it is submitted in hard copy, with a cover letter and an SASE. (And yes, it must be the first three chapters, not the three you like best.)

The synopsis is an entirely different kind of document than the book itself - it’s a kind of executive summary of what the book is about and how it is structured, one that gives the editor or agent valuable information about how to market the book and whether the book fits into their list. There is no dialogue in a synopsis and no surprise plot twists. Its tone is matter of fact and linear. It’s not the same as back cover copy, either.

The idea is that the editor or agent reads the beginning of the book and if he or she likes the work, reads the synopsis. If the synopsis is similarly interesting, the editor or agent may request the complete ms.

In raw terms, the sample chapters show that the author of the work in question is a writer, while the synopsis shows that the author is a storyteller. The chapters showcase voice, characterization, vocabulary etc., while the synopsis shows that the author understands conflict and its plausible resolution.

Synopses are not easy to write, but they are inescapable - the working writer will write many synopses, so you might as well begin polishing your skills. (There is a blog post lined up for Wednesday specifically about synopses, or you can search the library or web for more info.) A synopsis doesn’t have to be that long to do its job - once upon a time, editors looked for synopses that were about 10 pages double-spaced but it’s more typical to hear guidelines indicating a preference for five or six pages. That means you need to be succinct!

A thumbnail or a pitch is even shorter than a synopsis - they fit two or three to a page, double spaced, and are really just bare sketches of ideas. It’s unlikely that you will be asked for such a thing until you have established a relationship with an editor and a publishing house.

A cover letter rides with the partial or full manuscript, introducing the editor or agent briefly to both the story and your credentials as an author, as well as providing contact information.

A query letter, in contrast, travels alone. There are agencies and publishing houses that prefer to receive a query letter as a first contact from an author. If the query letter - which briefly pitches the project - catches their interest, they will ask to see the work. Some houses and agencies accept electronic queries now. There are many different strategies for writing short and effective query letters that lead to requested submissions. I’ll leave you to hunt down those suggestions yourself.

Finding a fit for your first book is a bit like starting a big jigsaw puzzle. It’ll probably take some time. Just as you pick a piece out of the puzzle box and decide whether it is sky or grass or border in order to find its place in the greater scheme of things, you’ll need to identify the telling elements of your book. Is it a romance novel? What subgenre of romance? What publishers publish that subgenre of romance? What authors do those publishers publish? What is consistent about those authors’ work and your work? What is distinctive about your work? What agents represent those authors? The more of these questions you can answer, the more data you will have to place that manuscript. Once you have a list of possibilities, you can follow the submission guidelines for each and begin your quest. You’ll probably have some waiting to do, but you can work on your next book during those intervals.

What’s up for this week?

Wednesday, there is a linked post for you on synopses, as well as a linked post to an analogy that may make the difference between book and synopsis more clear to you.

I've also put together some general comments about the mss submitted through the library for my review and critique - those will appear on Wednesday, as well. Whether you submitted a partial or not, you may find them interesting.

Wednesday night is also the Book Buzz online chat with me.

On Friday, we have a guest blogger - local author Juliana Stone has sold her first book (and another linked book) to Avon. She’s going to share her “first sale” story with you.


Toronto Public Library's Romance Writer-In-Residence Deborah Cooke discusses writing and getting published in the romance genre.

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