A quick Google search will bring up a host of useful articles with tips on how to title your novel. Rather than regurgitate the information already easily available, this post will dig into my own personal (and I like to think professional) point of view and focus on those books that are in the manuscript phase, i.e. soon to be out on submission or wallowing in the slushpile.
As I evolve and grow into my occupation, I am surprised by how much I am continually learning and changing. Writing rules that I believed were absolutes in my first year are now not as important to me as writers who have clear longterm career goals. Genres/writing styles that I once thought to be marketable fall behind as marketing trends point me in a different direction. And the amount of time I spend on each submission, has dramatically fallen. Before you get indignant, hear me out. I know, more than ever before, what type of client I’m looking for and what kinds of projects I want. Eighty-five percent of the time I can tell from the query alone that we are not a good match. The other fifteen? Those will eventually get a closer look. They will queue in my inbox (hopefully not too long), waiting for the day I can muster up a few hours to examine them. When that day comes, first I have to recall why the submission is sitting there. Perhaps the author’s website or bio impressed me. Maybe their opening pages caught my interest or their particular writing style intrigued me. But if I have difficulty pinning down why I kept it, odds are I will pass. If it didn’t stick with me after percolating awhile, then I move on to those that did.
One of the biggest aspects of a submission that will help it stick in my memory is the title. If I remember the title, most likely I’ll remember the query, the writing, and the reason I’ve kept it around. And I’m going to boldly make the conjecture that most agents and editors would agree with me.
Titles that tend not to stick are those that are hard to pronounce or have made-up words (here’s looking at you SFF writers!). Long titles will be a problem as well, unless it’s a catchy phrase. In general if people give you a “huh” expression when you tell them the name of your book, time to rethink it.
The takeaway from this? Your title shouldn’t be a half-fast decision nor a personal choice (most titles will change a few times through the publishing process anyway, so you don’t want to get attached), rather it should be considered another tool to market your book, a piece of the submission whole package. Research the craft of titling your book as carefully as you are researching the agents you choose to query (operating under the assumption that if you are reading this, you are researching literary agents) and hopefully you will come up with a title will make your submission stand out in the slush.
And, given my baby girl has let me sleep that night, I’ll remember your submission.
It’s harder than ever for debut books to break into traditional publishing. The struggle is real. And it prompts authors to seek out any and every avenue that will boost their chances. Conferences, webinars, classes, critique partners are all in a writer’s potential arsenal. One of the biggest weapons, and the most dangerous, is the freelance editor. “Will hiring an editor make a difference, and if we did should we mention it in the query?” is a question often posed to agents; which is difficult for us to answer on the spot. One because there are different types of editorial and we aren’t sure what your manuscript needs:
Developmental? An examination of the overall structure/plot/characters/pace etc. Helps a writer find plot holes, fill out flat characters, remove unnecessary tangents, and ensure the story arc is complete. This is the most common type of editorial that agents already do, but if there’s more than a few of these types of issues, it will be rejected.
Copy-editing? An examination of the structure of the prose itself. Helps a writer enhance their prose line by line, streamlining sentences and fleshing out the narrative. If a submission desperately needs this, an agent will pass (unless the project is something they are very specifically seeking or it’s nonfiction). All manuscripts will go through a copy-editing phase before publication, but a basic sound narrative should already be there when submitting.
Proofreading? An examination of grammar and spelling. Helps a writer catch any grammatical or spelling errors. This is the last edit on a manuscript and the first issue noticed by a reader. An agent will not take on a manuscript littered with errors, as they would have to spend valuable time correcting them before submitting it to editors.
Two because, with the internet, the self-publishing revolution, and the economic recession that squeezed the traditional houses, there has been an explosion of freelance editors hanging out their shingle and not all are right for your work. We don’t want to be the one to tell you that you may have wasted your money (if a traditional deal is your goal).
If the author decides to hire an editor, they should tread lightly and do their research.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Although the movie that inspired this title has some gorgeous cinematography, stellar story arc, and an awesome theme song, due to its casual racism and utter lack of female characters, here the Good, Bad, and Ugly have been replaced by real-life badass female wild westerners.*
The Good.Mary Fields, often called “Stagecoach Mary,” was born into slavery around 1832, and after being emancipated at the age of 30, made her way west to Montana. Fields, who was very tall and extremely strong, worked as a general handyman and laborer at a school for Native American girls. She had a reputation for being strong, blunt, and more than willing to get in fights with people who annoyed her. At one point the local medical examiner claimed, she had “broken more noses than any other person in central Montana.”
Hiring a freelance editor can absolutely help whip your manuscript into shape. With the right editor, your story will be polished until it gleams, trad-publishing-ready, thus appealing to agents. How to find these miracle workers? Look for editors who are experienced publishing professionals in your genre. They have either worked as an editor for one of the traditional houses for a few-plus years or they are a traditionally-published successful author. They may even be literary agents (but be careful, more on this under The Bad). If they do not have the prerequisite publishing experience, then they will have a resume of books that they edited which have gone on to be successfully published. These editors are costly, but they will give you the highest odds of producing a manuscript that will eventually make it to the top. Often agencies will have a list of these editors on hand that you can ask for if an agent shows interest in your work. If you work with one of these editors, then yes, definitely mention it in the query letter.
The Bad.From a young age, Laura Bullion was destined to be an outlaw. Her father was a bank robber, and while working as a prostitute in Texas she joined the Wild Bunch gang, where she ran with outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bullion helped the gang with their robberies, and came to be known as “Rose of the Wild Bunch.” Bullion would help sell the stolen items, forge checks, and is suspected to have disguised herself as a man to help with heists.
These editors you want to avoid at all costs. They are predators eager to take advantage of the vulnerable author. If an editor solicits you and/or promises you will be published at their “house” after hiring them, it’s probably a vanity press scheme. If an agent offers to edit your manuscript, claiming they will represent you after you’ve paid them for said editing, this goes against AAR’s (Association of Authors’ Representatives) Canon of Ethics. If an agent pressures you to work with a freelance editor and is insistent on a specific company, or an editor claims they can get you signed by a specific agent, be wary.** This is an old scam in which the agent gets a kickback from sending authors to said editor and visa versa. A quick online search of any suspicious person with “scam” in the search line will usually bring up red flags right away. Also be sure to check out Writer Beware on the SFWA website. They are constantly updating publishing scams to watch out for.
The Ugly.Eleanor Dumont was called Madame Moustache because of her appearance later in life. But when she was young, she was regarded as exceedingly beautiful. Dumont first made her reputation as a gambler in San Francisco in 1849, determined to cash in on the California Gold Rush. Her casino in Nevada City was a success, and led to Dumont opening a second casino with additional games of chance. After the Gold Rush subsided, Dumont bought a ranch, but lost her fortune when she fell in love with a con man named Jack McKnight. When he sold the ranch and absconded with the proceeds, Dumont tracked him down and shot him dead.
These are the editors that are perhaps qualified to edit, but have never edited in the traditional publishing world. MFA students, other writers, English teachers, librarians, etc. fall into this category. To be clear, these are not actually ugly editors (just using the name to make it fit my oh-so-clever blog structure). They are often great proofreaders and much cheaper than The Good. Because of their lower rates, hiring them for a developmental edit over the more expensive experienced editors, is tempting. However, due to their lack of traditional publishing experience, they may not steer your manuscript in the direction someone in the industry would. These editors are more of a financial gamble, and you could be better off finding a critique partner that will do the same work in exchange for a critique from you. But you also may get lucky and stumble on someone who has a natural knack for developmental editing. If you hire one of these editors, it’s not necessary to mention this in the query.
As always, your best weapon is research. Before making a decision to partner financially with anyone in the industry, do your research to determine if they are the best option for your writing career.
**I have recommended on occasion that an author work with a freelance editor because I really loved their story concept, but it needed too much editorial for me to take on. I also have a client who went to an editor on their own after I passed with notes, a year later the manuscript was in fantastic shape. I signed them immediately and sold the manuscript within three months.
It turns out it was a popular request with quite a few claiming to fit the bill. I was stoked to discover there were so many epic fantasy writers out there, as it’s one of the most difficult and time-consuming genres to master. Since I am currently closed to submissions to catch up on my slushpile, a few writers tweeted/pitched me asking if they could submit anyway. Hell yes they could, if they really did fit my MSWL! More questions rolled in as did submissions, and my enthusiasm waned. Turns out, most were not in fact epic fantasy but rather more traditional fantasy. Some landed in the high fantasy realm, but weren’t quite epic enough. I realized my tweet needed to be clearer.
I’m craving fantasy that is epic with a capital E.
The biggest difference between epic and traditional fantasy is the size of the cast and the scope of the plot. Generally, epic fantasy is a sweeping saga of a secondary magical world and its people. They run long (hundreds of pages per book) and world-building is paramount, think detailed maps in the front matter and comprehensive family trees in the back. There are multiple characters and multiple storylines and a lot of history and lore is woven in. Usually they are set in a Western European medieval type background. The most famous of this subgenre are LORD OF THE RINGS and GAME OF THRONES.
On my particular wish list is epic fantasy that is not set in the standard European-inspired world. I want matriarchy and magical beasts that are atypical. Weapons that are not swords and guerrilla warfare over bloody battles. I want the people to be colorful, and diverse. Magic that is thoughtful and wild. Jungles and deserts and tropical oceans. I want epic fantasy that chews up the tropes and spits them out again.
But I do want it to be EPIC.
Sidenote: Anxious writers should be reassured that the lines between subgenres are often blurry, and there is no harm in pitching what you think is a space opera but is actually a military scifi thriller to an agent who represents science fiction. We may mumble to correct you, but as long as you are under the main genre umbrella, we’re happy to consider. However, when it comes to #MSWL, at least in my particular case, what we are looking for is pretty focused. So a gentle reminder, when you are following up with an agent on their manuscript wish list, make sure your submission actually fits their MSWL. Otherwise you’re getting their hopes up, and then letting them down. Better off submitting through their regular channels where there are no expectations that it fall true to a subgenre. On the flip side, if you’re positive your manuscript fits, then make sure to let them know!
We all want our characters to be special, unique, stand out from the crowd. And often writers attempt to achieve this, in part, by giving them “piercing” or “soulful” or “wide” eyes of a lovely shade of blue, ice, green, violet, hazel, etc. Basically any color except that plain old brown.
But if you were given a peek into the slushpile, you would be a bit embarrassed to realize by giving your character such special eyes, you’ve actually made them quite ordinary. If we were to postulate eye color statistics based off of characters in submissions, the world would be made up of mostly green and blue-eyed persons with a good chunk of beauteous hazel/violet-eyed gals in one corner and steely, silver/amber-eyed hunks in another. (There would also be a looot of white people, but that’s a post for another day.)
I may sound like a broken record at this point, but write with awareness. Don’t default to the easy way. Your character’s uniqueness should not be shown through their eye color but rather through the situation they are in (the plot) and how they handle it. Their looks are a part of who they are, but not what makes them stand out. Their appearance should be realistic, for many reasons, number one so many different readers can relate to them.
This is not a rule, just a suggestion to consider. Unless their eye color is super important to the story (for example Alanna’s violet eyes in the Song of the Lioness series. Her magic is purple to match, and the blue-eyed prince’s magic is blue) consider defaulting to brown, especially when there are many characters in the story. Because brown eyes can still be attractive, unique, special, windows to the soul, etc. (full discloser, my eyes are brown). And because statistics.
Percentage of eye color in the world according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology:
amber (quite rare)
violet (extremely rare)
TWO PERCENT OF THE WORLD’S POPULATION HAS GREEN EYES. Something to think about. *While we are at it, two percent are red heads too. So that gorgeous green-eyed woman with the rich red hair? Reconsider. (I’m looking at you, romance writers!)
One of the more interesting aspects of our job is receiving a bulk of submissions that seem eerily similar. For instance the other day I read 3 submissions that had cell phones as main characters. I kid you not. But this post is not about the uncommon, but rather about the common.Lately I’ve been seeing quite a few novels open with a birth and although this is not a big bad thing, it didn’t work for any of these submissions.
Before launching that birth scene out into the submissionverse, pause a moment. Is it really necessary? Or is it a result of your subconscious? Three outside factors, not linked to your particular novel, may be the cause of that scene.
One, an opening scene with a birth usually means the mother dies (and very dramatically too). It’s an easy way to both begin your novel with action as well as develop the main character. Usually this main character is a hero of some sorts, and heroes often have tragic childhoods, something they have to overcome to make them stronger, wiser, better. How many famous orphaned heroes do we have in our stories? Batman, the Skywalker twins, Elsa, Potter, the list goes on and on. With so many famous orphans, has this classic storyline seeped into your novel? If so, introduce us to the hero in the beginning, not their parents who are going to die anyway.
Two, a birth signifies a beginning. Are you simply using it because you’re not sure where to start?
Three, and this is more personal, having recently given birth a month ago, I was given the forceful realization just how damn difficult labor and delivery is. It’s a crazy emotional painful rollercoaster that is completely unique. And what do we do as writers? We take life experiences and put them on paper. Write what you know and all that. So it’s not surprising if there is a deep desire to share your experience through the words of your novel. So consider whether the scene is just representing your ego, wishing to share your experience, or if it’s actually necessary to the story.
Ask yourself this. Why did you open your novel with a birth scene? Because more often that not, it’s unnecessary and actually prevents the story from moving forward. That opening scene is so important for laying the groundwork of the story and catching the reader’s interest. Make sure it’s a conscious decision. Because, just as in real life, the main character is not going to remember their birth and subsequently the reader is not going to care about it. So although it’s where their life began, it’s not where the story begins.
At the last conference that I took pitches, near the end a flustered but determined writer sat at my table. Her first words were, “I was just told my project is unmarketable, but I’m going to pitch it anyway.” My interest was piqued, not in the project, but in what she had been told and why. I’m always curious to hear the advice given to writers by other industry professionals. Usually it tends to be something I and many others agree with. But there are cases where we disagree. This business does have a subjective element to it after all. And sometimes it’s advice that I perhaps hadn’t thought of, but would agree with. On occasion it’s something I didn’t know and would want to follow up on. And sometimes, yes, it is painfully obvious bad advice which needs to be corrected immediately. (Anyone who advises a debut author to throw up their book on Amazon to “garner feedback” before taking it to agents or publishers, I’m looking at you.)
I smiled to reassure her, said go ahead, and she launched into her pitch. Then the words “my character is dreaming and living in the dreamworld,” came out, and I sat back. Ah. AH.
I stopped her there. Having a character live in a dreamworld, or dreaming a scene, is a big show stopper in a pitch. But but, what about SANDMAN or ALICE IN WONDERLAND you may cry. Here I revert to my standard, “Know the rules before you break them.”
You see, a lot of newbie writers tend to use dreams, dream realms, or dream worlds as a lazy tool, mostly unconsciously. Writer crutches we call these strategies that attempt to skirt the hard work of story development.
The most common of these is opening your story with a dream. It’s an easy way to create exciting action before you have your character gasp and sit up in bed. Unfortunately it’s also painful for the reader. Your goal in those opening pages is to draw the reader in with active prose and tension that will carry them deeper into the story. And when you expend all that energy into a dream sequence, only to bottom out with the character waking up, you risk dropping the reader’s trust and interest. Especially if your character then gets out of bed and sits down to breakfast with his mother. Sure you might say it worked for Dan Brown in ANGELS & DEMONS, but note, his opening dream sequence was 6-7 sentences long, and very obviously a dream. And he’s Dan Brown. Now if you’re determined to stick to your guns and are convinced your opening dream sequence is both necessary to your story as well as better than all the other opening scenes out there, I offer you one last argument. Agents get reading fatigue. Although we want to be perky and hopeful with every submission we open, the reality is when we see the same thing over and over again, we can’t help but shuffle it into THAT pile. And a dream as the opening scene to a submission? One of the most common things we see in the slushpile. Seriously.
The second, less common, is usually found in submissions of the fantasy genre (and science fiction on occasion). This is the dream realm or dream world. A fantasy author wants to have their ordinary modern day character thrown into a parallel fantasy world full of magic and wondrous creatures, and the easy way to do that? Have them enter the land through dreams. Which sets up the question, why bother having them dream? It’s fantasy. The worlds can just be. These are called portal fantasies. THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA is a classic example. Neil Gaiman’s NEVERWORLD is another. And in these, the characters find their way into the fantasy world without the need for dreaming. The entrances are a bit more complex and require more world-building, but hey they are also more interesting. My absolute favorite is the HIS DARK MATERIALS series by Philip Pullman. A fantasy writer who understands this, is an experienced fantasy reader, which is what agents are looking for. The writer knows their genre in and out and knows how to write a portal fantasy. But a newbie author, who writes a portal fantasy under the guise of a dreamworld, will be perhaps, “unmarketable.”
After I explained this to the writer, she left with a smile on her face and a list of books to read, ready to fight to change her project’s status to marketable.
I will mention that portal fantasies are not hugely popular on the market right now, and can be a hard sell, but they are not unmarketable. They dropped off around 2009, see Annalee Newitz‘s 2010 post, Walk Through This Portal With Me Into Another World in io9. However, the market is cyclical, and a really good portal fantasy might just break out, so don’t throw yours in the trash yet!
I would love to see examples in the comments of popular books where dream openings and dream worlds have worked for the story.
Remember those days when you so naively believed to be an author all you had to do was write? How I long for that innocence. In the current market, whether traditionally or indie published, authors are expected to be self-promoters, indeed have to be to survive. You hear a lot of buzz at conferences or online around the term “author platform” and a quick online search will find many great posts explaining what that is from Jane Friedman’s Blog to Writer’s Digest to The Book Designer and so on. However, all that information can be somewhat overwhelming, especially if you are just starting out and/or have a bit of a social media phobia. It’s also a bit of a catch-22; how can you have an online presence if you’ve never been published, but how can you get published without an online presence?
As I represent mainly fiction, an author’s platform doesn’t make or break my decision when I’m considering a submission. Nonfiction is a different story, more on that here from Rachelle Gardner who does represent a lot of nonfiction and here from Brooke Warner who works with a lot of nonfiction writers. However, I do like to see if the author is online savvy, which means they have the potential to build a good platform in the future. This will help my judgment whether I want to take the time to request and read their full manuscript or even offer them representation. The best way to show you have the chops to make it in this crazy online world? A solid author website. What constitutes a solid author website previous to publication? Basically it’s an online resume for agents, editors, and future readers.
A home page that is either an introduction to you and your writing or a blog. If you are a terrible blogger and can’t sustain blogging regularly, do not have a blog. A dead blog is worse than no blog. If you can blog, try to blog about things of interest. Try not to blog about writing, there are millions of those blogs out there. Post about something related to your WIP, e.g. if you’re writing cozy mysteries themed around knitting, blog about knitting. For example, my client Lori Bentley Law blogs about women riding motorcycles and vintage cars, which features a lot in her writing and will pick up fans that might actually read her books. Some good advice about blogging here from Chuck Sambuchino at The Write Life.
A visual theme that relates to the type of writer you are. If you write high fantasy, then the website should reflect this. Not that you have to have unicorns farting rainbows over wizards, but the site shouldn’t be hot pink with kisses all over it. Now if you’re writing YA romance, that’s a different story. My client Laura Palmer writes epic fantasy with artistic themes and the artwork on her site brings you straight into that world.
Publications page. Any publications, i.e. short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, that fall under your author brand should be listed and linked either on your home page or on a separate page. If you have short stories published, congratulations! This is important information for potential editors/agents.
Your work-in-progress page. This is where you have a pitch/summary of all your WIPs (that you consider ready or soon-to-be ready for submission). Gives the agent an idea of what more you’ve got under the hood. This isn’t an absolute must, but it’s nice to see. My client Rachelle E. Morrison has two pages dedicated to this and it definitely piqued my interest when I was researching her before our initial phone conversation.
A bio page. If you don’t have any writing credentials, than this should have what inspires you to write, who your favorite authors are, why you write in the genre you write, and any real world experience that relates to your writing. My client Stacey Berg has a great example of simple but interesting bio.
A professional bio photo next to your bio. No cartoons, avatars, cropped shots, just a simple and clear headshot of you. Does not have to be professionally done, just professionally appearing. See my client Sean Danker’s smirk. Also, this bio photo should be used on all your platforms that are linked to your online author presence.
If you are on social media or participate in forums or have any other links relating to your writing and genre of choice these should all be clearly linked to your page. My client G.C. Nash is extremely active online outside just social media. However, most authors aren’t this active, and that’s okay.
Should be easy to navigate. These days you have seconds to catch a browser’s attention. If your site is too full of stuff in the navigation bar, side bars, cluttered up pages, it can be distracting and turn the viewer off.
A great example of a simple but effective author website is my client Rati Mehrotra’s at ratiwrites.com. Although it’s not a professionally designed website, it straightforwardly gives all of her information as an author. Her bio, her credentials, her WIP, and a consistent blog, all linked to her other author online presences. And there is a subtle but clear theme that directly relates to her writing. I like to direct new authors there, because her site, in particular, helped me make my decision to represent her, and it’s not a hard site to replicate.
In the end although you don’t need an author website, it does make a difference, at least when I’m considering your submission.
Next week I will be attending the SDSU Writers Conference in San Diego, and then a few weeks after that the SFWC in San Francisco. Both of these conferences are among the top 5 on the West Coast in terms of how many agents and editors they bring in. If you are attending either of these, your primary focus is probably pitching your manuscript to agents, or learning more about the process on how to get an agent. And a lot of you are most likely terrified to meet face-to-face with the agents.
In order to ease your fears, and make it smoother for both of us, I thought I’d share some tips on how to pitch an agent at a conference. First it’s good to realize that agents and editors get hustled around on a very tight schedule. We get VIP treatment, have our faces and names everywhere, and are by default placed high out of the regular conference goer’s reach, giving off the intimidating impression that we are the lofty stars of the conference. Which doesn’t help when you have to pitch your heart and soul to us in under three minutes later that day. Just remember, the reasons for this treatment are because the organizers want to sell us as part of the package of the conference, but they also don’t want us overwhelmed and they want us to come back the following year. So despite the buzz around us, we are human. We are not rockstars nor are we monsters. We know you’re nervous and, while some of us may be more brusque than others, we are all there because we want to support writers as well as seek out new talent. We want to hear your pitch.
With that in mind, a few tips to make your pitch stand out:
Attend and pay attention to the agent/editor introduction panel. Most important on that panel, they will tell you what they are currently seeking. The bios in the brochure may be out of date, or there may be something particular the agent is looking for at that exact time. The panel will also help you get a feel for our character. If an agent is snarky on the panel, then you know you need to pitch them directly and professionally to catch their attention. If an agent is sweet, there’s a little more leeway to let your nerves show during your pitch and perhaps being friendlier is a better approach.
During the actual pitch open with a nice greeting and then the genre, title, and word count of your manuscript. If your manuscript isn’t finished, say it here as well. It’s okay to pitch an unfinished manuscript, let us know you simply want to practice your pitch.
Try to make your pitch easy to remember, so that you can say it instead of read it. When you read from a page, our eyes start to glaze over, especially if it’s late in the day. We don’t need all the little details of the story, just the basic premise. This also opens up the time for us to ask a few questions about you or the story. The most memorable pitches I have had with writers are conversations about who they are, what their career plans are, what inspired them to write their story, etc.
Do not offer us a business card or sample pages. We will throw them out.
Do not try to be overly clever with your pitch, i.e. reading it in the character’s voice, or bringing drawings of the characters. There is limited time and we want to get to know you as the writer and your story.
Do brush your teeth beforehand, or have a breath mint if you know your breath is stronger than average.
Be aware of the time warnings and considerate of those waiting to pitch after you. Don’t keep talking when the moderator calls your time up. Courtesy and politeness go a long way when leaving an impression.
Thank the agent for their time at the end of the session.
My own personal tip, don’t offer to shake hands with me. I’ve gotten a cold or two in the past from conferences, so I’ve become more wary of shaking hundreds of hands over the course of a day. But I always feel rude when I say something, so it makes me really happy when a writer doesn’t extend that hand!
In the end, all of this is easier said than done. So when you approach me, know that I am really nice and understanding, promise. But I probably won’t remember you or your pitch. So these tips are for standing out above the crowd.
*Extra tip. If an agent states during the introduction panel that they are approachable during off times or if there is an general indicator during the conference for when it is okay to approach us (usually this is signaled by our name tags turned out or in), it means we really are open to being approached by writers. You can come up to us and say hi and ask questions and perhaps make yourself a little more memorable. Avoid doing this if we are walking in a group with a clear destination, or if we are heavily in conversation with someone. But if we are milling around a common room chatting with other conference goers even if they are only other agents, feel free to approach and make eye contact, and we will usually open the conversation.
Digging through the slushpile is hard work. For every query an agent answers, two more come in. We must get through them quickly or risk drowning, so as horrifying as it may be, often those that are formatted poorly go straight to the rejection pile. In the interest of giving your submission a fighting chance out above the hundreds of others, your best bet is to have a clean concise query letter and a well-formatted writing sample.
This particular post focuses on how to format your sample writing. First, remember that your sample/partial or full manuscript is a draft, not a published piece, so you are looking to create pages that are stripped down to just the writing. You want the quickest and cleanest read for the reader without all the fancy parts. (And yes this is true of picture books too!) Here are some tips on how to format your sample correctly.
Top left hand corner has your name, contact information (address, phone, email, and website)
Top right hand corner has the word count of the ENTIRE novel, not of the sample
A few spaces down has the title
Directly following is the opening line of your manuscript
Do not include a table of contents, an acknowledgments page, quotes, title page, or any other front matter. It is unnecessary and simply takes the reader longer to reach that important first line.
First line of each paragraph should have a 0.5 indentation
Simple font, (Times New Roman or Arial are safest), black, 12pt, you may use italics or bold for emphasis, but avoid using colors, different fonts etc.
Page number, title, your last name in the top right header
Do not include images, fancy headers, or blank pages between chapters. Do not use underline for italics or double spaces after a period (these are outdated).
There are reasons for these formatting requirements, if you don’t know them ask in the comments. Samples of a front page and body page below.
I get this question a lot from authors. The answer, unfortunately, is no. It’s not that I have anything against self-published projects, indeed, I’ve self-published myself. But as a literary agent there are two reasons why I do not consider representing self-published books. The first is a hard simple truth: I probably can’t sell it. Most of the bigger publishers are not taking the risks on self-published books as they once were. Even those books that were moderately successful as a self-pub, are harder to find homes for, as the publishers are discovering by the time they reissue the book, it’s already peaked. The second reason, which is by far one of the most frustrating and sad scenarios in my line of work is more complicated. Authors self-publish due to a variety of scenarios, many of them good reasons. I self-published because I had a manuscript, my second finished full-length novel, which I had written during my MFA program, turned into my thesis, and subsequently turned into a novel. It had been workshopped heavily, edited by two professors, and generally followed all the “rules” that are required of a polished manuscript. I was feeling pretty confident I could get this one past the gates.
I sent ANGELUS out to over 75 agents, researching each carefully, following all submission guidelines with a simple and professional query letter. Although I got the usual round of form rejections and no responses, I did get enough positive feedback that I remained hopeful. However, after the fifth or sixth, “I like your writing, I just don’t do angels,” I realized I was stuck. I had written a book that was within a trope that no one wanted to touch. (Side note, now as an agent, I’m not all that interested in angel books either, the irony.) I sometimes wonder what would have happened if, during my time in my MFA, I had written something different; perhaps I would have found representation. But then again if I had, I probably would have never ended up as an intern at a literary agency to discover I loved being a lit agent as much, if not more so, than being a writer. So after enough feedback telling me my angel-themed book was not going to fly, I self-published. Happy to report it was successful enough that I earned back the money I had spent publishing it, but not much more than that. But I’m glad I did it, so as an agent I understand how hard, how much work, and how emotional the experience is, and I can relate to those authors who approach me with their self-published work. But I also know that 90% of the time they are approaching me because they weren’t prepared for the experience nor was their manuscript. They were impatient to get their work out there, they were convinced by the few success stories that are constantly circulated online, they felt they knew better than the industry professionals, they believed that agents and editors were evil cackling creatures bent on never allowing them into the world of publishing.
Then they threw their book out there, and with bated breath, waited for the sales that never came. So now they are at a conference, or online, reaching out to me because, “they want to take their book to the next level.” And it is my heartbreaking job to tell them, how sorry I am, but that it is still up to them. Because I know their book being “not at that level” means it wasn’t ready for me pre-publication either, and now it’s too late for the traditional route. They have chosen to be the publisher of their own work, which means they have to be the one to take it to the next level, whether it’s hiring a cover artist to design a more professional cover, or an editor to revise it, or a proofreader to get rid of errors, or a publicist to help them navigate the market. Self-publishing is exactly what it sounds like, publishing by self. Alone. And it is one of the hardest things you can do. So think carefully before you self-publish, and make sure your reasons are not for fame and fortune, and be prepared for a lot of work. That’s not to say it won’t be successful, or that you won’t find that unicorn agent/publisher that would be willing to work with it post-publication. But it won’t be me. And yet, if I can give a little advice and hope, if you are not cut out to take your self-pub to that “next level,” then move on, shelve that book, let it sit online, or better yet, take it down. Because your story isn’t over, you are still an author. Write a new book, and using your newfound experience, make that book the best you can. Send it out to agents utilizing the hard-learned lessons to show them you understand the industry and writing from a professional viewpoint. Keep on fighting for your writing.
* For those of you who are curious, yes ANGELUS is still available as an eBook, still selling more or less, but I have moved on, writing and publishing short stories, novellas, and working on a new novel. I’d like to release a paperback version of it again, but it needs a redesign. I’d also like to finish and self-publish the rest of the series, you know, in all that spare time I have as a literary agent. Doing these things would certainly revitalize sales. But I have other priorities currently, and sadly as I am the publisher, it’s up to me to find the energy. However, I have no illusions that anyone else will discover it and do it for me. So I’ll keep fighting for it. Eventually.
*I have at last taken my own advice and unpublished it. Someday maybe, it’ll see the light of day again.