Since I met quite a few people on the weekend that I confused by using buzzwords, I’m going to continue the theme this week of explaining the terms that a non-author or beginning author may not be familiar with. This is not intended to be a how-to article, merely an introduction to the terms some of my non-writing readers may be seeing on my blog or on other authors’ blogs.
Today I’ll explain about queries and submissions. (In general terms, this is not a ‘how-to’ blog, I still consider myself a newbie in this realm and there’s a lot better, more comprehensive articles out there that are easy to find.) If you are a newbie author with dreams of publication, the best thing you can do is find yourself a writers’ group either in real life, or on-line. Surround yourself with knowledgeable people. In person is better because there’s nothing like a face-to-face dialogue, or even just being in a roomful of people who won’t bat an eyelid when you say the voices aren’t talking. Or won’t shut up.
One thing about writers groups though. I consider myself extremely lucky because I’m a member of the Toronto Romance Writers, an extremely supportive and enthusiastic group of ladies. There are groups out there that are not as positive and may sour your dreams, or give you wrong or incomplete information. If you’re not comfortable with a group, find another. Same with critique partners…ah, and there’s our first term:
Critique Partner (or CP). May also be referred to as a “beta reader*” though some people think they’re a different animal altogether. A critique partner is generally another writer who reads your work and offers constructive criticism. It may be that they send you an email with a list of suggestions of how to improve your manuscript, or they may go through your manuscript word-by-word, line-by-line and mark up all your errors. For a new author, this is a scary and
sometimes usually disheartening process. Some authors rely upon their critique partners and others don’t: Shannon Stacey blogged about why she doesn’t use critique partners and why she doesn’t critique for others. Me? I love and rely upon my CPs.
Critique partners may also be used to brainstorm future stories, or help you solve problems when you’re writing your synopsis or first draft.
I don’t use the same people to read my manuscripts each time, mainly because most of them are published authors who are under tight deadlines of their own. And if you read Shannon’s post, that’s a huge part of getting your work critiqued. Time.
One of the early TRW meetings I attended, Molly O’Keefe talked about CPs and compared the process to dating. Some partnerships work, some don’t and you have to know when to stay and when to go.You’ll learn which way works for you, usually through trial and error.
*Beta readers are generally non-writers but rabid readers who can tell you what’s not working for them storywise–they’re not connecting with a character, or they’re not buying a certain premise for instance. CPs should look at all that, but they’ll also get deeper into things like GMC – Goal, Motivation and Conflict – of your characters but that’s a whole ‘nother post.
(I’m planning on covering this a bit more in the upcoming “editing” post.)
Agent: Did you ever watch the sitcom Frasier? Remember a character named Bebe? (No, not Bebe Neuwirth who played Frasier’s ex-wife Lilith) Bebe was Frasier’s agent — she negotiated for him whenever his contract was up. Got him extra concessions as well as more money. An author’s agent can do this to. They can get your manuscript in front of editors that an unagented author has little or no access to (some publishing houses only accept agented manuscripts. One reason is they know the manuscript has already been read and vetted and therefore the chaff has already been weeded out for them.) They can bug the editor about getting to your latest submission where a non-agented author may have to wait months. Or even years. Then when a contract is offered they go through it with a fine-toothed comb and argue with the publisher about better royalty percentages or try to get clauses added or struck out. They may even recommend you walk away from the contract because there’s some clause that’s unacceptable to your career.
Okay, so Frasier’s agent is a little over the top (perhaps? I don’t have an agent, I have no idea how they operate, LOL.) An agent’s job doesn’t end when the contract is signed. At the TRW meeting the other day Eve Silver was talking about how her agent will email her editor about getting foil on her name on the cover. (it makes your name sparkly and stand out from the other books on the bookstore shelves.) They can intervene if there’s a bad cover, or if the publisher wants a different title submitted. Some agents will also wish to have some editorial input before subbing your manuscript to editors. Some don’t. Each agent is different.
As an author, you don’t HAVE to have an agent to get published. I don’t have one. That’s next on my “Career To-Do” list. But it helps. And like all things in life, it pays to research your agent. There are some great ones out there and some not-so-great ones. The one thing to remember in this industry is the money flows TO the author. If an agent wants money up front — perhaps in the guise of a reading fee, run away! There are all sorts of places you can check on what agents are around — Writers Market, Querytracker.net … Do your homework!
To get an agent, you have to write a killer query letter…
Query A query is a single page (newbie authors take note–ONE page, not multiple) introduction of your idea and yourself that is sent to an agent (or editor) to get them interested in you and your manuscript. Some agents (or editors) ask that you submit a query only — without attaching any of your precious manuscript. You have that single page to capture their attention. So that query letter has to sparkle. An author has about three or four paragraphs to not only talk about their manuscript but to talk about their history too. The first paragraph introduces the premise, telling the agent/editor what genre it is and the wordcount, the second (and sometimes third) paragraph will explain the storyline, and the fourth paragraph will introduce the author and their publishing history. Queries are not easy to write. How can you reduce a manuscript of 100,000 words, one you’ve worked on possibly for years to a single paragraph and distill all that joy and angst and beauty you’ve sculpted your words into? Well, the author has to suck it up and find some way to do it.
Here’s the starting paragraph of my query letter to Angela for Texas Tangle:
Thanks to her cheating ex-husband and her thieving brother, all Nikki Kimball has left is a bruised heart, an over-drawn bank account and an empty home. When golden-boy Dillon Barnett and his brooding foster-brother Brett Anderson ride into her life, both intent on claiming her love, Nikki has to face her past to decide their futures. My contemporary erotic romance Texas Tangle is complete at 64,349* words.
*Yup, the original was only 64K long. The final product is 72K…which gives you an idea of the edits Rhonda and Angela put me through. But that’s a story for another day.
Hopefully in that letter, the agent or editor will get a feel for the author’s “voice” and be inspired to write back and ask for a partial, or, if you’ve written a really kick-ass letter, a full. If they find the rest of the story holds their interest and has that special “something” that they fall in love with and they think will sell, then you’ll get a call offering representation if they’re an agent, or a contract if they’re an editor.
Partial: Writer shorthand for the first three chapters or a designated number of pages depending upon the agent/editor — sometimes 30, sometimes 50. And they do mean the FIRST three chapters, not Chapter Four and Chapter Ten because that’s where all the interesting stuff happens in your story. A reader picking up a book in a bookstore is more likely to flip to the first page and read it — that’s where you have to hook the reader, so that’s what the Agent is looking at all. THEN if they like the partial, they’ll ask you for the FULL.
Full: The entire manuscript. To have an agent or editor request your entire manuscript is huge! HUGE! It means they liked those first three chapters, or your voice, or your premise. Some publishing houses — Carina Press and Samhain Publishing for instance, ask you to send in the full right at the start. There are several reasons. First, a lot — and I’m talking a LOT — of want-to-be authors write three chapters of their story, enter them in contests, take the critiques offered from them, edit them to perfection and submit them as partials. Then the editor gets all excited and wants to see the rest of the novel so they request the full. Except the author has never actually written anything more than those first three chapters. So you’ve wasted the editor’s time and kept her from reading the manuscript of an author who HAS finished his or her book. Asking for a full at the outset weeds out those who have pitched precipitously. The full is also necessary because the editor needs to know that the whole story holds up, that it doesn’t fall flat or sag in the middle, that the same level of attention that was paid to the first three chapters is given to the entire manuscript.
Slush pile: The unsolicited manuscripts submitted by thousands and thousands of hopeful authors. Agents and editors don’t get paid to read the slush pile, that’s done on their own time. So it’s usually far down on their to-do list. And they are inundated with thousands of submissions, some that fit them, many that don’t. Seriously, read their submission policies. Don’t send them fiction they only deal with non-fiction. Or poetry if they don’t want poets. If they ask for an electronic submission, don’t mail them a hard copy through the postal service. Or vice versa.
Pitch: It’s just like a salesman’s pitch — often times at conferences you get only 8 to 10 minutes or less, sometimes it may be as short as a ride in an elevator, with an agent or editor. You have only that length of time to explain the concept of your book and get an agent interested in you.
Think about the last book you read. Now tell me about it in 2 minutes. Go!
See? It’s not easy. Pitching face-to-face is an artform I tell you. And it can be brilliant. Or it can go very very very wrong. There are lots of other much more experienced and talented people who can teach you about the art of pitching to an agent or editor, but I though you might wonder about the term.
Editor: The person at a publishing house who will read your manuscript and say “I love it!” and immediately phone you to tell you how much she (or he) loves your work and offer you a contract for a million dollars. Yes, that’s said with more than a little tongue in my cheek.
But it can happen.
Just not to me. (the million dollar part, I mean)
But I can have hope. Right?
The editor has a lot more responsibilities than just reading submissions. They are your connection with the publisher for cover art, and back cover copy and a whole range of other things that go on behind the scenes. (Some of this will be covered in “The Process” post.) They have to be your cheerleader to the acquisitions committee while being your coach, making sure you stay on track with your deadlines because they have bosses to answer to and deadlines of their own. Not to mention they usually have 50 or so other authors to deal with. I’ll be covering what s/he does as an editor in a later post.
Synopsis: In genre publishing, you will often be asked to submit a synopsis along with your manuscript. A synopsis is the reader’s digest version of your manuscript, your story told in 2 to 10 pages, always told in present tense. This can be used in a variety of ways — an agent or editor may read it before reading your manuscript to ensure s/he’s not wasting time on a story that has no conflict or no workable ending, to get an idea of your voice, to see that there is a happy-ever-after ending (well in romances, not in Nicholas Sparks novels.) They may have to take the synopsis to an acquisitions committee because the committee won’t have time to read your entire manuscript, especially if there are ten other manuscripts on the table to be discussed that day. Your synopsis has to be able to sell the story the way the query letter does. It’s got to sparkle. (you’ll often see authors referring to synopsis over on Twitter as “sucknopsis” because they’re freakin’ hard to write.)
Here’s an example of the first paragraph of Texas Tangle’s synopsis:
Nikki Kimball is determined to make it on her own despite her ex-husband leaving her with a battered ego and bruised heart. When her truck dies just miles from home, she’s forced to rely upon the kindness of her next-door neighbor Dillon Barnett, to get her latest rescue horse home. Not only does he drive her home and unload the horse, he stays to help muck out stalls and do the work her deadbeat brother failed to do. Watching Dillon work up a sweat in the barn heats her blood she’s sure it’s about to turn to steam.
Literary authors may not have to include a synopsis because they have no plot. (Only said half tongue-in-cheek.) A few years ago I attended a publishing course at a local university that was taught by a “Fellow” of the university as well as another VERY well known college known for its writing program. The speaker was a former president of one of the major Canadian publishing houses. When she didn’t mention synopsis during her lecture, I asked her about them. She looked at me, blankly, and said “why would I ask for a synopsis?” Seriously.
One last term to leave you with today:
Proposal. This is what most authors aspire to be able to submit to their agent or editor. When you get to this stage, you only have to write a synopsis, and possibly one to three chapters of the story. Then the agent will take it to an editor and sell them on the concept. Or the author may be able to submit a proposal direct to their editor the way I can with Carina. The option of submitting by proposal is usually only offered to a) authors who are being offered a multi-book deal — the publisher has book one but wants to see what’ll happen in books 2 and 3, or b) authors who have a track record proving they’re able to write a publishable story to completion, one with multi-faceted characters and a full plot line and within a set period of time. And there’s the rub. You have to be able to write that story to someone else’s deadlines now. Where many authors took multiple years to write their first story, you may only have several months to write the next.
Oh, while I’m talking about time, I’ve often been asked “so when’s the next book coming out?” Here’s another element to the publishing industry. When you submit a query, it may be weeks, months or even years before that agent or editor you submitted your query too actually gets the time to read it. Then it takes time for them to take it to an acquisitions committee and get their approval.. So it can be a very long time before you know if you’ve sold your manuscript.
Or it may be a matter of hours. I have heard of authors who submit a query and get a response (yay or nay) from an agent or editor the same day. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. 😉