Friday 18 May 2012

Submitting to literary agents and publishers

This week I noticed on Facebook one of my former students was going through the angst of submitting his work to an agent (at the agent's behest I should add). Oh how I could empathise with his tortured statuses. That moment you decide your work is ready to be submitted is gut-wrenching. In my own experience the mouse has floated over and then away and then back to the 'send' button over and over again, until in a fit of 'just get on with it' clicking the button and watching the email with attachment fly away. Only to regret it immediately. Can't I have it back? Just one more look over it....damn. It used to be (and sometimes still is) the case of walking round and round the letter box. Thick envelope neatly prepared and stamped weighing heavily in your hands. At least now it is done in the privacy of your home rather than risking being arrested for stalking said letter box.

But then the next stage of angst starts. The wait. It could be days, weeks, months. Previously, a rejection was always preempted by that rather particular and distinct thwack as your returned, possibly unread, MSS hits the floor having been forced through the letter box by a potentially grumpy postman. These days it is almost more tortuous. As with every PING - 'you've got mail!' has the potential to end your dreams. But it is not the end of your dreams. It might be a hiccup in them but it might also just be a....'could we see more.' You just never know and you need to be prepared. It will happen, have faith.

Going back to making that decision when to submit there is actually always that risk that you don't get round to submitting because you keep thinking 'I will just give it one more proof read, edit, polish, rewrite, then it'll be ready.' Sometimes you have to be brave and let it go. It feels a bit like leaving your child on their first day at school, you don't know what's happening. Do they like it? Do they hate? Are they just sitting in the corner waiting (to be read)? But it is all part of being a writer. Perhaps there is a masochistic streak in all writers and that's why we do it.

Having listened to several agents and publishers and their thoughts on submissions I would like to give you some things to think about when submitting.

1. Read the Writers & Artists Year Book (other books are available). If in there (or on their website - another good place to check) it says they are not receiving unsolicited or unagented MSS. That does apply to YOU. They won't make a special case just because it is you. UNLESS they have personally invited you to submit in which case you need to state this clearly in your letter.

2. Read their submission guidelines. These are available on agents websites. Read them and adhere to them. Your story is not ready if you think you have to attach an extra couple of chapters because the story doesn't get going until then and they will miss your favourite bit.  If they want a two page synopsis - don't send them a ten page one  because you can't get it into two (and in the meantime read Nicola Morgan's excellent book on how to write a synopsis)

3. Now this is a tip coming from me, but am sure a few agents and publishers might agree so thought I would add it in. It is something I come across when marking, which I see as a kind of practice submission. (And obviously applies when submitting hard copy) Do not leave your MSS in your kitchen where you are cooking highly aromatic dishes(can you call cottage pie and chips aromatic?). It is revolting to have that smell waft at you the whole time you are reading and you turn a page. Do not let your cat/dog/child walk over it leaving muddy paw prints, however cute they are. The same with coffee or tea or unmentionable and indefinable stains.
Don't think you are safe when submitting on line - make sure you have removed track changes and comments. It is amazing what you can find out when someone hasn't!

4. And going back to point one really. If a publisher or agent has invited you to submit make sure you address it to them and mention in the letter that they had invited you. Saying where and when you met and the invited was handed out is always a good bet  in order to jog their memory. However, memorable you think you are you have to remember they see lots of people.

OK that's it, 4 Ness tips to help you with that angst moment of sending your work off. Go on, be brave, you can do it. You never know what might happen and good luck with it.

Happy Weekend and here's a piece of music because I always tried to play my guitar like this...and failed. Carlos Bonell and Strawberry Fields


  1. Excellent. I must say I have on occasion fallen foul of rule 1 and sent to people who weren't accepting submissions. Never did me any good.

  2. Excellent post, Ness - the one thing I've always found worth paying attention to is "read the submission guidelines"!

  3. I loved this post - deffinately read the submission guidelines. I would love to be a fly on the wall when a particular agent/publisher reads my work. Thanks for posting this :-)

  4. I used to have the problem of thinking that one more draft would vastly improve the story. I solve the problem of hovering over the sent button by taking a (figurative) run up and just whacking the mouse. If you allow yourself to worry, you will.

  5. I think it is something we all experience that fear of pressing the send button. I am always amazed how many people don't read the submission guidelines.
    Glad you enjoyed the post

  6. Lots of sensible advice - so why do I have to really like the 'don't let it reek of Jalfrezi' bit best?
    Thanks for this, 'Nessa.

  7. that came about because I had just marked an essay that reeked of cooked mince and it was stomach turning. It made me wonder how many people submitted stuff to agents/publishers that stank!

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