Sunday, March 4, 2012

Are you and your manuscript ready for submission?

by: Joelle Charbonneau

There is a question that I get asked pretty frequently by aspiring authors.

“When do I know my work is good enough to submit?”

Ha! Fun question. Unfortunately, there isn’t a really good answer to that question. I mean, that’s kind of like asking “When do I know if I’m in love?” You know you’re in love when you feel it. I guess Dr. Phil or Cosmo might have some kind of cool questionnaire to fill out to make sure, but knowing you are in love is a gut feeling. Kind of like figuring out if your story is ready for the submission world. Although, the idea of a questionnaire is kind of fun. I mean, wouldn’t that be great if there was a check list you could go through to make totally sure you and your manuscript are ready for the submission process? So, with that in mind, and in honor of Chuck Wendig who loves lists, here is 15 ways an author can know a manuscript is ready for submission. (Yeah – Chuck would have come up with 25, but I’m not as cool as he is. So maybe he’ll find another 10 to add to the list.)

1. The manuscript is finished. Yes, that’s right sports fans. You need a beginning, a middle and an end. Two out of three won’t cut it. I don’t care that it takes agents and editors months and months to read a submission. Don’t submit the beginning now and get around to writing the end while you’re waiting or them to fawn over your brilliance. Do that and you’re going to be waiting a hell of a long time. You might have that kind of time to kill. I do not.

2. The manuscript length fits genre parameters. Yes, I know your novel is special. It requires 200,000 words to fully develop the characters and the fifteen storylines that eventually converge into one ending. But if you are writing genre fiction I’m fairy certain that particular word count is going to get you a lot of head shaking and not much else. No one is going to get excited about a story that is over twice as long as the genre conventions. Yes, there are exceptions to the rules. A book can be a little longer or a little shorter, but unless you’re Stephen King no one is going to offer you a contract on a book that defies the genre standards. Do your homework. And if you start telling me you need every one of those 200,000 words and not a single one can be cut—well, let’s just say I’m probably not going to believe you.

3. You’ve proofed your book. No typos should be a given. And yes, this is easier said than done because while word processing programs are fabulous, they look for words that aren’t in the dictionary. They aren’t going to find the words that are spelled correctly, but aren’t the word you were looking for. Only you can find those. A typo won’t sink your manuscript, but a bunch of them is a sign of a sloppy writer. You don’t want to be a sloppy writer.

4. Your book is not printed on pink, scented paper. While Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods makes the whole pink scented resume seem like a brilliant idea, it isn’t. And you probably think I’m joking about this, but people do it. They print queries (yes, some places still want printed queries although I haven’t a flippin’ clue why) on floral, colored, scented paper. Now often the scented part is an accident. Smokers might not realize that the cigarette they have been enjoying while stuffing their query envelopes has been preserved in the envelope for the agent or editor to enjoy. I’ve heard dozens of stories about animal hairs, smoke, crumbs and other tidbits being added to queries to give them that personal touch. This is a personal touch you do not want. Trust me!

5. You’ve opened the book with a fabulous hook. Remember that agents and editors get a lot of submission. Thousands of them during the course of a year. You don’t get to hope they read far enough to get to the good part. The first line better be the good part. And the line after that. And the one after that. You have to hook them fast and then pull them into your story. If you find yourself saying “if only they read X scene” you know you aren’t ready for submission. Because that scene should be your first scene.

6. You’ve cut your prologue. Nope, I’m not kidding. You know that prologue you think is brilliant and you love. Cut it. Honest! I’m not being mean. While I know you poured your heart and soul into that prologue, I can promise you now that agents and editors aren’t going to read it. Most industry professionals I’ve talked to say that when sample pages come with a prologue, they skip the prologue and turn to chapter 1. 99.9% of all prologues get axed. And the ones that survive are typically the NY Times Bestsellers who are basically allowed to do whatever the hell they want because…well, they’re a NY Time Bestselling author. When you get to be a NY Time Bestseller, you can have a prologue, too. I promise. Until then—put it under your pillow so you can cherish the memories.

7. Your first chapter ends on a fabulous, page turning hook. You know those authors that you love to curse out because they kept you up all night reading when you should have been getting sleep. You want to be one of those people. If your characters go to sleep at the end of a chapter, your reader will probably remember that they are supposed to get rest and put the book down. End the first chapter in a great hook and the reader will flip the page with you and suffer at work for it the next day.

8. All your chapters end on a fabulous, page turning hook. See above. Don’t settle for a mediocre chapter hook. Make them all rock.

9. You don’t have more than one point of view per scene. Okay, this one might annoy some people, but I really think this is an important rule for authors breaking into the biz. One point of view in a scene is pretty standard. Are there authors out there who use multiple points of view in their scenes. Yes. These are those same authors who get to use prologues. They’ve been at this a really long time and get to break the rules. Unfortunately, you have to follow the rules for a while until you’ve earned the right to break them. Sorry!

10. You’re manuscript starts in action. If you start with “It was a dark and stormy night.” you’re going to be in trouble. Pick a scene where the main character has something at stake. Put them in a situation with conflict. This will pull the reader in and at the same time allow the reader to really learn about your main character. The best way to get to know someone is to see how they respond to difficulties.

11. You’ve cut the boring parts. A favorite NY Times Bestseller that I know loves to talk about cutting the boring parts. Anything that slows down the plot or the pacing no matter how lovely the writing needs to go. Sorry!

12. The plot resolves in a logical way. For some reason a lot of manuscripts I’ve seen feel like they use Monty Python’s Holy Grail as inspiration for their ending. The plot is racing along and then the author realizes the book is 100,000 words and they need and ending fast. So BAM – they end the book. The killer is revealed. The love story is resolved. Only there wasn’t a build up to either. The ending comes out of nowhere. While a book that is too long is bad, so is a book that cuts corners to ensure it isn’t too long. Nothing is more depressing for a reader than an unsatisfying ending. Give us a payoff worthy of all the words that came before.

13. You’ve done your homework. This means you’ve actually figured out who your target audience is for your book and you have a list of appropriate editors and agents to submit to. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your work is, if you don’t send it to the right people you’re hosed.

14. You’re prepared for rejection. No, I’m not being doom and gloom by assuming you’re going to get rejected. Rejection happens. It doesn’t matter how high up the publishing ladder you go – you are going to get rejected. And when you’re on the bottom rung (and I know that rung because I hung out on it for a really long time) rejection is almost a guarantee. Just because your manuscript is brilliant doesn’t mean the editor or agent you’ve submitted to will have space on their list for it. Sometimes you need to knock on a bunch of doors before someone opens one. Sure, we all hear stories of the person who got an agent on their first query and landed a publishing deal a week later. That could happen to do, but you need to assume it won’t. If you go into the process with realistic expectations you’ll be a happier person. Trust me on this!

15. You are ready to begin the next project – because every book you write makes you a better writer. When that agent or editor comes knocking, you want to be able to show them you are a pro.

If you have answered yes to all all of the above - have at it. And good luck! Remember that publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. Everything from queries to manuscript submissions to the book landing on the shelves takes time.


Marina Sofia said...

That sounded heartfelt! But also, incredibly useful advice. Should be obvious really, but I daresay it's not. I'm going back to the grindstone and making sure I follow it.

Cathy Shouse said...

Good points! Are you gearing up for Spring Fling?

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Thanks, Cathy! Sadly, Malice Domestic conflicts with Spring Fling - so I won't be attending the C-N conference this year. But I'll be thinking of everyone while I'm in Maryland for Malice!

Cathy Shouse said...

Actually, that makes me feel better. I'm not going to make it either.

Kristi said...

Great advice. xoxox K

Thomas Pluck said...

As a writer, I thank you.
As a reader, I thank you... and jab my finger at #12, grab writers and editors by the ear and make them read it aloud, back and forth, in Pig Latin, then translate it to French and back to English a la Mark Twain's jumping frog, until it makes sense again.
My favorite writers get away with this and it irks me. The French Connection sudden ending works once in a while, but let's not overdo it.
I like what Roger Ebert has to say about movie length:
No good movie is long enough and no bad movie is short enough. Don't fret about length if it serves the story. Give the story its head, so you don't leave the reader like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff... suddenly realizing there's nothing beneath us but bullshit.
How many epilogues get cut, vs. prologues? Guessing it's fewer than 99.9%...

Steven J. Wangsness said...

Good advice.

Especially #14.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the pro-tips. I've got most of these down, but I'm guilty of 9 on occasion (though I usually edit that out) and I do end the occasional scene with a sleep. None of them in my completed manuscript, but in some of my on-going projects I have these naughty things.
Does any one try the 'dark and stormy night' opening any more in any way but a comdeic fashion?

Unknown said...

Someone should have told Dennis Lehane about #6 and #12 when he wrote that stinker "Shutter Island." He went for the unnecessary prologue and the abrupt predictable ending. Such a shame. Ninety percent of the book is actually pretty good.

Lauren @ Pure Text said...

This is a mighty list. I can't argue with anything on it!

However, I believe "You've worked with a professional freelance editor" should be on the list. They are incredibly helpful, especially in today's publishing world.

Of course, I am an editor, so I would see that as a necessity! :P