I submit

Before we begin, take another look at the tag-line up on the top left. ‘Unpublished author’. ‘S what it says. So to be giving advice on how to submit to a publisher or agent may seem a little presumptuous.

But I’ve been trying, and I’ve been reading books, and I’ve been speaking to people – and several bodies have been asking me for full manuscripts recently, so I reckon I’m doing something right. And, since so many sources offer different advice, I thought it might be helpful to give my tuppeneth and see if we can’t thrash something out between us. Just to get things clear from the start, this is based heavily on talks by from David Headley, Adrian Magson, Madeleine Milburn and Daniel Clay at Winchester Writers’ Conference 2013, as well as books like the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (also 2013) and miscellaneous others. I’d also recommend Daniel Clay’s static blog for another perspective: http://danielclaysblog.blogspot.co.uk/.

Submission systems are changing. Just a few years ago, the chances of anybody accepting material through any channel but the post – with self-addressed envelope, immediately doubling postage-costs – were practically non-existent. Publishers weren’t the earliest adopters of modern technology, but once they got the bit between their teeth there was no stopping them. Now most (but not nearly all) publishers/agents take email submissions. And a growing minority now have dedicated web-forms and won’t accept any other method. So with all this diversity, can any one page give advice appropriate for all?

Well, no matter how you get your work to right people, the fundamentals remain the same. Most houses are looking for one, two or three things: a covering letter; a synopsis; and a sample of your writing. Usually the sample is three chapters or 10,000 words, but this varies greatly (and I’ll say this again because it’s so important); it’s crucial that you read the guidelines carefully for each different submission.

The synopsis is the least important part of what I think of as the standard submission package. I know it’s one of the hardest things to get right, but really it’s there as backup for the (probably junior) member of staff who’s reading your work. If they like your covering letter and sample they’ll want to check that the story looks promising: that you haven’t gone crazy and finished with God (or aliens, or great wizards – all the same, really) suddenly appearing to magically punish the wrongdoer and endow your hero/heroine. Unless that’s what your book’s been about all the way through. Consistency, people!

So I won’t say anything more about the synopsis right now. Nor will I waste time discussing your sample writing: just make sure it’s double-spaced (but check the guidelines, just in case) and in a standard font, has page numbers and a header with your name and the title of the book. And is good, obviously.

That leaves us with the covering letter. And it’s time to consider what an agent/publisher is looking for when s/he wearily flicks to the next file on their e-book reader. They want:

  • Great writing
  • To be able to sell your work
  • To be able to work with you
  • To know that you can help them to sell your book

Essentially we’re talking about a business letter here. A job application. This isn’t the place to demonstrate your flair with gimmicks or examples of what a ‘free-spirit’ you are. That comes in your sample. They want to know they can work with you. They want you to be respectful, to include all the info they’ve asked for and to make a short case for your work.

Agent Madeleine Milburn suggested that covering letters should take the following form (not verbatim):

  • Dear… (personal name if possible)
  • I’m currently seeking representation/a publisher for…
  • Type of novel – genre, word-count, YA/adult etc; the ‘story’ in as near to one sentence as you can get. Your fifteen word elevator pitch
  • Why you’re approaching this particular agent
  • A bit about you: your writing ‘qualifications’. Any blogs/social media sites you’re a part of. But don’t use the ones where you’re acting like a – well, as the Americans would say, ‘like a drunken frat boy’. Keep them to yourself, thank you very much. Filthy child.
  • Thanks etc

Oh, and please, please, please – don’t forget your contact details. Even if you’re emailing. Just – just don’t. Also don’t let it go over a page in length – and that can be awkward, what with the wotnots of letter-writing; address, yours faithfully etc.

An example:

 Address

Email and tel. nos

 Date

Dear Mr Publishgasm

I am currently seeking a publisher for my novel, The Rabbits of Satan. Set in 15th century Nuremberg, it is a cross between historical fiction and horror, and is aimed at an adult audience. It follows the attempts of young warrener Jurgen to foil a plot against the master the Prince – a plot that involves carnivorous rabbits, buxom wenches and dark, dark magic – and a trail that leads to the very heart of Bavarian politics.

The novel is my eleventh and is complete at 86,000 words. It’s intended as the first in a trilogy. Please find attached the opening chapters as requested on your website. It would be wonderful to work with Publishgasm as I see you as very much as the leader in 15th century Bavarian books and feel we would be a natural fit.

In terms of market The Rabbits of Satan can be compared with works by authors such as [two or three authors who have recently broken through so that the agent/publisher knows where they’d sit on the shelf].

I am currently employed at the Nuremberg Experience, Staffordshire, and previously worked as a warrener. I have a blog [give the address]. I’m committed to my craft and am determined to make my career in the field.

I am very grateful for your consideration and your time, and would be delighted to send you the full manuscript in either hard or electronic form, as you desire. I look forwards to hearing from you.

Yours, with thanks

Etcetera

Any questions?

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Work what I done

It occurs to me that I’ve never actually gone through and explained what I’ve written over the years. This is something I shall now attempt. Please bear in mind that some names may be changed to protect the innocent… should anyone ever be interested in publishing any of them.

The Ballad of Lady Grace

My first ‘modern era’ work (which means not including my childish attempts at writing pre-degree, my film script or dissertations etc), this is really two novellas stuck together. The story revolves around the idea of what to do when everyone abandons you; when you have nobody to turn to but the person who already hates you. Paul becomes a social pariah after being accused of viewing child pornography, and in his desperation goes to Valerie for help. The story revolves around their relationship, twinned with the police investigation into them and their young associate Twinkle. The investigation, led by DI Vaas with DS Cook, has led to the novel being labelled as crime. I don’t agree with that. In my mind it’s a hymn to music. Paul and Valerie are musicians in the story, and it draws heavily from my life as a drummer/vocalist in various pub bands. Lady Grace was the first work I submitted for publication and it was, for some time, under consideration by Legend Press. Eventually the commissioning editor I’d been in contact with left, and the new incumbent was quick to jettison the piece.

Tell No Lies

This is a bit of an oddity. Not only was the story based on a dream (featuring comedian Jeremy Hardy, I seem to remember) but it was a piece of fan fiction. It was about Baldi, a crime-solving Fransciscan priest and lecturer in semiotics in a Dublin university. Originally a BBC Radio 4 show, I listened to it repeatedly on BBC Radio 7, as was. I loved (and still do) the gentleness of the main character, the way he’s torn between his religious calling and the wider world, especially in his feelings towards his link to the Garda, Inspector Mahon. Anyway, I wrote a first draft based around these characters, then gave up on it. This was partly in despair about it ever being used in any way (it would have to be either officially licensed, rewritten completely or converting into a radio script) and partly because of more general despair. It’s unlikely I’ll ever go back to it as is, but in my mind there are various nice bits of writing therein, so it may yet return – albeit in a cannibalised, bastardised form.

Chivalry

We’re getting more serious here. Chivalry is the work I always though of as my masterpiece – not in an arrogant sense but it the original, mediaeval sense: the piece a craftsman would present to his guild to demonstrate that he deserved the honour of being called a professional. Chivalry is a big, heavy thing, currently weighing in at 144,000 words. I worked on it solidly for about four years before moving on to something new. And I think, for the most part, it still stands up. It needs another good run-through – I reckon I can cut it down by around 5,000 words without losing anything. And the dialogue needs a thorough clean and polish. Or perhaps a grubby and a sandpaper. The story is about a game that starts a war. Set partly in a computer simulation of the 12th century Crusader kingdoms and partly in modern-day Bradford, it follows a group of gamers who inadvertently cause global chaos by hacking a power grid to force their rivals offline. Told through the eyes of mentally fragile Michael, diffident lost girl Madelaine and Yassir, a potential Islamic insurgent, Chivalry is not science-fiction. Promise.

Night Shift

The first in my ‘Company’ series (I remind you that names might change), this is, even if I do say so myself, a damn good book. It’s set in Antarctica in the near future and this one I can’t deny is science-fiction. It’s also murder mystery and psychological thriller. Anders Nordvelt is the new security chief at Australis, a mining base deep in the wilderness of Antarctica. He’s already struggling to find his place in a closed community when a saboteur strikes, isolating the crew. As the new man, Anders immediately becomes suspect – and when the saboteur turns to murder it becomes imperative that Anders finds the killer… This is the work I took to Winchester Writers’ Conference for professional evaluation, and is the story I’m currently pushing.

Australis

Sequel to Night Shift, this novel follows the development of the Australis mining base as it becomes a city. I don’t want to say too much about this – in part for fear of giving Night Shift secrets away and in part because it’s still a work in progress. The story’s complete and the editing is well and truly underway, but there are still issues that need fixing. There’s a spark missing: something that the previous novel has that this is, at the moment, not there. I am actively mulling. The title of this will almost certainly change. One of the comments I got at Winchester suggested that Australis isn’t a particularly good/original name for a base, so obviously if I change that then the title of this won’t make any sense.

New Gods

The third in the ‘Company’ series, I’m only a few pages through this and the plot isn’t shining fully-formed ahead of me. I’ll talk more about it, I’m sure, as we develop.

And that’s my writing CV. At the moment I’m working on New Gods, plus trying to fix Australis. In the meantime I’m sending out submissions to publishers and agents, trying to get a deal for Night Shift. Fingers crossed, and more writerly ramblings next week.

TTFN, boys and girls.

A day trip to Winchester

I went to Winchester on Saturday. Not just for a jolly day out, although by all accounts it’s a lovely old town, but to attend Winchester Writers’ Conference.

For those that don’t know, Winchester is one of the biggest meetings of its type in the UK, and is regularly attended by some of the biggest names in the industry. This year’s Plenary speaker was (Lord) Julian Fellowes, writer of Downton Abbey and the Robert Altman-directed Gosford Park. Also attending was Jasper Fforde, Adrian Magson, Sophie King and many, many others. Industry figures were also there in their multitudes: agents, commissioning editors, publishing consultants… And many of these people were available for private ‘one-to-one’ sessions where they comment on the opening pages of your work.

I’ve never been to one of these things before – it’s all part of my push for professionalism that also led to the creation of this blog. I went just for the one day (it’s five days in total, the meat being on Friday, Saturday and Sunday). For my £185 plus travel I got to attend five lectures – choosing from an impressive fifty-five available – and had three of these one-to-ones. That’s a lot of money for my fiancée and I. So was it worth it?

Well, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and got some genuinely useful advice. The lectures were a little disappointing, but that was mostly because I had to leave three of them after ten minutes (out of 50) to go to my one-to-ones. But these meetings were really, really good, and I’ve returned home with a real sense of ‘right, this is what I need to do now’-ness.

Due to numbers and logistics and whatever else, it’s not always possible to see exactly who you want to out of their impressively large selection. You have to choose seven, give them a priority, and then they’ll assign you three. Due to the last minute nature of my application, I missed out on all the agents and editors. I got three authors instead, and am very happy with the way it turned out.

I saw Steve Lockley, Eden Sharp and Daniel Clay, and I’d like to start by thanking them for their help. The big thing is that they all liked my work. Steve Lockley began my first appointment by saying ‘it’s got legs’, which is always nice to hear as you’re sitting down.

All three of them gave (different) suggestions for improvements which are tangible and straightforward, so I’ll be acting on those in the next few days. And they all gave me suggestions for ways to get into print. Steve suggested a few publishers to contact, Daniel gave good advice on my covering letter, whilst Eden advised going down the indie route, which I think basically means self-publishing.

I’ll have to have write a proper blog on self-publishing sometime. I’m in no way against it; it’s thoroughly disposed of its ‘vanity’ associations and with e-books so easy to set up (apparently) it’s now a real option and not just a last hurrah. That’s for another time, though. At the moment I’m still focussing on traditional publishing, whilst trying to soak up as much of this ‘knowledge’ stuff as humanly possible.

A few random thoughts about the conference:

  • If you’re not Caucasian and over forty, you may feel a little out of place
  • Do not underestimate elderly women
  • WinchesterUniversity is lovely, and a nice walk from the station
  • The ‘Book Fair’ was very disappointing. There were three stalls that sold things and five or so self-publishing companies. I was expecting more
  • Take the time to talk to people. Hang around for the evening networking sessions if you have the time (I didn’t, so I make no promises)
  • Writers generally appear to be happy, friendly people
  • If you’re going, book early
  • Take a stock of business cards. You never know who you might meet and who might take the time to check out your blog/website/twitter feed. Again, I didn’t do this because I’m lazy and feckless
  • Feckless is a wonderful word
  • Twitter: more and more people are advising me to go on twitter. It seems that this is the next ‘must have’ for aspiring authors
  • Julian Fellowes comes across as a very warm and witty individual
  • Why do agents/publishers ask that we put personal names at the head of submission letters, then make it so hard for us to find said names?

Right, that’s all for now. More next week…