Thursday 16 September 2010

A Writing 101 Production - Part 11: Beating Your Submission Letter Into Shape

It's a horrible hissy word, SUBMISSION.  A lot of essssses.  Makes you think of snakes--or wolves rolling over and showing their throats to the pack-leader (that would be me).  But I promised to talk about the scary business of submitting, and I am always a blogger of my word (well, except in the case of writing about Twitter--but I have a PLAN about that, so watch this space). 

When I think now about the very first submission letter I sent to an editor back in 1991, I feel a frisson of embarrassment go right down to my typing fingertips.  Shall I tell you about it?  Oh, all right then.  If I must.  You'll probably hate me for it, but I can't help that.  Warning: there may be footnotes. Indulge me.

I'd written a picture book text.  On a Scottish river bank*. In ten minutes. I rather liked it.  In fact, I thought it would probably be good enough to send to a publisher when I'd sat on it for a while**.  Now, for those of you who are new here, I should tell you that I had, in a previous life, been a children's book editor.  So I had CONTACTS.  This was good.  I also had experience of looking at lots and lots of submission letters*** so, I suppose I kind of knew how one should go.  I would like to draw a quiet veil here, but I suppose I'd better show you the letter I actually sent (see above).****  I'd no more send a letter as long as that or laid out like that now than die.  It's just not very professional-looking, is it?.  Luckily for me, the editor I sent it to ignored the horribleness of my typing,  liked the text--and made me an offer THE VERY NEXT DAY*****.  I know.  It's the fairytale ending we all dream of.  However...THESE DAYS IT JUST DOESN'T HAPPEN LIKE THAT. Sorry!

So, back to you and your submission letter.  Are you just starting out? Submitting to an agent? Submitting to a publisher? For the purposes of this I'm going assume that you're a newbie and that you're writing children's or YA books.  If you've already had a book published and want to go through it all again don't go away, though.  You might still find my eccentricities riveting. 

Right.  You've got your brilliant manuscript all finished, and you've written your fantastic synopsis using my previous advice.  Now you've got to send the damn thing to someone, which means writing that all-important submission letter.

But before I get to that (it's coming, don't worry), here's something to think about.  As I said up there, fairy tale endings for authors are pretty much rarer than hen's teeth these days.  So, if you want your work to be in the best shape possible, you could do a lot worse than contact Natascha Biebow's brand-new venture, Blue Elephant Storyshaping.  Natascha has considerable experience as a Senior Commissioning Editor--so she knows what she's talking about and she can add a shiny bit of polish, or give excellent advice to those who are just not sure if what they have is good enough.  But, just for now, let's assume your work is as good as you can get it, and you want to send it out into the Big Bad World.

Rule #1:   Do your research. Before you start writing The Letter, ask 'who am I pitching to? Do they actually deal with or publish my kind of book?'  This applies to both agents and publishers, by the way. Your first port of call is the essential Children's Writers' and Artists' Yearbook.  Every would-be writer should have a current copy of this at their elbow--it will give you all sorts of useful advice and tips.  If you're submitting straight to a publisher, your second port of call is the bookshop (preferably a large independent, and also a chain for comparison purposes).  Look at what's out there.  Look at the 3 for 2's and the top tens in the chain, and who the publisher is.  (Incidentally, the publishers have paid out good money for their books to be in those promotions--they don't just magically appear there, you know.)   Might your book fit into one particular list? Were you thinking of submitting your YA fantasy novel to a house which deals mostly in non-fiction? (Clue here...big mistake).  It is quite amazing to me how many new writers don't bother with this essential basic research.   Trust me. Do it. Know Thy Market.

Rule #2: Enquire first. No really.  Once you've chosen an agent or a publisher to submit to, ring up (or email), and ask if they are willing to look at your stuff.  It's no good blindly submitting to somewhere which has a closed list or does not take unsolicited manuscripts.  But DO NOT contact anyone about pitching via Twitter.  If you don't follow @caroleagent on Twitter, you should.  She is quite clear on this subject. It's a huge NO NO, and just makes the people you want to impress Very Cross.

Rule #3: Set your letter out properly.  Remember those painful letter writing lessons you had at school?  Address/phone/email (yours) at the top; Address (theirs) underneath to the left; Date on the right; Dear whoever (not Hi! or Yo!); A short, factual piece setting out what you are sending (not too much detail, you've covered most of your bases in the synopsis, haven't you?); End with something polite like "I'll look forward to hearing from you about (insert name of piece) in due course.  With best wishes, Yours sincerely...." . Attach all the bits (double spaced, please), put in an envelope, send and pray.

Rule #4: Do not expect an answer anytime soon! Don't Panic, Frood--even established authors have to wait.  It might take anything up to 6 months for you to hear--though it might be 3 if you're lucky.  Don't hold your breath or you will possibly turn blue and die.  Relax--make a cuppa. Eat some strawberry shortbread.  And Good Luck!

PS: If all else fails, adopt a meercat (Uncle Sergei makes good tea, I believe).  

* It wasn't all wonderful--it was pouring with rain, the midges were biting like a bugger, and I had terrible morning-sickness.
** Despite the urge to throw your work on the world as soon as it is born, I find it's always best to sit on it for a bit and fiddle.  Other people might call this the cowardice of fear.  I call it sensible.
*** Some of them hand-written on what looked like the back of an old envelope.  No.  I'm not kidding you.
**** The fact that I had an ancient American AppleMac and a rotten printer which took the kind of thin cheap paper that has a strip of tear-off holes all down the side is no excuse for the dreadful layout of a chatty bit and then one scrunched paragraph of blurb all single spaced. At least the address and date and stuff were ok.
***** Told you you'd hate me. But it was the day the first Gulf War broke out, so I needed cheering up.

Links to all my other Writing 101 Productions on one handy page! Have a browse....

1 comment:

Stroppy Author said...

Did you really just own up to writing a sold picture book in 10 mins? That's supposed to be a big secret! We go round telling people it takes months to write a picture book! [sometimes it does]

Excellent advice, as ever. Believe it or not, I think I have only ever written one submission letter and I can't remember a thing about it. So if I ever need to do another one....

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