Friday, August 2, 2013

What Should A Submission Show Us?

Sorry for the delay in the post today. I was on a roll reading submissions and writing proposals. Still, that work did give me some insight into something that we really need to discuss. What is it that a submission should show a potential editor or agent.

I think if we look at the generic submission packet, it often contains three elements: The query letter, the synopsis and a sample of your writing. Each element provides a unique insight into you as a writer. Because each has a unique purpose, you cannot blow off the work you put into these. I do know that comments many editors and agents say at conferences might send a different message. I know many say, "It is simply about the story." Or, in the case of pitches, "Just send me the manuscript I'm not so concerned about the pitch itself." Sorry to say it, but these do count. Let's examine each.

THE QUERY LETTER - This is not simply a letter of introduction. Sure, there is an element here of introduction, but this holds much more power than writers give it credit for. For the most part, think of a query letter as a Cover Letter. I did a quick search on cover letters this AM and here is what you find time and time again. The purpose of a cover letter is to distinguish your self from the other applicants. The same goes for query letters. You are competing against all of those other new authors as well as the ones the editors and agents are working with at the time you submit.

I am returning to the information on cover letters here but I want to show you the similarities to the query letter. According to a career center in Illinois, they highlight 4 messages that are right on the money:
TARGET YOUR MESSAGE, BE PURPOSEFUL, DO NOT MASS PRODUCE, SEND IT TO A SPECIFIC INDIVIDUAL. I say this time and time again when it comes to the query letter. Your job in a query letter is to show the editor or agent how your story fits the criteria of what he or she likes in that style of writing. This is an issue of showing and not telling.  Don't just say you know the agent likes historicals. What do they like specifically and how does your story fit that mold. 

You also note that cover letters are not mass produced. When you apply for a job, in the application process the human resource departments always put in a line that says, "describe how your experience fits the qualifications we are looking for in an ideal candidate." The same for a query. Remember we are not just signing a book, but we are signing an author. This means your query letter needs to focus also on who you are as a writer and what you are bringing to the potential new business relationship.

THE SYNOPSIS Yes, I know you hate writing these things, but I do have to say, you are trying to put more into it than you need to. The purpose of the synopsis is really straight forward. It is there to give us the full storyline of the book and that is it. Since we are likely only looking at a partial, we want to see how the full story plays out. For this reason, you need to keep it simple and focus only on the main storyline. 

I like to think of the synopsis like a resume. This is, as Sgt. Friday says, "Just the facts!" This is not where you get to be witty. This is not where you get creative. You don't get to be secretive and not tell us the ending or the mystery in the story. You tell us the storyline. Focus in on the main story arc and keep it to that. Along the same lines, don't spend time highlighting every small scene and event in the book. Think of it in terms of a beginning, middle and end. Give us a sense of the characters and their Goals, Motivations and Conflict.

This is where you highlight HOW you write. This is where your voice needs to shine through. Obviously, this is the element that we are going to focus on heavily, and what you have been focusing on. Make it clean and make it good.

Now, with that said, please only send what the editor or agent asks for. If I say the first three chapters, then send just the first three chapters. You are not the exception to the rule. Don't send me more. If I say don't send it in the initial query, then don't send it. Follow the directions.

I think you get the idea now. Make each of these elements count in your submission packet. 

And, if you have some additional questions today, post them. I am going to try to answer things during the course of the day between stables, dance, swimming, submissions and a trip to the grocery.


  1. Not to argue, but I have a question.

    In the olden days when paper submissions were the only way to submit, I totally grok why it would be a big deal to follow that rule and send what is requested.

    In the era of electronic submissions, where there are no towering stacks of white paper, what is the logic?

    Or actually, why not just request the full immediately if you see something you like? It takes out a whole step in the middle. Seems like a time saver.

    Just curious! I have never actually submitted to an agent. Y'all terrify me :D *shiftyeyes*

  2. Amalie,
    Good questions. I actually blogged about one part of your question earlier this week, or it might have been the end of last week. When it comes to requesting only a partial, it is often that we just need to get a sense of the voice and the style. Even if we did ask for a full, in many cases, we have made a decision to pass by that "partial point" anyway. As far as why we aren't asking for a full electronically, remember that those full manuscripts still pile up and fill up the email box. Your comment about it being a time saver is true, if we actually thought from the beginning that the book would be beyond amazing. I can generally sense that from the pitch and if I do think that, then, and only then, do I request a full.