Make agents and editors happy when you submit!

Whether you’re sending a query, a proposal, or a full manuscript, there are ways to make sure the person reviewing your project is happy with you from the moment they open your email, envelope, or package. Well, to be more accurate, to make sure the person reviewing your project doesn’t think you’re an amateur or a bozo.

1) Research!
There’s no Universal Code of Submission. Every agent, every publishing company: each one does things differently. Some people want things pasted into the body of the email. Some people want attachments. Some people want queries only, some people want the first five pages, some people want the first three chapters and a synopsis.

By the way, Tor/Forge doesn’t accept queries at all (except from agents). Not by email, not by post. So if you’ve sent us a query, we’ve ignored it. Deleted the email, tossed the letter. It says we don’t take queries right in our submissions guidelines (…but we get queries every day, by mail and electronically.

These days, you can probably find most agents’ and publishers’ guidelines online. Try to make sure you’re working from a current document–there are at least three different versions of the Tor/Forge guidelines floating around out there, and while things haven’t changed too much, there are some differences, especially in the post-September 11th world.

2) Put that research to work. If Agent A wants emailed queries with attachments and Agent B wants the first 5 pages pasted into the email and Agent C wants hardcopy only, send them what they want!

Don’t forget to double-check the salutation in your email or cover letter. It’s fairly common to see “Dear Someone Who Isn’t Me” or “Sir” or similar things. If you’re not sure of the gender of the person you’re addressing–who may not be binary anyway–you can always address things “Dear FirstName LastName.” That’s just fine.

Not so fine? “Dear FirstName” when we haven’t met and/or I haven’t personally asked you to submit. Yes, it’s a brave new world of internet connectivity, but this is a business exchange.

Check the tail end of your email too. I’ve gotten many an email with 15 or 20 iterations of the sender’s signature, a sure sign that the message has been forwarded multiple times (or is a spam submission or both).

3) Don’t send anything the agent, editor, or publisher hasn’t asked for.

I’m serious about that one. When we open slush submissions that include cover art, lavish maps or other illustrations, and/or the author’s headshot, we are not amused. These things do not show us how talented you are. They show us that you cannot follow directions.

Do you know how much of publishing involves following directions? A lot. I’m not talking about editing–that’s more collaborative. But plenty of the stages of publishing–copyediting, proofreading, filling out the author questionnaire, etc.–involve instructions that a writer needs to pay attention to.

The more important thing is that none of this–art, maps, author photo–will make a bit of difference when it comes to your book being bought. Because none of that matters. What matters is the story you’re telling and the way you’re telling it. Entertain me, make me think, and I’ll want to work with you. Send me gorgeous art along with a manuscript that is full of wooden characters and labored plotlines? Rejection city.

4) Yes, format matters. But possibly not in the way you think.
Not all submissions guidelines are specific about fonts and formatting, but many are, and they tend to offer variations on a theme: a clear, readable font, reasonably sized, enough white space on the page. Even though most submissions these days are electronic, the basics haven’t changed much.

I often receive manuscripts in sans-serif fonts, I assume because authors like these fonts and think they look pretty. I always wonder if these writers have looked at a book recently. Because most books use serif fonts for the bulk of the text. Serif fonts are just easier and faster to read. (Yes, this post is in sans-serif. It’s what comes with the blog theme, sigh.)

Ease and speed are important when you remember that most editors, and likely many agents, are reading your manuscript under less-than-optimal conditions. At the beginning or the end of the day, during our commute, on a tablet/reader/mini-computer, squeezed in around taking care of our children, interacting with our partners, playing with our pets, and living our lives. In other words, we’re reading your book under the same circumstances as most readers.

It’s definitely worth it to me to spend a few minutes changing Calibri or Century Gothic to TNR (or Courier to TNR). It removes a barrier between me and the work and makes me less likely to have a flash of annoyance when I open the file to read the manuscript.

I’m not the only editor who does this.

I change other stuff too. For instance, I take out all the hard breaks between chapters and parts of novels. For an electronic submission, they’re unnecessary, at least for me. Why does a chapter need to start 2/3 of the way down the page? It doesn’t. I want it to start close to the end of the previous chapter, so that I don’t have to scroll through a bunch of whitespace.

I un-justify the text.

I make mss. single space instead of double–but most editors don’t do that, so leave your mss. double-spaced!

So when I say format matters, what do I mean?


Seriously. I am not joking. No .pdfs, no e-pub files (since you don’t know what device the editor may be using to read the text). Just .doc (.docx works for me too) or .rtf.

If you send me a .pdf, I can’t make the font more readable. I can’t easily make the type big enough so that I can read it without my glasses on. I can’t squish the chapters together. I can make pages bigger, but since font, length of line, width of margin, and other factors are fixed, I wind up scrolling the page around a lot to read it.

Barriers. Between me and the work.

Don’t like ’em.

5) Don’t fancy up the manuscript.
Use text for chapter heads, not display type. Display type isn’t searchable; if I’m looking for the beginning of Chapter Four, I’m going to plug “Chapter Four” into the search box, and I won’t find it if it’s not text.

No ornaments or dingbats.

If your novel has internal illustrations of any kind–charts, equations, sketches, facsimiles of legal documents, whatever–I urge you to reconsider each and every one of them. Art is expensive. Putting art into books is expensive. How much does it really add to the story to see your hero’s coat of arms taking up a full page? Or a notary public’s seal? Enough to spend a couple of hundred dollars per illustration?

At the submission stage, you don’t have to spend time thinking about what your final book is going to look like. All you have to do is write a good book (yeah, yeah, easier said than done, I know).

Again, having art in the submission draft is not going to make it more likely that I will buy your project. What matters is the story and the characters.

6) Put the name of your project into the subject line of your email.
Not “submission.”
Not “query.”
Not “met you at Such-and-Such.”
Not “requested manuscript.”
Nothing like that.

The Title of the Book. You can add “met you at Such and Such” or “requested manuscript” if you want, but the title should come first, since subject lines may be truncated by email programs.

The title of the book and your name should also appear in the body of the email, so we can find it again later. (And on the first page of your manuscript. You’d be surprised at how often people leave that out and just start the story.)

Good luck out there!

Pitch Sessions 101, Part Three: Some thoughts on preparation.

The big truth is that there are as many ways to pitch as there are people. There’s no “one true path” here. That trick is to find what works for you.

The small truth is that thinking of the pitch as a conversation rather than a presentation is almost always going to get you the best results no matter how you prepare or what method you use.

There are all kinds of recommended ways to prepare.

One school recommends using index cards: one for each main character and three for your plot (one each for beginning, middle, and end). No more than four points per card, and just notes, not full sentences–phrases that will cue you and help you remember what you want to say.

Another recommends (as I mentioned in an earlier post) one double-spaced sheet of standard 8.5 x 11 paper for each minute of pitch, again broken down into sections for plot and for each main character.

There’s the “write it down in a notebook so that you always have it with you, in case you literally meet an editor in the elevator” school and the “memorize everything until you are word-perfect so that you can reel off the whole thing smoothly given the barest opening” school.

Here’s what I recommend as a start: Think of your book as if it were a book.

A finished, published book.

You’ve read and enjoyed this book and you want to recommend it to a friend. What would you tell that person about the book?

What’s the last book you recommended to someone? Why? Was it the story, the protagonist, the writing? Did you learn something when you read it? Did it speak to your emotions?

Okay, I can hear you thinking that it’s pretentious to claim that your book will teach someone about working in a textile mill (except wouldn’t that be a cool thing, if your research and writing made that world really come to life for a reader) or move them to tears or scare their pants off…. But if those things are some of your goals as a writer, it’s good to tell me that stuff. It helps me see you as a person and to understand some of your hopes beyond “publish my book” and “make money”.

In any case, what I’m driving at is that I want to be engaged by the pitch–just the way I’m engaged when someone I know tells me about a book they really enjoyed.

Sticking to a written or memorized script can make your presentation stiff. While it’s important to know your talking points, it’s equally important not to be glued to them. Be flexible–especially since I’m likely to be poking at you a little, as described in the previous post in this series (

Figure out what you most want to say and keep those things in mind, but don’t worry too much if, in the thick of pitching, some element gets skipped over or never comes up at all.

Remember that your goal is not to fill the entire time allotted for your pitch. For one thing, even if you have a 7 minute slot, those 7 minutes don’t necessarily start the minute you open your mouth. Sometimes there’s one timekeeper for the entire room and they may start the session before your butt is in your seat. Sometimes you will spend more time than you think getting settled (I’ll talk a little bit about this and other practical matters in part four). So by the time you’re ready to talk, your 7 minutes may already be 6.

You want to come in at 2 minutes less than your allotted time at the most. 2.5 minutes less is probably even better.

If you can, record yourself giving the pitch. I don’t know about you, but I hate hearing my own voice on a recording (though seeing/hearing myself on tv is okay, which is weird). But part of my job as an editor is to make brief audio-only recordings about some of my books for our sales reps to listen to. I have 1 minute or less to talk about each book!

When I first started doing this, I tried to listen to myself at least a couple of times a year.

It was enlightening.

Sometimes I sounded like I was reading (well, I was reading, but you know what I mean). So I practiced sounding like I was talking, trying to capture the natural highs and lows of my own speech pattern. I’d run the script out loud, half under my breath most of the time, trying to “hear” where the stresses naturally fell.

Sometimes I talk too fast, trying to cram as many words as possible into that minute. Even now, with years of experience behind me, before I start each recording, I take a good breath and think, “go slow.” I’ve told the sound engineer to stop me if I start to race. Getting a little faster when I’m excited is okay, but zipping along at 1,000 miles an hour for a full minute or more? Not good, and hard to listen to.

Listening to yourself may also enable you to identify and change phrases that don’t sound as good out loud as they do written down.

Once you have your basic points set, try pitching a few people. Try ones who have read your book as well as those who haven’t. Encourage them to ask questions during the pitch, to simulate the real experience. And keep an eye on time….

If you pitch someone who has already read your book, ask them if there’s something important you left out of your pitch. Their response may tell you what people are responding to in your novel…and it may not be what you expect.

If you pitch someone who hasn’t read your book, ask them what they think were the most and least interesting things you said. Ask them if they want to read the book based on your pitch alone.

Try not to pitch the same person more than once unless you radically change your pitch after you try them the first time.

Once you have your basic pitch settled, don’t practice it into the ground. Run it with a few people and then put it away. When you get to the event itself, you’re likely to meet other people who are also going to pitch. If you have a chance before you go to see the agents and editors, pitch each other–but only once each–as a warm-up.

I’ve got one more post planned for this series, so come back on Monday, June 8, for the last part of Pitch Sessions 101.

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Four:

Pitch Sessions 101 (Part One)

I’m doing this in sections because otherwise it will be a very long post.

It used to be that summers were the busiest time of year in terms of editors (and agents) going out into the world to meet authors. Nowadays, there are conferences, conventions, and other events all year round, so writers have many opportunities to try to get their work in front of a publishing professional.

One of the ways events put writers and editors (or agents) together is with pitch sessions. (In case you don’t know what a pitch session is, it’s when a writer signs up for a brief, one-on-one, face-to-face meeting, with an agent or editor.) Most of the time, pitch sessions take place in a large room, with editors and agents spread around enough that they don’t overhear each other (not because anyone is going to steal anything but because it’s distracting to agents/editors and writers).

I know that pitching can make a writer very nervous. I totally understand that! And it’s pointless for me to say, “don’t be nervous.” But, please, try to think of us as people. As readers. That’s what we are, at bottom: we are readers. We want to find good stuff to read.

Here’s the thing: you improve your odds of having someone ask for your manuscript if you know what you’re doing when it comes to pitching. Happily, it’s not too difficult to be prepared. Yes, it takes some time and some work–but if you want to be published by some kind of traditional publisher, this work is part of your job as a writer.

First: have a finished novel. No, seriously, that’s the first thing, before you do any research or start working on your pitch. Nine times out of ten, whoever you are talking to only wants to see things that are finished; if yours isn’t done (or damn near close to done, like you’re writing the last chapter or two), please don’t pitch.

Why is that important? Because when I come back from a pitch event, the majority of the things I’ve asked to see are going to hit my inbox within two weeks. You want to be in that group–you want to strike while the iron is hot, while I remember talking to you and remember something about your book. The submission email (as well as the act of loading the file onto my reader) reinforces the face-to-face interaction, increasing the chance that I’ll remember you when I read the manuscript itself, even if that’s weeks later. If you don’t send the manuscript until many months–or even a year–later, then it’s likely that I won’t remember what intrigued me when you pitched (I might not even remember meeting you).

(And yes, it’s happened that I’ve gotten mss. a year later, even mss. that were supposedly finished when the writer pitched to me. Sometimes the writer has had personal problems–and I totally cut someone slack for that because I’ve been there–but sometimes, the book wasn’t actually finished….)

Second: research. Know your targets: who is pitching at the event you’re attending and who, of those people, is looking for what you write? Don’t waste your time pitching to people who aren’t editing or representing what you’re pitching. Most of the time, information about attending editors and agents (and what they’re looking for) is available on the event’s website…and you can often find more about them online.

Please note that I’m talking about researching a person’s professional side. I once had the daylights scared out of me when someone sat down to pitch, told me they had researched me, commented on schools I’d attended, and tried to make chit-chat about my daughter (who was pretty young at the time)! No one likes to feel stalked…plus significant amounts of small talk means you have less time to talk about your book.

Points one and two make life easier for everyone. Writers pitching finished books makes editors and agents happy. Pitching only to the right editors and agents keeps us from wasting our time (and yours) and means that other writers have a chance to be seen (hey, they’re leaving room for you, too).

Third: If you have more than one finished book, decide which one you’re pitching. If you write in more than one genre, it’s fine to prepare a pitch for more than one book. But you likely won’t have enough time to fully pitch more than one book to each agent or editor, so you need to know which book you’re going to pitch to each person you speak to.

More than once I’ve had people come in with a list of book titles and ask me which book I’d like to hear about. Now, I literally can’t tell a thing about a project from its title, so this is not a terrific idea. Or they’ll say, “I have three finished novels in these subgenres, which are you interested in?” No matter what comes out of my mouth at that point (which hopefully is polite), what’s in my mind is, “Really? I wrote a #MSWL for this event and you didn’t look at it? Not cool.”

Fourth: Find out how much time you’ll have for your pitch. Pitch appointments can be as brief as 5 minutes or as long as 15, and you need to know what you’re dealing with before you get there. Usually this is on the event’s website when you sign up; if it’s not, you should ask. (Sometimes I don’t know how long appointments will be until I’m in the room and I definitely prefer to know ahead of time.)

Fifth: Start working on the pitch itself. Now, this is a bit tricky, because to an extent this depends on how much time you have to work with. If you have a short pitch session, like 5 or 7 minutes, I suggest that you plan to talk for 2 minutes less than your allotted time. If you have a longer appointment, or 10 minutes or more, I still suggest that you prepare a pitch that runs no longer than 8 minutes.

btw, one sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper, typed double-spaced, takes approximately 1 minute to read aloud. I’m not recommending that you read your pitch, but it can help you prep to know that if you want to talk for 4 minutes, you need 4 pages of material.

Part Two:

Part Three:

Part Four:

When is my book ready to submit?

When I talk to aspiring writers who have never published a novel, I often hear, “how do I know when my book is done?”

The true answer is that to an extent, a book is never “done.” Sometimes I look at a published book and think, “we should have done this one last thing to it.” Or a writer looks at a published book and thinks, “I could have written this scene better.”

But there is a point where a writer has done the work to the best of their ability, when there’s nothing left to do but pick nits. The manuscript is finished. What next?

The first thing I recommend is that you set the manuscript aside for at least a couple of months. If you can’t resist looking/picking at it, copy it to an external drive and delete it from your computer, to reduce temptation. Then, write something else, start researching something else, read something for pleasure, work on your social media engagement, research agents and publishers, whatever appeals to you. But leave the finished manuscript alone.

After the book has been out of sight for a while and you’ve focused your creative energy elsewhere, it’s time to go back and take a fresh look. Read the manuscript while trying to stay in the mindset of a reader, not a writer.

If you can’t get through the book without feeling like you have to fix something major, the manuscript isn’t ready. Go ahead and edit or rewrite. Then repeat the cooling-off period.

But if you can read through the whole book without having problems shriek at you, it’s done. It’s ready to submit.

I know that many unpublished writers feel that a book must be perfect before it’s submitted. That’s just not true. It has to be the best a writer can make it. Striving for perfection can hamstring a writer, can make a writer labor over a manuscript until it’s been worked to death and the original spark has vanished.

I know it can be scary to submit, and most of the time, submission leads to rejection. But if you really want to be published, at some point, you have to do it!