Friday, May 06, 2005

The Next Step: Submitting Sample Chapters by Nephele Tempest

So, you’ve made it through the first hurdle – the query stage. Deidre has seen something in your initial contact that caught her attention, and she’s asked you to go ahead and send a synopsis and the first three chapters of your book. Congratulations! As Deidre explained in an earlier post, she works her way through quite a few e-mails each week, but only requests follow up from a few of them. So far, so good.

Which leads to the next big question: How do you make it to the next round – a request for the complete manuscript?

The truth is, if you’ve written a strong novel with clear, engaging prose, a well-crafted plot, and interesting characters, your work should stand for itself. Those first three chapters should lure us in, and the synopsis convince us we want to read more, if only to find out how you get to the end. But sometimes that is easier said than done. Everyone wants to believe they’ve written the most interesting, most original book ever to grace a page (or computer screen), but the odds are that your manuscript is a step or two below the Great American (Canadian, Greek, Swahili…fill in the nationality of your choice) Novel stage. And that’s fine. But the point is, the first thing you do to make us want to read your complete manuscript is to write the very best book you are capable of writing. It sounds like an obvious piece of advice, but sometimes the obvious tips are still the best.

Assuming you’ve done that, what are we looking for in a submission? There are definitely a few details you should keep in mind. Again, some may seem overly simple, but I would not mention them if I did not have daily proof in my inbox that people tend not to pay attention to the simple things.

1.) Please read carefully, and send what we’ve requested. If we’ve asked for a synopsis and the first three chapters of your book, that is what we would like to see. Not four chapters. Not your favorite chapters. If chapters one through three have not made me want to read more, chapter four is not going to help you in the least. And if the manuscript doesn’t get good until chapter four, then you have a problem calls for some revision before your manuscript is ready to submit to an agent.

While it’s true that we can stop reading after the third chapter, regardless of how many are sent, the fact is that when I see more material than I’ve requested, I find myself wondering if the author bothered to read my e-mail, can’t follow simple instructions, or simply thinks they know better – in short, if they have the potential to be a “difficult” client. Not really the sort of things you want running through my head while I’m reading your submission. And while I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, I’m only human and it’s difficult sometimes to repress a first impression.

2.) Proofread all aspects of your submission for missing words, wrong word choices that spell check won’t notice (such as typing “on” instead of “of”), and other typos.

3.) Mention any helpful facts about the story or your background that are pertinent, even if you noted them in the original query. Just because I’m reading the submission, does not mean I saw your query, so it’s great if you add a reminder just in case. For example, if your book is set in the Napa Valley and you’ve studied wine making or spent summers picking grapes at a vineyard during college – put a line about that in your e-mail. You should also indicate if you’ve won or placed in a major contest, or if someone (an editor, author, another agent) referred you to us.

4.) Do feel free to follow up if you have not heard anything in six-to-eight weeks. E-mail is not a perfect means of communication, anymore than the postal system is, and sometimes things get lost. If you have not received a response, just drop a short note with your name and the title of your project, and the approximate date that you submitted your material. We’ll track it down if we have it, or else request that you resubmit if it’s gone astray.

Beyond that, there’s really very little you can do beyond being patient. I try to get through all submissions within six weeks. Right now I’ve partials dating back about four weeks. Sometimes things will sit a week or so after I’ve read them if I’m on the fence about asking for a complete, but I generally respond as soon as I’ve finished looking at a submission.

Things to keep in mind

A rejection does not mean we never want to hear from you again. Writers have lots of ideas, and hopefully continue working on their craft over the course of their careers. Just because we’ve turned down a specific manuscript, or indicated your writing isn’t quite polished enough for publication, does not mean you shouldn’t try again at a later date with your next project. And tell us when you do; we admire hard work and persistence.

A writer/agent relationship is a partnership. We’re here to help you build your career. That can be a very intimate situation. Therefore, when I read over your submission, I am not simply reading for story or writing ability. I want clients I believe I can work well with over the long haul, people with whom I’ll enjoy corresponding and chatting about writing and books and the publishing industry and…whatever. I’m looking for a good fit in personalities, not just someone who can write a decent book. And you, as a writer, should want the same thing from your agent.

If I tell you that you’ve written a great book and your writing is beautiful, but it just didn’t click for me—that’s exactly what I mean. There are thousands of wonderful writers and books out there, but an agent can only represent so many of them. Once all of your talent and craft is brought into play, that last elusive piece of the puzzle is always a matter of personal taste.


Anonymous Cindy Procter-King said...

Very helpful post, Nephele. However, what if a published writer submits a copy of her published book along with a requested full manuscript, even though a copy wasn't specifically requested? I was under the impression that submitting a sample of previously published work was "normal" procedure when seeking representation. And I definitely know Canada Post won't let me dig in the mailbox and re-open my envelope, which is probably crossing the border by now, anyway. They're very territorial about that sort of thing.


Friday, May 6, 2005 at 4:23:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Nephele said...

Full manuscript submissions are a different thing entirely, Cindy. I'm really just addressing partials in this post. When we reach the stage of asking for a complete, we're looking for different things including an ability to follow through on an idea and deliver a solid ending to a novel. In this case, sending a previously published novel is great because it helps illustrate the author's previous track record.

Friday, May 6, 2005 at 4:27:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Cindy Procter-King said...

Thanks, Nephele.


Friday, May 6, 2005 at 8:07:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Male Whore said...

What if a manuscript does not use conventional methods to split text into chapters? Say the length of the chapters differ widely. And say the first few chapters are only a couple of pages each. And this isn't done to look literary-it is more legitimate that such an effort, even is possibly misguided...Thanks.

Saturday, May 7, 2005 at 1:27:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Deidre Knight said...

Not sure the answer to that one, MW. Use your best judgment, I suppose. D

Sunday, May 8, 2005 at 11:12:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Nephele said...

MW-- Of course there will be occasions when a manuscript is unconvential in its structure. I think in that case you just have to use good judgment. After all, you've read enough books that do have chapters to take a guess as to what to send. Probably about 30-40 pages is a good chunk.

Monday, May 9, 2005 at 11:59:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Male Whore said...

Thanks, Nephele.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005 at 11:17:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Brenda said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Monday, May 16, 2005 at 7:00:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Brenda said...

Dear Lord, I think I messed up then.

The first three chapters were requested. My return email included the prologue as well as chapters one, two, and three. Should I have counted the prologue as one chapter and included only chapters one and two?

Early apologies, if needed.

Monday, May 16, 2005 at 7:01:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Kristen Painter said...

I'm interested to know if you consider a prologue a "chapter" or not also.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005 at 11:45:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Deidre Knight said...

We do consider the prologue a chapter since it's the opening chapter of your work. :) But it's not a big crisis if you've sent us the prologue and three more chapters. No worries. D

Tuesday, May 17, 2005 at 4:28:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Brenda said...

*Whew* Thanx.


Wednesday, May 18, 2005 at 3:56:00 AM EDT  

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