Terrible Advice for Aspiring Authors

You’ve written a book. Woo! Now you want to get it to an agent, or a publisher, since you have your heart set on traditional publication. So you flick through the Writers and Artists Yearbook or what-have-you, and what do you see? ‘No unsolicited submissions. No unagented submissions. Not accepting new clients at this time.’

And you go through all the steps that people tell you – make it the best book you possibly can, research agents and publishers, follow the submission guidelines slavishly – and still nobody will even look at it, and now you’re getting desperate and frustrated and angry, too, because God damn it, you know your book’s at least as good as a lot of other published stuff. And surely there’s a way to bypass what seems like a set of arbitrary barricades…

At this point, some people turn to more extreme methods. As a commissioning editor, I have experienced all of the following. None of them have worked.

Fake an agent

Publishers want agents: fine, give them one. How hard is it to pretend to be an agent anyway? Mock up some letterhead, write a covering letter and away you go, agented submission!

Why it doesn’t work: Editors rely on agents to pick out good MSS from the pile. If I get approached by agents I haven’t heard of (and generally, editors have heard of agents in their field), I won’t assume they’re reputable: I’ll check them out. At best, the faker might persuade me he has a shonky one-man band agent, which is probably worse than no agent. Much more likely, I will know he’s lied to me. And I don’t much want to sign up a liar for a financial relationship.

(It may not feel like lying if you’re desperate to be published. It feels like lying if you’re wondering whether to invest several thousand pounds of your company’s money, many hours of your time, and your professional reputation in this person.)

Pretend the MS was requested

Dear KJ, Thanks for requesting my full MS THE UNLIGHTABLE BEINGNESS OF BEARS. I attach the full. To refresh your memory, you requested this 160,000 word novel set in a bear sanctuary…

Why it doesn’t work: I may struggle to remember my children’s names but, like most editors, I have a memory like a steel trap for MSS. I know damn well I didn’t request this. It goes into the recycling, while I stalk off to make an angry cup of tea.

Ask to be requested

For a thankfully brief period, my voicemail was full of messages that went, ‘Since you don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, please will you call me back and ask me to send mine in?’

Why it doesn’t work: Even though my company doesn’t accept unsolicited MSS, I still find about five a week on my desk. I always look at them, albeit mostly only at the first page. I have followed some of them up. I have even bought a few. I am happy to give five seconds of my time to an unsolicited MS, just in case. But I am not going to make a phone call and specifically ask for one out of the blue. The odds are too good that the goods will be odd.

Get noticed!

Things people have included with MSS: glitter, confetti, sweeties, links to Jacquie Lawson ecards, topless photos, those pompom things with feet and googly eyeballs, perfumed paper (bonus points if it’s red), hand-drawn mocked-up cover art, CDs that I’m meant to insert into my work computer (yeah, right).

Why it doesn’t work: There is good noticing, like ‘Wow, what a great MS!’ and there is bad noticing, like, ‘Hey, that man has just got his penis out on the bus.’ The above suggestions are classified under bad noticing.  The only positive thing to say about opening an envelope full of glitter is, ‘Well, at least it isn’t anthrax spores,’ and even that sounds pretty damn Pollyanna-ish. Don’t even talk to me about topless photos.

Don’t give up on your MS! Follow up! More!

In my last job I received a MS, which I rejected nicely, saying that it didn’t fit my list. The author sent it back to me six months later in case anything had changed. I rejected it again. A year later, he sent it in again, asking if it fit my list now. It did not. I then moved jobs to another publisher. The author got hold of my new email address, and, on the grounds that we have a working relationship, sent me the same MS for a fourth time.

Why it doesn’t work: There’s a fine line between ‘persistent’ and ‘stalker’.  Plus, it gives the impression that you only have one story in you, and that is a story that I don’t want to buy.

You may still hear of people who got their MS read and then bought by one of the above methods. All I can say is, you don’t hear about the thousands of people whose MS was binned by an editor who is annoyed, bewildered, slightly alarmed, or swearing like a sailor while covered in glitter.

The First-Book Feeling (a view from both sides)

I’ve been a commissioning editor for fifteen years or so, and in that time I’ve taken on a lot of new authors, mostly out of the slush pile. That means I’ve made ‘The Call’ (the offer to publish someone’s first book) many times, and I can say with certainty that it’s far and away the best bit of the job. After all, to make someone else that happy normally takes a lot of money, several hours in the kitchen, or a level of sexual favours I’m just not prepared to offer authors. (Maybe the really good ones.)

The Call

Me: Hi, it’s KJ Charles from Publishers, I think you did a great job on the revisions, so I’d like to offer you a contract to publish the book.

Author, calmly: I see. Excuse me a moment.

[places phone on table]

Author [in distance]: AAAAAAIIIEIEIEIEIEIEEIEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAH!!! OH MY GOD!!!!!

[picks up phone]

Author, calmly: Right, yes, that’s great, thanks.

I once made The Call in person. I had an opportunity to meet the author, so what the hell, I thought I’d tell her face to face that I’d like to publish her book. It’s one of my lifetime favourite memories. I have never seen an adult cry so much, so hard, for so long. People were clustering around us asking if she’d just been bereaved. It was brilliant.

I even have a record of how I felt when I got the email offering to publish The Magpie Lord, because I was straight on to my online book group. Bearing in mind that I’m a highly experienced editor, have a degree in English Literature and am attempting to build a career as a writer, how did I make this announcement?

F*** me, I’m going to be published!

Master of her craft, right there.

So yeah, it’s great when someone offers to publish your book…

And then you wait.

And then there’s edits. Some complete git telling you to change stuff! In your book! Ack!

And then you wait.

And then there’s the terrifying prospect of the cover. Which if you’re lucky (like me) is a thing of beauty, and if you’re not is the subjImageect of this conversation.

And then you wait.

And you join Goodreads as an author, and get yourself an Amazon author page, and blog, and guest blog, and tweet, and join groups, and do all those things that everyone says you have to do, and in between those things, you wait more.

And you check Twitter maybe 400 times a day in case someone’s reviewed it, and it’s not clear which is worse, getting a bad review or not being reviewed at all, but either way you kind of feel like throwing up.

Also, more waiting.

And then publication day dawns, and with it the following realisations:

  • The rest of the world is basically indifferent to this life-exploding development. Just because people can now buy it does not mean they will.
  • I cannot prevent my boss or my friends or my mother from reading it. I hope you guys like sex and weird magic horror. Let’s not do a book group.
  • My book is published. Today is the birthday-and-Christmas I’ve been waiting for all my life. Tomorrow will be… Wednesday.
  • If I want this dizzy, heady, ‘oh sweet lord I’m going to be published’ feeling again, I’m going to have to write another book. Another one!

But all of that is for tomorrow. Today, I’m going to enjoy having my first book published. And, also, drink.

The Magpie Lord is out from Samhain. KJ Charles is in the pub.

Writing the Synopsis: giving the editor what she wants

I hate writing synopses. I feel embarrassed looking at my plot and characters reduced to a few paragraphs. The whole thing looks stupid and childish. Why would anyone read this dumb crap anyway?

Moreover, I have never met an author who likes writing synopses. Virtually every one I get is prefaced with ‘I’m rubbish at writing these’, and usually the author is correct.

And yet, we all have to write them, so suck it up.

But KJ, why do I have to?

Because you need to convey to your editor if it’s worth her while reading your submission. That includes telling her how the story develops, right to the end. Synopses that end: ‘But can Boris persuade Florence of the truth?’ or ‘…Will they survive?’ or, most loathsome of all, ‘If you want to know the answer, you’ll have to read the book!’ are a waste of the editor’s time.

But doesn’t that spoil the book for her?

No. It may well be relevant to her decision whether to read the damn thing at all. If your novel ends with the hero going back to his wife, leaving the heroine devastated, it may be a very good book, but it won’t work for Harlequin Romance. If it ends with a cliffhanger, and we need to read Book 2 to find out if the hero survives, and if the editor is not empowered/inclined to commit to two books, there’s no point her looking at book 1. Ditto if your book depends on the entire middle section being conveyed through the medium of an embedded interpretative dance video. The editor would like to know this sort of thing before she embarks on reading it, and she won’t thank you for the surprise.

Alright! Fine! I’ll write a full synopsis. So how do I do this, then?

There’s no one size fits all, but here are some guidelines that work for me, and (the things I do for you) some examples from the synopsis for my first book.

The Set-Up

Summarize the necessary information at the start of your synopsis, to make your plot clearer and to ensure that, if the editor doesn’t like that kind of thing, she can hand it to someone who might.  If there’s a complex setting, eg a fantasy world, kick off with that before you get into the story. Do not try to weave in the information in the same order as it appears in the book, or to include all the main characters and every plot development. This is a synopsis, not a very heavily edited MS.

My synopsis for The Magpie Lord began:

A fantasy / M/M romance set in a late Victorian England where magic exists.

It gets you started nicely to say who the book is about:

Lucien Vaudrey, the younger son of the seventh Earl Crane, was exiled to China by his father aged 17. He built a new life as a smuggler and trader with the aid of his manservant/valet/henchman Merrick. Now the suicides of his father and his elder brother have made Lucien the new Lord Crane, and he is forced to return to England and to Piper, his decaying family home.

Why has he had to come back to England? It doesn’t matter from a synopsis point of view (it’s not directly relevant to the main thrust of the plot), so I’m not saying, but I’ve included ‘forced’ so it’s clear he’s in a difficult situation. His family is relevant to the main plot development, and Piper is where the action happens, so they need to be in here. Merrick is a major supporting character, but in fact I should have left him out – he’s vital to the book, but not to the synopsis. Wasted words.

Tip: If you’re not completely sure if your details are relevant, stick them in and then, if they don’t recur in the completed synopsis, take them out again.

Now the basic set up that introduces the other hero:

As the story opens, Crane is suffering attacks of what seems to be suicidal mania. He seeks magical assistance. Stephen Day arrives to help.

And who is he when he’s at home?

Stephen’s family were destroyed by Crane’s father and brother. He loathes the Vaudrey family. But he is a justiciar, enforcing the law of the magical community, and duty demands that he help Crane now.

This paragraph jams in all the backstory we need about a major source of conflict in the central relationship, and tells us about Stephen’s (relevant) job too. It’s an info dump but that’s fine: that’s what a synopsis is.

At this point I went into the plot (which I won’t copy here – if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book! Oooh, that felt good.) But it was a lot easier to summarise the plot once I didn’t have to keep breaking off to explain stuff, plus I’d ensured the editor knew from the first lines whether it was something she might want to read.

The Main Plot

Conveying the set-up is generally more important than giving the plot itself. Once you’ve established your main characters, situation and their problems, you almost certainly don’t need to do more than say ‘and then stuff happens.’

A lengthy chase around Europe’s art capitals ensues, as Uncharacterised Man and Token Woman seek the clues they need, hampered at every turn by an offensive albino and a poorly concealed villain.

Only really massive plot twists need to be included, not a blow-by-blow account.

Tip: If it’s a ‘romance with other’ (ie romantic fantasy, romantic suspense) don’t forget to indicate the progress of the relationship along with the progress of the other plot. It’s easy to summarise why the hero is fleeing the mafia and what steps the heroine takes to protect him, but if you’re writing a romance, your editor needs an idea of the conflict between the main characters, how their relationship goes up and down, and how issues are resolved. (If there is no conflict or up-and-down in your central relationship, you’ve done something wrong.)

 

So, to synopsise: Introduce your setting, introduce your characters, show us your central conflicts and plot drivers, and don’t forget the ending. Lengthwise, follow guidelines, but if there aren’t any: one side of A4, single spaced.  And don’t worry if it makes you cringe. We’re all in the same boat there.

Go on, tell me how you write them…

Getting to the Editor: follow the guidelines

‘Hi, I have a manuscript I’d like to send you but I see you don’t accept unsolicited submissions. Please call me back to ask me to send it to you.’ – Actual message on my actual voicemail.

It is really hard to get your MS read by a publisher.

That’s just how it is. Everyone is writing a book. Literally, everyone on this planet, all seven billion of us, with the single exception of an author I contracted three years ago and who still hasn’t bloody delivered, is writing a novel. Getting yours in front of an editor is hard.

There’s no magic bullet. But:

1) Find an agent or a publisher who might be interested in it.

Do your research. Look at the publishers of books similar to your MS. Check they accept unsolicited submissions. Use their website, or the Writers and Artists Yearbook or similar.

Sending your MS to people who don’t publish that genre is a waste of everybody’s time, particularly yours. It is, of course, possible that an editor at Harlequin will look at your poetry collection/history of the Hundred Years War/cookery book and say, ‘This is so amazing, we must find a way to publish it – let’s set up a completely new imprint!’ But it’s only possible in the sense that it’s possible somewhere in the universe there is a planet made entirely of snot: the principles of infinity dictate that it must happen, but I’m not expecting to see it in my lifetime. If the guidelines say, ‘We only publish short books (up to 20,000 words)’, I’m unlikely to change my mind for your 1.5 million word Suitable Boy fanfiction. If the agent says ‘no fantasy’ she means ‘no fantasy’ and if your fantasy is so brilliant that any agent would snap it up despite her seething hatred of all things elvish, still send it to agents who want to see fantasy.

2) Check the submission instructions and follow them.

Just do it, alright? If you can write a 50,000 word MS, you can read six lines of instructions. Or, to put it another way, if you can’t follow six lines of instructions, I’m going to query whether you can take editorial guidance.

If the ed asks for double spacing, then double space*. If it says ‘attachments in .rtf format, then find out how to save as RTF format**. If it says ‘first three chapters only’ then don’t send all of it***, or chapters 4-7****.

* My eyes hurt.

** I’m guessing they work on a crappy old Mac.

*** I suppose this makes no difference with electronic subs but it’s annoying as hell with paper. I have enough paper in my life.

**** …because you might as well say ‘Chapters 1-3 are awful.’

3) Don’t ‘make your MS stand out’ by doing damn fool things like putting glitter in an envelope, printing your work on deep red paper, enclosing topless glamour shots of yourself or pretending to be a rabbit complete with rabbit author photo and letter pp’d for Mr Flopsy.

None of this will be new to anyone interested in getting published. But if I had a pound for every lovingly crafted, sweated-over MS that I drop in the reject pile because it’s just not for my list, or it’s arrived in WordStar and I can’t open it, I’d be able to afford sorely-needed therapy. You may think the guidelines are picky or trivial or pointless; you may have heard from someone on the internet that editors put them there to weed out the people who don’t have the imagination and tenacity to ignore them (this…just…no); you may believe that only the writing matters and your story’s quality will shine through no matter how it is presented.

All I’m saying is, I’m a commissioning editor, and I made it my business to follow the submission guidelines exactly.