June 05, 2019 4 min read
By Jessica De Bruyn, Professional Editor
The scariest time to be a writer is when you’re sending your work out into the world for the first time.
You have likely toiled for months or even years on this piece and now finally you’re ready to start that road to publishing. If you’re planning to go the traditional route, this means you’re going to have to put together a submission package for agents and publishers. This can be a nightmare all in itself.
You truly do only get one chance to make a first impression and you want to make it count. But, what are the gatekeepers of publishing really looking for anyway?
The truth is that every agent, editor and publishing house is going to be a little different. They each have their own unique lists and preferences and what they want in terms of new acquisitions is going to change over time.
But, the good news is that there are some things that you can do to make your submission stand out in a positive way. This will give it the best chance possible to find that right person to take it through to bookshelves.
When you’re writing a book, everyone’s first question is always the same: “What is it about?” Some people are great at summarizing their story into a couple of sentences but it is more difficult for others.
Your query letter should include an exciting and intriguing logline that makes the reader want to continue on. It should pull them in and leave them wanting more.
How do you do that? First, try to pin down what the essence of your story really is. Are you writing a plot-based adventure story that is all about trying to achieve one goal?
Is your book more about the development of your main character? Or, are you working around a theme or message conveyed through the storytelling?
Understanding your story’s reason d’être will help you to get that perfect short description.
Agents and publishing houses have to consider two different things when looking at a manuscript – the artistry and the business. They are unlikely to buy something that they don’t know how to sell.
If you want to make a solid case for why your book is a great choice, help them along by highlighting your ideal reader. Does your book appeal to fans of an existing work? Is it a non-fiction that is written for a specific audience?
Showing that you understand the business side will also help to sell your as a great partner within this enterprise. It shows that you’re not only a great creator but are also willing to do the research and work to help your book sell.
Many writers want to let their writing speak for itself and don’t want to put themselves in the spotlight when it comes to queries. But, keep in mind that you are the one that will be working with this agent or editor for years to come.
Agreeing to partner with you is about more than just selling your work. It means hours of emails, phone calls and meetings. They want to know what sort of person they would be working with. So, find ways of (briefly) showing that you are the right choice for the job.
While there are some agents and editors who will forgo reading your synopsis and go straight for your opening pages, there are some who still like to get a picture of where your story is going.
Keep in mind that readers are looking for a little more than just a list of the events of your book. They want a sense of how the story flows and how you weave a variety of different story elements together.
Don’t feel that you have to tell the whole story in 1-2 pages. Focus on the main story and elements that affect its progression. It is more important for your synopsis to be easy to follow than to try to tell every single plot point.
Many experts will tell you that you should spend more time on the opening pages of your book than on any other section. This is your one chance to grip readers and create a world that they can’t easily pull themselves away from.
Take the time to workshop these pages and have them critiqued (either by your peers or by a professional editor – preferably both) before you send them away to be evaluated by agents and publishers. Work on them until they are as perfect as you can make them.
Make sure readers get as full a picture as possible of what is to come in these opening pages. They should get a sense of key genre characteristics, style, theme, character and where the plot might be going by around page 20.
To create the most compelling story, start at the last possible second. Readers are looking to be immersed. How are you doing that from page one?
Keep in mind that hardly anyone publishes a book entirely on their own (and far fewer do it successfully!) If thinking about the business side of bookselling or condensing your story into a few paragraphs is not your strong suit, get some help!
Don’t let your weaknesses overshadow your strengths and the piece that you have worked so hard to create. Do everything you can to make sure that first impression is a positive and lasting one.
Jessica De Bruyn is our in-house editor here at So You Want to Write? In her Submission Package Critique, Jessica will review in detail the first 10,000 words of your manuscript, your query letter, and synopsis from the perspective of an agent or acquiring editor.
You'll end up with an improved book, a great query letter, and find a literary agent faster. Check out her services here.
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