Additional Thoughts on Submitting Manuscripts

This post follows on from the video here. The post will make a bit more sense if you watch the video as well.

I am always adding the odd comment, but as you will tell from my video, my daughter was monitoring my wittering from behind the camera. She is very efficient (apart from when she kicks the tripod and stops our recording) and tries to keep me to a sensible time for each video (in other words, she tries – tries – to shut me up). However, there are always a few points I feel the need to expand upon. It’s a bit like my novels. I always like to have an Author’s Note because it’s there that I can throw all the useful and fascinating extra stuff I couldn’t put in the main story.

So these are the extra bits that didn’t fit into the time my daughter allowed me!

First, it is really important to bear in mind what an editor is. Think about your audience, in other words.

She (she will almost invariably be a “she”) is busy, harassed, anxious about her existing authors, worried about her job, and concerned that her boyfriend/husband/wife/alternative companion or lover is unwell, seeing someone else, or just plain the wrong one. She is basically an ordinary human being who has to take her knickers down to go to the toilet.

Roughly what an agent or editor will receive every day as a stack of paper to read. Every day!

Roughly what an agent or editor will receive every day to read. Every day!

She will love books. You don’t get into publishing without a fervent desire to be involved with books, and if you’re on the publishing side, you love all books. Some authors (not you, of course, Dear Reader) actually only want to be published because published authors are all so rich. Cue hollow laughter from the writing fraternity. However, the perception is that all authors earn the same as JK Rowling, and thus are rich as Croesus. They want to write one book (they aren’t greedy) that will allow them to earn a few million, and then they’ll vacate the market, leaving it open for someone else to mine their seam. Many aspiring writers of that type don’t even like books very much.

Editors are different. They don’t become editors assuming that they’ll be able to retire at age 28. They are in the industry because they love the feel of a new story. But they are still human beings. If she tripped and broke her favourite shoe that morning, or scraped and laddered her tights, she’ll be in a shitty mood when she gets to work. And that attitude will affect how she reads your work. She will search for any reason to reject your carefully prepared typescript. Of course she will! She is looking for the one glowing, golden genius effort. If she doesn’t find your efforts engaging, she’ll move on to the next one.

When I started out, all those years ago, (20 years ago, for goodness’ sake!), editors had more authority. They could, and did, take a punt on an occasional author. They would bring in writers with very low advances, and see if these guys could be moulded. I was one example, and my writing was massively, wonderfully developed by a brilliant young commissioning editor, Marion Donaldson. The authors brought in would be cushioned for some years until their writing became noticed (like Ian Rankin), or didn’t. In which case the poor devil was allowed to slide into obscurity.

Edit, edit, edit, and edit again. Get it right!

Edit, edit, edit, and edit again. Get it right!

That was good business practice. The cheap authors cost little, and could bring in a fortune in the future. Compare them with the occasional celeb or political author, who generally costs an absolute mint and never recoups the initial investment in advance payments. The publishers always used to make most of their money from the vast range of mid-list authors, the ones who cost not very much, but always sold reliably. The crime authors, the romance authors, the thriller authors. Sadly, publishers now look only for the blockbuster authors, not the mid-listers, which means that all authors have to generate much more money to justify their existence.

So, it is a hard business. The editor cannot take a simple, hopeful gamble on you or anyone else. She has to justify her own existence. That means standing in front of a commissioning meeting of her peers and her boss, many of whom may be glad to see her fall flat on her face in the meeting because politically it would help if her career were curtailed. She won’t want that to happen.

Second, then, is this hint. I spoke a bit about how to send your work in. Make sure it is as perfect as you can make it. Make each page gleam like polished silver; make every word count. If the word isn’t needed, take it out. Have an introductory letter of no more than three paragraphs. Then a synopsis or story summary that actually tells the story.

I once spoke to a senior editor who told me that a competition entry was rejected because the synopsis ended thus: “Like the story so far? Well, if you want to learn how it ends, you’ll need to buy the book!”

Now, it could be that the author didn’t actually know how to end the book, but I doubt that. No, I think he was treating this as a sales document: “if you want this, you have to buy”. The trouble is, that kind of approach doesn’t work. An editor is not going to take a punt on a book when the last chunk – how much? How could she guess? – is left effectively unfinished. It would be like a manufacturer paying thousands for a prototype car when there was no engine, on the off-chance that the writer would design it later.

If you’re serious about your writing, assume that the professionals in the business will be too. I mean it. They want a fully finished, well-polished piece of work, not a work in progress. Finish it and hone it before you even start to look for a publisher or agent.

Third, do remember that the book has to grab. It has to snare the imagination of the reader. Make it exciting, make it gripping. Make every single page end with a hook to take the reader on to the next page, make every chapter end with a cliff-hanger. I was reading a great book – only a novella – by a friend of mine, Vicky Delany, recently (there’s a link to my review here), and I was struck by how quickly she got down to brass tacks. The victim (who was blonde, but not beautiful and not well regarded by her peers, and so much more interesting) appeared on the first page as a corpse. That, I thought, is how to start a crime book.

Fourth, if you aren’t terribly good at grammar or punctuation, get someone who you know is good, and have them read it first. DO NOT post it until you’ve had it checked. Poor punctuation will get it rejected. I promise.

Finally: I once had a great lunch with four editors and agents, chatting about entries to a competition. All the editors and the agents admitted to their pet hates. The “feisty” female, in their view, is overused. They dislike intensely learning that the victim is, yawn, a gorgeous blonde; a stunning blonde; a vision with blonde hair … you get the picture. Bearing in mind that most editors (and agents) are women, it is probably best to try to avoid too many sexual stereotypes.

Especially in the first couple of pages.

Good luck and happy writing!

6 Responses to “Additional Thoughts on Submitting Manuscripts”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Once again Michael – sage words. :)


  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    More thoughts from a successful mid-list author…


  3. Old Trooper says:

    Enlightening and entertaining! Fix your collar and oil your chair before the next that I look forward too. BTW, I tried to sign in on You Tube and even changed my password so that I could “Like.” It, yet again, tells me that the option is not presently available and to try again later.


  4. clivemullis says:

    Your post just reinforces what I was told when I tried to go the traditional route with trad publishers. What you’ve said is virtually a verbatim quote from him. It was he who pointed me in the self-pub direction as a means to establish a market. The problem is, is it the publishers who dictate the market, or the market that dictates the publishers? Mid-listers like you (your quote, not mine) really dictate the market to my eyes, as that is to whom the bulk of the buying public go to. Irony there!


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