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The Proposal

December 29th, 2009

No, not the Sandra Bullock movie. Today we’re talking about manuscript submissions.

When you are submitting your work to an agent/editor, the packet will usually include: a cover letter, the manuscript (or a portion), and a synopsis. If you submitting cold (submitting to a professional who did not specifically ask for the submission), then you should check with their web site or a recent copy of Writer’s Market. Either source should give you the details on what that particular person/company wants.

Rule #1: Follow the guidelines to the letter. Sending something they don’t want, or omitting something they do want, is the best way to make sure your proposal is never read. Deviate at your own risk.

The Cover Letter

This is the first thing your target audience will see. It’s like a written handshake, and like a good handshake it should be firm, confident, and brief.

Here are the basics:

Greet the reader. Dear so-and-so (always triple check the spelling of the agent/editor’s name as a touch of respect). I usually start with a reminder about the meeting which sparked this submission, if there was one. If this is a cold submission (a submission sent to someone who hasn’t clearly asked for it), then obviously you skip that portion. So, something like, ‘We met Write-A-Pazuzza last month. You asked me to send you a sample of my novel.’

Define your book. Tell them the name of the novel, word length, and a couple sentences about it. If you’re having trouble pinning down your 600-page magnus opus in less than fifty words, go read the backs of a few of your favorite books. They typically introduce the main character and his/her main conflict, and possibly a mention of the impossible odds stacked against him/her. The trick is to make it sound interesting.

List your previous publications. This is where you list your best-received books, the bestsellers and award winners. What? You haven’t published any books before? Don’t worry. Being a newbie isn’t a sin. List some of the short stories you’ve had published and where they appeared. Don’t mention how much (or how little) you were paid. Just title, publication, and perhaps the date if it was recent. If you have none of the above, then skip this section.

Say goodbye, Ray. A polite ‘thanks for considering me’ followed by your signature is just fine here. Unless you and the agent/editor are actual friends in real life, resist the temptation to get too friendly here. This is a business letter, so keep it professional. Which brings us to . . .

Rule #2: Don’t get too familiar. Like I said before, unless you and the reader are friends already, don’t get cute. They don’t know you (yet), so don’t give them any reason to believe you are a potential stalker/psycho. No little hearts in the margin. No scented perfume. No pretty stationary with unicorns and moonbeams. Just white paper, black ink, and the facts, ma’am.

The Manuscript

I want to assume that everyone knows the basics like font, size, margins, numbering, and so forth. In case you don’t, there are about a zillion books on the subject. Here’s the basics: times new roman or courier font, size 12, one-inch margins all around, no right-hand justification (this means don’t have your word processor line up the right side of the text to mimic book printing), pages number in the upper right corner or at the bottom. If it’s not too much trouble, I suggest that you add a header to the top of every page that includes the title and your last name separated by a slash (Strangers on Mars/Sprunk).

Now, depending on what the agent/editor wants, you’ll either be sending them the complete full manuscript, or a partial. The full manuscript is self-explanatory. You print out the entire book, including prologues and epilogues, and shove it into a box or a big envelope. Wrap a big rubber band around the whole thing if you’re worried about the pages moving around and getting crinkled.

A partial is just what it sounds like, a portion of the manuscript. A lot of agents/editors ask for the first three chapters. Some ask for a certain number of pages, like the first fifty or one hundred. Either way, follow the directions. When asked for a number of pages, though, try to end the last page at a natural break of some sort, and not in the middle of a sentence. And if page 51 has the perfect break (end of a chapter or scene, big cliffhanger), then they probably won’t mind if you stop there.

I’ve been asked before if you should send the prologue along, too. That’s up to you. Is it exciting and full of delicious tension? Is it vitally important to the story? If so, put it in. If not, then I have to ask why is it even in the manuscript?

Before you print out the manuscript or partial, take a little time for go over one of the most important parts of the submission, perhaps THE most important: the first five pages. Obviously, check to eliminate typos and grammar mistakes, but also read for content. Some professionals claim they can tell within the first couple pages if they’ll like a book (some will admit in private that it takes a lot less than that). So go over the beginning again. Does it have the right tone? It is clear? Does it leave you wanting more? Not every novel will (or should) start off with a murder in a famous museum in the opening scene, but you can still aim for something memorable.

The Synopsis

Here’s a little secret. I hate writing synopses. It feels like I’m trying to take everything that I put into a book, all the emotion and tension, all the angst and heartbreak, and squeeze it into a space that would fit on the back of a soup can. But just about every agent and editor wants one with the submission package, so we just have to suck it up. Hey, maybe you’ll love the experience. If so, dig in.

A synopsis is, in a nutshell, a summary of your novel. Professionals used to ask for longer synopses of ten or more pages. These days, most ask for three to five pages, or even less. Everyone is busy today. Editors don’t have time to read a novella-sized summary of a novel. They want the bare bones. They want to know if the author can put together a story from start to finish.

Beside length, synopses have other specific traits:

They are written single-spaced and in the present tense, no matter what tense your novel is in. So, instead of “Captain Bill broke free of the black hole’s gravity, and steered a course for Epsilon Five,” the synopsis would say, “Captain Bill breaks free of the black hole’s gravity, and steers a course for Epsilon Five.”

The important contents of a synopsis are setting, character, motivation, action, and results. Tell them what the characters are doing, where they’re doing it, why they’re doing it, and what happens next.

If there are specific things about your book which you feel separate it from similar stories, you can slip it in. Does your book deliberately cross genre (a vampire love story set in outer space)? Is your protagonist different from the typical hero? (She should be!) How about the villain?

After the first draft, go back and add some polish. I don’t know if a stellar synopsis ever sold a mediocre novel, but that’s no reason to look sloppy. Add a little pizzazz. Although it’s a summary, you can inject your unique voice into the text. But don’t go overboard. Just a dash is all you need.

Well, that’s about it. I hope this was helpful. The key to publishing, in my humble opinion, is perseverance. It’s not enough to write prolifically or even beautifully; you have to get your work out to where the right people can see it. Good luck!

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