By Trudy Doyle
A little while back I finished a novel. When I did, I summarily thrust my fist up in the air, gave myself a firm pat on the back, then went and made dinner. Hardly a momentous celebration, but at this stage of the game, I have accomplished it a few times, so being somewhat cynical and jaded, I’m well aware the work’s really just begun. But that’s me; a bona-fide killjoy. Still, if you’re a Completion Virgin, then by all means, don’t do as I do, do as I say–give yourself a rousing huzzah! and go celebrate in the best way you can. You’ve accomplished what many people only dream about–congrats! Go tie one on because let me tell you my little dahlings: the cold light of day will dawn soon enough. And now, you may ask, what does one do next? You go down my handy checklist, is what!
1. Set the sucker aside. My advice is for a week, at least. That gives you time to bask in the afterglow of your accomplishment, imbibe vast quantities of celebratory truffles, Tater Tots or Appletinis (or whatever ignites your endorphins–oh! and of course, sweeties! That too!), and give your brain a rest for the next stage. Which is…
2. Edit, revise, rewrite. You know when your book really gets finished? When you send back the galleys. What are galleys? Er…if you have to ask, then you have a ways to go. Until then, you go over your manuscript with a magnifying glass and an eagle eye, looking for plot holes, continuity slips, characters inconsistencies, etc. This is also a good time to send it off to a beta reader, a critique partner (highly recommended) or someone you trust to give it an honest, critical read, and not someone who’ll just say “It was great!” because they didn’t want to hurt your feelings. And here’s the caveat to that–If they do criticize it for Pete’s sake, DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY! If they’re worth their salt as a beta reader, they’re not criticizing you, they’re criticizing the work, and it’s better hearing it from them first than having it rejected by an editor or agent because of some very fixable flaw. So do the work now, as it’s a tough business, and you need to make your work as flawless as possible.
3. Then do it again. No kidding, just when you think you have it the best it could possibly be, give the sucker another read. Only then can you check for typos and grammatical errors and please–do NOT rely on the spell checker to catch your errors. You may have written that there were too apples on the table, and your idiot spellchecker saw it as correct, so you sent it to an agent that way. Believe me, I know agents who would reject you just for that. Spelling errors scream amateur, and above all, you want to be seen as a pro, published or not. Shut off the grammar checker, too. If you’re writing to be published and you need one, then you’re not much of a writer. Dis the grammar checker and get a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Sixty-five pages of pure grammar gold and all the English rules you’ll ever need. I have it in hardcover.
4. Make sure it’s Formatted correctly. Although some editors have their own styles, here’s the general rules: Double-spaced, Times New Roman or Courier 12pt font ONLY, paragraphs indented, no white spaces between paragraphs that aren’t scene breaks indicated by * * * * (watch this in Word 7, as it’s a default), new page for every new chapter, last name and title of the book as header on every page, THE END at the end. You might think it’s cute to do that dream sequence in Bookman Old Style, but editors and agents read all day long, and if they have to work at reading yours, trust me, they’ll pass. Don’t cut off your chances at the knees. You’ll have plenty of time later to be strikingly original when you’re at the top of the NYT list and they’re banging down the door for your grocery list.
5. Save! Save! Save! – In several places, and I mean this is all sincerity. I lost half a manuscript once several years ago because my computer crashed, and it took me over a hundred dollars and lots of angsting to get it back. Save on your hard drive, a flash drive, online. Sent it to a trusted friend. Print it out and put it in a metal filing cabinet. I have one flash drive I keep in my desk and another I keep in my purse. This is your toil and your genius; you can’t save it enough!
6. The Dreaded Synopsis and Blurb- Oh my aching neck – is there anything worse than writing a synopsis? Yes, a blurb, which is a one sentence encapsulation, boiling your 85,000 word work of art down to its very essence. I did one today in under fifteen minutes, so maybe they aren’t as hard as they seem. Maybe because they’re all foreplay, and you don’t have to go for the beginning, middle and bang-zoom! Used to be synopses were five to ten pages, but now I’m hearing the industry standard is getting closer to two. And that’s double-spaced, sweeties, with the same formatting rules applying. And don’t make it a teaser like the blurb–agents and editors will just toss it if you try to play cagey. Give the plot, characters and theme, and make sure it covers your work from beginning to end. Present tense, too, because it’s a happening thang, you see, and just the facts. They’re looking for content, not for coy. Save that for your fabulous prose.
7. More Dread – The Query Letter – There really is an art to writing these things, no kidding, and you do so need to get them right. Even before you begin your search for an editor or agent, create a good query shell as once you do, you can tailor it to each house or agency’s preferences. There’s much more information that you’ll need about crafting one than I can give you right now, so we’ll save that for another time.
8. Now do your research - What do you write? Romance, science fiction, mystery, commercial or literary fiction? Whatever the fiction (as it’s slightly different for non-fiction, and for that, I’m not quite the authority), you need to do your research so you’re targeting your work to the right house or agency. If you’re a genre writer – romance, sci-fi, mystery, etc. – there are some houses that still accept unagented fiction. It’s YOUR job to find out who they are. To do this, you might want to search the web for each publisher, pick up the latest copy of the Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market by Writer’s Digest, Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors or Literary Agents, or check out the Literary Marketplace Database at your local library (the definitive guide, a pricey subscription to get on your own, so use it at the library for free). But even those guide aren’t going to help if you don’t know what kind of fiction they buy. I always like to go to the local bookstore and browse the authors I feel my writing is most like, and then check the Acknowledgements page. See which editors and agents they thank, and that should send you in the right direction. As far as seeking out agents, Jeff Herman’s guide is great, and so is the definitive database on agents, Agent Query, agentquery.com. Also – don’t forget to schmooze! Go to writer’s conferences, attend writer’s clubs, join national organizations for your genre. At conferences, you’ll have the chance to attend editor/agent appointments and meet them in person. At writer’s clubs you’ll get to hobnob with published authors who might like you enough to recommend you to their agent or editor. Put yourself out there! Face-to-face is always the most effective.
9. Send it and forget it – Does the manuscript shine? Did all your research? Found the perfect editors and/or agents? Again EDITORS and AGENTS? And I do mean multiples, sweeties. Send them out in batches, and I do mean in handfuls. I don’t care if you found the UBER perfecto soulmate agent and/or editor. Find several. Multiples will cushion the blow for when those inevitable rejections come rolling in. Thank your lucky stars and talent if they ask for a partial or a full, but while you’re waiting, you need to spread yourself often and with quantity. I’d research at least twenty-five to start with, sending out at least five a week. And don’t forget to check their submission requirements. Not all editors or agents will take on-line submissions; there are still many who do only snail mail. And no one like attachments. Send them ONLY by invitation.
10. Now get back to writing – You’re only as good as your last book, and writers’ write, my dahlings. Do what you do best and get back to it. It’s all about the writing after all, and if you’re not doing it, there’s no need to pay attention to any of the above. Now get back to work!