The Practical Guide to Submitting Your Material

Helen Corner, founder of the Cornerstones literary consultancy, gives some guidance on presenting material to literary agents.

As a writer, you have to be multi-talented: be original and creative when you’re writing, objective and cut-throat when you’re redrafting, and then informed and professional when you’re submitting. And throughout this process - which can take years - if you really can write, and you believe your work should be published, then you have to remain optimistic and not fall at the first hurdle. My job is to help authors through the redrafting and submitting stage; talent and inspiration cannot, as we know, be taught, but I strongly believe that a writer can be shown how to craft their skills and to approach the publishing arena in a confident way.

Once you’ve finished your novel, or perfected your non-fiction proposal, it’s tempting to throw it into the publishing ether to see if someone will recognise your talent and commission your work. However, agents and publishers are a business and if something isn’t working – perhaps your writing is unformed, or your submission is incomplete or naïve – then it is likely to be rejected. Agents and publishers often talk of metre high piles of unsolicited material – manuscripts (mss) sent in direct by authors - and their time is already filled with servicing their existing authors and taking on new clients, so your submission has to shine above the rest to be taken seriously. The key to this is preparation and perfection.

Part of my job at Cornerstones is to pass through first-time authors to agents, and each agent has different quirks and preferred ways of being approached. So, draw up a list of three to four agents and profile them so that you target them in a personalised way. Look at their website, see exactly how they like work to be submitted; ‘google’ them to see if they’ve written any articles or have been written about in the trade press. When you introduce yourself in your cover letter, you want the agent to notice you and take you seriously. How professional it would sound if you mentioned, for instance, that you read an interview on them in a writing magazine, and that you thought they might like to consider your crime novel/non-fiction idea because they were currently looking for this kind of story. (You’re already on the way to a professional submission just by reading these articles on Andrew Lownie’s website.)

You’re now ready to prepare your submission. You can either target one agent at a time – but be prepared for one month or so for a response, or you can target a couple at a time. If you do submit to more than one agent it’s important to say this in your letter (you don’t need to say who you’ve submitted to but you do need to be transparent with your approach) – an agent will find it irritating if they think it’s an exclusive submission and then find out that another agent has already shown interest. I would advise against sending out your submission to more than three agents, as it shows a lack of conviction both in your work and in the agent you’re targeting.

If you’re submitting a novel, you will need a one-page letter – with your contact details, including your phone number and email address. A paragraph introducing your novel, with word length, genre and one or two sentences on what it’s about. A paragraph biography on you, and most important, anything that adds weight to your writer profile. You should also attach a synopsis. This outlines, in a perfunctory way, the overall story arc, and your main characters and their emotional plot line. This is usually no more than one/two pages, single-spaced and written in the present tense. You should include your sample chapter(s) one to three, and don’t send in random chapters saying that the story kicks off in chapter 16! Ideally, you should have your completed novel to hand, if an agent requests to see the full material.

For non-fiction, usually all that is required is a proposal. You should have your cover letter introducing you, your idea and a market analysis of why your idea would appeal. You will also need a synopsis, and perhaps a contents list which will allow the agent to see the areas you intend to cover, and sample chapter(s). For non-fiction the most important thing is why you’re qualified to write it. You can either write as an authority on a subject - for instance, if you’ve written about a particular period in history you should have some form of academic or professional credential to back this up; or, you can write from personal experience – you might have grown up in Africa and wish to write about how apartheid affected you. Either approach will carry weight, and then it’s down to how well you can write.

The agent will probably glance at your cover letter and go straight to your writing, and their decision whether to take you on will be 99.9% down to the quality of your writing, and how engaging the idea of the story is. Every second that the agent remains with your writing counts, and you don’t want to give them any excuse to turn it down. The real key to a professional submission is to ensure that your writing is strong. Even if you’ve redrafted several times and you’re convinced you can’t do any more revision, have one last read – perhaps read it aloud – and get someone, whose opinion you trust, to read it as well.

There are various factors that you should consider. Are your characters well drawn with clear motivations and goals; is there a plot that will drive the story continually forward with a satisfying ending; have you written with the right ‘show not tell’ balance; are your scenes and pacing tight? And question if you need that adjective or imagery that you love so much. If you’re in any doubt, one way to test this is to cut it anyway, leave it for a day, come back and re-read it. If you don’t miss it, then that was a good cut.

When Lee Weatherly and I wrote our non-fiction book on writing and submitting, for Hodder, we managed to cut 30,000 words in just two days (we knew we’d overwritten and there’s nothing like a publishing deadline to inspire ruthless cutting!) When I re-read it, it was a much leaner read in that we’d lost the chatty tone and the micro-tangents (which were informative but not essential) and it ended up a far more focussed book.

Once you’re confident that everything reads smoothly including your cover letter and synopsis, print it all out and re-read it. Check your presentation: is it a standard type and font (Times Roman, 12 point); are your chapters numbered and double-spaced; does each chapter begin with the narrative left justified and each subsequent paragraph indented? Are all your contact details, and the agent’s, correct (have you called the agency to double-check the agent’s name and that you have the right address)? If you would like your material returned don’t forget the stamped addressed envelope, with stamps on it, and not the white sticker that the post office will try to give you, as this goes immediately out of date.

And finally… remember, that as a writer, your primary function is to be creative and original, so don’t lose sight of what you love to do, and persevere. I wish you all the best in your professional submission, and I hope to see your book on the shelves on day.

With a background in publishing, Helen is the founder of Cornerstones, and Kids' Corner - a leading literary consultancy. 'Rough diamonds' in the slush pile inspired her to set up Cornerstones, to give authors feedback on what works in their MS, what doesn't, and what they can do about it. She now heads a 60-strong team of readers, all professional authors or editors, who share her vision of helping writers. Cornerstones run workshops on how to write and submit, and online tutorials; they scout for agents and are known for launching new writers. Based on their workshops, Hodder commissioned Helen Corner and Lee Weatherly to write ‘Writing a Blockbuster’, due to be published in August, 2006.