Contents


Submissions

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Submissions

In this chapter we’ll look at:

Agents
Your query letter
First appearances count
Synopsis, Premise and Treatment
Tips for successful submissions

Agents

As a rule it’s better to have an agent than not. Having a reputable agent is a seal of approval — you’ll be taken more seriously if you have representation. Some production companies and publishers will consider material only if it comes via an agent.

You’ll find lists of US and UK literary agents in The Writer’s Handbook and the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. These contain contact details and outline the kinds of material different agencies deals with.

Some agents charge a reading fee for looking at your work, but there are plenty who don’t. Most established agents belong to one of the following bodies:

The Association of Authors’ Agents (http://www.agentsassoc.co.uk/index.php/) a UK body for literary agents.

The Association of Authors’ Representatives (http://aaronline.org/) representing agents in the USA.

Personal Managers’ Association (http://thepma.com/) a UK body for agents representing creatives in theatre, film and broadcast media.

In the USA many agents are members of the Writers Guild of America, West (http://www.wga.org/agency/agencylist.aspx) and East (http://www.wgaeast.org/index.php?id=59).

Read the guidelines

Many companies produce submissions guidelines telling you how you to submit material. If submissions guidelines exist (they’re often posted on the company website) follow them to the letter. Until recently most asked for postal submissions, but emailed submissions are increasingly acceptable. In either event you will first have to compose a query letter.

Your query letter

Put some effort into it. If you can’t write a decent letter what are the chances anything else you do will be worth reading. Print it on good quality white paper (assuming it’s a postal submission) and keep it to a single side. The body of your letter should comprise three paragraphs:

The first paragraph gives the title of your work and outlines the beginning of the story, ideally in one sentence. It should set the scene (location and, if it’s historical, the time period) and reveal the first plot-point — the problem that disrupts normality and sets the story going (see Basic story structure).

The second paragraph expands on the first, summarising your entire plot in 100 to 150 words. Think of it as the back cover blurb of a novel — the description that entices you to take it to the cashier (for more on story summaries see Getting started and Screenplays). Some guidelines request a synopsis (see below) alongside your query letter in which case a detailed summary won’t be necessary.

The third paragraph is about you. Keep it short and include only those details that will be of interest to the reader: writing experience, previous publications, awards etc.

Should I contact more than one person at a time?

Under ideal circumstances you would send a submission to one agent/producer/publisher at a time, wait for a reply, and if it’s negative, go onto the next. Unfortunately it can take months for a submission to be processed and getting it through a handful of companies might take a year. Most companies accept that you will be submitting to more than one at a time.

First appearances count
Some might argue that the look of your work is unimportant — what matters is the content. Content is vital, but before anyone reads a word of what you’ve written they’ll have made judgements about you based on your presentation. It’s like going on a first date — you wouldn’t turn up in a torn dressing gown and stained sweat-pants, so don’t send out a manuscript that’s badly formatted, covered in coffee stains and held together with bailing wire.

Producers, publishers, agents and script readers have desks piled high with documents sent in by hopefuls, and tomorrow’s post-bag will bring another deluge of envelopes to be sifted through. If a reader looks at your work and sees it’s messy and full of errors they’ll give it only a brief flick-through before going on to something else.

Synopsis, Premise and Treatment

Many agents and publishers ask for a synopsis of a novel before they’ll consider reading the full manuscript. This is a detailed account of your plot one or two pages long that should include:

Your title and a brief description of the setting.
A brief description of your most important characters.
The first plot-point. The problem your characters have to overcome.
Some of the setbacks and disasters that will afflict your main characters.
Any unusual deviations. If your story starts out on Earth but takes a quick detour to the Planet Zhaaarg you ought to say so.
The crucial scene that is the climax of your tale (usually the second plot-point).

For screenplays a brief overview of the plot is provided by a premise; a more detailed description is called a treatment. See Screenplays for descriptions of both.

Tips for successful submissions


Don’t send your letter to a job title

Address your query letter to a specific person. If you don’t know who, phone or email the organisation and find out the right person to send it to.

Adopt the right tone

Come across as confident and professional; avoid language that is apologetic or self-effacing (but don’t swing over into arrogance). Where you can, use language that mirrors the style of your submission. If it’s an action story, use short punchy sentences; for romance, go for a more lyrical style.

How long is it?

Give an indication of how long your work is. If it’s a novel, include a word count; if it’s a screenplay, a page count.

Use the right typeface

Use a serif typeface. These have serifs (little feet) on the bottom of the letters. Text printed in serif typefaces such as Times New Roman are easier to read because the serifs fool the eye into thinking there’s an invisible line under the text. The serif typeface Courier is the accepted standard for most scripts. Some submissions guidelines will specify a typeface. Unless you’re told otherwise keep the font size to 12pt.

Make sure you have something to send

Don’t write a query letter before you have finished work ready to send out. There’s no point interesting someone in a project if they have to wait months to see it. But don’t send in anything half-baked; submit only polished work that’s as good as you can make it.

Use plain white paper

If it’s a postal submission use only plain white paper. You might think coloured or textured paper is distinctive; others will find it distracting. And use only one side of the paper. It’s tempting to print on both sides to save postage, but the ink shows through the pages and makes the text harder to read.

Include a title page

Your title page should include your name and contact details, the title of the work and, if you’re submitting to an agent, a description (sitcom script, screenplay, novel…). Agents get sent all kinds of stuff and it might not always be immediately obvious what category your work falls under.

Make sure each page is numbered

Numbers should be in the top centre or top right-hand corner of the page.

Make sure your name and contact details are on every page

You’ve put this information on the title page, but these can get lost. Put your name and email address or phone number in the footer of each page. However, this advice does not apply to writing competitions. The rules of many competitions specifically tell you not to put your name on every page — this is to ensure that entries are judged anonymously. See Literary competitions, prizes and awards.

Make sure your style is consistent

There are various ways of writing information such as dates, numbers and titles: numbers can be written as figures or words; titles can be written fully (Doctor) or as abbreviations (Dr). Once you’ve chosen a style, stick to it.

Include a stamped self-addressed envelope

This often guarantees a reply, even if it’s a rejection. If you’re sending out a thick manuscript the cost of including return postage might be more than producing a new copy. If you don’t want a manuscript sent back say so and include a stamped self-addressed envelope for a letter. Some companies insist on return postage for manuscripts as they don’t want the responsibility of destroying unwanted work.

Make sure the pages of your submission are held together

Sounds obvious, but people have been known to send loose pages. Make sure your manuscript is stapled securely or, if it’s a thick document, hole-punched and secured with two or three brass brads (the use of brads is virtually obligatory for movie scripts).

Include a cast of characters where appropriate

For some scripts it’s helpful to include a character list. Having a handy head-count for a play will help a theatre producer assess how much a production is likely to cost, but never include a cast list when submitting a movie script (it’s just not done).

On the other hand…


Don’t write long rambling covering letters

No-one wants to read your life story nor the list of reasons why your mother/teacher/parole officer thinks you’re Steven Spielberg, John Grisham and Tolstoy rolled into one.

Don’t spend a fortune on fancy bindings

You could pay for a cover in Moroccan red leather with your name embossed in gold lettering, but no-one is going to be impressed — it’s not what a professional writer would do. The only bindings you should use are staples or metal fasteners (see above). If you have a thick manuscript you want to stop getting dog-eared you might include front and back covers of white card, but that’s it.

Don’t use a mixture of typefaces, underlining, bold type etc

Keep your layout simple, consistent and easy to read.

Don’t make demands for money

Not yet…

Don’t ring up the next day asking if anyone has read it

If it’s a busy office the chances are your work won’t be read for months. Be patient.

Don’t ask for a critique

You can’t expect anyone to write a long list of suggestions for improving your work — they simply won’t have the time. If you are given constructive criticism treat it as a bonus.

Who should I send it to?

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook has contact details for most UK and US publishers and includes information on their areas of specialisation.

Wikipedia has a huge amount of information on English-language publishers worldwide including links to their websites. Google ‘wikipedia publishers list’ (http://www.google.com/).

For more information on submitting screenplays, stage plays, short-stories and poems, see the relevant chapters.


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