Tips on Submissions
Keep at it.
Do you need an agent? How do you make a good first impression? What should you send? A few questions answered.
In this article we’ll look at:
Do I need an agent?
Your query letter
First appearances count
Synopsis, Premise and Treatment
Tips for successful submissions
Do I need an agent?
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 a UK body for literary agents.
The Association of Authors’ Representatives representing agents in the USA.
Personal Managers’ Association a UK body for agents representing creatives in theatre, film and broadcast media.
Read the submission 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 many asked for postal submissions, but emailed submissions have become the norm. In either event before you do anything else you will first have to compose a query letter.
Composing your query letter
The best advice is to put some effort into this. 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 or email 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 Writing a screenplay). 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 relevant and of interest to the person reading your letter i.e. information on 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 a single agent/producer/publisher, wait for a reply, and if it’s negative, go onto the next. However, it can take months for a submission to be processed, considered and responded to (if ever) so getting a submission through a handful of companies might take a year. For this reason most organisations accept that you’ll be submitting to more than one person at a time.
Having said this, one thing to consider is whether you intend to get an agent or not. If you’re determined to get an agent approach them with your work first, before sending it anywhere else. If you do manage to get an agent they’ll want to submit it to publishers, producers etc. themselves. They won’t want to be seen selling a manuscript that’s already done the rounds.
Keep it neat - first appearances count
Some might argue that the look of your work is unimportant and that what matters is the content. The quality of your content is obviously 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 sweatpants, 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 it’s likely they’ll give it only a brief flick-through before going on to something else.
How do I write a Synopsis, Premise or Treatment?
Many agents and publishers ask for a Synopsis of a novel before they’ll consider reading the full manuscript. A Synopsis is a detailed account of your plot one or two pages long that should include the following:
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 Writing a screenplays for descriptions of both.
Tips for a successful submission
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. This helps shows you’re serious and are (hopefully) not simply spamming dozens companies with form letters.
Adopt the right tone
Come across as confident and professional. Avoid language that is apologetic or too 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, include 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 material ready 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 that’s 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, but others are likely to 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 usually 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. Aside from ensuring everything is in the right order many people judge a manuscript’s length by its page count.
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 with postal submissions
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 then 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 your pages are secured
This may sound obvious, but people have been known to send in bundles of 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 stage 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 the done thing).
On the other hand...
Don’t write long, rambling cover 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 money 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 simply not what a professional writer would do. The only bindings you should use are staples or metal fasteners like brads (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
Keep your layout simple, consistent and easy to read.
Don’t make demands for money
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 my work 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’.
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