Before you send out your draft, let’s take a moment to step inside the minds of professional agents and publishers. Imagine them on their Monday morning commute hoping that today maybe … maybe … they’ll find the Next Big Thing in the book world.
They know what they’re looking for and in a way they don’t. So, let’s look first at what they take for granted:
- Spelling, grammar and syntax
Agents and publishers have usually spent most of their years in the company of wonderful writing and have often studied English literature in one form or another. They tend to see competence with spelling, grammar and syntax as the first skill of anyone who wants to be published.
You can feel cross-eyed by the time you’ve checked your submission a dozen times, but another time might make all the difference. Spellcheck has its pits and traps, and sometimes a shady sense of humour.
Grammar and syntax are about the subtle business of putting your words in the right order and making sure, for example, that your sentences have a verb and subject that match. It’s our job to play with all this and make the language dance but we need to judge when and how much we can bend the rules, and above all we should be clear.
There are plenty of resources to help you, including a wonderful section in Stephen King’s On Writing. This is our Highway Code and to get anywhere on the publishing industry’s map, we need to know our stuff.
Haven’t there been classic writers who couldn’t spell their own names? Stand up, Mr Shakespeare? Who twisted the language like a rambling rose, especially in the voice of a first person narrator? Stand up for applause, Mark Twain and Huck Finn. Of-course there have but if you are a so-far unknown writer trying to break in, it’s wise to make it easy for yourself. Agents and publishers used to take time to correct and upgrade a writer’s text but they can’t afford it these days and since the proliferation of university courses, they are used to work that’s polished and honed.
If you write well but need help with these basics, please find a way to get it before your work goes out. Pay if you have to: it’ll pay off.
- Formatting and layout
In short, obey all submission guidelines first, last and always. You can find these on a publisher’s or agent’s website. There will be more about this in tomorrow’s post.
You have the power of conveying things well in words. A clear, simple, uncluttered style will be your friend. This is why professional journalists often transfer successfully to fiction; they are trained in cutting superfluous words like adjectives and adverbs and getting quickly to the point.
- A positive, life-enhancing vibe
I’m being controversial here. Aren’t writers entitled to write whatever they want? Isn’t negativity as much part of life as positivity? True, but I beg you to pity the poor agent or sifter who trudges through the unsolicited pile. Even if you’re describing life’s direst circle of hell, please manage to give a sense in your submission that, one way or another, your characters will learn that life is worth living. Not only is this kind to agents and publishers, optimism sells better. For those of you who disagree, stay true to your inner light. Here is my favourite cartoon – behind me as I type:
- Storytelling skills
Agents and publishers have hawk-like focus for who has good storytelling skills when they’re scanning a submission. They can tell within a paragraph or two.
Low patches in your writing energy can be an opportunity to freshen up your skills and get a new perspective on how your story might work best. Writing exercises and morning pages or journal are like scales and arpeggios for musicians – they keep you limber. Keep reading and learning, seeking out advice and help in as many places as you can. Keep editing and rewriting, cranking up the quality of your script.
And, as Elmore Leonard said, don’t bother to write the bits readers skip.
What’s ‘talent’ doing here? How can agents and publishers take talent for granted? Because if they get distracted from your script and forget to pick it up again, another dozen or more talented submissions are waiting for them that day. Because if talent is there without all these other elements, it won’t be able to shine.
- The secret ingredient
Agents and publishers make most of their money from their existing clients and backlists of deceased classic writers. It’s amazing in tough times that they bother with unknown writers at all, and many are choosy about when they open a submissions window. They know however that new writers are the life blood of the industry.
So, when they pick up a new, unsolicited typescript, what are they looking for?
- A strong, unusual voice in
- a cracking story
- of high importance featuring
- great, memorable characters and
- drama (plausible high stakes, conflict, plenty of dilemmas). And
- if possible, a powerful, enduring truth told in a new way.
These are what make agents and publishers lean forward, exhale with relief and turn more of your pages. They are what every post in this blog has been about and I put it here free to do what I can to help great new writers who don’t have the money or opportunity for a creative writing university degree.
I’ll leave you with Stephen King’s lessons on how to be a great writer. Turning off the television and picking up a book instead is in there, yes 🙂
More tomorrow. Happy writing!