Let’s assume for the moment that you have done everything I spoke about in yesterday’s post: found a sterling feedback-giver or two (and actually listened to them!), and you feel that your manuscript is good to go. Then, mirabile dictu, after an admirable query, you have been asked to send a few chapters (or even the whole book!) to your dream agent.
First, take few minutes to feel hugely, immensely, magnificently proud of yourself. It is no small achievement to have stood out in the crowd enough to be asked to send material, and don’t let your anxiety over the ultimate goals — in the short run, to get an agent; in the long run, to sell your book — convince you to under-celebrate the fact that you have reached a legitimate milestone. Dance and sing in the streets a little.
Then, get down to work. “It is time to smooth the hair,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “and get the dimples ready.” Read every page that you are sending OUT LOUD and IN HARD COPY, to weed out any lingering errors, then sit down and ask yourself some hard questions:
(1) Am I sending what the agent asked to see, no more, no less?
A surprisingly high number of aspiring authors blow their chances by failing the first test an agent sets them: demonstrating that they know how to follow directions. I know that it is tempting, when asked to send the first 50 pages, to round it up a little, to round out the chapter.
Don’t. Leave ‘em in mid-sentence – your goal here is to make them clamor to see more.
(2) Is my manuscript in standard format?
See my earlier posting on the rules of standard format, if you’re not sure. If it’s in a fancy typeface, change it to 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier immediately. Make sure that your margins are at least one inch on all sides, and double-check your slug line (the line in the header that reads AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE OF WORK/#).
Yes, these are purely cosmetic matters, and they have nothing to do with the actual quality of your writing. But if you do not use standard format, I assure you, your work will not be taken as seriously — basically, your writing will have to be twice as good to capture an agent’s attention. (The standard rejection-letter euphemism for this is “Consider taking some classes on marketing your work.”)
And think about it: would you show up for a job interview at a Fortune 500 company dressed in a clown suit? (Okay, I have to admit, if you actually would, I have a certain fondness for you already. However, you probably would not get the job.)
(3) Do I have a great opening line, or is my real killer buried a few pages in?
This may seem like an odd question, but it is my editorial experience that most good writers tend to put their zinger first lines somewhere on pages three to six. What comes before tends to be set-up or preamble.
Read your submission carefully to see if you have done this. Once you find your killer first line, reconsider what comes before it: could it go? Could the information it gives come more gradually?
(4) If I took away everything in my packet except for the first page of my submission, would the agent be desperate to learn what happens on the subsequent pages? What about if I took away everything but the first paragraph?
If the answer to both questions is not yes, you should probably perform a few revisions.
Writers know their own work so well that it sometimes becomes very hard to see it from a new reader’s perspective. Getting a reader to continue past the first few lines, and definitely past the first page, is an act of seduction, my friends. Those first few bits really have to count.
The best way to test for this is to hand the first page to someone who doesn’t know the plot of your book, have him read it, and then ask him to speculate on what comes next. If his guess is too dead-on, you might want to incorporate a bit more quirkiness into your opening.
If your reader looks puzzled and says, “I honestly have no idea where this is going,” take a good look at your opening. Does it actually fit your book?
(5) Would I buy this book, based upon these short excerpts?
This is a tough question for you to answer about your own work, but a necessary one. If your best writing is not in your first chapter or two, consider presenting the parts you deem best AS the first chapter. I know this sounds wacky, but you can always say later that you’ve rethought the running order of the book. Remember, both fiction and nonfiction often changes considerably after an agent takes it on – and often even more after an editor acquires the book. Your first pages as they currently stand will probably be revised at some point in the future.
And the sole purpose of your first chapter when you submit it to an agent is to get the agent to want to read more of your writing. Period. It needs to be your very best writing, even if the chapter in question will ultimately be in the middle of the book. If it sings, and you can legitimately present it as a first chapter, consider presenting it as such.
If this seems a bit draconian to you, try rearranging the chapter so that your favorite passage appears on page one. Don’t think of this page one as the opening to your long dreamt-of book. Instead, think of it as your very first opportunity to show this agent that you can write up a storm.
(6) Is there sufficient action in the first five pages, or is it mostly build-up? (Check this, even if you are writing nonfiction.) If I do not currently begin with action, could I?
It is also very common for first novels not to get going for awhile. In Britain, this is actually considered rather stylish: I keep reading acclaimed British novels where almost nothing happens for the first 50 pages! And as much as I enjoy them, I invariably shake my head and think, “This author would never be able to land an agent in the U.S.”
Remember how busy I said agents and their assistants were in my earlier postings about query letters? Guess what: they’ll still be extraordinarily busy when the time comes to read your chapters. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for agents to reserve a new author’s manuscript to read at home, in their spare time: I think the theory here is that if they like your style enough to keep reading when they could be doing something else, you must be really talented! It means, however, that your chapters may well be competing with the agent’s children, spouse, aikido class, rottweiler, favorite TV show, and many other claims upon her attention.
So keep it exciting. In a submission, even the most literary of literary novels has to keep moving.
(7) Does the material I am sending stand alone, or would I be happier if I could be standing over the agent’s shoulder, explaining?
This is no joke: it is a serious question. If your answer was the latter, read through again: if there is so much as a parenthetical aside that you feel will not be utterly clear from what is actually said on paper, go back and clarify it.
(8) Read every syllable of your submission out loud, preferably to another person. Does it make sense? Have you left out a word here or there? (A very common mistake that computer screens render difficult to catch.) Are there logical leaps?
Aha, you thought you could get away with ignoring this sterling piece of advice when I suggested it above, didn’t you? There is no excuse for not doing this, even if the agent asked you to send your materials right away. Don’t blow your big chance on a simple error or two.
Tinker accordingly. Once you are happy with your responses to all of these questions, send it out — and see if you don’t get better responses.
Oh, and for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to take a great big marker and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of your envelope, so your marvelous submission doesn’t get tossed into the unsolicited manuscript pile for a few months. It’s a good idea, too, to mention that these are requested materials in your HUGELY POLITE cover letter that you enclose with the manuscript: “Thank you for asking to see the first three chapters of my novel…”
Always, always include a SASE — a stamped, self-addressed envelope – with enough postage (stamps, not metered) for your manuscript’s safe return, and MENTION the SASE in your cover letter. This marks you as a polite writer who will be easy to work with and a joy to help. If you want to move your reputation up into the “peachy” range, include a business-size SASE as well, to render it a snap to ask you to see the rest of the manuscript. Make it as easy as possible for them to get ahold of you to tell you that they love your book.
One last thing, another golden oldie from my broken-record collection: do not overnight your manuscript, unless you have specifically been asked to do so; priority mail, or even regular mail, is fine. You may be the next John Grisham, but honey, it is unlikely that the agent’s office is holding its collective breath, doing nothing until it receives your manuscript. Hurrying on your end will not speed their reaction time.
And since turn-around times tend to be long (a safe bet is to double what the agent tells you; call or e-mail after that, for they may have genuinely lost your manuscript), do not stop sending out queries just because you have an agent looking at your chapters or your book proposal. If the agent turns you down (perish the thought!), you will be much, much happier if you have other options already in motion.
The only circumstance under which you should NOT continue querying is if the agent has asked for an exclusive – which, incidentally, you are under no obligation to grant. However, politeness generally dictates agreement. If you do agree to an exclusive (here comes another golden oldie), specify for how long. Three weeks is ample. Then, if the agent does not get back to you within the stated time, you will be well within your rights to keep searching while she tries to free enough time from her kids, her spouse, her Rottweiler, etc. to read your submission.
And the best of luck!
Before I sign off, I’d like to thank all of you who have been sending me such wonderful, supportive messages about my memoir’s stormy publication process, both through the Comments function and (for those of you who already knew me) by e-mail. I really do appreciate it.
The saga is going to go on hiatus for a little while, however, as I’ve been asked by my publisher not to talk about it directly. So, if, for instance, something exciting happened to occur, I would perhaps have to present it as a hypothetical, if there were in some alternate universe any development that might conceivably be of interest or help to you. But for now, ix-nay on the lawsuit-lay.
Keep up the good work!
— Anne Mini