Prepping your submission

Hello, readers —

First and foremost: there’s still time to pre-register for the PNWA Writing Connections class I shall be teaching on Saturday, Prepping a Pitch with Panache. It’s free to PNWA members, and I think I can safely promise that attending with lower your heart rate during any subsequent pitches to agent by at least 10 beats per minute, and reduce your chances of fainting while pitching to virtually zero.

Now that I’ve gone through the basics of a submission synopsis, I’m going to spend a couple of days on the first 50 pages of your book. Why would I want to do a thing like that, you ask? Well, if an agent or editor likes your conference pitch (or elevator speech, of which more next week), generally speaking, she will ask you to send a synopsis of the pitched book, an author bio (if you haven’t already written yours, check out my posts for April 11 — 14), and either the first 50 pages or the first chapter or two of the book. So, by the same logic that dictated that it would make a great deal of sense to snap your synopsis together BEFORE you’re asked for it, wouldn’t it make sense to take a gander at your first 50 pp., to make sure they sell your writing talent well?

Here is an excellent test to see how your submission will play with the pros at an agency. Sit down with your first 50 pp., IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, or have a writing buddy whose judgment you trust do it for you. Select pages 6 through 50, and set them aside. Then pull out pages 2 through 5, and set them in a separate pile. You should now be holding the first page, and only the first page, in your hand.

Read it. If this were the ONLY page upon which someone were basing his opinion of your writing talent, how impressed would he be? What about if he were basing it solely upon the first five pages?

Truth of the trade: if an agency screener does not like your first page, he will generally not read the rest of your submission. And if he isn’t pretty taken with the book within the first five pages, there is virtually no chance that he will read on.

Picked your jaw up off the floor yet? When an agent or editor asks to see the first 50 pp., he is NOT committing to reading ALL of it. He is committing to reading as much of it as it takes until he is satisfied that he does not want to sign you. So your goal in the first 50 pages is not just to draw a reader into the story or argument, but also to survive a page-by-page reading where any significant mistake could knock your book out of the running.

Draconian, isn’t it? At minimum, it’s not very nice, but it IS an industry truism: you need to grab the reader on page 1, and if you haven’t wowed the reader by page 5, no one will read the rest. Yes, it’s stupid; yes, it’s not the way that the consumers who buy books in Barnes & Noble make their purchasing decisions, and yes, it’s REALLY annoying that novelists and writers of complex arguments are expected to compress 400 pages of subtlety to just a few demonstration paragraphs.

It is, however, the way things work.

If I ran the universe (and the last time I checked, I didn’t, or my publisher would not keep receiving gratuitous legal threats regarding my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK), it would not work this way. Agents and their screeners would read AT LEAST the first 50 pages before they accepted or rejected a book. And cows would wander the streets of Manhattan, providing free chocolate milk to all the poor children.

You are marketing your work in the real world, though, so make sure that your first page — nay, your first paragraph — shines with some of your most eye-catching prose. As a general rule, anything you can do to place your best writing within the first few pages of your submission, you should do. And if you can include some very memorable incident or imagery within the first few paragraphs of your chapter, so much the better. Agents’ impressions tend to be formed very fast, and if you can wow ’em before page 5, you absolutely should.

Actually, just as with work you submit to contest, the first page of your entry is far and away the most important part of your submission packet. Unless there is a strong reason to place your synopsis first, put it at the end of your entry, so your first page can jump out at the screener.

Make sure that something significant HAPPENS on page 1, too — consider starting with a scene in which your protagonist is active, rather than devoting the opening to set-up, as 99% of submitted novels do. Set-up can always come later in the chapter, and (hold onto your jaws now, as this may startle you) it may not be in your best interests to use the Chapter 1 you envision for the actual book as your submission, if it’s not the most action-packed of the book. If it is logically possible, why not move your strongest, best-written scenes to the beginning of your submission?

Authors do that all the time. There’s no law saying that you can’t move them back to their proper places after you sign the contract. It’s called revision, not false advertising. Trust me: after your book is published, neither your agent nor your editor going to come after you and say, “Hey, your book doesn’t start with the scene that began your submission! Bad form!”

Actually, many of the authors who use this trick ultimately decide NOT to move the scene back, on the theory that what grabbed the agent will grab the reader. And now you know why so many literary fiction books (and quite a few others) begin with scenes that pure chronology would dictate should fall much later in the book: the authors wanted to hook that most important of early readers, an agent.

How can you move your best scene up front? Try plopping it down before your current opening, as a prologue. I wouldn’t recommend moving more than one scene: the more you move, the more ‘splaining you will have to do in what follows. But one strong, emotionally-dense, action-packed scene to grab the reader in the first page or two can be very smart marketing indeed.

By contrast, let’s take a look at what you would have to do to pull off a radical change in your book’s running order. A clever novelist who feels her best writing occurs 75 pages into her novel might, for the purposes of submission, place her strongest scene first by starting her book on page 75 (presenting it as page 1, of course). The synopsis would have to be revised, naturally, to make it appear that this is indeed the usual running order of the book, and our heroine would have to edit carefully, to make sure that there is nothing in the skipped-over pages that is vital to understanding what happens in the chapters presented in the submission. The job of the synopsis, then, in the hands of this tricky writer, would be to cover up the fact that the submission starts in the middle of the book. It would be just our little secret.

To put it in a less clever way: you can pull off starting later in the book, if the writing justifies it, but it’s a heck of a lot more work than simply moving one compelling scene. You also will need to make absolutely sure that your synopsis is compelling and lucid enough that it still all makes sense as a story.

“But wait!” I hear some of you out there cry. “What happens when the agent falls in love with my submission, and asks to see the rest of the book? Won’t it be apparent that I’ve misrepresented the running order? Won’t I in fact be placed in the position of having to rewrite the whole book in order to justify the submitted running order?”

Good question — and an excellent argument for moving only a single scene up front. There’s really no need to panic if you find yourself in this situation. Bear in mind that everything in the publishing industry moves either at the speed of light or with glacial slowness. It may well be one to three months between the time you submit your first 50 and when you hear back from the agent or editor (a period in which, incidentally, you SHOULD be querying other agents you met at the conference; a request for pages does NOT automatically imply an exclusive peek at your work, unless the agent or editor has specifically asked that you not submit it to anyone else). That’s quite a lot of revision time, isn’t it?

Even if you hear back more quickly, agents and editors are very used to writers fussing with their work. It’s perfectly acceptable to take a few weeks to revise your work before responding to a request to see the rest of the book. It is also quite acceptable — and quite common — for writers to respond to a rest-of-the-book request by sending the entirety of the book in its original running order, accompanied by a cover letter saying that since they submitted the original 50, they’ve been playing with the running order a little, and this is the result. As long as you say in the cover letter that you are open to changing the running order in accordance with the agent or editor in question’s preferences, there is nothing wrong with going this route.

In other words: established writers rearrange their work all the time for marketing purposes. Agents and editors are used to it, and generally are kind enough to write it off as merely symptomatic of the artistic temperament. We’re sensitive, you see: one day, we prefer a certain running order, then a flock of birds flutters by, and we’re equally convinced that a different running order is absolutely demanded for the book. In a word, they think we’re kind of flaky, as a group, and this is one of the few instances in which our perceived flakiness works in our favor. Milk it.

Above all, though, make sure that YOU absolutely love the pages you are submitting. Your first page should warm your heart, too. Sending your best writing, after all, is simply giving an accurate picture of your talent.

Never submit pages with which you are less than happy to an agent or editor, merely in order to get them out the door quickly. Chances are very, very slim that your submission will be read the instant it arrives, anyway, and often not by the same person to whom you gave your pitch, so you don’t need to worry about getting it there before the agent forgets who you are. You can pretty much rely on the agent’s needing to be reminded. That’s what the cover letter you send with your submission is for, the one that begins: “Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of TITLE. I enjoyed our conversation at PNWA, and I hope that you will be intrigued by my work.”

More on submissions tomorrow. In the meantime, for those of you who have not yet made your conference meeting choices because you don’t really know who these agents and editors are and what they represent, check out my archived blogs of April 26 — May 17 for the agents and May 18 — 26 for the editors.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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