Archive for category Writing

Outlining: AllMyNotes Organiser

One of my objectives is to show how you don’t need to spend a lot of money to use a decent outlining tool. There are some excellent tools out there that are either free or are available at minimal cost, such as the example below:

AllMyNotes Organiser

Windows Only: Free Version, Deluxe Edition ($34)

Website: http://www.vladonai.com

AllMyNotes Organiser

Organisation – 7/10

AllMyNotes is a two-panel organiser with navigation on the left and content on the right. Notes can be organised into folders with each folder holding many notes or folders which can then be viewed by highlighting them in the navigation panel. Notes are Rich text, so you can add formatting such as bold or underlining, generate ordered or bullet point lists.

Perspective – 6/10

Using AllMyNotes allows you to see the framework of the outline you are working on but only in hierarchical form. You can show an hide elements to drill down into detail and expand to get the full hierarchy but this is quite a manual process. On large outlines you would be restricted by the amount of screen estate that you can access.

Function – 8/10

You can easily add a table and there are buttons to insert the current date and time. overall the functions are flexible and full-featured. You can also add reminders to notes so that they generate a pop-up alarm (assuming the program is running in the background). Notes are saved in .ddb format, which could then be synced using Dropbox or similar, though there is a separate backup feature. The notebook files can be protected by a password and the files are encrypted.

Speed – 6/10

The application is fast and responsive and although the buttons are non-standard, it’s not hard to figure out what they do. The active button highlighting looks strange but you get used to it. One issue is the lack of keyboard short-cuts. You find yourself flipping between mouse and keyboard for simple tasks like adding a new note or folder. Also notes or folder are added as peers unless the folder is expanded which you can’t do if it’s a new empty folder. It’s niggles like this that let the product down.

Compatibility – 5/10

The product runs on Windows only and ran well under Windows 7 and 10. There is no version for Android, Mac, or other non-Windows. There are various options to change to look and feel to suit your mood. Content can easily be exported to an HTML, RTF or plain text file, though there are no options to remove metadata like the indent level or title.

Verve – 6/10

Overall AllMyNotes is quite fun to use. Its speed and versatility are attractive, though it needs some usability work to make it really useful.

Overall – 6.4/10

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Outlining: What?

In my previous article I talked about why you might want to use outlining as a technique. In this article I’m going to look at what outlining is.

Basic Outlining

At it’s simplest, outlining is the enhancement of content through spacial arrangement. That can involve the placing of elements in a list, a grid, a hierarchy, on a map, or in any other way which helps you to understand the relationships between elements. Take a simple example:

  • Red
  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Indigo
  • Violet

This is a list of colours. We could say that the order of the list references something about the wavelength of the light, or we could say it reflects the order of the rainbow. It remains, though, an ordered list. Now to add some detail:

  • Red
    • Blood
    • Rust, or is that brown?
  • Orange
    • A fruit
  • Yellow
    • Cowardice
      • Expression of; where does this come from
    • Jaundice
    • Ribbon
  • Green
    • Has ethical implications
  • Blue
    • Down, depressed, low
  • Indigo
    • Isn’t this just purple?
  • Violet
    • No this is purple – why two purples?

Now we have an outline which expresses some detail about these colours, and adds information in a structured way to imply that the detail is a property of the heading. We may want to re-order this list according to some other criterion, or add things in that we feel are important:

  •  Red
    • Blood
  • Purple
  • Brown
    • Rust
  •  Orange
    • A fruit
  • Yellow
    • Ribbon
    •  Cowardice
      • Expression of; where does this come from?
    • Jaundice
  • Green
    • Has ethical implications
    • Fingers
  • Blue
    • Down, depressed, low

We’ve done a number of important things from an outlining perspective. We’ve inserted Brown into the list before Orange and put Rust under that because we think that’s where it belongs. Note that we can insert anywhere, not just at the end. We’ve merged Indigo and Violet into Purple because we think they’re the same thing, and we’ve moved them nearer to Red where we think they fit. We’ve moved Ribbon up the list under Yellow, but still under Yellow, and we’ve added Fingers to Green.

Note we didn’t type Green fingers; it’s position under Green implies Green, the same as the Ribbon is still Yellow. If I moved the Ribbon under Red it would be a Red Ribbon unless I state Yellow Ribbon under Red, which I could do if it meant something.

This isn’t about getting a right or wrong answer; it doesn’t matter that Indigo and Violet are different colours because the difference in this context at this time is not significant to us. It may become significant later. It doesn’t matter that Brown is a composite colour: here and now it’s in the list.

This is the freedom of outlining. It allows you to get things down quickly and intuitively without necessarily challenging those thoughts at the time. You can consider this outline later, having done some more research, and you may at that point want to introduce Black. Is Black a colour? This isn’t a list of colours, it’s an outline of colour related thoughts, and therefore Black is a colour if we say it is. So is Pumpkin.

We can take a two step approach to this:

Step 1: Divergent Thinking

  • Adding elements as they occur
  • Ordered but not fixed in order
  • Adding levels of detail where they occur
  • Adding place-holders where it needs work
  • Mixing and merging concepts (eg: temperature, colour, and badgers)
  • Without challenge:
    • Speld howevr is quickest
    • In the order they occur or fit
    • Using the words that most easily decribe
    • Capturing the spirit and the message
    • Skipping mechanics or detail

Step 2: Convergent Thinking

  • Ordering elements into sequence (not necessarily time-based)
    • In the order they will be used or consumed
  • With only enough detail to enable you to recall
  • Crystalising or deleting place-holders
  • Merging and separating concepts and concerns, eg:
    • colour/temperature
    • badgers
  • Questioning the place, order and precedence of everything
  • Establishing flow, teasing out themes, highlighting holes and outstanding issues

Two steps implies that you do one then the other, but this may not be the case. You may iterate between divergent and convergent, adding in layers and then detailing them, only to add more later. You may start converging and then realise you have a whole new thread and start diverging from there. It’s organic and it’s meant to develop over time.

Step 3: The Power of Delete

I said it was a two stage process and it is, but it doesn’t always work. Don’t be afraid to delete everything and start again, I don’t mean save and close, I mean DELETE. Get rid of the whole thing. At worst you will lose a couple of hours work.

Start again, but not in the same place. Come at the whole thing from a new character, a new timeframe, a new perspective. If you’re brave enough to delete you will find that the pressure to keep what was good means that those ideas bubble up to the surface again in new guises. If you don’t delete you will find yourself constrained to the paths you’ve already taken. The delete key is your liberator.

Change the layout and look at it differently. If you had an ordered list before, put things in a circle and draw lines between them. Write things on sticky-notes and post them on a wall. Add symbols, or emoji, or highlighter, or stickers.

The importance you attach to things is dictated by their relevance and importance to you, at this time, in this context. It can be more or less useful, it can be clear or opaque, it can help or hinder, but it can’t be right or wrong.

Next time I’ll talk about how tools help and hinder.

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Outlining: Why?

As part of a new series I’m going to be looking at outlining as a technique for writers and I’m going to start by acknowledging the obvious – everyone is different. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another, so my objective here is not to tell you how to write or what to use, but to encourage you to develop a portfolio of tools and techniques that will help you to organise and direct your thoughts and be more productive.

This series is aimed at writers of long fiction (i.e. pieces over 20,000 words) but some or all of it may also be useful if you are writing non-fiction, or shorter pieces, or a dissertation or long-form essay. It’s up to the reader to pick out what is useful to them and incorporate it into their methods.

So why outline? Why not just write?

Perspective

There are a number of advantages to outlining a piece of work both before and after writing it. The first is perspective. It’s much easier to get an overview of a piece of work if you can look at it all at once. This is useful at the planning stage to allow you to experiment without commiting yourself to hours of work just to see whether an idea will bear fruit.

Overview

It’s also useful in editing when you can see scene-by-scene what is happening. It helps you identify sections where the plot may be flat, or unfocussed, or just plain confusing. By resolving these at a higher level it then enables you to dip into the text and resolve the issues one at a time and work through the text to resolve the issues while keeping the narrative flow intact. It can also provide you with an overview of character-arc, or themes, or key events. With the right software it can even help with timing.

Structure

One of the most common weaknesses, particularly for new writers, is a lack of structure. Without a framework the story tends to lack pace and direction and the writer can end up stuck – not because they can’t write, but because they have reached a place in the narrative where there is either no believable progression or resolution for the characters, or because they feel blocked. Outlining allows you to unwind to the point where the story can branch anew and find a more fruitful and promising direction. You can experiment in outline with different scenarios until you find something that works for the story, and for you as a writer.

Organisation

A major challenge of any work over 50,000 words is to organise what is being done. Outlining allows you to easily order and re-order scenes, move elements around, experiment with sequence, timing and the interplay between actors before investing time in writing the scenes. It also allows you to dip into key scenes and write them first, putting into place the crucial turning points in the plot and crystallising these so that the rest of the story can form around them, then using these as waypoints in the narrative for story development. It liberates the writer from the timeline.

Focus

By freeing the writer from the timeline and giving them the framework of the narrative, the outliner is able to drill into a scene and focus. It allows the writer to think about that scene in context and understand what is being delivered in terms of plot development, character evolution, escalation, tension, narrative twist, humour, horror, suspense or any other element. When the scene is written it can be edited both as a scene, and as an element of the whole

Speed

Even using outlining it is possible to spend weeks or months on a story and then find that for one reason or another it doesn’t work. Having an outline to go back to allows you to restructure rapidly. Instead of lamenting the lost time, you can use the experience to rapidly introduce new character perspectives, develop new plot threads, and find out what’s not working. Doing that with 100,000 words would take months in itself, but using an outline it’s possible to see what can be saved and what must be scrapped. It allows you to maintain momentum when you feel like you’re paddling upstream.

The most common argument against outlining is the proposition that somehow by outlining a story in advance it nullifies the sense of discovery that can be experienced through story development; that by pre-empting the story, you remove the opportunity for the characters to surprise you. This may be true for some writers. However, the first rule of outlining is that you don’t have to stick to your outline. It’s a framework and frameworks can change. If you discover a creative thread that looks promising you can follow it. You are not tied to your outline. Even if you throw it away and start again you’ve lost very little.

Some writers prefer to hammer out a first draft and then develop it in editing. One way of looking at that is to say that the first draft is the outline; it’s just longhand rather than note-form. Knowing the plot is only the first part of telling a story. Setting a scene, building expectation, developing characters, crafting dialogue; all of these and more besides are part of storytelling and must be addressed in your writing process. If you choose to do them in second or third draft then that’s your choice.

If you’re writing already then you’ve probably discovered that writing isn’t one skill, but many. The exercise of those skills is what makes it challenging, demanding and rewarding. Outlining is a skill like any other, it must be acquired and practiced before it can be mastered, but mastering it opens doors that might otherwise be closed.

As the series progresses I’ll be showing how that skill can be developed using a variant of software (and more prosaic) tools, so that you can add outlining to your skill-set.

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Archery for Fantasy Authors – Novice Archers

I haven’t posted for a while because in my other profession I have been hectically busy. How’s it going in there? Very well, thank you, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Anyway, I was particularly taken with Chuck Wendig’s take on Things You Should Know When Writing About Guns, and I wanted to do something similar for Archery.

Norman Archers from the Bayeaux Tapestry

Bows and arrows have been around since hunters decided to stop throwing sticks at the wildlife by hand, and maybe for that reason writers tend to think they are simple to make and use in a fantasy setting. After all, any self-respecting pseudo-medieval character would have known how to shoot a bow and arrow, right?

Wrong. A novice bowman has about as much of a chance of successfully making a bow and arrow that can be used as an effective weapon over more than ten yards as they have of making a red carpet out of fruit. And if you’re within ten yards of your enemy, a bow is the wrong weapon to reach for.

Let’s dispel some myths about novices:

  • Most novices can’t hit a 4-foot diameter target with an arrow from ten yards until they’ve been taught to shoot. I know, I help run beginners courses. Hitting a target at 30 yards is impossible. They are using the wrong muscles, they’re not aligned properly and they are more likely to injure themselves that anyone else (string-slap is when the string hits your bow arm on release like a high speed garotte. It leaves spectacular bruises)
  • Most novices can’t draw a bow of more that 20lbs in draw weight (the force needed to draw back the string). If they can draw it, they can’t hold it. In order to shoot an arrow more than 30 yards you have to be able to draw and shoot a bow of more than 20lbs, otherwise you’re aiming in mid-air above the target and you have no idea where the arrow is going.
  • Making a bow takes skill, time and knowledge. The right wood, taken from the right places, seasoned in the right way, crafted in expert hands, will make a good weapon. Most modern bows are laminated wood because it performs better. Most self-bows (bows made without lamination) are slow, and they warp because the mix of heartwood and sapwood expand and contract at different rates. Waterproof glue for lamination wasn’t invented until the late nineteenth century.
  • You can make a bow out of almost any springy material and it will work to some extent. An arrow, however, must be straight and must be made of a material that can take the extreme force imparted by the bow without splitting down the middle at the nock (where the string goes) or shattering on release, or coming apart in mid-air.
  • The fletches on the arrow must stay on and must be aligned with a constant offset angle so that the arrow will spin in the air. If they are feathers they should be from the same wing of the same bird so that they curve the same way.
  • Arrows all need to flex by the same amount – too flexible and they’ll break, too stiff and they won’t fly straight. Each set of arrows has to be matched to the bow, the archer, and the style of shooting. And each other. Different weights of arrows fly different distances with the same force, so they all have to weigh the same too.
  • The centre of gravity must be in the right place, just forward of the centre. Too far forward and they’ll stall, too far back and they won’t fly straight. And if you have any intention towards adjusting your aim between shots, they all need to be identical.
  • A bow-string must be capable of holding the full weight of the bow and then stopping the bow from flying apart when it is released. Even some modern materials cannot withstand a bow being released without an arrow to absorb some of the energy. A vine, creeper, or plant will pull apart. Hair is too prone to breaking. String-making is an art, even in the present day.
  • You don’t shoot a bow of more than 20lbs off your fingers. Its like holding a cheese-wire and lifting ten bags of sugar. It will slice into the joints of your fingers. You need a tab, or finger guard, thumb-ring or shooting glove – something between the bow-string and you.

So none of this is accidental. Bows, arrows, strings and the accessories necessary to shoot them require skilled craftsmanship. That’s why there were guilds of Bowyers and of Fletchers. You had to serve an apprenticeship and learn your trade. Sure, a makeshift bow could be cut from a hedgerow, but it will be lightweight and prone to splitting. That assumes that you have a string to string it with, of the right length and capable of withstanding the forces involved. Sinew works well after hours of boiling and shaving and careful preparation, and you have the tools to hand.

And then you have to make arrows.

Maybe it’s just easier to go back to throwing rocks at things?

 

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Standing at the Crossroads

Recently I wrote a piece for Bastard Books about standing at the crossroads of writing and the decisions I am making about what comes next. There is a brief extract below, but click the link for the full article:

With the completion of the fourth and final book in The Courts of the Feyre I find myself at a cross-roads. Up until now I’ve styled myself as an Urban Fantasy Author, because that’s what I’ve written and it makes it easier for readers who are likely to enjoy my work to find me. For most people, though, urban fantasy isn’t a genre, and the words urban and fantasy simply don’t mean anything together. I might as well say goldfish collider for all the sense it makes to them. (Now I have an image of two goldfish swimming around a giant toroidal tank in opposite directions until they collide and scales and fins fly off in spiral patterns. That’s what an imagination will do to you. Be warned.) Click here to go to the full article…

 

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Finishing the Series

The Eighth Court, the fourth and final book in the series, The Courts of the Feyre, is finished. It’s with my publisher, who may request some revisions or amendments, and after that it has to go through copy edit, and proof-reading, and all the other publication magic but, to me, it feels finished. I’m not going to spoil it for readers by sharing the plot, but I would like to reflect on the series, and what writing the last book was like.

It was hard. The last year hasn’t been the easiest of times for reasons to do with the health and well-being of the people closest to me. Fortunately everyone seems to be pulling through and things are generally on the up, which is a relief to us all. Setting myself apart from all that to write has been difficult, but even without the events of the year this book would have been hard.

The Eighth Court

The Eighth Court

I’ve been working full-time while I’ve been writing, which is great because it pays the bills. I have a job in IT that is engaging, complex and sometimes difficult, and one of the challenges has been the gear-change between working, where I’m thinking about networks, servers and infrastructure, and  writing, where I’m thinking about characters, plots, scenes and settings. Writing requires a different mind-set, and I confess that some evenings I wasn’t able to make the switch, which meant that either I got no writing done, or the next day I would sit down and delete everything from the previous day and start again. Although the book is just under 120,000 words, I estimate that I’ve written closer to 180,000 words. Some chapters have been written two or three times before I felt they were right.

I set out with some clear goals. I already knew how the series would end, or I thought I did, and I had to work towards that end in a way that made sense for the characters and the situation that had already been created. There were some questions that were created by the previous books in the series, and those questions needed answers. The series themes, of things hidden in plain sight, of events from long ago having impact in the present day, and of a hidden world beneath the one we know, needed to be continued and developed. The one big question – what has this all been about – needed an answer.

With this being the final book in the series, I didn’t want to bring in a lot of new characters or elements which hadn’t been seen before. There are already well over 50 characters in the books, some of whom are dead, or won’t be seen again, but I felt there was plenty to work with. There are a few minor characters that appear in this book but mostly they’re people we’ve already encountered earlier. The magic in the book is consistent with the magic that already exists. There are some surprises, but those are consistent with what we already know. The world of the Feyre has a lot of detail behind it which dictates how and why things are the way they are, and in this final book more of this will be revealed, but the world will remain largely mysterious. Be assured, there are rules and constraints and reasons, but they’re not in the book. Perhaps one day there will be a Courts of the Feyre bestiary, but not yet.

Most of all, I wanted this to be a satisfying end to the series, and that meant delivering on the promises set by the previous three books. Niall, Blackbird and Alex each have their own plot arc, and each of these arcs needed to reach a conclusion in this book. Each of them had been changed by the events in the series, and in the final book those changes needed to bear fruit – we should feel that they have reached a conclusion and a resolution. It turns out that writing the final book in a series is harder than writing any of the others. I think I said once that if I’d known how hard writing would be I would never have started – that applies even more to a series. I liken it to rolling a snowball – the more you roll it, the bigger it gets and the harder it is to roll, but roll it must.

And when I got to the end that I’d planned from the start, it didn’t work the way I thought it should. I was forced to step back, reconsider, and write a different ending. I like the new ending, but it was a total surprise. I had no idea it was going to end quite like that, but the new ending works so much better.

Before I sent the book to my editor, Lee, I went back to my goals and asked myself where exactly I had delivered on the objectives I’d set for myself. I found the pieces in the text and read them back to make sure I’d done what I set out to do. To me, it’s all there, and that’s why I can say that it feels finished. Of course, I’m not the final arbiter of that, and you the readers must judge that for yourself.

To me, though, The Courts of the Feyre feels complete, and I’ve told the story I set out to tell.

 

 

,

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Agent and Publisher Submissions

We have reached the final episode in my series, The Twelve Rules of Writing, with this post addressing the subject of submitting to agents and publishers.

To remind you of what Rule 12 is all about, here it is:~

12. When’s the best time to submit my work to an agent or publisher?

Straight away! Agents and publishers are notoriously slow in responding and generally spend their time having lunch or reading books that are already published.  By submitting your work before it’s finished you get ahead of the queue and don’t waste time waiting for a response.

Make sure you include critique from your Mum – no-one knows you better – and don’t worry about those pesky submission guidelines. They’re only there for the clueless and you don’t want to be one of those, do you?

All too often, writers finish a piece of work, do a run-through edit looking for spelling mistakes and grammar issues, and then get carried away by the excitement of reaching the end and send it off to an agent in the hope that it will be picked up and published. In 90% of cases this work is not ready for submission. If you do this and then read back through what you’ve sent, you will almost certainly find areas where you could have improved your submission. This is a wasted opportunity.

There is no single method that will bring you success with an agent or publisher, though great writing is a prerequisite, but there are plenty of things that you should and shouldn’t do. Bear in mind that submitting requires a different set of skills to writing, where you have already spent many hundreds of hours honing your skills. This is a new skill-set, and you will need to spend time developing these skills, practicing and improving, before you send in your submission.

The following may help you along the way:

Finish your work before submitting

A publisher or agent will want to see that you can not only start a story, but finish one as well. They are not interested in part-completed projects or work-in-progress. If it’s not finished, it’s not ready for submission. This applies to all fiction – non-fiction is different and can work from an outline or proposal. Finish your work before even considering submission.

Polish your work

A publisher or agent will look at a piece of work once. If you submit it before it is ready then you are having them look at work that is not your best, which is a wasted opportunity. Only re-submit the same work to the same agent or publisher if they have asked you to look at some issues and re-send. Resubmitting multiple versions of the same piece just emphasises that you were not ready the first time and makes you look premature and unprofessional.

Have your work objectively critiqued before submission

There will be mistakes in your work that you cannot see because they are your mistakes. We are blind to our own weaknesses. Get someone independent and objective (not a family member or best friend who may tell you what you want to hear) to review your work and give you critical feedback. When they offer you honest feedback that criticises your work, accept it graciously – they are doing you a huge favour. You do not need to pay for this – join a free critique group.

Take a break from your work

Having finished your work you are naturally impatient to see if it will be successful, but time is your friend. If you leave it alone for at least a couple of weeks you will return to it with an objective eye and will almost certainly be able to improve it.

Research agents and publishers

In the meantime you can research agents and publishers. They are not homogenous, they like different things and accept submissions based on different criteria. Be clear on where your work is positioned in market terms and then find agents that accept submissions based on that market. The best agents are the ones who already represent authors who write what you write – likewise publishers. If the agent’s listing or website says “No fantasy” and you’re a fantasy author then eliminate them from your list – no always means no, and you are wasting everyone’s time if you submit.

Check Predators and Editors

Once you have a lits of candidate agents and publishers, ordered by how suitable they are for your work and whether they are open for submissions, you will need to check that they are legitimate. Remember the simple rule – in publishing money flows to the author, not the other way. If there are expenses then these should be deducted from your income. If there are up-front charges, reading fees, assessment charges or deposits then this is a RED FLAG.

Predators and Editors is a website that tracks unscrupulous members of the publishing business. They also have a wealth of resources on submissions – read and digest before submitting. They are also seeking donations to defend against a court case at present, so please consider donating some money towards this. They are a fantastic resource for writers that deserve our support.

Spend time on your query letter and synopsis

If you spend three years writing a novel and then three hours writing a query letter and synopsis then you are doing yourself a disservice. An agent or publisher will read your query letter and synopsis not just for factual information but to get a feel for your writing style and your ability to communicate. It is a showcase for your skills and a sample of your abilities. It should be professional, courteous and clear. It should be short, but give all the information needed to take your query forward. In general it should:

  • Be addressed to the named agent you have selected, using the correct form of address
  • Include your contact details: name, email address, physical address and phone number
  • State the genre and word-count of your work
  • Give a brief one-page summary of the main plot, characters and setting
  • List any paid publishing credits relevant to this work
  • Mention if you are submitting to anyone else (no more than one or two others)

It also needs to include your unique voice and the things that makes your work so special that it will stand out from the rest of the slush-pile. Query letters are hard to write, so be prepared to go through many revisions and to work at getting it just right. You will also need to write a synopsis that summarises the main plot, explains what’s at stake, and tells the reader why they should care. You are distilling 100,000 words down into a page, so make every word count. Have both your query letter and synopsis critiqued objectively by someone independent.

Be Selective

Prioritise your list of agents and publishing according to how well they fit your work. Find a couple that are absolutely right for you and research them in more detail. Read their blog, website & Facebook page if they have one. Read books published by their clients, get to know what they like and don’t like but stop short of actual stalking. Agents and publishers show you what they like by publishing it – you owe it to yourself to find out what that is and see if they’re likely to buy what you’ve produced. If it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t. Put them on your reserve list and find someone else.

In your query you will mention whether you are submitting to anyone else. This is where submitting to a maximum of three agents or publishers wins because you show that (a) you have done your research and (b) that you think they are right for you. Don’t be tempted to lie about this or anything else. If this works out then you are starting a relationship of trust, which you wan to be based on honesty and integrity. Publishers and agents all talk to each other and you have a strong chance of being found out.

Follow Submission Guidelines

If this wasn’t in bold already, I would put it in bold. Follow the guidelines. Agents and publishers are trying to help you by telling you what they would like to see. If they say five pages then send five pages, if it says 1,000 words, then send 1,000 words. If they say no attachments then don’t, for heaven’s sake, send them an attachment. Thousands of authors get rejected every year because they don’t read and follow the guidelines – don’t be one of them.

Check everything three times

Once you have submitted your query and synopsis you cannot get it back. If you have done your research well, then these are very likely the best agents in the world for you, and you won’t want to mess up your one chance with them. Check, check and check again. Check grammar, spelling, format – re-read the guidelines and get someone else to check for you. Ensure you have the right email address, postal address, subject line and anything else.

Stop, go back and re-read your synopsis. Is your query letter perfect? Absolutely perfect? Does it meet the guidelines?

Then when you are absolutely sure, you can send it.

Wait by working

You are going to have to wait for a response. A busy agent or publisher (and most of them are very busy indeed) will prioritise for the existing clients and business first. They will have other work that has to be done and they will fit reading queries into their day where and when they can. They may be reading your query on an overnight flight at 4am, tired and restless, which is why it has to be electric. Yours may be the 60th query they read that day, which is why it has to stand out. In any case, you will have to wait.

Use the time to work on your next project. Don’t be tempted to revise your query letter or synopsis yet as it will just depress you. You will find the mistake you missed, or realise you have left something essential out, almost certainly. Let it go, it’s done. You need to wait as long as the guidelines say for a response before doing anything. If you haven’t heard by the response time, or after three months if there is no guideline, check the agent or publisher’s website and blog – they could be on holiday, sick, have had a bereavement or a host of other things which have prevented them from reading your query. Remember to check that you used the right email address.

If there’s no obvious reason for a delay you can send a polite reminder, stating what you sent and when, asking if they can confirm that your query was received, and requesting an estimate of when you might hear back. That’s all. Occasionally agents and publishers fall into a black hole. This is unfortunate but is often outside anyone’s control. All you can do is move on and try again somewhere else.

Be ready for the response

I worked out at one point that approximately one query in ten thousand, maybe fewer, gets a positive response, but this is not a lottery and not everyone’s chances are equal. If you have done your research, followed the guidelines, polished your work and written something wonderful, then your chances are significantly better than that. Nevertheless, it may be that your chosen agent’s list is full or that your favoured publisher doesn’t have room for you. It may also be that you’re not ready.

If you get: Not for us or No thanks – that means your query has been read and rejected. That may be because it doesn’t fit with the list (back to research) or because your writing isn’t good enough yet (back to writing). Whatever you do, don’t argue or respond – just chalk it up to experience and get better.

If you get comments, such as “I liked this but we don’t have any room on our list right now” or even better, “This would be better if….” then you are favoured. An agent or publisher has taken time to give you feedback and that doesn’t happen often, so you are doing something right. Take it as encouragement, take the comments to heart, and move on. Don’t re-submit unless you are asked to.

If you get: More Please – normally you will be asked for a partial, often the first 50 or 100 pages, as a sample of your work. If this happens then you have attracted interest and the agent or publisher wants to see whether you can develop a story. Spend time going over what you will send them in exactly the way you did with your query and synopsis – remember, you only get one shot at this.

If you get: Please send full MS – Either after a partial or straight away, this means strong interest in your work and at the very least you are probably going to get feedback from a publishing professional. You are going to have to wait again, as reading a full MS takes a lot of time, so when you send it ask them to confirm receipt and give you a date that you can check back with them. Celebrate, then get back to working on your new project in the knowledge that you’re getting somewhere that may or may not lead to a publishing deal.

These are the normal outcomes from a submission, but there may be others – a phone call, questions in an email – some may ask if you can give them exclusive time to read the submission, in which case you need to agree a reasonable time limit before you take your work elsewhere. Adopt a polite, sensible and professional approach and you should be fine.

 

If you have reached the stage that you are ready to submit to an agent or publisher, then you have reached a milestone. There are many people who never complete a full story, indeed many who want to write but never do. If you have done that then you have achieved something rare.

It is likely that you will receive at least some rejections. When you do, remember that it is your work that was rejected, not you, and that your work can get better. Polish, research, develop – hard work is what pays off. Take every rejection as a spur to learning and you will achieve your goal.

Completing any substantial piece of writing is a beginning, not an end, and only a road to further beginnings.

 

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