Submissions Update – Scores on the Doors

I’ve been submitting Singled Out to literary agents for the last few weeks. I promised I would share my experience.

2014-04-24 16.32.37There are, as far as I can tell from the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK), around 60-70 UK-based literary agencies where one or more agents handle books like mine – that is, quality general fiction/women’s fiction.   I’ve been taking things steadily on the basis that if I learn anything from any one submission or agent or from the various seminars I’m attending, which might help improve my chances, I don’t want to have burned all the bridges. Also, it seems unprofessional to me to fire off my work to dozens of random agents at once, so I restrict my open submissions to 4 or 5 at any one time.

I began with the agents my mentor recommended I contact. I had dared to hope for success with this short list of personal contacts, but it was not to be. I’ve since moved on to a few more agents where I can cite some kind of a relevant connection. I’m using the Yearbook directory and agency websites to learn more about individual agents, what they want to know and who they represent, so I can make my submissions as relevant as possible. Many agents specify what sort of stories they like to see, what characteristics a book might need to posses in order to catch their interest, and so on. Most list the authors they represent.

Each submission is slightly different; it’s a painstaking process, definitely not a factory assembly line thing. The query letter or email is personalised of course. I always say why I’ve picked the agent in question and mention if there’s a personal or professional connection. If they already look after any psychological suspense writers, I make reference. The jury’s out on whether one should compare ones work to that of established authors. All I can say is that sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I say a little about Singled Out, point to one or two relevant career details, writing courses I’ve attended and so on. And, in a couple of lines, I highlight some reasons why this book at this time could be marketable.

I enclose sample chapters of course. Most request a sample of 10,000 words or 3 chapters or 50 pages and this generally equates to much the same thing. But some are more specific, insisting on a strict limit. I presume one does well to follow instructions, so I do, as far as possible.

Then there’s the synopsis, and I continue to find this aspect of submissions the most troublesome (as I’ve blogged about before here and again here). Even now, every time I read through my synopsis, I find things I want to change; things I’ve skimmed over or omitted which should be included; sentences which groan under the weight of spurious adverbs and adjectives. I now have a long version, a medium-sized version and a short version, and I tamper with them as little as possible because apart from anything else, it tends to turn me just a bit paranoid. After a while synopsis editing becomes a bit like Whack-A-Mole; you hit one problem on the head, but another one pops up elsewhere, and it never ends, never. So, as far as synopses are concerned at least, I’ve stepped away from the keyboard.

So, how’s it gone so far, Julie? Go on, tell us. Okay… here are the numbers: I’ve made just 12 submissions so far. This morning, I received my 7th rejection. That means there are 5 open submissions.

A couple of these have been open since January, but I have good reasons for not chasing either of them. They’re probably closed/rejected, but… but… As I said, I have reasons for keeping the flames alive. And then there are 3 more, submitted in the last 6 or 7 weeks.

All rejections so far have been courteous and not at all discouraging. I know it’s a numbers game. I understand the degree to which a debut novel must stand out, to make it into the literary universe. What surprises me is that I’ve had a few personal rather than standard format notes. Bizarrely, that’s been an encouraging thing and I’ve been touched that busy agents have taken the time to do more than press the ‘send reject email’ button.

When a rejection comes in, you have no idea what aspect of your submission has failed to connect – and of course, you can’t refer back, it’s simply not done. You won’t know if an agent (or an agent’s assistant) is getting bogged down in your synopsis, or bored by your first few pages, or worse still, has not managed to make it past your query letter.  Of course if you’ve written it in green ink on fluorescent paper you can stop wondering. But most of us – I presume – manage to keep the lid on that sort of self-expression.

This morning’s rejection was particularly interesting. The agent remarked that my writing has ‘a lot of energy and verve’ – I liked that. They then suggested the decision not to move forward with Singled Out had more to do with their lack of courage, or their faint-heartedness (the exact word was pusillanimity – I am embarrassed to admit I had to look it up), than the quality of the work itself. And it left me wondering, what is it about my book that requires courage to promote? I wondered if it was the subject matter, which is undeniably gritty. Or perhaps an agent requires a degree of courage to go forward with any debut novel. I will likely never know. But this is, to date, my most thought-provoking rejection email.

I’d like to think I won’t see too many more of these. But is that me being over-optimistic again? I do understand the numbers, I do. So I’m greeting those rejections with equanimity. I’m in this for the long-haul, if need be.

18 thoughts on “Submissions Update – Scores on the Doors

  1. Sorry to hear. Keep your chin up though! It’s very interesting to read your experiences and thoughts as you go through this journey! I’m quite a few steps behind you, and this info will definitely be helpful for me. Thank you and good luck!

    1. It’s all good… As I said, I know how this all works and I’m not at all discouraged. I might see things differently when I get to submission No. 60, but right now I’m still feeling pretty resilient. Good luck with your own writing – just keep doing it!

  2. I think you have a great attitude to the submissions process, which maximises your chances of success. Being professional and dispassionate, as well as having the stamina to hang on in there are vital. There grains of feedback are encouraging, even if they have not yet yielded anything you could use to tweak your novel. By taking the time to write something personal, perhaps the agent is saying you are a near miss?

    1. Thank you! I’d certainly like to think I’m a ‘near miss’ rather than being wide of the mark. Better still, one day, a bullseye… 🙂

  3. Hang on in there! Personalised rejections are a good thing – not as good as a yes, but still good. Your work has stirred them enough, out of the 1000’s of manuscripts they receive each year, to write a personalised message. Most submissions don’t get that. Keep going and I’m sure you’ll get picked up soon.

    1. Wow. Would you like a job as my official cheerleader? You’d do wonders for my dented confidence! 🙂 🙂 🙂

      (That was supposed to be ‘wow’… ‘wow’… not ‘woe’… I blame iPad predictive text for that one)

        1. Sorry, it was a combination of subdued lighting, iPad’s not always helpful autocorrect feature, and an absence of reading glasses (lately no longer optional to the task of making sense of text of any kind). I like that we have found some kind of mutual appreciation/encouragement/cheerleading thing. I’ve always found ‘writing buddies’ to be such a positive aspect of what can otherwise be a somewhat solitary pursuit. Both face-to-face and in-the-ether, it’s good to get – and give – a little writerly support. Which reminds me… It’s time I got Novel Number Two (aka NNT) on the road. How’s yours going?

          1. 16000 words to go until the end of the first draft but the words aren’t flowing as well as I would like. Still, it was exactly the same for me with book 1 but at least this time I know the real writing starts with the first edit.

          2. That’s progress! You’ve really applied yourself – despite all that blogging about procrastination. I salute you, Dylan! It’s good to know what to expect, with a second book, isn’t it. Good to realise what you’ve learned from writing the first.

  4. First off, Winston Churchill said success was the result of going from failure to failure without giving up. Second, agents are a very funny lot. (I know, I’ve had two). I would be tempted to do some research on publishers. They all have lists of the type of books they’re looking for. Look for one that does sort of what you’ve written, but not quite. It might mean they have gap on their list. Then ring them up and ask for the name of an editor you can send it to. Then, send it to that person (which gives you a tiny edge). But be absolutely certain first that your book is the best it can be. I know how hard you’ve worked on this. Good luck.

    1. This is really interesting advice, Elaine – thank you! Debut novelists are urged away from submitting directly to publishers, but I guess it couldn’t hurt, could it?

      I’m nowhere near giving up either – Winston C had it right – never, never, never… Thanks so much for your encouragement. 🙂

  5. I’ve been through the submissions process on two different MS’s in the US and I’m begrudgingly about to start on a third. Started putting together my agent spreadsheet, heart palpitating…. It is such a painful process. Not only preparing all the different kinds of materials different agents want (1 page synopsis, 2 page synopsis, 1 paragraph synopsis, ect), but also the long waits and not knowing why they rejected you or what you can fix to make things better. Try to stay positive! We’re not in this for the money, right? For the love a writing, right? Best of luck!

    1. It can be tough, I know. We need to understand and accept the ‘numbers game’ aspect of it, and listen out for advice and encouragement. It’s tempting to think that, just because we’ve gone to the trouble of writing a novel, someone should be standing by, ready and waiting to take it to market. Life isn’t like that, but you’re right, the love of writing keeps us moving forward. Each time, we learn more, we improve our writing, and… we improve our chances. Good luck with yours.

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