Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Author and creative writing teacher, Ruth Figgest, recently gave us a talk on final preparation of novel manuscripts for submission and how to approach agents and publishers. Ruth's novel, Magnetism, was published by Myriad Editions in 2018. The talk was so helpful we
asked her to write an article for our blog and here it is!
You get one opportunity with a submission; a rejection is a rejection, not an invitation to resubmit once you’ve improved things. Your work needs to be cohesive and one way of telling if your manuscript is ready for submission, is whether or not you are able to state what your story or book is about in 500 words, 250 words, 100 words and even thirty words. You will need to be clear about the point of view of your narrative and about where and when does it take place. Which of your characters are the protagonists, which are subsidiary characters? Which characteristics or action will make your reader sympathetic to your protagonist, and how have you shown this. What is the main conflict? Is the end a logical conclusion to the previous action and in proportion to this conflict?
I advocate the use of a triage method for assessing the preparedness of work. Some problems are fatal in fiction, others are less troublesome. Instead of working through the book from start to finish, which usually means you re-work the opening a hundred times and get fed up in the middle, give priority to those matters that are the principle causes of rejection. Use a hard copy and reprint the section after major changes so that you are not distracted by your previous editorial changes. The following order addresses the most critical issues first: characters and characterisation, conflict, the opening and the ending. Your characters must be clear and a reader should be able to distinguish between the voices of the main characters. Can any of your peripheral characters be combined for greater effect? In what way is this specific conflict apt for this particular character? Have you introduced the conflict quickly enough? Can the reader tell who the story is about, how old this character is, or characters are, when the story is taking place? Does the main character change or grow in some way? Is the ending in proportion to the conflict? Have you cheated the reader by introducing coincidence rather than cause and effect? Address any issues that arise from these questions before considering a submission.
Once ready, take aim with your manuscript. Publishers are interested in a specific book and will make an investment if they want it. A publisher spends money on production, distribution and publicity and makes money only when the book sells to the public. On the other hand, an agent is interested in you - in what you’ve written, your potential, your longevity and your ongoing writing career. An agent makes money on what you earn from writing. Submit only to people who might be interested and those that you’d like to work with. Likely candidates are found in a current Artists and Writers Yearbook. A standard submission has three elements: covering letter, synopsis and some part of the manuscript. But not everyone will want a synopsis. Check out websites in order to make sure the person you’re sending to is a good fit for you, and to make sure you can address your submission to a person, rather than a job title.
Always provide exactly what the agent or publisher asks for. No more, no less. No one wants to work with someone so inconsiderate or arrogant as to think that she doesn’t have to follow directions. Send the correct length of manuscript. Unless something else is specified, send the beginning of the book when you send a sample.
A covering letter should be succinct and clearly written and include three elements: why you’ve selected this agent or publisher for submission, what you’ve written, and who you are. Acknowledge that you’re aware they publish science fiction, literary fiction, crime or romance, and, if you know – who they currently represent or which writers they publish. In the second paragraph it’s all about your writing career. Include any education in the area, or writing-related work experience. Next include all successes with competition wins and, definitely, any publications your work has appeared in (both non-fiction and non-fiction should be included). Then write about what you are currently submitting. You might want to include your ideas about what published work is similar to yours. Both agents and publishers want to know how your book might be placed, in terms of where it might sit in a bookshop. The covering letter is the place to summarise the story. Never include anything negative in your covering letter and bear in mind that humour can be misinterpreted.
The synopsis should be abbreviated or expanded to the length asked for. This is where you include detail and expand on the very brief information about the book which you will have provided in your covering letter. A synopsis is not about the author, but about the specific book. Remember to include character names (in capitals the first time they are mentioned), point of view, setting, word count, and genre. The themes and the conflict must be included in the synopsis. Being coy or teasing with what you include will only irritate and come across as unprofessional. Make things clear and concise and always include the ending.
If you do these things you will send your work out into the world confident that you’ve done your best. Finally, be gracious about rejection. Tastes in literature are personal. Be willing to learn from any 'no thank you' responses that include constructive feedback and, remember, it’s always a work in progress until it’s in print.
Ruth Figgest was born in Oxford, but spent most of her childhood in the US. She received an MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development from the University of Sussex, graduating with merit in 2008.
Her second novel, Poking Phil, was one of the winners in a Writer’s and Artist’s yearbook novel competition. Her short stories have been shortlisted in the Bridport competition and one was highly commended and included in the anthology in 2017. In 2011 another of Ruth’s stories was short listed for the Mslexia short story competition. In 2012 her story 'The Armadillo' was one of the winners of the Bridport prize. Her story 'The Coffin Gate', was commissioned for broadcast on Radio 4 at the BBC and aired in October 2013.
Her novel, Magnetism, was published by Myriad Editions in 2018. Ruth is currently working on another novel and teaches creative writing in East Sussex.