I’m just a book, oh I’m only a book, and I’m desperately seeking a hook… Sorry if you didn’t automatically sing that to the tune of Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill,” but thanks to Saturday Night Live I’m hoping even Millennials get the reference.

Anyway, I’m a book. I’m a science fiction novel of the distant future and how it’s affected by twenty-first century cyberpunk. I have some romance, lots of action, and a kickass hero, Brock Lardner, a man with MacGyver’s mind and the body of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I’ve been edited carefully by my author James Bundy and a friend of his, Karen Clark, who has an English degree and heavily corrected his misuse of punctuation.

I’m in an email, about to be opened. The person about to read me is an unpaid intern at an agency. She reads dozens, sometimes hundreds, of similar things. So how do I stand out?

Well, with me are some key things. See, James is a weird guy. I don’t just mean the bobble head collection and the extensive browser history devoted to xHamster. I mean he sucks at paying attention to punctuation when he really gets going, but he reads carefully. So I know he spent lots of time on this agency’s website and read their requirements with great care.

So here I am, or rather the first thirty percent of me. I was introduced by a great query, the perfect opener that just sums up all the good. I’ve got a synopsis with me, the ultimate Cliff’s Notes to my awesome plot, and I also have a copy of that short story James sold to a magazine five years ago.

Why did I tolerate one of his older, already done projects along with my glorious pages? Well, for one thing, the first thing we have to do is impress the reader. They read hundreds of openers, the first third of books, and they never get endings. Worse, they never see how authors handle endings. But thanks to the short story, there is something else to read. The reader gets a nice break to read something they can finish. I get more face-time with the reader and more consideration.

Of course, I’ll still do this as many times as it takes to get an agent to accept James, but I know he did it right and I’ll find an agent this round.

All right. Bored stiff? If so, well, you don’t have the cajones needed to be a literary agent reader, because to be a reader you need to tolerate the most mind-numbing boredom.

So the best thing to do is not bore them, and do not piss them off. If narratives are not your thing (why are you a writer if not!?) let’s go for a checklist, then explore the items in order. Here’s what an agent (reader) wants to see:

1. You have clearly read what they want and submitted all those materials, in the formats and lengths requested

2. You have actually edited the book and the submission has NO MORE than 3 small errors (such as autocorrected words or misused punctuation)

3. Your query and synopsis have 0 errors

4. Your query has clear and concise information on you and your book

5. Your synopsis is a very quick guide that shows the entire plot and all major characters

6. You include 1 of any prior major publishings or recommendations



1. YOU HAVE CLEARLY READ THEIR REQUIREMENTS



Every agent has a website. Spend time there. First off, you have to know what format they want things in. Most like to use the most recent Microsoft Office (files saved as *.docx) but not all. Some prefer older versions (saved as *.doc), and some prefer PDFs. If they do not specify…run screaming, that is fishy as hell.

If you do not have Microsoft Office, you need to get it. How you got to this point without it, I can’t understand. Remember publishing is an industry, and Office is the standard. Look, if you’re poor, er…think outside the box. You know what I’m saying. If you don’t, ask that friend with the full terabyte of digital movies.

So first off make sure the synopsis and the book are in the right type of file format. Next, how much of your book do they want? The most common requests are the first three chapters or the first 30%. Whatever it is they ask, you calculate it exactly and paste it into a new document.

Next we have formatting. Have you been following along the lessons? If so you should have it perfectly spaced (double), sized (12 pt font for EVERYTHING), formatted (chapters in BOLD, set four lines down from top of page, paragraph beginning two lines down from that), and headed (your name on the left, the title in the center, and the page number on the right in the heading, unless otherwise specified by the agent).

The background musty be WHITE, the font must be BLACK (and Times New Roman). I advocate writing with white font on a dark blue or black background (less eye strain) but it must be black font on white when presented to anyone.

Titles and chapter headings must be centered, and the body paragraphs must be justified. Again, all this should be already done, but make sure it is done now.

True story, I submitted a second book to a publisher and was so tired and rushed, I left it as white text on a blue background. They accepted it but immediately asked me to fix it. If this had been my first book with them, I would have shot myself in the foot. This is why the first submission must be perfect…it does buy you slack down the line.





2. YOU HAVE NO MORE THAN 4 ERRORS IN YOUR SAMPLE SUBMISSION



This cannot be stressed enough. Go for 0, but no one is perfect. I don’t care how much editing you’ve done. Take your sample and give it to someone. A friend, family member, teacher, lover, overly friendly fellow public transit passenger, anybody. Have them read it with fresh eyes.

Again, if you have followed the writing lessons this will be no problem. But note, if the errors are large (too many run on sentences, continuity errors, or too many small errors such that if it were printed out it would be almost solid red when corrected) you are not ready for publishing and have to go way back.

If you followed the writing lessons you’ll still have anywhere up to ten small errors your reader found. And if you really have no one, print out the sample and edit it that way. Brains get lazy and skip over errors, autocorrecting for us. You get around that by reading it in a different format, or having someone else edit it.

So once you fix those errors, be aware those people are not perfect. You’ll still have 2-3 and that’s okay. But don’t be afraid to repeat this process to get to 0.



3. YOUR QUERY & SYNOPSIS ARE PERFECT


Your synopsis and query are the first things read. Any errors there and you’re in the reject pile. Go over this with a fine tooth comb. Ask anyone and everyone to read it. Print it out to edit it. Do whatever you must, it has to be perfect! The synopsis must have the same format as the submission, the heading should read:

Author Name       Title Synopsis           Page # 

If you are sending a print query via mail, it too must have the same format. If you are sending an email, the query will be the body of the email. So make sure it can be simply copied & pasted into email.



4. YOUR QUERY CONVEYS YOU & YOUR BOOK'S INFO CLEARLY AND CONCISELY



We covered this last lesson (LINK) and you should have it cold. The only added note is that a query email should have embedded links rather than typed out.




5. YOUR SYNOPSIS IS QUICK AND CLEAR WITH ALL MAJOR PLOT ARCS AND CHARACTERS 



Long ago we covered the synopsis (sometimes called the outline) here and here. A recap: for a 100,000 word book (remember no one gives a shit about a book’s page count in publishing’s back end, only word count) the synopsis will be just three pages. Again, if you followed the writing lessons, you have this.

Polish it up now. The goal is that anyone who reads it will know, automatically:

- The genre

- The time period/setting

- The protagonist(s)

- -The antagonist(s)

- The central overall conflict

- The major external conflict

- The major internal conflict

- The placement of the climax

- The pacing (fast or slow)



This is not a huge hat trick to pull off. Again, if you build this properly before, you’re in good shape. If you have no synopsis, just go back using the links above to figure out what to do.



6. IF YOU HAVE ANY PRIOR PUBLISHING HISTORY, YOU INCLUDED 1 ITEM



Let’s take a step back. You should, by now, either had had to get a job through resume submission or understand the process. This is really no different. In resumes, never use passive voice (Helped create all technical manuals) instead use active voice (Decreased safety violations 5% over two years by creating new easy-access technical manuals). The reason is humans like to judge others in a job selection process/business opportunity by their prior accomplishments.

Well, when submitting to an agent, or a publisher, they want to see past accomplishments (unless they clearly state otherwise). So what do they want to see? It can only be ONE item from the following list:

- A short story published in a magazine (and link to their website, or the issue/volume number)

- A short story that won a contest (online or print – must provide link)

- A novel published by another publisher that is already for sale

- Your first self-published novel that is already for sale

- A letter of recommendation or review of the submitted book by a published author (either a successful Indie or someone from the legacy system you’re applying for)


NOTHING ELSE CAN BE INCLUDED

 

Write poetry? Join the club. Nobody in fiction gives a shit unless you’re planning to be the next Maya Angelou (that is only include poetry if you’ve written the Great American Novel and are anything other than a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and it must be published and verifiable).

That free writing you do on a website with the highly rated stories? Well, that can be mentioned in your query, but it should not be sent separately along.

Do not include your journal, your unpublished essays, that personal correspondence you have with Samuel Clemens’ fifth great niece thrice removed. NO ONE GIVES A SHIT. Sorry, it’s harsh truth time.

One last note on this last item: do not worry if you have no previous work. Simply do not include the fact you have no prior work and keep the focus on this novel. There is absolutely no shame in being new, but as in all things, a little experience does help, yet it’s not everything.


In short, an agent only wants to see how bankable you and/or your book might be. So they want to know you can write properly (demonstrated via proper formatting and lack of errors), have a solid product (via the synopsis), know how to market yourself (via your query) and if you have experience (via previous work) or connections (through letters/reviews from other authors).



Now that you know what to include and have some idea of the function, let’s explore this why a bit more. This can be the most frustrating process for an author, finding an agent or publisher. Its’ actually harder to go through editing with your publisher, but once you sign a contract it becomes a lot easier to watch the shit hit the fan.

In our next lesson we’ll cover what to do to be productive while waiting for responses (and cover in depth what rejections really mean), but let’s step back and understand at this time how a successful query gets through. We’ll focus on agents, but it’s a very similar process when going directly to a boutique publisher.

We go back to the agent. They have relationships with publishers, they have to. First off, you targeted an agent without an existing huge client, one who’s a little hungry for a big one. They’re either just starting out and do their own reading, or they’re established and have good readers working. The agent hears their best contact is looking for a new sci-fi book that the YA crowd who loved Hunger Games will want to read now that they’re all grown up.

You paid enough attention to market trends to know your HG-esque story of a grown woman dealing with fallout of a revolution she was part of in the future can be a hot property.

Now, your query is sparkling. Properly formatted it instantly tells the reader you’re a female author (in this example) which is what they want. They can tell you’re well-read and know where your book fits in within the market, and they see you have an active and developed author platform, so have some good ideas for marketing.

The reader then Googles you. You’re clean cut, don’t look like an after picture from a Meth ad. Your name and contact info doesn’t come back as a scammer or psychopath, and hey, you’ve done some free writing and the reviews are solid as are the comments, and your replies to comments doesn’t scream INSECURE ASSHOLE.

So the reader goes on to the synopsis. My, oh my, it’s perfect. The reader can see your protagonist Julia goes through the separation, transformation, and return of an epic, and there’s a light love triangle with clear-hero Hank and cloudy-antihero Davin, Julia has a mentor in the ex-con Gino, and the villain is presidential candidate Fein who fought for the former government in the prior civil war, and knows a deep dark secret of Julia’s.

Look at that, in two long sentences you got the plot. A few more for other main characters, conflict, etc., and the reader knows all he or she needs to know. This seems good.

So the reader moves on to your sample three chapters. They’re properly formatted, error free, the voice is strong, the dialogue is natural, the first sentence intrigues, and the last leaves the reader wanting more. Congratulations, the reader brings it to the attention of the agent. But the reader sees you included your first self-published novel. It’s a romance, a bodice-ripper, and though it’s not in the same genre the other materials intrigue the reader.

So as the agent reviews your submission and the reader’s notes, the reader kicks back and reads your novel. It’s witty, charming, and your voice shines through, your characters are strong, your conflict pacing is strong.

Now for a bit of luck. Did the agent read your submission after lunch? People are nicer on full stomachs. Studies tell us judges are less likely to convict after lunch, for example. Did the agent have a good day and feels confident? Do they feel there’s something you do that will appeal to the editor they know in a publishing house? If the answer to all these things is yes, you have a serious shot.

I hope now it makes sense why you have to do these things. Just remember once you do, luck always plays a role. This is why you made a list of agents. Never put your eggs into one basket.

Now, email will be the most common contact method. Assemble your materials. Check and double check. Email one agency at a time, NEVER mass email, or forward. Manners matter! Just as in dating it’s fine to start dating two or more people at the same time, but you don’t openly discuss it unless you’re a tactless dolt. Only when one wishes to become exclusive (offers a contract in the case of publishers and agents) do you have to drop the others.

Now it’s time to send your baby off. Send it on a Monday morning, aim for 10:30a.m.-ish in the time zone of the agency. This means it will be read likely on Tuesday or Wednesday by the reader, and Wednesday or Thursday by the agent. A sweet spot. On Fridays no one can concentrate, and don’t we all try to rush through and duck out early?

If you can’t do it Monday, then send it Friday 2:30p.m.-ish in the time zone of the agency. It will likely be read then Monday or Tuesday by the reader, then Tuesday or Wednesday by the agent.

Of course agencies vary, some can get right on it, some take weeks. But having a planned goal allows you some measure of control. Once that’s done, go have a drink, have a smoke, have some M&M’s, or hot sex, whatever your vice is, and celebrate. You’ve done something very few people of our species can do. And for the waiting about to come, you’ve got to bolster your spirit. So start planning your next book and begin anew!