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10 hurdles my submission could fail at

Those hurdles ahead of me look awfully big.

All these hurdles

All these hurdles to overcome… (Image cobbled together from free bits’n’pieces.)

I know at some intellectual level that my chances of overcoming them are almost infinitesimally small. But… some people do make it, right? So it’s gotta be possible.

So you think you can write?

Granted, I could be one of those self-deluded people who go on some gameshow or public contest, actually believing they have what it takes and will blow everyone away with their awesome talent that’s been simmering inside them all these years… only to make a complete fool of themselves and discover in the most embarrassing way that they’ve become the laughing stock of everyone.

I choose not to believe that of myself. I refuse to believe that my awesome beta readers and my close friends and relatives who’ve read my work were just “being nice” to me or couldn’t bring themselves to tell me the truth.

My toolbox

I’ve drawn up my battle plan. I’ve done my research. I know which agents I want to query first. Only two agencies here in Australia actually accept submissions for epic fantasy, and that’s only via snail mail – I’ve kept the printer busy lately – another accepts only a short pitch with synopsis, but without sample chapters, and two more are maybes that aren’t exactly clear on their website about what they do or don’t accept. I’ve found a few more agencies in the U.K. that sound good; for now, I won’t be submitting to U.S. agencies, mainly because I’m not sure whether I’d need to go through my manuscript and change things like “colour” to “color”, and Australian “-ise” endings to “-ize”, and “talk/speak to” to “talk/speak with“, and so forth. I have no idea whether they might think I just can’t spell or realise (ahem, realize) that that’s just how some people spell things in other parts of the world.

I’ve registered on Query Tracker, and checked Preditors & Editors to make sure I’m not submitting to the wrong sort of agents. I’ve done research on them to pick those who have published authors in my genre before with respectable publishers.

My query letter has been written, edited, thrown away and re-written more times than I can remember. The same goes for my synopsis. But… I think I’m as ready as I’m going to be.

Let me count the hurdles… 1001… 1002…

If I start to calculate the odds of finding an agent and a publisher (let’s say each agency gets 50 submissions per day, 6 days per week, maybe accepts two new clients per year… ouch!) I’ll just go insane and give up. But if I make the bold assumption that I’m actually good enough to be published – just for the sake of argument (and my sanity) – then… what hurdles are left, i.e. what might still go wrong?

  1. The submission might not even get there. Lost in the (snail) mail, an accidentally deleted email or a server crash, and I’ve lost before I’ve had a chance. Not getting a response is essentially a rejection, and as far as I can tell, following up or (God forbid) asking for reasons, is a big No-No. Can’t be helped; out of my hands.
  2. They might not like my cover letter (which some people call query, though I’ve also seen that word used to describe the whole submission). I’ve studied several “successful queries” and have tried to learn from them, about being succinct, polite, and professional, to minimise the chance of that happening. That’s all I can do, I think.
  3. They might consider my word count to be too high. At about 130k, my word count is a vast improvement over my first attempt a couple of years ago (where I stopped sending out submissions after realising that rejections were coming back less than 24 hours after I’d submitted, from agencies saying they’d take 8-10 weeks to respond, and figuring out that my 185k word count was just too ginormous for agents to want to take a chance with an unpublished author), but still somewhat on the high side. (Hey, it’s called epic fantasy for a reason, dammit!) Too bad I won’t get the chance to argue that point, and bring up all the wonderful, successful, oversize books from first-time authors.
  4. They might not like the title. With agencies receiving such a staggering number of submissions, from what I’ve read, any reason will do to reduce the size of the slush pile, even if it’s something that can be changed quite trivially. Nothing I can do about it.
  5. They might not believe the author is marketable. Even if the product (the book) is considered marketable, in this day and age, authors need to be prepared to do more than just write. Media obligations, promotions, and that sort of thing, they all come later, and you can’t really tell from a submission whether the author has what it takes. But the thing they can assess is the author’s social media presence. Can they interact with their fans (once they have some), do they have a platform on which to promote their work, are they tech-savvy enough to use Twitter, Facebook, and whatnot? I think I’m actually doing ok on that one. My blog and social media accounts are purely for my “writing persona”, separate from my private life, but I think that’s ok. I have them, and I’m not afraid to use them.
  6. I might accidentally hit the pet-peeve-nerve of someone. I blame the many, many bad writers over the years for that one. They submitted their below-par work, and made the agent to whom I now want to submit not just dislike but actively hate a certain phrase or habit to a point where they’re not just against its overuse but against it appearing anywhere, ever (adverbs, anyone?). The turkey city lexicon is, to some extent, based on some of these pet peeves. Beyond what I’ve tried to do already, I can’t do much more about that one.
  7. The right person might not get to read it. By necessity, agencies can’t possibly completely read through every sample chapter of every submission and need to have ways of reducing the pile. For a submission to make it through to an offer of representation, it needs to be read and liked by a chain of people. The agents who have authority to actually make such an offer, especially in larger agencies, won’t read material unless it’s passed through the ranks of “readers” or junior agents. If anyone in that chain doesn’t like it (even though someone higher up might have), it gets rejected. Again, out of my control.
  8. The agent or reader might just not be in the right mood. Quite possible that a submission can get rejected on one day but would’ve been accepted on another day. Maybe the one they read just before was extremely bad (or extremely good), or reminded them of something, and their mind isn’t completely on what they’re reading now. Maybe it’s just before lunchtime, or they’re about to go home. Not sure how realistic this one is, hopefully it doesn’t happen often, but who knows? Beyond my control.
  9. They might not believe the story will sell. That one is such a subjective point that I would have to admit that they could be right. I’d disagree completely, of course, but I don’t have the experience in the publishing world to be able to claim I know better than… well, anyone else. I can only go by my experience as a reader, what I’d like to read, what I would buy in the bookstore. I’ll have to grind my teeth and concede, “Fair enough.”
  10. They might like it, but happen to know that the publishers they’re in contact with aren’t looking for that sort of thing right now. Ouch. But possible. The market is a fickle thing, and different things sell or don’t sell at different times, based on the whims of… who knows? That one would probably hurt the most, falling at the last hurdle.

Scary, isn’t it? I’m sure there are others I haven’t even considered, these are just the top 10 that come to mind.

Seems very unfair, seen from the angle of the authors submitting their work. Also… necessary, I suppose, seen from the agency’s point of view. They have to get through all those submissions somehow. I get that. I do.

The thing that’s hard to take is that I could fail at pretty much any of these hurdles with any given agent, and I’ll never know what it was that I should’ve done better.

So should I give up?

If everyone stopped just because the odds are daunting, humanity wouldn’t achieve much at all.

Let’s do this!

My submissions will start going out before the end of the week.

Wish me luck… (*swallows audibly*).

Battle Plan

It’s been a long, hard road (ok, more long than hard – hey, stop giggling, that wasn’t a euphemism – because although it took way over a decade, I really enjoyed the journey), and I’m about to reach the final phase. I’m dreading it, because I know it won’t be as much fun as writing and even editing was. Hence I’d better prepare my “battle plan”.

Battle plan

(I cannot confirm or deny my plans for ultimate world domination at this stage. Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

TickDONE

  • build an elaborate fantasy world in my head, with its own history, races, rules, evolution, customs, races, and coherent systems of magic
  • think up a great, engaging story with interesting characters
  • make many pages worth of background notes
  • create timelines, maps, and drawings of settings (for my own benefit)
  • experiment with blurbs and synopses
  • finish writing the first draft of the first book in an epic fantasy story
  • proofread, make corrections
  • rinse and repeat proofreading-and-correction phase (many, many times…)
  • send my story off to beta readers
  • await feedback from said beta readers

HourglassIN PROGRESS

  • encorporate feedback into manuscript
  • start giving up hope about it all being one huge elaborate prank on the rest of the world and start wondering how THAT many people can be THAT dense to want to make such a buffoon their leader next year
  • ponder why Leo finally won an Oscar for portraying such a one-dimensional character in an emotionally dull film (wanting to survive isn’t an emotion), and why a film whose premise seems so far-fetched to me could collect so many rewards
  • carefully read the whole manuscript out loud, making final corrections
  • keep editing my blurbs and synopses, and finally settle on one of them

ChecklistTODO

  • research agents who accept fantasy submissions in Australia, and possibly UK and US
  • research publishers who accept fantasy submissions (update my old research)
  • begin the agonisingly long process of submitting to literary agents and possibly (traditional) publishers, waiting to get rejection letters and praying that the right person in the right mood who can make important decisions gets their hands on my manuscript and decides to give me a chance…
  • if above fails (too many rejections to bear), consider approaching the relatively small Australian publishing house which, years ago, gave me feedback that encouraged me to continue writing: “… as a new writer he clearly has a wide knowledge of the genre and displays a fluency with its style, plot and character conventions… would be interested to see a completed manuscript with a view to considering it for publication.”
  • if above fails, consider publishing story on Amazon (I realise getting published – traditionally – is very ambitious and odds are against me, but, hey, I can dream, right?) and begin work on my new idea…

In the meantime, I’ll have to keep plugging away at my day job, and remember that…

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

– Helmuth von Moltke

Not that I’m considering agents or publishers the enemy. It feels more like I’ll be at war with chance itself. So maybe this one:

Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war.

– Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

Ready to blurb… but should I?

I’m facing a bit of a dilemma. Well, ok, not really a dilemma, more of a bit of uncertainty. I’m getting close(r) to having my manuscript in a state where I’m ready to submit it to agents/publishers, and I’ve written several versions of my blurb.

So here’s my question: Should I blurt out my blurb on my blog? Bleh.

(On a less serious note, should I leave alliteration alone a little? 😉 )

I’m well aware that the chances are overwhelmingly against my manuscript ever being so hugely successful (even if it’s really as awesome as I believe it to be) that anyone will care whether the blurb was already “out there”, but on the off-chance that against all odds I do get extremely lucky with finding the right person to read my work, can it hurt to put up some initial versions of a blurb on a blog site?

Hmm… I sort of doubt it, but if you have any experience with this sort of thing, or just an educated opinion, please let me know in the comments!

The other side of the (Literary) Submission Circus

Sometimes this whole submission thing seems to me a little like the Submission Circus I blogged about last time. I apologise to any agents or editors and hope they’ll forgive my exaggerated presentation of how the process can appear from the writer’s side (not that I expect any of them to actually read my humble blog). Of course there’s another side to the Submission Circus.

I get it, I really do. Agents and publishers need to make a living as well, they need – nay, are forced – to make cut-throat decisions to sort the wheat from the chaff. With so many manuscripts to read that reading them – something we all passionately love to do, right? – becomes a tedious chore, and turns even the most enthusiastic professional reader into a cold-hearted cynic, the Powers That Be of the publishing world need some sort of method of wading through the slush piles; there just have to be multiple filters to weed out the various layers of The Unworthy:

  • The masses of wannabe-authors who suffer from self-delusion and can’t string a grammatically correct sentence together, let alone a complete story. Not entirely unlike those pathetic dorks who make fools of themselves on TV talent shows, and even though it’s painful in a way because you want to sympathise, the expression on their faces when they realise that they’ve just given their best and the judges are trying not to laugh… is just too delicious. Along with millions of other couch potatoes, you laugh yourself hoarse at those idiots, even though you’d never have the guts to even get up and have a go….
  • Those who are, well, not that bad, and something could be salvaged from their manuscript, but only with the help of some book quack. Er, book doctor. Sorry.
  • Those who are, grammatically speaking, absolute geniuses, but their book idea has been done before, or is just plain lame. Maybe they end up being cynical enough to become book doctors.
  • The writers with the heart of a poet, who, like a grand master pianist, can entwine several harmonised melodies so beautifully it makes your heart ache, make their music tug at the heart-strings, make it invoke the full range of emotions from their audience… their audience of five, three of whom are family members, because, let’s face it, man, who the f*ck wants to listen to “classic” music anymore, get real, that’s so last-friggin’-millenium, dude, shut the hell up and let me check my twitter feed as I roll my eyes.
  • Then come the truly talented, who get what it takes to write a story even the twitter generation may want to read, and can do so. But they lose heart at all the obstacles in their way and just aren’t willing to jump through all the hoops. Or they can only receive so many rejections before it gets to them and they can’t take it any more.
  • Finally, there is that tiniest of percentages, who persevere through it all, who are realistic about their chances but cling to that glimmer of hope, who learn from their mistakes and who don’t give up.

For a very few of the latter, Lady Luck finally relents and gives them the chance they deserve. They seize that chance by the throat and, well… the rest of us end up reading their books. Maybe.

Kudos to those last few, most of you really deserve it and we wish you all the best (though it’s hard to entirely suppress the suspicion that some got through because they “know somebody”, because occasionally, books get published that shouldn’t).

But my heart bleeds for the writers with the heart of a poet, and the truly talented who lose heart or just don’t persevere long enough, and Real Life just doesn’t wait long enough. Despite being worthy, their stories are lost to us forever.

It’s a little like in school, where the ones that do best are those with above-average intelligence who are also willing to do the boring legwork. To the really brilliant, smarter than the ones who do best but they don’t do as well because they’re either lazy, or rebellious, or they have street smarts but not book smarts, this school rewards system seems rather unfair. Sometimes Real Life is the great leveller, they all find their niche, and the brilliant are able to laugh at the book smart ones who can’t fight their way out of a paper bag, but all too often, that’s not the case. A word to those with the street smarts, though: sometimes, having street smarts means you need to get your hands dirty and do what the book-smart kids are doing.

I don’t have any answers about how to fix the established submissions system. And if I did, I realise it would be nigh impossible to change the existing system, not even over the span of many years. I can only write down my own personal observations about it. Not to whine for the sake of whining, but to encourage others – and myself – not to give up, to accept things for what they are, to persevere, to roll up our sleeves and to jump through the necessary hoops so that one day, baby, one day we’ll be old… but our story will have been told. (Pat yourself on the back if you get that reference.)

Welcome to the (Literary) Submission Circus!

Step right in, don’t be shy! No, silly, your time of just watching is over… now you’re the performer. Shout three quick words – choose wisely, for your audience behind the curtain has many more performers to watch, and has watched more than you can count, so you must make it memorable, but hurry! – and off you go, now jump through this hoop and that one, and, wow, that was one terrific quintuple somersault, but sorry, kid, the audience of one (for whom you must perform before you can show your act to the world) stopped watching long ago. Seems she heard those particular three words before. Oh well.

What are you doing, still standing there? Get off the stage, freak! Don’t you realise there are hundreds – nay, thousands – of other performers waiting in the wings for their turn?

There’ll be other towns you can perform in. Not all that many, at least for your particular type of act, but there are others, and maybe the audiences there haven’t heard your three words yet, or you can tweak them slightly. Which won’t matter, because you’ll forget that their hoops are at a slightly different angle, or height, and, well, you should’ve done your homework better to read up on their particular hoops, shouldn’t you?

And what about the remaining twelve towns that, according to your new research, have audiences willing to watch your particular genre of performance? It’ll go a little something like this:

One won’t like that you addressed him by his surname before you started. Too formal, you’ll sound like a pompous prick.
Two won’t appreciate you using her first name. Presumptuous pervert, you.
Three, Four and Five are currently doing something else, but they’ve left assistants (not that you’ll be able to tell the difference) with instructions to send you a very politely worded “thanks, but not quite right for us just now” letter.
Six and Seven will be enthusiastic about helping you, praising you lavishly, but Six’ll want you to first pay some money to his friend, Six Point One, just to help you polish up your act a bit, you know how it is, and then you and Six will take on the world, while Seven will think that your performance would be just perfect if only you’d be willing to take your clothes off.
Eight. Well, Eight will want to watch your performance, but he needs four months to think about whether he really liked it. During those four months, you can’t perform this particular act for anyone else. And after four months of waiting nervously, your tentative enquiry about whether he did in fact like it will be answered with, “Who were you again?”
Nine will only allow you two words, but you’ll think you can get away with your standard three. Gotcha!
Ten will only do taped performances, not live ones, and will sell tapes of your act to anyone, but they need to go to his stand and pick out your tape from amongst a trillion others. Plus you won’t get much cash each time your tape does get picked.
Eleven and Twelve will be the last on your list. They’re old-fashioned and want you to actually walk to their towns. If you arrive by car, or even by bicycle, they won’t even watch anything you do. You’ll arrive at Eleven, exhausted, only to find that they’ve gone on a Christmas holiday, so you need to come back again next year. Then you’ll arrive at what you think is Twelve with bleeding feet, desperate but not yet losing hope. You’ll perform your act better than ever before… but you’ll never even find out that the reason you never heard back was that your street directory was outdated and your performance simply… lost its way.

Live and learn, baby. Come up with another act and start all over. Or just make it easier for everyone and give up now. You didn’t really think your performance was good enough for the Big Top, did you?

But… wait! New research reveals there’s a Thirteen you didn’t see before, because you weren’t searching hard enough, and thought, “Surely one out of One to Twelve will get me.” Thirteen is looking for something just like your act right now, and she’s willing to overlook that you touched the side of the second hoop a little when you jumped through it. She actually watches your full performance. What’s more, she likes it. She makes a few suggestions of how it can be improved, and you’re skeptical at first, but realise she knows what she’s talking about. In time, she helps you to get an audience with The Ringmaster, and with Thirteen’s support, you’ve finally made it at last. The Big Top. You can share your performance with the world as you’ve always wanted.

Fellow writers of the world, may you persist until you find your Thirteen.

(More on my take on the submission process in the next post, The other side of literary submissions.)

Australian publishers who accept online submissions

I’ve been reading a fair bit lately – both offline and online, a book, other people’s blogs, agents’ and publishers’ websites, etc. – and found that more publishers here in Australia accept unsolicited online submissions than I would’ve expected. I thought I’d list some of the barebones facts here for anyone interested (NB: always check the publisher’s website for detailed instructions by clicking on the name before submitting anything). If you have a similar list for the UK or US, please let me know in the comments and I’ll update the post to link to your site.

Publisher When Accepts Details
Allen & Unwin: The Friday Pitch On any Friday No poetry, picture books, straight romance, short stories, or scripts

See their website for more details and a link to their “What we publish” page. There are separate instructions for academic submissions and for children’s/YA books.
Email with title information sheet (see website), first chapter and 300-word synopsis attached in Word format (PDF for illustrated work)
Austin Macauley Anytime Almost anything (as far as I could tell) Email cover letter, 400-500-word synopsis, three consecutive chapters
HarperCollins: The Wednesday Post Every Wednesday No plays, poetry, mind body spirit, religious titles, health and fitness, children’s books and educational texts Webform: synopsis, upload first 50 pages or three chapters, short note about yourself
Pan Macmillan: Manuscript Monday First Monday of every month

Note: Submission only open between 10am and 4pm AEST
Commercial fiction, literary fiction and non-fiction, children’s/YA, commercial non-fiction; no scripts, plays, poetry, or romance Webform: form fields, upload first 100 pages, upload 300-word synopsis
PanteraPress Anytime No picture or illustrated books, children’s, cooking, self-help, health/well-being, travel, poetry, plays/scripts, short stories, compilations, novellas, or chapter books Email details, attach up to two-page synopsis, full manuscript, and up to two-page bio, all as PDFs
Penguin Books: The Monthly Catch

Note: Penguin and Random House are the same company but have separate publishing divisions and therefore separate submission processes. Random House only accepts snail mail submissions.
1st to 7th of every month No poetry, educational textbooks or plays/scripts; separate instructions for children/YA Details in email body, with 300-word synopsis and full manuscript attached separately in Word format (up to 3MB total)

As of yet, I’m undecided whether it would be a good idea for me to approach publishers directly (i.e. without securing an agent first) or not. Agents can’t pitch your work to a publisher who’s already said “No” to you. On the other hand, if your work is good enough….

Did I forget anything, or get any details wrong? Know of another publisher I should list here? Let me know in the comments.