The End Of The Beginning

Blog updates after midnight can mean only one thing – extreme mediocrity. But let’s try to break the habit of a lifetime. Today has been a very long day, so I’m going to sit here with a glass of wine and write about it for a bit.

As promised, today was cover-letter-tastic, but what was noticeable was how my confidence on Friday night about the strength of my 3 chapter sample and synopsis, changed when actually putting the submissions together this evening. Little things like minor word repetition really started to bug the hell out of me, so part of my time was spent blitzing too many mentions of the word “eyes” within lines of each other, and thinking up exciting new ways to shorten sentences. Yes, I’d been through the sample with a fine-tooth comb a very large number of times this week, but every single time I look through it, there’s something else to change. Imagining doing this yet again with the rest of the novel, as I most certainly shall again, is both a daunting and exciting prospect, as I know how much even seemingly minor changes can transform the effectiveness of material.

Of course, because life can never be easy, the technical failures soon began. First of all, the “toner life end” message came up on the printer. Great. Luckily I had one spare, so this attempt to unseat me was quickly foiled. Then my printouts started coming out with unsightly splodges on them (no, not the words of my novel, you jokers), which wasn’t exactly brilliant from a presentation point of view. Microsoft Word’s footer options inexplicably decided to keep changing my name back to Mike Grant, no matter how many times I put Michael, which made me want to flush my laptop out of a goddamn airlock. Finally, the footer on one document was always visible, while on another it was hidden until printed, which made the email submission I was doing look rather inconsistent. All this is why I’m still here writing this blog entry late, and not tucked up in bed.

Cover letters, of course, are the third wheel in the submission process, and here’s what I believe you need to do. You have to explain the premise of your novel while trying not to repeat yourself from your synopsis. You should then expand on the themes present in your work and say what inspired you to write it. The next bit should be about exactly why you’ve targeted the agent you’re sending your sample material to, and this is where all those hours of research come in. It’s also where my wife put the kybosh on a particular line that I kept adding, about why I was sure the agent and I would have a “potentially successful partnership” or something. It was pretty horrible. I knew it, but I needed to be told it.

“Don’t tell the agent their job,” my wife said. A very good point. I don’t want to tell him or her that I’m convinced we would be a good fit for each other – I have to make the agent think it independently, based on the material I’m providing them with. Then there’s a bit about me and my writing history, listing what I’m enclosing with the cover letter, thank you for your time and consideration, done.

But then the worrying begins. How am I coming across? Do I sound too confident, not confident enough, really shy, annoyingly ballsy, what?

The way I approached the submission process was that the agent is providing a service, I need the service, I’m providing the material to help them do that service, it’s a professional relationship, so I don’t need to grovel about how great they are and they don’t need to hear me talk shite about how wonderful I am. Nice letter, not overly flowery, get to the point, give them the supplementary material to help them make the right decision for them, hopefully they’re interested in what I’m offering and will request the full manuscript; if not then they’ll send me a rejection letter and this relationship wasn’t meant to be, move on.

The thing that’s the kicker, of course, is that the submission is your one and only chance to make a good impression, so it’s very important to get it as right as you possibly can. The perception for the writer at this stage is always that the agent holds the balance of power. It’s quite a psychological conjuring trick to turn that on its head and realise that, without authors, the agent literally (no pun intended) has nothing to sell. So, really, the power swings both ways.

The major difference, though, is that the agent will receive a large number of unsolicited submissions every single week, whereas when you write to them, you have already decided that they are someone you want to represent your work. So while the power is effectively the same, because authors need agents and agents need authors, an author needs to somehow rise above the slush pile in order to succeed, and that’s where the requirement for a strong proposal package comes in.

I’ve done my absolute best with Certainty, which I believe is a well-plotted and exciting page turner with a superb premise, but now it’s over to the agents to agree or disagree. It’s going to be a fascinating few months. And yes, hopefully, a game-changer. Stranger things have happened.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The End Of The Beginning

  1. Chris S.

    I sat in on a talk given by an agent about cover letters about a year ago and it was one of the most interesting and scariest talks I’ve heard. It’s something I’m dreading, but it seems like you’ve got a good grip on it.
    Looking forward to reading this blog over the next few months.

  2. Mike

    My main problem in the past was the synopsis. I went to a workshop at the end of last year on how to write one, as I was never entirely sure about what I needed to achieve and a lot of the advice on the web was contradictory.

    While the session reinforced various things that I knew already, and I didn’t learn much that was genuinely new, just talking about the process as a whole with the author taking the session and the other writers was incredibly useful and was one of those “eureka” moments. Plus, the feedback about my novel’s premise from the other people there was very gratifying.

    I’m really happy with my synopsis now. 🙂

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