Give yourself the best chance to succeed.
Last post we talked about how to finish a manuscript and begin thinking about submitting it. One of the scariest things for me as a writer is the idea that you get ‘one chance’. Sure, there are a lot of publishers and a lot of competitions and across your career you will get many chances to be published, but it feels like every time you pass through a door it locks behind you. So how can you make sure you give yourself the best chance? This post will look at the two most common reasons for rejection and how to deal with them.
The two major reasons your manuscript will be rejected are if the person reading your submission isn’t impressed, or you make a mistake in formatting your document. If either of these things happen, you cannot just fix it up and resubmit. Why not? Can’t someone tell me how to write a better story? Why does formatting matter? Let’s start with story.
If the person reading your manuscript isn’t impressed, then they aren’t going to be impressed by you changing a few descriptions around. They are professionals. Publishing is a business. It is their job to find stories that they think suit their publishing house and will make money. They are trained in this. Using a less than stellar adjective here and there isn’t going to put them off. The problem will more likely be that they do not like your story, or can tell that you’re going to have to do MAJOR structural reworking of your plot to make it sellable. This means they will have to do a lot of work with you. If you are a new or emerging author, this means a lot of work for no guarantee of profit. How can you avoid this?
Well, you can’t. Not really. To give yourself the best chance in terms of story you need to firstly make sure you are completely happy with your novel. Have you had people beta read for you? Did you take their constructive criticism on board? Have you done multiple drafts and allowed your story to evolve with each draft? If you are confident that your work is the best you can do for now, then submit. I say ‘for now’, because honestly ‘the best’ is a moving target. Don’t sit on your hands for too long or you’ll lose steam. The best you can be EVER will only come after you’ve slogged through a few manuscripts of ‘best I can do now’. We don’t have to be ‘one book wonders’.
Warning: after you submit you will immediately find that your confidence drops. You will think you have made a horrible call and should have worked on your manuscript further. This is normal. It goes away eventually (I’m hoping).
But where do you submit? So, you’ve checked out our Publishers guide and like the sound of a few. How do you decide on a publisher? Look at other titles they have published recently. Do they favour your genre? No point sending a sci-fi to a romance publisher. Are there any books that are like yours (but not too alike, because they don’t need two books competing against each other)? Are you comfortable with how the publisher presents themselves and their authors on social media? Can you see yourself amongst their ranks?
Great. You’ve picked a publisher (or two).
Now to the easy part. Formatting. This part isn’t actually that hard, but if you mess up and have a manuscript rejected because of a formatting error IT WILL HURT YOU. So, you gotta pay careful attention to this part, or all your hard work writing your story will be wasted (at least in the eyes of the person assessing your work) and you will probably beat yourself up over it for a while. Each publisher/competition have their own guides for how they want you to present your work. You will find them listed under ‘submission guidelines’ or something similar. If you can’t find them, email and ask.
The formatting guidelines cover everything from type size (usually 12 pt), to line spacing, document type, whether they want the title in the footer, or header, or nowhere, what order to put your cover page, synopsis and any other pieces of info they want and even how MANY pages to send. Some places want the first chapter. Some the first 50 pages. Others the whole manuscript. Print their guide out and physically tick it off as you complete each task to ensure you don’t miss anything.
For the Ampersand Prize, the submission required a two-sentence pitch, a 100-word overview and a one-page synopsis. The pitch is a super-tight description of your book. When someone asks you ‘what’s your book about’, this is what you should have lined up for them. It should be good. If it’s boring, then people will assume the rest of your novel is boring too. This is the pitch I used for my Ampersand submission:
“Following the suicide of her hero, fifteen year old Hazy Plutone accidentally time-travels with the help of her hyper intelligent Guardian dog, but finds herself trapped in the limbo world of Nebula. To get home, she must compete in the Sink or Swim Challenge, all while navigating grief, depression, friendship, evil patriarchal overlords and falling in love with sixteen year old Aysa Volkov, a girl born thirty years in the past.”
Take your time with this. Have your beta readers check to see if it sums up your novel fully, or if it undersells it.
The overview was stated in the submission guidelines to be a brief paragraph explaining why you wrote the novel and whether it was own voices or not etc. My advice here is to just be as honest as possible. The story matters to you and they want to connect with who you are. Speak from the heart.
The synopsis varies from 1-2 pages generally. It is the hardest part of formatting. You have to outline all the major plot points, character arcs and conflicts, including spoilers and the ending into 1-2 pages. Luckily there’s a handy formula you can use. Then it’s just a matter of writing it all out and culling words until it fits the guidelines. Here’s the formula I followed for Ampersand. It comes from ‘Anatomy of a SHORT Synopsis – Pt 1′ by Christine Fonseca:
- Opening set up – The MC is introduced in the “normal world”.
- Initial challenge – The problem the MC needs to solve.
- Reaction or new scenario – A new scenario occurs for the MC as a direct result of the choice the MC makes regarding that opportunity
- Mini Crisis – An event occurs that changes everything and a new goal is made
- Edge of Adventure – The MC works towards his new goal
- Point of no return – The MC fully commits to achieving the goal – to his journey
- Complications – The MC is tested and the stakes are raised as new complications arise
- Despair – The MC in despair as he hits a major set back in his plans
- Transformation – The MC pulls himself together to face the final obstacles to his goal
- Climax – The MC faces the final obstacle standing between him and his goal
- Resolution – The outcome of the final confrontation.
Write one or two sentences for each and then see how long your synopsis turns out. If it’s too long, cull. You don’t get extra points for writing more. The synopsis should be in third person present-tense, no matter the perspective/tense used in the actual manuscript. Eg. ‘They go’ rather than ‘I went’.
Why is following the rules of formatting so important? For starters, it makes the reading process easier if everything is neat and orderly. More importantly, it shows you can follow direction, are taking your work seriously and (hopefully) won’t be a nightmare to work with if picked up. Formatting a manuscript is like formatting a resume. Your local café won’t hire you if you send a resume in written in Chiller font. Neither will a traditional publishing house.
There you have it. The quick-guide to formatting a manuscript. Follow the rules. Triple check everything. Pick a suitable publisher for your work and when the rejection letter (or silence) comes, know that all it means is that your story isn’t right for THEM. It will find its place in the world eventually, you just have to keep opening those doors.
What do you struggle most with? Do you have any rejections to share? Success to celebrate? Let us know in the comments below.