In a workshop I took last fall, Heather Petty, a very wise author, shared some tips for submitting queries and manuscripts. One of her tips appeared numerous times: follow the submission guidelines. It’s so important, she repeated it.
I found out recently just how annoying it is when authors don’t follow submission guidelines. Our SCBWI region is hosting an event we’re calling The Great Critique, and I asked authors to submit their manuscripts via email as an attachment, in either a pdf or doc format. Most of them got it right. A few put the text of their manuscript in the body of the email. Some sent me a link to google docs for theirs. A few asked who to mail it to.
Since some of these manuscripts were going to agents and editors for paid critiques, it was pretty important that they be correctly formatted. And I asked the authors to resubmit them correctly.
But there are other ways authors don’t use their best judgment in submitting for professional critiques. So here are a few random tips from someone who is often sending manuscripts from authors to agents/editors for these kind of paid critiques. It’s not exhaustive, but it should help.
1. Send only your absolutely best work. Not your first draft for sure. And not a draft that your grandchildren really liked. If you have a regular critique group or one or two trusted readers, make sure they’ve seen what you plan to submit before you send it. Then you’ll be sending the best possible work you have. The reasons for this strategy are many. The most important one, I think, is why would you want an editor to associate your name with anything that is sub par? No, said editor is probably not going to offer you a contract based on ten pages she critiques, but if she ever sees your name again, wouldn’t you want that association to be a good one?
2. Follow the standard formatting of manuscripts. These include double-spacing, 12 point type, a normal font (usually Times New Roman), decent margins, and numbered pages. Even if you’re submitting electronically and the agent/editor can manipulate the text on the screen, why make them work harder to read your story? And make sure to use only single spaces after sentences–it’s so annoying to read ten pages thinking the entire time: “one space. One space.” Make sure there are no typos, your dialogue is correctly formatted, and your paragraphs aren’t too long or too short. Show that you are a professional.
3. Know your genres. If you are submitting a picture book text, it better not be 2,500 words. That proves to the editor that you don’t know anything about the current picture book market. If you’re submitting YA, the protagonist darn well better not be 12 years old. If you don’t know what defines a certain genre, then your manuscript is far from ready for a professional critique. You need to do some research, take some classes, join SCBWI or another professional organization, but you aren’t ready for this.
4. You don’t need a cover letter, a note, an explanation, or anything else. If the guidelines ask for a synopsis, it should be one page or less. The same care and attention should go into your synopsis as your manuscript. Most of us find these truly difficult to write, so don’t just dash one off and assume it’s fine. It needs to capture the basic elements of your action plot as well as the emotional plot. All materials not requested just get recycled, so don’t waste the paper.
5. Know whether your manuscript is appropriate for the professional who will be reading it. This is a common issue with agents/editors who speak at conferences. We often invite authors to submit manuscripts for critique when we have an agent/editor speaking at a conference. But not all agents rep all genres, and not all editors acquire all genres. All of these folks have web sites. At the very least, take a look at that before you submit. If you have a picture book, but the critiquer doesn’t do picture books, don’t waste your money. This is clearly not a genre that this person loves, nor is this person going to have much to say that will be useful to your manuscript. Save yours for a chance with a professional who is totally into your genre. At larger conferences, where there are a wide variety of speakers, you might have a better chance at getting connected with a critique in your specific genre.
6. If you are lucky enough to receive the critique in a face to face interaction, be polite, prompt, and open. Don’t argue or get defensive. Let the professional do most of the talking. You want to learn from them. If you are receiving a written critique, read it, then put it away, then read it again in a week. Our natural response it to think they are stupid and totally misread everything we meant. But a week later, our defensiveness has dissipated and we can be more objective. Usually, we see that the agent or editor was spot on.
7. Don’t get the same manuscript critiqued over and over. Most of these kinds of critiques usually want the first 10 or maybe 20 pages. Work on the rest of the manuscript too. Don’t work the opening to death. Each reader is going to have a different opinion, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed and confused when you have too many opinions. If what the first critiquer says make sense to you, then take those suggestions and use them as you revise your entire manuscript.
8. Never forget that some of the best critiquers are right here, your peers and colleagues. Yes, we all value what an agent or editor has to say, but sometimes you will get far more usefulness from peer critiques in a group setting than anywhere else. Don’t discount those valuable fellow authors and their knowledge.