Gray Matter
by Robert Gray

You’ve spent months, perhaps years, perfecting your novel. You’ve made countless sacrifices at the expense of yourself and your family, and now you have your masterpiece tucked away on a hard drive, which is in a fire-safe box, under lock and key – now that you’re thinking about it, maybe you should purchase some surveillance equipment too, just as a precaution. Because you know – you just know! – this is going to be The One that changes everything.

You’ve already begun filling your head with thoughts on what you’ll say during your book tour (which is really just practice for all those award acceptance speeches.) You’ve even gone as far as to consider what you’ll wear when you walk the red carpet for the movie premiere – because as far as you’re concerned every movie studio is going to be fighting for this one – and you don’t want to look like a slob standing next to Johnny Depp, who will, of course, be elated at having been given the opportunity to play the lead role.

Then you start the submission process and everything does change, but not the way you expected. You get your first rejection, and you’re positive that idiot couldn’t spot real talent even with the Hubble Space Telescope. Then you receive a few more rejections… no sweat. But you’re a professional, so just to be safe you read through the manuscript again and buff out some minor imperfections to give it that extra high-gloss shine.

You really start to suspect something’s wrong with the next dozen or so rejections, and now you’re tearing into the story like a blind cannibal, revising on the basis of form rejections that say – Thank you [chump] for submitting, but unfortunately this project is not right for me at this time. At around this point jealousy creeps in – You mean to tell me Snooki and Justin Bieber can get book deals, but I can’t!

And finally, after all those doors have been slammed shut, you wonder why you ever wanted to be a writer in the first place and decide your manuscript is nothing more than a steaming pile of crap.

Sound vaguely familiar?

But let’s step back for a moment and look at this process under a different light. From here on out I’m going to focus on agent submissions; however, most of my advice will play nicely with all avenues of publication.

Go to any agency’s website or blog and you’ll often find the number of submissions they receive. On average a small agency may get several thousand submissions a year. Some of the bigger ones can reach those numbers in a far less amount of time. You’re probably thinking with numbers like that your chances of success are slim at best, but the truth is eighty percent of those submissions weren’t ready for prime time, either because of poor query letters or sloppy manuscripts or both.

While no advice is going to provide immediate access into that gated community known as the publishing world, I’d like to offer up a list that will help you at least get into that top-twenty percentile.

1. Complete your manuscript – This would seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how many agents I’ve spoken to who say they often reject a story because of a poorly edited manuscript, be it stupid grammar mistakes, weak imagery or glaring plot holes. Sure, a misplaced comma here and there isn’t going to be a deal breaker, but if you’ve got subject-verb agreement problems, dangling modifiers and crutch words galore, you aren’t going to come across as a professional, or even competent.

2. Don’t submit blindly – Don’t just blast out a hundred submissions to everyone that accepts unsolicited manuscripts. People appreciate personalized letters. Think of all that spam that clogs up your own inbox. Once you see the salutation Dear {email address}, don’t you immediately reject it? It’s the same for agents. Know who you’re submitting to and point out some facts: After reviewing some of your recent sales, including XYZ by Famous Author, I feel this story might fit your current interests.

3. Remember your bio – You might be thinking – I don’t have any publishing credits, so I don’t have to worry about a bio. And you’d be wrong. Sure, the more credits you have the better, but agents want to at least get some sense that you’re passionate about what you do, not to mention they want to see that you’re familiar with the territory covered in your story. But please, oh please, keep the bio brief, and don’t include useless information. While I’m sure you have a wonderful family and your pets are just so darn loveable, they don’t belong anywhere near your query.

4. Don’t compare yourself to someone else – Don’t say, Stephen King is okay, but This Book is going to make everyone forget he exists. For one, that’s not going to happen, and for two, the agent will immediately get the sense that you’re a pompous ass and presume that you will be impossible to work with.

5. Don’t rush – You’ve finally completed The One, and you want to rush it out so the cash can start rolling in. Besides the fact it could take well over a year for your story to see publication – if, that is, you are so fortunate – there’s no need to rush. Carefully construct your query, and then sleep on it. I guarantee you will find problems with it the next morning. If you don’t, sleep on it again. (It wouldn’t be a bad idea to do the same with your manuscript too.)

6. Test the waters – As I’ve already mentioned, you want to make sure everything is perfect before sending your story off into the wild, but even still, rejection has a funny way of changing one’s perception. Try submitting to a couple of agents, no more than five, and see what the response is. If you send out five queries and you get five rejections, even if they’re form rejections, you’ll know something is wrong with the query. If you receive five requests for partials or fulls and then get rejected, you’ll know that your query is okay, but there is something wrong with the manuscript.

7. Follow the submission guidelines – If the request is for a query and the first five, then that’s what you must send. And by first five they mean the first five pages of chapter one. Don’t send off what you believe to be the best five pages.

8. Block out the noise – Don’t concern yourself with what everyone else is doing, which idiot celebrity or politician just got a seven-figure advance. And that other first-time author? The one who just sold his book in a nice deal, even though you know that your book is infinitely better? Don’t worry about him either. Worry about you. Or better said by my grammar school teacher: keep your eyes on your own paper.

9. Don’t get discouraged – You will get rejected, a lot. Be prepared. And remember: it only takes one YES. If it makes you feel better after a particularly harsh rejection, read the first piece you ever submitted. You’ll probably be thanking the publishing Gods those rejecters had the decency to spare you public humiliation. In other words, use rejection as fuel to make the next submission better. Dare those agents to reject you.

10. Keep working – Don’t hover around your inbox, mailbox or phone waiting for a response. It could be many weeks before you hear anything at all. Get started on your next project. You’re a writer, so write.

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