(or at least get closer to the top)
Please welcome Elaine
First of all, there’s no foolproof method for getting an acceptance from either an editor or an agent. Everyone is different; the very things that one editor doesn’t like about your manuscript may be the same things that another editor loves. However, there are ways to make sure your submission actually gets read—and ways to ensure that it won’t.
Like it or not, publishing is a business. Professionalism counts. Treat your submission with the same care and air of professionalism you would give to preparing your resume or interviewing for a job.
I’ve done slush reading for two different publishers. Below are a short list of the most common mistakes that I noticed.
1. Follow the damn instructions
Every publisher or agent has submission guidelines, probably listed right there on their website. Follow them.
Why? Because these aren’t just guidelines—they’re also a test to see if you’re capable of following basic instructions. If you can't even do something as simple as attaching the first three chapters as a .rtf document, what will you be like to work with in edits? Or when it comes time to fill out the tax forms the IRS requires from every publisher? Or any of the other things that require the author to work with their agent/editor? Your submission package is a critical first impression—don’t make it a bad one.
2. Don’t be crazy
Keep your cover letter short and sweet. Only include the information requested in the submission guidelines, or that is otherwise directly relevant to the work you are submitting. Do not tell me about how God told you to be a writer, your astrological sign, your collection of Elvis memorabilia, or that time aliens kidnapped you.
For all that is holy, do not open your query with an insult to the person/publisher/agency/publishing industry. Yes, this really happens.
3. Polish your work before you submit
Okay, so you’ve followed the instructions and written a nice, grammatically-correct, typo-free query letter. At this point, and only this point, the slush reader will now turn to your novel and start reading. And, as much as I hate to say it, it’s usually obvious within the first five pages as to whether or not the submission needs to be rejected or recommended for a full read.
Why? Because it’s usually clear right away if the writer took the time to polish his or her manuscript...or didn’t. I know you’re excited to get your baby out into the world, but submitting the manuscript before it’s ready isn’t doing it or you any favors. My saddest duty as a slush reader was to make a comment along the lines of “intriguing book, but it’s just not quite ready for prime time.”
“But Elaine!” you may be saying, “That’s what editors are for!”
Um, no. Editors aren’t there to teach you the basics of writing or to fill the role of critique partner. The cleaner and better your manuscript is, the more likely it is to get bumped up to the next level.
4. Don’t be crazy, part deux
You’ve submitted according to the guidelines, you’ve written a solid query letter, and you’ve done your absolute best to polish your manuscript, and you still get rejected. Ouch. It hurts—trust me, I know from experience.
But—repeat after me—“It isn’t personal.” It is not a rejection of you. It may not even reflect on your manuscript—maybe you got rejected because the publisher already had a vampire dragon romance on the schedule, and didn’t want to put out another until next year.
The professional thing to do is to get back up, dust yourself off, and move on. The insane thing to do is send the editor/agent who rejected you a nasty note, telling them how sorry they’ll be that they rejected you when you’re the next JK Rowling making a billion dollars. This will only reconfirm that they didn’t want to work with you, because you’re batshit crazy.
Don’t vent your spleen on your blog/facebook page/twitter feed, either. It’s fine to say you’ve gotten a rejection. It isn’t fine to say “Publisher Y rejected my brilliant manuscript because they suck, and all their books are crap, and they wouldn’t know art if it was shoved up their bums!” Most agents and publishers have Google alerts for their names, and they communicate with one another. Don’t burn your bridges.
In conclusion, be an artiste when you’re creating your work, but be a professional when you submit. Follow these simple guidelines, and you’ll be ahead of probably 75% of the submissions that came across my virtual desk when I was wading through slush. Yes, really.