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'07 Authors Insider Tips

by Louisa Burton
Formatting Your Manuscript
Scams / Choosing an Agent
Pitching Your Novel...
From The Call to Published...

Hard Business
From Greg Herren
Who Is Telling This Story?
It’s Work, Not A Hobby
Where Ideas Come From

Sexy on the Page
With Shanna Germain
Plotting Erotic Fiction
Seducing Your Muse
Creating Characters...
Description, Action & Dialogue
Fucking on Paper
Ten No-Nos of Erotic Fiction
Climactic Moments: First Draft
Critique Groups
Revising Your Erotic Story
Finding the Perfect Markets...
Just Submit Already
Rejections and Acceptances

Two Girls Kissing
With Amie M. Evans
Verb Tense Confusion
Coming Up with Story Ideas
Attend a Writers’ Conference
The Fundamentals of POV
Should I Sign That?
Etiquette for Authors
Erotica is Serious Work
No Body Writes for Free...
Shameless Self Promotions
The Myth of Writer's Block

The Write Stuff
From Ashley Lister
The Time is Write
The Beautiful People
A Book by Any Other...
Synopsis: the Necessary Evil
Erotica or Porn?
Feedback Whine

2007 Smutters Lounge

Ashley Lister Submits
by Ashley Lister
What's it like being a writer?
An Apology to Salespeople

Get All Worked Up
With J.T. Benjamin
About Secrets
The Perfect Fuck
About Choices
The Age of Consent
The Kingmaker
Kids and Sex
The Price of Beauty
The G.O.P.
All Worked Up About Hate
Real Men

Pondering Porn
With Ann Regentin
Good Sex: A Physics Lesson
Meet Frankenstein
Thoughts on the Orgasm Gap
The Very Bloody Marys
The Doomsday Erection
Online Threesome Porn

By Louisa Burton

The Novelist's Submission vs. the Editor's Domination:
How to End up on Top

Part II — Pitching Your Novel to Agents and Editors

Last month, in Part I of my two-part column on getting published, I covered writing scams, whether you should try to get an agent (yes), and how to go about it. That was the scary part. Now for the terrifying part, actually submitting your manuscript for publication.

I think it's a good idea, especially when you're trying to get that first book into print, to submit to agents and editors simultaneously. If an agent agrees to represent you, he or she can take over the submission process. And if you get a nibble from a publisher, you'll find—surprise, surprise—that the agents you've been talking to suddenly take you much more seriously. As I discussed in last month's column, you can narrow down a list of agents who rep your kind of book through word of mouth, writing organizations, online writers' forums, and services like Writers' Market and Publishers Marketplace. Book publishers can be found in these same sources. You can also visit the bookstore with a memo pad and make a note of who publishes books that are similar to yours.

Should you submit to more than one agent or editor at a time? HELL yes! In the past, multiple submissions were frowned upon, which meant that an author could spend literally years sending out the same manuscript over and over. Today, most editors and agents accept multiple submissions. Many specify that they want to be told if other people are reading the manuscript. A few still state flatly that they won't look at multiple submissions. Use your own judgment in terms of what you do and what you reveal, but bear in mind that when an agent or editor knows that he's not the only one evaluating a particular book, it will magically levitate to the top of the pile.

If someone asks for an exclusive read and no one else is looking at the project at the moment, you might agree to it, but for a limited and defined period of time. It's perfectly okay to tell them that they have an exclusive for three weeks and that you will continue submitting it elsewhere if you haven't heard from them by thus and such a date. Be careful about telling Agent #2 that you'll give her a three-week exclusive after Agent #1 is finished looking at it, since when you do send it to Agent #2, it will carry with it a whiff of rejection.

It's a really good idea, especially if you're submitting to a number of people at once, to keep a log of your submissions—who you sent it to on what date, his or her response, etc. You may think you'll remember all these details. You won't. It just gets waaaay too Byzantine to keep track of.

The practical, step by step process of submitting a novel manuscript to an agent or an editor involves several elements: the book, the pitch, the query letter, the synopsis, the partial, and the completed manuscript.

The Book. Before you set out to submit your book (ideally before you write it!) it's important to understand exactly what you intend to accomplish in terms of storytelling. You should also have a clear idea of the genre your book fits into: mainstream, romance, mystery, literary, erotica, science fiction, etc. (Yes, literary fiction is just another genre. Do not get me started.) This will not only help to keep you focused while you're writing the story, it will help immeasurably when it comes time to submit it for publication. Editors and the all-powerful marketing people want to know where a book will be shelved before they approve an acquisition. If you have the chance to talk to an editor in person, you can even bounce an idea off of her before you write it: "Do you think you'd be interested in a romantic suspense with a hero who's a police detective and a heroine who's a psychic...?"

If you're unpublished, you probably won't be offered a contract until you submit a completed manuscript—editors are well aware that novels are easier to start than to finish—so it's best to wait until your book is done to market it. When you're ready, there are two basic approaches: a) pitch it to agents or editors (or both) at conferences, or b) send query letters to likely agents or editors. In either case, you're going to have to come up with...

The Pitch. This is the centerpiece of your efforts to secure an agent or a publisher, whether you deliver it in person or in a query letter. The pitch is your story's through-line, or spine. Agents and editors like to see that you can boil your story down to its fundamental components; it proves that you know what it's about. If you think that's a strange thing to say, try sitting in on a group pitch meeting at a conference and listen to other aspiring novelists "sum up" their books. "Well, this happens, and then that happens, and then the other happens, and then..."

"But what's the conflict?" the editor or agent will invariably ask.


Keep your basic pitch short (50 words or less, one or two sentences) and emphasize the conflict, because what every editor and agent knows, and what every novelist should know, is that conflict is the beating heart of a story. One central conflict. But that's another column.

Pitching at conferences is easiest if you rehearse your pitch beforehand so that no matter how white your knuckles and sweaty your brow, you can still deliver it in an intelligible way. "My hero is a police detective whose captain orders him to work with my psychic heroine to solve an arson spree, but he's convinced she's a charlatan, and the one thing she hates most in the world is having her powers doubted." If you can incorporate a high concept (Rear Window in medieval London*), that will make your pitch all the more seductive, especially for commercial fiction. When pitching in person, be prepared to elaborate to whatever degree your listener seems to want, and have some questions or comments waiting in the wings to fill in awkward silences. Definitely bring notes if you need them, and refer to them as you talk.

*I wrote this one. You can't have it.

The Query Letter. You may choose to send query letters instead of, or in addition to, in-person pitches. Remember that this is a business letter. The shorter you keep it, the more likely it is to get read. Use proper business letter format, ideally on letterhead. Don't use first names in your salutation unless you're actually on a first-name basis—which may very well be the case if you met this person at a conference or writers' group meeting. If so, include a reminder of the meeting, and then describe the project—its title, word count, genre (or the specific line it's targeted for), and a brief synopsis that incorporates your conflict-oriented pitch. If it's a historical novel, give the setting and year. Personal information should be limited to your publishing history, if any, and experience that relates directly to the plot. They don't care that you're an avid reader, or that everyone in your critique group loved this book, or that you've won half a dozen ballroom dancing championships—unless, of course, the book is about ballroom dancing.

Pay attention to what this particular person wants to see, be it a query letter alone, a query with synopsis, or a query with synopsis and partial. Do not send your entire manuscript without being asked. It's a waste of ink and postage, and it will look amateurish. That said, send as much as they're willing to look at; the more they see, the better your chance of impressing them. In fact, an agent I know asks for just a query and synopsis, but on a couple of occasions she's taken on clients who sent the first few pages, on the strength of their writing. If you do send pages to someone who hasn't asked for them, include very few, like five, and acknowledge in your query letter that you're aware that it's more than they want to see. "I'm taking the liberty of sending along the first five pages in case you'd like to get a taste of my writing style..."

More and more print publishers are accepting emailed queries and submissions. Make sure before you take this route that it's acceptable to the person you're querying, otherwise it might be deleted unread, and maintain a businesslike tone. Warning: Emails are more likely than snail mails to be ignored.

Synopsis. "Synopsis" and "outline" are generally synonymous. Unless you are specifically asked to lay out the plot chapter by chapter, which is extremely unlikely, what's wanted is a present tense prose recounting of the highlights of your story. Keep it as brief as possible, since synopses are usually as difficult to read as they are to write; when faced with twenty pages of dense PLOT, many people will put it aside and grab something shorter. A good rule of thumb for synopsis length: try not to go over one page per 10,000 manuscript words, and if you can keep it to just a few pages without sacrificing important points, so much the better. Include your name, address, phone number, and email address on the first page, plus the title of the book.

A synopsis is a sales tool and a way to show off your writing, so make it entertaining to read. This is a real challenge, since synopses, unlike stories, are about telling rather than showing. Open with a hook and write it in action-packed present tense, emphasizing the through-line, or basic conflict, throughout. If you're writing in a genre with a strong literary form, keep those genre elements at the forefront. In other words, if there's a romantic subplot in your whodunit, but it's first and foremost a whodunit, don't go running off at the mouth about the love story. And don't keep it short by skimping on motivation, because credible motivation is extremely important to editors. As you write the synopsis, keep asking yourself "Why?" Why is this happening, why is that happening—and of course provide the answers. Minimize backstory, subplots, and secondary characters. Oh, and unless you need to refer to a character more than once, don't include that character's name. Names are really hard to keep straight in a synopsis.

Here's a sample in the form of an excerpt from the proposal for my first Hidden Grotto book, House of Dark Delights:

 In the spring of 1884, Château de la Grotte Cachée is visited by a Harvard professor of mythological studies named Dr. Elijah Wheeler, his assistant, Thomas Burke, and his physicist daughter, Catherine. Although Thomas is smitten with Catherine, she rebuffs him. She fears the chilling effect that marriage might have on her career, but mostly, she has a not-so-vague contempt for the field of study to which Tom and her father are devoting their lives. To Catherine, science and the scientific method are everything. Evidence of this disparity is their conflicting attitudes toward the strange phenomena they encounter at Grotte Cachée, which Tom and Dr. Wheeler analyze from a historical and spiritual perspective, while Catherine seeks to find a rational scientific explanation.

One afternoon, she explores the "hidden grotto" for which Grotte Cachée was named, disregarding an admonition not to venture too far into the labyrinthine cave. Her compass spins wildly, suggesting an unusually powerful magnetic vortex caused by lava cooling in a spiral pattern. Other strange things start happening: her watch slows down and then speeds up, time seems to shift, and she begins to feel lightheaded, almost delirious. When she drops her walking stick, it stands up by itself....

The Partial. You might be asked for a "partial," "three chapters," or "the first fifty pages." It all means roughly the same thing, and you're usually not asked to submit this unless the query letter has gone over well. It's alarming how many people think "three chapters" means their three favorite chapters. It means chapters 1, 2, and 3, plus the prologue, if there is one. "The first fifty pages" means approximately the first fifty pages. Don't cut off a scene in the middle to make it come out to exactly fifty. Send whatever you're asked to send, but make sure it's in proper manuscript format (see my first FictionCraft column, Formatting Your Novel Manuscript: The Do's, Don'ts, and Really-Doesn't-Matters).

With each new batch of material you send to this person, include a new cover letter.

The Complete Manuscript. This is what you're asked for if you've sent in all that other stuff and now they want to see the full book! It's a very promising sign, and a terrific opportunity. Don't blow it by sending in a sloppy, unprofessional, or cutesy manuscript. Prepare, print, and mail it in accordance with industry conventions, and let the story itself demonstrate your creativity.

Use good quality white paper, 20 lb. or heavier, for your submission manuscript. Don't use cheap photocopy paper, which has a lot of show-through and doesn't erase well. Print the manuscript in black ink with a fresh cartridge or fresh toner, so that the type is nice and black. Novel manuscripts are never bound or stapled, but it's a good idea to secure the pages with a couple of big rubber bands.

When mailing it, include, as always, a brief, businesslike cover letter, reminding the recipient who you are and what the project is. Send it by Priority Mail or a courier service—not book rate!—in a bubble envelope or a Tyvek envelope. If using the latter, you might want to protect the ms. with a piece of cardboard or a little bubble wrap so that it arrives looking fresh. When I say "bubble envelope," I mean just that, not one of those fiber-filled padded envelopes. I know, I know, they're so much cheaper, and it's such an expensive proposition to begin with, doing these mass mailings. But the problem with the fiber envelopes, besides the extra weight, is that every editor and editorial assistant in New York knows what will happen when she pulls that tab. You know, too, don't you? Some of the fiber padding, maybe a little or maybe a lot, is going to end up on the desk of the recipient, who will curse you while she's cleaning it up. Not the way you want to introduce yourself. And needless to say, of all the envelopes in the stack on that desk, yours will be opened last.

If you're sending this manuscript to an agent or editor who requested it, whether at a conference or through a query letter, write "REQUESTED MATERIAL" on the outside of the envelope. If you don't, your submission may linger in the slush pile forever.

To confirm that your manuscript got where it was supposed to go, you may include a stamped, self-addressed postcard on which you've written something like:

This is to acknowledge receipt of A BURNING TOUCH on (date) ______
(Signed) ____________________

Unless you're mailing this submission to an agent who already represents you or to a publisher who already publishes you, you'll have to let the recipient know what to do with it should they (gulp) reject it. Either a) include a stamped, self addressed envelope (SASE) large enough to accommodate the manuscript, or b) tell the editor in the cover letter that he or she may recycle the manuscript after reading it. With the advent of word processing, more and more writers are going the recycling route. Yes, ink costs, but so does postage, and are you really going to resubmit a rumpled, dog-eared ms. with at least one coffee spatter on a hard to spot interior page when you can print off a fresh new crisp one? I didn't think so. If you tell the editor to discard the manuscript, include a business-size (# 10) SASE for the response.

What now? Expect to wait several weeks or months to hear back. Agents respond sooner, in general, than editors; you might even hear from one within a few days. If the editor is taking a long time with it, it could mean either that she hasn't gotten to it or that it's getting a second or third read from higher-ups or marketing people. After a few weeks of hearing nothing, you can call or email this person to check on the script's status. Make the call brief and businesslike.

Handling rejection.

"A very bad book." –From a rejection letter to Pierre Boulle about The Bridge Over the River Kwai

That's about as nasty as it's likely to get, and as Pierre Boulle learned, publishing well is the best revenge.

Thin-skinned people do not tend to establish successful careers in the arts. You will get rejection letters. Some of them will sting, and some will make you angry. Don't get defensive, and don't ever get emotional with an editor or agent. Yes, our books are our babies, and no one wants to be told, "Geez, that kid howls at the moon!" But it's business, not personal. The only way you can make it personal is by getting angry or weepy, thus alienating someone who might one day be in a position to make your career.

If you receive a letter from an editor suggesting revisions to your manuscript, this is not necessarily a rejection! This is, in fact, a very hopeful sign. Sleep on it and decide whether the revisions might be beneficial to the book, or at least tolerable. If you're okay with editing the manuscript, ask the editor if she would be willing to take a second look at it following revisions. If the answer is yes, do them as quickly as possible and send the ms. back. Many contracts have been landed after going through this process.

If you receive an offer from an editor and you've been in contact with agents, it's perfectly okay to tell the editor, "Thank you for the offer. I've been talking to an agent. Let me firm things up with her, and she'll get back to you."  Then call the agent, who, even if she doesn't want to represent you permanently, will probably agree to close this one deal. Let the agent be the one to accept the offer and handle any contract negotiations.

What to do while you're waiting to hear on your book.  Write another one. Oh, and to prepare for the best, read my next FictionCraft article, Turning a Manuscript into a Published Novel: What to Expect After "The Call."

Good luck!

Louisa Burton
November 2007

  Read more FictionCraft by Louisa Burton in ERWA 2007 Archive.

"FictionCraft" © 2007 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

About the Author:
Louisa Burton is a multipublished author of some two dozen erotica, romance, and mystery novels for Bantam, Berkley, Signet, NAL, Harlequin, and St. Martin’s. A former publishing professional who is in love with the sound of her own voice, she has also taught numerous fiction writing courses and workshops. Way too much info about her current project, the Hidden Grotto series of erotic fantasy, is available at

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'07 Book Reviews


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She's on Top
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Amorous Woman
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The Boss
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Call Me By Your Name
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Dark Designs
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Equal Opportunities
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Gothic Blue
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The Lords of Satyr: Nicholas
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Riding the Storm
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Suite Seventeen
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Sweet as Sin
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Top of Her Game
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