A Writer's (Miserable) Life, Part 1: Submission Blues

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Think the life of a writer is glamorous, romantic, and exotic? Think again! It is a dismal existence, really. A writer’s life is an endless stream of rejection and frustration. You spend months of your life withdrawn from society, polishing and re-polishing your manuscript, in the hopes of one day earning an advance check just large enough to buy back your wife’s wedding ring (with authentic cubic zirconias) from the local pawn shop.

I decided to create this series of articles to share my experiences, which undoubtedly many of you aspiring writers have already experienced. For those of you who are not writers, perhaps these articles will serve as a warning, much like the severed heads on sticks which Vlad the Impaler used in order to send a message to those who would dare invade his kingdom.

Today, let’s examine the joys of submitting your query to a literary agent or publisher. This is a very important step, since folks aren’t exactly wearing a hole in your welcome mat in order to publish your novel. In many ways, the query process is very much like working up the nerve to ask a beautiful woman out on a date. In other words, it’s the first step to rejection.

There is more to this process than simply sending a generic email to every agent and publisher. Much like dating, this shotgun approach rarely pays dividends. Instead, it is better to do your homework and research various agents in order to discover their likes and dislikes, and then make an attempt to woo them with your charm (and synopsis). This will greatly reduce your odds of getting rejected from 100% to 99%.

Now, don’t think for one moment that the query process is simple. It is a royal pain in the behind. For starters, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of agents and publishers. Each one has their own set of submission guidelines.

For most writers, the problem is that you only have one version of your manuscript saved on your computer. Even if this manuscript is in the “preferred” double-spaced 12-point Times New Roman format, sooner or later you will stumble across an agent or publisher who has odd preferences. You might come across five attractive agents with five dramatically different preferences, such as:

Agent 1: We accept queries by mail only. Please submit a single-spaced cover letter with the first three chapters of your manuscript, double-spaced, with a 1.0-inch margin. Include a header on each page with your name, word count, page number, and favorite flavor of ice cream.

Agent 2: We don’t believe in harming trees, so we only accept email submissions. Include cover letter, synopsis, and first five pages of your manuscript in separate .doc attachments.

Agent 3: Include cover letter, along with a 100-word synopsis. Include the first 30 pages of your manuscript as an .rtf attachment only.

Agent 4: Skip the cover letter, give us a 250-word synopsis, single-spaced, in 10-point Times New Roman font with 1.5-inch margins. Include the first chapter of your manuscript, double-spaced, in 12-point Arial font. Use a 0.5-inch indentation with each new paragraph.

Agent 5: Send a brief synopsis in under ten words in a funny font, like Maiandra GD or Monotype Corsiva. Include the first two chapters of your manuscript, single-spaced in the kind of font that makes your writing look like a ransom letter. Do not use a 0.5-inch indentation with each new paragraph.

As you can see, this turns the query process from a simple procedure to one which involves hours of tinkering with various fonts and formatting. Some agents want page headers, others don’t. Some want a brief synopsis, a full synopsis, or no synopsis at all. Some insist upon .doc attachments, while others want to see .rtf attachments, and still others are afraid of opening attachments and will require you to put everything in the body of your email. I guess they must get sent a lot of viruses by disgruntled writers who were angered by their bizarre submission guidelines.

Four hours later, your computer freezes after attempting to save 84 different versions of the same 100,000-word manuscript, and your computer sends a pop-up warning, saying “You really need to get a life”.

Some agents and publishers bypass the whole email process completely and include handy-dandy forms on their websites for you to fill out. While this method does indeed save time, it is not exempt from complications.

For instance, you may be asked to answer various questions, such as “Who is your favorite author?”, or “What was the last book you have read?” Naturally, you lie and put down something literary, like “Les Fleures Du Mal” by Baudelaire, because you’re too embarrassed to admit that the last book you read was a collection of Far Side cartoons while sitting on the toilet.

At least when you’ve completed the monumental task of querying agents and publishers, you can take a little break from the life of a writer. Enjoy yourself during the six months it takes for a 19-year old intern from Vassar to read your submission, pass on it, and send a rejection letter full of grammatical errors and misspellings which states that the agency is only interested in books about pre-pubescent wizards and teenage vampires.




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