The mystery writers have been trying to solve for decades—what are publishers and agents looking for? What do they want to see in a query? What are they looking for in a manuscript?
As the senior editor at Dancing Lemur Press, I’ve seen a lot of queries come through. And sadly, most disqualify themselves right off the bat. So, let me outline some things writers need to do to get past that first query and beyond.
Is the query letter done correctly?
- The title, genre, and word count need to be listed in the first paragraph.
- The synopsis should be two-three paragraphs long.
- In the last paragraph, the details—why the publisher/agent might be interested, any other writing credentials you might have, and a very brief one-line bio.
- All of this should fit on one page.
Does the submission come with all requested information?
- A properly crafted query letter is usually the bare minimum.
- Some will request a synopsis or outline. The synopsis should be two-five pages long and an outline (non-fiction) is usually longer, often five to ten pages.
- Some might request the first three chapters of a manuscript.
- Some want a marketing plan.
- Unless they state otherwise, no attachments. Everything MUST be pasted into the body of the email.
Is it fresh material?
- Sometimes publishers will republish a successful self-published book, but most want to see fresh material.
- It needs to be a finished manuscript.
- The word count needs to fall within a genre's parameters.
Does the submission present a strong query & synopsis?
- The query needs to provide a strong hook. Something that will grab the editor or agent’s attention.
- The synopsis must cover the who, what, where, when, and why. The name of the main character should also be in the very first line.
- For non-fiction, the outline must be a detailed account of each chapter’s contents.
Is there a strong “voice”?
- A strong voice means the writing has personality and style. It’s what brings a story to life. Straightforward prose is dull, but adding your own personality, flaws and all—that is your voice.
- The characters must also possess unique personalities, ones that bring them to life and give them depth.
When reading the manuscript, does it contain active and engaging writing?
- The words and story need to flow, free of abrupt shifts and inconsistencies.
- The writing must be of publishing quality. Major typos, head-hopping, lazy writing, passive voice, etc.—those should not be present in a submission. (Which is why critique partners are essential!)
- Writing that’s too flowery or too much “tell” slows down the pace—and often the interest of the person reading it.
Does the manuscript contain solid storytelling?
- The story must work from start to finish with no glaring plot holes or contrivances.
- Each genre has its own standards, and a manuscript must hit all the beats. (Or be compelling and fresh enough to carry the story without it.)
Does the manuscript possess fresh ideas?
- Tropes are common and standard, but a story still needs originality to work. Unique twists and uncommon solutions stand out.
- It can be a fresh spin on an old idea, such as taking a classic story and turning it on its head.
Does the author have a marketing plan?
- The days of publishers sending authors on expensive book tours is over. Most publishers expect their authors to do most of the marketing.
- A writer must prepare a detailed marketing plan, from social media numbers to real-world contacts and opportunities, and list in detail what he/she will do to market the book. Not every publisher asks for a marketing plan, but since most authors are expected to do a lot of the promoting, it’s best to have one.
Is the writer easy to work with?
- The writer must send exactly what was requested in the submission guidelines. That initial first contact sets the tone. First impressions really do matter.
- The writer needs to follow directions. When asked to send a partial, send only the partial. When asked to edit or change items, make those changes. When told to set up promotional events, set them up.
- The writer must possess a good attitude. No one wants to work with a difficult person or someone who is negative. A positive attitude and a willingness to submit are a must.
You’ll notice the first two and the last two items have nothing to do with the manuscript but focus on the writer. Both the writer’s approach and the manuscript itself are vital to the submission process.
If rejections have come your way, examine your process and manuscript. Use this guideline to check every step. And then polish, perfect, and submit again!