Writing a book is a marathon task. It takes more hours than you care to think about and isolates you from any form of social life. If you make it to the finishing line you want a reward for all the effort you’ve expended: getting published.
There is a huge amount of luck involved in getting published. You can think of it as applying for a job. You can be extremely well qualified, but if your qualifications, experience and personality don’t quite match with what the organisation is looking for, the position will go to someone else. Similarly, you can have a very strong manuscript but you’ve got to get it into the right hands at the right time. With luck, it might be just what a publisher is looking for.
So, how do you give yourself the best chance of getting your manuscript published? The first step, when you’ve finally finished writing, is to do nothing. That’s right, nothing. Above all, don’t start sending it off to publishers. You only get one chance with a publisher. If you send out a manuscript before it’s ready it will get rejected. Remember, publishers are extremely unlikely to look at a manuscript a second time.
After you’ve written the last word (and celebrated!) put your manuscript aside for a while and resist the temptation to play around with it. Be patient. Don’t touch it for several weeks—longer, if possible. The break from your manuscript will allow you to see it with fresh eyes. When you start editing you’ll do a much better job.
Take your manuscript out and look at it again. It will be much easier to see what’s not working. Most likely there will be some structural issues to work on. Check for inconsistencies, unresolved sub-plots, underdeveloped characters, and any writing that’s not clear and simple.
One way of picking up structural problems is to write a synopsis of the story. You’ll need a synopsis to send to agents, so it’s a good skill to develop. It’s best to write several outlines of differing lengths. Some emails will require a paragraph, others only a couple of lines. Agents and publishers will require a 500–800 word synopsis (certainly no more than 1,000 words). Make sure you write a longer outline as well, which includes all the sub-plots, characters and resolutions. This will help you identify problems with your story.
When you’ve done the best you can on your own, you need to get another set of eyes to look at your manuscript. Your brain created the story and will therefore see what it wants to see; another brain will see what’s actually there. You need to choose someone who is qualified to give you appropriate feedback and who won’t be frightened to be honest. If one of your chapters was so boring that the reader didn’t finish it, you need to know. You could ask a family member or friend to look at it, or someone from your writers’ group, so long as the person is willing to be brutally honest. Better still, use a manuscript appraisal service and get it looked at by a professional writer or editor.
After someone else has looked at your manuscript, you’ll need to resolve any issues that have been identified. One of the things that may have come up is length. You might think your tome of 300,000 words is absolutely brilliant, but you’ll have trouble persuading a publisher. Average length varies from genre to genre but a good guide, when writing a novel, is to aim for 75,000 to 110,000 words. If it’s much longer than that you really need to consider if you can justify it being that long. If it’s much shorter you should look at beefing it up a bit.
Before you send out your manuscript to publishers or literary agents you need to ensure it is formatted appropriately. The aim is to make it as readable as possible. This means no Word Art or fancy fonts, even in the title. Stick to an easy-to-read serif font, such as Times New Roman, in basic black. An appropriate font size for submissions to agents and publishers is 12 point. If you keep the text left-justified it will make your manuscript easier to read. Double space your text and leave generous margins. This will allow plenty of space for the agent to make notes. Finally, make sure each page is numbered and includes the title of the story.
Your manuscript should now be in perfect shape and ready to send out. Your next step is to decide if you need a literary agent.