What to Know Before You Submit Your Novel, Part II

by Constance Renfrow
published in Community

This is a continuation of a previous article from editor Constance Renfrow about six things you need to know before you submit your novel. Check out Part One right here!

Make Your Email Stand Out

Okay, so Fifty Shades of Twilight Abbey is free of clichés and that anti-woman monologue, you’re ready to “sware” all the typos are fixed, and you’ve decided exactly what publishing company offers that matte texture you saw at the Strand and absolutely have to have. Phew. Now, how do you make sure an editor sees it/remembers it once something new gets stacked in his inbox?

Most editors get anywhere between one and a veritable bajillion manuscript queries every day, and unfortunately speed-reading class used to start at 7 a.m. So make your email pop. Unless the company submission guidelines state otherwise, don’t bother starting your email title with “Submission” or “Agented Submission”—particularly as most webmail hosts only display the first fifty characters or so. Just picture what that inbox looks like. (Boring. That inbox looks boring.)

Instead, use the email title to describe the book. Like Twitter, but without hashtags. We’re much more likely to shirk our responsibilities to read “Novel About Used-Coffin Salesman” than “Submission of Fiction Manuscript: PEO . . . Dear Editor.” (That being said, always do whatever the submission guidelines say. You want extra points for style, not to be disqualified for breaking the rules.)

Then, while you’ve got our attention, dropping our recent acquisitions or newly-released titles is a good way to win points. Keep an eye on all the deals that go down on Publisher’s Marketplace, and use that to personalize your pitch. Just make sure that when you write, “I’m reaching out to you because you recently acquired Cupcakes from Monkey Brains” that you’re pitching Muffins from Zebra Meat and not an anthology of the greatest JFK conspiracies.

 Tell Us How Awesome Your Story Is

Humble-bragging may be the hot new thing for impressing Facebook rivals, but your query letter should never tell us why we don’t want to read Twilight Abbey after all. I’ve received a vaguely appalling number of one-sentence queries that can be summed up as: “Here you go.” Sometimes they even say: “This isn’t all that special but it’d be cool if you can give it a try.” Lamentably, very few editors are that cool.

Many editors are writers, too, and we know it’s easy to get discouraged by the submitting process. But don’t let any previous rejections poison your submission. Each and every time you reach out to a new editor, remember to channel your enthusiasm for your plot, your characters, and your work. The query letter is your space to gush about how brilliant your story is—the same way you told all your friends, SOs, or writing buddies back when your head first exploded with the idea.

That being said, please don’t tell us how your zombie-themed epic poem is going to earn you the next Nobel Prize or how a corner psychic once told you you’re the reincarnation of Charles Dickens. Overwhelming cockiness will get your book about as far as crippling self-doubt, so just tell us what your book is about, honestly, succinctly, and awesomely.

 Know You Are Never the Editor’s First Priority

I know this is a tough pill to swallow, but take it now before it damages your career: unless you’re a hugely imposing bodybuilder, you are never, and never will be, the editor’s first priority. Just accept that you won’t hear back about your submission for at least three months, and then go back to checking your email every half-minute like everyone else.

But just because you desperately want to see “Ed Editor McEditorson” flood your inbox doesn’t mean the feeling’s mutual. Never, ever, for the love of all that is Word, send in updated versions of your manuscript without asking the editor first. I once had an author send me five “updates” of her novel in less than an hour—one time with syntax tweaked, another with typos corrected. By the last revision she was presumably experimenting with subliminal messaging. Regardless, the overt message was that this person was obnoxious and unprofessional—not the sort of thing you’re looking for in a six- to eighteen-month time commitment.

Speaking of looking professional: if the editor “deigns from on high” to request your finished manuscript, double-check that the file you’re sending is complete and in working order. One time I was reading a short novel (I thought) and was already planning what I would say in my pitch to my director, when suddenly I got to the last page and it ended mid-sentence. When I went back to the author, it turned out the file she had sent was broken; she then sent a few more files, each time swearing it was the right one. None of them were, and actually she didn’t have the finished document on the computer she was using. And then she went on vacation. And I found a finished book to pitch.

 If You’ve Been Rejected, Don’t Argue

The email you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived! But instead of the six-figure advance you’ve been spending against, you see the standard line: Unfortunately, Twilight Abbey wasn’t right for our house at this time.

In that moment, you’re probably commencing a dramatic monologue made up of only Urban Dictionary terms, and no one’s blaming you. But don’t email back demanding to know why the editor doesn’t recognize your brilliance or link him articles from The New York Times about how iambic pentameter is coming back into popularity—thus completely justifying chapter six.

There are a thousand and one reasons why an editor/publishing company might reject a book, and almost none of them are personal. You’ve seen these lists before: maybe the company just published a book about bat-people; maybe the editor couldn’t convince her boss to take the financial plunge. But these things can become personal fast, and if you’ve just called the editor something from Urban Dictionary, she’s going to remember your name­—and not in a good way. Don’t forget that editors tend to move from company to company and so do their coworkers, so that petty revenge may very well come back to bite you at the next place you query.

Besides, oftentimes editors are told to use form rejections even on books they really like, regardless of their personal feelings. If you want to hear it, try asking for feedback. Unless specifically told otherwise, you shouldn’t resubmit the edited version, but the editor’s comments might help you win over the next company.

And more than this, you can build a rapport with the editor. If you’re eager to please and approachable, your next manuscript submission might jump to the top of that editor’s inbox. Or, if she likes you a ton and believes in your work, the editor might put in a good word for you with friends at other companies. Because, believe it or not, sometimes the editor who rejected you wants to see your work published just as much as you do.


Constance RenfrowConstance Renfrow is an editor at Three Rooms Press; an editor and publishing consultant at constancerenfrow.com; and a regular fixture at the Merchant’s House Museum in NYC. Her fiction and poetry is published or forthcoming in Petrichor Machine, Two Cities Review, Denim Skin, and the anthology Magical, and she writes features for Rapportage and CityElla. She is absolutely in love with the Victorian era, so she’s naturally working on her three-volume novel, when she’s not blogging at 21stcenturyvictorian.com.

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