What to Know Before You Submit Your Novel: Part One

by Constance Renfrow
published in Community

So you heard the old saying that everyone has a novel inside them and now you’re ready to shop Fifty Shades of Twilight Abbey around all the indie and major publishing companies. But you also heard that old adage, “Editors are awful people who will never read that manuscript you slaved over.” Hell, you probably got that in your I-just-finished-my-novel-so-I-can-afford-to-eat-again fortune cookie.

Actually, with or without an agent, getting your novel into our hands (or the lesser, miniony hands of an assistant, depending on how big the company is) isn’t too difficult. We’re happy to at least try reading your five hundred-page treatise on Aquaman’s obvious superiority over the other members of the Justice League (reason number 593: Aquaman is like . . . a hundred times more water-resistant than Hawkgirl).

The hard part is making sure we keeping coming back to your manuscript when office life throws us printer problems and final passes and even more projects to consider. I’ve been reading, recommending, and, yes, rejecting manuscript proposals in the book publishing industry for the past two years—first at an up-and-coming trade publisher and now at an incredible indie press—and I’ve compiled some of the dos and really-please-just-don’ts of querying.

So before you submit and start calculating your advance on royalties, please please please consider these all-too-obvious but all-too-often-forgotten factors. The editor will love you that much more if you do!

Research the Company First

You might think that all publishing companies are, in essence, the same, but actually you’d be surprised. Some companies specialize in fanfic (apparently), others work only with literature so highbrow you could make a terrible fivehead joke. Or photo collections or homemade sex toy how-tos. Be sure the company you’re about to query has recently published something similar to your book; if the last time they published debut poetry was in 1994, odds are good they’re not going to offer on Song of My-Selfie.

But believe it or not, this is the easy part. Because not only do different companies publish different types of books, but they also prepare their books in different ways. So go to a real, physical bookstore and prepare to get physical. Pick out the sorts of books that look and feel the way you envision your finished masterpiece, and find out who published them. Some publishers won’t do ragged edges, and others only print fiction in paperback. If you’ve drawn your cover illustration in your mind, you might not want to query a company that clearly has a love affair with stock photography.

Flip the books over and check out what sorts of blurbs and reviews the book was able to procure pre-publication. This will help you gauge the company’s publicity team, and will give you some realistic expectations. Then, read through the acknowledgments pages: which editor does the author thank? See if you can find them on LinkedIn or Publisher’s Marketplace. Does the author say wonderful things about the editor and the company or does he thank his hamster and leave it at that? This could give you a great sense of how much this author liked working with the company, and what you could expect from them down the line.

Check for Dumb Mistakes

This seems overwhelmingly obvious, but you’d be surprised how often authors forget it. It takes the trained eye approximately 0.02 seconds to notice the glaring typo on page one of a submission. And sometimes we editors are so stressed/exhausted/cranky that reading, “The tour-tooted animals” instead of the four-footed ones in the manuscript we’re looking at on our 4 p.m. lunch break is just the dose of hilarity needed to dissolve us into a dripping puddle of laughter-tears.

Now, I’m not saying go out and hire a proofreader to make sure your book adheres to the Chicago Manual of Style (though you will get +1000 intellect points and the slavish devotion of at least one starving freelancer). Every house follows its own style guide (usually a variation on CMS), and the book’s likely going to go through several major overhauls anyway. Besides, editors have their own punctuation pet peeves that it tickles their souls to find and fix. Hell, if I’m not grumping about how no one knows when to invert apostrophes these days, I consider it an afternoon wasted.

But at least give the manuscript a couple of reads with a critical eye. Look once for continuity: was your character a blonde in the first chapter? Okay, then we’ll need a scene with hair dye, because she has “raven-black plaits” in chapter twelve. Then skim again—one time minimum—for typos. Because if the title of your sex guide is Kama Sutra the Bestiality Way, the (probable) first reason the editor will throw your manuscript away will be if the first sentence starts, “Do you dream of packs of chiseled wolfs . . . ?”

More importantly, depending on the severity of the mistake—like if your characters cite the great country of Africa or get lost in the frozen northern waters of the Antarctic—the editor could very well get the impression you don’t know what you’re talking about. Which then begs the question, why is this person writing this book in the first place?

 Read It As An Educated Reader

Now it’s time to read over your manuscript for anything an editor may find problematic enough to make her beg St. Francis de Sales for instant death. Are you making sexist/racist/controversial statements that have absolutely no bearing on the story? Get rid of them. Do you spend an entire chapter claiming your senator eats paint? Prove it with facts or rethink it. Does the book rely on stereotypes? That’s boring. No one wants to be bored and editors have especially short attention spans.

Exterminate all clichés. Even if they’re fairly new to the vernacular, just imagine how many times an acquiring editor sees them. I never want to see a person’s face described as a “mask of” horror/terror/ugliness/anything ever again (unless little Janet was actually born with a mask-face just to terrorize everyone who uses that phrase, in which case, you’ve earned yourself a publishing contract).

Another thing. Pay attention to how many times you repeat words or phrases. Have you ever said a word so many times in a row that it loses all meaning? That’s what the editor will feel like if you use the phrase “so-and-so snorted” 381 times in a two hundred-page novel. I once had an author who used “shared” instead of “said” every single time, and I still can’t say/hear/read/think the word without wanting to throttle whatever good Samaritan is sharing her fruit platter with the rest of the office.

So, now that you’ve picked your publisher, and your manuscript is in tip-top shape, you’ll need to write an email and send it off. Check back here next Tuesday. I’ll be going over Part Two of what to know before you submit.


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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