Is your manuscript ready to submit to publishers?
Five questions to ask yourself
My end-of-year post is usually a reflection on what I’ve read during the year but this year I cannot reveal all the wonderful books I’ve read since I had the enormous privilege of being on the judging panel for a major literary award! Instead, I can strongly encourage you to check out the shortlists and highly commended works in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, and read the judges’ notes. I am certain you’ll find something to love. I was on the fiction panel alongside Bram Presser, Melanie Cheng and Odette Kelada. The winners will be announced in Feb!
Instead, I’ll end the year with something I hope is useful to all of you. I recently taught a mini workshop at the Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival called ‘Is your manuscript ready to submit to publishers?’ Some of you may be at the stage of wondering this, or will be after you’ve given your manuscript another draft during the holidays. I’ll share, in brief, some of the questions I raised:
Is this really the book you should be writing?
This is perhaps the most important question in determining whether you are ‘ready’ to submit to publishers.
Think about why you are writing what you are writing.
You will write better if you explore things that are important to you, that rattle you, that keep you awake at night, that scare you, that you passionately love. You will struggle if you decide to write just to be published, for reasons of ego, or because you just think you ‘can’. If you have been thinking about writing in a particular genre because it seems to be more marketable, do think more about that. There are people writing thrillers, writing romances, writing topical nonfiction think-pieces, who lie awake thinking about those things. And their attempts will stand out above yours if you are writing from a cynical point of view.
Think about why the work should be done by you. What you bring to it.
Have you edited your manuscript with a big-picture view?
Have you taken a step back from tidying up sentences and looked at your character arcs, the pacing of your story, whether there are plot inconsistencies or holes, whether aspects of the world are consistent and plausible, whether there is tension (internal/external) leading towards your crisis and resolution, and so on? These are ‘big picture’ edits. My advice is to approach the manuscript in a layered way. In other words, don’t go in and try and tackle all of these things at once. You might, for example, do a ‘character edit’, where you look at all the characters’ motivations in relation to the plot, ensure they have a believable arc, ensure there are tensions between them and within them related to the overall conflicts of the plot, etc. Then, you might look at the overall pacing of the novel. Question the role of each scene – ensure there are no saggy bits, make sure the pacing is even. You might break your novel down scene by scene onto cards or in a program like Scrivener to help.
Have you let it rest for a while?
Having a break from your manuscript can be the best thing for it. Walking away from it can help you solve problems you didn’t even realise were there! Give it at least a month, but several months can be excellent.
If this is something you’re going to find hard, I would plan something for that time in between to keep you occupied. Another project, perhaps, or maybe a specific exercise regime or a different kind of creative activity or craft. Or just catch up on some reading. It’ll all help with those back-processes in the brain. Without knowing it, you’ll still actually be problem-solving and working away back there. And you’ll have new enthusiasm when you get back to the project.
Have you sought peer or professional advice?
Gather big-picture feedback from others. Not too early! Make sure you’re at a stage when you’re pretty clear about your own intentions and the feedback will be helpful rather than undoing you. How do you know what to take on? If you are getting the same feedback from a few different people, it’s probably worth noting. At this stage, think about the feedback that is about the structure, story and characters. It’s okay to also think a little about where it sits in the market, the audience for it, etc., but zoning in on this too early, for many writers, can interrupt the creative process (resulting in a lesser book).
Have you copyedited the manuscript?
The big picture stuff is more important to focus on to begin with, but once you feel that’s sorted (is it really, though…?) then you do also want the manuscript to be as presentable as possible before submitting to publishers. Many of you have a strong grasp of spelling and grammar and can do this yourself after a break from the manuscript (when you’ll notice your tics and so on a bit more). Some of you may wish to get it professionally edited, but that can be costly. Some of you might have an awesome friend or family member who will kindly give it at least a strong proofread, catching your biggest mistakes. It’s always a good idea to put your best foot forward. It might help your manuscript to stand out above others in the submission pile.
Do you know where it sits in the market, who to target and how?
Before you approach agents and publishers, you now need to define what the book’s hook is and where it sits. Look at other books you love that are in the same genre or voice or have similar concerns. Check which publishers and imprints publish them. Look at the acknowledgements page in those books and you may find the names of agents of publishers who like this kind of book. Talk to other writers in your writing communities and see if they have advice about where your book might be a good fit. Book a mentoring session with a published author or editor and share with them the opening chapters and a synopsis – they may also be able to help you determine who to target. And in terms of defining the ‘hook’, check out my previous post on this. You may find you come full circle to the first question I raised – why is this the book you were burning to write? That could be the key to its ‘hook’, its originality, the reason it’s compelling.
Opportunity of the month
Overland’s Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize 2021 seeks excellent short fiction of up to 3000 words themed around the notion of ‘travel’. The winning story will receive a $5000 first prize and be published in Overland’s Autumn 2022 issue. Two runners-up will each receive $750 and be published at Overland online. And the magazine’s Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets 2021 seeks outstanding poetry by writers who have published no more than one collection of poems under their own name. The major prize is $6000, with a second prize of $2000 and a third prize of $1000. All three winners will be published in Overland’s Autumn 2022 issue. Closing date for both of these is 20 December 2021. Enter here.
Thanks to everyone who has read, subscribed and responded to this newsletter in 2021. I’m looking forward to keeping in touch next year (after a break in Jan), giving more writing and publishing advice, keeping you up-to-date on my adventures in ‘greening’ the book industry, and sharing the journey to publication of my new novel, Moon Sugar, out in October with Transit Lounge!
If you’ve enjoyed the newsletter in 2021 and would like to support me in keeping it free, you might consider buying me a digital cuppa. :)
Wishing you all a safe and happy festive season,