Tuesday, February 26, 2013

How to Design Your Submission Package

Ideally, a novelist’s submission package is comprised of three elements: the query, the synopsis, and the sample pages. This post is not intended to help you write them. I’ll sprinkle in a few links from the BRP team to help with that. This is to help you understand how they work together to either disappoint or entice an agent.

Think these materials are too brief to fairly represent your project? Read on. You may be surprised how revealing they can be. Let’s look at each aspect of the package in terms of its function.

Source: Flickr.com

Query: The Hook
The query is the bedrock of the submission package. It may be all an agent ever sees, since many request a query only. Rest assured that if written well, it is enough to earn an invitation to send more.

In just a few paragraphs, this page suggests whether you are ready to make the transition from writer to published author. Its opening is your pitch, one or two concise, cogent paragraphs meant to align us with your protagonist's goal, hook us with its major complications, and suggest why any of this matters.

Note the italicized words.
  • Concise: In one or two paragraphs you must suggest the arc of your entire novel. An arc has spring and snap. Each word is vital; bait the hook and reel in the reader. Bloated, ineffective phrases will result in rejection.
  • Cogent: This is not the place to be cagey. Communicate your protagonist’s core problem and how you will complicate it. The words you choose will layer in your understanding about what sells in your genre. If this agent represents the genre, the words will speak to him.
  • Hook: Each sentence should build upon the last until you arrive at the story question. A hook does not need to be huge to be effective; it has to be barbed. Don’t waste space conveying plot. Your pitch has hit its mark when you’ve enticed the agent to read more.

Including word count proves you can produce within an acceptable target. Your bio will convey your understanding that writing careers are not plucked from thin air; they are built on platform.

Synopsis: Story Structure
The purpose of the synopsis is to assess your storytelling ability. It should expound upon elements of structure relevant for your project, such as the protagonist's desire, dramatic imperative, the stakes should he fail, a few of the increasingly troublesome complications keeping him from success, the conflicting desires of a small handful of supporting characters (only a few!), the dark moment when all seems lost, the climax when your protagonist must put his back to the wall to fight for this goal he desires most, and suggest the resolution. Convey all this in a way that suggests what kind of change is instigated by your story.

Your ability to do this in a brief span of pages suggests you haven’t really just opened a vein and let it bleed; you have crafted a salable story.

Sample Pages: Dramatization
The sample pages show that you know how to dramatize the story your synopsis promises to tell. Since they are typically the most oft-revised pages in your entire project, they should serve as a marquee for the quality of your writing.

This is not the place for inane dialogue or clutter. And you won’t hook the reader by making her guess what your book is going to be about. This is your story’s prime real estate. Start in scene. Using the conventions of your genre, orient your reader by giving a little information and withholding just enough to raise a question that will bond us to your protagonist and tip us into the next sentence. Then repeat over and over, seducing the reader into the text.

A good submission package may take you months or even years to develop. It is your one and only shot with this agent so is well worth your attention. If you are self-publishing you will need these materials for marketing, so begin work on them as soon as you start to have a handle on the overarching story, and continue to revise them through subsequent drafts. Once you are sure that you have promised an intriguing story—and delivered on that promise—you are ready to submit.

Do you have questions? What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of the submission process?

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation service that offers submission package reviews. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Her debut novel, The Art of Falling, by Sourcebooks in January 2014. She blogs at The Fine Art of VisitingConnect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.


  1. The most challenging part of the submission process is actually getting someone to read past the first line. Most of my rejection letters were format-rejection slips and the contents clearly indicated the person had not bothered to read the actual submission. Only two agents indicated, by their pertinent comments, that they had read the full submission. Their positive comments were incredibly helpful.

  2. Oh, Kathryn, my Kathryn. Yes, the language is in transition, and even prescriptivists are beginning to waffle, at least when it comes to street usage, but here, on a site devoted to writing and written be editors? "Is comprised of" instead of "comprises" or "is composed of"--never! Not on my watch. But, then, I am in my 70s and will die off before too many years and then this ugly, ungrammatical construction can be freely used. Until then, the majority vote of 11 online sources is still "not in careful usage."

    Sorry about that. I need another cup of coffee, clearly.

    Good post!

  3. Fiona, my agent recently tweeted that she knows whether a submission is right for her by the first line. After reviewing many manuscripts I can see how she might say that. (Of course my job is not to accept/reject, but to improve.) Keep in mind this is not always about technique, but also content. Our job as writers is to keep them from being able to put the ms down.

    I think we have to allow that they must make their decisions quickly, and that they must be expedient in answering. After all, our multiple submissions are also canned content, tweaked slightly for each agent. This is the game of e-mailed multiple submissions that no longer cost us a blessed thing to send out, so believe it or not many people send any old thing. A killer query is essential.

  4. Larry, thank you for your public thrashing. I still love you. Always in search of a teachable moment, I will say this: there are different kinds of editors. I am a developmental editor and have never pretended to be a grammarphile. (Yup. Probably not even a word.) I learn here from copyedit perfectionists along with the rest! My passion is the creative use of language and punctuation so that the story is best served, so if in executing that passion I once in a while trip over my syntactical shoelaces, I beg forgiveness. ;)

    To somehow make this relevant to submission packages: make sure they are throughly copyedited and proofed!

  5. Early on, I got a copy of Noah Lukeman's "The First Five Pages" and was so depressed I gave the book to a friend. Given the stack of submissions (one editor said her slush pile was two stacks of envelopes, each taller than she was, and she was 5'10") they're not looking for ways to help "not there yet" manuscripts. They're looking for a reason to get it off their desk.

    Another writing colleague said his brother worked for a small publishing company. On Mondays, everyone read queries/slush. EVERYONE. Even the janitor had the power to reject a submission.

    And what if your targeted agent doesn't want anything but a query? All the rest doesn't matter if you can't send it along.

    It's a tough business, and sometimes I think it's a crap shoot. Yet books do get represented and sold; it's a matter of timing and finding that perfect match. Having a quality product is a big part of the process.

    Terry's Place

  6. Makes one wonder how many great books are left in slush piles. So shame on those whose job it is to READ submissions and do not.

  7. and Larry --you shouldn't be so hasty to correct Kathryn's grammar until you've checked for errors in YOUR editing. I'm sure you'll find it NOW.

  8. Blurbs and query letters take a lot of effort and real talent. They are not to be rushed over, that's for sure.

    Morgan Mandel

  9. Thank you for explaining these marketing necessities so concisely and cogently : ). Unfortunately, agents and editors only have time for the 30-second commercial rather than the 120-minute screenplay. Making those 30 seconds count is key.

  10. Thanks for another helpful post. I am so glad that you stressed that it takes time to get a submission package prepared. So often we finish a book and are so eager to make that first contact with an agent or editor, we dash off a query. I know I was guilty of that haste early on in my career. These marketing materials can be as challenging, or more so, than writing the book, but as you stated, it is well worth the time and effort to get them right.

  11. So it seems everyone's on board with the fact that you have only a line or two to hook interest before your query is discarded.

    Recall the old saying (attributed to many but most probably started with Blaise Pascal) that goes something like: I would have written a shorter letter but didn't have the time. It takes time—and let's be truthful, considerable amount of introspection, analysis, and craft—to distill the essence of a thing. An inability to do so is one indication that you still aren't ready to market the book.

    For this reason, are you going to throw your first sentence away with "I am writing with the hope that you will be intrigued enough to offer me representation for my 90,000-word paranormal romance?"

    Didn't think so. They know why you're writing. Show them why they should write back!

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Kathryn, thank you for noting that self-pubbed authors need to be just as diligent about creating these materials as those who are seeking representation. The quality of the writing depends not on the publication method, but on the careful preparation of the writer -- and this includes creating a marketing package worthy of an agent's time and attention, even if an agent won't be reviewing it.

    Great post!

  14. This post comes at exactly the right moment for me, Kathryn. I'm in month six on the synopsis (and think I've nailed the query after about a year), and even though a reader-partner has told me it's not ready, I've been pretending to myself that it is. Thank you for this posting!

  15. Meredith, your comment evokes gestation, which is an apt comparison. Let it stew...revisit...let it stew...revisit.

    And unlike a real child, if the birth of your submission doesn't bear the expected fruit, you can pop it back in the think tank and revise and stew some more!

  16. Should I be concerned that agents and publishers have my submissions soaked in water before opening?

  17. Christopher: In a word, yes. This is one drawback of digital submissions.

  18. Great post! Very helpful. I've shared the link on my on-line networks!

  19. @Anonymous -- Touche. Or touchy, touchy. I'm not blogging. Nor am I submitting a package. Moreover, caffeine deprivation is an acceptable excuse for even the most execrable of online errors.

    There are, of course, always typos, even after careful editing. I am so glad Kathryn, at least, took my "postal" thrashing with a smile.

    Incidentally, I could find a missing comma in my comment, but otherwise, for the informal usage of comments (not blogs or submission packages, of course), I am satisfied--yet open to be enlightened. Then again, I am not, like Anonymous, a perfectionist. Nor anonymous.

    As to you, Kathryn, your craft is magnificent, as always! Thanks for the good humored response.

  20. Let me first state that I read a lot of "slush" - at the company I work for, we call this "the gold mine". I don't read the synopsis or the query at all, but immediately open the manuscript and read 5-10 pages. That tells me what genre and if it's right for this company, as well as the writing ability of the author. If both pass muster, I read more of the manuscript, but with a shift in focus to the actual story arc and character development. If I decline a manuscript (which is often the case), I scan the author bio and query so I can craft a personal response (hard to believe, I know) and if I think the boss will like the story, I read the supporting data so we can discuss the author's background, social marketing skills, etc.

    As far as putting together the submission package, my suggestion is all authors bite the bullet and develop the skills to do this in less than a week! That is, if you want to publish more than one book in your life, and possibly even earn some money at it.

  21. Frankly there are no drawbacks to digital submissions, and after I complete the paper stack facing me now, I'm never accepting any paper submissions again. End of discussion. Here is my model for the perfect submission set-up:

  22. Dani I agree that digital submissions are great. They're just sometimes "too" easy to send.

    As for your admonition that people should learn how to do this in a week vs mine to take your time and do it right: I think your suggestion is based on the fact that you have a polished manuscript with a tight structure ready to go. It is more my reality that in trying to distill her story, the author realizes it's not so easy—because that structure is often wobbly. This involves some back and forth between query/synopsis/ms until you are satisfied that you actually told the story you say you meant to.

  23. To Larry: I didn't mean to ruffle your feathers but you did point out that this is a site written "BY" editors, so I thought you might appreciate a heads up on your typo. I gather that I was mistaken. A "perfectionist" I am not. Nor am I an editor. May the rest of your day be pleasant.

  24. Kathryn, I love this line: An arc has spring and snap. Also, how each sentence must build on the last to hook the agent. This tip is key advice here especially in your manuscript's sample pages: Using the conventions of your genre. This speaks to the work we need to do in writing our book. We must know our genre and the elements that are part of that genre, even while having a unique tale. For no matter the query hook or synopsis, if it's not written with its audience in mind then the writer has failed to draw on all his tools! I learned this from you :) And I know, from experience, that this is an ongoing learning experience and I have to read my genre to write it.

  25. As the owner of this blog, I do wish people who post as Anonymous would sign their names - at least the first name. I think we'd all appreciate that, if for no other reason than to make it easier for those of us who visit the blog daily to check and delete the Anonymous spam. ~ Dani

  26. Hey Donna, thanks for your comment. We hear all the time that we need micro tension on each page of our manuscripts—how much more true that is if all the reader will see is a few lines!

  27. aka - Edward Peoples

    If anonymous comments are considered spam why is there an option to comment as such? I apologize for the intrusion into your blog site. I had hoped to gain some potentially valuable guidance here, but I do not wish to incur the disdain of anyone.

    Quiet, Ed.

  28. Anonymous: If you have a compelling reason to remain anonymous, so be it! I'm not the owner of the blog, granted, but I'm happy to share our knowledge and resources with you and appreciate a fine conversation with other writers. Of course it's also fun to get to know one another, but you're right—the option to remain anonymous exists. The popularity of our blog attracts an awful lot of spam, though, as Dani said, so we apologize in advance if your comments get swept up in the housekeeping process!

  29. Thank you, Kathryn.

    Ed Peoples


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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