Novelist Richard T Kelly has also worked in senior publishing roles, both as an editor of books and as a literary agent. Here he offers a few tips from his experience for first-time writers looking to navigate the submission process and get into print.
From outside, the publishing industry can resemble a closely guarded citadel; and the aspiring writer who seeks a home for their debut manuscript can be a bit like the countryman in Kafka’s famous parable who seeks admission to the Law. The gatekeeper he runs into presents him with umpteen obstacles, but the very first of these is that most maddening of rejections: ‘It is possible, but not at the moment.’
In the publishing business as I first came to know it, twenty years ago, unknown writers might still put a manuscript hopefully into an A4 envelope and post it to a publisher knowing it would sit in a ‘slush-pile’ of unsolicited submissions, which a keen editorial assistant might, at some idle moment, glean for treasure. (Legendarily, that’s how William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was discovered.)
Even then, though, literary agents were the key intermediaries for impressing a new writer unto a publisher. And soon the slush-pile ceased to be: assistants were too busy, and most big publishers decided to log only agented submissions. Thus the chief talent-spotting action now moved to agencies, and to a new type of slush-pile: the email inboxes of the agents, monitored closely by their assistants, who could perhaps be enticed to click and print a promising Word attachment.
So, these days if you’re trying your luck as a new writer you’ll be submitting to agents, hoping to persuade them you have a talent that could interest an acquiring editor. Much hard thinking, then, has to go into the question of what agents, as gatekeepers, look for in a submission.
Using your writer’s voice
I suspect most of them would say that, above all, it’s about ‘the voice’: a term so pervasive yet hard to define that it can sound like voodoo. ‘Voice’, for sure, is something distinctive in a writer’s style which you can hear as you read; a fluency that comes from assurance, underwritten by the writer not making any obvious mistakes.
Before the agent hears your voice, though, you must persuade them to listen – to read your pages. The standard etiquette is to write a careful covering email to attachments of a synopsis and sample chapters, asking if the agent might, on this evidence, be so kind as to look at the complete work? (It’s not impossible to interest an agent in a work-in-progress; but the evidence will have to be something very special.)
The covering email might feel like a formulaic chore; but it’s vital in making a good impression. Above all, be polite, making clear why you’ve asked this particular agent to read your work – so get their name right, and show that you know and admire the fine published authors they already represent. (Don’t cut-and-paste the same paragraphs you drafted along these lines for the other agents on your shopping list.)
Then, you need to say very succinctly why anyone should care about your book. This is because no-one asks us to write our first novels; but we have to believe somebody will want to read them. For that same reason, the first paragraphs and pages of your writing sample have to be as strong and engaging, as technically right and tight, as you can make them.
This could be your lucky day…
An agent likes to see – because it chimes with their own special way of thinking – some evidence that a writer understands whereabouts their work might sit in the shop-window of book publishing. You don’t have to be some massive showboat: some of the best writers I know are fairly retiring individuals. But no would-be debut novelist today gets to be Marcel Proust confined to his cork-lined room.
The other big lesson, wistful but vital, is this: put on your tin hat and get used to rejections pinging back at you. A lot of talented people come to the citadel and seek admission from the gatekeeper. As good as you are, you will need some luck: it could come down to the mood an agent is in at whatever time of day your manuscript lands before them. It might be that your book is exactly what they’ll want next year – only not this week. But you truly won’t know until you finish your manuscript and buy your ticket to the game. As a wise writer I know likes to say: ‘Every day, try your luck. You could be having a lucky day and you don’t know it.’
Photo credit Caroline O’Dwyer