Writing Advice
- Introduction
- A room of one's own?
- Where do you get your ideas?
- Where do I begin?
- What books do I need?
- How important is research?
- Should I join a writers' circle?
- Literary terms
- Typing it up
- Sending it off
- Penbenders
- Creating characters
- Constructing the story
- Short Fiction


Sending it off

This is the only hard-and-fast rule I’m going to give you, as opposed to advice which you can take or not, as you wish. The penalty for disobeying it can be as harsh as having to rewrite from memory every word of your seven-hundred-and-fifty-page potential Booker/Pulitzer Prize winner, so read my lips.


Got that? Publishers and agents take care of the manuscripts they receive, but accidents happen, and the post is fallible. Always, always, keep a copy, whether it’s on paper or disk. And don’t trust your computer to keep it safe, either – a power surge destroyed my hard disk, and one could destroy yours.

So - who should you send it off to? Well, either a publisher or an agent, so let’s take a look at them.


Fewer and fewer publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, and those who do receive hundreds, which go into what they call the slush-pile, so don’t expect an answer too soon. If you want acknowledgment of receipt, send a stamped addressed postcard, and you might get one.

Some will only consider manuscripts submitted by an agent, and we’ll look at agents next, but for the moment we’ll stay with publishers who do read unsolicited manuscripts.

Some accept the first two or three chapters as a submission, and some prefer to have the whole novel. Some prefer to have a query letter beforehand, and some don’t want to know about query letters. None of them wants e-mail queries. In the UK, you can find out which publishers want what by looking up their entries in the Writers and Artists Yearbook or the Writer’s Handbook – see ‘What books do I need?’ for details.

These entries will also tell you if the publisher is interested in your kind of work; there is little point in sending a novel to a publisher that specialises in non-fiction. You can also check in the library for books of a similar nature to yours, and see who publishes them.

The query/covering letter should say quite simply that you have written a novel about such-and-such, and would they like to read it? Only give information about yourself if it is pertinent – if you’ve written a novel about spying in Russia, and you are/were a spy, or if you have been previously published, they’ll be interested. Otherwise, just tell them your name, address and telephone number, and send them return postage. That’s all they need to get back to you.

When your manuscript is received, it will go into the publishers’ slush-pile where, one day, someone will pick it up and start to read it. If he reads a good opening, he will read on. If he likes what he reads, he will put the manuscript on another, much smaller pile, to go out to a publishers’ reader or readers, who will read the whole thing, and if it is recommended by these readers, the commissioning editor will read it. But even if he likes it, there is still no guarantee of publication; there are many factors to be considered, and first novels in particular are a gamble for publishers. Be prepared for disappointment, even if after all that you are turned down.

If it has gone that far through the system, you have written a good novel; just pack it up, and send it off to the next publisher on your list. Remember - even Harry Potter was rejected.

If it doesn’t get that far, it doesn’t mean you have necessarily written a bad novel, but it could perhaps be improved. If you are given any advice about where you are going wrong, by all means kick the furniture and call the publishers idiots for failing to see your genius, but after you’ve done that, think about what they’ve said, and see if perhaps you should act on it before sending it out again.


The preliminaries are the same as those for a publisher; agents too have entries in the books mentioned, and will say what their requirements are and what sort of books they agent. It is usual to send a query letter first.

The good news is that if an agent agrees to read your manuscript, then that’s what he or she will do, and it will get read sooner and with less haste than if it had been picked off the slush-pile. The bad news is that some agents charge for this service, and some won’t read unsolicited manuscripts at all. Finding an agent can be more difficult than finding a publisher.

But if an agent reads and likes your manuscript, he or she may agree to take you on, and that would give you a distinct advantage. Agents know the markets, have the contacts, and will have publishers who trust their judgment and are prepared to give serious, thorough (though not necessarily very speedy) consideration to work submitted through them.

Agents, however, don’t have magic wands, so don’t expect miracles, even if you do get taken on. Newspaper stories about big-money auctions for first novels are news because, like hurricanes in Hampshire, they hardly ever happen. Just take heart from the thought that someone out there believes in you and your work, and will be doing his or her damnedest to find it a home.


Jill McGown
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