Most writers would recognise the idea of a submissions package as something to send to an agent or publisher once they have finished their novel, and it's ready to go to print (if only someone would catch them a break!) It might not be so obvious that freelance editors require one, too.
First, what is it?
A submission package usually comprises a cover letter, a plot synopsis, and a sample of the work being put forward for consideration. If you are a submitting author, it’s important to provide your editor/agent with this preliminary information for specific reasons. Some are the same and some are a little different from if you are employing a freelancer to edit or consult on your work.
It’s often the case with first-timers, especially, that they struggle to provide an adequate submission package. Even if you are only employing a freelancer to consult on how to progress with your book, there is certain necessary information they need. This is applicable to any kind of book, be it a novel, self-help, memoir, biography or academia, and applies to sending your work to agents, too. A submissions package is not only a taster of your potential work, it's also an early indicator on what kind of editing or guidance the writer might need. It's important to ensure you provide everything asked of you.
You'll want to take some time getting all the different components right, so take your time over it. Don't leave it to the last minute before seeking an editor/agent and get some help if you are struggling. As with your fiction writing itself, it's always good to find someone to look it over for you.
#1 Title, genre and word count.
Some of this is self-explanatory, but your word count is relative to your genre, and your genre is relative to your intended readership. We editors need an idea of the size of your book. Too few words, we need to assess if the story is suitable for a novel-length book, or if it potentially is. Too many words, we need to assess if it can be split into more than one book. This affects how we edit from the start. Also, in the instance of employing freelance editors, if you don’t provide the word count, we can’t give you a quote for our services.
#2 The cover letter.
You know that saying about eyes being the windows to the soul? Well, in writing circles, we say it's stories that are the windows to the soul. In editor circles, we say:
I've read a lot of cover letters. Most people don't really know what to put in them. And that's fine — it's difficult to know what to include, especially if you haven't yet got any publishing history. We all know about imposter syndrome and the difficulties writers have in selling themselves and their work. It makes us feel cheap, but it's a necessary sullying. And you worked hard on your book — you deserve the chance to talk about that.
It's important to make the distinction between relevant and irrelevant information, though. Or, as can often be the case, if you are rambling. Sometimes, even for short fiction, I see cover letters that are longer than the work or the synopsis! I'm a sociable person, and I like meeting new people, but an editor's time has limits, and I rarely read a cover letter unless I'm interested in publishing the story or a writer wants to commission my consultation and editing services. Generally speaking, writing your life story is a waste of your time. This will be true of book agents, too. Keep your cover letter pertinent. A little quip or short reference to who you are or about your life? Fine, but don't ramble on about how you came to writing or about your garden. Unless your knowledge of gardening is relevant to your book. There is one caveat where this is different: non-fiction/self-help. If your book's whole premise is rooted in your experience, qualifications or knowledge of a subject where book sales will rely on your credibility, you need to convey that to your agent/editor. The compelling force that made you write thousands of words about it might also be pertinent. In this instance, your personal story can help to sell the book.
I've blogged before about writing a query letter to an agent. A cover letter is pretty much the same thing. If you intend to self-publish your book, or you have no clue how to go about traditional publishing, or if you even have a marketable book, and you want to consult with a freelancer, a cover letter will inform me: - All of #1 above.
- Who your target readership is.
- A bit about you; why you wrote the book, and what experience you have in the field you're writing about, even in the case of fiction. These are all aspects that give me pointers on where you're coming from and your voice, what you intend to achieve with your project. It also helps me visualise how you might market your book.
Where your book sample tells an editor or agent what is the style and approach to your work, the cover letter tells them what kind of person they can expect to work with. It's important to make a great first impression.
#3 The Synopsis
This petrifies most writers. Distilling a plot or a concept into 1000 words is daunting but, as a freelance editor, if I don't receive some idea of what your book is about in the first instance, I can't assess if we'll be a good fit or what I'll be working with. We'll have to work together over several months, and we both need to have a clear idea of our shared goals. A synopsis informs me of: - Your core concept. - Your level of knowledge around the story or book subject matter. - How the material is currently structured. - How well you know your characters. - A big picture view of your plot and character growth, so I can match up if the body of the work follows the same direction as your intentions. - Your book's themes. - Whether you are ready for an editor yet. I don't want to waste anyone's time or money working on an MS that is too far away from publishable standard because the author isn't yet sure of what they are trying to do or say with their own book. That wouldn't be fair to the writer, and runs the risk of turning the project into my vision while the author ties themselves up in knots trying to please me. And agents and publishers will feel the same. A few consultation sessions or some writing classes might be a better fit for your current needs (yes, I also teach!)
My motto is: Give your book the attention it deserves. Books and stories need nurturing, and so do authors. Often, this means learning to walk before you can run.
Writing a synopsis takes a certain talent of its own. If you want to know how to write the perfect novel synopsis, check out this guide. It explains it thoroughly, along with examples from a best-selling novel broken into sections to explain which bits go where, outlining each and every step. This applies to creative non-fiction, too — if you are writing a memoir or a biography employing novel-writing techniques. By following the guide, it might highlight some missing elements in your book that you can address before you send it out. If you want to make the right impression with an agent, providing a properly thought-out synopsis is one way to catch their eye.
#4 A sample of the main body of work.
No matter how your synopsis turns out, though, it's not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the writing in the actual project itself. A sample will inform me of: - Your level of writing. - If you know how to shape your ideas or phrasing at paragraph and sentence level. - How much line editing might be required - one of the most labour intensive tasks for an editor.
If you don't know already, line editing is where we work out how to develop your plot, character, world building and themes through your prose on a micro-level — sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word — not copyediting or proofreading, which deal with things like formatting, grammar & punctuation corrections, fact checking, house style, consistencies, typos, etc.
I'm the StorySmith. I deal with developmental editing — the macro and micro elements of crafting story through the power of your ideas and your words. The story or book sample will inform me of how capable you are of doing that, whether the contained ideas are too convoluted, if your prose flows well, and how much work might be involved. This enables me to provide you with a better estimate for the timeframe of delivery of the MS assessment.
As I often say: I'm not here to waste anyone's time or money. I'm not in the business of setting people up to fail. I'm here to offer constructive advice, and sometimes that advice might be: you're not ready for an editor yet, but I can offer other forms of help. It might be that your story still needs some workshopping and some level of craft still needs achieving. If you're not seeing any traction with getting full MS requests from agents and editors, this might be one of the reasons why. Publishers don't have the resources to teach writers how to write. You have to do that yourself., whichever way suits you.
If you're interested in taking a class with me, sign up to my email list and get a free video class on the basics of story arcs and story structure. If you like what you learn, contact me for further classes.