Submitting to agents - "SAVING MR. BANKS" P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), in Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks". Ph: François Duhamel ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Crime writer Dominique Hall has written to me for advice on sending a novel to an agent. She says:

I am at the stage of approaching agents as I have written a crime novel, and wondered if I could ask you for some do’s and don’ts in my submission!

For example, exactly how long the synopsis should be – as a word count – whether to do a very brief overview, logline etc.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!!

Now, I’ve written a whole book about selling to film and TV agents and producers but it didn’t specifically deal with submitting novels.

In fact, there are many similarities, so I thought it would be good to run through them here.

1. Research before submitting to agents

Before submitting to agents – or indeed publishers – you absolutely have to do your research.

Find out everything you can about who they represent, what kind of books they like, and especially how they like them submitted.

Luckily, the internet now makes this easy. All good agents should have well-maintained web-sites, though some are easier to navigate than others.

Take a careful look at the books and authors they rep. Does yours seem to fit their style? It’s also worth checking for any interviews they’ve given, either on their own blog or on other sites.

These can give useful insights for the query letter.

2. Check and keep to the guidelines

They will almost certainly have a page that gives their submission guidelines – synopsis, sample chapters, length, format, information required, etc.

Check out their rules and KEEP TO THEM! The rules are designed to make life easier for them. Do you really want to be marked down as someone who wants to make an agent’s life more difficult?

If they ask for a two-page synopsis or outline (they mean the same thing) don’t send two-and-a-half pages on the basis that your novel is so brilliant it can’t be told in less!

I know it’s difficult but give them what they want.

3. Length

See above. Agents and publishers usually specify page length for synopses and either page length or word count for extracts.

And a page means A4 (or letter size in the States) with standard font and margins. Don’t try to cheat by using 2pt and 1mm margins!! It won’t wash.

I prefer a clear serif font – ideally Times – for ease of reading – and 12pt. Avoid using bold all the way through the main body – and not Comic Sans (yes, some people do!).

Break the synopsis into short paragraphs. Indenting the first line of each works better than leaving a line space (and gives you more room).

If, for some reason, no length is specified, there is absolutely no agreed rule.

In that case, I’d suggest that two pages of A4, would be a maximum and I’d try very hard to get my outline onto a single side.

4. Style

Everything is about ease of reading. Make your synopsis flow. With a hint of your style.

If it’s a thriller, evoke something of the tension. If a comedy, bring in a gently humorous touch. But don’t overdo it. The content is key.

5. Content

The synopsis should roughly mirror the proportions of the book – ie: the first quarter corresponds with the first quarter of the book, etc.

And it must include the ending. I don’t care how much you want to leave it a surprise, the ending is an essential part. Without it, you look like an amateur.

Cut all subplots and subsidiary characters – the agent simply wants to know who the main character is, the main action and the emotional content.

I like to put a strong logline at the top, but sometimes there’s just no room on the page.

For the extract, I’d always send the opening, even if they don’t specify. You have got a great gripping opening, don’t you?

6. Contact details and covering letter

Finally make sure you put your contact details on your submission – both outline and extract – and add a covering letter. (Yes, the covering letter will also have your contact details, but they may get detached, so better safe than sorry).

The covering letter must be short – around four paragraphs of 2-3 sentences each.

Start with a simple statement that you are seeking representation for [TITLE OF BOOK]. This same information should be in the subject line – unless the agency specifies the subject line should follow a specific format.

Then, if possible, add something to say why you have chosen her in particular (this is another reason why your research was so important).

Follow up with your log-line and a short paragraph about yourself, including why you are absolutely the right person to have written this.

Finish with a brief statement that the manuscript is ready to send, as appropriate.

7. Double and treble-check

One more moment before you hit send: check once again for typos and spelling.

Check in particular any and all names (especially that of the main character, the most important elements of your story, the title – and the agent!)

Don’t rely on your spellchecker. Google every name and location. I can guarantee you’ll have misspelled something crucial. We all do.

Then send it off.

And get working on the next book or query letter.

Good luck.

More reading

The biggest synopsis mistake that writers make

How the gurus who teach “show don’t tell” could ruin your treatment

Jaws in Space – my book on pitching for film and TV, but just as appropriate for novels and non-fiction