It’s been all hands on deck for January to get us ready for a very busy (and very exciting!) 2019, and so we’ve made a concerted -- successful -- effort go through all of our 2018 queries for novels and poetry chapbooks. We’re always overwhelmed by how many writers out there would like to be represented by us, and we had a great response on Twitter when we asked if you’d like to hear about what we’re looking for in your query -- so we’ve drawn up a handy blog post to go over what exactly goes through our minds when we’re reading our Submittable list.
Yep, the title is the first thing we see. And while we never judge a manuscript on its title (we’ve had some strange ones!), the Submittable title gives a good indication whether you’ve read through our guidelines. We ask titles to be formatted as “[Imprint] – ‘Title’ – Author” so that we can keep track of them: where they belong, what kind of genre/audience we’re considering, and who the author is for when we’re sending messages.
The Cover Letter
We always read your cover letters. The in-depth ones let us see that you’re taking us/you/your writing seriously. If you begin with “Dear Sirs” we have a good idea that you’re either spamming a lot of publishing houses with a generic letter or that you think women aren’t in publishing. Not a good start. If you have a good summary in your cover letter we’re feeling a lot more hopeful and open about your submission – and if you show us that you’ve been previously published and have had successful with your last few books, you look like a more solid investment. That’s not to say that we never pick up on debut writers, or even those with no writing history or qualifications to their names.
Tabby likes to read the synopsis first to get an overview of what the submission is about. Laura likes to dive into the first three chapters to get a feel for the writing before seeing if the plot holds promise. Whichever way we read it, the synopsis should never be a teaser or a blurb. Let us know the big reveal. Tell us about the secret brother, the finale of the battle, who the killer is, if she ends up with the guy, the ascension to deity status. We don’t need expansive or flowery prose for this one: lay it out easy to follow and we’ll appreciate it. One page, maybe going on to two, is normally about right.
Your Three Chapters
This is the stickler. Sorry to say, but this is what it hangs on. If you’ve got the Submittable title right, if your synopsis has us intrigued, if you sound like you know what you’re talking about in your cover letter – then we’re excited. We’re ready with pen and paper to make notes on what we love. Maybe even if you messed up those first three parts you can win us over here.
It’s hard with writing. We know: we’re slogging away at it too. And it’s a shame that we can’t have a concrete list of yes and no in the way of Maths and Engineering. If the bulb lights up, you’re good. In our business, your writing could light up for Tabby but not for Laura. It might flicker in some aspects and burn bright in others. We might love it but think it doesn’t have much marketable potential – or it might not be something we’d personally read but we think we could sell a lot of copies.
These are the things we consider:
- The writing style. Are you overusing adjectives and adverbs to look accomplished? Does it feel staccato or do you have a flow that carries us along the page? Do the words slip into our minds like a friend or our own thoughts, or are we wading through an academic text of what an author should sound like?
- Are we bogged into exposition? If the main character is getting dressed and driving to work while mulling over the last thirty years of her life, this probably isn’t going to work out. We don’t have to be straight in at a manticore attack or an explosion, but let’s at least have something happening from the get-go.
- Is there conflict? Between colleagues, between species, between what is right and what is desired? Are we getting some kind of friction, internally or externally?
- Does it fit the imprint? We have two imprints: Stone Cold Fox, which handles historical, young adult, and fantasy, and Skiddaw Books, which treads the darker path. If you’re not sure – maybe your fantasy novel has a YA protagonist but there are darker themes that you think should be adults-only – then it’s fine to say this: it lets us know that you’ve considered our imprints and where you’d fit in. If your Stone Cold Fox novel has some graphic rapes scenes, we’re either gonna have to decline or ask you to drastically overhaul.
- Are you characters engaging? They don’t have to be likeable (but it helps), but they should be more than just caricatures to aid the plot you have in mind. Is your “best friend” an expendable sounding-board? Is the villain a one-dimensional shady government agent? It can be hard to pick up on things like that from just the first three chapters, but we’ll know if your females are there for pure titillation. (Waking up and stretching to admire their own cleavage?)
- What’s keeping us reading on? A mystery to solve? New experiences? The enigmatic stranger at the school gate? Danger lurking in the water? You can love your characters or your world and be prepared to write reams on their everyday life, but you can't expect us to tag along for the ride without some peril.
- Is your dialogue realistic? Speech tags are often the things that jar us most when reading submissions – she exclaimed! he purred! he reprimanded! – but some texts just don’t flow right without them. Sometimes “said” is enough, too blunt, or too cloying. As a general rule of thumb, try to emulate the genre you're writing in.
There are no hard and fast rules. Unfortunately. It’d make our job a lot easier, and yours, but we’re muddling through together as best we can.
P.S. Laura is a stickler for Word over PDF. She knows: it’s awkward when you have your document all ready and then you read that it has to be transferred over to .docx, but since she often reads a big batch of submissions on Kindle, PDF doesn’t transfer well; the Kindle tries to condense an A4 page of PDF into an A6 page on the Kindle, which means tiny writing, which puts Laura in a bad mood and makes her want to skim. Don’t sell yourself short: upload as a .doc or .docx and she can read it properly in a nice two-centimetre high font.
Get in touch
We hope you find this useful. If you didn’t, let us know how we can in improve and we’ll make some edits – after all, we’re writing these for you guys.
Oh, and by the way: next month we’re creating an FAQ page for our website. Do you have any questions you’d like us to answer? Is there anything you’re disappointed you couldn’t find, or wished that more publishers would include? Please add a comment to the bottom of this post, DM or @ us on Twitter (@stirlingpublish), or drop an email to email@example.com. We always love to hear from you!