Help for Writers

The web is crammed with advice on writing. A lot of it is even accurate. But for what it's worth, here's my take.


Getting Published

I wrote this quite a while ago, and I'm not sure how badly it's dated. So if I'm contradicted by someone who's been out there more recently than me, you should believe them.

Update! 15-Aug-08: Check this out! An excellent doc or two from uber-agent Noah Lukeman (who I am proud to say rejected me once). "How to Write a Great Query Letter" and "How to Land a Literary Agent" are both available for free download there: scroll to the bottom.

Update 2! 10-Nov-09: Quite a few reputable literary agents now blog, and their wisdom far outstrips mine. Any aspiring writer will learn a lot from Janet Reid (take, for example, this brilliant summary of query letter errors) and Nathan Bransford.

Approaching Publishers

If you live in the US, you can probably forget about this right now. Very few mainstream American publishers will look at unsolicited manuscripts (i.e. novels they didn't ask for, i.e. yours.) Instead, they will use the paper to build little forts and play soldiers while instructing their secretaries to send you a note telling you they don't look at unsolicited manuscripts. American authors almost always need an agent.

If you're in Australia, however, you're in luck. Australian publishers are naive, kindly souls who haven't yet been able to steel their hearts against the bleatings of authors. This is inevitably going to change, if only because offices filled with manuscripts are a real fire hazard, but for now you can take advantage.

In fact, in Australia it seems to be harder to get a good literary agent than a good publisher. There aren't very many agencies, and most won't take on unpublished authors as clients. You can always make a few calls to check, especially if you have a high-concept book (this means something you can make a Hollywood producer's eyes light up with in one sentence or less), but your best bet is probably going to be approaching publishers directly.

The best process for approaching a publisher is to accidentally bump into a senior editor at a cocktail party, get drunk together and take incriminating photos. Unfortunately, this route is open to very few. Everyone else will need to do this:

  • Target some publishing houses

    Look up similar books in bookstores and check out who publishes them. While you're there, look up my books and buy them all. This may not help your career any, but those little royalties will make me happy.

  • Call for submission guidelines

    Once you've selected some victims, resist the urge to send them your entire manuscript. Instead, call up and ask for submission guidelines, which tell you whether the publisher prefers you to send in just a query letter (see below), or a few sample chapters, or whatever.

    Some publishers will say they're not considering any unsolicited material, even query letters, but I say stick it to them anyway. These poor people have let themselves become disillusioned by the fact that 99.9% of all unsolicited material is garbage, and it's up to you to enlighten them. Think how happy they'll be, finally discovering something worthwhile in that unsolicited mountain of crap. And besides, a postage stamp isn't a large investment.

    Remember: no sane publisher wants you to send in your whole manuscript until they ask for it. Don't do it. Not even Australians are that generous.

Avoiding Assholes

This is more important than you might think, especially if you're trying to find an agent in the US. There are truly terrifying stories of "agents" who don't actually sell books; instead, they charge fees. They charge to look at your manuscript, then they charge to tell you how to improve it; if you're really naive, they charge to publish/print it. People have lost a lot of time and money to scams like this.

Given that you've probably never heard of any literary agencies, ever, you need to be able to tell which are genuine and which are blood-sucking parasites. An agency based outside New York raises a small caution flag for me, and up-front reading fees raise a big one. But all you really need to do is jump on the internet and do a search on the agent's name. There are a lot of writers out there, and they make noise when they're unhappy. Bad agents will show up on sites like this one.

Don't let this make you overly paranoid. Don't ask agents to sign non-disclosures. But do take a few minutes to check out an agency before you send it your baby.

The Query Letter

The idea of a query letter is to take this book you've written, this incomparable masterpiece that took five years and destroyed your marriage, and summarize it on a single piece of paper while still leaving enough room in the margins for a publisher or agent to scribble, "Sorry, not for us." You have to try to pitch your book in such an intriguing way that the publisher immediately writes back to you, demanding to see sample chapters (or the entire manuscript). This may sound tough to do, but in truth it's even harder. Your query needs to stand out from the other 80 the editor is going to read that day, but avoid amateurish gimmicks, like $50 bills.

There are plenty of good web sites on how to write a query letter and approach agents/editors. Some of them are:

One thing you must do is say what sort of book you've written. This is what agents/editors will be scanning for when they read your letter: is it a thriller, a comedy, a rural human drama? Most writers, including me, find this very difficult to do, and tend to produce descriptions like, "It's kind of a futuristic science-fiction comedy-come-romance set in Medieval France with a strong anti-war message." This is why authors should be banned from describing their own novels.

So I suggest enlisting help: have your friends read your book and ask them what novels they think it's similar to. Then at least you'll have a rough genre to start from. Also, for practice, try to describe your book in a single, short sentence. Ask people if it sounds interesting, and rework it until it does.

This is very much personal opinion, but I think a good description often combines something common ("It's a detective story") with something original ("where the PI has a terminal illness"). The common part grounds the story, letting us know what ballpark it's in. The original part shows it's something special.

Update (May-07): If you're interested, I've posted my old query letter, which I sent out while agent-hunting in 1998. It's kinda cringe-worthy reading it now, definitely over the top, but since it worked...

The Synopsis

Some agents and publishers want you to include a synopsis along with your query or manuscript. This is so they can pretend to have actually read your book when they write out your rejection letter. Well, that's how it feels. I hate synopses, because they're like cheat sheets for people who read the last page of novels first. I hate those people, too. I'd like to hit them all with a shovel. Anyway, if an agent or editor wants one, here's how you should construct it.

Unless you're told otherwise, a synopsis should be a single page and about 500 words, give or take. In most cases, it should include all your major twists and turns, including, yes, giving away the ending. (It hurts, I know.) Exactly what the agent/editor wants from your synopsis will vary depending on what sort of novel you've written, but generally speaking, they want to be reassured you know how to tell a story.

Above all else, this means your book shouldn't start out as a period romance and end up as an action thriller. This is more common that you might think. Novels take a long time to write, and authors can start out interested in one sort of story and finish up interested in another. This is bad. If your book does this, try to cover it up in the synopsis.

Finally, don't get hung up on describing only what happens: it could be more important to say why it happens, or how it affects the characters' relationships. When you're done, go through the synopsis and apply the "So what?" test: each sentence should help prove that this is a compelling tale. If it doesn't, jettison it, even if that means skipping over a couple of chapters. Your synopsis will succeed or fail on its interest value, not its comprehensiveness.

Simultaneous Submission

One question that often wracks potential novelists is, "How on earth could they make a Weekend at Bernie's 2?" But a more relevant question is, "How many publishers or literary agencies should I query at once?"

"How To Get Published" books by insiders sometimes say things like: "Authors should always query publishers one at a time, submitting their novel only when the previous publisher has rejected it. Otherwise, an author may end up in the ignoble situation of having their manuscript accepted by one publisher while it is still being considered by another."

These insiders are insane, which also explains why they're publishing all these dumb books and yet rejecting yours. If you follow this advice, you'll still be submitting your novel in the year 2050 (and publishers still won't accept submissions by e-mail).

Publishers and literary agencies would love you to query them and only them. That way they can take their time and not worry about you being snatched up by someone else. But you need to maximize your chances of selling your book, so you have to act in your best interests. Unless a publisher or agent requests an "exclusive" read, have at least five query letters out there at any given time. You should assume you're going to be rejected dozens of times before you're accepted: your objective is to get through those dozens with your youth intact.

Note: this is for novels. If you try this with magazines or newspapers, some of which forget to notify writers of their article's acceptance until it's already in print, you can cause all kinds of problems and the magazine will send around big men to break your legs. Nobody wants that to happen.


One option for novelists, particularly in countries other than the US and UK, is to query agencies in a foreign country. This is especially appealing if your home country doesn't contain many publishers, or your novel has an international flavour, or you have stumbled onto a treasure trove of International Reply Coupons.

There's no particular trick to this. You just seek out reputable agencies and query them. You don't have to make a big deal of your location.

In most cases it will be even harder to find a agent overseas than at home. But you never know. In some cases, like mine, it can make all the difference.

The Syrup Experience

I started looking for a home for Syrup in late 1997, while living in Melbourne, Australia. It was my second novel: while trying to flog the first, I discovered it was highly unlikely that I would get a literary agent in Australia unless I had my own TV cooking show. That first novel was rejected by four publishers, but one of them seemed to consider it pretty seriously, so I sent them a query letter and the first three chapters of Syrup. Shortly afterwards, I decided to query some American agencies, too, so I bought Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents and chose four good ones. When I got some rejections from these, I sent out more query letters.

Many, many stamps later, in June, 1998, I got a phone call from Todd Keithley of Jane Dystel Literary Management, who said he wanted to represent me. It was hard to hear him over the chorusing of angels, but I realized I had finally found myself an agent.

In total I sent query letters to 30 literary agents, of which:

  • 17 rejected my manuscript based on the query letter
  • 8 never replied
  • 2 invited submission of the manuscript or a partial, read it, then rejected it
  • 2 invited submission of the manuscript, but by then I'd already found an agent
  • 1 accepted the book for representation

The Australian publisher took about nine months to consider the three sample chapters, then asked to see the entire manuscript. By this time, I had already signed with my agency, so I never sent it to them.

This isn't about the publication process as such, but I think it's worth mentioning that I benefited hugely from the Internet Writing Workshop. How this place works is you send in chapters of your novel (or short story, or screenplay, or whatever) and get back dozens of critiques; all you have to do in return is critique other writers' work. Some of the critiques you get are clearly from people logging on from their asylum, but the rest will genuinely help you improve your work. There's nothing like ten people all saying, "Your main character is so repulsive I had to stop reading" to confirm your story needs a little more work.