Debbie Lee Wesselmann


Getting Published

1)  When is a story ready to send out?  Read the story aloud with a pencil in hand.  Mark every sentence you stumble over, every passage you have to read twice to understand, every point where you lose interest or feel yourself drifting from the story, and every place you question what you've done, even if you decide the next second that you want to keep it.  Concentrate your revisions on these areas.  When you read through the story and don't find anything that hangs you up, you've probably created a story to the best of your abilities.  Never be afraid of sending out a finished story.  Never fear rejection.  They are both part of the learning process.

2)  Prepare your manuscript as professionally as possible.  You must not only use a spell checker but also proofread your story carefully to avoid misusing words ("your" and "you're," for example - a spell checker will not catch grammatical mistakes.)  Double space your text and allow for 1" to 1 1/2" margins.  Type your name and the page number at the top of every page.  Use crisp, heavy weight paper with no handwritten corrections.  Never send out smudged, worn, or obviously read pages.

3)  When you are ready to acquire an agent or publisher, query only individuals who do not charge fees.  Run from agents and publishers who request a reading or publishing fee, or who praise your work but recommend an editorial service to "clean up your writing."  Many people prey on aspiring writers who would do almost anything to get their work in print.  They may tell you they think your novel is a potential best seller, or that they are certain you can place it with a major publisher.  Don't let the flattery muddy your judgment.  You should never pay to get your work published.  Reputable agents take a percentage of your sales; if they don't sell the book, they should not get any money.  Reputable publishers pay you for the right to publish your book.  

4)Don't fear rejection.  After you have polished your stories, try sending them out to a few publications.  It's okay if they are rejected; you can learn much from those ego-deflating rejection slips.  A series of form rejections (with no handwritten comments) probably indicates that you need to work more on the piece.  A handwritten or personalized rejection should be considered an encouragement, so try that editor with a newer, more powerful piece.  Although you should send your work off with all your hopes of publication, brace yourself for their return.  A successful writer is as persistent as he is talented.  View a rejection as an opportunity to introduce your work to yet another editor.  A word of caution:  don't assume that because you're sending out your story, it is finished.  Writers often revise stories even after they have been submitted.

5) Hook the reader with the first paragraph.  You don't have to be flashy with your beginning, but you must immediately introduce a conflict to get the reader's attention.  Especially when faced with new writers, editors and agent often decide whether to take or reject based on the first page.  Read the first paragraphs of your favorite stories and books.  Decide what captured your interest and how the writer achieved this feat.

6)  Do you need an agent?  If you are trying to get short stories published or want to interest a small independent press in your book-length manuscript, you don't need an agent.  However, if you believe your novel will sell to a major publishing house, an agent is a must.  Despite stories of writers being discovered in the "slush pile", most major editors rely on agents to screen manuscripts, thus weeding out the less polished efforts.  Agents spend their professional lives making and maintaining contacts with editors, knowing their preferences - this is why they can be invaluable, worth their fifteen percent.  A good agent will "talk you up" and make editors want to read your manuscript.  They have the right to call and check up on submissions; a writer doing this is frowned upon.  Because of the demands of doing all this for twenty to a hundred clients, agents often read manuscripts in their spare time, at home and on the weekends, so be patient.

7) What is a query letter?  Before you submit a book manuscript to an agent or editor, you need to change your status from unsolicited author to solicited one.  The query letter performs this function. The letter itself should be brief, no longer than a page, and should introduce yourself and your book.  You want to provide a brief synopsis (summary) of your book, an indication of its genre and intended readership, and its completed length. (Never submit an unfinished first novel; editors know how difficult it is to finish a book and won't want to take a chance on you.)  Your letter should close with an offer to send sample chapters or the complete manuscript upon request.  With the letter, you should include a résumé, a more detailed one-page synopsis that describes the plot and characters from beginning to end, and a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) for the editor's/agent's response.  This package should be polished, grammatically correct, and relaxed enough to give a glimpse of who you are.  Once you get a request for more material, boldly mark "SOLICITED MATERIAL" on the front of the envelope.  This will move your submission toward the top of the pile.

8) How do I write a synopsis?  Some writers are better than others at this - it takes a different sort of skill than does writing a novel.  You will want to show all the complexities of your plot, theme, and characters while capturing the tone of your work.  Like a long distance runner, you have to pace yourself.  You don't want to spend two-thirds of the page explaining the elaborate background to the book, only to have a small description of what actually happens.  Throw out all that elementary school stuff about not giving away the ending.  You cannot afford to be coy here.  An editor/agent needs to know if you can pull off a logical finish to your story.

9) How should I format my manuscript?  Whether you are submitting a short story or a book-length manuscript, your work should always be double-spaced, with generous margins (1" to 1 1/2") and a header listing your name, the title of the work, and the page number.  Titles and chapter names are usually placed one third of the way down the page.  Paragraphs are indented from five to ten spaces from the left margin - I use a half inch indentation.  Never print on more than one side of the paper.  Also, never bind or attach pages other than with a paper clip (for short pieces only); if your work is accepted, or even if it gets far enough to be considered by multiple people, the editor or agent will want to photocopy it easily.

10) How long should I wait?  Assuming you have supplied the necessary SASE, you should expect to hear from a query letter in about a month, sample chapters in 4-6 weeks, and anywhere from two to six months for a complete, book-length manuscript.  If you are submitting short stories, the wait period ranges from two weeks to up to a year with some of the understaffed literary journals.  Keep careful records so you know the exact date of submission.  If an editor has not responded by the upper limit, write a polite letter inquiring whether the editor has had a chance to look at your work.  Include another SASE.  Unfortunately, manuscripts get lost or forgotten, and it's your job to look out for yours.

Copyright 2007 by Debbie Lee Wesselmann