Tuesday, 5 January 2010


Right. OK. Crabbit is well and truly back. And, with a sudden an unexplained influx of new followers, it seems like a very good moment to mark my territory and, frankly, urinate very pointedly in all the right places.

I am a very misunderstood woman. See, some of you seem inexplicably to think that I advocate disobedience and rule breaking. Well, I do, in life and in writing, but only in TWO circumstances:

a) when you are totally in control.
b) when you are not submitting your work to agents or publishers.

And, if you think about it, when b) is not the case, a) is not. [Think about that, please. I know, it confusticated me a bit, too. The old double negative problem.]

My last blog post was about disobedience - specifically, and only, the possibility of sending a query to publishers who have said they are not taking unsolicited submissions. This is not actually disobedience, because a query letter is not a submission. The situation in the US is different because you always use queries anyway. Which was the point.

[By the way, I'm very grateful to Book Maven and others for raising this because it's important that it's clear to everyone and I'm mainly pissed off with myself for not being crystal clear. If I've not been understood, I regard that as my fault. Still makes me cross, though!]

Perhaps I was too subtle. See, if I'd just said, "Do as you're bloody well told every second of every day, or DIE" it would have been so simple. Instead, I gave you a situation in which theoretically you could  circumnavigate disobedience, and I even hinted that outright disobedience MIGHT get you somewhere in a very select number of circs, insluding your having written the most fabulous and irresistible book, because no publisher can resist irresistible. And then some people went off the path and thought I was advocating disobedience of the submission guidelines themselves.

No. Deffo not.

Thing is, and this is where rule-breaking becomes an art form, all good rules have reasons, and knowing the reason is essential before the ability to break it in chosen circs. And the reason for that occasional No Unsolicited MS rule is simple: the publisher knows that everything unsolicited is likely to be crap. Because it usually is. But it might not be. And in the unlikely situation that you've written perfection perfectly, the publisher does actually want it. But only in the form which the sub guidelines say, because the publisher has not made the guidelines up while high on something [probably] but because that's how the publisher likes to receive submissions, and why would you ever want to send your beloved work in a way the publisher doesn't like? Unless you're a total idiot.

Whenever you are breaking a rule - and good writers do this in their writing all the time - you have to know why, and why the rule is there. This rule [No Unsolicited Submissions / MSS] is only ever selected to protect publishers from your crapitude. Because that's what they normally get. So do agents. Overwhelmed with the stuff. They'll do anything to avoid it. Wouldn't you? If 99% of your post every day was time-wasting dross, you'd stop going to the door to pick it up, wouldn't you? But you still go to the door hoping for the fab news, the fan letter or whatever.

Anyway, that wasn't what I came here today to say. What I want to say, in my most crabbit and grouchy way is:

YOU MUST OBEY SUBMISSION GUIDELINES TO THE ABSOLUTE LETTER, even when you do have a jewel of a book. Even if you think you're God's gift etc. Even if you are.


So, if the guidelines for a particular agent or publisher say tie a yellow ribbon to it, tie a yellow ribbon to it.

Is that clear enough?

If the publisher says she doesn't like email submissions, don't damn well email it. If an agent says send 3,497 words of a sample, just do it. If the agent says no toffees, no toffees, even Wrther's Originals.

Read my lips: read the submission guidelines of your chosen (and he or she must be chosen) agent or publisher and follow them. Don't do blanket submissions because all agents and publishers are different. If you don't believe me, see Colleen Lindsay's NEW submission guidelines here. It's a very good lesson in why you should check the specific guidelines of the person you are querying or subbing to.

For crying out loud, there's so much good advice out there that there's really no excuse for not doing this. Ignore the stories of rare authors who did disobey [even if it was me] and hit the mega-bucks [that wasn't me] - those stories are often apocryphal because apocryphal stores are fun and memorable. And bloody irritating. And tell us nothing useful.

If you make a mistake, don't weep, don't stress, don't angst - just do your very, very best to please the people you need to please. Because if you're not interested in pleasing them, then on your own head be it. Stay unpublished - it's fine by me.

And believe you me: pleasing an agent or publisher is as nothing compared to pleasing your ultimate readers.


Anonymous said...

"YOU MUST OBEY SUBMISSION GUIDELINES TO THE ABSOLUTE LETTER, even when you do have a jewel of a book."


I dunno about the UK or submitting to publishers, as I'm in the US and have only submitted to agents, but in my experience that's simply not true.

All you MUST do is:

A: Write a jewel of a book.
B: Find appropriate agents and approach them in a businesslike manner.

That's all. There's no reason to drive yourself mad about this stuff. Do not tie yellow ribbons to your manuscript. Do not obsess about pleasing agents. Just do your best work. Send it out. Take a deep breath.

Getting an agent is easy if our stuff looks profitable and we're not acting like freaks. The precise format of our query letters and the precise number of enclosed pages is the least of our problems.


Nicola Morgan said...

Proe, you misunderstand the issue here. I am talking about a specific publisher or agents specific guidelines. Do what they say if you want to give yourself the best chance, which any non-arrogant and sensible writer does. That's not to say that you will fail if you don't but I simply cannot see why someone would not want to give themselves the best chance. That speaks to me of delusion or ignorance. Of course, disobedience will sometimes work but what's the point of risking it when it's perfectly easy to obey? As someone charged with giving good advice, I stand by my advice. Anyone can choose to ignore it - I do also encourage writers always to use their brains! Think, is all I really ask.

catdownunder said...

Nicola, 'less is more'.
Can you take that from one who has written far too many official submissions, guidelines, rules, regulations, drafts, legal drafts etc etc? Take it from one who has had to do it across cultures, borders, boundaries and languages. If you want to impart information (rather than beautiful, creative writing) you write short sentences. You write things in point form. You summarise.
Oh yes, bother. I forgot that, even then, there is a danger that you can be too brief and equally misunderstood.
There is however a vast difference (I think) between writing fiction and writing which is designed to instruct.
If I am out of place in providing this advice - please yell at me and delete this.

Anonymous said...

I think what gets up my nose is largely a question of emphasis. We focus on these fundamentally trivial issues because we can control them so much more easily than we can control the quality of the writing. (Speaking of which, I just read Chicken Friend. Damn good! Such forward momentum achieved with such light brushstrokes. I'm gonna re-read with a scalpel in my hand, to dissect.) But these things don't matter much.

There are agents who request queries only. And if they like the query, they'll ask for 30 pages. And if they like those pages, they'll ask for a full.

Well, I just sent 'em the query with 10-15 pages. I sent _everyone_ a query with 10-15 pages. ("Everyone" being the few agents I wanted to work with.) That way, if they liked the basic conceit, they could just flip to the pages to check if I knew which end of the sentence got the capital letter.

If they don't like my writing, fine. We're done. If they're on the fence about the query, but love the writing, great. If they like the query, ta da! There's a bunch of pages waiting for them.

I ignore their specific guidelines for three reasons:

1) I like my way better. (Yes, they like their way better, but such is life. They're free to reject me.) I'm neither begging an agent to do me a favor nor applying for a job; I'm asking a businessperson to become a business partner.

2) Begin as you mean to go on. I'm fairly easy to work with. I meet deadlines. I don't require hand-holding. I do my best work every time (however good that may be). But I'm also a writer. That means I'm a bit strange. If they can't deal with me, best we find that out immediately.

3) I'd rather not work with people who are more rigid than I am! If an agent can't cope with a 15 page enclosure, she is not sufficiently focused on the quality of the writing. I'd be happier with another agent. And she'd be happier with another writer.

Proe, who will now quiet down for a while.

David John Griffin said...
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David John Griffin said...
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Donna Gambale said...

Oh Nicola, I believe you've done your crabbity job well with this one! Stirring up such wonderful debate. I tend to lean towards rule-following myself (blame the Catholic school upbringing), but I understand the frustration of so many different sets of guidelines.

I personally see the guidelines as a sort of litmus test... because if you can't/don't follow a simple set of requests, I wouldn't want to work with you! Plus, if I had to read a million manuscripts, I'd be much more pleasant and likely to request pages if they all looked the same and I knew what to expect when I opened the envelope.

And for all the dissenters: they're called "guidelines," not "rules." Do what you will!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I was at a conference a year and a half ago and the president of an unnamed publishing company said...if says not accepting unsolicited ms, send them a query...if it says exclusive submissions only...send it to as many editors as you want...you can always withdraw your ms if you get a contract with someone. I did hear a lot of no glitter, candy hearts, perfume scented paper in your submissions. I'm still wondering if people actually do that stuff.

Melanie Saunders said...

I'm sure I am not the only one completely confunded by your last two posts, Nicola. Do we fudge around submission guidelines, or do we follow them rigidly? It's okay for you to contradict yourself on your blog, but I hope this isn't the advice you give out to people paying for it.


catdownunder said...

In all fairness to Nicola I do not think she was contradicting herself. I think she was saying that (1)you can disobey the rules about whether to submit but (2) if you do choose to disobey those rules then you must submit in the way that the agent or publisher wants. They are two different issues.
Have I managed to get my cat hairs straight Nicola?

Melanie Saunders said...

How can there be rules about "whether to submit"? Surely it is a case of submitting or not - not "whether".

None of this makes any sense whatsoever.


catdownunder said...

Nicola is going to kill me for this Melanie. Some publishers and some agents say in their guidelines that they do not want unsolicited manuscripts. If that is what they say then you have, as I understand Nicola, to choose whether to accept that statement or take the risk of submitting your work to them. Then, if you choose to disobey the submission rule, you must be very careful about following the submission guidelines.
If I have got it wrong Nicola - scream, shout and yell and ban me from commenting.

Keren David said...

I was once an agent - not for writers, but for photographers. We had strict submission guidelines and we were always being approached by photogaphers who didn't want to follow them - mainly because they'd invested time and money in making a website to display their work and they wanted us to look at that rather than send us what we wanted.
In the end I refused to look at websites or bend the submission rules because the rules had been drawn up so we could work as efficiently as possible and because I knew that if they didn't have the discipline to keep the rules at the beginning, or the ability to do what we asked them to do then they'd be a complete pain in the bum to work with subsequently. It's only courteous to stick to the submission guidelines.

Melanie Saunders said...

catdownunder, if an agent or publishing house has stated that they do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, then how can someone follow submission guidelines? There wouldn't be any.


Nicola Morgan said...

Okey dokey. I will try to be calm.

First, Proe - I am glad you liked Chicken Friend!! Re your attitudes towards agents, though, I can only say: if it works for you... But I don't advocate it. But you don't really need me to advocate things, do you?! Your explanation of why you do it makes a lot of sense on paper but most unpublished writers (which you are not) want to know how to work within the rules.

donna - indeed! And yes, they do like people to follow their own guidelines partly for the reason you give.

Sharon - oh, believe me, they STILL do that stuff! I have many agent friends who tell me new stories on a regular basis!

Melanie - I am not contradicting myself, actually. I wrote two posts, each about a different situation. In the first one (the case of the No Unsolicited Submissions instruction from publishers), the situation is complicated because there is not one single answer; however, I did come off the fence and suggest sending a query, thereby NOT disobeying the instruction (though you can choose to disobey it if you want - I can't stop anyone doing that). In the second post, about following submission guidelines rigidly, some people have disagreed with me, which is their right, but I have been absolutely clear and it could not have been clearer: I said follow them rigidly. You can choose not to, of course, as you can choose not to follow any advice. And clearly it will sometimes work. But it's my view that it's sensible and courteous to follow the guidelines about what and how to submit and in what form.

I slightly resent the suggestion that I would be content to give confusing advice whether people were paying or not. In both cases (ie on my blog and through Pen2Publication) I go to great lengths, as I am doing now, to make sure people do not go away confused. With P2P clients, I continue to correspond and clarify until they are clear about everything, within the original fee. On my blog, i give up many hours to do the same. Please don't think otherwise. If it's still not clear, do, please say so and I'll try to say it another way.

I am sorry you were confused. It's not a science and it's not simple, but I actually think I was very clear. Follow submission guidelines if you don't want to piss off a publisher or agent; but do send a query instead of a submission if you want to get round the tricky No Unsolicited Submissions instruction. I wonder if your confusion comes from being in the US and not UK? (Is that where you are?) As I've tried to indicate, and as various helpful commenters have said, there are some differences in the whole approach.

I'm very happy for disagreement but I do want you all to understand what I'm trying to say. Yes? Anyone still not clear?

Nicola Morgan said...

PS Catdownunder - you got your hairs slightly straight and I thank you for your efforts, even though it's becoming a bit like chinese whispers! However, you and Melinda are slightly at cross-purposes, and she's right that there wouldn't be any submission guidelines if a publisher had said No Unsolicited Submissions.

In fact, I'm slightly wondering if Melanie's confusion may come at least partly from her conversation with Cat, who is doing her best to be me while I'm asleep in the UK and she's wide awake in Aus! We've got the systems of 3 continents going on here, I think. I'm aware of all three, but only speak from a UK perspective with authority.

Keren - you are spot on and very helpfully so.

Melanie Saunders said...

Follow submission guidelines if you don't want to piss off a publisher or agent; but do send a query instead of a submission if you want to get round the tricky No Unsolicited Submissions instruction.

This was all the explanation I required, Nicola - thank you. I now understand your point and I apologize for the contradicting comment. I am sure catdownunder meant well, but his/her explanation was frying my already tired brain.



Nicola Morgan said...

Melanie - hooray! I'm very glad it's all sorted. Thank you for pushing the point - it's always good to be kept on my toes. I do try really hard but sometimes there are shades of meaning in this complicated art of getting published.

Sally Zigmond said...

Nicola. At the risk of sounding sycophantic (again) I can truthfully say that neither of your posts confused me nor did the two posts contradict each other. You are one of the clearest, most succinct, blog-writers I know. (and entertaining as well.)

I used to be the submissions editor of a small-press short story magazine. Compared with the mountains of novel submissions all agents receive, my work load was a mere hillock of short stories.

Even so, I soon learned that the covering letter and the attitude of the writer, was often enough to tell me whether the story would be awful, okay or brilliant. I am sure agents have this 'sixth sense' too--which incidentally is based on experience, not magic.

The magazine published very clear guidelines as to what it was looking for in the way of length, style, the way to present the manuscript etc etc.

When it was clear that the writer had ignored (either through ignorance or willfulness) the basics, then, I would still read the story (because reading a short story does not require the same time commitment as reading three chapters of a novel)--unless it was well over length and then I couldn't use it however brilliant--but my antennae would already be bristling and maybe, just maybe, I would be feeling annoyed and therefore already looking for reasons to reject.

If I received a submission that blew me away so much that I found myself reading it like a reader and not an editor, then I might well accept it, even if the writer had sent it on pink paper with a lipstick attached or it was littered with typos and punctuation errors.

Having said that, this was never the case. It made no odds whether the writer was multi-published or if this was the first story she'd ever written.

Editors and agents aren't gods. Did Nicola say they were? I don't put them on pedestals. But they are the people a writer needs to impress so why take the risk of putting their backs up? It's a buyer's market out there and there are thousands more hungry writers who want to be published than their are people buying. They can afford to be choosy. We can't.

Jean said...

The submission guideline I find hardest to adhere to is the oft-quoted 'No simultaneous submissions.' This would be fine if agents and publishers got back to us fairly quickly (though I do understand why many of them can't). But waiting over six months each time before we can try elsewhere might mean waiting until we're too long in the tooth and decrepit to be still in the running!

Jo Franklin said...

I will follow submission guidelines.
I will follow submission guidelines.
Now I have written my lines, I have a question for you that was raised on another forum I belong to and caused a massive discussion thread with much anger.
If the sub guidlines say - send first 10,000 words or send first 50 pages - Do you follow to the letter and cut off you submission mid sentence? Or do you round up (or down) to the nearest chapter break?

Sally Zigmond said...

No multiple submissions' doesn't mean you can't 'multiple query' or send multiple partials. It means you can't send the whole manuscript to anyone else if you send it to them.

I multi-query and multi-partial but if an agent asks for a full, I then wait for his/her decision. It doesn't usually take as long as six months, but if it does, I just get on with the next novel.

But then I'm decrepit already.

Anonymous said...

Sally said:
Editors and agents aren't gods.


I like my way better.
I'm fairly easy to work with.

If you like your way better and are arrogant enough to make your own rules, then how would any editor or agent ever believe you're easy to work with?

What writers should remember is that we know nothing about you. How you conduct yourselves with your query - following our rules and such - says a lot about whether you're a team player or one who likes to forge their own path.

Publishing is hard enough without having to reign in a difficult author. I've had my fair share and try like mad to weed them out. Proe, I see queries like yours all the time - those who tell me that they know what I really want to see, blah, blah, blah. I stop reading and pull up my form e-rejection letter.

If you want to write your own rules, I suggest forming your own publishing company because, alas, I see lots of rejections in your future.

Karen Collum said...

Oooh, what an interesting discussion! I confess to being a rule follower, primarily because I want my writing to speak loudest of all - not the fact I couldn't read the submission guidelines or chose to ignore them. I know it's business. I know agents can't make a living without authors. But I also know being genuinely nice goes a long way. (And I'm a rule follower in my non-writing life too, so it doesn't bother me at all to follow guidelines with agents and publishers.)

I stepped out of my comfort zone this past week, however, and rang a publisher here in Australia who currently has a 'no submissions' status. I had been sitting on a manuscript for almost 12 months that I felt would be suitable for them. As I'm slowly making inroads and have a few contracts for picture books, I felt I might have half a chance of being heard. I was able to clearly and professionally explain why I was ringing and was put through to the publisher. We had a lovely chat. It turns out she wasn't interested in the manuscript I originally intended to send to her but asked me to send another one instead. Either way, I consider that a win. I know it's cliched, but it really was a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained. I haven't heard back from her yet but it's another small opportunity that may yet grow and develop into something bigger.

I guess you could say I follow the guidelines but will attempt to circumvent road blocks if necessary.

Stroppy Author said...

Of course, once you know your publisher/agent, you can break the rules.

I do have sympathy with Proe's point that it is possible to over-obsess about the minutiae and that this is possibly a distraction from the real issue of whether the writing is actually good enough. I submit everything in Trebuchet. I have only ever had one publisher who insisted I resubmit the MS in Times Roman - that's less than 1% of my published books. It suggests they don't care that much.

I'm not in favour of the idea of looking like a supplicant - the relationship with a publisher or agent is a relationship between professional equals. Yesterday I sent a submission email that would make the crabbit one's hair stand on end (to a publisher I have not worked with before). He said he'd look at the book - so if he rejects it isn't not because he didn't like the email!

Rebecca Knight said...

This has been a very interesting and enlightening discussion! :) I'd heard Proe's perspective before, and wondered which road is less risky for a first timer.

This put things in perspective. Why *wouldn't* you want to give yourself the best possible chance by respecting their guidelines?

I like Karen's point that you follow the guidelines, but try to circumvent any roadblocks ;). After all--no law against creative problem solving! We just have to do so respectfully, and only as a last resort when there aren't any clear-cut guidelines to adhere to.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, Nicola. But having read one of your books now, I've gotta say that I'd prefer to learn about technique than presentation. I Googled reviews of Chicken Friend, and everyone agrees it's funny and charming, with lovely characters, and of course it is. But I think it's a masterwork of _suspense_, personally. I mostly write thrillers, and want to learn lessons in suspense from your middle-grade ...

Trebuchet?! You Stroppy Barbarian! If only you used TNR, you'd have sold _two_ hundred books, instead of your measly _one_ hundred!

If the writing's good enough, nothing else matters. If it's not, nothing else helps.


catdownunder said...

Thanks Nicola - right as usual.
Proe,is it not possible you could write a best seller and fail to get it published because the approach was wrong - surely approach matters too, like good manners. You are showing the other person that you respect them and yourself. That does not mean being arrogant or grovelling - arrogance and grovelling are not indicators of respect or self respect.
Nicola might call herself a COB but I reckon you would find she is polite and thoughtful to her agent and publisher - and that most successful writers are also just that.

Nicola Morgan said...

Catdownunder - you are right in your advice to Proe, but i don't think you'll get anywhere! I think he is very happy how he is!

Proe - awwww, I am truly flattered about your comments about Chicken Friend. Seriously. Coming from you, with your renowned honesty, it's praise indeed. And I must say I am completely with you about the need to talk more about the techniques involved in good writing than in the much less important aspects of how to send the good writing to an agent or publisher. I get so many more questions about the latter but you have inspired me to get tough and insist on focusing on the writing not the submitting over the next year. You'll see that a post has just gone out giving advance warning of my First Birthday Party (of blog, not person) on Sunday and I have vowed in the next year to do much more about writing techniques. I've also asked for suggestions for blog topics, so let's hope I get the right requests. On the other hand, of course, I can ignore everyone and do my own thing if I want!

Stroppy - I also agree about the over-obsessing. See my reply to Proe above. I also suspect that your query email would not have made my hair stand on end - remember, you're a proven writer, and that gives you a huge head start in your initial query over someone with no track record. You can, in short, get away with more.

Rebecca - I also agree that Karen's point ("I guess you could say I follow the guidelines but will attempt to circumvent road blocks if necessary") was a good one.

Karen - very well done with your approach to the publisher last week. An excellent example of how if you've got the right material AND present it in an easy, human, respectful way, decent human beings respond well.

Sally - thanks very much for your sycophancy! And your sensible remarks too.

Jo - I contemplated blogging about that question but it seems too simple: I'd say it would be absurd to cut off mid-sentence. This is clearly meant to be an approximation. At least get to the end of the paragraph, and if the chpater ends a page later, give the whole chpater. Any agent who turns down good writing and a good story just because the author sent 51 pages instead of 50 is a fool!

Jean - I will blog soon about multiple submissions, as it's not a simple thing. Common sense and decency should prevail though: no agent or publisher should expect exclusivity and then sit on it for months. I will blog about this v soon.

Lynn of Behlerblog - I relied on you to respond to Proe in that way! But Proe is Proe and will do things his way and I have an odd respect for his attitude (even though I definitely don't suggest that anyone follows his stated methods!) I have a funny feeling actually that it's all bluster and that actually he writes a very good query letter...)

Jo Franklin said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you about not cutting off mid sentence, Nicola. I thought if I was ever in that position myself, I would end my sub at the appropriate chapter ending and indicate in the covering letter/email what I had done. But some people on the other forum were adamant that following the sub guidelines over rode all other aspects of common sense.

It's the neurosis of venturing into the unknown that makes us obsess about the minutae.

Things are easier when its only you and your pen in your own nest - even when your builders have cut huge great holes in the wall between the old part of the house and the new and you have to wear fingerless gloves to type and have a hot water bottle stuffed up your jumper to keep hypothermia at bay.

Dan Holloway said...


Keren says "It's only courteous to stick to the submission guidelines." That's very true - and it's as true when it comes to agents as it is for writers. If you say you will not accept something other than in a certain format then it is very rude to accept it in a different format. I know an agent isn't an employer, but if we, at work, accepted an application from our dream employee that had not been correctly submitted, we'd be sued by the other candidates - and we'd lose. Like I said, equality and fairness legislation relating to employment don't apply, but they're really only formalisations of a basic principle of decency. And I know this is business not polite society - but that doesn't mean that's how it should be. Rant over :)

Denise Canyon said...

In other words..."If you don't read our directions, we won't read your ms."

You'd think it would be simple.