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    The Total Package: A Simple Checklist to Make Your Work Ready for an Agent

    You've finished your first novel or book, and you know it's a winner. Your query letter is a work of art, and the agent you're dying to have represent you has requested the entire manuscript. You make a quick trip to the post office, mail off the tome, complete with a self- addressed stamped envelope, and return home.

    Pleased, you pick up a copy of the manuscript you just sent, and your stomach starts to churn, your knees start to knock and your head starts to spin. You just found a typo on page ten! How did you miss it? What else did you miss? Egads, you left out the cover letter!

    Can you now kiss the agent goodbye? How could you have avoided this?

    There are steps you can take before sending a manuscript that will allow you to rest easy after you leave the post office. It will help if you think of your submission as a total package: cover letter, manuscript, and mailing material.

    Let's concentrate first on the bulk of your package: the manuscript.

    1. Finalizing your manuscript.

    Remember that it is absolutely imperative that someone other than you reads the manuscript. This is not a slight to your own editing and proofreading skills, but insurance against mistakes your eye becomes trained to jump over. Once you've read the same words over and over again (you have read them over and over again, haven't you?), it becomes nearly impossible to spot all mistakes and typos. I recommend you have your work professionally edited. Check with your local college or in the classified ads for editing services. Join a writing list, such as the one I moderate on Yahoogroups (send a blank email to: The-Write-List-subscribe@yahoogroups.com), and ask other authors to recommend an editor. Offer to become a critique partner to writers whose work you admire. The friendships that can arise out of these situations are both beneficial and rewarding.

    "I have a friend—she's an editor, a writing teacher, and a published writer—who edits my material before it goes to any agent. Nancy is simply great; superb is actually the right word. With a few touches, a few notes and a ruthless strike-out method, she literally elevates the writing to the next higher commercial level," said Edita Petrick, a writer from Toronto, Ontario. "Today, I don't submit anything to an agent/agency, unless Nancy has edited it. We arrange and negotiate a fee for each such editing job. Editing is not a hobby and it's not a short job either. Nancy has done many free favors for me. But when it comes to a complete novel that I've finished as my next-to-last draft, it's pay for excellent service."

    If you can't afford an editor, join a professional online critique group, such as the Internet Writing Workshop. As a member of this group, which handles all genres, my writing has improved greatly. Critique workshops like the IWW are filled with other writers, like you, who need someone to look over their work. Most workshops function on a reciprocal critiquing system. If you critique a lot of other work, your work will receive a lot of critiques. Here are a few other critique groups:

    After your work has been edited and critiqued, and you feel it's complete and ready to go, then you are ready to follow the rest of the checklist.

    2. Format.

    All manuscript submissions, unless otherwise noted by the agent you are submitting to, should be on 8 1/2 x 11 paper, single-sided, in twelve-point Courier Font. Always include a cover letter, briefly reminding the agent who you are and why you are sending your work. This letter should include all contact information including an address, phone number, email address and any other pertinent information.

    After the cover letter, the first page should consist of your title, and name. Every page should include a header on the top right, and be numbered, followed by your last name and manuscript title. For example: 1/Collins/Dirty Little Secrets.

    Make sure all your chapters start on a fresh page, and include the chapter name and title, in bold.

    3. Spell Check and Grammar Check.

    Almost all word processing programs come with a grammar and spell checker. Use it. This is time consuming and irritating, particularly when your grammar checker wants you to make changes that you know are wrong. Remember, it is a computer, and it isn't really reading your work. However, every time I use this tool I do find one or two mistakes that I might have missed. Even if you already did this before your work was edited, do it again. If you made any changes, the possibility of new mistakes exists.

    4. Use your Find and Replace Tool.

    I routinely check the entire manuscript for homonyms. Words like "then" and "than," "it's" and "its," and "their, they're," and "there" are easy to type wrong and just as easy to miss when editing. Using your find tool allows you to zero in on these words, and make sure you've used them correctly.

    I also search for "that," a word that is often overused. If it's not necessary, I delete it. Other weasel words to search for are "suddenly," "felt," "realized," and "managed." Did your character manage to walk through the door, or did he just do it? And if you have to use "suddenly" to build tension, you haven't done your job as a writer.

    Make sure to check for "anymore" and "everyday." "Anymore" indicates time while "any more" shows quantity. "Everyday," means routine, common, ordinary, while "every day" also indicates time.

    I also check every name, to make sure my spelling stays consistent throughout the manuscript.

    5. Print Out a Copy. Once your editing has been done on screen, it's essential to edit a printed copy.

    "I always print my work out in hard copy because it's easier to find the punctuation mistakes. Tired eyes can mistake a comma for a period very easily when you've been staring at the computer screen for an extended period of time," said Tina Morgan, a fantasy writer from the Midwest.

    Editing on screen saves both time and paper, but it is essential to read through a printed copy at least once before your manuscript is mailed. If you are concerned about saving paper or about wear and tear on your printer, remember that you only have to reprint the pages you correct (unless you edit with a cup of hot cocoa, a donut, and chocolate bars).

    6. Check and Double Check.

    Make sure you have the agent's name correct, double check the address and never forget your SASE. Write "requested material" on your package. This allows the agent to sort through the unsolicited manuscripts they receive.

    "What I double check is that the whole package sells me as a professional," said Shirley Kawa-Jump, a contributing author to "Women on Writing—From Inspiration to Publication," a collection of articles and essays written by the members of National Association of Women Writers. "Does the letterhead look clean and crisp? Does the cover letter really punch and inspire them to read the rest? Did I put it all into a manuscript box instead of an envelope so it arrives in pristine condition? Did I double-check the address? And I always opt for Priority Tracking, too, so I can be sure it gets delivered and eliminate a phone call to the agent. Then I send it off and obsess until they call me!"

    Once you've followed the steps of this checklist, you should be able to send your manuscript off with very few qualms. Now the time has come to toss and turn and wait for a response. Remember, agents are busy. Although you can't gauge the agent's reaction to your prose, you can rest confident in knowing you have done everything to make your manuscript stand out from the crowd.

    Copyright © 2001 Natalie R. Collins

    Natalie R. Collins is the agent/publishing columnist for Fiction Factor -- an online magazine for writers, offering articles on the craft and business of writing, tips on getting published, free ebook downloads, author interviews, paying market listings, and much more! Natalie is also the author of SisterWife, a top ten pick for 2001 in the annual Preditors & Editors Poll. You can visit her Web site at http://www.nataliercollins.net.

    The Authentic Self: Journaling Your Joys, Griefs and Everything in Between by Shery Russ



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