Stephen Oliver: Submissions

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Stephen Oliver

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about submissions to agents, publishers, and magazines (APM’s), given that I’m sending out three different books and a whole bunch of short stories to them. I have come to several conclusions about how much work is involved, what information you need to know, and how much preparation you need to undertake.

I now have around a dozen different versions of my manuscripts on the computer. Some APM’s want double-spaced, others 1.5 lines spacing. Some want Times New Roman, others Courier New. Some want indented paragraphs. Others require no indentation but want extra 6-point space at the end of the paragraph. And so it goes.

Then comes the file formats: .txt, .doc, .docx, .rtf., .pdf., attached to email, embedded within it, or uploaded via the submissions page. There are frequently length limits on the number of words or characters in the upload space, often not stated in the latter case.

How much do the APM’s want? Five pages? Ten pages? Thirty pages? Three chapters? Fifty pages or three chapters, whichever is the shorter? The whole manuscript? (Hurrah, but don’t count your chickens yet; I’ve been rejected at this point, too.)

The bios: short, long, one-liners? How much do they want to know? How detailed?

Publishing histories: what have you published? Short stories or books? Self-published or traditional?

Social media links. Are you on Facebook? Pinterest? Twitter? Instagram? Are there any interviews available? If so, where? What are the links?

Blogs. How often do you post? Any guest posts elsewhere? Links to them, too, please.

Query letters: do you have a standard template with all the relevant information? Do you personalise them or not? If so, how much do you need to change? Can you establish a connection with the agent? What is the required length, format, and attachment?

Finally, a synopsis: yes, no, partial, overview, extensive? Again, how is it supposed to be formatted?

And I haven’t even mentioned the problems of deadlines and rejections yet.

Some agencies and publishers have deadlines that are months in the future (the record, so far, is over six months). I could live with that were it not for the fact that they demand exclusivity during that very long period. No simultaneous submissions elsewhere are allowed. Some want that exclusivity for shorter periods, while others are more flexible, asking only to be informed if another agency takes the manuscript. Then there are the ones that have a submission period of just a few days.

Many agencies have a policy of not answering when they reject. They tell you that you should consider the work rejected if you don’t hear within a specific timeframe. IOW, you are effectively being ghosted.

Others send rejections that are cookie-cutter cut-and-paste replies. I have received the same rejection email from an agency for two very different manuscripts, and a friend tells me she got the same rejection for her book, too. For the record, my books were Space Opera and Urban Fantasy, while hers was contemporary fiction. I’ve spoken with an agent who confirmed that software is available to automate the rejection process with standardised replies.

Worse are the rejections where there is feedback that makes no sense at all. One publisher has told me to go on a course to learn the basics of English. I want to state that I’ve been writing good English for the greater part of my 64 years of life. Another rejection made me wonder whether they bothered to read the manuscript at all, given that their “critique” appeared to be for another genre entirely.

Not to mention is the research necessary to find out all of the above. If you’re personalising the query letters, how much do you need to know to build a connection with them? Where can you find their formatting requirements? Are they industry standard or something special?

Every single agent or publisher has different requirements. If I weren’t already grey-haired, I would be by now.

All in all, a single query can take between two and six hours to craft. It’s frustrating when your hard work gets ignored or thrown back at you, apparently for some arbitrary reason.

It all means that you have to be passionate and believe in your work. Which, fortunately, I am, and I do.

But it does make me sometimes wonder why I have such a masochistic streak for keeping going. Ah, the joys of being a submitting author.


I’ll discuss things you will need to keep in mind once you are accepted, like working with others, vetting the contract, editing, revising, creating a media kit, etc., in a future article.

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About Stephen Oliver

I’m a ‘Pantser’ (aka ‘Discovery Writer’), meaning that I write ‘by the seat of my pants’.

In other words, I have no idea what I’m writing until I’ve written it. Give me a picture or a writing prompt (a sentence, a phrase… heck, even a word will do) and let me loose. I can come up with something in twenty minutes, 400-500 words to create a new story. I don’t stop there, of course. Those few words can turn into four or five thousand, or more. The next day or week, the Muse will strike again, and I’ll finish it off, creating something weird, wonderful or just plain odd.

Once I’m done, then comes the hard part: turning it into something good. I’ve had to learn that what I wrote initially is only the beginning. Read, revise, edit, wash, rinse, repeat. And repeat. And repeat… There are some stories I’ve gone over dozens of times, and I’ll still find something to improve, on occasion.

So it is that I’ve self-published a self-help book, written dozens of short stories, completed a novel, and am still working on two more. My genres cover science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, humour (very dark), noir, detective fiction, fairytales and fairy stories. Often more than one in a single tale… Oh, and there’s a second self-help book in the works, too.

I came to writing fairly late in life, but that ain’t going to stop me now. As Harlan Ellison once said, “A writer is some poor schmuck who can’t help putting words on paper.” That’s me, because I’ve already written over a million words since I began. I’ll be done when they peel my cold, dead fingers off my keyboard.

Mind you, given the kinds of stories I write, that will probably be because one of the monsters I created finally finished me off…!