Submission Protocol

Nancy J. Cohen

Last week, I sent a submission via snail mail. “What’s that?” you ask. It’s almost a forgotten art. I hadn’t sent out a physical manuscript in so long that I’d forgotten the specifics. I think it’s been at least five years, likely longer, since I last had to send anything from the post office. This submission went to a niche market and was another of my father’s travel journals.

So what was involved? After reading the online submission guidelines, I reviewed my manuscript. Oops, I’d forgotten all about headers and footers with the book title, author name, and page number. Having formatted for ebook requirements, I added those back in.


Since this book is nonfiction, I had to include a Table of Contents. No problem. I know how to do this in Word. Oh, wait. I forgot to write a Foreword like I did with my father’s other journal, Thumbs Up, that I’d indie published. So I added the TOC. Then I deleted some of the book buy hyperlinks in the back. I shouldn’t include those for this type of submission.

A query letter topped it all off. I polished mine once more before adding it to the pile of papers. It’s also been ages since I’d had to write one of these things. It’s never easy, is it?

Now what? I printed out the whole work, since it is short and about equivalent to a normal book proposal in page count. Next came the SASE. How do you do this again? If you want the manuscript back, you have to put actual postage stamps on a suitably sized manila envelope. This means you have to weigh the envelope for return postage with the manuscript inside, affix the stamps, remove the pages and stuff them into the outer envelope along with the folded SASE. A complicated business, isn’t it? Or you can just include a stamped and self-addressed #10 business envelope for the form rejection letter you’re sure to get.


And then comes the great sigh of relief when you send your baby off at the post office. This generates a more visceral response than sending a book into cyberspace. Somehow the physical manuscript seems more a part of you.

Weeks pass and then months. You watch the mail for the return envelope. Once you see it, gloom sets in. You’ve been rejected. And you start the process all over again.

At least that’s how it used to be done in the old days. Do you remember those times? Do you miss them?

Key Elements to Writing an Effective Synopsis

Jordan Dane



He’s flummoxed because these aren’t his hands.

I don’t know of any author who hasn’t been flummoxed (word of the day courtesy of James Scott Bell) by the task of writing a first synopsis. Do they get any easier to write? Not for me. Each story idea presents a unique essence that must be distilled into a short brief. Some authors sell books on proposal (with or without a writing sample), or they use the synopsis to be an initial outline of the story idea (a guide post), or an effective synopsis brief can be a part of a solid query letter or made into a quick pitch to an editor or agent. However you use a synopsis, I thought I’d share what has worked for me.


Key Elements to Writing an Effective Synopsis


1.) The Basics – Generally a synopsis is 5-7 pages long, double spaced with one-inch margins. Be sure to include your contact information on the first page and I would recommend adding a header on every page (in case an editor or agent drops your proposal and the pages get out of order). My headers have my name, title of the book, genre, word count, and page number (on far right). I often have a tag line that I list at the top, before the synopsis brief. If you are represented by an agent, I would list that near your contact information. A professional presentation will make you stand out in a slush pile.


2.) Writing a synopsis shouldn’t be about defining the rules of the game. It should be about why you’d want to PLAY it. Give the editor or agent or reader a sense of your voice and the color of the world you will build. Think of a synopsis as a lure, an enticement for them to want more. Rules are boring. Tell me why the game will be really good, or fun or scary.


3.) Whether there is quirky humor or a dark suspenseful undertone to your book, the synopsis should reflect these elements and not merely be a detailed “who does what where.” If your synopsis is boring, chances are any editor or agent will think your book will be lackluster, too. Give them something shiny to grab at.


4.) Pitch your book with a high-level synopsis brief at the top of your proposal. This pitch should read like a TV log line – a condensed 1-3 sentences about the main elements of your story – character highpoints, conflict, emotion, what’s at stake. No need for specific character names that will only be a distraction to what your book is about. If you get this short pitch right (sometimes called the “elevator pitch”), you can embed it into a query letter or use it on your website for a short teaser. An editor can use this short descriptive pitch of your book to her house and the committee that decides which book to buy.



[Part of this pitch is omitted for confidentiality. I REALLY wish I could share it, but I can’t.]

A depressed and aging widow gets a second wind when she pays a young handyman for services rendered on her unusual Bucket List, in an uncommon “coming of age” story.


5.) After the synopsis brief or the pitch, it’s time to introduce your characters. The first time a new name appears in your synopsis, capitalize their full name to highlight who the players will be. A writing sample will introduce your character to the editor or agent in a different way, but I recommend a brief summary of why  each of your main characters have earned their right to be a star in your story. Highlight who they are, what they want, and why they can’t have it. What will their struggle be? What’s at stake for them?



LILLIAN OVERSTREET has flipped the channel on her rerun life and given up. She’s convinced nothing exciting will ever happen to her. Her husband’s dead, her only daughter treats her like a doormat, and old age is creeping up on her like bad granny panties and has made her invisible. Her only reason to leave the house is her bowling team of widows – The Ball Busters. She’s mired in a chronic case of depression that has seeped into every aspect of her existence, until her daughter GRACE OVERSTREET-THORNDYKE hires “eye candy” to do the renovation of the family home. [This is only the basic set up and does not include the conflict, black moment, and ending highlights.]


6.) Not every aspect of your plot needs to be spelled out, ad nauseam. If there are five main suspects or key secondary characters, give the highlights of who they are and why they earned the right to be in your book and why they could be a game changer. This works for other genres, not just crime fiction. If there are characters who stand in the way of your hero/heroine, showcase who they are and why they are an obstacle.


EXAMPLES (Secondary Characters with sense of color/humor):


VINNIE DELVECCHIO is the only widower on the Ball Busters team. In the small town of Why, Texas, he runs a Deli where Lillian gets her meat. He’s opinionated and brash with a foul mouth. He teases the ladies at the bowling alley by saying, “If you gals ever need someone to slip you the sausage, you come to DelVecchio for quality meat.” Even though his mind is constantly in the gutter, Vinnie knows how to roll a strike, has his own bowling shoes and a hefty pair of designer balls, but he’s only on a “team of broads” for the view.


CANDACE and VICTORIA WINDGATE are twin sisters Lillian has known since high school. The sisters kept their maiden name after both their husbands died in the same mysterious boating accident. No one in town knows how the Windgate twins earned their financial independence or how much money they have, but rumors never run out of steam in Why, Texas. Neither of the sisters can bowl worth a damn. They only come to ‘Why Bowl – Family Center & Tanning Spa’ for the cheese fries and beer.


7.) The major plot movements should be highlighted so an editor or agent will know your story has meat to the bone. I like to use a 3-Act screenplay method and have posted about it at TKZ before at this LINK – I use a big “W” to remind me of the turning points to include in my synopsis. (Michael Hauge’s “Writing Screenplays That Sell” was the reference book that sparked my interest in structure and it has helped me draft my proposals.) The highpoints should show the stakes ramping up and the key turning points in the plot as well as the black moment when all seems lost. If there are twists in the plot (especially surprises), showcase those too.


Key Questions for a 3-Act ‘”W” structure:

Act 1 – How does your book start?

Act 1 – What is the point of no return for your character(s)?

Act 1 – What key plot twist will propel your story into the escalation mode of Act 2?

Act 2 – How will you up the stakes?

Act 2 – What is the black moment when all seems lost for your character(s) and how will your character(s) turn it around?

Act 3 – Do I have a plot twist for my readers?

Act 3 – How will your story end and how will you tie up the pieces?


8.) The ending should be spelled out. Editors and agents don’t like surprises and want to know how you intend to tie things up. If you are writing a romance, the ending is very important so the editor or agent gets a feel for your take on a romantic full circle. I’ve sold books without full disclosure of who the bad guy is, but generally you should “tell all.”


Even if you are an indie author and may never have written a synopsis or included one in a proposal to an editor or agent, it can be a good exercise to understand the essence of your book. A good synopsis will get you thinking about how to create an effective jacket cover description to entice the reader. Writing a synopsis is always a challenge, even if you are good at it, because it boils down your book into a teaser that you hope will lure a reader to buy your book.


For the purpose of discussion, tell us what works for you in writing a synopsis. (If you have any tips to add, please share them.) Or share what challenges you’ve had. Let’s talk, people.


Ten Rules For Manuscript Evaluations

By John Gilstrap

If you’ve been visiting my little corner of The Killzone for any time at all, you probably know that my rules for writing are limited to only one: There are no rules. There are really good suggestions, but at the end of the day, if you can make something work on the page, it doesn’t matter if there’s a widely accepted “rule” against it. This game is all about originality.

But a little clarification is in order. When I say no rules, I really mean no universal rules. I have rules for my own writing because they work for me. I would never presume to suggest that the same rules would work for any other writer.

Every now and then, though—usually in the context of a writers’ conference involving manuscript evaluations—other writers’ rules collide with mine, and then things can get awkward.

Over the years, then, I have developed a list of Gilstrap’s Ten Rules for Manuscript Evaluation:

1. Number your pages and put your name or project title on every page. The reality is that I will lose your paper clip and I will drop your papers on the floor at least once. I don’t do this on purpose; it just always happens. Sometimes the pages get separated in my briefcase. However it happens, jumbled papers are jumbled papers. It helps to know which ones belong to whom, and in what order.

2. Have confidence in Times New Roman 12-point type. Reducing the font size to sneak in more story does not slip past unnoticed. I recently participated in a conference where someone actually gave me 15 pages of double-spaced 8-point type. Ignoring the fact that it pissed me off, I literally could not read the text. While I like to think of myself as young, my eyes are marching toward old age.

3. For me to believe that your story has any hope of success, something must happen in the first two hundred words. That’s the length of my interest fuse. Billowing clouds, pouring rain and beautiful flowers are not action. Characters interacting with each other or with their environment is action.

4. If you insist on walking into the whirling propeller that is a prologue, check first to make sure that your prologue is in fact not your first chapter in disguise. Next check to verify that your prologue is truly for the benefit of the reader, and not a crutch for the writer who needs to dump a bunch of backstory so that the first chapter will make sense.

5. Ten pages are plenty. Actually, five pages are plenty, but I understand that conference organizers can tout the larger number more easily. In my experience, unless dealing with a journeyman writer, the sins committed in the first few pages are replicated throughout. It’s rare that I discover a new issue on page thirteen or fifteen that hasn’t been noted several times previously.

6. Understand that I write thrillers. That’s really the only genre I understand—and at that, my understanding is tenuous. If you submit a romance or historical fiction manuscript to me, understand that it will be evaluated through the lens of a thriller writer. I’m not being obstinate here; I’m just not that intellectually nimble.

7. I write manuscripts, I don’t buy them. I am a terrible resource for determining what is and is not marketable. If I knew what the public was going to be clamoring for in two years, I would write those stories myself and sit atop the bestseller lists year after year.

8. Since you asked my opinion, I owe you honesty—as filtered through the prejudices and preferences of a self-taught writer of commercial fiction. I don’t demand that you agree with my opinion, but please don’t try to talk me out of it. Right or wrong, mine is the only opinion I have, and I can’t do much about it.

9. Understand that I do the evaluation exercise to be helpful. I can tell you what works and doesn’t work for me, and I can explain why. At the end of the day, though, your story is yours, and you are the only one who can fix it.

10. Unless you submit your best effort for evaluation—fully vetted, fact-checked and spell-checked—you’re wasting everybody’s time.

ISHTAR II and the Slush Pile

Almost from the beginning of words chiseled in stone, there has been a slush pile—literally the mountain of unsolicited manuscripts that accumulate in the offices of publishers. And for decades, it was the hope and dream of unknown writers to have their hidden gem plucked from the pile and go on to be a bestseller. Despite the ishtar odds, which are slightly worse than Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty remaking ISHTAR, there have been a few slush-pile hits, or at least career starts. My friend Kris Montee tells me that she got her first break in 1984 when her manuscript THE DANCER was plucked from the Ballantine slush pile. Kris and her sister Kelly went on to become NYT bestselling authors as P.J. Parrish.

In a recent WSJ article by Katherine Rosman, she noted that CARPOOL by Mary Cahill was the last book published by Random House that originated from their slush pile. That was back in 1991. Today, most major publishers have a strict policy of not accepting unsolicited manuscripts.

There are a number of reasons for the death of the slush pile, the biggest being shrinking budgets. Now you’d think that having an unending supply of material at your disposal without even asking for it would be a plus, right? No. First of all, the publisher has to pay employees to weed through the slush. They simply can’t afford it anymore. The rare chance of finding a winner is greatly exceeded by the waste of time reviewing unpublishable work. Let’s face it, there’s usually a good reason why unsolicited work goes unpublished.

Another reason for the demise of the slush pile is the fear of being accused of and having to defend against allegations of stealing someone’s work. Again, it’s all about money. Why even take the chance.

And believe it or not, the anthrax scare after 9/11 became a major reason no one wants tons of unsolicited mail sitting around their offices. Even with no shrinking budgets, money can’t defend you against toxic death.

So how can a new writer hope to get their toe in the door? Get an agent. Next to writing the best book you can, it’s crucial that you find a literary agent. With few exceptions, publishers will only consider material sent to them by an agent. The agent is the primary filter and first line of defense for the publisher. And in some cases, it not only has to be an agent, but one they already know and have an established relationship. Today, there’s much more responsibility placed on the writer/agent than ever before.

A bit of good news: despite all the drawbacks to the slush pile, publishers are of a belief that a diamond might still be hidden among the mountain of coal. As long as there’s even a slight chance, there needs to be a way to find it. So some publishers are creating virtual slush piles. For instance, HarperCollins introduced a website called Authonomy that allows writers to upload a manuscript. Visitors can read the work and vote on their favorites. The HC editors will then review the five highest scoring submissions each month with an eye for publication. How are your chances? Over 10,000 manuscripts have been uploaded so far with 4 bought.

We should be seeing more of these virtual slush piles popping up as time go on, especially with the public doing all the work and only the overhead of the site being the primary cost.

So how did you get your start? Did you submit cold or acquire an agent first. If you aren’t published yet, have you ever sent in an unsolicited manuscript? What was the result?

BTW, anyone know when ISHTAR II will be released?