Publishers have editors. Reaching an editor often requires an agent. Reaching an agent requires an introduction. An introduction usually requires either a good, solid query letter or a positive critique session at a conference. A good, solid query letter or a positive critique session requires ... an excellent manuscript.
Ask most published authors what a novice writer should focus on, and the answer is never platform, clever query tactics, or having the best author website on the Net. The answer is, write the best manuscript you can.
Maybe you've written one or two drafts. Maybe you've even written twenty or thirty, but how do you know when you've written enough?
Let's start with two of the most fundamental issues for a writer to trying to get noticed in a highly competitive world. Format and content/genre.
Formatting your manuscript correctly, and submitting it as per the guidelines of each individual agent or publishing house, may seem like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many aspiring novelists skip this very important step.
Formatting: There are several excellent books out there that will detail how your manuscript (and query letter or non-fiction proposal) should be formatted. Personally, I recommend Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript by Chuck Sambuchino and the Editors of Writer's Digest Books.
Several editors, agents, and published authors have read and critiqued my work and everyone has approved of the format I use. My own agent made no changes to my formatting before submitting to publishing houses.
Once you know your formatting guidelines, make sure you follow them all throughout the entire manuscript. You've worked very hard to get to this point, don't let yourself look less than professional because you switch from CHAPTER ONE to Chapter 2 or because you don't indent the first paragraph of a new chapter for the first half of your book, then start indenting for the second half. These may seem like minor issues, so you might be asking, does it matter? WHY TAKE THE CHANCE?
Agents receive hundreds of queries EACH WEEK. Why let yourself be stopped at this first gatekeeper because you couldn't be bothered to get the formatting correct?
I often hear aspiring writers ask the question, why does genre matter? Isn't it more important I write a great book than write in a specific genre?
Writing a great book does matter, but ask yourself this one basic question. What shelf does my book belong on in a brick and mortar bookstore?
If you can't answer that question, neither can the bookstore. So you may want to spend a little time figuring out why you can't.
YES, cross-genre work can be successful and wonderful, but you still have to figure out how to sell and market your work.
Agents usually list what kind of genres they represent, even as specific as the following:
Mysteries, but not cozies. Sci-Fi, but not paranormal. Romance, but not historical. Non-Fiction, but not memoir.
Agents have preferences in genre just like readers. If you don't know your genre, how are you going to choose where to submit? How are you going to MAXIMIZE the possibility an agent is going to say yes?
And NO, you are not such a great writer that an agent is going to represent your material even though it doesn't fit their criteria just because your query letter is better than the 15,000 letters they read last year.
You wouldn't ask your Podiatrist to do brain surgery just because M.D. is after her name. Categories help us define the world we live in, the Literary world is no different. You might find a Podiatrist who can do brain surgery, but is that really the route you want to go?
I'm using the term content in two ways, first as it relates to genre. For example, can you use four letter words in Young Adult fiction? If there is sex in your Mystery, does that make it Romance? If your Historical Novel involves time travel, does that make it Sci-Fi? You may THINK you write in a specific genre, but first of all, are you sure? And second, are you following the rules for that genre? If you aren't following the rules, is that because you know them and chose to break them (good for you!) or are you too lazy to learn about them in the first place?
Content also relates to the focus of your material. Typically, a novel asks a question at the beginning of the story, which is then answered by the ending. Will Bilbo Baggins leave the Shire, go on an adventure, and return home alive? Will Kinsey Milhone discover who killed the victim in Chapter One? What will happen to Mary and Anne Boleyn?
Take some time to figure out if what you ask at the beginning of your manuscript is also what you answer at the end. If the answer is no, you may need to either rewrite your opening or rewrite your ending. Keep in mind, most agents/editors will only look at the first 20 pages of your manuscript even if they do say yes to your query letter - so make sure your first 20 pages are the best they can be. If you aren't starting off right, it doesn't matter how good the end is. On the same note, agents/editors might LOVE your work, but not be thrilled about the ending, so if they do read all the way through, don't lose them in the last 20 pages. They are only going to say yes to a handful of writers each year. Give them as many reasons as you can to make yourself one of those lucky few.