EVENTS When to Press Send

How do you know when your manuscript is ready to be sent out? SCBWI Scotland welcomed agent Jenny Savill on 1st February 2020, to help us get submission savvy. Report by Elizabeth Frattaroli.

Jenny Savill, director of Andrew Nurnberg Associates, receives between 50 to 100 queries a week, but most never get any further as they’re not ready to be either read or submitted. ‘You can generally tell this from the first two paragraphs,’ said Jenny.

Agent Jenny Savill.
(Picture credit Elizabeth Frattaroli.)

The workshop was split into three sessions: Editing; Synopsis; Covering Letters and Blurbs.


Often writers can be so close to their own work that they either can’t see the wood for the trees, or so much has been changed during revisions that they have lost the essence of the story. Also, during the editing process, you can sometimes forget why you wanted to write the story in the first place! (At this point, Jenny had us all complete the sentences, ‘I want to write this story because…’ followed by ‘At the heart of my story is…’)

After you have written ‘The End’ put your manuscript away for about a month and resist all temptation to look at it. Your subconscious will be throwing out lots of thoughts, which you can jot down separately and revisit when you go back to the MS.

Re-read in a targeted way, looking for different things each time. So, first read it through looking only at plot, second at character, third setting etc, as follows:

  • Plot
  • Character development
  • Setting
  • Themes
  • Does it need to be in there?

It’s tempting to have a huge cast of characters. But each character has to perform a function in the story and sometimes two or more can be merged. Also, look out for character clichés and make sure they feel fresh and believable, and are behaving consistently.

SCBWIs (from left) Val Bates, Sharon Boyle and Evelyn Morrison.
(Picture credit: Elizabeth Frattaroli.)

Setting and world-building is really important, not just in fantasy and dystopia. Quite often a few brushstrokes are all that’s needed to show a flavour. Avoid ‘info dumping’.

What are your themes and is that message sufficiently developed, without being didactic?

We then moved on to readership and knowing your market. Jenny often sees submissions that are incorrectly pitched in terms of tone, content, age of protagonist, for example. If you’re not sure who your readership is, read more! And complete the following: 'The readership for my story is…'

Ask yourself before you submit whether every character, scene and moment in your story needs to be there. If something doesn’t a) move the plot along or b) further the readers’ understanding of character or plot, get rid of it. We need to start reading as a reader rather than a writer.

Next, we moved on to voice and tense and whether you have chosen the best way to tell your story. We had all brought along the openings to our WIPs and were asked to write our first paragraph in the opposite way, e.g. first person, present became third person, past.

Workshoppers listen to Jenny Savill's every word.
(Picture credit: Yvonne Banham.)

Jenny recommends that if you’re ever blocked in your story, you do this exercise as it can also help to understand character:

  • Read out loud.
  • Watch a successful film or animation like Toy Story – these are edited so well that nothing is extraneous.
  • Does each scene start at the latest possible point and end at the earliest possible point?
  • Jenny sees a lot of writers writing themselves into a scene or their book. This is okay for the first draft, but when editing ask if it’s needed.
  • Decide whether you’re going to ‘show’ action or just ‘report it’ – i.e. some things happen on page and some off page. 
  • Dialogue can often be how you really get into the story.
  • Jenny personally likes a contrast between a prologue and a first chapter, but the book should also be able to stand up on its own without one too.


If Jenny has enjoyed the first three chapters she will glance at the synopsis to determine the story arc. This doesn’t need a voice or to be beautifully written, but should be present tense and must include the ending.


  • Is it one side of A4 (maximum 1.5 pages) and 1.5 spaced?
  • Does it tell us WHO, WHAT, WHERE and WHEN?
  • Does it do this by giving a straight account, chronologically, of the main events of the story?
  • Does it say who the main characters are, their names and how old they are?
  • Does it include the ending?
  • Does it tell the backstory? (It shouldn’t!)
  • Is it in paragraphs and is the grammar and spelling correct throughout? 

For a good synopsis, write 1-10 down the left-hand side of a page, put the beginning of the story at 1, the ending at 10 and fill in the rest of the main events in the order they happen. That’s the skeleton of your synopsis, which can then be converted to paragraphs. (Dual narratives or flashbacks will need sentences like, ‘Meanwhile we learn that…’ or ‘As the narratives run side by side, the stories move on in XXX way.’)

Agents are looking for a professional approach from people who are serious about becoming published authors, so a clear, concise synopsis is essential.

Covering Letters and Blurbs

Jenny likes to see a blurb in the body of a covering letter. She handed out a sheet of example blurbs and asked us to discuss which ones stood out and why. A blurb is a ‘promise of really exciting things’ and should be a teaser and cliff-hanger: what comes next? They need to be very specific but you can be as creative as you want – Jenny quite likes a list, or the use of capital letters, for example. You might even want to use a line of dialogue in your blurb as that can often be arresting. Our next exercise was to do a blurb for our own story.

The group has time to chat about what they've learned.
(Picture credit: Elizabeth Frattaroli.)

Jenny then handed out a sample covering letter. These should again be one side of A4. Include a line about why you’ve chosen that agent in particular, make sure you address it personally to them, include a paragraph about yourself and any writing history you might have, and, ideally, mention a published book for comparison.

Is your letter polite and professional? Consider the tone: too eager, too egotistical, too smarmy, too humble? Which genre is your novel in and what age group is it aimed at? What is the novel’s USP – how will it stand out in the market place?

Are you ready?

  • Have you researched which agents to target?
  • Do you have more projects in the pipeline?
  • Do you know what is required of a published author these days? E.g. blogging, tweeting, social networking, school visits, marketing, flexibility, time. 
  • Are you used to receiving criticism?
  • Are you up for revisions and producing several drafts before publication?
  • Are your financial expectations realistic?

If you can answer positively to all of the above, then you are ready to submit!

And finally…

So what if you get that elusive offer? It’s important to try to meet prospective agents face to face and see what kind of vibe you get. Do you like the authors they represent? Questions you might want to ask them include: What is their vision for your book? Which editors and houses would they be submitting to? Where would they see it in a book shop? Commission rates? Are they a member of the Association of Authors Agents? What do they do with foreign rights – outsource or in-house? Film and TV rights – ditto. What about audio rights?

As you can see, there was a lot packed into the day. We all left feeling invigorated and better armed to face the slushpiles ahead!

*Header image:


Elizabeth Frattaroli is a YA writer who lives by the sea in Dundee with her husband, young twins, and a cat shadow called Willow. She has been longlisted in The Bath Children’s Novel Award and the Mslexia Children’s Novel Award and has twice won the T.C. Farries Trophy at the Scottish Association of Writers’ annual conference. As of 2020 she is also a golden egg with the newly launched GEA Scotland

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