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WRITING SF/F...AND SUBMITTING ITBy Former Del Rey editor Jenni Smith
Read everything you can get your hands on. Read the classic science fiction before the movie tie-ins. Read all kinds of genre stuff. Read outside the genre. It will help the scope of new and original work.
Take the time to do some research (in both the writing and submitting). When writing something set in a quasi-medieval fantasy world, read some history of the Dark Ages or the Middle Ages. When writing about alien contact, read some history on New World explorers and read some hard science for propulsion engines, rockets, and planets. When submitting, first request the submission guidelines from both agents and publishers.
To get an agent or not to get an agent? Many agents have a knack for editing. Some are better than others. Some don't edit at all. If you want an agent who will help you develop your writing, ask. If you don't want an editorially minded agent, ask. The agent will work for you but will also help you in your professional career. I recommend getting a reputable agent who will know the editors and publishing houses and will know how to help sell your book.
Cover letters: When submitting a manuscript, the cover letter should be brief and to the point. Do not summarize the manuscript in the cover letter. You may submit a brief synopsis along with the manuscript--this is preferred. Do list previously published works in anthologies, magazines, other publishing houses, etc. Fanzines don't really count. If you have not yet published professionally, that's okay. Those bigwig authors had to start somewhere, too!