Jun 30 2010

Writing to Publish – Introduction

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Welcome to a series of articles I’m calling “Writing to Publish.”

I should narrow that down further to “Writing Fiction to Publish”. Writing non-fiction takes quite a different approach, although many of the basics similar enough to get you by. If you’re looking for tips on writing essays or term papers, you’ve come to the wrong place. (But neatness counts almost everywhere).

I’m going to take a bit of an unconventional approach here, and slant things from an editor’s point of view. Now, I’ve never professionally edited fiction — except my own — but bear with me. I know, or have known, or have talked with, many professional editors and a few publishers. I’ve sold, well, never enough, but enough to avoid beginners’ errors anyway. If you’re already selling or getting personalized rejections, you can skip ahead.

I do have editorial experience. I was on the masthead at Byte Magazine as “Contributing Editor”. In all honesty that was more contributing (articles, system reviews, and the BIX software) than editing, although I did some of that in my area of technical expertise. My sole experience as an acquisitions editor for fiction (and the title is technically accurate if misleading) was in fifth grade for the school yearbook. Ultimately the rest of the editorial board ousted me because they felt I was being too critical in not taking the age/grade of the authors into account. (Sorry, but I thought they wanted good stories, not a representative sampling.) Through critique groups and on-line submission areas, I’ve also read a lot of slush.

But that’s past history.

Consider an editor’s job — or more precisely, a first reader’s job. It may be the editor doing that first reading, it may be an assistant, it might even be an agent or an agent’s reader, but somewhere in the process someone is going to open an envelope, take your manuscript out of it, (or do the electronic equivalent) and make a decision as to whether or not to spend more time on it.

Note that decision. It is not “accept or reject”, it is “is this worth spending more time on?” The editor (first reader, agent, etc) is typically faced with a stack of submissions several feet high (or an overflowing screen full of electronic submissions). They only make money from those that are good enough to sell to readers; time spent on any others is wasted. Those others are going to get, at best, a form rejection. Some publishers and agents just take a “no answer means no” attitude, even if you have included a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) for their reply. They’re looking for what they can sell, all else is dross.

Yes, that is crassly commercial — welcome to commercial publishing — and not necessarily true over the long haul. Some editors — John W. Campbell and Jim Baen to mention two legends who are no longer with us — have a knack for seeing the potential in an author whose stories aren’t quite there yet, and helping such authors realize that potential. But Campbell and Baen had a lot of autonomy in how they spent their time and money, and a proven track record. And even they wouldn’t have spent time on a manuscript that looked as though the author wasn’t even trying. Most editors, however much they may want to help aspiring authors (and of course, it’s a real feather in one’s cap to be the editor that discovers a bright new author), have too many other job pressures to spend time on manuscripts that aren’t going to pay off. As it is, they spend too much of their own time — commuting, at home, after hours — on manuscripts already.

Note the phrasing again: spend the time on manuscripts that aren’t going to pay off. Editors reject manuscripts, not authors. (Of course, if you as an author are sufficiently obnoxious and unprofessional so as to piss off an editor, they might make an exception in your case. Contrary to popular belief, editors are human too.)

I’ve heard tell from a reliable source that at least one publisher had a quota for their first readers: if they couldn’t reject a certain number of slush manuscripts per hour, they were considered to be wasting time and at risk of being fired. When your job is on the line to reject manuscripts, you reject manuscripts. Another editor/publisher mentioned that he got to a point where he could tell, before he had the manuscript all the way out of its envelope, whether it was worth looking at further. (And no, it wasn’t just the ones that were written in crayon.) An editor for a major publisher said that she’d tell her new summer interns that they would soon be able to look at a manuscript from across the room and determine if it was rejection-worthy [my emphasis]. Of course those interns wouldn’t believe her — until they’d been on the job for a week or two

None of this has anything to do with the content of that manuscript. If they can reject it without taking the time to read even the first page, they will. There are too many other first pages to look at. Initial impressions are important. You wouldn’t show up for a professional job interview in jeans and a sweatshirt, let alone your pajamas. You should take similar care when sending your story out for its job interview.

Which brings us to: Presenting Yourself, or Manuscript Formatting.

Next time.

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