Following up on Faith’s wonderful post last week, “Bait and Hook,” and kicking off what promises to be an interesting week of themed posts on submissions, I’m going to cut against the grain a bit.
My fellow writers and I often say on this site that there is no right way to do something when it comes to writing. You have to listen to your own muse and allow your characters to do the things they’re telling you they need to do. And ninety-nine point nine per cent of the time that “no-right-way-to-do-this” rule works. But there are exceptions, and one of the most important involves submissions.
Let me backtrack a moment and begin with this: many writers who are just starting out assume that agents and/or editors are always searching for that next new star, and to a certain degree this is true. But these same writers extrapolate from this a second assumption: that agents and/or editors will look through manuscripts submitted to them with an eye toward finding that star, and will therefore be looking for reasons to love their manuscript. And that, my friends isn’t the case at all. (A note here: much of what I’m about to say is equally true of editors of anthologies or magazines looking for short stories to publish.)
Editors and agents get stuff from aspiring writers all the time. They have gobs and gobs of stuff to read all the time. When they are looking through these piles of submissions (or, more accurately, where their assistants are looking through them) they are not looking for reasons to love your manuscript; they are looking for reasons to reject it. Let me repeat that. Those who read through submissions are not looking for reasons to buy a book or a story, they are looking for reasons not to. “What?” you say. “But. . . but that’s awful!” Actually, no it’s not. It makes perfect sense. They have a pile of manuscripts and only so many hours in a day to read through them. The faster they can find a reason to reject the one they’re reading, the sooner they can move on to the next, and get one submission closer to being done. This is why the hook Faith was writing about is so important.
But at a more basic level, editors are looking at presentation. Does your manuscript look professional? Is it printed in a simple, readable font? Is it double-spaced, does it have proper margins? This sounds like foolish stuff, right? It’s not. These folks are dealing with serious eye-strain. (Okay, that’s partially a joke.) More to the point, every publisher, every literary agency, every journal or magazine or e-zine that might want your work has submission guidelines that will tell you exactly how your manuscript should look. These guidelines (GLs in professional parlance) can be found online or can be requested by snailmail with a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). They will tell you how your manuscript should look, where your name and address should appear on the first page, what other info should be on that first page (some magazines want a word count for short story submissions, some don’t), what font size and spacing format you should use, whether you should send the whole piece or only a certain number of chapters, what other materials to include (cover letter, bio) etc. Get these guidelines for each place to which you submit work; don’t assume that the GLs for one publishing house or agency will work for all the others.
If you submit to a place and don’t follow their GLs, chances are your manuscript will be rejected without having been read at all. Professionals follow GLs. Don’t follow them and you make yourself look like a wannabe, and a foolish one at that. And that’s what the readers will assume. “This person doesn’t care enough to follow the GLs? Then I don’t care enough to read the manuscript. Next!”
Moreover, your manuscript should contain no typos. None. Okay, if they ask for three full chapters and you have a typo on page 42 in the third chapter, it probably won’t doom you. Frankly, if they’ve gotten that far in reading it, you’re probably doing pretty well. But a typo — any single typo — in the first five pages will probably lead to a rejection. You’re aspiring to be a professional; take pride in your work and make it look and read perfectly. Professionals edit and proof their work; they find silly mistakes before they send out their work. That’s what you should do, too.
Other miscellanea: don’t use different colored fonts or “cute, interesting” fonts. Don’t bind your submission or give it a fancy cover or put acetate over it. Just give them the manuscript and let it speak for itself; your work should sell itself. Professionals don’t mess with bells and whistles. Neither should you.
Presenting your work professionally will not guarantee you a sale; not by any means. But it will guarantee that your manuscript will get a fair reading. Look at it this way: Those tired, overworked editors or editorial assistants are looking for excuses to throw your work to the side and move on to the next submission. By presenting your work professionally, you’re denying them that excuse. You’re forcing them to judge the submission on your terms not theirs. If they don’t like the premise, or your hook doesn’t work for them, so be it. But don’t shoot yourself in the foot with your presentation.
What about a cover letter you say? Different people write their cover letters in different ways. Here’s one of mine written back in 2004:
Dear Mr. Editor:
Please allow me to introduce myself as David B. Coe. I am the author of five fantasy novels, all of them edited by James Frenkel and published by Tor Books. My most recent books, Rules of Ascension and Seeds of Betrayal, are the first two installments of my Winds of the Forelands series. The third volume, Bonds of Vengeance, will be released in February 2005, and the final two books of the sequence are already in production. In 1999, my first trilogy, The LonTobyn Chronicle, received the IAFA’s Crawford Award, which recognizes the best series in fantasy by a new author.
I submit for your consideration “The Christmas Count,” a story I completed recently as I took a break from my novels. The story is a character study set in our world with a subtle, but crucial science fiction element. It is not a story I intend to expand into a novel — it was, in essence, a chance to play with an idea that had been rattling around in my head for some time. I hope you enjoy it. It is just over 8,000 words long.
I will be happy to provide upon request any additional information you might need.
I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for considering my story.
David B. Coe
It’s brief and direct. I don’t do much more than give some biographical background and describe the story. For the record this particular editor rejected the story. Ellen Datlow later bought it; I used essentially the same letter for her. Frankly I don’t like letters that describe a story in detail. If your hook is effective, they don’t need a big description; and if the presentation is professional, they’ll get to the hook eventually. But this is much more subjective than the GL stuff; Faith, Misty, and Catie might have different advice when it comes to the cover letter. I do think it’s safe to say, though, that with cover letters less is more. Your letter should be one page with normal margins and font size (single-spaced; double line between graphs). No more than that. It should be typo-free as well. And again, check the GLs. Some places don’t want a cover letter.
A few other points: I always send short stories in a 9×12 envelope with a second self-addressed 9×12 envelope folded inside with proper postage already affixed. I like to get my stories back, just in case the editor has made any margin notes (usually they don’t). It’s been a while since I submitted a book manuscript on my own (as opposed to having my agent send it), but I believe the assumption is that your manuscript will not be returned, so skip the SASE. 😉
The key to all of this, though, is professionalism in your presentation. Again, make them read the submission on your terms, rather than allowing them to reject it on theirs. At least then you give yourself a fighting chance.