Friday, February 25, 2011

Getting out of the slush pile

(or at least get closer to the top)

Please welcome Elaine Corvidae. When Elaine isn't crushing the dreams of aspiring authors, she writes science fiction and fantasy novels, including the award-winning Shadow Fae series. She lives near Charlotte, NC, with several cats and a very patient husband.

First of all, there’s no foolproof method for getting an acceptance from either an editor or an agent. Everyone is different; the very things that one editor doesn’t like about your manuscript may be the same things that another editor loves. However, there are ways to make sure your submission actually gets read—and ways to ensure that it won’t.

Like it or not, publishing is a business. Professionalism counts. Treat your submission with the same care and air of professionalism you would give to preparing your resume or interviewing for a job.

I’ve done slush reading for two different publishers. Below are a short list of the most common mistakes that I noticed.

1.     Follow the damn instructions

Every publisher or agent has submission guidelines, probably listed right there on their website. Follow them.
Why? Because these aren’t just guidelines—they’re also a test to see if you’re capable of following basic instructions. If you can't even do something as simple as attaching the first three chapters as a .rtf document, what will you be like to work with in edits? Or when it comes time to fill out the tax forms the IRS requires from every publisher? Or any of the other things that require the author to work with their agent/editor? Your submission package is a critical first impression—don’t make it a bad one.

2.     Don’t be crazy

Keep your cover letter short and sweet. Only include the information requested in the submission guidelines, or that is otherwise directly relevant to the work you are submitting. Do not tell me about how God told you to be a writer, your astrological sign, your collection of Elvis memorabilia, or that time aliens kidnapped you.
For all that is holy, do not open your query with an insult to the person/publisher/agency/publishing industry. Yes, this really happens.

3.     Polish your work before you submit

Okay, so you’ve followed the instructions and written a nice, grammatically-correct, typo-free query letter. At this point, and only this point, the slush reader will now turn to your novel and start reading. And, as much as I hate to say it, it’s usually obvious within the first five pages as to whether or not the submission needs to be rejected or recommended for a full read.

Why? Because it’s usually clear right away if the writer took the time to polish his or her manuscript...or didn’t. I know you’re excited to get your baby out into the world, but submitting the manuscript before it’s ready isn’t doing it or you any favors. My saddest duty as a slush reader was to make a comment along the lines of “intriguing book, but it’s just not quite ready for prime time.”

“But Elaine!” you may be saying, “That’s what editors are for!”

Um, no. Editors aren’t there to teach you the basics of writing or to fill the role of critique partner. The cleaner and better your manuscript is, the more likely it is to get bumped up to the next level.

4.     Don’t be crazy, part deux

You’ve submitted according to the guidelines, you’ve written a solid query letter, and you’ve done your absolute best to polish your manuscript, and you still get rejected. Ouch. It hurts—trust me, I know from experience.

But—repeat after me—“It isn’t personal.” It is not a rejection of you. It may not even reflect on your manuscript—maybe you got rejected because the publisher already had a vampire dragon romance on the schedule, and didn’t want to put out another until next year.

The professional thing to do is to get back up, dust yourself off, and move on. The insane thing to do is send the editor/agent who rejected you a nasty note, telling them how sorry they’ll be that they rejected you when you’re the next JK Rowling making a billion dollars. This will only reconfirm that they didn’t want to work with you, because you’re batshit crazy.

Don’t vent your spleen on your blog/facebook page/twitter feed, either. It’s fine to say you’ve gotten a rejection. It isn’t fine to say “Publisher Y rejected my brilliant manuscript because they suck, and all their books are crap, and they wouldn’t know art if it was shoved up their bums!” Most agents and publishers have Google alerts for their names, and they communicate with one another. Don’t burn your bridges.

In conclusion, be an artiste when you’re creating your work, but be a professional when you submit. Follow these simple guidelines, and you’ll be ahead of probably 75% of the submissions that came across my virtual desk when I was wading through slush. Yes, really.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Should I blog about my rejections?

Short answer: No.
Long answer: Hell, no.

In the last month, I've been seeing an increasing number of unpublished writers posting about their rejections. Some are giving a quick "rejection" tweet so vague as you aren't sure if they are talking about a book or a dinner invitation. Those don't bother me. However, others are blogging about their rejections. Still others are posting their rejection letters and ripping the rejectors to shreds. This really bothers me.

As authors, we have an odd obsession with how many rejections successful novels received before making it. It's the standard support advice given in writing circles. "JK Rowling was rejected umpteen dozen times and look at her now!" And while that is true, it's just as likely that you are being rejected because your story isn't up to par yet.

Rejection letters come in various forms. There's the standard form rejection:

Thank you for submitting. Your writing is really good, but this didn't work for me. However, this business is very subjective, so don't give up.

Then there's the personal rejection:

I enjoy the concept of this novel, but I found that I couldn't relate to your main character. Her actions were not consistent with a woman of her age.

Believe it or not, both rejections tell you a lot. When I see a blog about how a manuscript has received 26 form rejections in the last month, I immediately wonder if you're submitting to the correct markets for your work, the correct agents, and if you are following the guidelines. Is it your query letter? Have you tried a gimmick or to be cutesy in the query? (Remember - this is a job application. Treat it with professionalism).

And, you might be getting these rejections because of the one thing no one seems to want to address - the writing itself.

This is a tough one when you get a lot of form rejections because you don't even know what is wrong with a manuscript. Your writing circles have given you lots of praise and you might have even become a bit of an online superstar on places like Twitter, Facebook, your blog, and the dozens of online writing groups out there. Everyone says how great your work is and how yours is so much better than theirs. This might be true, but that doesn't mean that it's at the publishable stage yet.

If you've gotten a few personal rejections and a lot of form ones, there is a problem with your manuscript. Push aside all that praise and glory you've been basking in. Read the personal rejections. Look back over comments made by your worse critics. Don't have any critics? Go and fine one. They are out there. Don't dismiss what they say. Examine what they are saying against the rejections.

Which brings us back - what's so wrong about blogging about your rejections? It's an announcement that you aren't good enough. Everything I've mentioned is what goes through my mind as someone who was a slush reader for a small publisher, and as an intern for a small magazine. That's what goes through my mind when I see your blog. Imagine what goes through a potential agent's mind or an acquisitions editor's mind. It's not worth looking lazy, whiny, or unprofessional. Publishing is a business. Writing can be an art; publishing can not.

Talk about the rejection process after you get a contract, not before.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's on tap?

Over the next several months, we've going to cover several themes. Here's the rundown:

Mar - Editing (from all sides of the fence)
Apr - Genre writing
May - Internet savvy
June - Short Fiction
July - My first time (publishing)
August - Is a small press right for me?

I already have a fabulous line up of authors, editors, and publishers to share their wisdom. Have a topic you want covered? Have a theme idea? Feel free to either post in the comments or drop me an email - 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Do you consider yourself well read?

On yet another Twitter event conversation, a number of new writers talked about how they didn't read much these days. Or, that they aren't much of readers in general. One comment that really stuck out for me was along the lines of "I'm writing urban fantasy. I've never read that genre before but my story demands to be this!"

I'd like to say that it's a rare, isolated case, but I'm starting to discover that it isn't. Many new writers writing and submitting short fiction to magazines, never having read a short story since high school. Too many don't know that there are small presses out there and that there is a lot between NY Big Houses (tm) and self-publishing on Amazon and Smashwords. (If they read small presses, they'd know).

I'm not well read in the best sellers and big named authors, I admit. A lot of those books haven't appealed to me, though I've picked up a Patricia Briggs and a Charlene Harris book to give them a try. I often like smaller press, smaller named authors, or just oddball stuff (I love Star Trek novels, for example).

I also don't read in one genre. I generally go through phases, where I pick up a dozen SF novels and not read SF for a couple of years because I've moved on to fantasy, then mysteries, then romance, etc... I also don't read when I'm really entrenched in a writing project. However, when I need to recharge my batteries, I pick up a novel.

Need a little help getting started? Here's a little reading challenge that I've been doing this year:

1. Alternate reading female and male authors
2. Read a subgenre that you haven't read before or not recently
3. Alternate reading books published by small presses and big publishing houses
4. Read an author that lives in your province (or, state, territory, etc).
5. Read a fiction magazine
6. Read an anthology or short story collection
7. Read a book published in my country (I'm Canadian) or in other countries not the US (since most of what I buy is American-written and published)

Do you consider yourself well read? What are you reading right now?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

5 Tips to Help You Edit Better

I occasionally participate in a few Twitter author chats. Just before Christmas, there was a rather heated debate over the definition of editing vs revising. I generally use the term editing; it's just a personal preference. However, editing or revising or whatever else you wish to call it, needs to be more than simply checking for typos and grammatical errors.

*Blink* Editing isn't just reading the sentences, word by word, and making sure everything is all pretty and smooth? That is a step in the process, yes. However, I've discovered that there are many steps before that particular phase. Some of us do these steps without thinking, but I have found that it's a good idea to at least have them in mind during the entire editing process.

1. Does my plot flow in a smooth and logical manner?
I read one particular manuscript seven times when I'd first started writing seriously and felt it was near perfect by the end. Yes, I know, that should have been my first clue it was really bad. I submitted to a reader who, after three chapters, pointed out a plot hole larger than the one in the ozone layer. 

I take to scribbling down the major plot points on paper or, for particularly complex stories, on Post-It Notes on my wall. I let it sit for a couple of days and then review. I challenge each and every step.

2. Are my characters real?

This covers a few points. Are their actions consistent with their personalities? Are they likable, flawed, deliciously hateful (but your reader will cheer them on)? Does your main character carry the story, or do people and circumstances drag your character around?

3. Is my setting well developed, but not too developed?

Do you explain your setting? Grab a scene mid-book and evaluate it for the five senses, along with things like body language and physical reaction to situations. Can you smell your scene? What tactical surfaces are there? 

On the other side, if you have paragraphs and paragraphs describing entire rooms, you may have swung to writing a grocery list of items. See if your characters are interacting with these items. Are your characters telling us their impressions of the scenes or are you, the author?

4. Is my dialogue natural?

Dialogue is a tricky one because it can easily get turned into "As you know, Bob" moments. Instead, I find the best dialogue to read is the kind where people interact the way that I'd expect them to behave as real people...minus the boring parts of day-to-day dialogue, of course!

Likewise, do your characters all speak the same? One way I avoid this is to make the main character the standard of my story. Then, as I introduce a new character, I think about how they will appear next to the main. Will they be more educated? Less? Do they come from a different area? Is he a child whose learning to read? Is she an old woman who likes to tell dirty jokes? All of these things help me ensure that the dialogue is (I hope) never boring.

5. Is this the story I wanted to tell?

This is one that I constantly have to keep in mind. It's really easy to be sucked into writing what is trendy, popular, or what I think people want to read. 

I look at the world in a way that no one else does. Your perspective of the world is very different from mine. When we write, I believe we need to write the world that we see, not the world we think others see. Sure, there are guidelines to follow and certain skills that you must develop. However, the core essence of your story should be for your perspective on the world.

Let me give you an example. About two years ago, I started a SF story called "Road to Hell." I kept trying to make it the way I thought pro magazine markets would want it. Only, it never worked. It never rang true, not for one moment. I eventually scrapped it and turned it into a novel. Then, I made the critical decision to turn my main character into a marriage lesbian. I often worried that I should make her straight, or have her a single lesbian, because "married" and "wife" brought out some interesting reactions amongst the beta readers.

Today, I signed a contract for "Road to Hell," complete with my marriage lesbian main character.

After all that, there is still grammar, structure, and proofreading. However, once I started keeping those major points in mind, I discovered my manuscripts got better and sold faster.

What editing tips do you use?