Sunday, May 8, 2011

Do Your Homework

We all know that writers have to do their homework. No matter what we write, there's some research involved. Whether it's knowing the street layout of the town where our story is set or getting the science right for our space opera or knowing the appropriate mythology for our fantasy, we have to do our legwork. Otherwise, our story or novel will not be as good as it can be.

What we sometimes forget is that our homework doesn't end with the writing. We have to research where to send it when we're done and we have to research what the agent or editor wants when we do. That's where we have to go looking for the guidelines and then we have to make sure we follow them. It doesn't matter how good our book or story is if that agent or editor doesn't see it because the query or submission was kicked for not following the guidelines.

This is something I've become more aware of since going to work as an editor for Naked Reader Press. I have a new appreciation for some of the frustrated comments I've seen from agents and editors about writers who don't follow the guidelines. Until I started working forNRP, I could sort of see what they meant but still thought they were making a mountain out of a mole hill, especially in this day when most submissions are made electronically. After all, how hard is it to do [ctrl + a] and then change the font size or type or line spacing?

Then I put on my editor hat and start looking at some of the submissions that have come across my desk. Up front, these are the minority and not the rule. We've had some very wonderful submissions come to us and others that might not have fit our needs, but would be good fits with another publisher. These submissions have, as a rule, followed our guidelines to the last detail. These are the submissions we really appreciate.

The flip side are those writers who don't even give a hat tip to the guidelines. These are the ones without cover letters with the requested information. These are the ones that don't include the short synopsis of their novel. These are the ones who submit genres we don't accept. These are the ones who don't know -- or don't understand -- basic manuscript format rules. These are the ones who start off with one strike against them because they didn't do their homework.

It starts with the cover letter or query letter -- I say "or" because if you are submitting to a publisher like NRP where we accept submissions without queries first, you don't have to do a formal query letter. However, much of the same information you put into your query letter needs to be in the cover letter. Things like the genre of your work, how many words, and if it's been published before or not. (This last is especially important because, whether you realize it or not, editors and agents do google you and your work.)

A short blurb is also good -- and required if you are sending a query. This isn't the synopsis nor is it an excerpt from your submission. This is similar to what's on the back cover. It is a hook to get the editor or agent interested enough in what you've sent to actually open the file. This is the one place in the cover/query for you to be creative -- but not at the expense of another author. Guys, you don't know if the editor or agent reading your cover is a huge fan of that author you've just called a hack. So don't shoot yourself in the foot before you get out of the starting gate.

Once you hit send, take a deep breath and go have some fun. Then get busy on your next project. You won't hear back from the editor or agent that day or the next. See what the standard response time is and then wait a reasonable period after the expiration of that time before sending a follow-up. And, please, unless you realize you hit "send" without attaching a file, don't keep resending every time you find and correct a typo.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this: if you start submitting your work to agents or publishers, you need to finally admit to yourself that you are a writer. That being a writer is your job. It may be your second or third job, but it is still a job. So you need to treat it as such. Agents are your headhunters and publishers are who you enter into contractual agreements with. I won't say employers, because they aren't. But, just as you don't keep sending resumes every day to the same human resource professional, you don't keep sending revised queries or full manuscripts to an editor or agent when all you've done are minor cosmetic changes.

If it seems like I'm harping on the issue, I am. Some of the larger publishers and, I suspect, some agencies, have gone to a service that vets queries long before that agent or editor will. This service simply weighs the queries against the guidelines of that particular agent or editor. If you haven't followed the guidelines, it's rejected out of hand. It doesn't matter how good your query letter might be. It doesn't matter that your book might be the next best seller. A computer program has just rejected it because you didn't do your homework.

Is it fair? As a writer, I'm inclined to say no. But then, I sort of feel that way about having to send a query letter without a writing sample. After all, someone can write a wonderful query letter and their novel may suck eggs. Conversely, I've read awful queries but the accompanying novel is wonderful.

But as an editor, I can understand why the larger firms and publishing houses have gone to this automated vetting process. It takes time to read the cover/query. If that cover/query doesn't contain the information required by the guidelines, it takes time away from another author's submission to open the accompanying file and start reading only to discover the original submission is a genre we don't publish. I know how many submissions we get and my mind boggles at how many the larger companies that still accept unsolicited submissions must get.

So, as a writer and as an editor I remind you to do your homework. Be sure to read the guidelines and do your best to follow them. Don't start off with a strike or two against you because you haven't followed directions. Remember, if you have a question, e-mail is your friend. I've never had an agency or publisher not answer when I've asked for clarification of something.

Well, I've run on long enough. Just one more thing. For those of you who have been following the "outing" of the English teacher in PA as an erotic writer, here's a great interview with her from Publishers Weekly.

5 comments:

MataPam said...

I remember how totally freaked out I was, when I sent in my first ever submission.

I didn't include any contact information. Zip. Zero. Nada. My name under the title on the manuscript. The"from" addy on the email, if that was even saved.

It was like stage fright. My mind froze.

I'm much better now. Honest.

Kate Paulk said...

As far as I can see it's pretty simple. Publisher tells you what they want to see on their website. You follow their format guidelines no matter what you think of them, because guaranteed they have a reason for those guidelines.

It's simple courtesy - and it pays to be obsessive about it. Having seen some of the shockers that find their way into slush piles (No, pink paper with red crayon is NOT an exaggeration), slush readers will bless you for giving them something that meets guidelines - because guidelines usually involve "font that is easy on the reader's eyes, spaced widely enough that the lines don't run into each other, and in a large enough size that we don't need a microscope to read it".

Oh, and it pays authors never to forget that sheer volume means that except on very rare occasions the person reading the slush is looking for reasons to kick the piece out, not reasons to keep it. Don't give them any easy reasons.

Amanda Green said...

Pam, we've all done that. But I find myself wondering how much of it is because we don't always think of our writing as our job. When we apply for a "real job", we tend to make sure all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed. Why can't we be that thorough with our writing?

Amanda Green said...

Kate, exactly. And something that goes hand-in-hand with what you said is the warning not to go feral in your reaction to an editor or agent either in an email to them or on your blog/fb/whatever. Even if they don't see it, someone they know will and word will get back to them. Just as you don't want that perspective employer to find out you've been bad mouthing them, you don't want a potential editor or agent finding it out either.

Mike said...

Now, given that most writers work out of their home, would this be their "office work"? After all, if homework is what you do after school at home, then clearly extra work done when working out of the house must be done somewhere else? Maybe the coffeeshop work, or library work, or... okay, homework. Do I have to stay after school now and clean the blackboards? (somehow, cleaning the whiteboards doesn't sound nearly as threatening :-)