Friday, August 7, 2015

Look Like a Pro

The single best way to attract an editor's attention and be taken seriously is to look like a pro.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that every tiny detail of your submission looks like you know what you're doing, like you've done your research, like this whole writing thing matters.

The tiniest detail.

But too many writers fail to learn these things.

Granted, in the world of online submissions, it doesn't matter quite as much as it used to.  It's easier than ever to make manuscript alterations when it comes time to actually publish a submitted story.

But appearances really do matter.

So here's my list of those tiny details that show me you're serious about this writing thing.  I want to publish authors who are serious.  Most items are followed by a link to an article I found particularly helpful.  I expect you to click through and read them:

1.  Your cover letter 

Your cover letter should be short, sweet, and to the point.  Recognize that cover letters for short story submissions and cover letters for novel submissions are NOT the same.  You should NEVER include a story synopsis in a short story submission.  The story is short enough.  It can speak for itself.  Plus I should be able to figure out the basic gist of the plot by reading the first few paragraphs, because that's how short stories should be structured.

The following article is pretty good, but outdated for online submissions, which make up the VAST bulk of short story submissions these days.  I do NOT need to know if your manuscript is disposable.  It's electronic, not paper.  What I do with it at the end of the day doesn't have an impact on the rain forests or on my nonexistent mailroom clerk.  And, obviously, you don't need to worry about a SASE.

2.  Your title

How important is a title?  I can't overstate how VERY important a title is.

There are TWO aspects to your title.  The first is format.

This is Jr. High School grammar, folks.  Don't make me open your manuscript to find this:

this is the title of my story

On your keyboard there's a key, a pretty big one, that says 'Shift.'  Use it.  Use it correctly.

Here's a great little summary on capitalizing story titles.  Short, sweet, and to the point:

If that's too much for you, here's a neat little capitalization tool:

Correcting that title: This Is the Title of My Story

The other aspect of title is its character.  Is it interesting?   Have you given more than 20 seconds thought into what it should be?  Does it catch my attention without being more creative than the actual story?  Does it accurately reflect the nature of the story?

One story we had submitted had a title that made me certain the story was going to be humorous.  The story was none of the sort.  We published the story, but the author had to change the title.  The only reason the story passed muster at all was that it was good enough to overcome that title snafu.  Your story would have to be REALLY good to do that.

The following may be the ONLY article on the internet about writing a story title.  Fortunately it's pretty good:

3.  Guidelines

Every short story market has submission guidelines.  Every short story market has UNIQUE submission guidelines.  Every short story market EDITS their submission guidelines from time to time.

If you're submitting with a short story market for the first time, thoroughly read the submission guidelines.  Read them, study them, heed them TO THE LETTER.  Double check that you didn't miss anything before hitting that Submit button.

If you're submitting to a short story market for the first time in 6 months, REread the submission guidelines  Things change, new reasons for new rules arise.  New editors take over.  New owners mix things up.  Just for me, take another look.

4.  Your Manuscript

Most of a market's requirements for your manuscript will appear in the guidelines.  If you read those guidelines your manuscript is likely to be just fine.

But the truth is many authors don't actually read the guidelines, and if they do they consider themselves 'above the law,' or they think they're being clever by making alterations to their manuscript that will 'catch the editor's attention.'  Yeah.  They catch my attention, but not in a good way.

You know those WalMartians?  Sure, they catch EVERYONE'S attention.  But let's be realistic.  Are you going to ask THIS on a date?  That's probably what she's dressing for, misguided as she is.

When you try to be clever by using ANY font other than Times New Roman or Courier New, or by adding illustrations, or by including an artsy title, etc., you're making me cringe.  You're making me stare like a rubbernecker on the freeway.  Deer in the headlights.  I just stopped taking you seriously, and that WILL have an impact on my reading of your story.

Here's a great article on standard manuscript format.  Remember, combine proper format with a thorough reading of the guidelines.  Sometimes markets will ask for minor alterations of manuscript format.  Again, there are points in this article that are not relevant to online submission, but your manuscript should still 'look' as described in the article:

5.  Clarity

A few thoughts on clarity:

First, if your story comes to a scene break, DO NOT denote it by adding extra spaces.  Those extra spaces can become lost at the end of a page or can seem like a mistaken extra paragraph space.  I don't know.  Sometimes, honestly, I can't tell.  Make sure I understand where your scene breaks are.  It makes you look smart.  I like to publish smart authors.

Denote scene breaks like this:

This is my story and I'm going to take a scene break.


Now I'm starting a new scene.

See that pound sign?  (Shift-3) That's the quickest, easiest, least intrusive way to denote a scene break.  If you want you can use an asterisk (Shift-8)*.  That's acceptable too.  Please do not use anything else.  Please include an extra hard return between the scenes and the pound sign, as shown.

Second, make it clear where your story ends.

People are not perfect.  I'm not.  You're not.

Simply putting THE END at the end of your story makes both of us certain that the entire manuscript downloaded properly and that you ACTUALLY intended to end the story where you did.

For good measure, add a hard return AFTER typing THE END.  Some word processing software will do crazy things in conversion.  For example, if you are submitting with Submittable and writing using Open Office or Libre Office, then converting those files to .doc files, Submittable's software will chop off the last line of  your manuscript.  If that last line is a blank space then you'll be fine.  If it's THE END, no harm done.  If it's the last crucial line upon which the entire story resolves itself, you have a problem.

6.  Copy Editing

Please understand that word processing software is imperfect in its ability to identify every spelling or grammar error, and that they are completely clueless on the issue of word usage.  So if you type 'form' instead of 'from' the software isn't going to alert you to it.

You MUST eyeball edit--with your own eyes--your story before submitting.

Understand that I'm making the assumption that you are grammatically proficient. You should know when to use its or it's, your or you're, there or their or they're, lose or loose, lightning or lightening.  If you've just read through those and are scratching your head in confusion, you'd better look it up.  Plenty of online grammar guides out there.  (True confession: I'm still so unsure of 'effect' and 'affect' that I generally just avoid using them.)

If you are NOT grammatically proficient, I suggest you pick up a high school grammar guide and get back to basics.  Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is a good place to start, and it's free online, here:  

Know how to punctuate and capitalize correctly.  Know how to handle dialogue.  Learn about run-on sentences.

An opening paragraph with even a single grammar or spelling error will speak volumes to me.  Remember the WalMartian?

Don't get the idea that I demand perfection.  I don't.  (Another true confession: A reader recently pointed out one of those spelling errors that wouldn't have been dinged by any grammar/spell-check software.  'One' instead of 'on.'  To my credit, it was NOT in the opening paragraph.)

I'll tolerate an error or three.  Needles in the haystack.  But if it's fresh grated Parmesan on my Olive Garden salad (you KNOW you let your server keep grating longer than is good for you!), not so great.  If it's white cat hair on my black slacks, even worse.  No matter how great the story, how good the writing style, I won't be able to see that past the copy mistakes.  Because what that says to me is that you didn't give a damn.  If that's so, why should I?

As a writer you should be making every effort to make me happy, to not waste my time.

Think and act like a pro.  Learn what you must to make it happen.  The more you learn the better your writing will become.  The better your writing becomes the greater your odds of publication.

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