Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Who Needs Directions?

What I'm reading: Hard Rain, by Barry Eisler

Thanks, Randall, for being my guest. You've given me a wake-up call too. Time to stop procrastinating and start submitting. Where to start?

Way back when, when I was in school, teachers would give a test to see if you could follow directions. You've probably seen them. You're told that you have to finish within a specific time limit, which seems all too short when you look at how many questions there are. You start reading, ignoring the first item, which says "read all the questions before proceeding." That's a total time-waste, right? Maybe you read the first few, but you want to get on with it so you finish. Only trouble is, at the end, it says, "Only answer the first three questions" or some other sneaky variation. Needless to say, there was a lot of groaning as those who answered all the questions found they'd failed the test.

Have we learned the importance of following directions? (I'm not touching the male-female question here.)

Moving along to writing:

The manuscript is finished. It's time to query. Agents? Publishers? Either way, you have to create that proper first impression. Hubby grumbles when I nag about all the staging when we have a house showing, but it's no different for a writing project. Home buyer or literary agent: you've got to grab them from the outset. They don't care that at this time of year the trees are shedding leaves and it's a losing battle to keep them away. The buyers look at the property and see "LEAVES TO RAKE." The editor sees "REQUIRES MASSIVE EDITING."

Let's not even talk about the content, which requires massive sweating. Just getting it to look right is enough of a challenge.

Formatting your query letter. Easy, right? There are guidelines out there. Single page. Short intro with a hook, including genre and word count, a paragraph about your book, your credentials and bio, a closing, and you're done. At least that's what a basic search on writing a query letter says.

But wait. There's always a catch. If you're following the Query Shark, a blog that will chomp a submitted query to bits and spit it out if it's not ready for an agent's eyes, all the "good" examples are almost totally synopsis material. Then, there's another agency that accepts queries only submitted via an on-line form

No such thing as a 'one size fits all' query.

What happens when you get that awaited request for more. Before you sent off the query, you'd finished the book, which has been sitting in your hard drive waiting to be called upon. Alas, you can't simply hit "attach file" and send it on its way.

Once, standard manuscript formatting had rules. Standard font, which used to be Courier, is now normally Times New Roman. Margins: 1 inch all around. Double spacing. Paragraphs indented ½ inch. New chapters start 1/3 of the way down the page.

That was well and good when manuscripts were printed out and mailed. Now, most editors and agents are taking submissions electronically. One agent requests a sans serif font, such as Arial or Verdana for submissions because they're easier to read on a monitor. Note: in case you don't recognize fonts (I don't) this blog is written in Arial.

Here's the same paragraph in Times New Roman. Which is easier to read on-screen? Both are set to the 'normal' font size.

That was well and good when manuscripts were printed out and mailed. Now, most editors and agents are taking submissions electronically. One agent requests a sans serif font, such as Arial or Verdana for e-mailed submissions because they're easier to read on a monitor.

Scoping around, looking for submission guidelines for publishers, I discovered one important rule. Read the guidelines, because they're not all the same. One wants page numbers centered on the bottom. Another might want them in the header, on the right side. Or the left And headers. There's a variety of formats there as well. Title first? Author's name first? Full name? Last name only? One publisher gives this format for headers: Poe/Rue Morgue 21, to be placed at the left of the page. Another wants Poe/Rue Morgue centered.

One publisher wants chapters to start 8 lines down the page; another says 6. Another says halfway down the page. One says the first line of a new scene or chapter should NOT be indented. They might want chapters numbered with numerals. Or spelled out. In a larger font. One wants scene breaks delineated by five asterisks with a space between each. Another says four asterisks, no spaces.

Nowadays, most want italics to be in italics, not underlined, but that's something else to check.

If you're submitting directly to a publisher, you're going to be reformatting that massive document all the time. Get familiar with the tools of your word processing program. Get cozy with the Find/Replace functions. There are boxes to check so you're searching for whole words only, and others to match the case. There are ways to search for specific fonts and another for font styles, so you can replace italics with underlines, should that be the requirement.

When you've got as much competition as there is out there, it's not smart to stack the deck against yourself before you get to the table. I am aware of one editor who has announced that improperly formatted manuscripts will receive automatic rejections. Fair? Maybe not, but remember, the editors and agents deal with a multitude of submissions, and they can't accept them all. It's their right to use whatever criteria they choose to reject. Do your homework. Read the directions. And follow them!


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great tips here, Terry! And you're so right. Each publisher and agent seems to have different's up to us to research what those are and follow them.

Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. Can you guess what I've been doing lately! Such a pain. But important.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

Your advice to check each agent or publishers submission guidelines is key. You have to assume that each one is different--they most likely will be. An author can get annoyed by this, or, simply accept it as part of the game, get in there and play, and go to the next site and do it again. You gotta play the rules of the game you're in, and each site is a different game. That's just how it is.

Best Wishes Galen.
Imagineering Fiction Blog

Terry Odell said...

Galen, so true, yet there are still so many people who think the rules aren't for them.

Terry said...

Thank you for the all the information. A lot of it is news to me. I'll be saving this one for sure.(the other Terry)

Terry Odell said...

Hi, Other Terry - Feel free to pass this along if you think others might also find it useful. Glad you did.

Mason Canyon said...

Very informative post. It's hard for all of us to follow directions sometimes no matter what we're doing. Doing the research (or follow the directions) is great advice.

Lynne Roberts said...

Amen! It's frustrating at times, but then so is driving the speed limit. ; ) Great post!

Judith said...

Very informative post! Thanks for sharing it with us.

Judith Leger

Terry Odell said...

Mason, Lynne, Judith: it's important to remember that if you want to be a writer, it's your JOB, not something you do for fun (although it should be fun -- the best kind of jobs always are)

Carol Kilgore said...

I'm querying one manuscript now while writing another. Not only are formatting requirements different, each agent and publisher wants different things submitted, and sometimes in a precise order. Some tell you exactly what they want in a query letter, and how long they want each portion of it to be. Querying is not for the faint of heart.

Terry Odell said...

Carol, I think this entire business is not for the faint of heart. I'm in the midst of querying AND subbing, and I think a spreadsheet is in order.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice! Publishing a book is not an easy task - so thorough advice like this is much appreciated :)

Debra St. John said...

Fabulous advice. It's so important to know something about where you are submitting, whether it's to an editor, agent, or publishing house. Definitely do your homework so you're sending what they want to see.

Margaret Tanner said...

Great advice, publishing a book is certainly not an easy path to tread.



Terry Odell said...

Jemi, Debra, Margaret - glad to share. You'd think it would be common sense, but I see countless questions to groups/loops asking "how should I format my manuscript/query?"

Read the directions!