Last week we spoke about doing your research to find the right publishing house for you.
· Your story falls within their word count requirements.
· You’ve reviewed their requirements and removed/don’t have any content they don’t accept
· You have researched them as a publishing house, possibly even talked to some of their published authors and are happy with what you found
Great, let’s get this thing submitted!
Ahhh but wait. Are you sure it’s ready? A clean manuscript can be the difference between a form letter “doesn’t suit our needs” rejection and a request to review the full manuscript, or at the very least, a rejection that asks you to make some revisions and resubmit. Before we get to the why’s and wherefores of rejections, let’s do our part to make sure your story gets some positive attention from an editor:
Disclaimer time. Obviously I don’t know how many years you have spent learning the craft of writing, how far along in the process you are or what your skills are. I only know from an editor’s perspective and the perspective of one who has often been asked to look at the work of beginning authors for feedback.
Let me pause here a moment and say every author needs feedback. No matter how good you are, or think you are, there is always something to learn. If you are only just starting out—just typed “the end” and have had no feedback except from family members or friends --who may or may not know the writing craft and may or may not know how to be honest with you-- I’d take a big step back from “ready to submit” and focus on the writing and the story. Find a writer’s group, or an online group. A good critique partner can be as difficult to find as a good fitting pair of jeans. And all the trying out can be just as frustrating, discouraging and disheartening as trying on a hundred pairs of jeans in a department store fitting room. But keep going until you find the right fit.
Anyway, with the rise in self-publishing and people’s attention spans ever shorter, not as many people focus on the actual craft as they used to. And why would they? As I’ve already noted, self-publishing is just a few mouse clicks away, people don’t want to write well anymore, they just want it out fast.
I feel it’s important to wait and get it right, but that’s just me.
End of rant, let’s get back to where we were. Whether you are a true novice or a seasoned writer, giving your MS a once over to search for key issues before submitting to a publisher is never a bad idea.
Don’t fall into the trap of over-editing your story. Constant reading and tweaking is not what I’m talking about. I mean search (Ctrl F) for key issues. While genres like mainstream fiction, YA and women’s fiction are not quite as picky about things like telling and passive voice, it doesn’t hurt to look for these things in your story and address them. Active writing, after all, is what makes a reader feel as if they are “there”.
I won’t get into the nitty gritty on active versus passive writing, viewpoint, showing rather than telling or dialogue tags just now—each of those are a subject on their own and could fill pages. We will save those lessons for later in the series. But some basic things I would recommend you address before submitting are:
Name over use. How many times are you using your characters’ names per page? Does almost every line of dialogue begin or end with someone saying the other character’s name, and that character then responding using the other character’s name? Trust me that gets old fast. Soap operas are not much of a thing these days, but once upon a time they were notorious for doing that so that new viewers could keep track of who is who. But I still see it a lot on TV and in movies. So let’s fix that. As long as the reader knows who is in the scene, it’s not necessary to hit them over the head with names. You can easily substitute things like “the dark-haired woman” or “the older man” or “the boy” in place of proper names.
So do a search on those—you may be surprised how much you have actually used them. And just a warning… once you get in the habit of noticing this, you cannot not notice it—in every book, television show or movie.
Word overuse. This same repetition can also be applied to pet words. Most authors have a word or phrase they love and use way too much. Frequent ones are that, just, and really. But it can also be a phrase or gesture. A good way to know if you are doing this is to read your work aloud. To yourself, to your dog, to your spouse—whoever will listen. If that doesn’t work for you, search for the “read aloud” feature in your version of Word (only newer version have this) and have the computer read it to you.
Passive words. Other passive words that can drag the pace of your writing down are: was and words that end in ing or ly. This is especially true if the word preceding those ing or ly words happens to be was. Other words you might want to look for: saw, watched, heard, thought, felt, knew, moved, reached. We all use them, and sometimes there is no way around them, but it’s important to eliminate where you can. So quick lesson: he was riding becomes – he rode. She was crying – she cried. He was ugly—describe it instead. As for the filtering words like watched, saw, heard—just describe what they are seeing instead “he saw a blue sky” instead try describing it. White clouds floated in an azure sky—you get the gist.
Search and Highlight. You can do a simple search in Word and see the actual number of times you have used these words and in newer versions, you actually will get a snippet with all the results. But you can also do a search and highlight (Ctrl+H) and highlight those words to better show you. Your goal at this point should be to eliminate at least half.
Now this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to writing craft. But let’s start there.
Spelling and grammar. Next run a spelling and grammar check. You’d be surprised how many manuscripts I’ve seen with typos and misspelled words. While the odd typo is not grounds for immediate rejection, too many of them suggest to me that you rushed or are careless. There is a very good spell/grammar check in Word, or you can download the free version of Grammarly. If spelling and or punctuation are areas you struggle with, you may want to go into your version of Word and enable the “check spelling as your type” option (with so many versions of Word out there, it would be difficult for me to pinpoint where to find it, but a search in the help field should do it).
Formatting. And finally, once all of that is done, make sure your MS is formatted to the standards required by the publisher. Every publisher is different, so pay close attention to their specifications. If their website says all submissions must be in 12-point Times New Roman or Courier with one-inch margins all around, then you better be sure your format is exactly that. Well Nic, surely they wouldn’t reject an author for not submitting in the proper format, would they? It’s hard to say, but why take the chance—and does an editor really want to work with someone who can’t follow directions? I know I don’t.
Now that we’ve done all of that, you may be ready to submit your story to a publisher. And while taking the necessary steps listed above will not guarantee you a publishing contract or even a request to review the entire story, they are important craft issues, and it never hurts to be aware of them.
If my years in the publishing industry have taught me one thing, it’s that everyone has a story—but not everyone can write it. The good news is writing is a process we learn by doing, so keep at it!
So let’s move on to the next step---insert spooky music here—The Query.
We will talk about that next week!