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Selling Manuscripts and Formatting

I  have just started up as a slush reader for ChiZine Publications. This is somewhat different from the reading I do on poetry for Chiaroscuro (Chizine), the magazine, or the stories I read as fantasy editor for Aberrant Dreams. CZP publishes books and collections so a person is asked to send in a synopsis and the first three chapters of their book. By the way, I’ve been asked before what slush means and it is the submissions sent into a publication. There are usually several readers before the submission gets to the editor, the person who makes the decision on what is ultimately kept and what is rejected. Because most publications get hundreds of submissions a month, it can take time to get through them all and to move efficiently there are assistant editors or readers. These people determine if the manuscript is interesting and good enough to be sent on for consideration. In most cases, everyone starts in the slush pile, unless you’re an established and well-known writer.

One of the first things anyone wishing to sell a manuscript should do is research the markets. Make sure you’re sending to a company that publishes the kind of stuff you write. You would not believe how many people pluck names off of the internet like seeds in a sunflower and send out their manuscripts without actually knowing the market. Second, read the instructions. And follow them. There is some tiny leeway such as if an editor asks for Times New Roman and you do Courier font. They may take the manuscript and they may not. If the fonts are similar enough, you’re probably okay but the more errors you make the less likely it is that you’ll get to the stage of even having your submission read. Editors read hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts and they read them quickly to stay on top of the pile. If a goofy font or strange formatting slows them down, they get irritated and rightfully so.

So far, I have only looked at four queries. Not one has actually submitted a manuscript in the correct format. We only ask for a few chapters, but there are several problems one or all of these people have done. Here is what you should avoid in your cover letter, your synopsis and your manuscript:

  • rambling, incoherent run-away sentences
  • bad grammar
  • spelling mistakes
  • single spacing…double spacing is the industry standard–it makes it easier to read
  • not indenting. See that little Tab key on the left…that’s what it’s for, indenting. Or in some cases you can set up automatic indenting in some programs.
  • adding an extra space between each paragraph. No no no. That’s what indenting does. It tells the reader that there is a new paragraph. Didn’t anyone take this in school?
  • hitting return (or the Enter key) at the end of every line. Absolutely NO NO NO. My gods, this takes so much time to write this way. Computers are somewhat smart. If you write and write and write and just keep going, guess what, the sentence doesn’t run off the page but will pop down to the next line. Only when you have finished a paragraph, and only then, do you hit “Enter” and proceed to the next paragraph, not the next line.

Do not, when we send you a rejection letter and suggest that you proofread your work and correct the grammar and typos before sending it elsewhere, send a whiny letter back saying, why can’t you just read the story and ignore that? We can ignore a few typos of a bit of awkward grammar but a whole book of it is unreadable and means a rewrite. We’re not  going to buy anything that takes that much trudging. We will not do that much editing. Fix it and use a spellchecker. But remember, a spellchecker is not that bright and will suggest what it thinks your sentence should be so you better know your words.

Treat writing like any other skill. Would you want a doctor who just happened to be sloppy but knew he had the heart of a surgeon? Would you ride in a plane where the pilot had read about flying but never had done it? Writing is a skill and it takes practice. It also takes following some simple rules once the writing is done and you’re trying to sell your piece. Always read the guidelines. I’ve made mistakes when I submit stories. It’s easy to gloss over but when you get to submitting a manuscript you need to be even more careful. What I posted about is the standard but some publishers ask for different formats. Follow them.

http://www.chizine.com/chizinepub/submission_guidelines.php

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Book Review: The Word of God

You might think this is a religious book and in a way it is. The Word of God, or Holy Writ Rewritten, by Thomas Disch, (Tachyon Publications, San Francisco, 2008) was written not so much as a refutation to other religions, but, as Disch puts it, to establish himself as a deity. He begins his book discussing that the only way to talk to many religions, especially the fundamental ones, is to argue on their own level and point out that he too is a god and what his religion looks like.

It is witty, scathing, funny, illuminating. In part this is an autobiography of Disch’s life, but as a pastiche, not as a whole. It is part philosophy and condemnation of many conservative religions, especially Christianity. Disch was raised a Catholic and was publicly gay and since this is his “holy writ” it of course talks of religion in many guises quite a bit.

The book is also a collection of some poems and short stories, interspersed to give examples of birth, afterlife, reincarnation and judgment: “The New Me,” “Room Service,” “The Second Coming of the Christ,” “A Man of Mystery” “A Ranch House on the Styx,” “The School for Traitors,” “On the Road” and “Deus Ex Machina” almost all string together (some continuations of the same story) and of course all do touch on religion and the events that came together to create Thomas Disch. He was the illegitimate child of Thomas Mann, the prolific German writer and Nobel prize winner, though you will not find this listed in either Disch’s or Mann’s Wiki entry (and his father is missing altogether in his entry).

Many of these stories have Philip K. Dick in them, as a sort of antiChrist and in hell. It’s hard to tell from this if Disch had always hated Dick (since he wrote a poetic eulogy for Dick, which is in the book) or if he only came to despise Dick’s right-wing, bigoted, perhaps drug-induced opinions later, when Dick reported Disch to the FBI as a subversive. What the outcome of Dick’s confabulations were is unclear.

Thomas Disch was known to the SF community and was nominated numerous times for awards (and won some), but he also wrote a great deal of poetry, criticisms and other works, and had earlier aspirations in architecture. The book starts out in the present, around Christmas of 2005 when he began to write it, and he finishes on February 2nd, his birthday. Disch lived with his long time partner, Charles Naylor who died in 2005. Disch himself suffered from several illnesses and had a string of personal setbacks, besides being depressed by his partner’s death.

He took his life in July, 2008, just months before Word of God was published. It is somewhat ironic to read his words in this book that proclaims his deity and see where he was at and where life took him to. This is not his last book as I believe a posthumous work will be published this year. I enjoyed Word of God and it gave me a new look at Disch, his mind and his life. I had read his works, On Wings of Song and The Priest which was pretty scathing to the Catholic church while at the same time being deftly written enough for you to care for the very corrupt priest.

And if nothing else, I’m very curious as to what went on between Philip K. Dick, a great experimenter of drugs, married five times, and Thomas Disch, an openly gay man, all those years ago. They were both brilliant writers and characters in their own ways. Here’s to the god Disch and his ascension to his own heaven. Word of God, definitely worth a read, informative and entertaining throughout.

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Writing: Cover Letters

I’ve written far more cover letters than I’ve seen, and various publications and/or editors do have their particular whims. Some want no cover letter. Some want them, listing publishing credits and some don’t care either way because they never read them. As an editor, I tend to read the cover letters after I read the story because I don’t want to be influenced by fame or credentials but hope that the story will merit its own attention. This will differ depending on editors.

Still, there are a few rules that hold true for writing a cover letter and for any genre. They’re simple. First, check out the publisher’s guidelines and follow them. There’s no faster way to annoy an editor and not have your piece read than to go against their rules.

Second, get the address and the editor’s name correct. If you don’t know the editor’s name or there are multiple editors, then just say “Dear Editor(s).” No one will get in a tizzy over that.

You want to then tell them what you’re sending. This does not, emphatically does not, mean recapping the whole story. That’s what your story is for. We don’t want you to tell us anything about it except if it’s racy and you’re not sure the magazine accepts erotic elements. I usually put something brief ; I can remove the explicit sexual elements if needed (but it’s rare that I need to specify). Writing, “I’m submitting ‘Hatchet Job,’ a 1400 word piece, for consideration in Real Life Tales” will suffice.

Oh, and you never need to say, “My name is Joe Smith.” After all, you’re signing your cover letter, right? And you’re putting your name on your manuscript, right? So why tell me your name in the beginning? That already will make me think you might have a tendency toward redundancy in your story.

You should include a short paragraph of your most pertinent publications. If you’re submitting to a children’s market, don’t list your published erotic stories. If that’s the only thing you have published, make it less specific as in, “I have published several stories in the Cleis Books anthologies.” That will indicate that you have publishing credits but not emphasize erotic.

You want to put that you have published in, say, “Weird Tales, October Country, and Wild Wombats Unleashed, with new work coming out in New Cthulhu and Snickers From the Timestream. It’s best to put publications related to the genre you’re sending to if you can, and you can mention any recent awards or honorable mentions. You don’t need to list the titles of your stories, nor dates and volume numbers. If an editor really wants to hunt down your work they’ll do so by your name and the magazine you’ve mentioned. Many editors are well aware of other publications and authors already.

Don’t list everything you’ve ever published. Five is usually plenty. You can list if you’re a member of any pertinent associations. For speculative works, SFWA, HWA, SF Canada are a few, as well as workshops attended: Clarion, Odyssey, CSSF, Fairwood…there are many. This may not mean a jot to some editors but if you’re a new writer with no publishing credits, do list them. It shows you’re serious about your craft. I usually just put SFWA on my manuscripts and leave it at that.

You don’t want to demand that the editor read your piece or tell them that they will like it or find it wonderful. They’ll decide that for themselves. You can always say you hope they enjoy it and thank them for their time. Last, let them know if your manuscript is disposable, if you’ve supplied a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) or if you’d like an email response (if their guidelines say they will do this), and sign off.

There are variations on this and some editors are way more touchy about letters than others. Some might tell you that listing three publication credits is enough. Some won’t even care. The best advice: keep it short. Editors receive hundreds of letters and don’t have time to do more than read a short paragraph.

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