Shayne Sideways

A How To Think Sideways Grad Novel Blog

A Journey of a Thousand Miles…

I’m not the kind of person to go in for a lot of the self-help crap that people try to sell these days. For the most part, I think that if you want to do something, you do it, no excuses, end of story. I want to be a published novelist, and I don’t need anyone to tell me that in order to do that I need to write, and I need to do it well and consistently. Having said that, though, I’m a slow writer – being a Virgo, I suffer from a bad case of Perfectitis – and sometimes, when the words are coming especially hard, I have a difficult time motivating myself. I love writing, and I love creating stories, but sometimes I just need a little something to keep me going when I’ve temporarily forgotten that fact.

And finally, after five years of searching, I’ve found that something, thanks to a newsletter from The Writer’s Store. It’s a simple thing. You take a year-at-a-glance calendar and put it on your wall, and for every day that you write, you put a big red X through that box. Or, in my case, I put my word count for the day in big red numbers.

I hate seeing an empty square in among all of the red numbers, so even if I’m tired from work or stuck on the story, it provides me with the incentive I need to pull out my laptop and do at least 200 words (that’s the minimum I need to get in order to write it down on the calendar).  Most of the time, once I get going, I get a fair bit more than that. Either way, though, those are words I wouldn’t have had, if I hadn’t been motivated enough to start writing in the first place.

So far this year I’ve only missed two writing days – both of those were before I started using the calendar – and as of last night I’ve written 29,940 words. Granted, that’s not the most productive I’ve ever been – I finished NaNo last year in 28 days – but considering that I wasn’t gunning for a high word count, wasn’t pushing myself to do anything more than 200 words on the lazy days, I think that’s a decent total. Ideally speaking I’d like to up that figure to at least 30,000 a month, but until I can teach myself to be more efficient, I’ll settle for a bit of determination and a motivational kick in the pants.

Anyone who’s interested can download a PDF from the Writers Store, instead of buying a full-sized calendar. It’s free, and fits on a regular 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, so it’s a good way to try this method out without spending any money.

If anyone does decide to try it, come on back and let me know how it worked, would you?

 

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Or, Why You Should Follow the Submission Guidelines, and What It Could Say About You If You Don’t
*

I’m having trouble getting my thoughts together on the writer deal-breakers post, so I thought I’d offer some info and a bit of advice on querying your manuscript.

Out of all the submissions I get in slush, I would say a good 50% of people manage to abuse the sub guidelines in some fashion. We ask for the following:

  • Hook
  • Synopsis
  • Full manuscript attached as an RTF
  • Word count must be between 30,000 and 120,000, with 60,000 – 80,000 being the preferred length
  • Preferably unpublished, but if it has been in print previously, it must be out of print at the time of submission and the rights must have reverted back to the author
    *

Those really aren’t complicated guidelines by any stretch. And yet, I’ve seen writers ignore every single one. I’ve seen queries with no hook or synopsis, just weird, funky attempts to get attention and stand out from the rest of the pack. And they do make a person stand out, but they never say what the author wants them to – instead, they say, ‘look at me. I haven’t educated myself about the industry, I can’t follow instructions, and I’m a tool to boot.’ These are pretty much an automatic rejection. I know someone is going to say, ‘But what if the story was really good?’ But I can assure everyone that in each and every case, when the query is that bad, the story is bad, too.

I’ve seen submissions pasted into the body of the email. Picture that, if you would – an 80,000-word manuscript pasted into an email. I didn’t even know that was possible until I saw that someone had actually done it. I’ve seen manuscripts attached as DOC files, PDFs, and once, even a ZIP file. And this is all despite the guidelines clearly stating the reason we ask for RTFs is because not all of our editors use MS Word, and RTF is the only type of file that everyone is sure to be able to open. Again, this tells us that the writer either can’t follow, or can’t be bothered to follow instructions. This isn’t an auto-reject, but it’s certainly a red flag.

When it comes to word count, people don’t usually go under, but I’ve had several that have gone over, some by quite a lot. (There was even one that went over by about three times the stated maximum.) This isn’t necessarily an auto-reject, depending on how much over the manuscript is, but it is a red flag, because if a person believes the rules don’t apply to them in a situation when they’re trying to put their best foot forward, how are they going to be to work with once we get down to the editing?

And last, but definitely not least, I’ve seen submissions that had been previously published (or self-published), but the author tried to sneak it past us. Some were even still available on Amazon. The decision for this one is up to my senior editor, but I’m fairly certain it’s an auto-reject for her (and it would be for me if it was my decision), for three reasons: 1) As I mentioned in the previous post, once something has been published and not done well, no one else is going to want to take it, 2) it’s a violation of etiquette to query a novel that another press currently owns the rights to, and 3) it smacks of connivance.

I know there are other presses out there who have more complicated guidelines than we do, and a writer might be tempted to not follow them all, because it seems like they’re just there to make writers jump through needless hoops. But the fact is, your query letter is your very first shot at making a good impression, and as a wise person one said, you never get a second chance. If your first impression is as someone who can’t follow instructions, or, even worse, thinks they’re too good to follow them, it’s highly unlikely that an agent or publisher is going to want to choose you, over another writer of similar caliber who can follow the guidelines.

We’re all writers here, and words are the tools of our trade, but we have to keep in mind that sometimes actions truly do speak louder – so, we need to make sure that when our actions speak for us, we can live with what they have to say.

Adventures In The Slush Trade

I recently finished a round of slush reading (for anyone who doesn’t know, I read slush and edit for a small press) and I got to thinking that my fellow writers might be interested in some of the info from that adventure.

When I get slush it’s sent to me by my senior editor, who goes through each submission to make sure it fits our basic criteria (the author read and followed the guidelines, it’s within our required word count, it’s a genre that we a) publish, and b) are looking for at that time, and the writer shows a very basic facility for putting words together in a coherent sentence). If it does, it gets emailed to me, and I have the task of reading the first 20 pages or so, filling out a questionnaire, and either recommending it for a full read or not. If I do like it enough to recommend a full, I’ll also google the author, to make sure that, a) the book isn’t already in print with someone else, and b) that the author doesn’t sound like a raving lunatic on their blog. So, that’s the process. Now to the info…

I don’t know how many subs there were in total, but on this go-round I received 18 subs. Of those, I gave one a ‘highly recommended’, and then recommended two others, but with caveats, because they showed some promise and deserved a shot, but I was doubtful about that promise being sustained over the entire book.

For the slush that I did not recommend, here are some of the reasons that I passed…

  • No mastery of the basics.
  • No sense of voice.
  • Not polished enough.
  • Talky without saying anything of import.
  • Didn’t grab me.
  • Can’t relate to or care about the characters in any way (please note, I don’t have to like them, but I do have to care).
  • Info dumps
  • Dialogue isn’t snappy, doesn’t flow, is unrealistic.
  • An overabundance of typos, spelling mistakes, wrong homonyms, etc.

 

Now, most of these things are not deal-breakers on their own, but – and I speak from experience when I say this – in most cases, where you find one of these issues, you’ll usually see several more. Case in point, there were at least four, and often more, of the listed problems in each and every one of the manuscripts that I did not recommend.

A quick note on deal-breakers…

I’ll start off by saying that I have several, and they come in two categories. The first category is writing deal breakers – the things that I absolutely have to have in a manuscript in order to say yes. They are, in no particular order…

  • Voice
  • Dialogue
  • Compelling characters with realistic problems (realistic of course being relative to the universe they live in)

 

The reason these are deal breakers is that, for me at least, they are the things that carry the story. Grammar can be fixed, description tweaked, and plot holes can be patched up with a bit of thought and effort. But a writer’s voice infuses every moment of the story from beginning to end – it sets the tone, it guides the way, and it carries you along with it. Without voice, a story is just a collection of words. The reason this is a deal-breaker for me is that voice can’t be taught – a writer has to find their own voice through experience and experimentation, and if they haven’t found theirs yet, there’s nothing I can do to help them.

Along the same lines, a character needs a voice just as much as the story does. Dialogue plays a huge part in characterization, and also does a large part of the work in driving the plot forward, and so it needs to be strong enough to do all of that. It also needs to sound realistic, both when it comes to choosing diction appropriate to each character, and also in its rhythm. This last part, the rhythm part, is the hardest, because as far as I can tell, a writer either has an ear for dialogue or they don’t, and if you don’t, an editor can’t teach it to you. This is a deal-breaker for the same reason as lack of narrative voice is – if the dialogue isn’t where it needs to be, there’s nothing I can do to help the writer improve it, except to say go and watch everything that Joss Whedon has ever written, and really listen to how his characters talk, then try again.

When it comes to compelling characters, the reason this is a deal-breaker is much simpler. Characters are the guts of your story, and going through a novel-length manuscript to fix what should be the driving force of the story is an extensive job because changing the characters will likely affect everything else, and that’s simply too much work for an editor like me. Between a full-time job and my own writing career to worry about, I simply don’t have the time to fix a problem that big.

The second category of deal-breaker is, uh… I’ll call them writer deal-breakers, and there are only two…

  • Being a crazy person.
  • Being arrogant, aggressive, or otherwise difficult to work with.

 

These might seem rather self-explanatory, but you would probably be surprised by how many ways there are to go wrong here. I was going to go into a bit of detail explaining some of the issues that fall into these two categories, but I realized as I started to write that this post is hedging into War and Peace territory already, so I’ll save the details for another post, assuming anyone is interested in them.

And that’s about it. If you guys have any thoughts I’d love to hear them.

* This has happened many times. Either my senior editor will make an offer for a book, only to find that it was sold a couple of months before – in this case, etiquette dictates that it should have been retracted from our press. Or, we’ll google, and find out that it’s been self-published but no one bought it, so the author decided to try traditional publishing. For the record, once it’s published and hasn’t done well, that ship has sailed.