Thursday, January 05, 2006

Important Stuff: Disregard at Your Peril

For Newbies:

As a teacher, I see a lot of newbie writing. I also sometimes make myself available to new authors and critique their work (for free.) And I edited a book coming out this year called THESE GUNS FOR HIRE.

My point--I consider myself a pretty good editor.

But I never really understood what it is like to be an acquisitions editor, or an agent, until recently.

I'm a paid judge for a short story contest a magazine is holding, and I've had to read 2600 short stories.

I've learned a lot, much of it scary and bad. Namely: I can tell within ten seconds of looking at a story whether it will go on to the finals or not.

Ten freaking seconds.

This is not because I'm blessed with the ability to sniff out talent. It is not because I'm a pompous know-it-all who refuses to give anyone a chance. And it is not because I'm lazy and want to get this all over with quickly.

The writer tells me, subconsciously, whether or not their story is worth reading.

Did I say "worth reading?" Does that mean that as a PAID JUDGE I don't read every story cover to cover?

Shocking denouement: Yes. I don't read every story cover to cover. Sometimes I don't read past the first sentence.

And I know that if I'm doing this, so are professional agents and editors.

Have you ever thought that maybe the agent you submitted to didn't read your whole submission? You're probably correct.

And it is your fault why.

Here are some of the main reasons I disregard a manuscript. I'd bet good money that industry pros have the same criteria.

  1. Font. Sound silly? It's not. Read for ten hours straight, then try to squint at some joker who crammed 1000 words on a page using 8pt Helvecta. You wanted to save paper and postage. I want to save my eyes. This gets the round file. Use 12pt Times New Roman or Courier. ALWAYS!!!!!

  2. Paper. Cheap paper, thin paper, colored paper, multiple folds, stains of dubious origin, rips and tears, too many staples---999 times out of 1000, if the paper is crummy, the story is crummy. But whenever I see 24# ultra white paper (go for 104 bright) I perk right up. Sound silly? It's not. Use good paper, no folds, one paperclip. Show me the work is important.

  3. Ink. If it is dot matrix, or typewriter, or colored ink, or smeared ink, or ink that's running low, or has ballpoint pen or White Out ANYWHERE on it to make corrections, I can safely assume the story is bad. If you want to impress a date, wear expensive clothes. If you want to impress an editor, buy a decent printer.

  4. Spacing. If I see big blocky paragraphs, more than 25 lines per page, no indenting, indenting 3 spaces or less (rather than 5), line spacing between paragraphs, or a story that begins on the first line of the first page rather than halfway down the first page, my subconscious says, "I don't want to read this" and my subconscious is usually right.

    These first four criteria should tell you that the way the story looks on a page is incredibly important. Did you ever go to a website that was so hard to read you didn't bother? It's the same thing with submissions. Make it look professional, or it won't even get read.

  5. Typos. If I see a typo, grammar error, spelling mistake, or anything that says to me "The writer didn't proof read" it's in the round file. Sorry, but I have to read thousands more, and I can't waste my time. You obviously don't take this seriously, so why should I?

  6. First Sentence. If you don't draw me in at the first sentence, and you made any of the above mistakes, you're rejected. If you have a lousy first sentence (usually describing the weather, or telling instead of showing, or something awkward and confusing) I may read on if you didn't make any other mistakes, but I'm always proven correct. I haven't picked ANY finalists that didn't grab me with the first sentence.

  7. Dialog. So many submissions don't have any dialog. If there's no dialog, that's a good indicator the story is all telling, all exposition. Round file.

  8. Ending. Shocking as these stats are, I completely read only 1 out of every 40 or 50 stories. Nothing irks me more than reading an entire story, only to find a weak ending. Why did you waste my time? Don't you know I have thousands to read?

  9. Conflict. If I manage to get a page into the story, and nothing has happened yet, I don't get any further.

  10. Memoir. Unless you're one of the Rolling Stones, don't write anything autobiographical. Sorry, but you just ain't interesting to anyone other than yourself.

  11. Adjectives and Adverbs, Exclamation Points, Repeating the same words, using the passive 'was' a lot, onomatopoeia, dialects, a first paragraph of nothing but setting, explanations, preaching, and anecdotes. Attempt at your own risk.

Now I want to defend myself a little. I started off reading every story, begining to end. I really wanted to find a diamond in the coal mine.

But I soon learned that if it looks like a lemon, it's sour.

Did I perhaps judge unfairly? Did I maybe pass up something brilliant because it didn't meet one of my criteria? I doubt it. But if I did, too bad. Out of 2600 stories, 50 were decent. And of those, only 15 were real contenders.

I have a newfound respect for those on the other side of the submissions desk who wade through the slush pile. I understand why they are looking to reject---there's so much to read, and so much of it is bad. And these were 1500 word stories, not 100k word novels.

I wouldn't want to do this for a living, that's for damn sure. And you know what the irony is? I made many of these same mistakes when I was starting out.

Learn from my pain.