Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Adjusting Expectations to Hasten Publication

Part Two of Two (See 10/19/2005 Post for Part One)

Finish First

Last week we compared finding the right agent and/or publisher to finding a soul mate, and about the importance of doing the research before sending out the query.

Now we need to step back one more tile to one of the most important elements of submitting your work for publication when you’re trying to break in to the business:

Finish first.

Finish your entire manuscript first.

Even if you thoroughly outline, don’t write the first three chapters or fifty pages, polish them, send them out and expect to land a contract. Yes, it does happen. But it happens to writers who have a track record, or who know someone in the business to walk their piece in for a read. It rarely happens to an unpublished writer, unless the piece is so incredibly unique and perfectly written that those three chapters catch the readers’ hearts and souls from the slush pile.

Having said that, I must also point out that selling a non-fiction book on the strength of a proposal, outline and sample chapters is much more common. Still, you need a track record – articles, et al previously published, being well-known beyond your area of expertise, a history of speaking engagements, etc.

By finishing the manuscript, I mean finish it. Do not start sending queries out while you’re still in the edit. Because Murphy’s Law will kick in and someone will want the manuscript. And then you write back and say, “I’m still working on it. I’ll have it ready in two weeks/two months/six months.”

And, even if the editor or agent agrees to look at it, you’ve lost the sale.

Again, unless it is so unique and brilliant that it breaks new grounds in the industry.

I worked in publishing for several years. I got to read slush piles. I got to sit in on editors’ meetings and marketing meetings and learn the entire process of putting a book together. That has served me better as a writer than any class or lecture or anything I ever experienced. I’ve also worked as a paid reader for book manuscripts and scripts.

And if you don’t follow the protocols, you’re bumped from the queue.

Not out of any desire to scold you or slap you around. But when 300 queries and 57 manuscripts land on your desk per day, you put those presented with the greatest professionalism at the top of the list. An editor and agent does not have time to baby-sit a writer who’s offering something that isn’t ready. Your query may have hit the agent or editor’s desk on a day when that person was in conversation looking for a particular type of manuscript. Your query fits the bill. The agent/editor is excited – here’s a chance! Please, send it to me. I want to read it!

And you’re not ready.

That agent or editor still has a slot to fill. And it needs to be filled in a matter of days, not weeks. The catalogue for the next season has to go to the printer, and it can’t wait because a writer isn’t ready.

And even if the readers love it and the editor loves it – unless the editor can convince the marketing department it’s worthwhile, you won’t get a contract.

Meetings take time.

Editors have to walk in prepared with their materials in hand.

You’re not ready, although you sent a polished query that got the editor or agent excited.

You’ve lost your shot at a spot on that list.

And, now, the editor or agent is not going to trust that you can come through.

The editor or agent may still agree to read it. But it won’t get the type of priority that it would if it was ready to be sent by return mail – no matter how polite they are in the response, or how much they say, “Sure. Send it on when it’s ready.”

When it’s ready might be at a time when the editor or agent’s list for that season is full. Unless the person falls in love with it and it looks like it’s good enough to come out a year or two later, the editor or agent will pass. It’s about timing as much as anything else.

Also, if you promise something that isn’t ready, you’re locking yourself into a story without giving it room to evolve. You might think it’s a mystery and pitch it as such. Maybe it’s actually suspense or literary fiction. An editor might be looking for the book you promised and not the book into which it’s grown. And you can’t force a book to be something that it’s not. That hurts everyone – especially the work.

Something else that will get you tossed in the rejection pile is poor grammar, spelling, and a lack of proofreading. Do not count on spell check or grammar check. Re-read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style EVERY TIME you do a revision.

Once you’ve proofed your manuscript – send it or give it to a Trusted Reader to proof.

When I was a paid reader, our rule of thumb was: three errors or typos on a page and it’s an automatic rejection (again, unless it’s brilliant).

Simply being good is no longer enough in this business. You have to be polished, professional, respectful of the time and schedule crunches agents and editors are under, and you have to turn in as perfect a manuscript as you can. Yes, this is your creative baby. However, you are sending your creative child out into the world of business. If you don’t prepare the creative child with as much care to go out into the world as you would your human child, your creative child will return bloodied and bruised.

Finish First

(Next week: The Importance of Trusted Readers).

---by Devon Ellington


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