books with Athena

books with Athena

Friday, June 26, 2009

I Do Not Have Time to Read This Crap

This is one of my most pirated columns from Inkwell Newswatch. I’ve found copied on dozens of other blogs. (I’m flattered, pirates, as long as you give me attribution.) I wrote it in May of 2005, when I was working for an indie publisher in the UK, now defunct, but the principles remain the same.

I Do Not Have Time to Read This Crap
Editors talk about slush

On my British editor’s desk is a rubber stamp that prints, in red ink, the words “I do not have time to read this crap.” Its blood-coloured imprint adorns several submission letters that lie scattered around his office.

I feel sad for the rejected novelists, although of course their manuscripts were returned long ago with a polite rejection letter.

So I asked him, and some of our other editors—how does a fiction submission avoid the dreaded red stamp and get a sympathetic read?

Unfortunately, the sympathetic part seems fairly subjective—mostly based on personal tastes—but here are a few major mistakes that our editors say will propel your novel directly into the “crap” file.

1) Death threats in your cover letter

I’m not making this up. Editors get them.

A query/cover letter is a business document—essentially a job application. It may accompany a one-page synopsis (the norm in the US these days) or a full manuscript (still accepted here at Shadowline.) But it is with that letter that your working relationship with your editor begins and—all too often—ends. Remember it should be short, professional and to the point. Say who you are, what you’ve written and why you’ve sent it to this particular publisher. Full stop

My editor hopes to compile his collection of bad cover letters into a comedy script some day, so I mustn’t steal his thunder, but suffice it to say that threatening publishers with various forms of witchcraft and/or body mutilation if you are not immediately given an advance the size of the company’s annual budget will not get your novel published.

Although you may achieve immortality in an upcoming sketch on Radio Four.

You also want to avoid personal insults, suicide threats and/or generally whinging about your rotten life. It’s about your novel. Only about your novel.

2) Amateurish writing.

Don’t try to run before you can walk.

A person who’s just learned to lob a tennis ball over the net doesn’t expect to compete at Wimbledon, and someone who’s recently hammered her first nail doesn’t expect to be hired to build the next Trump Tower. But for some reason, writers believe that our very first attempt at novel writing is going to make a major publisher’s spring list.

This doesn’t happen. Fiction writing is a craft. Take classes. Read how-to books. Join a critique group. Go to workshops and conferences. Chances are, you shouldn’t send out your first novel. Keep it in a drawer and write a couple more.

Some day you’ll thank me for telling you that. I personally learned this lesson the embarrassing way.

3) Not reading contemporary fiction.

You can’t write what you don’t read. Don’t fake it. The editor can tell. Write what you read and read what you write.

You need to know who’s publishing books like the one you’ve written, and where to find them in a bookstore. Film and TV references give you away as a non-reader. If you’ve written a forensic science whodunit, compare your sleuth to Kay Scarpetta: don’t just pitch your work as CSI: Peoria.

Specific genres have specific rules. Learn them. The only kind of fiction that can break rules is literary fiction, but if you prefer to read Grisham, don’t attempt the magical realism of Garcia Marquez or the kaleidoscopic character studies of Michael Cunningham.

4) Lack of research

If your novel is set on this planet, in its past or present, you can’t get away with made-up details.

Whether your book is a wildly creative vampire tale, a guaranteed three-hanky romance, or a Christian Rapture prophecy approved by George Bush himself, screaming anachronisms can keep your work in the slush pile forever.

If your story happens in ancient Rome, don’t dress your characters in silk, feed them spaghetti, or name them Beavus and Buttonius-Cranium, no matter how cool it sounds.

5) Bad grammar and haphazard spelling

No editor is going to waste a minute of her overbooked time reading a whole novel written by somebody who can’t be bothered to use her computer’s spellcheck function. Or hasn’t found out where to put an apostrophe.

Get somebody to proofread for you. It’s hard to spot your own mistakes, because you know what you meant to say and your brain often sees the correct version instead of what’s on the page.

And, the editors remind me, never rely on spellcheck alone, or yule seam a compete full.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Do You Need to Attend Writers' Conferences?

I'm starting to pull my old columns from the INkwell Newswatch archives. I hope to post updated versions here for the next few months. This is from June 2007, in response to lots of questions I was getting about the necessity of attending conferences.

Writers’ Conferences--the INside Scoop

Writers’ Conference season is upon us, and wordsmiths everywhere are packing up laptops and manuscripts to journey to those idyllic retreats where they can polish their craft, learn the latest publishing trends, and hang with successful authors, agents and publishers—for a hefty fee. At some of the bigger conferences they’ll even get a chance to book a personal pitch session with an agent—usually for yet another fee.

Should you be joining them? Are conferences a shortcut to publishing success?

Most agents do recommend them. Many suggest attending a conference or two before even sending a query. Advice to attend conferences also features in an increasing number of rejection letters. I’ve received several myself recently, urging me to “learn about the publishing business by attending a writers’ conference.”

I personally find these a little annoying, since the novel being rejected is a satire of writers’ conferences and I state in my query that I have attended nearly a dozen.

But those dozen were worthwhile, for the most part, and I’d recommend them to other aspiring writers. However, the conferences did NOT land me an agent or publisher.

Most agents will admit they don’t discover many new clients through conference “pitch” sessions (especially when the pitch comes from the next stall in the ladies’ room. Don’t do this.)

What I got out of my experiences was solid instruction in the basics of the industry. I also received some painful reality checks and a couple of ego boosts. But for me, the major benefit was networking with fellow writers. A random sampling of writing blogs suggests that’s the general experience. Ours is a lonely profession. Connecting with others of our species keeps us grounded.

If you’re thinking about attending a conference, choose carefully. Some of the best known are more like fantasy camps for Scott and Zelda wannabes than training grounds for professional writers.

I’ve heard it’s cleaned up its act, but the oldest and most revered conference, Vermont’s Bread Loaf—which rejects 78% of applicants—is also known as “Bed Loaf” for a reason. In a famous 2001 article for the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead said, “The triple compulsions of Bread Loaf have, traditionally, been getting published, getting drunk, and getting laid.”

Unless you’re looking for a party-hearty getaway or an excuse for an exotic vacation, avoid big-name conferences and start small. The most cost-effective are weekend conferences offered at many colleges and universities. You may even find one close enough to home that you don’t have to pay for lodging.

Most writers I know get more out of conferences that concentrate on their specific genre—not the national award-centered extravaganzas—but smaller workshops sponsored by regional organizations. Local chapters of RWA, MWA, SFWA and others offer shorter conferences such as the Central Ohio conference for children’s writers, or the Hot Springs “Criminal Pursuits” mystery writers’ conference. Check the Shaw Guides for a comprehensive list. My own personal favorite is the Cuesta College Writing conference in San Luis Obispo. Only a day and a half long, it gives major bang for your buck.

If you decide to go, here are some tips:

Don’t dress to impress. (At one conference I attended, a woman came dressed as a tree. Shedding real leaves. Don’t do this. Also, dressing as one of your characters WILL get you noticed, but not in a good way.) Wear neat but comfortable clothing. The days will be long and intense. A distinctive scarf, hat, or jacket you can wear each day will help people remember you.

Don’t pitch your project to agents or editors unless you’re in a specified pitch session. If you get a chance to talk with them, ask how they’re enjoying the conference, or what books they read for fun. It will give you great material for your query letter.

Don’t take criticism personally. If your conference involves critiques, the assumption will be that you want to know where your work might need improvement. As with any criticism, consider the source.

Do go to learn, not make a splash. The accolades will come when you perfect that book and get into print.

Do take along some protein bars and energy drinks or water. Your breaks may be too short to grab real food.

Do remember agents and editors are people too. As the late great Miss Snark said “It’s like visiting the reptile house. They're as afraid of you as you are of them. Honest.”

So do you have to go to conferences to get published?

No. All the information they provide is available from books, blogs and agent websites. If your time and/or funds are limited, stay home and write the damned book.