The Basics:

1. Follow Directions

While it may seem that publishers are in a conspiracy to force you to make changes every time you have to submit a manuscript, this is not the case. We’re not that organized . . . We make rules for several reasons, including, to discourage the, shall we say, very creative souls, who submit manuscripts in rosy Unique and Interesting Fonts, which are very hard on eyes over forty (and not fun for eyes under forty, either). A similar format also allows us to quickly find the information we need, as well as giving guidance to those who prefer to have concrete guidelines to follow. If you don’t follow the directions, we may assume that you can’t read, can’t be bothered or have unilaterally decided that the rules don’t apply to you. Not a good first impression.

If there is some really good reason, like you are using a typewriter, and not a computer and it’s a royal pain to re-format, then you can be the exception. Note the “really good reason” part. It’s a pain and I’d rather spend my time writing”, “the Xena rerun/WNBA game was on and I was too tired afterward”, “my ex-girlfriend set up the computer for me and I haven’t a clue as to how to reformat” are not good reasons. Life is a learning curve. Your next girlfriend may be into needlepoint and not computers, so you might as well learn how to re-format now. Keep in mind that two of the principals of this company are writers and we’d rather be writing than trying to decipher your unique and interesting fonts and formatting. Boring manuscript guidelines are all part of the writing life.

2. We’re Human

The reality is that those of us reading your manuscript also occasionally do indulgent things like eat and sleep. All these take big chunks of time out of our days and leave only small chunks for reading manuscripts (and a few other things like pets, girlfriends, watching important sporting events). It may take us a while to get to the reading of your submission. We are not doing this to drive you crazy. Really, we’re not. It may sound crazy that it takes us two months to read the fifty pages that you submitted, but keep in mind we may have 30 other fifty-page submissions that came in before yours, plus a number of books that are in various stages of editing and printing, plus all the exigencies of running a business (correspondence, keeping records, promotion, meetings, etc.) plus our day jobs, plus things like the aforementioned sleeping and eating. (And you don’t want us hungry or tired when we get to your submission). We will get to you as soon as we can.

How Not to Impress an Editor

1. And this is #1 for a reason

Don’t write “The End,” print it and sent it off. Read it AT LEAST ONCE. Get your English major friends to read it AT LEAST ONCE. Find, create, crash a writing group and get them to read it AT LEAST ONCE. Notice a theme here?

2. What’s in a name?

Character names shouldn’t change midway through the book. JoLene shouldn’t become JanAnne in the second half of the book. Nor should her eye color/hair color, etc., change. (If you read it AT LEAST ONCE, you have a chance of catching these things).

3. Who knows where the time goes?

It can take weeks of real time to write one day of novel time. It may be five days before you get back to writing a scene that happens five minutes later in the novel. Don’t skip from Monday to Friday without any explanation of where the time went. Also make passing time realistic. If your cop character gets woken up with a phone call at midnight, then goes to a murder scene, interviews several witnesses, goes back to the station to write a report, then drives by her girlfriend’s house, notices a light on, stops by, they make passionate love, and then the cop goes home, the following chapter shouldn’t start with the cop being again woken up with the phone, but this time it’s 4 a.m. on the same night.

4. What are crocodiles doing here?

If I’m reading along and come to a scene in a swamp outside New Orleans and you throw in some menacing crocodiles, I’m going to know that you didn’t do your research and that I can’t trust you to get your facts right. (Crocodiles are only in Southern Florida, all we have here are alligators.) After tripping over that, I’m going to wonder just what else you guessed at. You may think that the detail you’re fudging on is pretty obscure, but someone, somewhere knows how it really is. You don’t have to stop writing in the middle of a scene and look up the territory and range of large reptiles, but you do need to go back in the rewriting and make sure that you’ve gotten the details right.

5. Where did the woman in the red dress go?

If you open the book with a scene in which your characters follows a mysterious woman in a red dress, then that character shouldn’t just disappear without a trace for the rest of the book. Or as Chekov said,”If you put a gun on the stage in the first act, it should go off by the third act.”

6. Avoid clichés like the plague (ahem).

Unless you want your character to be someone without original thoughts, clichés are far too general for the specific story that you are telling.

For example:
She was as cold as ice.
She was as cold as the ice in a glass of off-label Scotch.
She was as cold as the ice that sank the Titanic.

It was quiet, too quiet.
It was quiet, the silence a gazelle heard just before the lion pounced.
It was quiet, the street deserted, the bars closed; the absence of the earlier drunken laughter and pounding music turned the street desolate and lonely.

While not likely candidates for future editions of Bartlett’s Quotations, the latter sentences do convey more specific images and information than the preceding cliches.

7. But wasn’t she just in Biloxi?

Transitions are important to help the reader place the characters in both time and place. “She kissed her good-bye, then hurried to her truck, having just enough time to make her flight to Ann Arbor,” is better than ending one chapter with two women kissing in Biloxi and then the main character suddenly in Ann Arbor. When your character heard the strange noise in the back yard, did she pause to put on clothes or is she out there investigating stark naked? Or if she’s pointing a gun at the bad guys, when and where did she get it?

8. Avoid the “stupids.”

A character who has gone to town to pick up some milk shouldn’t make a comment in any conversation that takes place while she’s away. Make sure if your character drives her car there, she leaves with it—and everyone else who came with her—or at least explain why they’re in the middle of the woods but will get a ride with someone else. (“Waitin’ for the big bad wolf . . .” is better than stranding your minor characters in the middle of nowhere.)

9. Avoid “the really stupids.”

Your main character must confront the bad guys in a dramatic fashion. So, you have this intelligent, insightful, competent character decide to go out to the graveyard in the middle of the night without telling anyone where she is going; forget taking a cell phone or a gun—she doesn’t even take a butter knife to defend herself with. Other than a plot need for a dramatic scene about right now, there is no compelling reason why this main character has decided that the confrontation has to happen now, or that she can’t call the cops or at least her entire softball team with every bat they own.

Yes, you can have your character in the graveyard in the middle of the night, but you have to set it up. For example, her cell phone battery is dead, her gun out of ammo, she has just learned that the kidnapped child and her two puppies are being held in the graveyard, the parents are about to hand over the ransom money and that the kid and the adorable puppies will be history the second that happens. No one else is close enough to the graveyard to get there in time. Instead of being stupid, your character has no choice.

10. Made-up grammar rules are about as annoying as UnUsuAL and InTERestIng FoNTs

A period is a stop sign. If you don’t want to drive in a world without stop signs, don’t make us read in one. If you don’t want to memorize the Chicago Manual of Style (and that, admittedly, takes a special talent) cultivate English major friends. Buy them dinner/a decent bottle of Scotch/whatever it takes to have them read your manuscript and put the commas in the right place and to point out that people rarely use semi-colons the way you have.

11. Make a friend of pronouns.

“The tall, dark-haired lawyer crossed the room to the shorter, blond, dork English teacher. The taller woman put her hand on the blond woman’s shoulder, looking deeply into the blond woman’s blue eyes. The dark-haired woman asked the blue-eyed woman her opinion on semi-colons. The shorter, slightly dorky teacher recited verbatim the relevant passages from three grammar reference books. The taller woman fell asleep midway through the first reference.” Name your characters early; between their proper names and the skillful use of pronouns, you can avoid re-describing them five times every page. Or remember your Strunk and White and “Omit unnecessary words.”

12. Some books to have on your special writing shelf:

  1. A good dictionary. It doesn’t have to be the OED (Oxford English Dictionary); you know, the one in libraries with the magnifying glass chained to it) but it shouldn’t be high school level either.
  2. Roget’s Thesaurus.Yes, we know you mostly use whatever is on your computer, but sometimes you just need another word.
  3. A good style manual. The Chicago Manual of Style is the one most used by book publishers. There are others, some more suited for academic work or journalism. Anything is better than nothing.
  4. Strunk and White, Elements of Style. It’s short, and the advice is still good.
  5. The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch. This is a valuable and easy-to-read guide that offers wisdom and practical tips from a true teacher of writing.
  6. All books published by Bywater. Okay, okay, not really, but it’s our web site so we do get to do a few commercial plugs.
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