Monday, February 9, 2015

What Editors Are Looking For

As I briefly mentioned in my last post, I spent several days last week at the 2015 Superstars Writing Seminar:

Pictured: Famous authors and editors. Not pictured: me (off-panel to the left). Photo by the awesome Lauren Lang.

It was an excellent experience which I highly recommend to any writer with a desire to learn about the business of publishing and how to make a career out of writing. Even if you’ve already got a lot of knowledge in the area, this seminar gives you a nigh-unparalleled opportunity to meet authors and editors and pick their brains for information.

I took some notes at one particular panel that I would like to share with you. The panel was titled What Are Editors After and the presenters were all full-time editors or authors who have regularly edited anthologies or the like: Toni Weisskopf, Lisa Mangum, Eric Flint, Kevin J. Anderson, and David Farland. They mentioned several things that can crop up on the first page of a story that cause them to quickly set the submission aside. Here they are in the order of how frequently they were mentioned:

Repeated grammar and spelling errors

Now, all of these editors understand that typos happen; no one can edit a story to absolute perfection. But they unanimously agreed that a story with several typos or grammatical mistakes on the very first page wouldn’t be worth their time. Learn the grammar, edit carefully, and ask for help. Find yourself a freelance editor to go over your work if you feel you need it. Make sure that your story is as clear of error as it can be. Remember the Editor's Lake.

Poor formatting

For most of these editors, this wasn’t as big a deal as it was before the age of electronic submissions. Nowadays, if you used a font that they don’t like, they can simply hit “select all” and change it. But if you have a lot of formatting mistakes (strange margins, strange fonts, fonts that are too small or too large, etc.), they won’t bother making the changes; they’ll just set the story aside. If you’re not sure what a properly-formatted manuscript looks like, don’t worry—we’ll be going over that next time.

Remember: most of these editors don’t have very strict formatting requirements. Some other editors do. Always check a publication or editor’s submission guidelines to see if they have specific formatting requirements and then follow those directions exactly. No editor wants to work with someone who can’t follow simple directions.

The same topic that everyone else is writing about

Editors receive dozens to hundreds of submissions on a regular basis, and stories tend to come in waves—after Twilight became popular, there were a lot of vampire stories getting submitted all over, either from people who were inspired by the books or who felt that the world needed to see vampires done “properly.”  When scientists successfully cloned Dolly the sheep, a whole slew of cloning stories poured into submission piles around the nation. Tomorrow there will probably be another major news story that will inspire dozens or hundreds of similar stories. Since most editors have a very limited amount of time to go through the mountains of submissions they receive, these waves of similar stories all tend to blend together into one uniform, uninteresting blob.

This is a tricky problem to avoid. After all, how are you supposed to know what everyone else is writing about? The answer is really that you simply have to make your best educated guess. Don’t try to “write to the market” (meaning don’t deliberately write what “seems popular” right now). If you see an interesting news story or new scientific discovery and it spawns an idea for a story, then go ahead and start writing that story—but do your best to take that story several steps away from where it started. Throw away the first few characters and setting that come to mind and reach for something more unusual. Do the same with plot twists and endings. If you can, take your story so far afield that no one would ever be able to identify where it actually began. And don’t wait until halfway through the story to make your story different—if you don’t do it right from the start, the editor probably won’t get that far.

For a few more great tips on what not to do at the beginning of your submission, check out Ten Easy Ways To Get Rejected by David Farland (and don’t forget to avoid metaphors).

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