What the How-To Books Don’t Tell You
Since creative writing became one of the largest growth industries in the hobbies market, there have been countless how-to books written advising new writers on the best way to get their work into print. So here’s a simple A-Z checklist of some of the do’s and don’ts to get out of the way before we start:
A semi-mythical creature that inhabits the twilight world of publishing. Everyone seeks them but they remain elusive and shy, avoiding new and not-so-new writers like a cat avoids water. Can only be attracted to the smell of success ... when the writer has already hooked a publisher’s interest ... after the author has done all the work.
The Holy Grail of all publishing ambition and a must-have for all serious writers, both old and new. If unable to place the typescript with a mainstream or small, independent publisher, many writers go for self-publication, regardless of the cost or quality of the content.
A no-go area according to the how-to books but they form an integral part of our daily speech, are easily identifiable, and appear constantly as the basis for hundreds of titles in magazines. If uncomfortable with using an old-fashioned cliché — invent your own.
Try to write something every day during a set time period. Great idea in a perfect world. Most households don’t function like that and it is almost impossible to set aside a daily creative period when football is on TV; the cat’s just been sick on the mat, or the dog needs to be rushed to the vet; a child has found an exciting new way of attempting to eliminate itself; and the boiler’s packed in. Self-proclaimed discipline is a smug person’s way of letting you know that they’re a more serious writer than you are.
Easy to lose and/or ignore. Not always viewed as serious contact if the office is busy and can therefore be deleted with a flick of the little finger. Whoops! Make sure this is an acceptable means of contact before submitting your work via this medium.
A permanent condition that hampers a writer’s every attempt to get things done. Like trying to get some sense out of the ‘girl on the switchboard’ when you’re trying to find out the correct editor to whom you wish to send your material. The jury is still out on whether she’s being deliberately awkward, or just plain thick.
Ignore it! As Oscar Wilde said: “I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never any good to oneself.” But still lots of it around, and everyone’s an expert on getting published these days.
An absolute minefield for the fledgling writer. Never state that you are submitting a humorous piece as ten to one it will fail to amuse the editor. If they read it and it makes them laugh, it’s humour and stands by itself - telling an editor they are about to be amused seldom works. Most humour pieces that arrive on an editor’s desk usually mean instant rejection, simply because they don’t even raise a chuckle.
Let’s get one thing straight - there’s no such thing as an original idea in publishing. “Ahhh!” I hear you cry. “What about Harry Potter?” Been done before ... what about all those Enid Blyton boarding school adventures? It’s a highly original slant on an old (and in its time, very popular) theme. JKR had the imagination to extend that theme into the world of fantasy and came up with a winner. And that’s exactly what we’re talking about!
Jam on the Bread
In other words, getting paid for your work. OK ... agreed it’s exciting to see your by-line in the initial stages of a writing career but just how long are you willing to carry on churning out material free? How-to books will guide the novice towards a diversity of publications but hardly ever state that very few of the mags listed will stump up with cold, hard cash in return for your well-crafted piece. Expecting to earn a living from the written word is a very precarious situation indeed.
Or putting it another way, ‘don’t piss off the editor’. Editors move around from mag to mag or between publishing houses - and have very long memories, so any altercation may single out a writer as a person who’s too much trouble to deal with. This isn’t to say that all editors are good guys, but your ‘trouble’ may still come back to haunt you several years down the line.
Accompanying letters need to be short, concise and to the point, rather than some rambling discourse that gives everything from your blood group to your grandmother’s maiden name. This style of letter may just convince an editor, agent or publisher that they couldn’t possibly work with you, no matter how much they might like your work.
A pretentious referral to some perceived guardian/creative angel, who hasn’t got anything better to do, other than sit around feeding ideas to wannabe writers. Also used as an excuse for not writing, because the creative Muse has gone AWOL (see Writer’s Block).
No Word Count
All magazine submissions, both fiction and non-fiction, have to fit into a slot in the publication’s layout. If this information isn’t included on the title page you risk having your otherwise excellent piece being discarded because everyone’s too busy to sit down and work out whether it’s going to fit the pre-allocated space.
Never have one! The majority of editors dislike ‘opinion pieces’, so if you want to make a political or controversial statement get quotes from both sides of the argument before you begin. The writer’s voice is merely the channel for other people’s viewpoints. A good journalist, however, can always get the intended message across by knowing when, where and how to use the quotes. Leave yourself out of the picture.
The Olympians of the publishing industry are almost as difficult to corner as Agents. These lofty creatures aren’t looking for the next Dan Brown or JKR, they’re looking for someone new. No matter how good your presentation, there’s got to be much more to catch their eye. Study publisher’s catalogues and become familiar with the type of material they are looking for ... and try to pre-empt them!
Quirks and Foibles
Every editor has them ... silly little things that please or annoy, which can lead to rejection as quick as [insert appropriate cliché or simile]. Quirks and foibles have little to do with the actual presentation of a typescript ... it’s more to do with a writer’s personal style. Twee address stickers … signature in pink ink …coloured/fancy paper ... spelling a name incorrectly ... Don’t leave yourself open to an editor’s personal dislikes by not submitting a totally professional package.
Possibly the most boring subject in the whole field of creative writing but the same old stories circulate about how many times [insert name of famous writer of your choice] had a MS rejected, together with personal tales of having received enough rejection slips to paper the lavatory. Every writer receives rejection slips ... just the same as everyone receives an electricity bill. It’s just not worth commenting on, never mind writing tedious articles about them.
There has been a great deal of speculation over the fate of the SAE in publishing circles. Often comes under the same heading as ‘Where do flies go in the winter?’ No matter how many SAEs a writer encloses with submissions, there is very little chance that the ‘girl in the office’ will be able to marry a SAE to a submission, so no chance of a reply. And you do have to stick the right amount of stamps on if you want a reply, because SAE means ‘stamped-addressed’ not self-addressed envelope. And IRC means International Reply Coupon.
Nice old-fashioned concept in this age of computers but you’d be surprised how many experienced writers don’t observe the basic rudiments of the typing class. Such as changing the ‘ribbon’ (i.e. ink cartridge) when printing off a finished typescript. Editors still receive pale (and therefore not interesting), single-spaced sheets that are extremely difficult to read, and often from experienced writers who should know better.
Professional writers are always under pressure. Once you have your proposal accepted, whether for a full-length book, magazine feature or regular column in a local newspaper, you will be under pressure to supply on time. Once you miss that deadline the opportunity will be gone and someone else will step in. This is why it is essential to understand that it’s not a good idea to give up the day job if part-time writing finances your living expenses. The pressures on a writer are great enough without having to worry about the mortgage, paying off the car, or covering the monthly direct debits.
Vulneratus non victus
Literally meaning ‘wounded but not conquered’ and an ideal motto for a beginner writer. Beware of using foreign words and phrases without clarification, otherwise you’ll come across as trying to be too clever.
One of the most popular urban myths of all. Only amateurs refer to it as though it is some form of obligatory childhood complaint such as chicken pox or measles - professional writers can’t afford to have it, and don’t get it. They work on something else until the ideas start to flow again.
The sign that all the chemicals have blended well enough to turn dross into gold. It can’t be defined but everyone can recognise it when they read it. Aim to give the performance of a lifetime but don’t be too devastated if someone else is declared the winner. When all is said and done, the final decision will always go to the item that appeals personally to the editor or competition judge.
Every writer has their favourite version but do bear in mind that a lot of information can be out of date before publication comes around. This is because yearbooks are compiled a year in advance, so all details should be checked before submitting material.
Can be initially appealing but wears thin after a while. Use in your writing but not in your covering letter to an editor.
This excerpt was first published in The Writer's Wheel Magazine Issue 4
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