The Joy of Travelling

Everyone’s excited to ‘return to normal’. Whatever every individual’s version of that will be moving forward (personally, we’re keeping to ourselves for some weeks to come for various reasons), the lockdown this year and having difficulty travelling gave me cause to look through some past trips. As much as I like taking a holiday, I detest the travelling to get there and back.

One of my most memorable breaks was a winter holiday taken for a special occasion. But I’m not here to divulge the highlights today. That trip reminds me of the ‘joys’ of travelling. Seriously, give me a TARDIS or beaming capability. Well, okay, maybe not; I’m inclined like Star Trek’s Doctor McCoy that way. Heavy and extremely sneaky sedation may be required.

During this holiday we were going to have to get a connecting flight both ways and spend some time on a ship, some on land. The day had barely begun when I remembered why I hate airports. It’s not the flying. It’s the monotony. It’s the waiting. It’s the feeling of being ten years old and not understanding anything. Airports always strike me like this, probably because I choose to fly so seldom if I can, and every time the procedures seem to have changed. Self check in? Whose bright idea was that, and we’ve never used it, anyway. There’s always someone lending a helping hand and we tag on and I smile and stare in a somewhat bewildered fashion until said person takes pity on me. Note: this requires minimal acting — I really do feel rather lost. Not only do I feel ten years old, I may have shrunk down a few inches to complete the scenario.

The trip I’m speaking of, I felt relieved to jump in behind four other men to ask for assistance, as the woman ‘helping’ had trouble identifying our booking number. If she was clueless, we were even more so. In this new state-of-the-art mode of passing through security, they’d done away with tickets. I liked tickets. Tickets used to be easy. I can understand the passport scanning, but where’s my beloved ticket?

Received a comic double take from one of the security people at the airport when I replied no to whether there was any tablet or kindle in the items we’d placed in a tray to be scanned. I’m thinking the day will come when they will pull you over for NOT having electronics with you. I’m on holiday. I can’t be arsed. The number of people we saw sitting together, not talking, heads down, eyes glued to their phones… we’re just not like that when away. When I say we were entirely out of touch on holiday, I mean we were entirely out of touch. I don’t think anyone believes us. Yes, I had my phone. No, it can’t access the internet on the sim card I was using at the time. Besides, the screen is so small I wouldn’t be able to read email on it if I wanted. Yes, my phone is a novelty — people look at it and laugh or wonder what it actually does. Amazingly, I’m able to make a call on it; I’m able to text. I apparently can take a photograph, but the times I’ve found that capability by accident has sent me into a mild panic. I don’t want to take a photo by phone. I have a very good camera that I spent far too much on to want to take phone pictures.

Now note my mention of drinks; it’s important. We had a drink before we left and a light breakfast. We picked up a snack and drink and then sat around for I don’t know how long, maybe an hour and a half. The trip out otherwise went well until we got to Copenhagen. There we didn’t have long before departure, so by the time we got to the departure gate we’d not had much of a chance to do anything other than find a toilet. We then hear they’ve overbooked our flight by 7 spaces and they need 7 volunteers to leave the plane for 300 euros. We wait and wait and eventually they sort 7 people out. We think now that’s over with we’ll be on our way, but no. We’re still waiting.

We’re wondering what can take so long when we hear the cabin crew are on a semi-strike and they are waiting to see whether the last two cabin crew arrive. They do, but only one stays — the other goes on to a meeting. They try to get someone else… during which we wait, and when it becomes clear they can’t find a replacement, and they are one cabin crew short, they have to ask for another 17 (yes, 17!) volunteers to leave. This takes a while, as you can imagine. We cannot ‘volunteer’ — we have connections to make.

During this time we’re stuck by the boarding gate. There’s a toilet nearby, but not much else. Finally, enough people have left and we can board. So we queue… and we wait, and we wait, and wait, and wait to a point where my back is hurting and I’m thirsty. There’s complimentary tea and coffee on the flight, so all we want to do is get on board. Seems as they had to reallocate seats owing to removing passengers, the computers went into meltdown.

We finally get on the plane… and the next thing we know, one of the cabin crew starts counting. I knew what was wrong even before it came out of my husband’s mouth — we still had one passenger too many and sure enough there’s 151 on board, not 150. They have to ask for yet another volunteer or else the plane isn’t going anywhere. We at last get a drink about half an hour after takeoff, but we’re talking airline drinks and that’s not really more than a cupful. Never mind. Less than an hour later we’ve arrived at Bergen, collected our bags, and are making our way out to the transport to take us to the ship. We’re late, of course. Possibly an hour and a half or even two hours late, but the bus is waiting and we get to the terminal. There we queue and wait while they check us all in. They tag the cases and take them off us once more to be put in our cabins.

FINALLY we’re checked in and we head for the elevator. We get to the top and go walking, we believe, to board the ship… only to get stopped. There’s a safety film we have to watch before going on board and as it’s already started for some of the group… do you need to guess? We have to… oh wait for it to finish and then we can begin again. By now I’m willing to melt snow for a drink, but there’s no snow to be seen. I’ve had one cup of coffee, one bottle of soft drink, one small cup of tea, and it’s late afternoon. There’s nothing for it though but to wait! We’re in a secure area and not allowed to leave. We sit, we wait, we get in to watch the film. We can finally board the ship. We queue to do that… and suddenly there’s a problem. A cable has broken and they can’t let us over the gangway.

We’re invited to take a seat… while we wait. If you can imagine much gnashing of teeth and hair pulling about now, then you’d be wrong because I’m not left with enough energy. At this point I’m thinking if I don’t get to drink soon, I’m just going to die. Their 10 minutes becomes 20 and then 30. I think 40 minutes went by before we’re told we can finally get on board.

By the time we get to our cabin, by the time we can finally ‘drink’ we’d been on the go for a good 16 hours and travelling for at least 12. Shattered isn’t the word for it. We could have easily gone to America in that time.

As for the journey home, we can only say we were lucky. We heard Norwegian air had a pilot strike. We were flying SAS — Scandinavian airlines, and it turned out we were fine. Everything ran on time, but even then… connecting flights are the pits. The added time of getting off, going through some kind of check even if it’s straightforward, and then getting back on just makes for such a long trip. The staff at Kirkenes couldn’t have been kinder though — they took us directly to the airport even though they didn’t have to; didn’t have to take us anywhere, in fact, as the transfer back to the airport wasn’t anything to do with them. To them I offer my utmost thanks and sincere gratitude for taking such good care of us. Seriously, if I ever need to write about the pain of travelling, I have this and many other experiences on which to draw from.

All I can say is for those of you dying to go abroad when able, the best of luck and happy travelling!

Presentation Part Two

Always submit your work according to the agent’s, or publisher’s guidelines. If the guidelines do not state a preferred layout, then submit the manuscript as close to Standard Manuscript Format as you can. Most agents and publishers will specify what portion of your work they wish to see. Don’t send more than they ask for.

If they say they’ll accept email submissions (more common these days than when I first wrote anything), present it neatly according to their specifications if they have listed them, and pay attention to whether they want the story or excerpt in the email or as an attachment, and if so, what format.

If posting the manuscript, make sure you keep a copy. Although less common these days in a digital world, there are still instances where people either send their only copy or don’t back up the one they have and lose their work entirely. If posting a printed copy, make it clear whether the agent/publisher should return the MS and enclose sufficient postage and packaging. This can prove expensive, and not all publishers will have a return service. It’s often easier and cheaper to state they may destroy the submission. In either case (digital or hard copy), most will initially only want the complete work if it is a short story. For a novella or novel, they are more likely to request an excerpt and will specify what portions they wish to see. It’s easier just to reprint this for another publisher, with the bonus that each recipient sees a fresh copy, rather than something that grows ever more tatty as it goes back and forth in the postal system.

Take care with the choice of packaging. Don’t make it difficult to open. Take care of your presentation, and I don’t simply mean the submission layout but everything related to the work. Some writers believe that if their work is good enough, they can get away with anything, but this simply isn’t the case. Badly presented work often gets deleted or sent on its way to the shredder and/or recycling plant without so much as a glance. Work as hard on your blurb, synopsis, and cover letter as you would a story. Keep the cover letter concise. Perfect it. I’m not going into detail here (and I’m still constantly learning how to work on pitches), but look up the term ‘elevator pitch’ to help in constructing these things. Don’t submit before you are sure the work is ready. Don’t think any editing details don’t matter because you and an editor can work on any errors later. You’ll be lucky to send in work without at least an occasional typo, but pay attention to things like story structure, spelling, punctuation. Recheck your first page. Does your opening sentence grab attention? Do the first three pages hook you into reading more? Check the ending. Even at this late stage, it’s not too late to double check. If you’ve taken a break from the story, even it was only to work on the submission format and cover letter, etc., you’ll likely look at your work with a fresh eye.

Though I’ve said previously to go to some pains to address to an editor (at a push Dear Editor is fine, though it’s preferable to address the work personally), there’s a good chance an editor is not the first person who will see your submission. It will go to a slush reader. According to the dictionary, a slush pile is a set of unsolicited queries or manuscripts sent to publishers or by authors or representative agents who are unfamiliar to the publisher. It is these readers’ responsibilities to sifting through these submissions. They will select those worthy of further consideration and often have to summarise the story in two or three sentences. Try to do everything to make this easy for them.

Presentation Part One

Standard Manuscript Format. Yes, there’s a layout for the industry. I won’t go into the specifics here. Do a search and the details will readily appear. If the publisher’s guidelines don’t specify, it’s easy to find the format. Roughly, it’s one-inch margins, double-lined spacing, although there’s more to consider, such as what goes on the front page. I’m not talking about a cover letter, but the layout of the manuscript (MS) itself. Name, contact details, word count, title, what publication rights are on offered, and the MS may require page numbering and other information in the header and footer. Check Standard Manuscript Formatting alongside the publication’s guidelines, and if in doubt, keep it basic.

Forget fancy fonts—again, a publisher may specify but otherwise choose something simple such as Courier or Times New Roman. Forget fancy graphics. Forget all the computer programmes that create beautiful layouts. Publishers aren’t interested. They want to see and read the MS clearly.

I’ve heard horror stories of poorly laid out work. I recall one where an editor wrote an article about one particular MS she received in the post. It arrived in one of those padded envelopes that have fluff in the lining. As she struggled to open it, some of this ‘fluff’ went all over her desk. When she pulled the MS out, it stank of cigarettes and the pages had coffee cup ring stains. Result: Binned—not so much as a glance at it and no reply to the writer. Why? Simple. The editor rightly felt the writer had shown her no respect—hadn’t even shown his own work respect—and had therefore revealed himself to be someone she wouldn’t be able to publish, no matter how good the story might have been.

The MS is a writer’s product, work, even ‘baby’. Why not give it the best chance it could have? This starts with how one presents the work, whether sending it in the post or via email. It’s amazing how many writers never even think to look into how they should present a story. I’ve had editors thank me for my presentation, so what does that say?

If including a cover letter, then consider writing it as when applying for a job… which, in an actual sense, a writer does every time they submit a story. I’ve read an article about a teacher who had criticised a student for writing a covering letter to a publisher for ‘sounding as if trying to sell something’. At the risk of repetition I stress, publishing is a business. Writing is an art form—a craft—but beyond that, it is also a business, and the writer has to sell an idea and convince others it is worthy. This is the purpose of a cover letter and synopsis before one even comes to the MS. Try to find the name of the current editor and address it personally. It does not matter if a reader is the one who sees it first (yes, editorial departments have ‘readers’ and these people are the first line of defence a writer has to pass). Just as a personnel department may first see a resume before the manager, still, finding the name of the person in charge shows effort and research capabilities.

The publisher wants to know what any employer wants to know—what this person is capable of. Writing the letter is as important as the MS. Detailing achievements, experience etc., is important, but shouldn’t come across as boasting. Could be the writer has had nothing published and won’t have very much to say, but the way they wrote the letter reflects the writer and the work. Make it sound as if the story is the best the world will ever see, and needs no editing, and the publisher will think this isn’t a person he or she can work with. Sound arrogant, and the MS may go in the trash pile as swiftly as the editor reads the first paragraph of the cover letter.

It is, in reality, easier to explain what ‘not’ to do in a cover letter than how to write a good one. I’ve mentioned a synopsis and I’ll cover what that is separately sometime, but some may ask why they need to write both. Sometimes it’s unnecessary. Some publishers will specify for the writer *not* to put in a cover letter—another good reason to pay attention to guidelines—but most don’t say or ask. Information required in the cover letter can also vary according to project. The problem of writing a letter increases when considering a short story—shorter work can mean even less to say and a cover letter/and or synopsis may both have to be concise, precise, and dynamic.

The letter needs to introduce the writer; it may be an opportunity to draw attention to a few writing credits, but if the writer has none, it would be pointless to harp on about it. Some publications are looking for unpublished writers but going overboard and complaining how, despite sending work out for ten years, no one has yet seen the genius in the style and stories, will not sing a writer’s praises or make an editor take pity. One thing no editor does is publish out of pity. Equally, never state the opinion of friends and family. No publisher cares that a writer’s grandmother’s uncle’s second cousin adores the story. I’ve yet to meet a writer who has sold an editor on their work by protesting how good others consider the work to be. Unless that opinion is an endorsement by someone in a noteworthy and relevant field, it’s nothing but an obstacle.

Use a cover letter as an introduction—to the writer, to the work. Make it sound calm, crisp, friendly, optimistic, and the MS something that the publisher may be interested in looking at. Most publishers will deign to read letters and synopsis at the very least. Forgive the cliche, but this is the first hurdle—don’t fall over it.