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.

Guidelines 2

Check an agent or publisher’s guidelines. It sounds simple enough, but it’s an important detail so many wannabe writers miss. Most have them, and many are readily available either on request or if you have internet access on their website. Also, check that the guidelines are up to date. There’s no point in looking at what a publisher wanted ten years ago, or even ten months ago. Their requirements may have changed only last week.

Use the guidelines as any writing tool. It’s important that the writer check they are sending the right piece of work to the right publisher. It may be difficult to believe, but it’s amazing how many people still send a romance book to a horror publisher, or vice versa, but it happens. Some writers seem to think a publisher is a publisher, and it doesn’t matter, or that their work is so brilliant the agent or publisher will still help them even if they don’t deal with that type of literature. This is not the case. If a writer sends a romance to a horror publisher that publisher is going to put the manuscript in the bin the moment they realise its contents. The chances are they won’t even reply, or they’ll dispatch a terse note advising the writer to ‘check our guidelines’. Save them and yourself a lot of time, money and aggravation, by doing this prior to sending out anything.

As well as advising on content, guidelines may also provide further information such as formatting requirements. Most publishers want standard manuscript formatting, but this can vary a little. If it states a certain layout, then follow it. If not, set your work out in standard manuscript formatting. Another thing to be aware of are submission calls and deadlines. There’s no point sending in an unsuitable story, or even a suitable one, after a deadline has passed. On that note, when answering submission calls, I’ve seen it suggested sooner rather than later is preferable. Many publishers wheedle through that pile right away, throwing out rejections, placing others in a possible pile, a few in another in case they’re left with a space to fill. A few wait until the deadline passes, but not all. If there’s a minimum and maximum word count, some publishers will say it may increase your chances to write closer to the minimum count. Longer stories fill an anthology length, and too many of those leaves less space for the number of stories the publisher wishes to include. Therefore, they’re more likely to take more of shorter lengths. Always research individual requirements of each publication.

How it all began…

Some posts like memories are worth keeping. Looking back, it’s hard to believe my social media journey started way back in October 2006 with Myspace, a site many writers (including me) have left in the dust since its focus now seems to be music.

Still, it’s the time I’m thinking of here. It’s difficult to believe it’s been that long because that also means that my first book came out fifteen years ago. Where has the time gone?

I can still remember in 2004, I wondered ‘when’ would I have a larger writing credit out there. Up to that point, my credits had been for poetry, essays, and (mostly) short stories.

Though I rarely read such books, I was in the middle of a decent self-help book. Like many similar volumes, the information told me nothing new, though it’s nice having beliefs and feelings confirmed. One particular chapter talked about not sitting around waiting for things to happen but ‘making’ them happen. Not surprising, but that day, forced to face reality, was the kick I needed.

I knew with writing there were two ways to go. You write what you like and hope to find a publisher or you look for a market, and write for it. Most writers have more success that way, and I’d done pretty well dabbling with both options. For a novel, I chose Loose-Id as a market and wrote a story for them… which flopped, big time. They totally rejected it for three reasons, two of which I agreed with and one which I did not… but that’s neither here nor there, and I’m unsure I can even remember those details now. The strange thing is, I was wholly grateful for that rejection for two reasons. Most important: I learned a lot from their comments.

Determined, I studied what was selling and return to the ‘drawing board’. Second, I was trying to write for a genre I’d never attempted before and the likelihood of my story being snapped up first try would have been extraordinary. With so many vanity and unscrupulous press out there, if Loose-Id had snapped up my first book, I think I wouldn’t have trusted them nearly so much and therefore believed their good comments on my second submission attempt.

So, I wrote for Loose-Id. Why? This is a special question because my heart most lies in dark fiction, although I read all genres including an occasional romance. It’s no lie when I say I like to write as I read, and my library is eclectic. Mostly, I wrote a romance because the first stirrings of a story came to life. I chose Loose-Id because I liked the concept. They published erotic romance, and many of their books were authentic stories, not just a poorly disguised series of events loosely linking a load of sexual content. I had to get over the embarrassment of writing such scenes, but told myself I would worry about what my friends and family would think when I came to it. Before that, I had to come up with a plot so concentrated on a story I believed they couldn’t reject.

I formed my idea in June 2005. In fact, I still have all my hand-scribbled notes, not only for that first book but for books two and three of the trilogy. Looking at them now always provides me with a few moments of smiling. These notes on their own make no sense and some last scenes differ from those first images that flashed into my head, but in that large envelope of messy, nonsensical notes I have my story. But all stories begin in the mind.

As long as there are writers there will always be readers who will ask, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ The answer is everywhere. Life. Playing the ‘What if’ game. Putting two seemingly disconnected events together. That first book I entitled Uly’s Comet, and it began when I pictured a man sitting on a bench in open parkland and a thief about to steal his money. I did not know who the man was or why he sat there. I did not know the identity of the thief. Later, I came across a name: Shavar, ‘Comet’ and suddenly I had the answers. This story nagged for me to write it. I loved the world, characters, and story I created and lucky for me, so did the publisher…

Sadly, as many of you may know, Loose-Id closed recently enough for it still to sting. A fine business and group of people which did amazingly well and should have lasted even longer, and while I have republished some tales I wrote while with them, I have yet to revisit the world of my comet. I’ve also gone on to write other things, and here’s the point of this blog. Had I not tracked down a publisher, chosen to write something good enough to submit to them, and worked hard at it, achieved my goal, started with social media, I wouldn’t have networked. I wouldn’t have made other contacts, or written for other publishers, and series, including several novels in the Lethbridge-Stewart world (The Brigadier of Doctor Who fame), or even, by recommendation, my short eleventh Doctor audio story for Big Finish. All because one day I decided it was time I achieved a larger writing credit… and took the next necessary steps, refusing rejection.

Submission Guidelines

All publishers have them, and most are online nowadays, so make a note, pay attention, and follow the guide. The instructions will often explain not only how to present work but also what type of stories the publisher is looking for. This may be for general publication or a specific submission call, such as a magazine putting out a themed issue.

PAY ATTENTION. Seriously. Occasionally, writers have cause to moan about the publishing industry, but we can say equally the same in reverse. I’ve witnessed a publisher’s submission call receive hundreds of questions, the answers to which were in the call itself. Some publishers will display immense patience. Others, especially those inundated with submissions, will dismiss work from those individuals they view as acting less than professionally. Before the writer queries, best to make sure they’ve not provided the answer, so read the guide more than once.

Another good reason to read guidelines is it’s amazing how many writers waste their time and that of agents and publishers by submitting the wrong thing to the wrong market. I’m not talking about not *quite understanding* what an editor is looking for—sometimes this is hit and miss at best—but it’s pointless to send a romance title to a horror market or vice versa, and yet it continues to happen. Result: Binned. The writer may receive guidelines in reply or hear nothing.

Study the market. Make sure the right story goes to the right publication or as close as is possible so it has a genuine chance. Also buy and read at least one copy of any magazine or a book from a publisher when considering the market. Not only does the purchase help keep these markets going, it gives the writer an insight to what the publisher requires. Reading is really the only way to tell whether a work fits and whether the author even wishes to consider a specific publisher. Send out work randomly and it wastes everyone’s time.

What’s in a Name?

One question I never thought I’d need to address was whether to write under a pseudonym. Pen-names weren’t for me. My dream was to be a writer. Why wouldn’t I want to ‘own’ that?

I came to a stuttering halt when my first novel turned out to be erotic romance (heavier on the romance/adventure aspect). Why? I had an idea which nagged me and a market to submit to, delighted to take it. I dithered over what name to use with a few friends coming up with some (truly) ridiculous offerings. I had to explain the publisher I was with would never allow such jokes to stand, and neither did I wish to use one.

Then a writer/friend advised I should never write something I wasn’t willing to put my name to; speaking from experience, if I were to put out work without owning it, I might come to regret it. My thoughts were similar: “What if this is the only novel I ever publish?” I had nothing to hide, though I have to admit I never gave a day job a thought. Never occurred to me an employer might object to something one of their employees wrote, though I’ve since come to realise that for many writers, their day jobs are foremost on their minds when publishing.

This still seems unfair to me. Especially with certain genres, of which romance and/or erotica appear to get the brunt of dislike. I believe a writer should have the right to depict an accurate reflection of the world. Sex? For goodness’ sakes, be an adult. No one seems to object when the teenage couple slink off into the woods to have their kissing interrupted by an axe-wielding maniac, or cannibalistic family living in the wilderness. But depict consenting adults doing what makes the world go round, and too many will advert their gazes. If you don’t like something, don’t read it. Simple as.

Still, I now realise many writers choose pen-names for protection. They don’t want their writing to affect them in their workplaces, or halt their non-writing careers. They don’t want to encounter abuse from friends, family, colleagues, or neighbours. They don’t want a super fan right from the pages of Stephen King’s Misery to track down where they live.

So, it’s a serious question worth considering before you’re ever published, although these days one can never guarantee keeping an identity secret. Still, I wish I had given it more consideration for another reason: although never my intention, I’ve slipped into the precarious category of multi-genre author, not an enviable position to be in.

I’ve often said I write as I read, meaning anything and everything. When you’ve varied tastes and the muse strikes, it’s hard not to follow where the ideas lead. Yet it’s not the wisest choice. Writing can be as much about branding as the work itself, but success in one genre does not guarantee success in all. Readers, even devoted ones, will not necessarily follow you everywhere, especially if you’re a lower-end or mid-range author (perfectly acceptable levels in which to have excellent publishing careers) rather than that of the household name variety. Writing in two (or more) genres often means twice (or more) the amount of work. Hence, unenviable. You may also want to avoid confusion. Readers come to expect a certain something from a brand (name).

An ‘easy’ way to separate genres is to choose different names, regardless of whether you keep them unrelated and/or secret. In retrospect, I wish I had made a better selection for all my romantic endeavours, but it’s far too late now. Changing at this stage might confuse those who love my work. When I came to write steampunk, and then Doctor Who related fiction, I simply dropped the middle name — originally added because I thought it sounded better. But, though these works have dark elements (as so, too, do some of my romances), they’re not as dark as several short stories, or the horror novel I’m working on. How do I brand this fiction?

For a long time I toyed with writing under the name Sharon Kernow (much of my original interest in myths and legends arose from holidays in Cornwall/Kernow, but I grew to love Devon and other counties as well), and even attempted this with some short works, but now I’m not so sure. Though I don’t consider my name to have a particular ‘author-like’ sound, I don’t wish to feel detached from my writing. So, I switched to using initials, as there’s still some belief that, as men have and still use pseudonyms to write romance, women still struggle to achieve recognition in horror. But I’ve seen a few women who are breaking these barriers, and I’d feel proud to be one of them and part of women in horror month.

For now, I remain torn. Do I discard the middle name, use initials, or change my name entirely? Some days I feel like calling myself Sharon Savage, but that’s more to do with my mood than reflective of anything I’m writing.

What do you think? Anyone who has thoughts on the subject or a similar experience is welcome to comment.

Public vs Private

During this pandemic crisis, with political tensions running high, this may be the perfect time to ask when should a writer (or anyone with a public persona) keep their beliefs private and when should they make them public?

Not all of us share the same beliefs. I’m glad of this. Not only would it make for a boring world but imagine if we all believed something horrible, such as cruelty to children or animals was fine and the fate of the planet wasn’t our concern. Strong beliefs make us stand up, speak openly, defend and protect those who cannot do so for themselves. Standing up for one’s beliefs can lead to changes for the better. Differences of opinion lead to breakthroughs.

Alas, the sad, simple fact is that not of us can agree to disagree. That’s why the advice to be careful what you state publicly can be perfectly understandable. They say never discuss sex, religion, and politics…considering some things I’ve written there’s at least one of those topics that’s occasionally been unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean I have to let the public into my private life. Besides, what do you want to know? I’m a normal person, like my readers. I crawl out of bed in the morning, brush my teeth, stumble into the kitchen in search of that first coffee. I also wash clothes, clean the house, cook, shop…have friends and family. In addition, I make mistakes, apologies, laugh, cry, get sick, heal, and hurt, for myself and for others.

There are some things that are unavoidable. I can hardly write romance without declaring that I believe people should be free to love whom their heart tells them to love. I can’t write darkness without delving into the mysterious and questioning justice. You only have to read my work to know that. I realise there are those who will vehemently disagree with me and may even hate me for it. All I can say is that there is more than one element to my personality. I feel a view that dictates because our beliefs differ we cannot be friends is short-sighted.

Do I agree with all the things my friends believe in? Do I agree with all their decisions? No, of course I don’t. I have friends who are homophobic and rather than attack them for this, if they wished to discuss the topic I would hope we could do so sensibly and intelligently. I would like to know why they feel the way they do, and I would be open to explaining my viewpoint. Ultimately, they are entitled to their beliefs as long as they don’t victimise others for it. I don’t expect all my friends to like each other, but I expect all of them to respect they are all my friends and to be civil should they ever meet, especially if it’s under my roof. I don’t believe to like another person you both have to share the same sexual, religious or political belief. I’m capable of agreeing to disagree, and that’s one thing I wish was more widespread.

There are limits. There are some things in this world I couldn’t tolerate but they are usually in extremes and no one should want someone around who feels certain forms of abuse are fine, but I’m not talking about that level of animosity. I’m a different person to you. If we all wanted to love thyself to this extent, there’d be no reason ever to say hello to another human being.

Therefore, don’t assume that because I’m friends with someone in my private life, or elsewhere, is someone with whom I share the same beliefs, especially in this world of social media. I don’t know what may lurk in all those dark hearts, though the horror writer in me likes to explore this question. Never assume all the viewpoints in the stories I write are from my personal viewpoint. One aspect of a writer’s job is to show all sides of the argument, without getting into a public, personal disagreement.

Chances are…

You will write something you love.

You will write something you hate.

Something you once loved you will come to hate and wonder what in the world you were thinking.

Something you once hated will become loved because you will realise there was more going on in the story than you first thought.

Something you love and even believe is one of your best works will flop.

Something you consider to be weak will be well received and even be a huge success.

You will write jokes no one else gets.

People will laugh at points in the story where you least expect.

You may try a writing contest and get nowhere. The winning entry will leave you scratching your head or possibly sobbing into a pillow.

You will fall out with at least one editor, or one will fall out with you. (This doesn’t mean a screaming match. Fall outs are often quiet. It happens. Personalities clash. Opinions differ. Most publishers understand this and will assign the writer to a new editor.)

You will worry.

You will read something outstanding and wonder whatever made you think you could write.

You will read something lousy and wonder why you are getting nowhere when your work is so much better.

You will want to give up…

…and then get an idea you ‘must’ write.

You will be determined never to stop…

…until the next time you want to give up.