Saturday, January 15, 2005

Looking For A Reason

This afternoon I processed a number of unsolicited fiction manuscripts which have come into my office recently. I’ve seen a lot of this material over the last year. For six possible books to be published, I received over 350 submissions from literary agents (often good solid proposals from published or publishable authors) or individual authors. It’s been unfortunate that I can’t do more—but it’s a reality of publishing there are limited spots at the publishing house—and I have to follow that decision. My only hope is some of these titles will take off—and the line will expand. For now, I’m committed to search these submissions for the best of the best. When I find something that is really good, then I take it forward to the publication committee at Howard Publishing. The majority of the time, the manuscripts can be processed in short order.

Now look at it from my view as the editor, you have to be right on the mark to have me seriously consider and read a great deal of it. Otherwise I’m looking for a reason to say, “No” and return it to you.

Here’s some common reasons I reject fiction manuscripts:

Too much telling and not enough showing—leap into the action—don’t tell me about it. If the first quotation is over on page four, then it’s almost a certain pass. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then follow the links and learn about this distinction.

Another reason is the book doesn’t begin with a bang. If you take ten pages to get me into the story, it’s going to be returned.

Here’s some other reasons that I usually don’t detail to the author:

The manuscript is too Christian. Many authors are trying to write Biblical fiction—where they take some characters from the Bible and create an entire novel around it. Unfortunately many people do such storytelling poorly and in particular I’ve not found our publishing house eager to publish this type of material. It’s almost certain to get a glance, then returned.

Often the submissions are too short. The author proposes through a query letter or even a manuscript submission—one that is 40,000 or 55,000 words in length. A full-length adult novel is typically 80,000 words to 100,000 words in length. If it is shorter, it’s considered more of a novella. We aren’t publishing novellas—only full-length adult novels—and only six of them.

Less typical but sometimes the proposed length is too long—for example 150,000 words in length. This type of book causes another series of headaches in production—added costs for the publisher in terms of paper and other things. I read these submissions but they have a strong reason against them from the onset.

Other authors propose a series that is too involved—say a 10 to 12 volume set of books. Such a proposal will be difficult to sell to a publisher. I met an author last fall with a 15 book series—each novel at least 100,000 words—and they were all completely written. None of them had been published. You have to admire the tenacity of this novelist—to have written this volume of material without a single word showing up in print. Yet the economic commitment from a publisher would be enormous—and mostly out of reach. It’s not a practical proposal if you have one.

Other authors pitch the wrong type of book. They are convinced from looking at the publisher website that their juvenile or young adult novel would be perfect. Or their children’s book is just right for us. We don’t publish juvenile or young adult or children’s books. You are asking to be rejected if you try and pitch it—essentially wasting your postage and effort—which is a shame.

If you want to have some detailed insight into the evaluation process that editors use for manusripts, then I highly recommend Noah Lukeman’s book, The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. It’s not easy advice to take because most of us want to believe the editor reads every line of your submission—reality is something different.

As a writer and an editor, I hate to say no to authors. I’m eager for people to succeed with their writing. It’s why I took a lot of my personal time and energy to develop Right-Writing.com. I have made an on-going commitment to add new content and producing an excellent newsletter. I get no pleasure out of saying, “no.” And it’s key that every writer remember the rejection letter is not personal—it is simply a business decision. Also I regret I can’t take the time to critique manuscripts or often even tell them the reason that I’m returning it. It’s not my job or the job of any editor to critique manuscripts—nor are there enough hours in the day to do it. There are many other critique services to handle this issue in the marketplace.

I have a lot of great insight into fiction writing at Right-Writing.com. Take the time to read and study these articles and follow their advice.  Then when you send in your manuscript, I’ll have to take a second and third look at it. I’m actively looking for excellent fiction which I can champion and get published. It’s a drag looking for a reason to send it back.


1 Comment:

At 2:18 PM, Blogger relevantgirl Left a note...

Great post, Terry. It puts things in perspective--helps me realize how very hard it is to break into fiction. I once heard T. Davis Bunn talk about how many novels he'd written (I think about 9) before one was published. I thought, wow, that's a lot of work! Well, now I'm on number four and only have five more to write until I "get it right!" Knowing my ms buts up against 350 of my friends makes me realize that Jesus will have to sell a book. It's in my hands in the sense of honing my storytelling technique and my craft, but it lies in His hands to do with as He pleases...


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