Thursday, October 6, 2011

Writing Pitfalls, Blunders, and the Importance of Reading

As editors, we’re constantly asked for free advice on how to improve a story, how to get published.  When we talk to these writers, we’re always surprised at how few actually cover the basics in terms of writing, editing, and submitting.
So, we’re dedicating this blog to a few areas that are worth re-mentioning.
One huge difference a writer can make with his/her story is proof-reading. DON’T RELAY ON SPELLCHECK! Please, take the story and set it aside for a few days, and then re-read it. Aloud if necessary because it will help you spot simple grammatical and clerical errors. Sometimes a simple read through after setting a story aside can make or break the story being rejected, or being sent further up the ladder towards acceptance.  As writers ourselves, we’re guilty of missing simple errors in our stories as well. For example, A.W. had a story with the line, “parlor tick” when it should have read “parlor trick.” Spell-check didn’t catch the error, but reading it aloud did.
                Another issue with spelling involves numbers. Unless it’s a date, time, or an address, spell out the numbers. It makes the piece look polished, and shows a little sophistication on the part of the writer. Editors cringe (it’s a frequent theme amongst us and our editor friends) when they see a piece with numbers littered throughout. Take the extra time and spell it out. Trust us on this.
                Phonetic speak is a tough one to pull off. Most of the time, it doesn’t work. Mark Twain pulled it off with Tom Sawyer, but again, most writers aren’t Mark Twain. Spinning one or two words and using them to establish a dialectal accent is much easier, and works just as well.
                Parentheses. Telling a story, and using multiple blocks of parentheses to add minor points, side notes, tangents, and character quirks pull the reader from the story.  There are a few writers that can pull this off. Dan Brown does it well in Digital Fortress. But again, it’s a tough sell for a lot of editors. As one editor friend told us, “who wants to read a story, within a story, within a story.” If it’s important, find a way to put it in the story. If not, omit it. 

The second big issue deals with the submission process. PLEASE, PLEASE READ THE GUIDELINES. Not just for submitting to us, but to any magazine. We do batches of stories in groups of ten.  Nearly three out of every ten have some sort of guidelines blunder. Editors don’t make submissions guidelines up to test a person’s ability to read. Having the stories submitted in our formatted guidelines actually makes it easier for us to edit, layout, and print our magazine. There are some stories we like and want to give a go, but re-formatting a piece is a hassle and frankly isn’t an editors’ responsibility.  We’re writers ourselves, and that means that we go through and read each market’s guidelines. If they want single space, right justified, that’s what they get. NEVER, EVER just submit your story with the thought that the editor will overlook it, change it, or ignore it. Don’t think, “well most of the markets I submit to want it like this and I don’t want to change it.” Taking pride in your work means following it through to the final submission process.
                The third, and probably the most important but least discussed topic is rejection emails. Every writer gets rejected-Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts, even me. Rejection sucks, but it’s part of the writing process. It took John Grisham over a hundred submissions before A Time To Kill was picked up by Winwood Press. Tenacity helps create a thick skin. But something that turns off editors to your work (and future submissions from you), is the nasty, snotty email sent in response to a rejection. When A.W. and I reject a story, we try to explain our reasons why. Sometimes it doesn’t fit our guidelines (story is too long and you didn’t quire), or its not dark enough.  We also try and give pointers on how we feel, in our opinion, the story could work better. So it’s always funny to see at least one email stating that the rejected piece in question was written for a larger publisher (who just couldn’t print it this time), or pointing out that they are a five time Bram Stoker Award Winner (again, that doesn’t matter to us. It’s the merit of the story.) So before you take the rejection too personally, stop and think about it.
                Lastly, be comfortable with your writing. If you hate steam punk and don’t like it, don’t write it because odds are its going to come off as stale and forced.  Join a critique group; we both belong to Critters and Critique Circle. They are just two of the great peer critique groups that help us improve our stories.
                Just remember, these are our thoughts, opinions, and tools that we’ve picked up as writers and editors over the years. The central objective for any writer is to get their story out there. So go forth, put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, take your camera in hand….and create. The world is a dull place without the likes of you talented folk.

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