Words of Wisdom from Nancy Knight, Editor
Well, here we are again. Staring at the computer. Today’s the day you promised yourself you’d send that manuscript off. So what have you been doing? What should you have been doing? Before you send that ms. off, you should take a look one more time in your word processing program for potential problems, very carefully re-read your first few pages, re-read your synopsis and then look for stupid stuff.
Today’s word-processing programs are very sophisticated. Microsoft Word, for instance, will underline mis-spelled words in red, underline possible grammatical errors in green and underline homonyms in case you picked the wrong one. The programs do these things for a reason . . . to help you. Paying attention to these marked errors may just be the saving grace for your manuscript. If I get a ms. with “they’re” in place of there or their, along with a passel of other mistakes, I’m not likely to trust your writing at all. If you make a lot of grammatical errors, are you careful about your research? How can I know? If I get a clean ms. and one with too many grammatical errors, which one do you think I should take? Let’s see . . . I’ll take the one with fewer errors. Sounds simple, right? For the most part, it is. Many times I get a story with really great potential (Read: Nancy loves, loves, loves this ms.) but the number of spelling and grammatical errors is just daunting. So when your word processor tells you there’s an error—do something about it.
You should always re-read the first five pages very carefully before you send your ms. to an editor or agent. Those five pages (maybe less) might be all the editor reads before rejecting your submission. Why? Time is limited. I talked to another editor last summer who works for a traditional NY publisher. They receive between 800 and 1000 unsolicited ms. a month. Once a month, they closet themselves in a room with all those subs and go through them. Yes, that’s right. They go through all of them. This editor said they start opening envelopes (or e-mails) and read a few lines. If the story doesn’t catch their interest within a few lines, it’s an automatic rejection. Sometimes the editor might realize that the ms. isn’t her cup of tea and—if it’s good enough—pass it along to someone who might like that particular sub-genre. Note: the key words in that last sentence were “if it’s good enough.” That means, no spelling or grammatical errors, a reasonably interesting opening, proper format, etc. Your book should start when the primary character’s life changes irrevocably. Don’t give me ten or fifteen pages of stuff leading up to that moment. Get to the point. Grab my interest immediately. Oh, my editor friend also said that if the ms. was her type of book and it caught her interest, she’d put it in a separate pile to read more of later. Sounds brutal, I know. But the harsh truth is that an editor’s time for reading unsolicited subs is extremely limited. Don’t limit your chances by sending less than your best.
The third item to check off your list is the synopsis. Read it slowly, as if you’ve never seen it before. Make sure you’ve included all the pertinent information. Is your structure clear and concise? Have you told the editor/agent what the primary conflict is? Have you given enough information to make him or her love your protagonist? If you’ve recently revised your synopsis, try to read for missing information that needs to be there. Look for holes in the plot. Is the story told in a simple narrative style? Have you told the complete story—including the ending. I can’t tell you how many subs I get wherein the synopsis doesn’t reveal the ending. No editor is going to buy a pig in a poke. You must tell the story and the ending.
Finally, read it again for stupid stuff. You can interpret stupid stuff in a couple of ways. It could mean that you have tried, in your synopsis, to be cutesy. That doesn’t always work. It can be annoying. Very annoying. It you include those kinds of elements, get an outside, unbiased opinion to see if they work. Unbiased doesn’t mean your mama or your spouse or your best friend. I once received a ms. that had a diagonal red sash that began in the lower left corner of the ms. and continued to the top right corner. The sash said, “Copyright by _______.” That’s a really childish thing to do. What editor in his or her right mind is going to steal a manuscript? Generally speaking, those people don’t need to worry about having their ms. stolen. In my experience, it’s the worst writers who are the most concerned about someone stealing their books. Finally, there are writers who bury a phrase within the ms. just to see if the editor actually read the ms. Or, in the case of a hard-copy submission, maybe the writer will turn a page backwards to see if the editor read that far. Skip that crazy stuff. It just makes you seem juvenile.
My last piece of advice to you is this: Submit, submit, submit. After you’ve submitted to three or four publishers and all have rejected the ms., re-read their comments (if any) and decide if you need to re-write before sending your precious out again.
By the way, you can always submit to me. (firstname.lastname@example.org) I’ll look at any of the romance genres, suspense, thrillers, YA, inspirational, horror and mystery. I’m not really interested in non-fiction, so don’t send any non-fiction. But I am totally passionate about a really great YA . . . well, okay . . . great fiction. I’m waiting to read yours!
Nancy Knight is a multi-published author. She has been part of Belle Books and is now executive editor for Gilded Dragonfly Books. Nancy edited their first anthology Carousel Déjà vu.
Look for her visit as an author! We will reveal secrets.