Liasing with the Man

I’ve been in the writing biz for a long time. There is a caveat to that, which is that I have been only part-time in the biz for most of those years, sometimes very part time. In fact, there have been years when I got almost nothing done. And there have been others where I have worked for a publishing company, contracted with a magazine or publisher, and even two wonderful years when I worked full-time as a writer and indie-published two novels. I was an editor for one publication or another from high school all the way through college, and I left college with a novel begun and reams of not-as-promising poetry. I have subscribed to Poets & Writers and Writers’ Digest on and off through all these years, and have read a number of books about the writing process and publishing. I have attended residencies and workshops. Sporadically I have also been a member of various writing communities, including a regular writing group for a number of years.

All that to say, though I have been distracted by my full-time job as a mother of small children and then a home school mom, I have been in the writing machine for my entire adult life and expect to go full-time again in two years. Still, I find myself very awkward when it comes to approaching agents and editors. Still. Let’s be honest: I’m not sure I’ll ever be great at selling myself. It’s not really my personality. But I feel myself under an enormous amount of pressure in this area, because if I don’t sell myself it is possible I won’t be able to sell a novel, or even a short story.

I am encouraged, though, that sometimes selling myself can be as simple as corresponding appropriately with an editor, agent, or publisher. I am worried, too, that I do not have enough contacts in the field or have not done enough networking, but my main goal is to get my stories read, and in order to do that, I at least have to send along a package or a query that gets the story from the email to under the eyes of an actual person.

After a very long time of part-timing my writing to death, I have been doing some submitting during the Stay-at-Home order. I rallied all the knowledge that I could recall from my years in the field and threw a couple of my babies out there for perusal. So far, I have shopped out three op-eds and two short stories. I am actually a little thrilled, because while I have not found a home for any of them yet, I have received no less than five encouraging rejection letters (yes, this is what we are reduced to. A little encouragement in a rather discouraging business can be water to a parched soul and can also signal that a story truly does have potential), including two from top-of-the-line speculative fiction magazines. (And these for a story that I just can’t quite imagine where it could fit, since it’s barely sci-fi.) And when I see an inbox full of notes from the big newspapers, I get all giddy.

So, for your edification, here are the bits of advice I can give you about submitting, which you can take with a grain of salt because I have not quite made it yet (though I do feel encouraged that I am getting better at it, considering my responses in the past two months compared to my responses several years ago):

  • Network. That’s one that I don’t do extremely well, but it’s the conventional advice. I would add that maintaining positive relationships among that network is also important. You don’t just want to “know people,” you also want those people to like and respect you, to get warm fuzzies when they encounter your work. Networking in the writing world can include joining writing groups, attending seminars, workshops, conferences, readings, and residencies, and reading out yourself. I supposed submitting also counts, so you want to make sure you are a good correspondent, which is detailed below.
  • Edit your work. Do not send first drafts of stories (or novels) with misspellings, plot holes, etc. Unless you are specifically writing a pitch (like for a magazine or newspaper that hires based on pitches), you want a finished, clean manuscript that you have edited yourself multiple times and perhaps even had some friends or—even better—contemporaries look at and then used their feedback to better your story. (I also advise giving it some space. Don’t submit the second you finish, but give it some margination time and then come back to it.)
  • Find out how to write a great query, cover letter, pitch, etc. Different publications and publishers will want different things, just as different writing forms will require different things. For novels, you will also have to figure out how to write great synopses and outlines (of varying lengths). The point is, you want to go to the experts to find out how to write an appropriate and enthusiastic pitch of the correct type and length. There are resources for this: books, magazine articles, online, etc., but you will also want to take your time and edit this part of the submission, as well. Maybe talk to someone who’s good with marketing, sales, or resumes.
  • Format according to the rules. I have an actual book on my shelf that gives me guidelines and examples for all the different things that a publisher, editor, or agent might ask for (like cover letter for a novel, manuscript for a short story, etc.). There are standards, and at the very least you should be meeting these when you send inquiries. Otherwise, no one will take you seriously and you are much less likely to get your stuff read. I have been amazed, over the years, by how many interviewed editors, agents and publishers admit that they won’t even look at someone’s work if they did not submit correctly, including the name of the proper editor, margins, type font, etc. Which leads me to…
  • Get specific. There are industry standards, and then there are publication standards. Unfortunately, you can’t just get your story all packaged up and then whip it out to place after place with that package. Each agent, editor, and publisher has their own guidelines and you will need to find those and adjust your submission based on them. Some places will take mail-in submissions with a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope), though this is less-and-less necessary. Some will want an email and some will require you to fill out an online form. Almost everyone will have random details about what and how to submit, but almost none will be clear about everything, which is why you need to already know the industry standards. Please note that almost everyone wants the appropriate person or title addressed in your cover letter or email, and some publications won’t even really consider you without it.
  • Respect rules. If someone gives you guidelines and you can’t meet them, then don’t submit there (or adjust to meet the guidelines). You don’t want to make a bad name for yourself. A reputation in the writing world is as important as it is in other industries. Maybe more. Pay close attention to rules about multiple submissions and length of time required before re-submitting (there or elsewhere). Also, make sure never to break rules about how and when to contact (including not inquiring about a submission during said time period).
  • Edit to the word count. Having just spent some time submitting op-eds at a rapid pace, I have been dealing in word count. Each newspaper that I submitted to had a word count standard, some of them rigid, and so by the end I had something like five versions of each piece, each with a different word count. (I seemed to submit to ever-shrinking word counts.) To be honest, I feel like the shortest versions of each article were best, having been edited and cut the most.
  • Submit where appropriate. I am not so great at this one, either, which may one day bite me in the butt. But the conventional advice is to do some research on each publication (or agent) before submitting to them. Most places would go so far as to say you should have actually read the publication before. Now, I’m a real practical gal, and I don’t have the time or monetary resources to read every publication (and books from certain editors) before choosing a place to land. But it would be best to at least (and I definitely do this) go the website or peruse a list of previous projects for things that you recognize in order to get an idea: is this an appropriate place for this story? If not, then move on. It’ll just waste your and their time, and they will notice that.
  • Last but not least, be polite. One way of being polite is to not overwhelm a person and not cross inappropriate boundaries. Another way is using conventional pleasantries, addressing people by name, and saying please and thank you. I just asked my writing group the other day an etiquette question about submissions: if I get a positive rejection letter, is it okay to respond with a one-sentence thank you. (They said yes.)

And one further piece of advice: keep a spreadsheet. It doesn’t technically have to be a spread sheet, it could be loose leaf paper full of scribbles, but the point is to keep yourself organized. You can’t put forth your best effort if you’ve lost track of where or when you’ve submitted what, what the guidelines were, and when you can re-submit. My spreadsheet contains columns for Title, Date of Submission, Publication/Company, do they allow multiple submissions?, Contact Info, Notes, Results, how many days until I can submit elsewhere?, and Resubmission Date. I then highlight the rows yellow for current submissions, red for a dead project, and green for an acceptance.

There is no green yet on this new spreadsheet, but there will be!

Go ahead and build up your tool belt, don your hard hat (because rejection can be brutal), and practice, because practice makes better.

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