3 Things To Remember When Preparing To Submit A Book Manuscript

Lately I’ve been reading different manuscript submissions and it’s taking me back to the days of grading college freshman composition essays. (Well, okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement. Thankfully, nobody is writing anything along the lines of  “Three Reasons Beowulf is an Epic Hero.”) When I was in grad school I used to volunteer to read submissions from the slush pile at the literary journal the English department put out and it was amazing how many of the problems that showed up in comp classes showed up in those submission as well. So, here are some things to keep in mind . . . especially if you want the person reading your manuscript to invest an inordinate amount of time and money to publish it.

  1. Spelling counts. Or, rather, spelling well doesn’t really count for you—after all, that’s what you’re supposed to be able to do—but bad spelling and grammar will actively count against you. (It’s like my buddy Dwayne’s dad told him in high school: It takes a thousand “atta boys” to make up for just one “you did what?!?”) There’s two things at work here. First, if you’re not willing to take the time and effort to carefully copyedit and proofread your manuscript, it’s a little unrealistic to think that anyone else is going to take the time and effort to read it as seriously as you’d like. And second, your story—be it a short story, novel, novella, whatever—is trying to create its own world within which to engage the reader. If you’re constantly jarring them out of that world by using “there” instead of “their” (or “they’re”) nobody will be able to concentrate on what you’re trying to achieve.
  2. Language (and voice) must vary. By this, I mean that not all of your characters should talk exactly the same way. And you shouldn’t necessarily use the same voice when writing dialogue as when writing summary or exposition. For example, one of the great things about Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses is that while the characters speak in a clipped, Hemingway-esque manner, the descriptive passages of the landscape and horses are straight out of Faulkner. Sure, this variation in voices/voicing/language can be taken to an extreme. But, having every character talk the same, having sentence after sentence and paragraph after paragraph being a carbon copy of the one right before it can be just as deadly.
  3. Plot = Character Over Time. Characters do not exist as names and/or color schemes printed on a 3×5 card. They are not there to just run around aimlessly opening doors and flipping switches that cause explosions and/or hordes of bad guys to attack them.  For example, Philip Jose Farmer wrote a novel in the early ’70s called The Mad Goblin where the entire book has a Doc Savage knockoff called Doc Caliban engaging in nothing but one chase/fight scene after another. I remember reading it as a kid and just feeling exhausted about half way through because there was no actual story . . . just a never-ending hyperkinetic action sequence. (In Hollywood, this is what you call a bad action movie. Or a blockbuster, if Michael Bay directs it.) On the other hand, if you have fully fleshed out three-dimensional characters who are actually affected by what’s going on around them—no matter what kind of world they find themselves in—you become interested enough in what they’re doing (and why they do it) that THAT becomes your plot, instead of an obstacle course separate from your characters that is masquerading as the plot.

Anyway, as for what I have to say about writing, it’s like I used to tell my comp students: Take what you can use and let the rest go by. On my end, though, as a publisher I do have to develop a sense of what I think is good writing (or at least marketable writing). Way back when I was the first reader of this collection of short stories that won a moderately big prize. (Publication and some money as I recall.) Then again, it was the second best manuscript I read for the competition . . . and the one that I was really pulling for didn’t even make it into the finalist round. The point? No matter what—for writer and publisher alike—it’s a crapshoot. But I am confident that following the three guidelines above will serve you well no matter who you’re submitting a manuscript to.

Mark

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