It can be very weird being an editor as well as a writer. It’s definitely a kind of schizophrenia, being on both sides of the fence at once: spending the morning rejecting other writers’ stories and then crying myself to sleep when it happens to me. Schizophrenia? Actually it’s more like a kind of sex — bad sex: mornings fucking someone, and then getting fucked myself. Kind of appropriate for smut writing and editing, no?
While I could on for pages and pages about why certain stories don’t make the cut for a project, I’d rather deal with something more … mundane for now — but something that has recently been on my mind. In other words, manuscripts and cover letters.
While I completely agree that good work will always win-out, there is a certain amount of packaging that is needed to get the work to the editor so that it arrives with a smile and not a grimace — and, speaking from experience, sometimes a frown or a grin can be the difference between acceptance or rejection.
Manuscripts are not resumes. The trick with resumes is to catch the eye, to get yours stand out above the rest. Career counselors often recommend bright colors and tricks to get the potential employer to spot a resume in a pile of potentials — but manuscripts are exactly the opposite. With a manuscript you want the work to be the only thing the editor notices — not that you printed the story on bright red paper, or that you used a teeny-tiny font. Anything that gets in the way of the editor reading what you written is a strike against you. Now no real editor will reject a story just because you didn’t know about Standard Manuscript Format (more on that later) but if reading the story is a chore — or you neglected important information with the submission — you might look to be too much trouble to deal with. Remember, there are usually dozens of other stories sitting on that editor’s desk, just waiting to be easier to deal with or read.
By the stories I’ve been getting I think I’m a bit of a fossil — I still put my stories in a Standard Manuscript Format. It’s basically very simple, but I like it both as a writer and an editor because it gives all the important information needed to read a story, and contact the writer, in one neat package. In short, it’s courier 12 point, double spaced, throughout the story. Italics are indicated as an underline (an old practice, I know, but have you tried to read italics that have been printed on an old printer?). On the upper left-hand corner of the first page goes my real name, my address, phone, and email. Across from that, on the right side of the top of the first page, it the word count of the story. Centered, below that, is the title of the story and (usually) my pseudonym, “M. Christian.” On the left side of the header on every other page after the first is my pseudonym, the title of the story, and the page number.
Even though it sounds simple you’d be surprised the number of stories I get that don’t have any of this. The name and address, etc., is obvious — it’s how the editor reaches you if he wants your story, or (sadly) doesn’t. You don’t need to put your Social Security Number, by the way, as the editor will only need that if your story makes the cut. Even if it’s already on your cover letter (or email), definitely put it in your manuscript as well — you’d be surprised how often stories get separated from their cover letters. The word count is very important — it gets me annoyed, for example, to get a story without a word count and then not realize that it’s way too long for the book I’m working on — after reading through most of it. So put in a word count, for sure — rounded to the nearest hundred, by the way.
Unlike some editors I know, I like cover letters — they can tell a great deal about the person I might have to work with (if I accept the story). A good cover letter should be brief, pleasant, professional, and include a SHORT listing of where you’ve been published. If you haven’t been published, please don’t say that — some editors have an anathema against virgin writers. I don’t know about other editors, but I hate just getting a url instead of a list of credits — even in an email submission. I have crappy web-access at home and have been annoyed way too often by websites full of prancing kittens and java flames when all I was looking to see if the writer was a pro or not (obviously not).
My advice if you’re stretching the guidelines a bit for a submission (say the word limit is 4,000 and you have something that’s 5,000 or so) is, above all else, be polite. Recognize you’re pushing the limit of the book, and apologize if that’s not appropriate. I remember one fellow who sent me something that had underage sex in it — and then arrogantly argued that since the story took place in ancient Athens, and the age of consent back then was nine, it was appropriate. Well, obviously it wasn’t — as the publisher, not the editor, is the one who usually sets those rules. I couldn’t have taken the story if I’d wanted to.
Just a few more things: email is a necessity nowadays, so make sure you have a good, consistent one. There’s nothing worse than trying to reach someone for an acceptance — only to have the message bounce. The same goes for your snail-mail address. I recommend a good Post Office box or mail drop — sometimes editors can take years to get back to you with the good news or bad, and if you move and can’t be found … well, how will you get the contract?
That’s the basics: the pragmatic facts of life in regards to packaging up your work. Now get out there, have lots of fun, write terrific stories, and send them out. I wish you the very best, and that the editor you work with will see your submission as great work — and not as that weird manuscript with the pink type, the rude cover letter … and where the hell is the word count?