Fountain pens and other useless diatribes

Submission Formatting: What NOT to do

Writing | May 11, 2009

The idea of one day seeing your name in print is probably the only thing that keeps most of us writers going. The thought that maybe somehow - somewhere - there's a publisher who sees our work as the next The Firm or Carrie.

My God that's a nice dream. And it'll keep being a dream unless you're proactive about it. I'm not talking about making a few phone calls and sitting back to wait for the kudos to walk in. That method - sadly - will never, ever work.

If you're serious about getting published, then you should be out there every day. Knocking on doors, writing emails, ringing at all hours of the day and making a general nuisance of yourself until they finally publish your work just to get rid of you!

But wait! Don't saddle the horses yet. There are a few things you'll have to remember. Boring, tedious, anal retentive things that make your chances of getting their attention just that little bit better.

Editors can spot amateurs a mile away - they can practically smell them! But with some creative sneaking, you can disguise your work as genuine, no-frills, professional stuff.

The rules (from what I've gathered from my talks with people actually in the business) are as follows:

  1. Never send them something unsolicited. Contact them first, be polite, and explain what you want to offer them. Remember - you are offering them. They have the power and you want some, so be polite. Unsolicited manuscripts generally don't get picked up because they're annoying. I know Allen and Unwin has had to hire somebody especially to go through all the crap that goes through their post boxes uninvited.
  2. If they want to see your stuff, always ask if they have specific formatting guidelines. Most publishers do, and you want to cater to their needs. Generally, editors are interested in the synopsis and the first few chapters - so make sure those dazzle.
  3. POST the darn thing. Never email. This is a comfort thing - most editors feel they get a better sense of the book and they don't miss anything if they've got the hard copy. It's nicer than staring at a computer screen for hours.
  4. Always have a title page for your manuscript. Most editors want that (I know, I've checked.) and it shows you've given thought to your stuff. Put your title in bold and capitol letters, and stick it in the centre of the page, so it draws attention. Put "a novel" underneath it, and "by" underneath that, followed by your name underneath that. Put your name, address, phone numbers and email address in the top left-hand corner and the precise word count in the top right. Make sure all of this is double-spaced.
  5. DON'T try and fudge a word count, by the way - most eds can tell the size of a document just by flicking through it.
  6. Never put "copyright" on the manuscript. I mean NEVER. Never, never, never. It's a sloppy, amateur mistake which grabs the editor by both ears screams unprofessional. It just pisses people off.
  7. Now to the actual manuscript: Most editors I've spoken to have a general idea of what they like to see in an MS. Double-spacing (makes it easier to read and they can write comments like "This is crap") is a must. Make sure every chapter starts on a new page. In the header, have your last name and the title: eg, Smith/THIS MARVELOUS BOOK I WROTE. Have your pages numbered.

See what I mean? Boring, tedious and anal retentive. But I guarantee your work will look better for it, and probably be a refreshing change from all the retarded submissions the editors are used to dealing with.

If you pretend like you know what you're doing, maybe other people will believe you!

Me and my publishing friends will have a discussion over the next few days about the synopsis dos and don'ts. Not just formatting rules etc, but the actual writing - what to put in. Editors require the synopsis and first couple of chapters before they make up their minds about the novel, so there's a lot of pressure to do a good job. Everybody I know struggles with writing those buggers.

Between you and me, it's like trying to park a Buick in a weet-bix box.

You have to grapple a 60,000 word MS into a couple of pages, which is NOT fun. But never fear - I'm on the job and I'll figure out what they like so you all know what to put in!


PS: "TTFN" means "Ta-ta-for-now". You'd be surprised how many people don't know that.

To Plot or Not To Plot

Writing | April 24, 2009

This is a question I get asked quite a lot. How much time do I spend plotting? Where does one start? Is it harder to plot crime novels than other ones? How do plots even come into being?

It's never easy to answer these questions. For one thing, the person asking is rarely a writer themselves. It's often a family member, or casual acquaintance who's curious about how I spend my time. The person often assumes that plot is the most important thing in a novel - and in some respects, they are very right. A straight "whodunit" cosy fiction read is always going to be a lot harder to sell to a publisher than a roller coaster thrill ride with more twists than my grandpa's fishing line.

So how to explain? The problem is that the people who ask about the importance of plotting are generally people who have never done it themselves. They've never had to wrestle unwilling characters into far-out situations, or come up with a new twist to make up ten thousand words just to get the story up to novel size.

To some, having a detailed plot on hand is essential to success. Plot-lovers include Micheal Jecks, a fellow crime writer who says having a detailed plot gives the story a natural flow, "A reader must want to continue with it," he says.

"And for that to happen there must be a steadyness to the tale."

Jecks writes all his scenes on post-its (big ones - three by two feet)and tacks them up to see if any one character has too much of the book.

Other writers find plots stifling - like trying to run on a treadmill in a room with no circulation. The further you go, the harder it is to breathe. I'm one of those people. Don't mean to offend the plot-lovers out there, but I'd sooner cut my hands off and type with my tongue than try to stick to a post-it tacked up on my wall.

The main disadvantage of a plot is that it stops the book growing organically. No matter how detailed your plot outline - which you may have spent hours on and paid heaps of money on giant post-its to make it look pretty - it's only when you actually start writing the book that you have the chance to get into it.

You finally meet the characters. You may have spent days writing "character notes", but you can't really know the character until you've seen them in action. This, to me, is so much more important. A great plot is all well and good, but without a fresh, interesting character to carry it off, it will always be a second rate book. The characters are what breathe life into the book, make a dull scene interesting, and make the reader really care about the outcome.

When Stephen King first began writing Carrie, he nearly gave up after the first few pages. It's not because the book may not have a market, or that the world of girls was strange and foreign to him - although those things were weighing on his mind. It was Carrie herself that caused the problem. He didn't feel like she was real. She was scared, naked and cold, afraid she might be bleeding to death and being pelted with sanitary products, and he just didn't care! He found it in his heart to feel sympathy for his wooden character by fleshing her out with memories from his high school days. The result was a bestseller.

It's the same with me (but without the best seller part!). If my characters don't feel real to me, then I won't want to spend time with them. The result is a lacklustre attempt at a hack novel. Sometimes, the characters take matters into their own hands. They'll go off in a direction I never expected - they'll think of an angle to a crime I never even imagined. The best part about not working with a plot is it gives you a chance to see exactly what your story is capable of, rather than what you expected it to be. And let's face it - if the outcome is a surprise to me, think what a shock it will be to the reader! When writing crime, if I need to insert a red herring or some circumstantial evidence - then that's what word processors are for! Re-write, people! In the mean time, getting involved with the characters means the book has more drive. More tang, more oomph!

Let me put a question to you: which do you like best? A twisty plot or real characters? Do you prefer to feel challenged or connected? Do you want a puzzle or an escape? A heavily plotted novel is just that - heavy. A good story idea with intriguing characters will always beat a high-flying thriller with paper-thin people who fit into every situation and belong to none.

Does that answer the question?

In a pickle over your working title?

Writing | April 13, 2009

I was just randomly googling, looking for a way to solve my problem of the really bad title of my novel - and I found this!

It's a site that was started by statisticians who studied the titles of 50 years' worth of bestsellers and identified which title attributes separated them from the rest. The site contains a program that calculates the title's likelihood of success based on the variables you select.

For example: Goodnight Angel. My working title.

First, you have to select whether the title is literal or figurative. Since Angel is the name of my victim, I went with figurative.

Then, you have to break it down. How many words? Which words are nouns, which ones are exclamations. Are there any names? You have to have a good working knowledge of grammar to be able to use the program, so I suggest you pull out your old school notebooks if you've let that aspect of your education slide.

The title Goodnight Angel has a 79.6% chance of being a bestselling title.

Grammatically incomplete titles score worse than titles which work to the rules of grammar. Results fall between 9% and 83% chance of bestseller success - I guess the rest is all to do with how good the book actually is.

But isn't that interesting? See what I meant when I said the title has to strike the right note? Obviously a bunch of random math guys agreed with me! And while Goodnight Angel is statistically viable, I'm still open for any suggestions you guys are willing to throw at me.

Just run it through the simulator first - it saves me time!

First Draft Complete!

Writing | March 28, 2009

I'm pleased with how it turned out actually. I'll need to use the rewrites to flesh out the characters and sneak in a few more red herrings, but on the whole I am rather pleased!

So, keeping in the Stephen King tradition, I shall allow the manuscript to ferment. Like leaving a pie on the window sill to cool. Yum... I like pie!

OK - focus. Now that's finished, I need to take my mind off the draft and think about something else so when I come back to it, I'll be coming with a fresh mind and I'll be able to spot flaws I otherwise wouldn't see.

How? Well, since you asked:

The logical thing would be to take a break from writing. Ease the creative muscles and all that jazz. But when has logic ever factored into my writing???

So I'm going to start work on a sequel.

I figure once I've immersed myself in that, it will be easy to come back to GA with a fresh mind.

I've got an idea for a premise. True story. It happened in Austria. I read about it on a news website. Note to everyone: if you're ever stuck for inspiration, just read the bloody newspaper! Real life is always better than anything you could think of.

Anyway, this actor in Austria accidentally slit his own throat on stage because the fake knife he was using turned out to be a real one! Idiot...

The police are questioning people, but they think all that happened was that the prop guy forgot to blunt the blade after he bought it. It still had the bloody tag on it!

Now, I think the whole thing would be a lot more interesting if there was evil afoot! Someone obviously tried to bump him off! I remember while I was reading the article, all I could think was:

"Well, I hope the understudy has an alibi..."

Hello inspiration!!!

So I'll get to work on that, but before I do, I'd like to re-post a few revision tips. I posted this a little while ago (in April I believe) and this is just me reminding myself of the revision process; and informing readers of my intentions once my MS is done maturing (like cheese!)

1. I print out the MS on 3-hole-punch paper, which I then place in a handsome binder (Black, since you asked).

2. I sit down with the binder, and a notebook with the title - Reasons for Shame.

3. My first trip through the MS is a copyedit - red-pen city.

4. As I'm copyediting, the bigger problems (many of which were nagging at me even before I got to this point) leap off the MS, grab me by the ears, and demand to know how a hack like me dares call herself a writer.

5. I overcome my shame and begin a list of these bigger problems (characters that go away for too long, voices that change, motivations that seem powerful in Ch1 but pitiful by Ch10, etc.) in my notepad.

6. OK, the copyedit is done and I've got a list of shame-inducing problems. I create a new electronic draft, zip through it and input my edits.

7. I print the dang thing again.

Treehugging Tip: Just flip the paper over and run it through the ol' printer.

I don't do this. If God didn't want us cutting down trees, he would have given them super powers.

8. Now I have to read it again, while eyeballing my notes. I use all my self control to avoid further copyediting (if I let myself, I could merrily copyedit the same draft for the next hundred years). By now, I am painfully aware of the story's shortcomings; the goal this time through is to flag problems (HE TALKED LIKE A GANGSTER IN CH2, NOW HE'S TALKING LIKE WILLIAM F. FRIGGING BUCKLEY) and jot down ideas for new scenes (WHERE THE HELL IS FRANK, HAVEN'T SEEN HIM FOR 60 PAGES).

9. I write the God-damned new scenes, even though I'm a God-damned hack who couldn't land a God-damned piece in the God-damned SMH Heckler if my God-damned life depended on it.

10. I ask my readers if maybe I'm being a little hard on myself.

11. They say no.

Love Flea

PS - if anyone can think of a better title than my working one, will you let me know? Goodnight Angel was a fine working title, but it doesn't strike the right note, I think.

About Jessica Seymour

I must have done a million of these things and I still have no idea where to begin...

About me: I am female. Caucasian. Brown hair and grey eyes.
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