This should really be called, “What I was reminded by being a publishing intern,” but I’ll get to that in a minute 🙂
It’s certainly all happening this time of year. NaNoWriMo began two days ago (if you’re involved, let’s be buddies! :)), this is a #WriteMotivation month and yesterday I returned from a month-long part-time internship at Black & White Publishing in Edinburgh. It was a fantastic experience. I’m so grateful to the wonderful staff there for having me!
I’ve worked in three publishing companies in various roles including assistant to director of operations, subscriber services, accounts payable, and QA at two magazine publishers (VoxCorp, Inc., in Nashville, TN; and Future Publishing in Bath) and one book publisher (Walnut Grove Press in Nashville). This was my first chance to get a proper look at how book publishing marketing and submissions work from the other side. It strengthened my desire to work with authors, be it developing stories from the editorial standpoint, or within a literary agency. I was reminded what a competitive industry publishing is, particularly in the UK where there are so fewer companies than in the US.
There were a lot of interesting fly-on-the-wall things I was privy to, such as seeing potential models for a book cover design, marketing techniques, approaching booksellers, book signings (one that I attended, more on that in a future blog), and some seriously delicious gingerbread cookies 🙂
Here’s what I learned from a writer’s standpoint though, as writing is, after all, my biggest goal, first and foremost. So here are a few items that stood out, with regards to submissions:
1. Synopsis: Many people didn’t even include one, despite it being in the company’s submission instructions. Following instructions can win you massive brownie points 🙂 And the synopsis itself – if you can get it down to 2 pages, perfect, because I want to know right away what happens, the overall story arc, and the end – without loads of details or side plots/secondary characters’ lives magnified. Now that I’ve seen how a good, succinct 2-page synopsis can work, I’m determined to shorten and tighten mine. I didn’t fully understand the power a good synopsis can wield until having read dozens.
2. So. Many. Prologues. They do work in some books. In Harry Potter And the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone, we get a glimpse of Harry as a baby and the characters who worked to get him to the Dursley’s, hinting at so many things to come that we wouldn’t fully understand until future chapters or future books. This worked, at least, for me. This wasn’t called a Prologue, but is simply Chapter 1, and maybe that’s why. It wasn’t forced on me as being outside of a narrative I’ve not yet even entered. On the internship, I read countless submissions with prologues that made no sense to me, even after reading the first 3 chapters. I’m not sure why, but people seem to think that in order to make their story’s present have significance, something external from the main narrative needs to be described. I don’t think this is the case, in most stories, but that’s my personal feeling for it. When you read submission after submission with some Big Things hinted at in an enigmatic setting between characters not mentioned again for over thirty pages, it begins to drag on and doesn’t–in fact–stand out the way an author might think, “I know what’ll catch their eye!”
3. Just bad writing. To put it bluntly, the majority of submissions were full of poor (or missing) punctuation, spelling errors, bad sentence syntax, misuse of apostrophes, and sadly, screwy formatting. Something as simple as indenting paragraphs (and not halfway across the page….one tab’ll do!) can really just put me right off a story. These are such simple mistakes, for the most part. So okay, not everyone is a grammar freak and adheres to all the rules about fragmented sentences or the list of words not to begin a sentence with – but to my mind, this is all relevant to specific context. Things like separating or indenting new paragraphs, learning how to use commas and apostrophes, and not capitalising random words for No good Reason, would put you in the 5 or so percent of manuscripts that are easy and worthwhile reading. A mistake here or there didn’t stand out to me, but when it’s clear someone doesn’t understand the difference between a comma and a period, it’s another on the NO pile.
4. First page – For it to grab me, it either has to:
- give me a situation or emotions I can relate to/sympathise with;
- give me an immediately likeable or interesting character (good or bad); or
- give me an intriguing idea.
Those are three pretty simple ideas, but if you can do one of those three on the first page, I’m hooked. By the end of the chapter, if you’ve done one really well, I’ll keep reading. If you’ve managed all three, even better! I’m taking this and applying it to everything I write from now on. It sounds like, “DUH! Total given!” but reading sample pages over a whole range of genres, that’s the first thing that struck me: why do I care?
Agents harp about this repeatedly on blogs and Twitter. “Why do I care?” Query Shark asks that all the time. So you’ve got a 16-year-old girl with divorced parents, facing the struggles of high school. So what? We want readers to care about our story immediately. There’s no point in saving all the goods for Chapter 4. The slushpile reader/agent/publisher may never get that far. Give me one thing, even the tiniest glimmer of appeal, and I’m good.
Most of the pages I read had a first page, or even chapter, that was like reading a newspaper article. Just the facts, ma’am.
“John Doe worked in the city, and had a beautiful wife and three kids named Sue, Pete, and Bob. Bob liked to play with tanks, Sue was good at swimming, and Pete preferred to watch TV. John’s wife, Anna, worked in accounting and was considering retiring early. On Saturdays, the family often….”
You get the point. Snoozeville. And I was shocked at how many submissions were like this. Most of them. I feel bad being critical at all, as a writer myself. Believe me. The first few days of the internship, I wanted to give every single writer whose submission I read a huge hug and a box of cookies, and sit down with them and say what I thought. It’s not that I’m any expert by any means, but it certainly made a few well-worn writing tip-cliches come to life for me. By the internship’s end, I was feeling like a lot of writers out there sit down to write a story when they’ve read maybe 3 books in the past 5 years. Because it seems easy. Because they can do it from home. Because their brother-in-law said they’d be good at it.
Emailing rejections was hard, but I think I have a better appreciation for what agents/editors deal with. I can understand completely now why my first sets of queries were totally ignored. Something really needs to stand out, and what that is will obviously be different for different readers. Another intern was working at the same time as I, on different days, and some of the things she liked, I thought were boring or needed more work than was going to be practical. And vice versa, no doubt. But some things just stand out immediately. The author might rely on a key phrase or two too often, or might have a few grammar ticks to be made aware of, but overall, you know right away whether you feel confident in the author’s ability to lead you through this believable world.
One author compared himself to Steinbeck, Douglas Adams, and Dickens in his cover letter. It can be helpful to be told up front what sort of readership you might appeal to, but there are good ways and bad ways to go about this. I’ll leave it to you to guess how I felt about this way 😉
Well, that’s my long-winded roundup. It was a worthwhile and lovely experience, I met some great people, and really feel like I gained an insight into how a smaller publishing company works. From the writing side, it was just good reading experience. They always say that reading everything you can get your hands on is integral to being a successful writer. I read genres I never go near, stories I’d never have picked up, and it all opened my eyes. So, thank you, Black & White! And I hope some of those submissions I read get their time in the limelight they so definitely deserve 🙂
Monday I’ll be back to blogging about #WriteMotivation and my NaNo progress (such as it is, so far), using Meredith McCardle’s borrowed questionnaire to log where I’m at in the process 🙂 If you’re doing NaNo, I wish you success this month!
I’ll also be holding a blog giveaway contest after reviewing one of Black & White’s titles in the near future. And the lovely Alexandra Diane has tagged me in a blog hop, so I will get to that, too (sorry for being late!) Busy month! 🙂