AdviceSo You Want to Be A Writer...

Being a series of nine articles of advice to would-be writers, originally written 1988-1990, published in various fanzines, and now updated slightly for the web. This installment is thoroughly out of date -- the text hasn't been revised since 1999, when most submissions were still made by streetmail.

Part Four: Where Do I Send It?

by Lawrence Watt-Evans

So you want to be a writer. You've written a story.

What do you do with it?

Well, if you stick it in a drawer, you'll never get any farther. If you show it to your friends and family, you might get some egoboo or useful criticism, but you won't sell it that way. If you revise it until it's perfect--well, it'll never be perfect, so you'll never sell it that way, either.

You can workshop it to death, revise it into mush, all that--but if you want to sell it, and get paid, and maybe make a little money, none of that is going to do you any good at all.

What you have to do is send it to an editor--or maybe an agent. Editors are in the business of buying stories; agents are in the business of selling them. Nobody else is going to do either one for you.

Let us assume that you want to keep it simple. Then you send it to an editor; you can worry about getting an agent later.

So, how do you go about that?

First step: Type it up in standard manuscript format. Black ink on white paper, double-spaced, one side of the paper, margins at least an inch on each side, name and address at the top of the first page, all pages numbered. Use a monospaced font such as 12-point Courier -- you may think it's ugly and hard to read, but it's still the standard, in part because it makes it much easier to estimate word-counts.

It's also good practice to include an estimated word-count of your own (always estimate just a little bit high--some editors don't bother to do their own count if the writer's looks reasonable). A good place is the upper right corner of the first page.

Leave several blank lines between name, address, and word-count, and the title, by-line, and start of the story. In fact, don't start the actual story until the middle of the page or lower. The blank space is where the editor will put instructions to the typesetters if he or she buys the story.

Including a phone number is a good idea; it's easier to make a phone call than to write a letter, so it can speed up response time in some cases. An e-mail address is also a good idea.

And it's helpful if every page has not just a page number, but your name and a key word from the title--manuscripts do get dropped on the floor sometimes! For example, if I wrote a story called "Killer Bunnies from Mars," the third page (as a random example) would properly be headed:

Watt-Evans/"Bunnies"                                                  p. 3

Do not do anything designed to get the editor's attention. No red ink on yellow paper; no beautiful hand-written script; no fancy velvet-lined box. (Honest, someone tried that, mailed a manuscript in a hand-made wooden box. The editor admired the box--and rejected the novel.)

Getting the editor's attention isn't the idea; your story is going to get read, or at least looked at, in any case, and it has to be the story itself that sells.

Besides, most gimmicks make things harder to read, and editors have to read so much as it is that reading is a chore--make it any harder than necessary and you're hurting your chances. No fan-fold paper, odd sizes, faint printing, primitive dot matrix, etc.--they all make it harder to read.

And don't try any little stunts like taping a dollar on page 167 of your novel, and then if it comes back intact yelling that nobody even read the book, how could they reject it? If a story's lousy, nobody needs to read all the way to page 167 to know it. Standard editorial practice is to read the first couple of pages; if they're good, keep going; if they're not, skip ahead fifty or sixty pages and read a page or two at random and see if there's any improvement. If there is, go over it a little more carefully; if there isn't, reject it.

You think that's unfair? Why?

The editor's job isn't to teach you writing; it's to provide the publisher with books that will sell copies in bookstores, and make money. Look at people in bookstores--don't most of them do the same thing? They read the blurb, look at the first page or two, maybe thumb through a little more, and then decide. If you can't convince an editor to read any further in the first few pages, then you won't convince bookstore browsers, either.

And editors don't have any free time. They have hundreds of manuscripts to read; what's the point in reading all of one they already know they won't buy?

So, there you have your manuscript all ready to go--paper-clipped together if it's short enough, rubber-banded together if it's book-length, and never stapled or bound. What do you do with it?

You put it in an envelope or box of appropriate size--9"x12" envelope for a short, a typing paper box for a novel--and mail it to an editor.

What else goes in the package?

A cover letter. This should not be an advertisement for the story; the story must sell itself! It should be a very brief note giving your name, the story's title, and a line or two about why you sent the story to this editor--"I met you at GruntCon and told you about this story, and you asked to see it; here it is." Or just, "It seemed to me this story was just the sort of thing you might want for Absolute Science Fiction."

The cover letter, ideally, should be under fifty words, certainly under a hundred. If you wind up on a second page, forget it; throw it out and start over.

You can give references--"Bigname Author suggested I send you this story," for example--but they must be accurate, because editors do check. There's no formal blacklist among editors, but if you say, "John Bestseller liked it," and the editor calls up John Bestseller and he never heard of you, that editor will not only reject the story unread and never deal with you again, but may well tell other editors about it.

A few editors prefer no cover letter at all, but most, by my count, do like a few words, and if you do have a reference, or some reason for the editor to remember you favorably, it's worth mentioning.

There are two, and only two, other things that can go in with the story.

One's a postcard acknowledging receipt--prepaid, addressed to you, with a note on it along the lines of, "This manuscript was received at Monumental Books on (please fill in date) _________." This can reassure you that the thing wasn't lost in the mail. Or it can wind up dropped on the mailroom floor and lost forever. Some people like 'em; I wouldn't bother, in most cases.

The other is a return envelope. If you want the manuscript back in the event of a rejection, you enclose the right size envelope, with enough postage on it, and the correct address. If it's a novel, and won't fit in an envelope, include stamps for the appropriate postage.

If you don't want the manuscript back, which is a real possibility in these days of photocopies and high-speed printers, then include a business-sized envelope, with address and postage, for the editor's response.

And speaking of high tech, do not try faxing stories to editors. They do not appreciate the expense, or the time that the fax machine is tied up. Don't try e-mail, either--you don't know what formats they can and can't read, or how much disk space they've got.

So the story's all packed up and ready to go; where do you send it?

You mail it to someone who might buy it. Editors can't buy stories they never see--and editors don't buy stuff they can't use; a heartwarming tale of a mother's love for a crippled daughter is not going to sell to Playboy, but it could be a big hit at Redbook or Woman's Day, and a gritty story of a hitman's last job might sell to Playboy, but Redbook won't touch it. Analog isn't going to buy a story about dragons and elves.

Go out and look at who's published what--do not rely on Writer's Market or other market reports. If you look up science fiction markets, the reports virtually never distinguish the styles of the different magazines. Analog is not going to buy a werewolf story, but Asimov's or Aboriginal or F&SF or Weird Tales might. F&SF or Weird Tales isn't going to buy a story about engineers in orbit working out some knotty technical problem--but Analog sure might, and Asimov's and Aboriginal will at least look at it.

If it's a novel, look at who's publishing your favorite authors, the ones who influenced you. Each publisher has a slightly different approach. If your novel is experimental and literary, you'll probably want to try Bantam first [true in 1988, not true now]; if it's got a military atmosphere, Baen, and to a lesser extent Tor and Ace, seem to go for that sort of work. Look around! Don't operate in a vacuum, or by second-hand reports, when you can see for yourself at any Borders!

And you should, if possible, put the actual editor's name on the envelope. If you know one of the editors, even slightly, put her or his name on there; otherwise, put the name of the main editor in the category you're working in.

But don't go by market reports; they're often out of date. You can still find market reports listing Shawna McCarthy as editor of Asimov's, even after Gardner Dozois has won multiple Hugos as her replacement.

For magazines, look at the most recent issue you can find; the editor's name will be in there somewhere.

For book publishers, talk to any writer or agent you may know to get the names of editors. If you don't know any, look at market reports--and then call and ask if so-and-so is still the editor.

So you mail your story to an editor. Then what do you do?

Forget it. Pretend it never existed. Go do something else.

When it comes back rejected, send it right out again to someone else, as long as there are markets left. If Analog turns down a story, try it at Asimov's. If they bounce it, send it to F&SF. And Weird Tales. And Aboriginal. And Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy. And so on, until there aren't any others to send it to. (Actually, I can't think of many stories that would be worth trying on all six of those markets.)

If it never comes back--that is, it's out more than a year with no response--write and ask. If you don't get a reply to that within a couple of weeks, send another letter saying you're withdrawing it, and send another copy somewhere else.

And when you run out of markets, take the story and read it through and see if you can figure out why it won't sell.

And that's all there is to it.

I'm running long, so that's all for this installment; more in Part Five.


All contents and referenced pages are copyright by Lawrence Watt Evans except as noted.
All rights reserved
No reproduction permitted without permission of the author


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