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Terry W Burns

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How To Keep From Getting Published
by Terry W Burns   

Last edited: Friday, October 04, 2002
Posted: Friday, October 04, 2002

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There are tried and proven methods that can keep the best of stories from getting published. What are they?


How to keep from getting published

Terry Burns

Publishing isn't a selection process.  I wish it were.  Wouldn't it be great if we wrote something terrific and it caused publishers to rush to our door and offer us obscene amounts of money to allow them to publish our work.  In reality, our work comes in and it goes through a number of decision points, not where it is selected, but where it will be thrown over in the stack for some clerk to staple a generic rejection slip on.  Fail at any one of these points and the process is over.  Stay in the game through all of them and all of a sudden some editor is saying, "Hey, maybe we've got something here!"

1. Target - The biggest secret to publishing is the ability to get the RIGHT PRODUCT to the RIGHT PERSON at the RIGHT PLACE and the RIGHT TIME.  There are Pulitzer quality manuscripts that will never be published because the only person who can write them never makes this elusive connection.  We all know some books that were printed that we wonder about.  The only reason for that is that it was the right subject and it hit the person, place and time.  Maybe we send a much better book on the same topic right after it has been purchased and is on its way to press.  Since ours is much better they'll stop the presses and do ours instead, right?  No, hitting all four of these correctly is the whole game, miss any one of the four and it's NO SALE, no matter how good the manuscript is.

A. Targeting that right person, place and time.  We can improve our odds by not making this a game of chance.  We can peruse trade magazines like Publisher's Weekly to see who is publishing what and when.  We can find authors who write for the same readers as we do (as opposed to write like us) and see who publishes them, and who their agents are.  We can network with writers and groups that often point us to markets or give us information that will target a market for us.  There are a large number of such places where information gained can lead us to the right place and right time.

B. Is it the right genre?  Each publisher, agent or editor has a readership they have had success selling to.  They know who their market is, and if we wish to sell to them we had better know it too.  While they will periodically try a little something new, for the most part they buy what they know their readers want to read.  Looking in the market guide and seeing that a house publishes westerns, or romance, or mystery or such is not sufficient information to know if it is the right place.  We have to know if they publish books WITHIN THAT GENRE for readers who would like our manuscript.  Research looking for proof that this situation exists is vital, and that information SHOULD BE TRANSMITTED TO THE PUBLISHER AS THE FOCAL POINT OF OUR QUERY OR COVER LETTER.

C. It's a numbers game.  Many also fail simply because they give up.  It takes me 12-15 queries to hit that magical connection on an article or short story, over 60 on a book length work.  If I give up before I hit that number I've taken myself out of the game before it's over.  Not that it can't be done sooner, it could be done on the first submission, but only a fool banks on best case scenario.  If we get discouraged just because one of the links is missing at a place (see "Writing 20 Years With Only One Rejection" article attached) we are simply failing to adequately follow through.

D. We must have realistic expectations.  For that reason we must expect it will take these kind of contacts to make it work, that a majority of the time one of these four critieria will be missing.  We should also realize that 75% of the marketplace is owned outright by name authors.  These people do not have to fight with us for the market, but have a proven record and go right in up at the top.  Conversely, 80% of those remaining are going to miserably fail one or more of these decision point tests and not even be in the game.  The only problem is these 80% may be lying on top of us and we have to get up there and be noticed.

2. Assuming we manage to hit this mystical connection and we have the manuscript in the right hands at the right place and time, what then?  The number one rejection point occurs as our offering comes out of the envelope.  How does it look?  If it isn't in the correct format, that says to a publisher that we don't know our craft. Publishers and editors are inundated with manuscripts and they simply don't have the time to educate us to what we should already know if we are serious about our writing career.  It may go into the stack without even having a word read.  A manuscript formatting paper is attached.  Different publishers have different guidelines, and there are things in the paper that can be done differently.  However, if we do not know FOR A FACT that where we wish to deviate from these rules is acceptable, I can tell you that everything in this paper is accepted convention and no editor will penalize a manuscript for doing it this way.

3. The next rejection point is our letter.  Editors, agents and publishers I've talked to make rejection decisions (as opposed to buying decisions) on very small samplings.  If it is a query letter, they may not like the opening paragraph and not even read the entire thing.  If it is the cover letter for a manuscript, it is exactly the same thing.  The opening of such a letter has the sole purpose of getting the remainder of the document read.  If our query letter fails the manuscript will not be requested.  If the cover letter fails the manuscript may not be read. 

4. The opening hook.  We've made it this far.  We're in the hands of a person who COULD buy it, he's open it the idea, our query letter and cover letter got the offering into his hands, now the game is getting serious.  Just as with the cover letter, we have a small time to make the sale.  A reader in the book store may use a number of things to make a purchasing decision.  They may read the cover blurb, they may turn to several places in the book and sample it, but one thing virtually ALL readers do is to read the first page.  Editors know this and tend to decide on a manuscript the same way.  If the first page doesn't get it done, chances are it's NO SALE to either reader or editor. 

A. The first sentenceis the most important sentence in the book, and it doesn't have as much to do with the story as it does with capturing the reader.  The job of the first sentence is simply to try and get the reader to read the first page, to get their eye moving down. 

B. The job of the first pageis to try and get the reader invested enough in the story that they will turn the page and move into the story.  From that point the task is to keep them interested and keep them turning pages.  If we do that, we stand a good chance of selling the manuscript, and ultimately selling the book, article or story.

5. Are we home free?  If we are still in the game it means our query and cover letter works, we apparently are at the right place and time.  We've moved past the big hurdles and pulled that editor, agent or publisher down into the story.  Now we'd better get it right.  It used to be that manuscripts with all manner of problems came to a house and if some editor liked it, they would do a ton of work on it to get it ready to publish.  That day has been gone for some time and today they want a manuscript (after a buying decision) to be furnished to them on a disk with the keystrokes done and the errors corrected.  It doesn't mean they won't do some editing, but if it looks like too much editing is required, most of them do not have the time to do it.  This means a number of other little decision points, even thought the manuscript has cleared the major hurdles.  Decision points such as:

A. Blatant spelling errors. Too many of us don't use our spellcheck, and this is essential.  Also, there are many spelling errors that spellcheck doesn't check, and these tend to be errors we don't see since we know what we are trying to say.  Fresh eyes looking over the material before it goes in is essential!

B. Grammaris always an issue with editors and the version built into our word processor is not infallible.  We should invest in a good book on basic grammar and use it!  Once again, fresh eyes with an editor of our own, or a critique group is invaluable.

C. Are our research points valid?  I recently had a character wishing to win the Nobel Peace Prize at a time before the prize even existed.  Do we use 20th century words in a 18th century time period?  Are the mannerisms, clothing, dialogue, etc appropriate?  This can knock an editor (or ultimately a reader) out of the story.  The result can be no sale.

D. Does the plot line of the story flow well?  Do our clues add up to the final solution?  Dumping all the clues on the reader at the end of the story is a no-no.  Do we leave the reader wondering at the end of a chapter to push them on into the story? 

E. Commas, punctuation, semi-colons, paragraphs, fragmented sentences, contractions, convoluted sentences.  The basic structure of our writing can make or break it.

F.  Watch for 'echoes'- Any word that is overused to the point where the reader starts noticing it is known as an echo.  One of the most common is the overuse of 'that' and 'just'.

G. Does it look readable?  White space is essential, a book that looks like solid blocks of text when we flip through it turns readers off.  Rambling dialogue and going too long in dialogue exchanges without keeping the reader in tune with who is speaking throws the reader (and the editor) out of the story.  Again, no sale.

H. Point of View - Improper point of view usage will lose a reader or editor.  The POV is to a book what a camera is to a movie director.  If we move that camera around improperly we are going to lose a viewer.  If a reader cannot keep track of whose head they are in and whose eyes they are seeing the story through, they are gone as well as is the sale.

I.Voice and story -  Finally it gets down to how does it read?  Is it an engaging voice?  Are the characters real and compelling?  Or the bottom line for the final selection decision, is it just a good story?

Divided in points and subpoints, these are twenty places where the manuscript process can go astray and end us up in the pile where somebody will send us a "negative market report."  There are others, of course.  There are other things we can do to give us a better chance at each of these decision points, but the bottom line is, are we staying in the game?  The clear message here should be that becoming significantly published requires great persistence and faith in ourselves.  We gotta just keep on keeping on.


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Reviewed by Nikki Edmonds (Reader)
Terry, this is a great article, but unless I'm missing something (which is always a good bet), I don't see the manuscript formatting paper that was supposed to be attached to the article. Where would I find this thing?
Reviewed by Judy Lloyd (Reader)
This is one for me to save and thanks for the information.
Reviewed by m j hollingshead
good informative article
Reviewed by Deanna Jones (Reader)
Fantastic advice.
Reviewed by J Michael Kearney
Great advice and information and very well presented. You put what could be a very dry subject across with real flair. Fine writing!
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