Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Common Mistakes

After learning many writing mistakes the hard way, I thought I should make some notes for the benefit of those that want to avoid similar pains. This is not about writing technique; it is about selecting a market for a finished work and then submitting to that market properly. By no means is this an exhaustive list of my mistakes, so I will likely share others in future posts.

Mistake #1 – Failing to properly prepare a submission. There are standard rules for submitting fiction. For short stories, there’s a query letter, the story itself and a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE). For novels, there’s usually just a query letter until the publisher or agent asks for more. Each market may have subtle differences, and in missing those differences, you have demonstrated your ignorance about whom you’re submitting to and stand little chance of having your material read.

Mistake #2 – Assuming you know more than you do. I always thought the most professional-looking font for story submissions was Times New Roman. Later, I discovered that it’s better to use Courier because it makes it easier to look at the length and is more of an editing standard. It may be a small thing to use Courier font, but it is yet another identifier of your level of professionalism and may be the difference in how much of your submission is read by the editor. Don’t make any assumptions about your submissions. Buy a book (like Writer’s Market) and check websites for suggestions.

Mistake #3 – Paying for confirmation with a submission. This means that whoever receives your submission cannot simply pick it up from the post office box or mailbox. Instead, someone must sign a receipt that it was received. While doing this confirms that your submission reached its intended destination, it marks your submission as more trouble than it’s worth and labels you as insecure and paranoid. I did this in the past before I learned from multiple sources that it’s a really bad idea. Now, if I haven’t heard anything on a submission for a number of months, I send follow-up letters. In the few times that I’ve sent follow-ups, I’ve received responses within a week or two indicating reasons why I haven’t received my SASE back.

Mistake #4 – Submitting to the wrong market. I never properly researched the magazines I submitted to at first. Even if your writing style is superb, not all magazines are the right place for your story, and not all publishers are right for your novel. It takes time to research the markets, but when you send something to the wrong place, you’re wasting time because instead of sending the story to places where they actually publish similar narratives, you’re waiting months to hear back from someone that never would have published your story regardless of how well it was written.

Mistake #5 – Asking to have your manuscript returned. I don’t know that this makes any difference in how you are perceived by the publisher or editor, but it’s a waste of money. In order to have a manuscript returned, you must purchase an envelope large enough to contain it and pay for the extra postage. Once it comes back, it’s highly unlikely you will be able to submit that same manuscript to a new market because it has lost its pristine quality in which you sent it originally (in fact, I once had a manuscript returned with a shoeprint on it). My reason for asking for manuscripts to be returned was out of the fear that someone would steal my work. This is, of course, an irrational fear because as soon as anything is printed on paper, even to go into submission, it has an inherent copyright.

The five mistakes listed are common pitfalls to many new writers. If you are committing any of them, rather than panic, simply adjust what you’re doing for future submissions. It’s never too late to change as long as you’re drawing breath. Slap your forehead, and move on.

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