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Preparing Your Manuscript

October 27th, 2009

Most print Science Fiction magazines require that you create a hard copy of your story, formatted to their standards and mail it in to them with the appropriate return postage. This is not because they are still working in the 1970′s, but because it places a barrier between you and the slush pile. Only those writers who can get by this barrier are to be considered. If submissions could be made by email, the better paying mags would never be able to handle the volume. Believe it or not, forcing a writer to cough up postage cuts down on the number of manuscripts. If you read the guidelines of a few magazines, they claim that it is because some of their readers do not have internet access – this, of course, is bull.

Most magazines will allow you to indicate that the manuscript is recyclable and this saves you from buying a return envelope and sticking on the return postage. You still need a business size envelope with first class postage on it so you can get the rejection letters.

If you need an example there is a good page on formatting manuscripts at http://www.shunn.net/writing/coach/format.html

Step 1. Format.

Lord Dunsanay, the great fantasy author wrote with a quill pen. You must be careful not to get yourself eliminated for doing something just as stupid.

The writers guidelines may have specific requirements, so click on the link to the guidelines page for the magazine you are hitting. In general, this is what they want:

  • Manuscripts should be double spaced on one side of the paper only.
  • The paragraphs should be indented, but no space between paragraphs.
  • Use “Courier New” for the font so the manuscript looks typed (on an Apple, it may be another kind of Courier font or Pica – just so long as it is a fixed width font).
  • Always use white heavy bond paper and Black ink. No Colors. Don’t use light weight paper because the story might get knocked around a little as it is passed from hand to hand, so a good stiff bond is better. Don’t use erasable paper – it smears.
  • No fancy formatting. Nothing cute!!! Don’t be tempted to personalize the manuscript. This is business – you are asking for money for your labor.
  • You name and personal info should be on the first page of the manuscript.
  • Use your word processor’s tools menu to count the words and place the total number of words on the first page. This is just to help the editor – she will determine the final word count for payment.
  • If you don’t want the manuscript back, place the words “Please Recycle or Discard” in largish font on the first page.
  • Number the pages and put the title of the story at the top of each page.
  • Use ample margins at the top, bottom and sides so that the editor can make notes. One Inch is OK.

Step 2. Create the cover letter

The cover letter gives the editor some crucial information about you and your story. Editors learn to make decisions quick. Don’t let the cover letter make up their minds before they read the story, but don’t lose the opportunity to present your story idea in a nutshell. The cover letter is a tease which should make the editor want to accept your story before she reads it.

  • Create a neat and polite typed cover letter.
  • Avoid using a cute or fancy letterhead. Describe the story in broad terms, gush a little about how much you enjoy the magazine and thank the editor for her time.
  • The letter should be three paragraphs; Half a page.
  • Don’t waste the editor’s time, but don’t loose the opportunity to present yourself as a professional with a good tale.
  • If you don’t want the manuscript back, indicate that in the cover letter.
  • Sign the letter using a clear legible signature – don’t use your usual scribble.

Step 3. Package the Manuscript

The first thing your editor sees when they open the envelope will be your manuscript. Don’t surprise them. You want to send a neat and business-like package.

  • Use a large paper clip to hold your package together. (Editors will appreciate this, they never have enough large paper clips.)
  • Don’t staple the pages together.
  • Don’t put the pages in a binder of any sort. The editor must have access to your manuscript as separate pages. It may be faxed to one of the magazine’s readers, so keep the pages flat and unfolded.
  • Do not place a ribbon around the manuscript.
  • Do not include pictures of you or your cat.
  • Do not put perfume on the manuscript.

Step 4. Mail the darn thing out

This is the step that I get stuck on. I think to myself that the story sucks and that I don’t want strangers laughing at me as they read it out loud around the water cooler. Suck it up and mail it!

  • Put the manuscript in a large heavy envelope, flat and unfolded.
  • Take it to the post office.
  • Send it first class. Do not waste your time sending it priority mail or overnight or return receipt. I don’t think this impresses anyone and it is most likely a waste of money.
  • Don’t guess the postage. Make sure they weigh it and put the right postage on it.
  • If you are including a large envelope for return, make sure you weight that first with the manuscript in it and get the postage put on that first.
  • Mail the manuscript and make a log sheet showing when you mailed out the manuscript. Don’t mail your story to anyone else until you hear from the first editor. It pisses off editors if you make multiple submissions. It is a waste of their time to read a story that may already be sold to their competition. You don’t want to piss off an editor.

Step 5. Wait for an answer

The odds are that you will get junk mail from the Famous Writers School before you get the rejection letter. Responses from the editor take anywhere from two weeks to six months. Sometimes a long wait is good news because an editor usually knows somewhere in the reading of the first paragraph if he needs your story.

Rejection letters are often hand scribbled notes. The last few that I got were very nice and encouraging. In the 1970′s I used to get mimeographed slips of paper saying that the story didn’t meet the publisher’s needs. Now I get nice notes saying how much the editor wished he could have bought the story. I used to collect them, but that is way too depressing. Remember, it’s the writing of the story that makes you a writer, not the selling. (Repeat this before you go to bed each night until you believe it, if you really want to be a writer.)

If an editor makes specific comments about your story indicating that it might be repaired in some way to meet their needs, take this as a request. Make the changes as best you can and ship it back out to the editor with a copy of their request. (We’ll teach them not to offer constructive criticism.) I have heard several editors complain that writers don’t want to change their stories. Assume, for a moment, that the editor knows more about writing than you do. If they ask for a change, give it to them. Don’t fall in love with your story. It is not your child. It is a product of your work. If you worked at Burger King you would not take it personally if I told you how to improve your french fries.

Return to step 1.

As soon as you get a manuscript back or get a rejection slip, send the story out to the next editor on the list. Don’t rewrite the story until it has been universally rejected. This is waste of time. A good story will get published by someone, but that doesn’t mean that all editors will want to publish it. Submission is the process of finding the right editor for your story.

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