Continuing our talk with editors, I now ask a question we all want to know: How do we avoid that dreaded "No" pile?
What are you looking for when you read submissions? What makes a submission land in the 'automatic "no" pile'?
Jewel: The single item that will land a submission in the "No" pile is bad spelling and grammar. I simply do not have the time, energy or inclination to play 10th grade English teacher. Of course we all make errors from time to time. Those are easily and quickly fixed. However, a manuscript that requires corrections in almost every line is simply unacceptable. This is the biggest mistake most authors make, in my opinion. In a day when almost all of us have a computer, there is no reason for this. It doesn't matter what platform or program, they all have grammar and spell check.
Rachel: I'm looking for stories that are laid out correctly (double spaced, professional looking) and then ones that are sexy, creative, and memorable. It's hard to say precisely, and I hesitate to be too specific in calls for submissions because if I say I want stories about, say, rope bondage, I'm afraid they'll all turn out the same. Largely what I'm looking for is something I'd never in a million years have thought of myself, something wildly creative and exciting that makes me want to reread it over and over again. Two of my favorite authors that I'd love to publish in all my books are Stan Kent and Donna George Storey. Both approach their given topics with such a flair for the actual writing, it's almost poetic and incredibly passionate and often subtle, but undeniably sexy.
Automatic nos are anything formatted improperly or full of typos that distract from the writing. Also stale, cliched writing, and any stories that repeat themes I've seen in other submissions. You may think your idea is original, and of course you can't know what other people will write, but making it as unique as possible will ensure there won't be another story like it in the slush pile.
Susie: Poor writing. I can forgive anything else. Even people who neglect to include a phone number, email, address - who single space, handwrite in pencil, and smear jam on the page - are all redeemable if their writing takes my breath away.
Hanne: Top 9 Things That Put A Submission Into The "OH HELL NO" Pile:
1. Submission is inappropriate for the venue: someone has clearly mistaken your call for submissions for essays about toothpaste for a call for submissions for poetry about station wagons.
2. Submission is egregiously incorrectly formatted. If I ask for "double spaced, one inch margins, 12-point Times Roman or Courier, plain white paper, no staples, title of work at the top right of each page, no author name on manuscript" and someone sends me a stapled single-spaced ms. on ivory resume paper printed in Copperplate Gothic with their name at the top of every page, it goes into the round file. Period. If you can't follow directions on something that simple, I don't want to work with you.
3. Awful spelling. Seriously, people, they invented spellcheckers and dictionaries for a reason.
4. Awful grammar. I don't trust most word processor grammar checkers any further than I could throw them, and neither should you, but unless you are the very model of a modern-day grammarian and reasonably sure that you've not committed any noticeable sins, you certainly should have at least one or
two other people read your work before you send it out. Reading aloud to others is another good way to help catch your errors.
5. Awful punctuation. Punctuation is not, in point of fact, primarily intended to serve as rhythmic notation. If you find yourself using ellipses, em-dashes, or commas as a means of trying to denote how one would speak if one were saying your text aloud in conversation, chances are excellent that you are misusing the punctuation. The unfortunate Internet usage of stringing together paragraph - or even page-length swamps of verbiage with the use of ellipses, rather than simply breaking it up into individual sentences and clauses, grates upon my nerves with particular severity.
6. Just Plain Wrong Things. Just Plain Wrong Things are evidence that the writer has not done his or her homework. They are things that are just plain wrong, from a factual perspective, or so incredibly unlikely as to be (unless their unlikeliness is explained in the story itself) tantamount to being Just Plain Wrong. For an extremely egregious example, the submission I once received in which the writer had his male protagonist fucking the female protagonist in her clitoris. All I could do was wince when I read it and toss it into the "no thank you" pile. For another, a story submitted to me, set in Alaska, which had "natives" speaking a language called "Eskimo." If you have to ask me why that's wrong, then you too need to go do your homework.
I should add that the presence of Just Plain Wrong Things does not necessarily mean that a story is awful, but it does tend to telegraph the fact that the author is gleefully pulling things out of his or her rear end and does not really care about the details. Also, JPWTs are apparently a lot like potato chips in that a story with obvious JPWTs usually doesn't just have one, but many. I suppose that if an author can't be bothered to JFGI (Just Fucking Google It) for one fact, s/he probably hasn't been bothered to do it at all.
Every once in a blue moon I'll accept a story that includes some small brainfart-caliber JPWT, but only if it's the only thing that's really wrong with the piece.
7. Mary Sueism. Mary Sues, and their male compatriots the Gary Stus, are characters who are idealized to the breaking point, either flawless or with unreasonably romanticized flaws. Minus several million additional points for each way in which the Mary Sue resembles the author of the piece. Also, I will laugh at you, and perhaps even tell my friends about it, if you give your Mary Sue your own name.
8. Preaching. Any story that exists primarily to preach some viewpoint or another is out pretty much automatically. You want to write a sermon, fine, but don't do it by putting it in the mouth of your fictional character and then expect me to buy it as a story.
9. Things That Are Too Damn Easy. This is a trickier category to define, but basically it boils down to verisimilitude. Is what you're writing, and the way you write about it, believable? This is a matter of forethought and research, in part, but it's also a matter of skill and willingness to do the work: good writers can take the incredible and make it completely credible, and in fact they do so all the time. Lazy and/or bad writers, on the other hand, just make editors cross because they waste our time with dreck.
For more information on the editors, see Part One.