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Forgetting the Rules

Every writer (aspiring or otherwise) knows that there's a specific 'rules' set that goes with publishing. You use 12 point font. Your query letter should be no more than 250 words. Your synopsis should be short (unless it should be long...). Double-space. No adverbs. No fragments. Correct grammar. Be polite in queries. Contact info in the header. Make sure your query uses your 'voice'. Make sure that your synopsis is in present tense.

Yadda yadda.

But I was chatting with a buddy of mine and she pointed out that she uses SMF (standard manuscript format) and I had no idea what that was. I've been doing it wrong the entire time. Oops!

So yeah, I'm the one that's doing it all wrong. But it didn't hurt me THAT much to bend one of the 'Holy Rules of Publishing' - I still got an agent (a fabulous one!) and a publishing contract.

So now I'm curious to hear from the group. What rule of publishing did you bend (or conveniently forget) with positive results?

- Jill Myles

PS - I'm not saying abandon ALL the rules of course. But I'm curious which ones we stress over needlessly. :)

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( 43 comments — Leave a comment )
mdhenry
May. 13th, 2008 05:54 pm (UTC)
I have consistently forgotten to type "the end" after I've finished my manuscripts. In fact, I've never typed it on anything I've submitted.

I feel like I've been robbed my closure!

I always use Times New Roman, never turned in anything in courier, nor could I write in courier--that font's just too ugly.
irysangel
May. 13th, 2008 06:02 pm (UTC)
I heart TNR too! Courier is icky. I used to be die-hard courier, and now I find that I can't stand to read it. :)
tmthomas
May. 13th, 2008 06:05 pm (UTC)
I put it into Courier to submit. I use TNR or Garamond, because I got used to it in an old job and it's purty.
(Deleted comment)
skarrah
May. 13th, 2008 07:12 pm (UTC)
Tahoma all the way baby... Well, until I have to submit, then I'll be a good girl and put it in whatever hideous font they want. :-P
(Deleted comment)
_hallow_
May. 13th, 2008 06:28 pm (UTC)
HAHAHA! Mark, I was just going to comment and say something similar, re: Courier.

As a thesis-writing grad student, I once used courier to give myself a few extra pages in a thesis project. As an editor, I wouldn't discount a manuscript that is typed in Courier or Courier New. In fact, I'm sure I've fallen in love with some that used that font. But it is ATROCIOUSLY ugly and just makes it harder for me (and most likely other editors/agents as well) to read and, well, you don't want to do anything that would add an extra hurdle to the submission process.
green_knight
May. 13th, 2008 08:57 pm (UTC)
People use Courier for a reason - it might to be pretty, but it's readable both on screen and in printout, and there are disadvantages to using a proportional font.

If an editor has not expressed a preference, Courier is a safe way to go.
_hallow_
May. 13th, 2008 11:34 pm (UTC)
Like I said above, I can only give my own opinion as an editor. For me, Courier is news-like and uninteresting, so when I get a submission in that font, it automatically has that stigma. As I said above, that would never turn me away from a project if it was good, but it would make it harder for me to pick up and really dive into, which means a longer wait time (especially for unagented authors, who wait long enough as it is -- especially at houses like mine that usually only take unagented submissions from conference attendees).

And of course other editors may feel differently, but I've met a good number who have the same "ick ptooey" reaction that I have. You may have had a difference experience, or know someone who did, depending on whether you are an editor, an agent or an author (I couldn't tell from your LJ profile). But I also think the font should reflect the project. Nothing too extravagant of course, but perhaps Courier would be more appropriate for something more journalistic or non-fiction, as opposed to a dark urban fantasy that is supposed to fun and fast-paced.
jayewells
May. 13th, 2008 05:55 pm (UTC)
I use fragments. All the time. And I start sentences with conjunctions.
mdhenry
May. 13th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC)
I...overuse ellipses...for dramatic...if not comic effect.
irysangel
May. 13th, 2008 06:01 pm (UTC)
I noticed that...about you...Mark...
irysangel
May. 13th, 2008 06:01 pm (UTC)
LOL
alanajoli
May. 14th, 2008 03:58 pm (UTC)
In your cover letter, or in your story? (I like fragments when they empahsize a narrative voice, but I imagine if you used them in a cover letter, there'd be problems.)
jayewells
May. 14th, 2008 04:41 pm (UTC)
Mostly in my story, but I don't think it's the kiss of death in a query. It's not like an agent's going to say, "Wow what an amazing idea for a novel. Too bad she used 'and' to start a sentence." As long as these things are clearly deliberate, you're fine. On the other hand, if it's riddled with typos and poor grammar in general, it's not going to fly.
shanna_s
May. 13th, 2008 06:24 pm (UTC)
I once referred to Standard Manuscript Format in a conversation with a former editor, who was pretty high up in a major publishing house, and she asked me what that was. Meanwhile, I had submitted my manuscript to an agent in SMF, in Courier and all that, and she changed the font to TNR to submit to editors because she said a lot of the ones she knew hated Courier.

So it would seem that a lot of the things that writers stress over getting exactly right is stuff that the editors don't necessarily care much about. As long as they can read it and it doesn't smell funny, they really don't seem to care.
carrie_ryan
May. 13th, 2008 06:51 pm (UTC)
And trust me, smells do seep onto the paper. I just got back documents from a client and they REEKED of smoke -- made my entire office smell of stale smoke.
-Carrie
shanna_s
May. 13th, 2008 07:09 pm (UTC)
That was something I heard from an editor. At a conference she said that if you smoke, to please take your manuscript to Kinkos to copy or print it. You may not notice the smell because you're used to it, but paper absorbs the smoke smell, and opening the envelope is like getting hit with a blast of smoke in the face if the paper has been around smoke. If the editor in question is sensitive or allergic to tobacco smoke, she's not going to be able to focus on your book while her eyes are burning and she's fighting to breathe. Even if she's not that sensitive to it, if she's not a smoker, it will be an unpleasant experience, and you don't want reading your manuscript to be an unpleasant experience.

If you have pets in your home who go into your office, you might also want to consider doing something similar, or else keep the paper sealed, because pet dander can trigger a severe allergy attack, and a manuscript that triggers a major allergy attack would have to be absolutely brilliant for the editor to read enough to buy it.

Editors I've heard are far more concerned about things like that than about the exact width of your margins.
elialshadowpine
May. 13th, 2008 07:47 pm (UTC)
Aside from allergies, migraine triggers. The additives in cigarette smoke are a major trigger for me, and I've had severe migraines from just clothes worn by somebody in a smoker's house.

If I were an editor, it'd have to be a damn good MS for me to even consider looking at it after that. Especially if it were bad enough to land me in the ER for a migraine shot.
alanajoli
May. 14th, 2008 03:59 pm (UTC)
So true! When I worked in-house, we had a couple freelancers who smoked like chimneys. We actually contemplated giving them deadlines a day or two early so they'd have time to air out in an empty cube!

Edited at 2008-05-14 04:00 pm (UTC)
dpeterfreund
May. 13th, 2008 06:50 pm (UTC)
Jill, I have not heard of a lot of the things you are talking about. Double spaced manuscripts, yes. Correct grammar -- well, unless it's incorrect on purpose! And yeah, I think being rude in business transactions is probably a bad idea. Nothing else have I ever heard, and I've seriously heard some doozies.

All talk of "rules" is silly.
irysangel
May. 13th, 2008 06:54 pm (UTC)
I admit that I hang out on a lot of boards/chat with folks and we talk 'shop' all the time. The same subjects come up over and over again, and some of them are just silly to worry about.

Good writing trumps all, of course!
elialshadowpine
May. 13th, 2008 07:54 pm (UTC)
Tell me about it. I don't think I hang out on the same boards as you, but there are the same sort of topics that come up over and over. Invariably, about once a month if not more, we have someone ask a nit-picky question about submission. Sometimes the questions are just plain ridiculous. I doubt very much that an editor is going to count the number of lines down the page you start the manuscript, or what brand of paper you use, etc. They care that all your contact information is there and that it's legible.

(That said, there are always exceptions. I remember a SF/F ezine that had ridiculously complicated submission formatting requirements. Their explanation was that if the author can't be bothered to read and follow the guidelines, then they don't deserve to have their manuscript read. My view of this is that I don't want to submit to someone that cares more about the precision of the submission format than the story itself. If they're so anal retentive that they will proudly reject a story that has one line off, what kind of horror will their editing be?)
claudiagray
May. 13th, 2008 06:59 pm (UTC)
We approached a publisher without a completed manuscript, and yet it worked out. I am still shaking my head over that one.
carrie_ryan
May. 13th, 2008 07:01 pm (UTC)
I have a love hate relationship with rules. I think that as writers we tend to focus on the rules because it's the one thing we can control -- we can control font and margins but we can't control whether an agent is going to love it or an editor buy it.

Sometimes, I think we can take this attention to rules too far such that we're only focusing on rules, not the writing. I was the girl who freaked out totally with the query letter: how to format, what font, what size, how far to indent, what salutation to use. But through the process I learned that editors and agents want a good story -- they want to be able to read the manuscript, but they're not going to turn down a fantastic story because of the font.

That being said, I agree with Diana that you should be polite in all business dealings, etc. And I'll also add that I think you should follow an agent's submission guidelines.

Other than that, have at it -- write a great book, they'll want it (my query was 309 words).

Also, SMF is a tricky beast. It used to be that some romance houses wanted word count based on SMF (courier, double spaced, 1 in margins, 25 lines per page). You used to determine your word count by multiplying your page count by 250. Now days a lot of those houses just go by the Word count. But every house is different and it's probably a good idea to check the house preference to see if you're in their range.

I do think it's good to know these sorts of rules or guidelins, don't get me wrong, but I also feel like it's also okay not to worry about them. You know the old adage, learn the rules so you can break them :)
-Carrie Ryan
irysangel
May. 13th, 2008 07:09 pm (UTC)
Oh, I'm right there with you. I was the one freaking if my synopsis was over one page long. ;)

I think people fuss over the rules because they want a magic formula to getting ahead. Like, if I do X Y and Z perfectly, my manuscript will get further.

One can always hope. :)
shanna_s
May. 13th, 2008 07:14 pm (UTC)
That's exactly it -- the magic formula. I see that over and over again at writing conferences, where people get so hung up on things like staples vs. rubber bands vs. binder clips, which font to use (can you use New Courier, or must it be Courier?). I remember one "ask us anything" session with two big-time bestseller authors at a conference, and instead of asking about the creative process, character development, taking risks, or anything related to content, people got sidetracked into an hour-long discussion about binder clips and whether or not to send manuscript pages with a query letter.

It's like there's hope that if you do all those little things just right, the book will sell, and it's far easier to set your margins just so than it is to write a brilliant story.
elialshadowpine
May. 13th, 2008 07:56 pm (UTC)
"but they're not going to turn down a fantastic story because of the font."

Unless it's in Wingdings. ;)
(Deleted comment)
alanajoli
May. 14th, 2008 04:01 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth, I'm really glad that I'm at least *aware* of SMF now (even if not all editors require it).
johnlevitt
May. 13th, 2008 07:34 pm (UTC)
I have great respect for copy editors. I've been lucky to work with some really good ones. But tailoring your submission to what works best for the copy editor is misplaced priority, I think.

It might make sense if your book is already sold. But if you're sending a ms to agents, or trying to convince an editor to buy, it makes much more sense to use a font like TNR that is easier to read and makes your ms look the best -- you need every advantage.

Here's an admission: I compose in WordPerfect. In WP, TNR 12 pt averages 300-320 words per page, as opposed to Courier's 250. This gives a skewed page count, so what I do is use TNR 13 pt. with 1.25 side margins. This is not standard, I understand, but it leaves lots of room for notes, and gives me about 250 words a page. And it's very easy on the eyes, without seeming peculiar. No agent or editor has ever complained.

green_knight
May. 13th, 2008 09:03 pm (UTC)
a font like TNR that is easier to read

But that's the problem - right now, much to my surprise, there seems to be a cluster of people who like TNR - and I *loathe it*. I can't read it. The proportions are all wrong and the letters are the wrong shape and it's much harder to concentrate on the text, and anything anyone sends me that's in TNR gets reformatted before I hit the third paragraph.

Fonts, in other words, are subjective. Nobody loves Courier, but most people can read Courier.
xdawnfirex
May. 13th, 2008 07:41 pm (UTC)
I had no idea that most of those rules existed. No more than 250 words in a query letter? No adverbs? Are we talking in the query letter no adverbs, or in the whole book? Personally, I don't think I'm capable of writing without using adverbs.

And like you, I've never even heard of SMF... I shall have to go and look it up now to make sure I am not Doing It Wrong.

I would love to know what other rules there are that I should know about, as I'm currently working on revisions of my first novel in preparation for pitching it to an agent.

*is now really worried*
irysangel
May. 13th, 2008 07:44 pm (UTC)
No no. :) I think people CREATE rules. You will always have people tell you that adverbs are bad (I personally like adverbs) and fragments (love those) and all kinds of stuff.

This wasn't really to dictate specific 'rules' but more to see what other people use that works for them. :) Sorry if it was confusing.
mdhenry
May. 13th, 2008 07:57 pm (UTC)
Though I'm no proponent of adverbs, there are times where they are completely necessary. The only thing you need to look out for IMHO (and believe me I don't see myself as an expert) is when they are masking weak verbs or used a lot in dialogue attributions.
dmoonfire
May. 13th, 2008 09:48 pm (UTC)
Wow, where to list. Well, I do like Courier, so I use it fairly often. Failing that, I use Gentium when I write, but there is something about Courier at 200% that makes me get in the mood for writing. For me, Times New Roman drives me absolutely batty; I hate that font almost as much as Comic Sans (but surprisingly not WebLetterer or Blambot's other comic fonts).

As for other rules. Well, the first book I got published was a 2 sentence query email, asking if they would be interested. No real synopsis, didn't mail it (like I should have), phrased it as a query letter (like I should have), and... surprisingly, they accepted it. That part was just cool.

Then I realized I burned most of my luck on that first one. :P
cheymccray
May. 13th, 2008 09:50 pm (UTC)
I have heard several editors go "huh?" when someone brings up the "rules" of formatting mss, etc. What they want is a damned good story--just make sure it's double spaced, in legible font that doesn't make their eyes cross, and with one inch margins. And they're happy.

I was taught so many freaking rules about *everything* back when I started writing YA 8 years ago. When I finally released myself from the "writing rules" and set my imagination free without worrying about rules, that's when I began to fly. I'm not talking about ways to make your writing better, I'm talking about absolutes, you "must" do something this way. Screw rules.

Except the 700 page single-spaced mss with no margins...
_hallow_
May. 13th, 2008 11:45 pm (UTC)
Oops -- I think I replied to your post instead of to the main thread. My bad.
_hallow_
May. 13th, 2008 11:45 pm (UTC)
I can only speak for myself and what I've heard and experienced at my own (trade publishing, children's imprint) house, but when I'm reviewing a submission, all I'm looking for is that it is readable and well-written. As Diana said above, double-spaced is key for the readability issue. Grammar goes in both categories. You want to make sure your contact info is on the first page so we can tell you we like it and want to buy it, if that should be the case.

Other than that, the rest of the stuff doesn't matter to me. Binder clip/rubber band/staple/paperclip doesn't matter -- but use SOMETHING. I hate pulling out a manuscript or a partial only to have it fall apart once it's free from the envelope. Format doesn't matter, but again, as long as it's readable. Despite my above comment about Courier, font really doesn't matter unless it's not readable (a pattern begins to emerge).

Other than that, the best thing to do is really to check each house's submission guidelines. Not only will it tell you exactly how the house likes to receive projects, but it will tell you IF the house would like to receive projects (some, like my house, do not accept projects from unagented authors unless you attend a conference event that we're participating in). And please, I beg of you, don't try and submit to one of those houses anyway, with a cover letter about why they should look at yours and no one elses. Not only is it a selfish thought to have, but it will most likely get sent back (immediately or maybe months and months later) and it will be a waste of your postage and the editor's assistant's time (who is trying to work on a career and a list of their own).

I hope that was clear and not too rambling. I sorta went stream of consciousness after a while.
elialshadowpine
May. 14th, 2008 05:41 am (UTC)
I think there are very few hard and fast rules when it comes to writing, despite what some people might say. There are always exceptions to virtually every rule.

There are reasons why Standard Manuscript Format exists. It is to make life easier for the editors and the copy-editors. Since the editors are going to be the ones (hopefully) buying your work, make it easy for them to read. :)

General rule-of-thumb is some variant of Courier, double-spaced, with 1" margins. That's basic. Add page numbers to the header or footer, and make sure that your name and project title are in the header as well. Also, have your contact information on the manuscript front or cover page, whichever way you format it.

But really, it's nothing to worry over. If you keep to the basics, you're good. Precision isn't going to do you a damn bit of good if your story sucks like a cheap whore who's forgotten how to blow. And conversely, overlooking minor details of submissions format won't get a great story rejected. (As long as the font type isn't Wingdings! LOL)

I've been hearing nit-picky questions about submission from other writers for years. Honestly... stop worrying about it so much. Do the basics and you're gold. The story is where you should be putting your focus, not whether the margins are just exactly perfect. The editor cares about a good story more than anything else. I think a lot of writers need to have that tattooed onto the inside of their eyelids, by the amount of times I've seen these questions pop up over the years. LOL
jbattis
May. 19th, 2008 02:45 am (UTC)
"Precision isn't going to do you a damn bit of good if your story sucks like a cheap whore who's forgotten how to blow."

That's so incredibly offensive and degrading, I don't even know how to respond to it. But it made me furious when I read it.
elialshadowpine
May. 19th, 2008 04:30 am (UTC)
It was meant to be humorous. I'm sorry if you read it otherwise, because it wasn't meant to be offensive. I'm not quite sure how you see it as such, since I was not speaking of any one person in particular.

The point, however, still stands. If you can't tell a story, then all the precision in submissions procedure isn't going to do you any good.
(Deleted comment)
jbattis
May. 19th, 2008 05:32 am (UTC)
I'm sorry, I'm not trying to sound patronizing, or like I can possibly judge what your own personal, feminist commitments might be. That's not my place. It just upsets me when powerfully offensive language about the sex-trade gets thrown around as a joke. It's the same to me as a homophobic joke. I just think we need to be vigilant in what groups we talk about when we're making blanket statements. Saying it was meant to be a joke isn't really defensible. Let's all just be sensitive, given the many overlapping communities that read/post to FFF.
jeanne_stein
May. 14th, 2008 03:38 pm (UTC)
The "rule" that tuned out not to be was the one that said New York would never touch anything that had been published by a small press. My book The Becoming has already been published by a small house in CO. I used it to query an agent and the rest, as they say, is history.

Jeanne
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