KISS Your Manuscript

KISS: Keep it simple, scribbler.

When I’m working with writers, I ask that manuscripts be submitted to me in Times New Roman typeface, 12-point font, double-spaced, with one-inch margins and a half-inch indentation at each new paragraph. Why? Well, yes, it makes my job easier–help me help you and all that. But most importantly, this is the standard manuscript format that most agents and publishers will ask you to use, and you may as well get used to it.

William Shunn has a great website full of resources for formatting every kind of manuscript: Proper Manuscript Format for Fiction Writers 

Writers often argue against simplicity when it comes to formatting manuscripts. I once had a writer tell me he had to use Lucida Handwriting 11-point font, and that he might be able to give me 1.15 spacing, but he could never give me double spacing. That’s fine. I’m your book coach and your editor–you don’t have to please me. I’ll take it in whatever form you send it to me, then I’ll change it into standard manuscript format before I begin my work. For both our sakes. But an agent or a publisher may not let you off the hook so easily.

I get it. You’re an artist, and you shouldn’t be constrained by standard manuscript format. It interferes with your creativity. I was once a promoter for rock and punk bands, so I know all about artists, and riders demanding multiple packs of Extra Polar Ice chewing gum, and aversions to abiding by the rules. And I’m a writer too, so I know about finding inspiration in places and routines that may seem strange or quirky or eccentric to others.

So listen, while you’re creating, I don’t care if you use Modern Love Grunge typeface in lime green bold and italicized 18-point font, single-spaced, with three-inch margins. I really don’t. I’m all for you doing whatever it takes to get those words on the page. And if you want me to change the formatting for you so you don’t have to witness the carnage, I can do that. We are in this together, and I want to help you and your book succeed.

But when it’s time to send your work out into the world, let’s keep it simple, scribbler. Use simple, standard formatting, and let your story be the thing that shines.

WRITER TIP: Don’t get too attached to the way your manuscript looks. Remember, the formatting of your manuscript is not story. Pretty typeface won’t make a bad story better, and it may obscure a good story and make it unreadable. When you’re ready to submit your work to an agent or a publisher, let go of the fancy formatting that can be distracting, detract from your story, and frustrate readers. Don’t give an agent a reason to put your manuscript down. You’ve put all that hard work into writing your novel. Now’s the time to make it as easy as possible for people to say yes.

Believe in Yourself

I want to talk to you today about a Flavorwire article I read eight years ago. It’s an old article, yes, but (1) it’s still relevant today, and (2) it made such an impact on me that I’m still thinking about it eight years later. I also want to point out that, while the 2014 article spoke to gender disparity in publishing, the lessons I took from the article apply not only to women writers, but to any marginalized writer whose confidence in submitting to literary journals or querying agents has taken a hit.

The 2014 article is called “A Tale of Two Literary Magazines: The Believer and Tin House Respond to the VIDA Count.” As its title suggests, the article is about two literary magazines included in the 2013 VIDA Count. But what I found shocking when I read the article eight years ago was not so much the VIDA Count itself, although that is fascinating too. What I found more surprising was something it unearthed about the ways marginalized writers internalize and respond to rejection.

The VIDA Count is a look at disparity in the makeup of contributors to magazines and literary journals. The Count is undertaken by the VIDA organization. In 2013, VIDA’s focus was on gender inequality, but today, VIDA’s mission is more inclusive and intersectional:

VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (VIDA) is a non-profit intersectional feminist literary organization dedicated to creating transparency surrounding gender imbalances and the lack of diversity in the literary landscape. VIDA also aims to amplify historically-marginalized voices, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC); writers with disabilities; and queer, trans, and gender nonconforming individuals.

The VIDA organization tallies the makeup of contributors to top literary magazines and journals. In 2013, it did so in terms of men and women, tallying their numbers in terms of bylines, reviewers of books, authors of books reviewed, interviewers of authors, and authors interviewed.

One of the journals featured in the 2013 Flavorwire article, Tin House, did well in the count. The other, The Believer, did not do so well. Tin House published its last issue in June 2019, and The Believer is set to publish its final issue early this year. Both of these journals are quality, well-respected literary journals. The contributions of these two journals have been life-altering to the literary world, and their presence will continue to be missed by readers and writers alike far into the future. The Believer‘s legitimacy and commitment to do good were never in question. Rather, the article points up how insidiously disparity can creep into the most well-intentioned of organizations.

In 2013, The Believer‘s overall count was more than 65% men, less than 35% women. A pretty even split between men and women in the interviews and interviewees category helped it out. Drilling down, 82% of its book reviews were written by men, 72% of the books it reviewed were written by men, and 72% of its bylines belonged to men. No one was more surprised by this than The Believer itself. Its editors said:

We were totally thrilled and honored to be included in the VIDA count because we read it every year, and every year we’ve wondered, ‘how would we fare?’ We always thought we’d fare pretty well. Our masthead is 40% women, and one of our driving editorial principles is to produce as diverse a magazine as we can every month. So we were surprised when we saw our VIDA numbers.

It’s important to note that, since 2013, The Believer has worked to steadily flip those numbers. In the latest VIDA Count (2019), The Believer‘s overall numbers were approximately 58% women, 40% men, and 2% non-binary. The Believer should be applauded for its efforts–it’s easy to talk the talk, but it takes dedication and unwavering commitment to undertake the real work of creating lasting change. The Believer will retire this year with an admirable and inspiring legacy.

But what I found most shocking about the 2014 Flavorwire article were the statements provided by Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House. While Tin House did very well in the VIDA Count, Spillman pointed out some interesting challenges the journal faced in achieving its good numbers:

At Tin House we take a conscious, systemic approach to gender balance. In the past we had relied on ‘we’re all feminists, so the numbers will work out.’ But the numbers were slightly skewed in favor of men. There were many factors contributing to this, including that males submit 100% of the time after being solicited, versus 50% of females, men are four times more likely to resubmit after an encouraging rejection, female agents send more male submissions than females (go figure), when given the option both men and women writers chose to write about male writers 80% of the time, etc.

To its credit, Tin House had done its homework and had then gone out of its way to achieve gender equality, which is absolutely necessary when disparity is so deeply ingrained.

Spillman explained the steps Tin House took to reverse the trend:

[W]e made some systemic changes–soliciting more women, re-affirming our desire to see work by women, assigning more interviews and reviews of female writers, and generally paying attention throughout our organization.

Reading that article in 2014, I realized that, yes, the changes in the publishing industry must come from within. Change doesn’t just happen. The steps Tin House took to solicit and encourage women writers and the steps The Believer took to turn its numbers around had to be taken in order to break the cycle. Those steps need to be taken with writers of color and other marginalized writers as well. It feels hopeful that, today, publishers are beginning to take them.

The thing is, extra effort must be made to encourage marginalized writers to continue to query agents in the face of rejection and to keep submitting to literary journals and magazines because, all too often, these writers rarely see themselves in such publications, so why would they submit to them? It can feel like an exercise in futility. It’s encouraging to now see literary journals offer free submission portals or free submission periods for writers of color or to offer submission periods during which they only accept submissions from writers of color. They are showing their commitment to publishing writers of color.

At a recent seminar I attended, an older, white, male writer bemoaned the fact he’d received a rejection from a well-known journal with a note indicating the journal was currently focusing on amplifying the voices of writers of color. He felt it was unfair. Shouldn’t my piece be judged on its own merit? he wondered. Not by the color of my skin? Ironic questions, really, considering the state of the world. But the fact is, white writers, like me, have had the advantage for a long, long time. So yes, as we work to level the playing field, we are going to (hopefully) lose that advantage. Tomorrow, as the publishing industry makes room for others, it will be a little more difficult for a white author to get something published than it is today, and the day after tomorrow, it will be a little harder still, until someday, it’s equally as difficult for all of us, and we can all bemoan our rejections together. We have to be so much more than okay with that because it’s so much more than fair and so long overdue.

But I digress, and here’s the biggest point I want to make for any marginalized writer out there who is struggling with rejection: Spillman’s comments reminded me that no one needs to break free of systemic constraints more than we do ourselves. Generations of conditioning have taught marginalized groups not to enter the race. I can easily imagine the paralyzing doubt or fear that may play into, for example, a woman’s failure to resubmit to a journal after receiving an encouraging rejection. I’ve felt it. Did they really mean it when they asked me to try again? Are they just being nice? Can I write anything better or more suitable than the piece they already rejected? Can I rise to the occasion?

I have no doubt that centuries of being collectively told we are less than is deeply ingrained in our psyches and plays no small part in our reactions to rejection or our inability to fully believe or accept any encouragement that accompanies that rejection. I am reminded that, while we absolutely can’t do this without the commitment of publications like Tin House and The Believer, we have to continue to step up in the face of fear and self-doubt and rejection because all of us belong. We must enter the race.

WRITER TIP: Make a commitment to yourself to believe all the good things people say about you, to accept praise and encouragement, and to say yes to opportunities. If an agent declines to represent your novel or memoir, send it out to another. Just like in any true love story, your perfect agent is out there waiting for you and your book. If a journal sends you an encouraging rejection, send them something else during the journal’s next submission period, and keep writing and sending them something each submission period until you get that yes. Don’t bombard them, but don’t convince yourself you’re not worthy and ghost them either.
Table to with a notebook that says 2022 goals surrounded by an envelope on the left, a small holiday gift and sparkly ornament at the top, and a pen on the right.

The Power of Words

I gave up making New Year’s Resolutions a long time ago, but every December since the year 2000, I’ve made a list of goals for the coming year. I used to type them, but beginning in 2009, I started writing the lists down by hand in my “dream journal,” a separate journal that houses my dreams. In addition to my annual lists of goals, I keep other lists in my dream journal, like a list of places I want to visit and an extensive list of all the places I’ve lived since I was three years old. I also jot down little notes in my dream journal: observations, quotes, and things that move me, inspire me, or motivate me.

I’ve written down a list of anywhere from 10 to 25 goals each year for the past 20+ years. I’ve never once accomplished every goal on the list, but I’m okay with that. If I accomplish even half of them, I’ve still gotten somewhere. And over time, I’ve accomplished quite a lot. Some goals make the list for several years before I actually accomplish them. I first wrote “Earn Bachelor’s Degree” on my 2012 list. I didn’t go back to college until 2016, and I didn’t earn my bachelor’s degree until 2018. But I set that intention, and I kept writing it down and putting it into words until it came true. In 2016, I set a goal of submitting 12 short stories to literary journals. I didn’t accomplish that goal until this year. I’m still working on my goals to beat my best 5K time and to watch all of the Academy Award winners for Best Picture. I’ll get there someday. But the thing is, I’ve steadily made progress, and my life is considerably better than it was before I started writing my goals down.

As I begin to consider my goals for 2022, I find myself thinking about the power words have had in my life. The power of writing my goals down and setting my intentions for the future, yes. But also the power of the words others use to define me, and the power of the words I use to define myself. Like when I was in seventh grade, and I had to stand up in front of my English class and give an oral report on Virginia Dare. I was terrified. I wore a chocolate brown dress my mother made for me. My teacher wrote each of us a handwritten letter giving her feedback on our reports. At the end of mine, she wrote, “Brown is definitely your color!” As I write this nearly 50 years later, I still have that piece of paper tucked away somewhere, and I just realized I’m wearing my favorite chocolate brown sweater. The power of words.

Close up of notebook or journal with heading 2022 goals. A woman in a bulky oatmeal colored sweater and jeans is writing in the notebook.

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher sent me to the library to help with a kindergarten class. I sat cross-legged on the carpet with some of the children and read to them, then I helped them pick out library books. It wasn’t anything super memorable. In fact, I probably wouldn’t remember that afternoon at all except for two things: (1) It was the day I checked Island of the Blue Dolphins out of the library–I can still picture it displayed on a book easel on top of a shelf; and (2) when I left, the kindergarten teacher thanked me for my help and told me I showed a lot of “initiative.” I didn’t know what the word “initiative” meant. I had to go look it up in the dictionary. When I did, I felt a sense of pride. The kindergarten teacher had seen this awesome personality trait in me that I didn’t even know existed, let alone that I possessed.

To be honest, I’m not sure I really showed any initiative in the library that day. I was quiet and introverted as a child, and I don’t remember doing anything other than what I was sent there to do. But between my own teacher choosing me for the job and the kindergarten teacher complimenting me, that day was a boost to my self-esteem and helped to develop my character. If I didn’t have initiative when I left the library that day, I sure do have it now, many years later. I believed I had initiative, and so I displayed it at every opportunity. Today, this is a quality I really do have. That kindergarten teacher gave me a word that changed my life.

As an adult, I worked as a music promoter for a few years. One night, after I insisted a sleazy venue manager give my band the slot he’d promised, a famous rock musician told me I was tenacious. To be honest, up until that night, I hadn’t seen my unwillingness to give up or give in as a positive trait. I often saw it as obstinacy, a dogged and sometimes reckless refusal to get it through my thick skull that something wasn’t meant to be. But that night, when the musician told me I was tenacious and said it in an admiring way, I began to see myself differently. Sure, that kind of stubbornness meant I eventually failed at a lot of things. But it sometimes meant I persisted long enough to succeed, too.

Persistence and thick skins are things writers need. To keep writing and rewriting, trying to spill the things in your head out onto paper in such a way that others can see you, in such a way that other human beings know that you see them, is hard on the soul. To continue submitting your stories, little pieces of you, to literary journals day after day, and to be told they’re not wanted the overwhelming majority of the time, is hard on the heart. Out of the 49 submissions I’ve received responses to so far this year, 47 of those responses were rejections. It would be so easy to get discouraged and give up. I’ll admit it—sometimes I think it would be a relief to give up and do something else. Just about anything else.

But in those moments, I remember that scene in The Notebook when Noah tells Allie she’s a pain in the ass, and I know I’m made of stronger stuff than that. “I’m not afraid to hurt your feelings,” he says. “You have like a two-second rebound rate and you’re back doing the next pain in the ass thing.” This is me. I am tenacious. Or stubborn. Either way, literary journals aren’t afraid to hurt my feelings, and sure, it hurts to be rejected—for like two seconds. Then I get over it. I roll up the sleeves of my chocolate brown sweater, and I send them another story. Surely they’ll love this one.

As I put my goals into words this month and set my intentions for 2022, I’m going to keep in mind the power that words have, not only to help me set my course for the coming year, but to encourage me and keep me pushing forward. When it comes to pursuing a writing career, being stubborn is a good thing.

WRITER TIP: Start a dream journal. There is power in setting your intentions for the future, putting your goals into words, and writing your dreams for yourself down in ink. Each year, write your goals for that year in your dream journal. Write down specific, measurable goals, and cross them off as you achieve them. If you don’t reach a goal one year, move it to the next year, and keep setting that intention until you reach the goal. As the years go by and you look back at your lists, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ve accomplished.

Game Theory and Writing

During a recent workshop, some friends were discussing “gamifying” or counting submissions—keeping track of the number of times a writer has submitted something for publication or has had a piece accepted or rejected. The consensus among my friends was that it isn’t truly being a creative person or a writer to keep track of the numbers like that. I think I understand where they are coming from, and I’ll clarify that in a moment. It certainly isn’t for everyone. But keeping track works for me, and so I wanted to write about why it works for me.

What is Gamifying?

When it comes to writing, gamifying is basically applying “game theory” to your writing or submission goals by making a game out of achieving those goals.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a perfect example of gamifying writing goals. Participants set a goal to write 50,000 words during the month of November. They receive support, encouragement, and colorful badges along the way. If they finish, they end up with a 50,000-word novel or start to a novel, are awarded a certificate, and get some cool little prizes–win, win!

Many of us gamify writing without realizing it, e.g., by setting daily wordcount, page number, or timed writing goals. I don’t gamify my writing, but I gamify my submission process. My game is a simple one: reach 100 submissions in 2021 and I win.

There are a number of different writing and submitting “games” out there, as well as Facebook groups dedicated to racking up as many submissions or rejections as one can in a year’s time. I’ll link to a few articles that address specific games at the end of the post.

For now, here’s a great TED Talk by Jane McGonigal on applying game theory to improving mental health:

 

Why Gamifying Submissions Works For Me

Gamifying submissions works for me because I have a goal-oriented (and perhaps rather obsessive) personality. Without a goal in mind, it’s easy for me to push submitting my stories—something that is just for me and something that is, frankly, a lot of hard work—to the backburner, in favor of the things I should be doing or would rather be doing.

On the other hand, if I set a goal, I’m probably going to reach it because it will frustrate me not to. In 2020, I set a goal of reaching 100 rejections. That goal did not work for me because “rejections” has a negative versus a positive connotation. Also, I like to have some control over things, and rejections aren’t something I can control. (Nor do I want to—if I had my druthers, I’d prefer zero rejections, thank you very much.) What I can control is how many things I send out. So for 2021, I set a goal of reaching 100 submissions. That works better for me, but reaching for 100 rejections might work better for someone else.

How to Make Gamifying Submissions Work for You

If you think game theory might help you reach your submission goals, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Only submit work that is ready.

I gave this a lot of thought, and I think I get what my friends meant when they said submitting and keeping score is not writing. What I think this assumes is that a writer is cranking out work in order to try to reach those numbers. That is definitely not the way to go. Setting a submission goal only works if we submit work that is ready to submit. People are out there reading our writing (most of them volunteers), and we don’t want to get a reputation for wasting their time by sending them stuff that isn’t our best work. Most of the stories and essays I’m submitting in 2021 are stories and essays I spent one or two years or more writing and rewriting.

2. Submit with care and consideration.

Take the time to read and research the markets to which you’re submitting your work, and do your best to submit to the places you think are best suited to the particular story or essay. Don’t submit work willy nilly just to reach numbers.

I’ve submitted my work 97 times so far this year. I was able to reach 97 submissions because, after writing and not submitting work for many years, I had enough finished, ready work to send out to 97 journals. And it’s not 97 separate pieces, mind you. I’m not Stephen Graham Jones. It’s maybe a dozen pieces that I’ve submitted to a few places at a time. If they’re rejected, I submit them somewhere else.

In fact, in planning for this blog post, I thought I’d go ahead and submit three more times and get to 100 submissions so I could share with you that I’d reached my goal. But to do so, I would have had to send stories out to journals that weren’t a good fit or that I am not ready to submit to. Don’t do that to reach a number.

3. Keep your writing time separate and sacred.

Live a writing life and make writing and creating a priority, even if that sometimes means not writing and taking a walk on the beach to clear your head and think about your story. I write many hours each week. But I set aside time each week to submit work, too. I consider this a part of the business side of being a writer. I have a short list of pieces that are ready to submit, and I’m working on getting those published. Getting stories and essays published will help me reach my longer-term writing goals. But I have a much longer list of work that is not ready, and that creative work gets the lion’s share of my time. I am not rushing that work in order to reach 100 submissions.

Here are some articles you might find interesting as you set your own writing and submission goals:

Game Theory in Writing Part 1: Goals vs. Milestones (by David Steffen for DiabolicalPlots.com)

Game Theory in Writing Part 2: Gamifying Your Submission Process (by David Steffen for DiabolicalPlots.com)

Career Bingo (Christie Yant, linked to by David Steffen in his Game Theory articles)

The Race (Dean Wesley Smith)

WRITER TIP: If your writing or publishing goals keep getting pushed aside in favor of dumb things like feeding the kids or doing the dishes, consider whether setting specific, reachable goals for 2022 might help you to keep your eyes on the prize.