Manuscript Impressions (Part 2)

Today we’re going to talk about setting your manuscript in the proper font.

Before I even go any further, I’m going to remind you about The Big Caveat from yesterday’s post. Always check the guidelines for the market you’re submitting to, and follow them to the letter. Market guidelines will always trump anything I tell you here or anyone else tells you elsewhere.

Always. Check. The. Guidelines. Are we clear?

Okay, I’m going to acknowledge up front that at least half of everyone I ask (at least those of the writerly persuasion) seems to hate Courier/Courier New. They say it’s ugly, old-fashioned, outdated, and should have gone away when typewriters did.

Well, there are still some typewriters around, and so is Courier. The reason is simple: it’s an easily-readable font. Editors faced with the task of reading piles of slush every day like easily-readable fonts. (No, Courier is not the only readable font, before anyone starts sending me indignant messages about how wonderful their favorite font is. And there are editors as well who don’t like Courier, and prefer–and ask for–something like Times New Roman, for instance. But think about it–why are some fonts preferred, in general, above all others? Because above all else, they’re easy to read.)

The most easily-readable, preferred fonts for print, the ones that turn up most often in guidelines, are Courier/New and Times New Roman. This is an interesting dichotomy, since Courier is a monospaced font (each letter takes up the same space as every other letter) and Times New Roman is a proportional font (letter widths are variable) which makes them very different in appearance. It’s likely that these preferences are due at least in part to familiarity–both of these fonts have been around a long time and in widespread use. If guidelines do not state a preference, use one of these two fonts, and the safest bet in most cases is Courier.

You may have read or heard discussion that the most easily-readable fonts for print are not necessarily the same as those for on-screen reading. The general consensus seems to be that sans-serif fonts (like the one you’re reading now) are best for on-screen, and that the most preferred of these are Arial, Trebuchet, and Verdana. While this may be true, don’t get excited and think that because a market accepts electronic submissions, you should move to one of these on-screen fonts for your manuscript. Unless the guidelines tell you that it’s acceptable or preferred, don’t do it.

If you seriously hate Courier and Times New Roman, to the point that looking at them saps your inspiration and creativity and renders you unable to write a single word, I have a suggestion for you. Use whatever font you want for the composition of your manuscript. Really, go ahead. Make yourself happy. Write in Comic Sans or Brush Script or Old English if you want. No-one is going to see it but you.

Then, when you are ready to start editing your manuscript, select the entire text and change it to Courier or TNR. The advantage of this is that the change in font will make it easier for you to spot typos and other errors as you go through the editing process. It no longer looks like the same thing you’ve read several times by now, so your eyes are not as likely to skim over what you think is on the page as opposed to what is actually there. This also gives you time to get used to the look of your story in the format in which you’re going to send it out.

And again–why is it so important to follow guidelines and give editors what they are expecting to see in your format? Because you want your manuscript to make a good first impression. You want it to say that regardless of what the editor thinks of the particular story they’re about to read, it was written by someone who is taking this whole writing thing seriously, and is also taking the time to do things right.

So, a brief recap. Guidelines. Courier. Times New Roman. Unless otherwise specified. Give the editors what they want.

I think tomorrow we’ll be ready to move on to ~ layout. More fun and games then!

Reading break

I’ve read more short stories in the last few days than I have in the last year, I think. But no, it was not simply for pleasure. That was just a welcome side benefit.

In a couple of weeks, I’m giving a presentation on writing speculative fiction, to a group of writers who don’t write specfic as a usual thing. Some of them have likely never written anything in the speculative genres, and possibly never read anything in those genres, either.

For that reason, I thought I’d like to assign them a few stories to read before the workshop, just so that we would have a few more talking points and all be on the same page (no pun intended). I had a few criteria–the stories had to be of short-to-moderate length, available online, accessible to readers outside the genre, and had to exemplify a couple of the things I’m planning to talk about. For example, the importance of good writing regardless of genre, the difference between story and mere anecdote, a certain depth of characterization.

I found that “accessibility” was the most difficult criterion to fill. For readers who are unfamiliar with standard genre tropes, I felt that stories with a minimum of SF jargon and a setting that was at least somewhat Earthlike might be best. However, it becomes obvious that we speculative fiction writers expect a lot from our readers–or is it that our readers expect a lot from us? I begin to think that specfic writers tend to start invoking the “sensawunda” as soon as possible at the beginning of many stories, dangling a tempting hook for our readers so that we can quickly reel them in. For readers coming to specfic for the first time, however, I think many of these stories would be too unfamiliar, offering too much “difference” too soon, for non-genre readers to stay with them long enough to become invested in the story. To get their specfic legs under them, so to speak.

And of course, personal taste enters into it and can’t be separated from the selection process, so the stories I chose would not necessarily be the ones someone else would choose. Still, it was an interesting exercise. I’ve asked the workshop participants, if they begin reading one of the stories and don’t finish it, to make a note of where they stopped and why. Could be some interesting comments there.

Anyway, after a few days of (mostly) enjoyable reading, I settled on four stories to recommend. Three are science fiction, and one is fantasy. Since I’m recommending them in my workshop, I thought I’d recommend them here, too. They are:

SF Short story – “Jimmy’s Roadside Cafe” by Ramsey Shehadeh http://www.strangehorizons.com/2008/20080630/roadside-f.shtml

Fantasy Short story – “Sun Magic, Earth Magic” by David D. Levine http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/story.php?s=9

SF Short story – “Ghosts and Simulations” by Ruthanna Emrys http://www.strangehorizons.com/2007/20071112/ghosts-f.shtml

The last piece is a novella, but since it won a Hugo award at WorldCon in Montreal this summer (and I was there to see it!), it is definitely worth the time investment:

SF Novella – “The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress http://www.asimovs.com/hugos_2009/ErdmannNexus.shtml

If you read any of the stories, please tell me what you think of them. Happy reading!

*Magazine cover art from http://www.bigmeathammer.com/gallery.htm

But when is it ready?

Yesterday morning I opened an email from a publisher I’d queried about The Seventh Crow. To my delight, they were requesting a look at the full manuscript.

Now, this manuscript has been pretty thoroughly edited, revised, redrafted, read by three trusted readers, run through the trusty Cliche Cleaner, etc. I made sure it was ready before I even thought about sending out queries.

Or so I thought. To make the submission, I had to convert the file to MS Word, so I thought, “might as well run it through Word’s spell/grammar check, too.” Two days later, I have just now sent the file out.

Now, much of this is due to the fact that Word’s grammar checker is…weird. I know, I know, this is one of the most difficult things to program because of context issues, style issues, usage variations–but still. Of everything it flagged, I would guess I changed less than one-eighth. Don’t get me wrong–I am not saying I know better than the program when it comes to strict right-or-wrong questions. It was useful to me in pointing out a number of things I’d missed along the way. But the vast majority of issues it flagged were non-issues. Hence the two days it took to go through 324 pages (and not counting kids, puppies, husband, laundry, meals, and sundry assorted other distractions, of course).

At any rate, the real point of this post is in the title…how does a writer know when a piece of writing is ready? Really ready to go out into the world and stand on its own?

Two answers spring to mind for me: feedback and critiquing. I think it’s extremely important to have some trusted readers (or at least one!) who will provide honest feedback on a story at various stages, and who have some facility with the technical end of writing–who can tell you that you’re using too many passive sentences, or semicolons, or that you’ve used the word “recalibration” three times in two paragraphs. And of course, you have to be willing to listen to them.

Conversely, you need to develop your own critiquing skills by reading and commenting on the work of other developing writers. It’s the best way I know to become a good self-editor, which is one of the most difficult skills to master; and in today’s publishing world, one of the most important. It is crucial to be able to bring your own work to a highly polished level before submitting it. By critiquing stories for other writers, you learn to view the work with a detached eye, and in time will be able to apply a similar level of detachment (although never quite the same) to your own stories.

But still…when is it ready?

Honestly–I don’t know. Some say, if you’re changing less than 10% of the words, send it out. Some say, when you feel like you can’t improve it any more on your own, send it out. Some say, when you can’t stand to read the damn thing one more time, send it out.

All good advice. I think the main thing to take away from this post is that you make the work the best you can, and then you send it out. And then…you cross your fingers and wait.

Destination Future

I’ve received and gone over the edits for my story, “Encountering Evie,” for this anthology.  The editor, Z.S. (Sophy) Adani, has been absolutely lovely to work with.  If you ever have a chance to work with her, I highly recommend the endeavour!

Next will come the contract, and the book itself is due out sometime early next year, although I don’t have a firm date yet.  I’ll keep you posted!

Personally speaking…

This fall I’m attending a writing workshop (as I often do this time of year). It will run for eight weeks, Saturday morning sessions, and we’ll be covering a lot of ground, discussing both assigned reading and submitted stories. For last year’s workshop, we were required to write a story in first person; this year, we were asked to rewrite that same story in third person.

Sounds simple, but it’s been a challenging exercise, and one which I would suggest every writer should take on at least once. It’s not a matter of merely swapping out pronouns. It’s a great way to gain a greater understanding of two very different storytelling modes. And although you may already have written stories in third person and stories in first person, it’s a much stronger lesson if you write the same story in the two different ways.

In the end, I think I still like the first person version of this particular story, but I was pleased with the new version as well. I think the storytelling modes highlight different areas of the story, which is a very helpful thing for a writer to be able to recognize, especially when making those first decisions about the best way to tell your story. The main character in this story is a hired killer, so it is very interesting to reflect on how the story will come across when the reader is merely an observer, compared to when they are actually in his head.

The best thing is–it’s done and submitted, and I can cross it off my to-do list!

*photo courtesy of kevinrosseel at morguefile.com

Less than 46 cents per story!

Last year I was pleased to have my short story, “Summer of the Widows,” appear in an anthology titled Speculative Realms: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way. It’s a wonderfully eclectic mix of fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories from a global collection of writers.

In “Summer of the Widows,” one of my recurring characters (a young female wizard’s apprentice with a knack for attracting trouble) is suspected of murder, and must find the real killer AND save her master from an even more dangerous threat–marriage!

Right now, I see that Amazon.com is offering the anthology for a sweet $5.88. That’s less than forty-six cents per story for the thirteen stories in the book. At that price, I’d suggest you get it while it’s hot!

Upgraded at last

I’ve been stymied the last while trying to get the latest version of WordPress installed…the automatic route was not working for me, and there were issues keeping me from attempting the manual route. And the problems have kept me from blogging.

But today, I took a deep breath and did the manual upgrade…and it worked! I mean, it worked perfectly, without a hitch. Wow. I am still stunned. But happy! All the things that have been tumbling around in my head will finally be able to escape onto these pages…

Well, maybe not everything. Just most.

Anticipation-WorldCon 2009 so far

So, I’m currently in Montreal for WorldCon 2009. I haven’t been to an SF convention in quite a while, and never one this big before, so I’m having quite a blast.

I do have some pictures, but I don’t seem to have packed my camera cord, so they might have to wait until I’m home again unless I can ferret one out.

Highlights so far have been:

  • Meeting loads of SF Canada folks whom I previously have known only online. I am very privileged to be part of such a wonderful organization.
  • Attending an absolutely delightful panel with Joe and Gay Haldeman. He “interviewed” her about being married to a writer, and she “interviewed” him about being one. They were simply charming.
  • Attending more panels than I can pull out of my brain right now; I will post a list, though, of all I can remember later
  • Listening to top-notch readings by Nancy Kress, Walter Jon Williams, Mark A. Rayner, Susan Forest, and a live production of one of James Patrick Kelly’s radio plays

And the biggest thrill so far–tonight I had a chance to tell Nancy Kress how much I enjoy her work and what an inspiration she has been to me. She was very sweet and gracious and I think I managed not to come across as a crazed fangirl.

But. I got to talk to Nancy Kress!!! O. M. G.

Editors Redux

So, following my recent rant about editors who are inconsiderate and impolite, I have (by pure coincidence) had two very nice interactions with editors.

One emailed me to let me know that a story of mine has passed into the next round of consideration for the anthology he’s editing. He was by no means constrained or even expected to send such a message, but it was so very considerate. The type of editor writers treasure.

And the second editor requested the balance of one of my novel manuscripts. Very nice indeed! Needless to say, I made a trip to the post office today…

Basic Etiquette for Editors

Photobucket A bit of a rant today, although I make no apologies for it.

I’m working through a list of possible markets for a couple of projects, using the database at Writersmarket.com, and I was just reminded of an editorial practice which I hope we cannot call a “trend.” Fortunately right now it seems fairly rare, but I think writers have to speak up about it at every opportunity to ensure that it does NOT become the norm.

It’s this kind of thing: “Editor’s Note: Please do not send SASE. No response unless interested in publication.”

“No response unless interested in publication.” This is a descent into rudeness that I find inexcusable.

I’m speaking here as both a writer and an editor. As writers, we’re expected to adhere strictly to guidelines set out by editors/publishers when submitting our work, and to interact with them “professionally” (which at its most basic level means; send your best work, the way they want it, and take your rejections, if they come, as an adult). As a writer, I accept that, and as an editor, I stand by the necessity to set parameters. I understand that many editors are swamped by submissions. I know firsthand that the job of an editor is not always an easy one.

But this policy of non-response means that the editor has abdicated his or her responsibility to also act “professionally.” We writers might sigh over form rejection letters, but they are the most fundamental level of simple common courtesy in an editor-writer interaction. If we apply for a loan, we expect an answer from the bank, be it “yes” or “no.” We can’t move on until that’s been provided. If we speak to someone at a social gathering, we expect a reply, whether that person is going to engage in conversation with us or make an excuse and discreetly slip away. A response from an editor is no different.

I will admit that I haven’t actually asked any editors the rationale behind this policy. (Frankly, if they won’t respond to my submissions, they likely won’t answer this question, either.) But I assume it comes down to one or both of the following: time and money.

Quickly referencing this article and a few office supply websites, I’m guesstimating the cost of printing a thousand form rejection letters could be as low as about $160.00. Half that, if they’re printed on half-sheets (the smallest rejection letter I’ve ever seen was 8.5 x .5 inch [yes, that’s one-half inch], so we’re being generous here). Remember, publishers long ago got us to absorb the costs of envelopes and postage. So honestly, even in “these tough economic times,” it can’t be the cost.

As for time, I could print a form rejection letter and stuff it into a pre-addressed and stamped envelope in less than a minute (assuming I have no secretary who could do it for me). But one minute is too much for a writer to expect? Surely they can’t expect us to believe that time is the deciding factor.

In my experience as an editor, I have written some very difficult rejection letters. But I have written them, and they all took more than a minute. Even if all I can truly say about a piece is that it’s not suitable for my project, then I say that. I consider it part of the editorial job description. Writers who take a chance and submit their work to me deserve at least a civil reply.

Now, the crux of the matter: what can we, as writers, do about this disturbing lack of etiquette on the part of some editors? We are conditioned to view the writer/editor relationship as one in which the editor has all the power and we are mere supplicants. The automatic reaction is to shrug and accept it.

I’ve decided that I won’t. It’s true we mere writers don’t have much power or influence, but I will not submit work (nor submit in the other sense of the word) to any editor or publisher who espouses this policy. Yes, it’s entirely possible that I will miss an opportunity to sell something this way, but honestly, until I’m shown a valid explanation for it, I have to assume that anyone who operates their business this way is a jerk. And I encounter enough jerks in the run of a day just by chance that I see no need to actively seek out interactions with more.

Photo by Scyza