When I say "young writers" I don't just mean writers of youth, though I certainly do mean them as well, but more as an industry-wide metonymy for, "writers who are just starting to really write in earnest and who have maybe yet to dip their toe into the industry." Or maybe, "Writers who have been writing but now want to take their writing to the next level, but are not yet aware of the business end of creative of writing." Or "Writers who think they know everything about everything and desperately need to be taken down a peg or two."
Perhaps ten, and certainly twenty years ago, I could have used a different phrase (and with greater precision) for those of you I'm hoping to reach: "Unpublished authors." Sadly, today with industry changes due to computer developments, the water is muddy with blogging and other online publication, hybrid publication and a myriad other non-traditional routes to the end zone. Which are all great but the ol traditional route (which I know many view as more legit) is still there too, and it is as mysterious as ever.
So....we still need to talk.
- I say this as someone who has twice now issued a massive call for guest bloggers complete with some instructions to follow in the submission process and then seen what happens.
- I say this as an editor and then managing editor of a literary magazine.
- I say this as a writer with friends in the publication side of the industry.
I know I went the nontraditional route, but I've submitted, been published, and more importantly taken submissions FOR publication, so I know a little something about what I'm saying:
Your most likely rejection comes from not following directions.I'm not kidding.
Young writers tend to think think it's some ineffable prose quality they lack or some esoteric misunderstanding of what they were trying to do because no one could possibly see the genius, or even a grammar mistake, but really it's good old fashioned didn't-follow-directions that will fucking cast you into the lava pit like a Klingon that Kirk has finally had enough of.
All those other things matter. Prose quality certainly matters greatly for prestigious publications, although yours is probably better than you give it credit for if you would let your own voice through and trust in a rigorous process of revision. Your unseen genius (probably more seen and less genius than you think) still has to sell, whether the person reading it picked up on it or not. And while grammar mistakes are a quick way to get round filed, they're a distant second to not following directions.
Because no one will even LOOK at your writing if you don't follow directions. They'll never see it. It will descend at 9.8 m/s/s (with a little drag for air resistance) into the Circular Tomb of the Unread Manuscript™, and your fantasies that you are so spetacurificawesomicle that they will fudge it once they think of those sweet Benjamins that'll be flooding in may be sweet for you to fap to, but won't even pragmatically be possible.
They won't even see it.
They. Won't. Even. See. It.
But Chris, my submission is something really special. Anyone who reads it will recognize that it's really got some potential. It's about a farm boy who is strangely good at this special skill who goes up against a dark lord....
Nope! They won't even see it. Even if that were true (and it's probably not), they won't actually ever get the chance to know.
Look, if it's me and someone doesn't follow directions, I just work around it. I ask the question I absolutely needed answered in a follow up email or say "Oops, you seem to have not noticed this page is about writing not tantric sex. Sorry!" And about 90% of the people with perfectly wonderful submissions missed some part or another of the directions. And every one of them would have been tossed and never even responded to in a traditional setting.
It's not that these gatekeepers are just genetically spliced with sphincter meat to breed a purer asshole. They work in an industry where they easily have 500-1000 times more submissions than space to publish. And with a literary periodical it's probably about 10-20 times more (but with a staff of three doing the work). Anything they can do to pare down what they think is worth reading from the stacks of crap, the better. If you can't be bothered to follow their submission guidelines, why should they bother to read your crap?
So if they say query with three sample chapters, you send them three. Not four because it's really important to see the fallout of the Namor weapon on the Gisliski. Not two and an outline. Not the whole book. Three. If they say to send them 30 pages, don't send them 35 because you're sure they're going to want to know how that chapter ends. Don't send them 29 because that's where part four comes to a conclusion and they won't understand what's happening on the next page. Thirty pages. If they say they don't take electronic submissions don't send them one because you figured it would be okay for you. Don't ask if you can be a special exception. Print it out and and mail it. If they say the cover letter should be a page, you send them a page. Don't send them so much as a single damned word that wraps around to page two. Don't give them half a page. One page. If they give you a font size, use it. If they give you a maximum word count, don't send it to them at two words more. If they want it as a PDF don't attach a Google doc. If they give you a timeline before emailing to find out if they got it, respect it. If they want it sent with a self addressed, stamped envelope because they are still living in the 19th century, do it. If they tell you to include a VHS cassette of you doing the Animaniacs country song, while you wear purple and jump up and down on one leg, it's time to go rent an old camcorder from the old electronics store and brush up on your hopsinging.
Of course it doesn't have anything to do with how well you write, and of course every single solitary fucking place has its own particular and persnickety set of submission guidelines (and, frankly, some of this very bullshit is why a lot of people have given the finger to traditional publishing), but if you're going that route, get it right. It's like dressing up for an interview: it signals your professionalism and telegraphs that you care enough to be worthy of the next step.
If you're serious about submitting you have to do this. No one will make a special exception for you. They will just throw your shit away. Go through the guidelines meticulously line by line and make sure that every single thing is exactly to their specifications. Otherwise you might as well just throw it in the trash on your end and call it a day.