Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Mind-Numbing, Eye-Straining, Tedious Tasks of Polishing Your Manuscript

So you signed up for a writers' conference and plan to pitch your project to one of the agents or editors who will attend with the hopes of finding the next bestseller, or, at the very least, a marketable book (and of course, your book falls under either one of those categories). Or, you're preparing to query an agent or editor in the hopes they'll accept unsolicited materials. You've checked out the agents and publishers and know, or sort of know, who handles books in your genre. You've written your query letter--verifying and using the agents or editors' name as you've been taught to do--and had your friends critique it. And you've revised, reviewed, and revised your work so much you're sure you'll delete it and take up golf if you have to look at it one more time.

Still, you're a bit nervous. You know you've written a good story, after all, your friends, family, and (hopefully) your critique group have provided excellent feedback and constructive advice you took to heart and used when revising your work. But you're not the best when it comes to grammar, and you really needed help when it comes to editing. Everyone does, don't they? Why else would a publishing house have editors?? You're hoping for a break, praying the agent or editor loves your story so much, they'll contract it and give you the help you need, right?

If so, then you're wrong.

According to R.R. Bowker, an authority in publishing management, a projected 291, 922 new, ISBN assigned titles (in all genres, non-fiction and fiction) were published in 2006. In the United States alone. That's a lot of books, and a lot of authors. And the ratio between publishing houses and authors is skewed. The publishing houses in existence, and their imprints, can only print so many titles per year. To get a clearer picture, let's take a look at the Christian market:

According to the Christian Writers' Market Guide authority, Sally Stuart, Nelson books, an imprint of Thomas Nelson Publishers, publishes 100-150 titles a year, less than 5% of which are first-time authors.** Multnomah Publishers, "part of WaterBrook Multnomah, a division of Random House Inc", publishes 75 titles per year. Bethany House Books of Baker Publishers, publishes 90-100 titles a year. Sure, that's only a few publishers, but they and other houses/imprints like them receive hundreds of submissions annually!

It reminds me of an episode of The Nanny in which Fran takes Gracie to the bargain basement for a big sale, and the women pressing themselves against the glass doors trample one another as they rush to get that one special item.

But that's just the Christians market, you say. Well, check out the 2008 Writers' Market Guide and see for yourself. But be prepared to be mildly discouraged.

The point is, competition is high. Publishers and agents have to review hundreds of manuscripts each year, and to make good use of their time (and to keep from going mad, I'm sure) they devise ways of evaluating those manuscripts before they have to take precious time to read them (see The First Five Pages for more information.) If they see a certain use of words or sentence structure in the project you poured yourself into and lost sleep over, they toss it out. Yes, there's always a chance you can get through to round two and the agent/editor actually reads your material. To lessen the chance they'll toss it out at this stage, you must make sure your work is polished to a professional gleam, and that it absolutely does not contain grammatical or typographical errors.

But I revised, reviewed, and revised my work so much I'm sure I'll delete it and take up golf if I have to look at it one more time, you might say. You even said so yourself, remember?

Yes, but the revising and reviewing and revising so much is the reason you may be overlooking errors. Your mind knows what's on that page. You practically have the whole thing memorized, and as you read, your eyes jumps ahead despite yourself. Plus, you're sick of it! So what should you do?

Read...your....manuscript....over....carefully....Chapter....by....chapter....Word....for....word...Syl-la-ble...by....syl-la-ble.

You're thinking, "You're crazy, right?"

Nope. I speak both as someone who has been advised to do this by an author during a workshop, and as one who found several overlooked errors in the first three chapters of a book shortly before I submitted it to a contest. The novel in question had been critiqued by a professional critique service, by two laymen critique groups, and I had read it over and over again before I submitted it to the Blue Ridge Conference critique service for review. And after all that, I found two typos, missing end quotes, and superfluous words. Any or all of which were enough to get my manuscript tossed out.

So please, before you submit your work to a contest, agent, or editor, read it over carefully. Don't believe me? I read this blog over before I submitted it. Read it again and see if you can find the errors I made.


*http://www.bowker.com/news/IndustryStats2007.pdf
**Christian Market Guide 2007, pg 189

1 comment:

elysabeth said...

That number is low - because the agents probably receive hundreds of manuscripts weekly, and on a yearly basis - probably thousands if not ten times that - you know it's hard to get into the market but it's great advice you have given fellow writers here. If you only found a few in the first three chapters, that's pretty good. I'd be more concerned if you had found several more in the first few pages then you would have something to worry about. Sometimes mistakes happen, even after it goes to print - but with the technological age as it is today, things are getting better somewhat - but you are right, in the end, it is the author's responsibility to make sure his manuscript is as error free as possible from his standpoint.

Good posting - E :)