I was putting together some notes for my Tuesday writing workshop and thought it was worthwhile sharing my views and experience with a larger audience.
Make sure your work is as good as you can possibly make it. Editing is a slow process, which should be undertaken in several stages. Don't just rely on your computer spell-check; the computer will happily accept the wrong word as long as it is a word. If you've got a friend who is good at spelling and grammar, do use them, but beware that they don't 'grammarise' the vitality out of your work, especially your dialogue. The whole point of editing is to make your submission as professional as possible. If the first thing that the editor sees is a typo or punctuation error, they will assume that you don't know your trade. It is hard: you know what you've written and can read it a hundred times without realising that's not what's actually on the page.
If you have time, it is a good plan to put your work aside for at least two weeks, to 'go cold', then you can edit it more dispassionately.
It is also useful to edit in as many different ways as possible: on the screen, on paper and even looking at it again using different fonts and colours.
The most important thing is to send for (or download) the guidelines, read them carefully and obey them implicitly.
When submitting a manuscript on paper, the standard way to do so is double spaced, with reasonable sized margins and an indent at the start of each new paragraph. Pages should be numbered and, if submitting to a magazine, your name and the title should be included in the footer as well. (The same rules apply when submitting manuscripts to agents or editors.) Many competitions will not want your name on the work, although some will want a pseudonym; they all have their own ways of maintaining entrants' anonymity. Use an envelope that doesn't require you to fold your manuscript and put on correct postage.
When submitting on-line it is probable that they will not want an indent at the start of each new paragraph. All you can do is ask for guidelines and follow them.
Only submit one story at a time. Don't bombard the editor with mass submissions, it simply doesn't work. Your submission letter should be brief, business like and pleasant; bear in mind that they get hundreds of submissions and will be irritated by unnecessary 'waffle.' Never include drawings of how you'd like your story to be illustrated or photographs of you with your grandchildren or pet dog. (You may laugh but it has happened and probably will again.)
Always make sure your submission is clean and professional looking. Although it's tempting to 'recycle' returned submissions, be absolutely certain it doesn't look in any way second-hand.
Over the years, many students have asked me anxiously, 'What if the editor steals my story and publishes it without acknowledging me or paying for it?'
I can only say, 'Why should they?' The money they pay is nothing to them. What they want is a successful, prolific writer that's going to keep on sending in stories to revitalise their fiction with new, exciting work. But please bear in mind that I'm talking about reputable publishers who are in it for the long haul. If it looks dodgy then it's better to steer clear.
Bear in mind that you should not pay an agent or editor to read or publish your work. If you wish to employ a copy editor to read your work and give feedback or edit it, then you must expect to pay a professional rate. You have to pay an entry fee for many competitions. This is standard practice and no problem as long as you know what you are paying and what you're agreeing to.
Dealing with Acceptance
If you send a short story to a magazine, with any luck you'll receive a phone call, email or a letter saying they like your work and offering you a sum of money for First British Serial Rights. If you accept they will have the right to publish your work in Britain but, in most cases, after a couple of years, the rights will revert to you and you can sell it again. The magazines may even facilitate translation offers. Woman's Weekly once passed my contact details to a lady who wished to translate my Christmas story, Silent Night, into Norwegian for a Norwegian Magazine. She paid me £100 for a story I'd already been paid for in Britain. My only regret is that I was so stunned I forgot to ask her to send me a foreign copy for my archives.
Once you have agreed to sell your story, the publisher will have the right to make small alterations if they wish to. Quite often these are just to fit into narrow magazine columns. (Warning, never give your magazine characters long, double-barrelled names.) Occasionally these alterations are slightly irritating, (especially when they remove all your jokes) but my stories are products and, as I want to sell them, I have to accept the alterations.
In the world of novels, both agents and editors will have a say in editing and, from all I've heard, will often bombard you with conflicting information.
Occasionally a magazine editor may tell you they love your story but need some changes made. However I suspect that this happens more frequently with writers they have already published than newcomers. In my personal experience, whenever I've made the changes they requested, they have accepted the story.
With agents and editors for novels, it is a far more varied experience. The only general advice I can give is, as soon as you receive a contract, join the Society of Authors; their advice can prove invaluable.
Dealing with rejection
The important thing is, don't take it personally. Your story is not your child, even if it's a novel you've worked on for many years, it's a piece of craftsmanship that you have offered for sale.
Isaac Asimov said, “Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil.” I'm afraid my response to that would be, “Get over it.”
The reasons for rejection can be many, down to the unfortunate fact that they have just published another story with a similar theme. This happened to me with my short story The Last Tree house Conspiracy. I was sceptical that I was being fobbed off but put it to one side and, two years later, got it out, revised and polished it and sent it off again. It was accepted on the second try.
Far more annoying was the editor who had agreed to consider my Victorian Murder Mystery and kept it for six months. When I chased her for a decision she wrote that she 'loved it' but unfortunately they had a long-running Victorian detective series already on their books and didn't want to divide their readers. And she didn't know that when she'd taken my book and hung onto it for so long?
There are several reasons for rejection of a short story by women's magazine editors: the characters or situation may be too clichéd; the story may be too dark or challenging, (not necessarily for the editors but for their perception of their readership); or the story may be too complicated for its short story framework. However the main reason for rejection is that it simply wasn't what they were looking for at that point.
If you get feedback try to benefit from it. Analyse what the editor is saying and, more importantly, the subtext. You may decide not to alter your work, but it's worth considering. If you don't get feedback, don't take it personally; all it means is that the editors are drowning under piles of paperwork.
Just remember one thing. However disappointed you are by rejection, never throw anything away. At least two of my 'competition' short stories that I'd have never thought of as suitable for women's magazines, with some revision, were accepted and published by Woman's Weekly.