Category: The Writing Life

Writers’ most common submission mistakes — and how to avoid them

By Midge Raymond,

I remember learning years ago that the  average short story is rejected 25 times before finding a home. (Now, I’m guessing this number is much higher.) This made me feel a lot better — some of my stories were above average in terms of how long it took to publish, some were below, and many were right on track.

Half the battle, I’ve come to learn, is just sticking with it — sending out that story over and over again even when the rejections keep coming in. But the other half of the battle is even more important: making sure you not only have a terrific story (or novel, or poem, or whatever it may be) but that you follow editorial guidelines and send a professional submission, whether you’re targeting a literary journal editor or an agent. Time-strapped editors and agents have little patience for sloppy work, and it’s worth paying a little extra attention to detail when it could mean the difference between getting a fair read or being tossed in the reject pile.

As both a writer and editor, I’ve learned (often the hard way) how to put together a submission that gets a fair read. While every editor is different, below are a few of the most common submission mistakes that writers make and how you can avoid them yourself.

Sending out work before it’s ready. Keep in mind that it’s the writing that is most important — always. If your story or novel isn’t ready, don’t send it out. Period. I’ve done this many times, of course — it’s hard not to be eager to send out something brand-new, especially if you’ve spent months or years working on it — but it never turns out well. What editors and agents look for more than anything else is great writing. So wait until your project reaches that level before you even consider sending it out.

Submitting a sloppy cover letter or query. If a cover letter is riddled with typos and grammatical errors, an editor will assume your writing is the same — this will not encourage a thoughtful read. Many writers have their manuscripts professionally copyedited before sending them out — and if you’re a writer who needs this, be sure your cover letter is edited as well, as it’s the first thing an editor/agent will see. By “sloppy” I also mean not researching the publication, agency, or publisher — writers who submit a literary novel to an agent who only reads mysteries, or a science fiction story to a poetry journal (and yes, these things happen all the time) will not get read; it’s simply a waste of everyone’s time. Be sure your submission is appropriate to where you’re submitting.

Overselling yourself. You do want to be confident about your work, but in a professional way, not a desperate-salesperson sort of way. Keep your cover letters and queries short and to the point, and if guidelines are available, follow them exactly. Don’t compare your work to that of other authors (unless the guidelines specifically require this); I’ve seen letters for everything from short stories to novels in which writers compare themselves to famous writers (often misspelling these famous writers’ names, no less), and it’s no surprise that there is, in fact, no comparison whatsoever. For a literary magazine submission, don’t describe the story, essay, or poem — let it speak for itself; your cover letter need only contain a bio, contact information, and whatever the guidelines may ask for. For an agent query, follow guidelines exactly (this usually means a one-page query with a little about the book and a little about you).

Don’t get ahead of yourself. Many writers include a copyright symbol with their work, or they include a dedication or acknowledgments page with a manuscript — unfortunately, including these things at such an early stage reveals a lack of awareness about publishing and may get in the way of your getting a fair read. If you’ve been writing and think you’re ready to submit but don’t know anything about publishing (whether you’re submitting to literary magazines or agents), take the time to learn before submitting — it will save you a lot of time, energy, and rejection. (For example, you’ll learn that your work is automatically copyrighted as soon as you write it; there is no need to register it or do anything else — and you’ll also learn that you submit a dedication and acknowledgments to your editor only after you’re under contract, with the final version of your manuscript.)

Less is more. Simplicity is key here — again, it’s the writing that is important; let it speak for itself. The less you include with your submission, the more quickly the reader will get to your writing, and this is exactly what you want.


Think like a writer every day, even if you can’t write every day…

By Midge Raymond,

A million thanks to Joanna Penn for hosting me this week on the brilliant The Creative Penn blog, where you’ll find my post “Think Like A Writer Every Day, Even If You Can’t Write Every Day.”

Best of all, Joanna’s wonderful readers have chimed in with fantastic tips and ideas for how to stay inspired and creative, even when you’re unable to sit in the chair and write — I so enjoyed hearing about so many different processes and learning a few new tips.

For those of you not yet familiar with The Creative Penn, do check it out — you’ll find a wealth of information on writing, publishing, and marketing. In addition to Joanna’s own expertise as a writer, her website features guest posts and interviews with other authors on everything from finding time to write to editing and revising to how best to publish your work.

Weekly Writing: Past summer

By Midge Raymond,

Write about the best summer you can remember. Be as detailed as possible, from who you spent your time with to what was going on in your life at the time. Was this summer a recent one, or was it in the distant past? (Note: Fiction writers can apply this exercise to their characters.)


How important is your book’s cover?

By Midge Raymond,

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a book cover’s got to be worth at least forty to a hundred times that, if it’s going to sell what’s inside.

According to Para Publishing, “everyone judges a book by its cover,” and their statistics cite a Wall St. Journal study that reveals that bookstore browsers spend eight seconds looking at the front cover and fifteen seconds looking at the back. Yet the trick is usually getting readers interested enough to pick up the book in the first place.

As many of you know, Forgetting English was reissued last year with a gorgeous new cover.

What most of you don’t know is that I was madly in love with another cover image before falling in love with this one. That first cover was exotic and mysterious and beautiful, in a way completely different from the one above. But we ran into a permissions issue and had to let it go.

Naturally, I thought I’d never fall in love again. My kind and patient publisher, Kevin Morgan Watson of Press 53, assured me that I would.

And I did. Now, I can’t imagine my book having a cover other than the one above.

Below is the first edition of Forgetting English, the cover of which went through several dramatic makeovers (different type styles, different colors, different layouts, with the Gauguin painting the only thing that didn’t change) before turning out like this.

While I’m partial to my new book cover, I’ll always have a fondness for this one — my ex-book, if you will. Going through this process not once but twice was interesting; I think authors (not to mention readers) react to a cover much the way they do to people they meet: There’s an instant connection, or there’s not. A good publisher and book designer understands that and looks for an image conveys what’s beneath the cover as best it possibly can.

Check out this book design case study, featuring Erika Dreifus’s wonderful book, Quiet Americans, which takes us through the steps a book designer goes through in preparing not only a cover but the interior design.

Most authors, unless they publish with a small press, don’t have a say in what their book covers look like (or, they attempt to have a say and are ignored or overruled). For my first book, while the Gauguin painting featured on the cover is one of my favorites, its South Pacific feel evokes only one story in the collection, and I didn’t feel it was a good fit. While I’d already sent along a few cover ideas and even several images, someone had already secured permission to use the art, and there was no room for debate.

When my book was reissued, I was thrilled to work closely with Kevin at Press 53 to find a cover that we both thought was perfect for the book. He understands, as good editors, agents, and publishers to, that while the publisher knows how to best market its books (and is footing the bill for book design, no less),  the author also has a valuable contribution to make — and an author who loves his or her book cover will be all the happier to promote it.

For more insights on authors and their book covers, check out this piece in The Awl featuring six writers on book covers and marketing; it’s fascinating to hear from authors who either love or hate their covers, who were consulted or not, and how they approach the strange process of getting blurbs.

When all is said and done, when it comes to our book covers, we authors have to be flexible. If our books are our “children,” as the comparison often goes, we have to let go just as parents do: Parents, after all, never know exactly how their kids are going to turn out. And they love them all the same.

Weekly Writing: Jewelry

By Midge Raymond,

Write about a favorite piece of jewelry, whether yours or someone else’s. Is it something that was given to you or something you bought for yourself? Was it something you gave to someone (like an engagement ring) or something you inherited? What makes it special to you?

Bookstore Geek: Shiretown Books

By Midge Raymond,

It’s autumn — and in New England, that means celebrating the foliage. If you’re out leaf peeping, don’t forget to pop into the local bookstores in all those fabulous New England towns.  Woodstock, Vermont, has one of the sweetest: the lovely Shiretown Books, right on the main street as you stroll through town.

The store is small but has plenty to offer, including books by local authors and staff picks, and it’s a terrific place to browse. And it’s a bookstore with a big heart: Last year, in response to Hurricane Irene, which devastated parts of Vermont, including areas of Woodstock, Shiretown gave back by donating a portion of book sales to relief efforts.

Bookstores like Shiretown are among the many reasons it’s wonderful to shop locally — to support not only the indies but the communities that support them best as well.

Weekly Writing: On the road

By Midge Raymond,

Write about being pulled over. (This can be a personal story or something told from the POV of one of your characters.) Why were you pulled over? Did you try to talk your way out of a ticket? What does this experience, and your reaction to it, reveal about you?

Ask Midge: How do you know when a story is finished?

By Midge Raymond,

Q: How do you know when a story, or even a novel, is truly finished?

A: This is, of course, among the most challenging questions to answer because writing (and being finished with a piece) is such a uniquely personal thing. I was talking with an artist friend recently about this: She said that it must be difficult to be a writer because you actually have to finish a story or book, whereas she can always go back and rework a painting. I pointed out that writers, too, rework things a zillion times — and that even once something is “finished,” i.e., published, we often still feel as though we’d like to rewrite it. (At least, I do…and I’m sure I’m not the only one! I talked a little about this in a recent interview with Brenda Miller, c0-author (with Holly Hughes) of The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World.)

In short, whatever type of artist we may be, we probably all feel that we’re never quite done. Yet eventually paintings get sold, and stories and poems and novels get published — at that point, we have to let go. But how do we know we’re ready to send the work out into the world in the first place?

Here are a few tips (and while I use the word “story” below, the tips, of course, apply to anything from poems to essays to novels):

  • First, ask yourself a few important questions: Does this story reveal what I planned to say? Are the characters well developed and portrayed? Do I offer a sense of setting and detail that not only enhance but complete the piece? Does it have a beginning, middle, and end?
  • Next, give the project some space. You’ll need to step back and come back to your story fresh in order to see what it really needs, if anything; when we’ve been working hard on a piece, it’s impossible to get the necessary distance to know whether it’s working or not. Try a week or two; see if you’re able to look at it objectively and determine what needs fine-tuning or even complete reworking. If that’s not enough time, let it sit for a month or more. This is one step that is important not to rush.
  • Find a trusted reader. Most writers aren’t able to see their own work completely objectively — while we may be able to take it far, we all need at least one (or several) outside opinions to make sure we’re on the right track. Find one or two trusted people to read and respond to your story, answering the following questions: What have you gained/learned from reading this? What are your favorite parts of it? What, if anything, isn’t working for you? What do you feel is the point of this piece? Would you recommend it to others? Basically, you want to discover whether the reader has figured out what you’d hoped to say with your piece — as well as enjoyed the journey.
  • Send it out and gauge reactions. Once you feel it’s ready to go, send it out into the world! If you’ve finished your novel, send queries to a few agents; if you’ve finished a short story, send it to a few literary magazine editors. You’ll either get personal, detailed responses, or you may get form rejections that don’t tell you much. Keep in mind that a pile of form rejections can mean a lot of things: It can mean that your piece simply wasn’t the right fit for these particular agents or editors, or it could mean that it still needs some work. If the form rejections continue to pile up without any positive feedback at all, move on to the next step, which is…
  • Return to the beginning. Re-read the piece again after even more time and space and see what it might need. Be as objective if you can (and, if you have gotten some feedback, see whether it resonates with you and whether you might want to incorporate these suggestions). Then, after you’ve done another appraisal of the piece, find another reader to give you an objective opinion.

Clearly you could repeat this cycle endlessly, and no one wants to do that. At some point you will have to decide on one of the following:

1) The story is finished, and it’s publishable, and you’ll keep sending it out until it finds a home.

2) The story is finished, and it’s not publishable, and you’ll let it rest in peace.

3) The story is finished, it’s not publishable as is, and you’ll take it apart, recycle was is salvageable, and begin again.

In the end — and most important — you must ask yourself this key question: Am I proud of this? The one (and only) reader you must satisfy unconditionally is yourself. Not everyone will like what you write, but if you love it, then that’s something you can live with…and it’s the only opinion that counts.

Weekly Writing: Labor Day

By Midge Raymond,

For me, Labor Day has always been a day of some sort of writing-related labor, whether it’s finishing a freelance project or finally having a day to fit in some of my own writing. I always look forward to these one-day holidays, when most businesses are closed, email is quiet, and I get to tackle long-abandoned projects.

Write about Labor Day 2012. How are you spending the day? Is this a day off for you, or a day of labor? And is this the way you chose to spend your day, or are you subject to others’ plans? Let this exercise begin with Labor Day and drift into such other realms as free time, holidays, and friends and family.