26 May 2015

Turnabout is Fair Play

By Paul D. Marks

Okay, time for me to piss everyone off. Well, at least some agents and editors I’m sure.
I want to air some pet peeves about the above-named people. They have their peeves about us, so turnabout is fair play, right? They think it’s a crime if we don’t follow their guidelines—and everyone has a different set of guidelines. And I think it’s a crime that there’s no set standard so that we’re constantly scrambling to change our manuscripts every time we submit to a different person.

Peeve #1: No simultaneous submissions. Sure, I’ll send you my story or novel and I’ll just sit around for the next year and a half waiting to hear back from you....if I hear back from you at all. And lately, a lot of agents and editors are saying something to the effect of “if you don’t hear back from us within six weeks that means we’re not interested.” Nice. Whatever happened to manners—yeah, I know. But how hard is it to send a form e-mail saying thanks but no thanks. And if we never hear from them how do we know they got the story, especially if it was sent over the net. And then they put the fear of God into you if you dare follow up or contact them again. I think authors should rebel against the no simultaneous submissions policy and just submit everywhere you can. Then what? You go on some agent/editor blacklist that says “don’t accept anything so and so sends.” But what’s the alternative? Sit around and wait and grow old.

Peeve #2: Every editor or agent seems to want a different thing. The first 50 pages or the first three chapters. Some want a one page synopsis, some 2 pages. Another wants no more than one paragraph. Others want detailed outlines, another a summary. I don’t know about you but I get sick and tired of having to reinvent the wheel every time I submit something to someone. I understand they need guidelines, but do they realize how difficult they make it for us when there’s no set standard? So what if you send a 3 page synopsis instead of two pager? Or 2½ pages? You’re a malcontent. A subversive. It’s time for the balance of power to shift. Our time is valuable too. How about an industry-wide standard, so we don’t have to start over every time?

Peeve #3: They all have things that turn them off before you even get off the ground. There was a producer once who said if you submit a script with ellipses in it he would automatically reject it. Why? Did that make it a bad story? If a writer submitting to him, on their own or through their agent, would have taken out all the ellipses would that have made it a better story? Some agents or editors don’t like prologues. Well, what if there is a need for a prologue? Coming from a film writing background I understand the need to get into a story quickly. But one of the joys of books is that you can—or used to be able to—take a little longer to get off the ground. And sometimes a prologue is necessary. But I do know about cutting to the chase. In my rewriting gig I once chopped off all of Act I of a script and started on Act II, using just a few tidbits from the first act, inserting them where I could. I understand when the prologue is used for exposition and only exposition that’s not a good idea, but sometimes that’s what works for that particular project.

Peeve #4: Everyone has a different opinion, so when you get notes from someone, but without a commitment, should you rewrite your manuscript every time? What if they still don’t like it? Or the next person who reads it doesn’t like the things you just changed for the last person? Write your story not theirs. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be open to criticism, but only if you agree it’s valid. I once optioned a script to a producer. He loved the dialogue. It was the best dialogue he’d ever heard. He gushed on and on about it. He gave it to a director who hated the dialogue. Magically and overnight the producer hated the dialogue. Another script I optioned several times went to an agent, early on, who complained that a scene was set in Union Station in L.A. “Nobody takes trains anymore,” he said. Should I have changed that? Would it have made all the difference and he would take me on? Well, I didn’t and he missed the whole point of why it was set in a train station, which was to contrast the “old” vs. “the” new in the context of a main character stuck in the past in some ways. So if you rewrite for everyone who has an opinion you’ll spend your whole life doing that. You can’t please everyone so please yourself. Like Rick Nelson said in his song “Garden Party,” “It's all right now, yeah, learned my lesson well, You see, ya can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”

I’m not saying it’s wrong to have guidelines and rules, but they should be consistent and not so rigid that you lose before you even get in the door. Sure, margins should be an inch. Manuscripts should be carefully proofread and edited. But just like everyone one wants one inch margins, they should all be on the same page (pun intended) with other things so we aren’t starting from scratch every time we submit to them.

Whew! Glad I got that off my chest. Let the arrows fly.


A little bit of BSP: My short story “Howling at the Moon” from the November, 2014 issue of Ellery Queen has been nominated for an Anthony Award. I’m very grateful to those who voted. And it certainly came as a surprise. Very cool, but very unexpected. If you want to read the story, click here and scroll down to the Short Story section. All of the short story nominees are here: http://bouchercon2015.org/anthony-awards/

Hope to you see at the California Crime Writers Conference

(http://ccwconference.org/ ). June 6th and 7th. I’ll be on the Thrills and Chills (Crafting the Thriller and Suspense Novel) panel, Saturday at 10:30 a.m., along with Laurie Stevens (M), Doug Lyle, Diana Gould and Craig Buck.

And please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my soon-to-be-updated website www.PaulDMarks.com

Subscribe to my Newsletter: http://pauldmarks.com/subscribe-to-my-newsletter/

"Ricky Nelson free" by The original uploader was Mind meal at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ricky_Nelson_free.jpg#/media/File:Ricky_Nelson_free.jpg


jan Grape said...

I tried to sign up for your newsletter just now and it said that page was unavailable.
I like your article. I've preached the same for years to no avail. I also have one big gripe. Editors spend big, huge bucks to promote a writer that was already on the best seller list. WHY? They don't need promoting they're already best sellers. WHy not give a mid-list writer a couple thousand bucks for promotion. That really would save the publisher half of his $200,000 and put the mid-list writer several rungs up the success ladder. I talked to a St. Martin's about 15 years ago and he agreed, but said it wasn't up to the editor. GAH!

David Dean said...

Well, Paul, you may have pissed off some agents but you sure made some good points. You also made me smile before seven-thirty in the morning which is quite a feat. Loved this piece and think it should be made mandatory reading for all agents and publishers. As for your suggestion about industry-wide standards, count me in. I think the current situation is ridiculous and counter-productive.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, David. And I'm honored I could make you smile before 7:30. But I doubt any agents or editors who might have read this are smiling.

And, of course, I'm with you in think the current situation is ridiculous and counter-productive. I think we should band together and ask for changes.

Melodie Campbell said...

Paul, what you have reminded me of is the weird balance (or rather, imbalance) of this business, where agents (and publishers) are rock stars and writers are the entourage, trying to get noticed by them. I wonder if it were always thus?

Paul D. Marks said...

I think some of that is changing, Melodie. With agents still the gatekeepers, but less so than in earlier times. And I think they're a little worried about it. But we'll see how it all shakes out.

John Floyd said...

Great piece, Paul--I agree completely. Maybe some of our editors/agents/publishers will read this and take heart.

And sincere congratulations on your Anthony nomination. Quite an honor, and well deserved!

Eve Fisher said...

Thanks for making me laugh this morning! Yes, we need industry-wide standard submission formats, etc. For magazines and ezines as well as books. This whole thing of "we only accept Calibria" or "Times Roman" or whatever font suits their fantasy just drives me up a wall. Pick one, stick with it. Every science journal in the world uses (still I hope?) Turabian for references and format, so I know it can be done.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, John, both re: the article and nomination. And I hope you’re right – that editors/agents/publishers will read it and take heart.

Paul D. Marks said...

Wish I’d thought to add the fonts as another peeve, Eve. Yes it can be done if they’re willing. Let’s hpe they are.

Unknown said...

Thanks for having the courage to say these things. I bet it would be hard to find a writer who would disagree with you--or an agent or editor who wouldn't.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, B.K. I'm sure it isn't what agents want to hear. But they might consider our time and effort too.

Paul D. Marks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BernardL said...

Excellent points, Paul. I would only add their penchant for censorship. Until Amazon came along to open the Indie trail, the agents and publishers were busily trying to make the pulp fiction genre extinct. :)

Anonymous said...

Congrats, Paul. And people need to give your essay some thought.

Peter DiChellis said...

Excellent list of peeves. I guess there’s a reason they call it “submission.” A couple of years ago I guest posted a satirical, faux submission call at the blog katherine hepcat. Some “guidelines” were:

No electronic submissions. Please print your manuscript on yellow paper, roll it up, and send it in tubular packaging via Fedex. We do not accept manuscripts sent via UPS or the US Postal Service. We do not accept flat envelopes. We do not return submitted manuscripts.

Our preferred font is 11-point Plantagenet Cherokee but we also accept 11-point Hoefler Text.

If you do not hear from us after two years, you may assume your story has been rejected or lost.

And so forth. The post is still floating around the internet. If anyone’s interested in reading more, Google: katharine hepcat should i submit

jan Grape said...

I made a comment about 6 this morning and it was here, but it's gone now. Aggrafretting.

Leigh Lundin said...

Wish I'd had that advice much earlier!

It would be nice if editors/agents would agree to accept a package that would include everyone's minimum.

Paul D. Marks said...

Hi Jan, Here’s the correct link to the newsletter: http://pauldmarks.com/subscribe-to-my-newsletter/ -- I’ll fix it in the link in the article too. It was for my old webpage newsletter signup. And the link in the article is good now too. Anyway, it’s back on track now.

And I agree with you about a promotion budget for mid list writers. Otherwise many of them just get overlooked and their books die a quick death. It would be nice to groom writers like the old Hollywood system groomed actors, or the equivalent.

Paul D. Marks said...

Agreed, Bernard. I think indie publishing has made them rethink a lot of things.

Thanks, anonymous. I hope they will.

Great stuff, Pete! It’s really funny, but unfortunately could be taken for true :)

As you know, Leigh, I couldn’t agree more.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for linking to this, Kevin!

GBPool said...

I learned early on that agents look first for any reason to reject your manuscript. Then I learned that they are very finicky. Then I figured out that they were narrow minded. Then I learned how to self-publish and I don't have those problems anymore.

Paul D. Marks said...

Way to go, Gayle!

Robert Lopresti said...

Congrats on the nomination, Paul. Fingers crossed.

At one point last year I was prepping different pieces for two publishers. For one i was changing all the underlines to italics. For the other I was - you guessed it - changing all the italics to underlines.

Peter, I wrote a similar piece as the Kat one you describe, once upon a time: http://criminalbrief.com/?p=17140

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, Rob. The nomination came as a total surprise. Very cool, but very unexpected.

Love your example of italics to underlines and vice versa. I’ve been there, too many times!

And I read your piece on Criminal Brief – very funny!

Peter DiChellis said...

Rob, your Criminal Brief piece is laugh-out-loud funny and spot-on to Paul's post. Every time I visit Criminal Brief I find something great. Three cheers to the web guru who keeps CB up & running.

Robert Lopresti said...

Peter, thanks. Criminal Brief is maintained by its brilliant inventor, James Lincoln Warren.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an eye-opener Post, Paul. Informs with humor!!!

Charlotte Liebel @ Wordpress

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an eye-opener Post, Paul. Informs with humor!!!

Charlotte Liebel @ Wordpress

Lisa Ciarfella said...

Hahahaha...this is great Paul. Guess I'm a little late to the party here, but nonetheless, thanks much for this!
I'm dealing with it at this very second and i got to say, I can relate to your Jack pics! So funny!

Great stuff!