Dealing with the dinosaurs

In many ways the mainstream publishing industry is like a dinosaur. I picture them still using Linotype machines and steam-powered presses. Despite twenty-first century printing methods, and now ebooks, it still usually takes about a year from manuscript acceptance to publication to get a new book out on bookstore shelves... unless that book is about the latest political scandal or a hot movie star.

While most magazines and independent publishers have been accepting submissions by email or on disk for many years and/or asking writers to submit their material by electronic means, many major publishers still want stories and novels submitted on old-fashioned paper sent by snail-mail. This is slowly changing -- like most things in the publishing business -- but you should still learn the right form and use the right materials for hard copy if you expect your work to be considered by publishers who are still in the steam age.

A nasty word?

"Submitting" is an interesting word. It's not surprising that a lot of black folk resent it. It reminds us of slavery, of Jim Crow, of Separate And Unequal Segregation, of living in terror of being lynched, of never meeting a white man's eyes, and riding the ass-ends of busses... among many other negative things. However, in the publishing world, everyone -- no matter what color or socioeconomic status -- submits their work, whether novel, short story, article, essay, non-fiction, or children's book, to an editor or publisher for consideration.

Learning how and where to submit your stories and/or novel manuscripts is an often discouraging, intimidating, and confusing process to new writers. However, there's no shortage of good advice in those hundreds of books about writing I mentioned on the Writing Page. There are several books that tell you various possible markets for your work, including the names and mailing addresses of many different magazines and book publishers, and what kind of material they want.

One of these helpful books is Writers Market. Another great book is Jeff Herman's Guide To Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents. Both are updated every year so make sure you read the latest issues. There are several other books of this type, and you'll find them at most bookstores and libraries.

Unfortunately, you will probably find that, as with most things in American society, there aren't a lot of markets for black writing. There are actually more black book publishers and magazines than are listed in many Writer's Market type books, because some black publishers don't want to be listed. Why? Because they already have more submissions than they can handle. To find these publishers of Color, you'll have to do some checking in a black bookstore, at the library, or investigate sites on the web.

Do you need an agent?

If you look through the Writers Market type books or research publishers online you'll probably find that very few major book publishers accept un-agented submissions these days. Not only from new writers, but from published writers as well. And, trust me, they mean what they say! So don't waste your time, postage money, and hopes sending your work to these publishers on your own, because your novel or story will either be tossed in the trash or returned to you unread.

Don't hope they will make an exception because you wrote a cool cover letter... chances are that your letter won't even be read! Most major publishers have someone whose job it is to open submissions and find out if they were sent by an agent or requested by an editor. If not, then it's toilet-time for your story or novel, or into its self-addressed, stamped, envelope (SASE) and back to you at the speed of a mail truck.

Just like the film industry, in the publishing world there are usually a hundred little people with the power to say NO for every important person with the power to say yes. Your mission is to get your manuscript past all the people with the power to say no, and one of the best ways to do that is to take a professional approach when submitting your work.

A few beginning writers think they have a chance of hand-delivering their book or story to an editor... taking it to them in person. Don't even think about it! If you want to hook with editors, go to writer's or book conferences. But don't annoy an editor by getting in his or her face and hustling your stuff like a pimp... that's what agents are for.

On the other hand, there are many publishers, usually magazines and independent presses, that do accept and even encourage un-agented submissions. A good section to check in the Writers Market type books are the listings for literary magazines. My first published story was in the San Francisco literary magazine, ZYZZYVA. Many of these lit mags don't pay anything for your story except a copy or two of the magazine. Others pay a small amount -- usually called an honorarium -- while a few pay damn good money. But you shouldn't worry too much about getting paid at the very beginning of your writing career, because every time you're published it's like another point in the game; and enough points might -- repeat, might -- interest a big-time editor enough to at least read your work later on. Some editors regard literary magazines as the minor leagues and scout them for talent, while others could care less how many lit mag credits you have.

And, most big-time book editors aren't impressed by how many short stories or magazine articles you've had published... unless you're submitting a story collection.

But, no matter if you're submitting your work directly to a publisher, or sending it to an agent, your manuscript must look professional.

Rejections are just a part of the business

Understand that editors are individuals with different personalities, values, likes, dislikes, and personal ideas about what makes a good story or novel. And publishing is one of the few businesses where major decisions, however illogical, can be made based on someone's personal preferences... or issues. One editor may reject your work while another editor might buy it. The only thing you can do, besides making sure your story is the best it can be, is to keep sending it out again and again, rejection after rejection. If your story is good -- and if you keep sending it out -- then sooner or later it will be published.

Do your homework

If you read one of the Writers Market type books, pay attention to what kind of material the publisher or editor say they want. Sometimes they will ask for "ethnic" (and sometimes they even really want it) but don't waste your time, money, and hopes sending your work where it isn't wanted or doesn't belong.

You wouldn't be dumb enough to send a story about a black person to the "Cracker-ass Quarterly" or "The White Racist Review" -- unless maybe it was about a lynching -- but a lot of new writers might send such a story to The Source, even though The Source almost never publishes fiction.

Likewise, don't waste your time sending a 'hood story full of potty mouth and violence to a family-oriented or Christian magazine, even if that magazine happens to be black, or asked for "ethnic" in its listing.

Understand that all editors, of all colors, whether magazine or book, get at least a hundred times more submissions than they can ever publish; and they didn't take the time to fill out those Writers Market forms, saying what kind of material they wanted just so they could get even more stuff they can't use!

Sometimes it seems as if writing your story or novel is the easy part of the game, while selling it -- or even just finding a place to send it -- is the hard thing. All I can say is that after over twenty years of playing the game, it sure as hell seems to be true!

But the selling part -- from finding out where to submit your work, to sending it, getting rejected, and doing this over and over again -- is just as important as your writing itself if you ever hope to be published.

Just as in the film, sports, and music industries, you always hear about somebody getting that big lucky break, but it doesn't happen very often; and most of us have to work our asses off to make our dreams come true. Maybe you don't want to hear that, maybe you think you will be the exception? Well, maybe you will, but you'll probably have a better chance at success by playing the lottery.

Never forget that every black book is a first book; and no matter how successful you might be today with a published novel, you will probably be starting all over again at the bottom with your next book.

Be kind to the people you meet on the way up, because you're going to meet those same people on the way down.

And don't take names of all the people who were rude to you or didn't recognize how great you were so you can say "so there!" if you do get a lucky break. (See above)

Besides the Writers Market type books, you can look through magazines at a book store or library. Most magazines will say somewhere in small print up front if they want "unsolicited manuscripts"... which means stories, articles or essays that they didn't ask for. Just like in Writers Market, they will usually say what kinds of material they want, and -- just as importantly -- what kinds of work they don't want.

As I've said, it's usually a waste of your time, money, and hopes to submit anything to any publisher or editor that doesn't fit what they're asking for.

It's also very important to pay attention to whatever length of story they say they want. For example, if they say something like "up to 20 pages," they really do mean it; and if you send them a 40-page story it will usually annoy the editor. If your story happens to be 22 pages, or if you feel you have something an editor might be interested in, even if it doesn't quite seem to fit with what they're asking for, then you should write a query letter describing your work and asking if they would like to see it. We'll get to query letters in a while.

Another thing you can do is write to or email your favorite author(s) asking if they might give you any suggestions about finding a place to send your novel or story. However, just like editors, writers are individuals with different personalities. Most writers like to get letters and emails from their readers, but a few don't; and a lot of authors are just too busy trying to make a living to be much help to a new writer.

Do a web search and try to find the author's email address. Most authors today have a website, and you should be able to get a feel from that site if the author wants email or not.

A good way to begin a letter to an author is to say something like "I've read all your books," even if you haven't. Don't say "I'm going to read your books," because of course that means you haven't... and probably won't. And the best way to support your favorite authors is to buy their books.

By the way, an author only makes money from the sale of new books, not used ones on Amazon, or from used bookstores. But you don't have to say you bought their book used.

Don't try to be cute with authors... like most editors we've heard it all before. And if you're an unpublished writer don't try to sound like an equal or you'll just come off like a grocery-soldier trying to impress a veteran cop by saying you're both in law-enforcement.

To get a snail-mail letter to an author, you can send it in care of (c/o) the publisher of their book(s). But, while some publishers are good at forwarding an author's mail right away, others will take forever, or even lose the letters. For example, I once got a letter from two high-school Sisters who were doing a composition about me for their spring semester and wanted to ask me some questions. Trouble was, by the time the publisher finally forwarded their letter to me (four months later), school was already over for that year.

But, understand that there is usually very little that even a fairly successful author can do to help a new writer get published. Believe it or not, there is often very little a published writer can do to help another published writer sell his or her work!

For most black authors -- and since every black book is a first book -- it's hard enough just trying to find a publisher for our own work, let alone help a new writer.

Many editors and publishers ask for a query letter before you send them your story or novel manuscript. This is mostly to save them the time of reading through a pile of garbage... either badly-written works, or works that aren't right for them. If an editor or publisher asks for a query letter, they mean what they say! Don't try to save time by sending your work anyhow... usually it will only be tossed in the trash or rejected because you didn't do what the editor asked you to do.

Hear me?

Likewise, if an editor asks for sample chapters -- usually the first chapter, plus whatever other chapters you feel are most interesting -- then don't send anything more than what the editor asked to see.

Even if the editor does read that extra material, there could be a feeling in his or her mind that you might a be writer who won't do what he's told later on... assuming that editor bought your work. This is bad enough for white writers, but it can be the kiss of death for a black one.

Many editors and publishers will ask for a synopsis of your book. If so, put as much effort into writing the synopsis as you did in writing the book. Many authors, including myself, HATE to write a synopsis, but if it has to be done it has to be done.

Query letters

There's a difference between query letters and cover letters. A query letter is a letter you write before you submit your manuscript. It's a letter basically asking an editor if they would like to look at your work. It is also to introduce yourself as a writer, and to show you have some writing experience. You could say that the main purpose of a query letter is to give an editor a reason to want to look at your work.

A cover letter is a letter that is sent with your manuscript... usually after an editor has read your query letter and asked to see your work.

We'll get to cover letters later, but here's some advice about query letters...

Query letters are probably the best way to try and find publishers for your work. Often they're the only way; and even though many publishers now accept email query letters, an email is easy to delete and forget. On the other hand, an old-fashioned paper letter might be re-read and reconsidered. Remember that editors have good days and bad days like everyone else.

Query letters are usually the cheapest way for an author to make first contact with an editor... far less expensive than sending your whole manuscript. Just as with writing a story, there are rules that must be followed when writing a query letter.

Maybe you've heard the old saying, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression?" Well, your query letter is the first impression that any editor will get of you and your writing. If your query letter is full of misspelled words and typos, is inarticulate in Standard (whitebread) English, or rambles like a crackhead, then that's what an editor will think of your work. After all, if you can't write a good one-page letter, then why should an editor think you can write a good 300-page novel?

And, that's usually true.

A query letter is easy to write. Just about all of those "How To Write" and Writers Market type books show you the right form to use. This form is the same as any other business letter. Your query letter must be typed, either on a typewriter, computer, or a word processor... no editor today expects a hand-written letter.

Use good-quality plain white paper, at least 20-weight... either the same stuff you use for your manuscripts, or maybe more expensive 24-weight paper. Fancy-ass paper or pretentious letterheads could make you look full of yourself.

Your query letter should be sent in a business-size envelope and properly folded in thirds.

Always include another smaller, or folded, Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope (SASE) -- an envelope addressed back to you -- so the editor can reply without using his own (or his company's) writing supplies. Sure, an envelope and a stamp don't cost much... until you consider that some editors get a hundred query letters every day.

Some literary magazines and small publishers might not reply anyway, and will keep your stamp for their own use. This is inconsiderate but it shouldn't bother you. The publishing world is full of inconsideration (at least) especially toward writers.

Keep your query letter to one page if you can... and for a new or unpublished writer there's no reason to make it any longer.

Always try to find an editor's name to address your letter to. Most of the Writers Market listings will give you some editor's names... though editors tend to change jobs a lot. Having an editor's name is always better than opening your letter with something like "Dear Sir or Madam, Dear Mr. or MS.", etc. It also shows the editor that you've done your homework and are acting like a professional.

Be damn sure you spell an editor's name right! There are some editors who will instantly reject a story or trash your query letter if their name is spelled wrong. Maybe this sounds like an ego trip, but some editors feel that if a writer isn't professional enough to spell their name right, then their work isn't very good either. From my own experience I'd say this is usually true.

Remember that your spell-checker can't check most people's names for correct spelling.

If an editor has one of those names that might be either male or female -- like "Jess Mowry" -- then use the full name: "Dear Jess Mowry".

I get a few letters addressed to "Ms" or even "Miss Mowry". Actually, I grew up thinking that Jess was exclusively a boy's name, like Jessie James, so this doesn't bother me in that respect. But it does annoy me for two other reasons: one, it tells me that the writer has probably never read any of my work (which is not the best way to approach most authors) and, two, it tells me that the writer couldn't be bothered to do his or her homework... like going into a book store and finding my pic on a book cover, or doing a minute's web search.

Likewise, this tells an editor that the writer doesn't do their homework, and therefore is not professional.

If you can't find an editor's name, and if you feel that "Dear Sir or Madam" sounds too old-fashioned, then a simple "Hello," is professional enough.

"Hey or "Wassup" is NOT.

Here's an example of a query letter... yes, I have to write them too.

I'm not saying that this is the best query letter ever written: it's only my style, and you have your own. But the main thing is to briefly introduce yourself, give your publishing credits or writing experience (if you feel they're important enough to interest an editor) and then a short description of what you're trying to sell.

If you can do all this in only one page, that's usually a bonus point.

Query letter don'ts

Be positive in your query letter, but don't hype or hustle yourself and your work.

Don't say things like, "this is a tragic, or touching, or heartbreaking, (etc.) story", because the first thing to pop into many editor's minds is, "I'll be the judge of that!"

Don't say things like, "this story would be perfect for your magazine or book list"... for the same reason.

Think of this as a business deal -- which it is -- you're offering something you've made for sale. Period.

Editors don't want a hard-sell from a writer like from some obnoxious clerk in a ghetto discount store. (They get enough of that shit from literary agents.)

They don't want to hear about your personal life, either... like, how much you want to be published, or how hard you're struggling to be a writer.

Obviously you're struggling to be a writer or you wouldn't be writing query letters. If you weren't struggling, editors would be writing query letters to you! (I've got a few to prove it.)

On the other hand, don't suck-up or be apologetic for taking an editor's time... editors get paid to read query letters, and it's just a part of their job. Only a badly-written query letter wastes an editor's time.

Don't say things like "you're my last hope" or, worse, that you've tried to sell this story to twenty other publishers already!

Don't say you've had a "professional editor" (or anyone else) edit your work. It is your work or not?

Don't say something like you spent your last forty cents on a stamp for this letter. An editor doesn't give a shit if you and your little brother are living in a dumpster and eating barbecued rats.

Unless you've written a good story about it.

This doesn't mean that editors don't have sympathy and feelings -- a few actually do -- but no editor would keep his or her job very long if they published poorly written books or stories because they felt sorry for writers.

If your manuscript has been rejected by other editors, there's no reason to say so... unless an editor who rejected you suggested you query this editor.

Very young writers often ask if they should say how old they are when making queries or submissions. I'd say it's usually better not to. About the only reason to mention that you were 13 or 14 would be when sending your work to publishers that specialize in very young writers. Otherwise, your work just has stand on its own hind legs right along with the work of any other writer, no matter how old they are. If your book or story is good, and the editor thinks it's right for their magazine or publishing house, then it will be published. If it isn't good, or it's just not right for that particular publisher, then you're probably not going to get a break for being a kid.

There's no reason to say in your query letter that you haven't been published before. If your letter is badly written, an editor will know that anyhow and will logically think that's one good reason you haven't been published.

On the other hand, if your query letter looks professional, then it will be treated with the same consideration that any other author would get. (Which might not be much sometimes.)

If you have been published before -- and not just in your high school literary review -- then you should say so when you introduce yourself.

Don't bullshit... fake publishing credits are easy for an editor to check.

Don't try to sound cute, clever or fresh... editors have heard it all before.

Whitebread English

Don't use dope, hip-hop, or what you think are cool "black" spellings or language like, "writing 2-U", in a query letter... even to black publishers.

The style in which you write your novel or story is up 2-U, but always write your query letters in formal whitebread English.

And be down with the fact that this is the language most of the publishing world speaks. Never forget that you have one strike against you just because you're black, and a second strike because you're unpublished. But you're only making it harder on yourself if you stubbornly refuse to speak "their" language.


The black music industry (such as it is) has already made us look like ignorant fools and violent-ass niggers by idolizing overgrown boys who talk and act like dirty-mouthed little short-bus kids who flunked out of third grade. Any three-year-old knows that shit stinks, and shit doesn't smell any better no matter how many times you describe it or how "real" you try to make it sound. Rather than rapping over and over about how bad shit smells, and how tough it is coming up in shit, a real black man would buy a garbage truck instead of a Mercedes or Hummer and get his hands dirty cleaning up the mess.

And a shovel cleans up shit a lot better than a gun.

You've probably noticed that most of the information on this site is presented in plain standard English with no attempt to be hip or cool. My dad had an aversion to baby-talk... he always talked to me like another adult. He said that baby-talk was a waste of time because it was learning a language that had no useful real-world purpose and would only have to be unlearned a few years later, so it basically held a kid back.

He was right. If you stop and think about all the time and mind-energy wasted keeping up with the latest street-speak and styles -- a baby-talk language that has no useful real-world purpose and will only hold you back -- you might agree.

There's a local youth organization with a writing program that constantly boasts they have "cool young mentors." What they should say is they have cool, young, UNPUBLISHED mentors. If I really wanted to learn something, I'd choose somebody older, experienced, and somewhat successful to teach me.

In any case, the purpose of these pages is to give you useful information, not to try and prove how cool I am.

I saw a forty-year-old boy the other day. He was dressed like a ten-year-old suburban white kid going trick-or-treating as a black ghetto banger, complete with a holo tag hanging off his cap, so I guess he was cool.

Anyway, so far we've covered the basics of where to submit your novel or story and how to write a query letter. Now we'll move on to preparing and sending your manuscript.

Preparing your manuscript for submission

A published author (even a black one) might get a little more consideration than an unpublished writer when submitting their manuscript to a publisher, but usually the submission process is like going to the DMV. It's one of the great equalizers, and it tends to treat everybody like shit.

And, just like going to the DMV, you and your manuscript will really be treated like shit if you don't use the right forms!

It's cool if you write your story or novel in pen or pencil on binder paper if that's the way you like to work; but when submitting it to an editor or publisher it must be typed or printed and in the right form.

You don't need a $1000.00 computer or a $300.00 word processor to type your manuscript, and if you think you do then you're bullshitting yourself. My first three books, including Way Past Cool, along with all my early stories, were typed on a 1923 Underwood typewriter that I bought for eight dollars at a flea market. My fifth book, Six Out Seven, was typed on a 1950s IBM typewriter that I bought for twenty dollars. And, by the way, I still can't touch type.

So don't bitch and moan that you can't submit your work to publishers because you can't afford a computer or never learned how to type. And don't whine that the publishing game is elitist because only rich folks with computers can play it. It is elitist -- and a lot of other things, too -- but so is the world so deal with it.

A word processor or computer will make writing a lot easier and faster, but it still can't write for you. But also be aware that more and more publishers are using email these days for correspondence, manuscript submission and editing, so unless you can rent computer time cheaply you might consider buying a computer instead of this week's flavor of bling, threads and kicks.

Use the right form

Just like what I said about using whitebread English when writing query letters or dealing with editors, there's a simple form that must be followed when preparing your manuscript for submission. This form is just as easy to do on a 1923 Underwood typewriter as on the newest PC.

Use the right materials

Your manuscript should be typed or printed on good quality, plain white, letter-size paper (8 1/2 by 11 inches in the U.S.). It used to be called typewriter paper, but is usually referred to as printer paper these days. This paper comes in two basic weights, 20 pound and 24 pound, and it will say so on the package. You can get a much better deal on paper by buying it by the ream (500 sheets) at an office supply like Office Max, than a hundred sheets at a time at your neighborhood drug or variety store.

Don't use anything but plain white paper -- no "buff," gray, or colors. The examples on this page might look gray, but they're not. And don't use cheap paper that's less than 20 pound weight.

On the other hand, don't use paper that's heavier than 24 pound, which is usually called card-stock.

While 24 pound paper costs a few dollars more than 20 pound, it also stands up to being run through copy machines a lot better and is less likely to get wrinkled or crumpled in the mail, or if your manuscript (hopefully) gets several readings at a publishing house.

Even though all publishers will accept manuscripts typed or printed on 20 pound paper (which is also usually the weight of copy-shop paper) they will appreciate the heavier 24 pound if they buy your book or story, because it will stand up to being handled and copied.

A well-typed or printed-out manuscript on 24 pound paper with few or no typos, misspellings and mistakes looks and feels professional, which can't hurt your image. And, as with most things in the U.S., a black writer has a better chance of success by doing things better than whitefolk.

Novel and story manuscripts are never bound, stapled or even paper-clipped together... though you can paper-clip your query or cover letter to the first page. (Screenplays are typed on 3-hole paper and usually bound with brads.)

There is no cover or title page for a novel or story: however, a story collection can have an index page.

The basics

Here is the basic form of the first page of a story or novel manuscript. Remember, there's no cover or title page. Notice that there's no page number or header at the top. (Only screenplays have a page #1.)

Likewise, for a novel or story, you don't type Chapter One on the first page.

Your name, address, phone, fax, and/or email are single-spaced in the upper left-hand corner. The title of your novel or story is centered about a third of the way down, with your name as the author centered beneath it. If you want, you can add a copyright symbol
© or just a "c" and the date your story or novel was completed... though any work is automatically copyrighted in your name as soon as you finish it. (Did you know that?)

A few editors feel it's pretentious or amateurish to use the copyright  symbol. Most publishers will copyright the work in your name if they publish it. I don't use the copyright symbol (except to protect the work on this site), just the date I completed the novel or story. If you have a manuscript that is several years old, you might not want an editor to wonder why you are just now submitting it, so it's okay change the date to the current year.

These examples are not actual size, of course, (they are actual pages from one of my own novel manuscripts) but there's a 1-inch margin on each side of the text. Most word processors and word processing programs automatically set a 1-inch margin on each side by default (check to make sure) but with typewriters you have to set it yourself.

A few How To Write books and websites advise authors to state what rights they are offering on the first page (below your name) but that's kind of pretentious, too, because a new author is seldom in a position to bargain with a publisher. If you have an agent, then he or she will advise you on this. If you don't have an agent, it's probably better to wait and see what the publisher wants in the way of rights (assuming they want to buy your novel or story in the first place).

Your novel or story begins about halfway down the page. The text is always double-spaced.

Text usually begins about 1.5 to 2 inches from the top of the page (except for the first page, of course) and ends about 1 inch from the bottom of the page.

Each new paragraph or line of dialog is indented. (Use your "tab" key.) Common indents range from about 5 to 10 spaces. Choose a spacing that seems to look best with whatever font you're using. Most of the stories on this site are indented 7 spaces.

Don't use justified margins on your computer or word-processor to make the lines of text come out even on the right-hand side: this puts uneven spacing between the words on each line and gets very tiring to read.

Learn how to hyphenate words (like short-bus) in the right places at the end of a line, but avoid doing this whenever you can. Try not to hyphenate words between the end of one page and the beginning of the next. If you have to, that's okay, but avoid it whenever possible.

For electronic manuscripts it's better not to hyphenate words at the end of lines because they will be scrambled if the manuscript is reformatted. You can tell a poorly-printed book these days by sloppy justified margins which show that the publisher was too lazy or cheap to properly hyphenate words at the ends of lines.

Here's page #2 of the same novel. (Remember this example is not actual size, and there's a 1-inch margin on each side of the text.) Now there's a header at the top of the page with either the full story title or an identifying word from the title. This is so your pages don't get mixed up with somebody else's if a bunch of manuscripts are dropped on the floor.

There is also a page number, in this case #2 (and naturally 3, 4, 5, 6, etc. on every page that follows). Some writers also center the page number at the bottom of each page below the text. Some writers put the page number in the right-hand corner instead of on the left like this. Others combine the page number and header in either the left or the right-hand corner.

This is what each and every page of your novel or story will look like right to the end, except when beginning a new chapter.

When formatting on a computer for electronic submission keep the same appearance, though of course an editor can change the format and font to their own preference when reading it.

The first page of each new chapter begins about halfway down the page with the chapter number centered about a third of the way down... like the title on the first page. Some writers use "Chapter Two" (Three, Four, etc.) others use "Chapter 2", and still others simply use "2".

Use a type face or font that's easy to read. Courier, New York, Times, Palatino or any standard fonts are fine. Don't use weird fonts, all capitals, or script fonts, thinking that this will make your story stand out from all the others. It will stand out, and if you read hundreds of manuscripts every year like editors do, you wouldn't like it!

It's okay if the last page of a chapter has only one or two lines, or even just one or two words. A chapter ends where it ends. The next chapter always begins on a new page as mentioned above.

Avoid typis and mizpellings

Besides using the right form, your novel or story manuscript should have an absolute minimum of typos and misspelling words. (There's a typo in that last sentence, did you see it?) A few typos and misspellings won't keep a publisher from buying your work if they like it, but the more mistakes you make the less professional you look. And remember, we have to be better, not just as good.

If you're working on a typewriter, then get a dictionary and use it! I bought one for a quarter at a flea market.

Of course, use the spell checker on your word processor or computer; but remember that a spell checker can only check if a word is spelled correctly... it doesn't know if the word you used is the right word. For example, your spell checker doesn't know that "sea" isn't the right word to use in a sentence like "See the dog run." It will let you write "Sea the dog run", which will make you look like a retard.

Likewise, your spell checker doesn't know the difference between a "capitol crime" and a "capital crime", since both spellings are correct though the meaning is different.

A spell checker doesn't know the difference between "you're manuscript" and "your manuscript," or "I'm smarter then you," or "I'm smarter than you," or "it's a beautiful day" and "its a beautiful day." 

Do you?

Spell checkers don't know when you've left out a word, like in, "A rat was tattooed on one of his arms", so it can't tell you if you leave out the word "one". (A rat was tattooed on of his arms.)

Spell checkers can't tell if you left out a period at the end of a sentence, a comma in the middle of a sentence, or quotation marks in dialog... and even grammar checkers make mistakes.

The only way to be sure your manuscript is as error free as possible is to proof-read it over and over and over again.

How many mistakes are too many? I'd say you shouldn't have more than an average of one typo or misspelling per each ten pages of your manuscript. You'll probably find more typos and mispellings on this page then what you should have in your manuscript.

(Where's the typo in the last sentence above?)

The standard way to show that a word should be in italics, like in, "I told not to buy that shit!" is to underline it. "I told not to buy that shit!" This goes back to the days of typewriters, which didn't have italics. If you want to use italics on your computer or word processor, then make sure you're using a font where the italics show up clearly from the regular text.

Original or copy?

Okay, you've typed and/or printed out your novel or story, and it's as error free as you can get it (or think you can get it). You've sent a query letter to a publisher and, hot damn, they want to see your manuscript! Do you send the original, or do you make a copy and send that?

The choice is up to you. If you've typed or printed your original on 24 pound paper, that will make the best impression with an editor. But a good clean copy on 20 pound paper will be all right. Or, you can make copies on 24 pound paper. If you do make copies, be sure they come out clean and sharp. I can testify that a lot of small copy shops have shitty machines and the copies look like hell.

If you've written your manuscript on a word processor or computer, then of course you have the whole thing on floppy disk, CD or flash -- or should for backup -- so you could just send the original print-out. Then all you have to do is print it again if you need to send it somewhere else.

On the other hand, if you used a typewriter then you probably won't want to re-type the whole thing, so make copies.

A lot of today's home printers can make multiple copies of your manuscript cheaper and better than copy shops.

Sending your manuscript

A few of those How To Write books still advise you to send your manuscript in a box that typewriter paper came in. I haven't seen typewriter (or printer) paper come in boxes for over 20 years. You can use a mailer box if you want to, but a padded mailing envelope will work just as well and save you postage costs... postage is charged by weight.

Don't waste your money sending your manuscript overnight, either by mail, U.P.S., or Fed-Ex... unless it absolutely, positively does have to be there overnight. Most manuscripts are "checked in" and put on a shelf after they arrive at a publisher, and an editor may not get around to reading them for weeks or months, so paying big money to save a day or two in the mail doesn't make any sense.

On the other hand, Parcel Post, Fourth Class, or Book Rate, although the cheapest ways to mail your manuscript, might take weeks. And your manuscript will get very rough treatment. I've seen lots of Parcel Post and Book Rate envelopes with footprints on them.

I usually use Priority Mail, but not Overnight.


Do you want your manuscript returned to you if the publisher decides not to buy it? If so, you have to include another mailer addressed back to you, along with the postage. This is called an SASE -- Self-addressed, stamped envelope. But, if your manuscript has gotten several readings at a publishing house it might look pretty sad by now and you won't want to send that copy out again. I usually just include a business-sized SASE, paper-clipped to the cover letter. Then, if the publisher doesn't buy your novel or story, they can send the rejection in the SASE and dump the manuscript in the trash.

I mean recycling.

By the way, the chances of somebody stealing your novel or story and claiming they wrote it are about the same as you getting kidnapped by space aliens.

As far as anybody stealing your "original ideas," someone else has either thought of them before, is thinking of them now, or will think of them tomorrow.

If an editor replied to your query letter and asked to see your manuscript, print REQUESTED on the mailer so it doesn't end up in the slush-pile with a thousand unrequested submissions. But don't put "requested" on your submission if your manuscript wasn't requested by an editor. It's an old trick, and everyone knows it.

What's a slush-pile? Slush is a slang term for unsolicited manuscripts, meaning manuscripts that were not requested by an editor, publisher or magazine. Manuscripts that end up in slush piles are usually the very last thing an editor reads... and sometimes slush doesn't get read at all.

You have a much better chance of getting published if you can keep your work out of slush piles; and one of the best ways to do this is to write a good query letter so your work is requested by an editor.

Stay strong, and good luck!

Jess Mowry

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