Friday, December 16, 2005

Here’s what I want you to get yourself for the holidays

Several years ago, I picked up the latest hardcover by an author whose first several books I had acquired and/or edited. I was surprised to find out that he was still thanking me in the acknowledgments, even though I’d had nothing to do with that book, or any of his prior two or three before that. I called him up to say how nice that was and he said, “Hey, you taught me how to write a thriller.” And that’s probably true. In fact, the reality is that I made him throw out the first one hundred pages of his first novel and then gave him a page or two on what should actually happen in those first hundred pages. Subsequently, I took him through three or four drafts of each of the next four or five books. Now I love this guy. He’s great. But that’s not editing. That’s taking an author by the nose and pulling until he finds his way to a finished manuscript. And even after all those drafts, I would still extensively line-edit his work.

Should I have been doing that? Or should I have been spending my time looking for authors who needed less work? In today’s publishing environment, I can say that the answer would certainly be, No, you should not be doing that and, Yes, you should be looking for projects that can get out the door and into the sales pipeline faster.

And, as an agent, that has to be my approach also. In my year-end email to my clients, I just wrote this:

One of the very real frustrations of the last year has been current clients submitting material that’s just not ready to be shown. Whether it’s because the material needs rewriting or simply reformatting, I can’t emphasize how much it slows down the process when something comes in not ready to go out immediately. Every client receives manuscript preparation guidelines when they sign on with my firm. I believe nearly every client is writing in Microsoft Word. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that following those guidelines and using the spelling- and grammar-checking functions in your software will vastly speed up the process of getting your manuscripts or proposals out to publishers. Imagine my frustration when I open up a file on my computer and Microsoft Word flags several misspellings. How can that be? Or imagine my reaction when I open up a file and find the wrong margins, words in italics instead of underlined, or formatting that clearly does not follow THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE?

Some authors seem to believe that typos and formatting don’t really matter. After all, they will get fixed during the editorial process, they seem to think. But in reality, those typos and style errors lead agents and editors to believe that representing or publishing a book will be more work. If I know how to spell- or grammar-check a file, then surely any author should also, right? If I know to look up the right way to punctuate or format something in CHICAGO, then an author should also, right?

I am attaching a PDF file with the standard MS preparation tips, so that you can have a copy handy. I also strongly recommend that every author ask for a copy of THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE this Xmas or Hanukkah and give it a read. It’s highly educational and an invaluable resource for any writer.

And that goes for all of you out there. Read THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE. Read THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE. Don’t just buy them and leave them on your shelf. Use the software you have and use it correctly. Every time I see an author using spaces instead of tabs or tabs instead of centering commands, I think, This author is a computer illiterate who will forever torment me with manuscripts and proposals that will need reformatting. That does not make me want to represent them.

In the end, it is the substance that matters, but presentation counts. They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. Putting together a sharp manuscript or proposal is definitely a good start.



Nancy said...

As a reporter and freelance writer, I'm familiar with both of these books. I also use the AP Style guide and it tends to bleed over into my "non-reporter" writing...

With all these books, I have never read them from cover to cover...

Is it equally acceptable to use them on a case-by-case basis for those times when you are in doubt?

Christi said...

Hey, Andy, instead of the writing style books, maybe you ought to recommend a good Word book? Something the authors can use to learn how to USE Word, since it sounds like it's more of a processor problem. Now, I know that some of that--esp. the mis-spellings--can be corrected BEFORE submission and SHOULD BE. The formating thing, though, probably problems knowing how to really use the program, especially if they've changed lately.

Just my small observation.

Christi said...

Oh, one (or two) other thing(s)--if you look at some of the websites by the "internet gurus" out there, they actually ADVOCATE mis-spelling things. Makes you more "human" and gives you better rapport with the common person. So, they say!

I'm also seeing a lot more books pass through my hands that have typos and all in them, which makes a person wonder if the Editor is doing the job he/she is supposed to be? Does no one proofread manuscripts these days?

Okay, so I'm up to 4 cents. Sorry.

Andrew Zack said...

I recommend that an author read the entire book when the first get it. Otherwise, it's like a tree falling in the woods. How will an author know that capitalization of military ranks is covered in CHICAGO if the author has never read through the whole book?

MICROSOFT OFFICE WORD INSIDE OUT is the Word book I'd recommend.

Ronni said...

I am attaching a PDF file with the standard MS preparation tips, so that you can have a copy handy.

Would you be willing to offer that file for download? I'd love to have a copy.

Andrew Zack said...

The MS Prep tips are available on my website, off the Submissions page, I believe.

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