This week’s blog by Poisoned Pencil editor Ellen Larson  is about the very dry topic of Writers’ Guidelines. In particular, the Poisoned Pencil guidelines, and why I really do need to read the cover letter first, the synopsis second, and (maybe) the book itself third.

The Online Submissions Manager – A Thing of Beauty and a Joy Forever 

The first thing it says on our Writers’ Guidelines page is that we use an online submissions manager (Submittable) for all our submissions. We explain that this is a huge help in organizing our work-flow, and that it helps keep us organized by creating an automatic record of all correspondence for both the writer and the Poisoned Pencil. The second thing is that we publish only young adult mystery fiction. What’s not to like?

Nonetheless, every week or so I find a submission in our catchall address (info@thepoisonepencil.com) or in my inbox (ellen@thepoisonedpencil.com; feel free to drop me a line), rather than in Submittable. Curiously, submitters who somehow miss both the Guidelines and the Submittable page almost always fall into one of two categories: 1) an agent or 2) a writer whose book is neither YA nor mystery and quite possibly not even fiction (I’ve received several cookbooks)

Now I get it that writers often think that, to a greater or lesser degree, there is a grey area around all guidelines (maybe the word count is just a generalization, right?, and maybe be 13 to 18 they mean 12 to 19). Writers are optimists by definition. And, yes, there will always be newbies who don’t know the drill, and the perennially clueless who know but don’t care. But what’s with the agents? I know: They’re very, very busy.

So I write back and include a link to the guidelines, because yes, you really want to read them, and mention that we only accept submissions through our on-line submissions manager, because we really do use it exclusively. And we really do only publish YA mystery and we really don’t want paranormal. Really.

I admit that I just trash the cook-book submissions.

Why So Picky or What do You have against the Paranormal?

I have nothing against the paranormal. I like vampires. But the Poisoned Pencil does not do vampires as per our concept for the imprint. If I reject your book by saying that it is not the type of book we’re looking for, that does not mean I think your book was awful and I’m being kind; it means it does not fit our genre (and I usually get specific).

 Once upon a time, publishers had reputations for publishing certain types of books. No, I don’t mean “certain genres,” I mean books that are intellectually witty, or books that are great stories, without a lot of worry about the beauty of the writing, or books that are political statements. MGM made a different kind of movie than did Columbia, right?

Today it’s much more about genre, sub-genre and niche markets. Though I’ll take this opportunity to state that “literary” is not a genre, but an approach and a style of writing. So “literary mystery” is not in any way a sub-genre of mystery.

That all publishers want books that are well-written goes without saying. But any way you cut it, individual publishers have to know what they’re looking for, defined in the most narrow set of terms possible. Which only means that all information pertinent to the type of book being sought has to be shared. Sometimes this involves mention of what they do not want; sometimes these don’t-wants end up on lengthy lists, written with a degree of sarcasm. Publishers are actually trying to be helpful to the writer by posting guidelines. I recommend that you read them as you would the manual for your phone.

The Synopsis

Does it really matter if you don’t double space your MS, or if your margins are too narrow. You know what? Yes, it does. Does it matter if you don’t include a synopsis? Well, yes, in that I won’t read your MS if you don’t. And yet, it is the synopsis that is most often left out of the submission.

When information is given in guidelines, it is intentional. When we say “protagonist between 13 and 18” we mean it. When we say, please follow the standard conventions of MS preparation, we mean it. When we say, “write a two or three page synopsis that details the plot; include how the book ends,” we mean it. When we say, “include the ending,” we mean that too. Whether a publisher calls for a one, two, or ten page synopsis, they want the same thing: a line about the main characters, setting, and themes, and the details of the plot.

Here’s my process: I first read the cover letter, to see if the author fits our genre (the cookbook test) and to alert myself of any potential grey areas (vampires, no, slight supernatural element, okay). Then I read the synopsis, to see if the author has included the elements of a mystery: crime, sleuth, hunt, suspects, resolution. This is why writers need to include the end of the book and the solution to the mystery. I need to know if it’s there and if it makes sense. I rarely make a decision based solely on the synopsis, but it puts me on alert for a number of issues. I also refer to it often as I read the MS.

I generally read some or all of all of every submissions that fit the genre. The only time I read less than the entire first chapter is when the author is a non-native English writer. With those I read long enough to confirm the problem, and then reject with a recommendation to get a language editor. I try to give shaky writing in the opening chapter every chance, by reading/skimming through the first third of the MS. In my experience, even the best writers can fall apart in the opening chapter. If I don’t see competent writing pretty quick (less than half an hour), I stop.  I also stop if the list of no-nos (clichéd characters; generic dialog; not enough mystery; writing is too MG) gets past two. A character I instantly identify with, or overtly sophisticated writing, or an excellent set up will pull me on. Just this week I got three-quarters of the way through a book that had a compelling protagonist before I gave up; the list of other none-fits was just too long.

BTW, spelling and grammatical errors are not on my list of no-nos. Nor are minor formatting errors or font choice (we do ask for TNR, though). Ditto minor inconsistencies such as character names, spelling of character names, or factual errors (unless they are legion). Every writer does all these things, and that’s what copy editors are for. There’s a big difference between a typo and the failure to double space (or 1.5 space) a MS. Just get the formatting right, and include what we ask for, and you’ve given yourself your best chance for discovering whether or not we’re a fit.

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Bonus Rant: “Read our magazine to get a feel for what we want”                                                                                                                     

Sometimes you run across this phrase in the author guidelines for magazines. Until I actually sat down to the task of creating guidelines for the Poisoned Pencil, I assumed that such magazines that included this phrase required literature of such a rarified phenotype that it wasn’t possible to describe it with mere words. Yeah, well, I never said I was quick.

Having gone through the process of writing Guidelines, and living in a constant state of wanting writers to know exactly what we are looking for, I now realize how silly that is. You want urban steampunk with humor, you say so. No interest in science fiction that doesn’t actually have, y’know, science? It’s not hard to describe. It’s possible that such magazines, inundated with off-genre submissions, merely want writers to have the courtesy to buy their zine if they’re going to submit to it. But it’s not possible that the publishers don’t know exactly what they want. So maybe they are just too busy to explain. Publishers are very very busy too.