Monday, November 1, 2010

Writing For Publication-101

© Rie McGaha 2010 all rights reserved

As someone who majored in English, wrote for the school paper, and only saw a "B" once in college, I thought I knew all there was to know about writing. Little did I know how different the real writing world of novels would be. Some of the many mistakes I made were things no one had ever told me before. I consider myself very lucky that I met someone who was willing to take the time to teach me how to write for publication. By the time the edits were done on the story, I was convinced that thinking I could ever get published was a dream I should put away and never look at again. But what I had done was make common beginner mistakes, and now as a freelance editor, I often read manuscripts that look much like my first ones did.

Saving first edits is something I do so I always have something to look at to remind me to be patient and kind to the authors I edit. Comparing my very first set of edits, which actually made me cry, to the edits of my most recent work, now make me laugh. Did I really write that? I'm still embarrassed! But rookie mistakes are part of the learning process for any first time author. Learning from those mistakes is what sets authors and writers apart. Anyone can sit down and write a story, that's the easy part. Becoming a published author is the hard part.

After having more than a dozen books published, I now feel that maybe I have some advice that will help those aspiring authors who keep getting rejection letters. Speaking of rejection letters, I've had my fair share. The first ones made me bawl like a baby and almost made me give up. Now I kind of expect them! Yes, I do still get rejection letters, but they don't make me cry anymore. If I get a rejection letter from a really good editor who takes the time to say why the work was rejected, I take the advice to heart. No, I am not a perfect writer. Yes, I still make stupid mistakes. I am the worst editor of my own work, and I am old enough and wise enough to know that I don't know everything. But I do know enough to listen to those who have been in this business longer than I have.

Becoming a published author is a tough row to hoe. There are hundreds of thousands of authors out there and a limited number of publishers. This is truly a publisher's market. There are also a limited number of story lines. An author has to present a near perfect manuscript, with a story line and characters that are going to catch a publisher's eye, and they have to stand out from all the other hundreds of manuscripts publishers receive every day.

Have I made you want to give up yet? I am not trying to discourage you; I am trying to make you understand how tough this business is and how good you have to be. A publisher doesn't care how good your mother thinks the story is, or if your best friend read it and told you your story is the best they've ever seen. Your mother and your friend are biased and they're not going to tell you the story sucks. A publisher will. So get a tough skin early, you're going to need it.

Now with all that said, here are some of the things to look for before you send your manuscript to a publisher:

• Spelling-you might think this is third grade but you'd be surprised how many writers don't use spell check and don't check their own work for spelling errors. You might also be surprised how many don't know the difference between words like 'their' and 'they're' or 'your' and you're'.

• Punctuation. You wouldn't believe how many times I see a sentence like this: "How can you say such a thing?!" This is a question so use only a question mark. Also, go easy on the exclamation marks, you can use a dialogue tag to show emotion. "John, look out!" Betty shouted with alarm in her voice. Okay, what is wrong with this sentence? Either use the exclamation mark, or the dialogue tag that shows how Betty felt. You don't need both.

• Name use. Or I should say name over use. When a conversation is taking place when only two characters are involved, it isn't necessary to continue using the characters' names. "Hi, Joe," Jim said. "Hi, Jim," Joe replied. "Do you want to go to the bar with me, Jim?" Joe asked. "Sure, Joe," Jim said. This is a simplistic conversation, but I'm sure you can see the problem with them. Since we know only Jim and Joe are present, it's not necessary to have the characters repeat one another's names. It's also unnecessary to use dialogue tags because the reader knows who is talking.

• Unnecessary words. There are many little word offenders in this category. Some of them are: that, had, and, really, very, little, then, and then, just, about, against, so, all, but, like, was and were. One of the ones I see a lot of is "just". Another one, and one that I am guilty of is "had". Remember, "was" and "were" are passive, and you want to write actively. And beware of –ing. This can also imply passive tense.

• Repetition. In one manuscript I edited, the author used the term "defiant son" every time the son was mentioned. Another mistake I've seen is using the characters eye color: "he rolled his dark brown eyes", every time the character spoke, "he rolled his dark brown eyes" or the heroine "rolled her baby blue eyes", or "her jade green eyes" widened. The reader gets the eye color and doesn't need to be told over and over what color the eyes are, nor does it add to the story.

• Dialogue tags. This can be tricky because some publisher's like dialogue tags such as replied, ordered, shouted, drawled, etc. But go easy on them because most editors think said and asked are fine. And remember, dialogue tags aren't necessary at all sometimes, like when only two people are in the conversation.

• POV/Head hopping-This is a big one. Don't switch point of view between characters in the same sentence or paragraph, and watch out for psychic phenomenon:

"Betty sat at the counter with a cup of coffee in her hand. She watched as Tom poured himself a cup and added cream and sugar. He was still mad and wanted to say something, it was right on the tip of his tongue, so why didn't he just say it?" Is Betty psychic? How does she know he's still mad? How does she know he wants to say something or that it's on the tip of his tongue? "Betty sat at the counter with a cup of coffee and watched as Tom poured one for himself. He added cream and sugar as usual. She could see the muscles working in his jaw, the way it did when he was mad and wanted to say something. She wished he would and just get it over with." See the difference? Now we know how Betty could tell Tom was mad.

Love scenes are probably the biggest offender of head hopping. It's easy to do because the writer wants the reader to know how each party felt while making love. And love scenes do play better if the reader knows what each character is doing and thinking, but remember not to switch POV in the same paragraph.

• Most importantly, when you are submitting work to a publisher, go to their site and read their submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. A publisher will think if you can't follow their submission guidelines, how will you be able to follow directions when being edited?

The key to getting your manuscript noticed from all the others is in one word: Polish. Polish. Polish. Then put the manuscript away for at least thirty days. Don't think about it, don't sneak a look, and squash that little voice that tells you to submit. After a month, look at the manuscript again. Go over it as if it isn't yours and edit it like you haven't done it before.

Another important aspect to writing is joining a critique group. This can be an on line group, or just a couple of author friends who will tell you the truth. I belong to one that is made up of seven or eight other published authors who write different genres and certainly have varied writing styles. We are very honest with one another, sometimes too honest, but nonetheless, I value their opinions and take their advice. The process to getting published can seem like a long one, but the rewards are worth it.

About the author:
 Rie McGaha was born and raised in northern California along the shores of Humboldt County where her grandmother often took her to search for seashells and watch the humpback whales migration. Being raised with the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, gave Rie a deep love for nature. She has resided in the Kiamichi Mountains of SE Oklahoma for more than ten years with her husband, Nathan, where they rescue animals, nurses them back to health and tries to find homes for them. She is the mother of 12 and Nana of 29. As a dreamer of dreams and being born with a gypsy soul, Rie has lived all over the United States. Between her husband, children, grandchildren and all of the animals, Rie tries to find a few moments to write.

Follow Ms. McGaha's tour here:


Anonymous said...

Rie, this is a great list of what to look for!! I once bought a book called something like self edit for fiction writers... and I can't tell you how much I've used its words of wisdom!!

Thank you for putting all this here.


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Rie, and I thought I had a large family with three children and four grandchildren! LOL. You are amazing, and I wish we were neighbors. We'd sure have a lot in common to discuss! Finding time to write in between working, helping with the grandkids, taking care of my wife and mother-in-law, and all the gardens and home jobs... it's a miracle I am on book fifteen! Loved your article, thanks for stopping by, and come back soon. ;o)

Marie McGaha said...

Hi Kristy! Thanks for leaving a comment!

Hi Aaron! It sounds as though we do have a lot in common. We have gardens too and I am now trying my hand at forcing tulips to grow indoors. I've not done it before so I can't wait to see if it works.

And thanks to Murder by 4 (love that title) for having me today. Very cool site.


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Rie, I always wanted to try my hand at forcing tulips. How cool is that. I need to redo all my tulip beds - they are getting scraggly!

Marie McGaha said...

And as I've read this piece back I see all the little mistakes I made and didn't catch! See, everyone needs an editor!

Aaron, We had a fire in June that wiped us out, so we have been rebuilding our lives over the summer and now that we are in a new house, we have a new yard to landscape, although that will be next spring. Everything was bulldozed over including my lovely garlic beds. These were here when we first bought this place and I didn't have to do anything except dig 'em up each year. They are the elephant variety, so I am waiting to see if they will come back on their own, or if I'm going to have to replant.


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Oh, no, Rie! That is horrible. While the idea of a new pallet to plant is exciting, my heart breaks for you, knowing how much you must have lost. I pray your garlic comes back. We have to replant every fall, and you remind me that I haven't done mine yet. I put in a nice pungent, large variety (unknown) that a friend gave me years ago - I do about 120 feet of it. We always have plenty to share, so if yours doesn't come back, come on over!

Marie McGaha said...

Thanks Aaron. I will hold you to that, and if coming over is too far, I will send you my snail mail and you can send me some.

I was also just reading my bio and that's an older one cuz I am now the Nana of 33, not 29 and I've got 2 more coming in 2011. Do I know all their names? Yes. Do I remember all their birthdays? No way. lol

Kim Smith said...

Hey Rie! Great to have you here today. You said:
"Becoming a published author is a tough row to hoe. There are hundreds of thousands of authors out there and a limited number of publishers" --not to mention all the wannabes out there who are yet to see publication. It's becoming a really closed field, isn't it? well, in a way it is. I guess there will always be places for authors to be published :) especially electronically.

Marie McGaha said...

Hi Kim! The e-book industry is a growing one and with our world quickly becoming a digital one, the e-book industry will only get bigger. The pitfall with new e-pubs cropping up all over the place is to find reputable ones. It's not like the old days when we had a certain number of traditional pubs and everyone knew who they were. I don't know how many e-pubs are less than 2 years old and some of them are great and some aren't. How do authors know who is and who isn't a great publisher? You can't even Google them because you don't always know who is really behind the name because it could literally be anyone. So do your homework folks!


Marta Stephens said...


Thanks so much for sharing your words of wisdom with us today. All the best to you with your tour of CLOSURE.

Sheila Deeth said...

Great list. Thank you so much!

Marie McGaha said...

Hi Marta! Hello Sheila! Thank you both so much!

Victoria Roder said...

Lots of great advice, Ria.

Marie McGaha said...

Hi Vick, Thanks for taking the time to stop by and leave a comment.