Once upon a time a man-made a birthday cake for his fiancé. It was the first thing he ever baked for her. In fact, it was one of the few times he had ever cooked in his life. Undaunted by the prospect, he emptied the contents of the box into a bowl, tossed the box in the trash compactor, and started mixing. First the eggs, then the … uh-oh … there was no milk to add to the mix. Now had he been able to unmangle the box, he would have known he could use applesauce in place of the liquid and still have a great cake.
In a fit of panic he added a can of pork and beans, then baked and frosted the result.
And instead of having a special treat for the love of his life, he had a lumpy orange cake that could blow out its own candles.
The sad thing is, some writers approach writing and marketing the results the same way. For example, you may have written the most amazing bit of Christian vampire erotica ever to hit the printed page, but regardless of how many times you send it to Field and Stream or Redbook, they are not going to buy it. That’s why publishers print hundreds of thousands of those little sheets called Submission Guidelines. With the advent of the Internet, they even post them on web sites and send them out in e-mails just so folks like you and I will know what they want (and consequently, what they don’t want).
You would think the idea of reading the directions would catch on.
Boiled Okra Reasoning
Not him…the REAL Elvis.
Some folks don’t bother to read the guidelines, and worse than that, many who do read the guidelines ignore them. They use the boiled okra line of reasoning. That one goes something like this: “Well I know you say you don’t like boiled okra, but you’ve never tasted MY boiled okra.” The writer’s equivalent is: “Well I know your guidelines say you don’t buy humor pieces, but you haven’t read MY humor piece.” It’s the same difference. (For any northerners and other folks who have never been subjected to a bowl of boiled okra, it is the consistency of a dissected frog’s innards, it leaves a slime trail, and it is just plain nasty. And unless Elvis cooks up a batch in my own kitchen, serves it for supper, and brings a note from God Himself stating that I have no choice, I will not eat it again).
And that is the same attitude an editor takes when a writer starts the I know, but you haven’t read my… gambit. The register is going to ring up No Sale.
Follow the Rules
The simple fact is in order to be published regularly some things are an absolute necessity. You have to:
- Study the Markets: Invest in a good market guide, a reputable market list, or even one of the hundreds of free market sites and use them.
- Write to the specifications the editor sets out: If the guideline says no fiction, it means no fiction. If they are looking for historical romance, a history based action adventure piece will be cheerfully rejected. And if the word limit is 1,200 – 1,500 words, don’t send less that 1,200 or more than 1,500.
- After you target your publications and study the guidelines, send query letters based on salable ideas. Then write the pieces once you have a contract. Too many writers have written a story, article, essay, etc., and spent countless weeks and months trying to find a home for it only to find it doesn’t quite fit anywhere. Then the piece becomes an orphan.
Ready … Aim … Fire Works Better
The two best writing lessons I ever learned (aside from proper manuscript format and doing the work) have to do with the way we should approach writing. The first has to do with that issue of writing something then trying to find someone to publish it. It’s not impossible, but it is a real pain. And writers waste a lot of time trying to find a home for those pieces. The easier (and better) thing is to study the markets, come up with your ideas, and pitch away. Then, when an editor says yes, start writing! Novelist Lisa W Cantrell was the first writer to show me how that concept works, and I will always be grateful.
Along those same lines, the first time I met writer/editor James Watkins, he made a statement that changed the way I thought about writing forever, The title of this presentation is Selling Everything You Write, but actually I’m going to teach you how to write everything you sell That tends to work better. It’s more than just semantics. It is a smart way to do business. And it’s a good way to develop habits that will serve you well throughout your writing career.
The second lesson came from novelist and editor Kathryn Ptacek. She was the person who taught me that things change fast in the publishing world, and like milk, guidelines go out of date. Back then I kept a physical file of guidelines and always called before pitching a project to make sure there had been no editor/editorial changes. Today things are much easier and a quick check of a publisher’s website or a brief email will provide the same information.
It is important to remember that writing is a profession and the people with whom you will deal are professionals. They have certain expectations, and in order to see a byline and a check, you will be expected to be just as professional.
Step one: Read the directions.