About Mike Reeves-McMillan

Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his Auckland Allies contemporary urban fantasy series; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable, and there are a lot more wizards. He also writes the Gryphon Clerks series (steampunk/magepunk), the Hand of the Trickster series (sword-and-sorcery heist capers), and short stories which have appeared in venues such as Compelling Science Fiction and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.
Apr 22

Basics of Standard Manuscript Format

This chapter will only be of interest if you're planning to submit your manuscript to someone else for publication, either a short fiction outlet of some kind or a traditional novel publisher. If you're exclusively self-pub, move along; nothing to see here.

Before you go, though, have you considered the advantages of submitting to short story magazines and anthologies? Short stories are a good way to build and practice your skills, and publication in magazines and anthologies brings some of the recognition and validation of trad-pub without the rights-grabbiness. (Rights typically revert within a period ranging from "immediately on publication" up to a couple of years.) The payments aren't huge, and as I suggested in the previous chapter, the market's not easy to break into, but depending on your goals for your writing it can be well worth making the attempt. Here's a blog post of mine which goes into more depth.

There are a surprisingly large number of outlets to submit to, as well, especially if you write speculative fiction, which I do. Here are some figures, taken from The Submission Grinder, a website which lists short fiction markets and enables you to track your submissions (Duotrope and Ralan are similar sites):

Genre Pro Semi-Pro
Action/Adventure 6 10
Erotica 3 9
Fantasy 37 62
Horror 14 48
Mystery/Crime 11 16
Romance 2 9
Science Fiction 42 60
Suspense/Thriller 7 11
Western 0 5

(Includes all markets, regardless of story length. Some markets appear in more than one category. Some pay semi-professional rates for some lengths and professional for other lengths, and I've counted these as pro markets. Correct as at 22 April 2015.)

The distinction between "professional" and "semi-professional" markets is based on payment. Pro markets pay at least 5c (or 6c, depending who you ask) per word, semi-pro at least 1c but less than pro rates. That's not a fortune, certainly, and it hasn't kept pace with inflation since the heyday of the pulps in the 1930s, when a cent a word was common (worth about 14c today). Still, it can be a handy amount of money.

Incidentally, I personally don't submit to any market that pays less than semi-professional rates, unless it's a project that I believe in for some other reason (helping out a friend, proceeds go to charity, fun project that means I get to work with great people). Any market that can't afford to pay you doesn't have enough of an audience to give you much "exposure" either.

In any case, if you want to submit to these markets, or to traditional novel publishers, you will need to know the basics of Standard Manuscript Format.

The definitive article on Standard Manuscript Format is William Shunn's, and it's worth reading. But here's a summary, the least you need to know.

1. Put your name (the name of the person who will be paid--so, your real name) and your contact details in the top left corner of the first page. Include your physical address, phone number and email address, even though practically everything is done by email these days.

Exception: the guidelines may say that the publication has a "blind" submission process and ask you to leave off any identifying information from your manuscript itself. The guidelines are always the thing to follow, any time they contradict what is usually done.

2. Below (or opposite) the contact details, put the number of words, rounded to the nearest hundred. Almost any word processing tool (except, unfortunately, the tablet version of Google Docs) will provide this number, usually under the Tools menu, in an option named "Word Count".

Editors use this not only to calculate payments, but to figure out what will fit in their publication. Don't leave it out unless, for some strange reason, the guidelines tell you to do so.

3. Add three blank lines and type your title, centred on the page.

4. On the next line, also centred, type your byline: the word "by" and then the name you want the piece to be published under.

5. Add a couple more blank lines and start the story itself, set left (that is, not "justified" but with a ragged right margin). If you don't know what this means or how to do it in your word processor, Google is your friend.

6. The whole thing should be in an easy-to-read font like Times New Roman or Courier New, at a readable size like 12 point. Times New Roman 12 point is the safe option if the guidelines don't specify a font.

7. The first line of each paragraph should be slightly indented from the left. Don't use a tab or spaces to do this. Find out how your word-processing program sets a first-line indent, and do that.

8. The manuscript should have double line spacing throughout. Not single, not one and a half.

9. Unless the guidelines say otherwise, create a header which gives your surname and the title (possibly abbreviated if it's long) on the left, and the page number on the right. If your word processor enables you to do so, suppress the header on the first page, otherwise don't worry about it.

10. One-inch margins all the way around.

Check the guidelines for any variations from this format or any additional requirements.

Also check what file formats the publication accepts. I always use RTF (Rich Text Format) if it's an option, since it's easy to generate from any program, including Google Docs, which is where I work on my short stories.

A few publications will tell you not to attach the file, but to paste it into the body of the email. Do whatever the submission guidelines say.

Check if they want a specific format for the email subject line. A lot of publications use this to filter out spam. If they don't specify, I always use the word "Submission:" followed by the title and the word count in parentheses, since this is the most common format, and by following it you show that you're familiar with the conventions of the field.

Check if they want a cover letter. Most publications don't, and you shouldn't include one unless they say they want one. If they ask for one, though, supply one, and make sure you include everything they specify and nothing they tell you not to include. If they don't specify, include any previous publications, a brief bio like you'd put in the back of a book, and any relevant qualifications (relevant to the story you're submitting or to writing, that is), workshops you've attended, and the like. Don't just write these off the cuff when you submit something. Have them prepared, so that you can work on phrasing them as well as possible (workshopping with fellow writers helps), and copy them into the cover letter.

Make sure your cover letter, if any, is professional, brief, and relevant to what you are submitting.

Double and triple check that you have followed all the guidelines, including the ones about the kind of stories they do and don't publish. Remember, some of the guidelines are there to filter out people who can't follow instructions, and the rest are to make the editor's life easier. If you don't follow the guidelines, your chances of publication drop to somewhere around zero, regardless of how good your story may be.

Apr 17

How Editors Decide

Short fiction editors who make "open calls" (rather than soliciting stories from specific writers they already know) get a lot of submissions, typically hundreds. This is known in the business as "slush". Unless a publication is very small, there is usually at least one person whose job is to be the "slush reader". This person will reject the vast majority of the submissions without even showing them to the person whose name appears on the magazine or anthology as the "editor".

In most cases, the rejection rate is upwards of 90%, and most of those rejections are of stories that are completely unpublishable. This may be because they're incompetently told, or because they're hate-filled rants in the guise of fiction, and this series won't help you if one of those is your problem. Many, though, will be rejected because they haven't followed the submission guidelines, or because they're so full of errors that the editor will have a major task ahead of them to knock them into shape (and will still miss some errors; even very good editors do this, if there are a great many).

All else being equal, sending in a clean, competent manuscript will already put you ahead of most of the other submissions. You still need to write a good story that will capture the editor's attention, but at least you won't be part of the 90% that are rejected without further consideration.

I've made several sales to short story magazines and anthologies, and most of the rejections I've had have been personalised, which is a sign I'm getting past the slush readers. Several of my pieces have been "held for further consideration," which is how short fiction editors say "shortlisted". I say this not to boast, but to give you confidence that I do know what I'm talking about when I discuss getting through the gate with editors.

Part of the secret--not the whole secret, but part of it--is sending in a well-presented manuscript. And ideally, this isn't a manuscript that you have cleaned up from a terrible, shabby first draft. It's a manuscript that you wrote cleanly in the first place.

I've beta-read for a number of indie authors, and read a lot of indie books, and what I've observed is that the people who produce clean books produce clean first drafts. They don't make two hundred errors and then labour mightily (along with a hapless copy editor, or two, or three) to get it down to twenty; they make maybe five or six errors and get it down to one or two, or even zero.

That's a controversial statement, because most people I know follow the philosophy of "just get it on the page, we can fix it up in post". But that's my observation: it's a lot harder to produce a clean result if you rely on catching and fixing errors once you've made them than it is to not make them in the first place. I've seen books that have been through three editors and multiple beta readers that have simple, basic mistakes in them, and I know that they started out with more issues than National Geographic and this is the residue. On the other hand, I've seen books by people who don't employ a copy editor at all, and they are pristine--because they made so few mistakes that they (or their beta readers, or their developmental editor) caught them all before publication.

This is probably a good time to mention Muphry's Law, which states that any time you get on your high horse about copy editing you are bound to make a typo. Please let me know (politely) if I do, bearing in mind that I write Commonwealth English rather than American English.

I've drifted from the point, which is how editors decide what to publish. Basically, your chances are much improved if you do three things:

  1. Read the submission guidelines very carefully, several times, and follow them to the letter. Sometimes, one purpose of those guidelines is to weed out people they don't want to work with (people who don't care what the editor wants, but will just send in whatever they have). Another purpose of the guidelines is to make the life of the slush reader and the editor easier, and if they have to decide between someone who's followed the guidelines and someone who hasn't, guess which one they'll pick?
  2. Format your submission according to Standard Manuscript Format. Standard Manuscript Format isn't completely standard--it has a number of variations--but there are basic things that you need to do, and I'll talk about them in the next post.
  3. Show basic competence in your use of language. Yes, I've seen published stories with plenty of errors, but again, you're looking for an edge over all those other people who're submitting. If there's a choice between two otherwise equally good stories, and one of them is badly punctuated and full of misused words, which one is the editor going to choose?

The next post will deal with Standard Manuscript Format, and the rest of this series will help you with correct language usage. When it comes to following the guidelines, just read them over slowly, step by step, do all the steps, then check that you've done them. You'll be fine.