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  Barbara Sachs Sloan

Knock My Socks Off by Barbara Sachs Sloan

How can you get an editor, agent or publisher to pull your manuscript out of the slush pile and select it as THE one to print? Write well.

Sound simple? Well, maybe it is.

For starters, editors/agents/publishers see SO many manuscripts so often, e/a/p's have developed a set of pet peeves. Are these a matter of "taste"? No. They're the result of seeing the SAME "mistakes" so many times, the e/a/p feels like flogging the next writer who makes them. Or just not reading that manuscript, and back into the slush pile or into its return envelope it goes.

Here are a few of those "mistakes":

1. "This is a rough draft" scribbled on a submission (includes the "I'll be happy to change/fix it any way you want" disclaimer). Take the pains to get it right, tight and focused before you submit it.

2. Starting the cover letter with "I." Believe me, the e/a/p will be happy to get to know you IF your manuscript passes muster. But what the e/a/p really wants to know about right away is the subject of the story/article. Focus on your subject matter and on hooking the editor with the aspect of it that perhaps hooked you.

3. Unprofessional appearance: improper format, messy pages, light type, large or very small or unusual fonts, ALL CAPS (except for the manuscript's title), sloppy spelling and grammar, typos.

4. Unprofessional writing: "as" clauses everywhere (Three in ONE paragraph is THREE too many), contrived-sounding dialogue tags ("Why is that?" he questioned.), clunky dialogue (not using contractions when nobody is speaking "formally" and "talking to the reader" by putting narrative details into the dialogue), really long sentences packed with independent and dependent clauses and prepositional phrases.

5. Poor organization: Don't plug in details as they occur to you--put them where they belong according to the logic of timing and sequence (or move them on rewrite); don't just start writing and let the words tumble out, and then SUBMIT that draft. But worrying about organization ruins creativity, right? Wrong. Don't WORRY about organization--let your words tumble if you must (if that's what does work for you creatively) for the first draft; then review and organize and tighten.

6. Repetition: Why is it that a word comes to us for use several times in a row? Part of the "craft of writing" is then going back through and cleaning those up, using different words instead of repeating the same ones three times in two sentences.

7. Not understanding the rules. I don't know how the e/a/p's can tell, but we can spot the difference immediately between someone who knows the rules and is artfully breaking them and someone who is breaking rules he doesn't know anything about.

8. Clumsy writing: the word "that" sprinkled liberally throughout; misuse of words, including simple ones such as "when" and "once" (In order to avoid "as," writers switch to "when" but forget the logic involved in what can happen exactly in concert with a "when"); misuse specifically of progressive tense verbs (Remember, when you use phrases such as "Grabbing his coat and putting it on, he buttoned it quickly," you are making a person do things simultaneously that can't be done all at the same time--follow the logic of the actions).

9. However, this leads to the mistake, in fiction particularly, of following the actions of the character too much. It isn't necessary to track every move and gesture (He went into the room, walked over to the window, etc., THEN left the room, got into his car, shut the door ... zzzzzz) unless such action in the rare scene is showing something vital about the character. The customary method for handling character movement is to "collapse time" and have the character already in the next place you need him to be.

10. Chunking: putting all your situational details in big chunks of dialogue and/or narrative in places where these big chunks stop the ongoing action. If you need to put in a block of information, wait until the critical action reaches a natural pause spot.

11. The SAME story ideas over and over and over and over, with writers not bothering to read what's being published or to make their stories have that sufficiently-different slant needed to make yet one more story on this overdone topic actually worth reading let alone publishing.

12. Making "typical beginner's mistakes": wordy, unclear, inconsistent writing/story lines full of holes or contradictions, dialogue that sounds fake, a voice that's too formal for the situation, words and images that contradict the mood, too many dialogue tags filled with adverbs, too much detail that actually has nothing to do with the subject or with advancing the story.

E/a/p's want your manuscript to knock their socks off, they really do. So give them what they want :)

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