The Un-Conventional Pitch

Authors and editors alike are always interested in how the manuscript gets into the publisher’s hands – authors because they want theirs to be read, editors because it means things to edit – yay!

Traditionally, publishers receive manuscripts in two ways, depending on their preference and, usually, the size of the organisation. Most of the big publishing houses use literary agents, who write letters of recommendation, extolling the virtues of this particular client’s work. The person in charge of the slush pile (often your lowly intern!) reads the letter, and if interested, may actually set eyes on the manuscript.

The other way to do it, usually a more common method for smaller publishing houses, is through unsolicited manuscripts. This involves the author emailing or submitting the manuscript online whenever they choose. It is not based on the request of a publisher or the advice of a literary agent.

This is the method that Odyssey uses. Authors upload their manuscript through our submission portal in order for us to see it. We require them to include a synopsis, a biography, an ‘elevator pitch’ (how they’d pitch the book in the time it takes to ride an elevator) and the first four chapters of the manuscript.

Each of these methods work fine, indeed, at least for Odyssey, it’s how we discover most of our authors. But it does have its downsides. Both styles of submission are very impersonal; they consist of a letter, an email, or a summary. They give no scope for your impassioned defence of your work. All you can do is try and type as much as you can into that little box, and hope it’s enough to sell your work.

However, particularly with small publishers, a third option seems to be emerging.

As I noted in my blog post on the Supanova Pop Culture Convention a few weeks ago, going around these conventions with Odyssey, I have seen a number of authors willing to come up and make themselves, and their work, personally known to my boss.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Conflux Science Fiction Convention Odyssey attended in Canberra over the October long weekend. Conflux provided an option for authors they called PitchFest, which gave them a chance to pitch a particular work to my boss in 10 minutes.

The session worked thus: after brief introductions, they began by covering their title and synopsis. The publisher could then ask for clarifications, and even request the author elaborate on details they found interesting. Then they went over their author platforms, while the publisher made sure they understood the way Odyssey works, and knew what it would be like to work with a small press.

I considered this opportunity an excellent way to bring publisher and author together in a way that allows for a more personal and in depth interaction about the work. It was also a great way for everyone to get their names out there, and for authors to have a go at pitching their work.

Aside from this more formal aspect of it, I also found, as I have with every convention I have attended this year, that interest can also be expressed very casually. Throughout the day, a number of authors stopped by to discuss publishing with us, some interested in how Odyssey worked, others wanting to quiz our authors on what is what like to be published with us. Our boss was always open to informal sessions over coffee, and, as always, we found a few interesting manuscripts over the weekend.

So it seems that any and all opportunities to make yourself and your manuscript stand out should be enthusiastically undertaken by authors. Networking is key, as you get a chance to both formally and informally meet different publishers, and figure out which one is best for you. Some authors we have met at previous conventions are now part of the Odyssey family. If you can, I would always recommend taking a chance on the unconventional pitch

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Traversing the Thorny Thicket

One of the most typical intern jobs around is being assigned to the slush pile, as both I and Brendan have been at different times.

In layman’s terms, the slush pile is the collection of all the new submissions a publisher receives. Part of my job is to sift through the hopeful cover letters and (often) ambitious manuscripts, and divide them into two groups, the ‘Don’t Bother’ and the ‘Worth Consideration’. It’s a job commonly assigned to interns and newbies because it’s intensive, with often little to no reward. However, ploughing through the slush pile is an important step in any intern’s journey for a number of reasons. It allows you to hone your critical thinking skills, as you learn to look for certain signs that a book may have what it takes.

It’s prompted me to think more deeply about why I approve or reject a certain manuscript. Not only do I suggest certain manuscripts for our publisher’s consideration, but for every manuscript I read, I’m required to do up a summary document, where I provide a short synopsis, pick out the elements that are good and/or bad about the manuscript, and justify why I would or would not publish it. It’s quite a lot of power, which has the potential to easily swell this small intern’s head!

Before I even read the manuscript, I’m looking at the cover letter, the biography, the marketing plan, and the way the author sells their work. And so, before we’ve even made it to your manuscript, we’ve made a lot of assumptions about you. One of the most important, and often overlooked is: can you follow our submission instructions? Someone who hasn’t bothered to add in their pitch, or whose cover letter leaves out relevant details automatically needs their manuscript to work harder for them.

The process of turning manuscript into finished product sees an editor and author working very closely. So when we consider your book, we’re also considering what you will be like to work with. These things come out very easily in cover letters, and will definitely make us reconsider you, even if your manuscript is out of this world. The relationship between a publisher and an author is very much a partnership. The work doesn’t stop once we agree to publish. So, ideally, you want to come across as interesting, enthusiastic, and willing to work with us, to be in the best possible position for us to accept your manuscript.

Now on to the fun part: reading the actual text! At Odyssey, we usually ask for the first four chapters, to give us a sense of the work. When I’m reviewing the slush pile, rarely will I read all four of those chapters. From discussions with various editors and slush pile enthusiasts I’ve met through my work, I’ve discovered that everyone has their own rule of thumb. For me, it’s the first twenty pages. What I’m looking for, first and foremost, is a text that can capture me in those first twenty pages. Even better than that, if I end up wanting to read more than the four chapters an author has sent, that’s usually when I send excitable emails to the publisher, demanding that we request a full manuscript, just so I can know what happens!

How does an author capture my attention and keep it? Well, that’s the part that’s hard to quantify, and is different for every book. Readers today are more spoiled for choice than ever. A novel that can make readers connected to their characters, absorbed in the action and excited to see what comes next, just in the first twenty pages, is going to be one that has a much better chance of succeeding in the market. So I can’t highlight what I want. But I can give you some ideas of what I don’t want.

  • Poor Editing – Oh wow! As editors, we know that typos slip through all the time. We do it too! (only sometimes) But a manuscript that’s full of typos just seems lazy. If an author can’t be bothered to edit their manuscript properly before submission, how are we supposed to think they are at all dedicated to making sure their book does as well as possible?
  • Over-Detailed Introductory Material – This is guaranteed to make me stop reading a manuscript very quickly. The best novels catapult you right into the world you have created. Backstory comes later! It trickles out and keeps you hanging on for more. If you load it all in at the beginning, no one will be hanging around for the middle, let alone the end.

As I’m rapidly running out of space, I’ll leave it there. My adventures in the slush pile have made me one of the pickiest readers around. Every manuscript I work with allows me to better understand what it is that makes a novel stand out as publishable amongst the mountain of slush that never will be.

The Big Picture: Structure and Flow

Happy Friday! You may have read Jen’s excellent piece on Monday about editing sweet, sweet copy. If not, there was a link back in that last sentence and you ought to click it. Now it’s time for the second blog of the week, by me! As Jen covered copyediting, we thought it would be swell if I talked about the bigger picture: structural editing. Here are some choice shower thoughts I had about this blog, that became this blog.

A disjointed novel, much like a disjointed limb, can be pretty useless. It goes without saying, but there’s a reason that people find short story collections without a very tied-in theme difficult to read in smooth succession. It’s because it’s hard to jump from world to world so quickly because you’ve only just established a connection with the previous story. You need that cool down time, where you dwell in the spaces the author created. You fit yourself into the world’s nooks and wonder about the characters and the plot. (You might wonder why it is that Gandalf didn’t want to go through Moria, but wouldn’t tell the fellowship his fears? Was Gandalf deliberately keeping the truth from Gimli? That bastard!(This was indeed a shower thought.))

Similarly in a novel, disjointed chapters or voices can have the same effect. If the author has created what feels like two different worlds that have no connection, then it can become very difficult to invest as a reader. It becomes more difficult then for the author to impart their story, to build characters and share emotions with their readers.

The job of the structural editor here is to ensure a sense of consistency, or provide suggestions of where to put the glue in the cracks. One of the many things a structural editor will do is called “chunking” where the parts of the story are categorised or chunked into groups. This allows both the editor and the author to get a better sense of the story and character development, what’s happening and when. Often a structural editor may even suggest the scalpel for a voice or chapter, as it brings nothing to the story and is hurting rather than helping. We do the same with paragraphs, but that’s on my next point.

Flow is often one of those annoying buzzwords that people use. But I am people, and I will use it because it’s the right word for the situation. It also literally means flow, as in the same way water flows. Why is it important to a structural editor and also to an author? Flow is vital to the creating a good reading experience of the book overall but also for each individual chapter. Something structural editors look to ensure is that voices, moods or scenes don’t chop and change (unless of course, that is achieving something deliberately). An important part of flow is ensuring that chapters don’t run up against each other and cause people to need a break from the book. Within those chapters, flow is about ensuring that people don’t switch off. That each paragraph pulls the reader to the next like a current. Sometimes to create flow in a chapter, we use the scalpel. Sometimes we move things about. Sometimes we ask for more. That’s what we do. We help put things in place, words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. All for the long view.

At some point a manuscript becomes a book, and the job of a structural editor is build and mentor, to pester and worry, and ultimately to make sure that an author’s words connect with the reader. We’re for good stories, written well and read even better. We are the big picture people, and as many editors will tell you, the bigger picture is often in the details, which is why structural and copy editing work together to create good books.

They’re Their: Copy Editing and Its Importance to the Finished Product

Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of you are feeling a bit ripped off. In our introductions, and most of our discussions about what we do, Brendan and I have both said time and time again that the majority of our work centres around editing. But so far, a lot of our blog posts have focused on other topics. We hear you, loyal readers! You want to know about the ins and outs of editing, and we plan to bring it to you.

Today this post is all about copy-editing, the often confusing, mostly frustrating, and frequently overlooked aspect of editing that many authors forget they need. Copy editing does not concern itself with major plot holes, aspects of drama or action that need livening up, or even fixing those incredibly annoying characters that you just cannot stand. In a nutshell, copy-editing involves editing a text to make sure it is clear, easy to read, and most of all, consistent.

When I talk about copy-editing’s concerns with being clear, I am mostly taking about issues of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Misspellings, an over abundance of semicolons, or passive voice are all concerns of the copy-editor. This also ties into making the text as easy to read as possible. Copy-editors scan your manuscript line by line, just waiting to find those devious little sentences that are too long, too verbose, or just plainly too confusing. Like a tiny little word ninja, they swoop in and cut those sentences down, making them pleasing and simple to read.

One of the absolutely key jobs of a copy-editor is to make sure the manuscript is consistent. There are many out there, mostly frustrated writers banging their head against battered keyboards, who would love the writing process to be simple and straightforward. The reality, of course, is that it is a highly creative and organic process. As such, characters undergo major identity changes, settings are moved, and events are scrapped and written again. This means that your average manuscript can often be full of inconsistencies that the author has overlooked or simply forgotten to fix. When your Hobbits begin by marching through the Misty Mountains, and end up at Hogwarts, that’s when you know you need a copy-editor.

Most inconsistencies aren’t usually as drastic as all that (although, now I think about it, Bilbo Baggins’ sorting would make some awesome fanfic). Usually checking for consistency involves fixing characters who were redheads in one scene and brunettes in the next, or whose names have mysteriously changed halfway through. Not only that, consistency with word choice is also important. How many times have you Aussie writers battled frustratingly with a Microsoft Word that insists on changing your ‘s’ to a ‘z’. Small issues like these occur frequently throughout a manuscript, and finding and fixing them is an important part of the copy-editing process.

I can see the cogs whirring in your brain from here, even though none of you have yet read this article as I’m writing it. This sounds like proofreading! Proofreading is easy, I do it all the time in my essays, why have you gone and given it a fancy name? I should note, before our publisher reads this and then decides to hunt me down for my factual inaccuracies, that there IS a difference between the two. Although proofreading and copy-editing have several things in common, they are different parts of the editing process. Proofreading is generally the final stage of editing, where we look for errors that have been overlooked in previous edits. These are usually small spelling mistakes and typos. Copy-editing is a far more intensive edit, and aims to make the text as cohesive as possible, in order to provide the most pleasure for you, the reader.

It’s very easy to think that editing is just the one process, rather than the many-layered beast it is in reality. Manuscripts go through a number of edits before they are even proofread, and a major part of this is the copy-editing. We’ve all been frustrated by a sudden change in a character’s appearance or name that shouldn’t be there, but the sign of a solid editing process is when that never happens. And as someone who wants to be an editor, boy is that a lot of pressure!