Mark Hunter (ozma914) wrote,
Mark Hunter

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next week's column: Murphy's Law and the Art of Manuscript Submission


Fiction writing is the most wonderful job in the world, except for the low pay, lack of exercise, long hours, no benefits, odds against success ... and the application of Murphy’s Law.

Look, it really is a wonderful job, okay? But every job has a bad part, and when it comes to writing the bad part is getting published.

The relaxation of writing is offset by the process of sending that product to a publisher. Editors will tell you it’s good writing they need, not a perfect submission. However, for every manuscript they buy, dozens of samples of good writing cross their desk, right along with several dozen examples of bad writing.

It’s easy to sort out the stuff that starts with “It was a dark and stormy night”, and ends with “and it was all a dream!”, but when it comes time to choose between all the good stories, presentation is everything. “War and Peace” will be roundly rejected if it arrives on purple paper, single spaced, with typing on both sides of the paper – the first word won’t even get looked at.

I like to think my mistakes are a bit more subtle than that.

So an aspiring writer must strive for perfection, made more difficult by the fact that different publishers have different ideas of what perfection is. One inch margins, or one and a half? Name, title and page number on the upper right? Upper left? Center? The eternal question of font type? And heaven forbid you splash “copyright” across the title page – it’s the editorial equivalent of jumping up and down, screaming “amateur!” Writers will spend an hour measuring the stamp on their submission to make sure it’s not crooked.

This is the background you need to understand the story I’m about to tell.

For a week I’d been finishing the novel, checking spelling and grammar, and crafting the perfect cover letter. This time around was particularly stressful, because the editor had already seen the first three chapters (a “partial”) and asked for the full manuscript – that means I’d already beaten out 90% of the submissions.

It was early Friday, and I’d announced my determination to get the manuscript in the mail by the end of the day, which was like spitting in the face of Murphy’s law.

As the pristine pages of black on white came out of the printer, I realized I’d forgotten to replace the scrap pages in the printer with new paper. I’m a person who uses both sides of the paper, not so much to save trees as because I’m cheap, but I think it’s safe to say getting a manuscript with old drafts on the back is cause for instant rejection.

I also like to save ink. My ink tank was low, but I figured I could get maybe fifty good pages out of it. I started the print job again, then returned to discover the ink had started fading to nothingness within three pages of getting started. I was left with pristine paper now covered with ghostly marks that meant consigning it to the same scrap paper pile I’d just depleted.

Eventually the manuscript, story outline, and cover letter were done, checked over – perfect. Using my occasional ability to think ahead, I’d ordered manuscript boxes, which were waiting to be labeled. Now, a word about manuscript boxes: they come in two sizes, so one can be fit inside the other. The outside one is addressed to the publisher, and the inside one to the writer, from the publisher. Both must be labeled and have sufficient postage, because no publisher is going to spend a dime on a writer until they’ve decided to actually buy the book. If you don’t include a way to return your manuscript, it hits the recycle bin.

Labeling something requires a label, of course, and you can’t just jot the address down with a marker – that’s unprofessional. (Oh, sure, you could – but remember, we’re trying to get our manuscripts to shout “professional writer”!)

I fail at using a computer to print labels. I mean, I fail spectacularly. So much so that long ago I gave up on the idea. Instead, I planned to use the good old fashioned typewriter my mother had given me, to simply put in the sheet of labels and type what I need.

Notice I said “planned to”. I’d never actually used the typewriter.

I put the labels in, started typing, and the ribbon broke.

Murphy laughed. Murphy always has a good time when our paths cross. How easy do you think it is to find a ribbon cartridge for a twenty year old typewriter?

Okay, I’d simply figure out how to use the label making program. And I tried, I really did – I tried for an hour. I read the help files, followed instructions, prayed, and simultaneously begged to and shouted at the computer.

Finally I was able to print one label. One, on the top left corner of the paper, where there were no labels because I’d already used that one in previous publishing attempts. I had to peal a label from the center of the page and – very carefully – place it just so, where the one label should be. And before you ask, I’d already used the ones from the opposite corner of the page.

But by gosh, I had my four labels. So I opened up the container of manuscript boxes, and discovered I didn’t have the inner and outer boxes – just the inner ones. I stood there, looking dumbfounded at the six single boxes, with the faint sound of Murphy giggling behind me.

I don’t know what I did to deserve that day. All I know is, I made it up to the Post Office before closing, sweat stained and tear streaked, hair mussed, one eye twitching, and asked the lady at the counter for postage on the box, plus a mailer to put it into. I was far beyond caring what it looked like.

She stared at me as if my head was spinning, which it quite possibly was. “I can’t put postage on a box that you’re not mailing now,” she sputtered.

And that’s when my head exploded.

It turns out she meant she couldn’t run it through the meter; getting stamps for it to be mailed back worked just fine. Just one last little miscommunication, designed to let me know who’s really the boss.

I just hope Murphy doesn’t have any relatives in the publishing industry.
Tags: column, new era, slightly off the mark, writing
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