Exploder has been crashing repeatedly when I try to post, and iCab gets into a loop of continuous info dump so that the average typing speed becomes about one letter every 2-3 seconds. Hence the infrequent posting. I'm expecting this to crash at any moment.
Or maybe not.
Anyway, OryCon 29 is coming up and as writer's workshop coordinator (or workshop fool, which may be a more accurate description) I've had the opportunity to watch the submission process from eager beginning to its black demise. Here are some observations that may be helpful, or may be simply suitable to inspire a sense of professional superiority in pro-minded individuals.
"I was terribly disappointed. I got almost no comments on my content and about ten pages of formatting information. Since then I've published in (X and X) magazines."
Gee, I was at that critique and that's not how I remember it, but who am I? This seems to be a classic case of not listening. This person may very well be turning out good prose, hence the publishing credits (which were both paying markets, btw) however it's really hard to go from good to amazing when you can't listen to comments. The hyperbole doesn't help--she didn't get even ten pages total of comments much less ten on formatting. There was plenty of room for improvement in the manuscript, including the formatting. But more on formatting later ...
Comments from anyone, whether they're a professional, fellow writer trying to break into the business, or helpful buddy are always a mixed bag. A great resume' does not make a great critiquer, unfortunately. Still, if that person wasn't impressed (and maybe couldn't say much more than stuff about your formatting) then something is falling flat. If you can't see it for yourself, then try to get a second and third and fourth opinion. If those other opinions are all about the excited enthusiasm and spewing about the perfection of your vision, then feel free to pat yourself on the back for writing the next international classic (or for finding the perfect audience or providing sufficient bribery or blackmail for this result.) It stinks to get a poor critique, but you gotta get what you can from it. Poor critiques require more advanced listening, reading between the lines, and before you decide that it was totally worthless (and some of them are) you need to take a healthy dose of objectivity. Sometimes you can do that all by yourself, but be careful. It's better to get another reader involved, hopefully one with a good skill set, and get at the truth that way.
Dear Cover Letter Reader--I have no idea what to say so I'll take a guess without looking at the big picture.
What's a cover letter's job? Sometimes it's easier to figure that out by looking at your entire submission package in the context of who is getting it. I'll use a writer's workshop novel package as an example. The package consists of a cover letter, a 500 word synopsis and a 7500 word chunk of novel. Logically we can deduce that the cover letter is an introduction. But then what? A key is to try not to double up on information. Another key is to not include extraneous information.
A good cover letter will include who you are, contact information, and date. Unearthing manuscripts from a haphazardly stacked pile is an exercise in surprises--giving the editor a chance to place your manuscript should it become misplaced is key.
A good cover letter will include pertinent information about your experience. Editors (or in this case pros reading your manuscript) want to know where you're at in your career. They want to know if you're just starting out, if you're in it for the long haul, get a sense of how prolific you might be in the case of novels (it's not inappropriate to mention if you've got other works in the works and what stage they're at) and if you've taken any major steps for self-improvement (degrees, Clarion, etc.) Be sensitive to the pro's pov as much as you can. They get no real information from 'I've been writing since I've been three years old.' Well, me too. I learned to write my name at three. They don't really get a sense of your quality or stick-with-it if you say you started writing seriously in high school, or in college. So what are they looking for? I majored in journalism (or English) in college. I have published work in non-paying markets from 1985 onward. If you're submitting for publication you may want to keep out information about the high school poetry chapbook unless you're close to high school age but if you're submitting to a workshop you have more freedom since you're not trying to sell your work. In a workshop you're trying to give the pro perspective so they can critique in context. For example, looking at it from the other side, if I'm critiquing something I want to know if I can say 'you slipped into passive voice during this action scene which slowed it down' and let it go or whether I need to explain what passive voice is. I'd like to know if I can boldly say, "this character was so unsympathetic I was ready to stop reading by page three" or if I should gentle it down--not leave out information, but get more technical and not assume that the writer is going to understand that I'm having a specific issue with the story, not with the writer or the prose or their worthiness to publish. With advanced writers you can use shorthand without coming across as brutal, taking a five minute explanation about a character's flaws, actions and inner dialogue and how that made me feel like they were a worthless whiner and pare it down to "this character whined too much. I wanted more protagging."
In short, a cover letter needs to give useful information, and in the case of a professional submission to a paying market, not too much information about amateurish stuff so you don't come across as an amateur. It doesn't need a description of the plot (handled in the synopsis) or a hook (handled on the first page of your manuscript) or how many margaritas you drank as research for this piece. Shorter is better, but include all the necessary parts.
Now, back to "...ten pages about my formatting."
The last time I helped someone with their formatting it took six pages of explanation. I kid you not. Not on how to do it--that was clearly outlined on the submission guidelines along with a .pdf example. But on how to fix the piece of I-don't-know-what-they-were-thinking workmanship they handed in as their submission. I kid you not! It seems that even the extensive precautions I took didn't prevent me from having to deal with very badly formatted manuscripts.
And why should an editor care? It's all about the content, right?
Readability. An editor's eyes are precious. They've chosen fonts and line spacing to accommodate their vision and not following those guidelines is a slap in the face. It says I care more about having this come in under ten pages by using ten point font than your vision.
Space to write. An editor needs room to write in comments, when they're inspired to do so (which is rare) and both the editor and typesetter, should you be so lucky as to have your work accepted, need scribbling room for editing and typesetting stuff.
Ability to estimate. An editor prefers to see how many pages there are and have a good idea of how much room it will take up in the magazine. They do this through word count as well, but word count doesn't always accurately measure room on a magazine page or thickness of the book because writing styles and word choices differ. The page length is another tool they like to use, and that's useless or misleading if you've used 1.5 line spacing or a font that they're not used to estimating with, for example.
Certainty of placement. An editor needs to know absolutely where a paragraph starts and ends, where there's a scene break, a new chapter, etc. without having to think. The problem with email-style paragraphing with no indentation and a double return after paragraphs is that it looks like stream-of-consciousness meets a monstrosity of scene breaks every paragraph (but missing the # sign that helps them determine that yes, this is a scene break.) Other style changes are even worse. Whenever a writer breaks out of standard format the editor has to adapt to that style, and I'm going to guarantee right now that the editor doesn't want to adapt. You can argue if you want that everyone is used to reading such and such a style. Personally, I prefer not to argue with someone I'm trying to sell work to, or someone I'm trying to gain a good opinion from.
Having done this job for several years, I sometimes wish that everyone in INK could take on this job for at least a year, preferably two, to help put the whole professional submission thing into perspective for them. I've often heard editors wish aloud that writers would take on an editorial job or slush pile reading, even if it's informally and just a short while. This is why. It's the experience of seeing other people's mistakes that help you figure out what to do with your submission, much more than being told what to do and what not to do.