Getting Your Work Read & Represented—Part II: Give Yourself a Fighting Chance; Follow the Rules

Some say that rules are meant to be broken; I'm not one of those people.

Some say that rules are made to be broken; I don't happen to be one of those people.

Anyone who knows me or has read some of my other blog posts knows I used to teach English—and that I am totally psycho nerdy about grammar.  Ergo, once you’ve disregarded grammar, you’ve made an enemy of me.  This comes from one part of me just being wired that way and one part from my time in the classroom.

In my five years as a teacher, I taught every grade (from 5th through 12th), which means I had to read hundreds of essays, research papers, and news articles written by my lovely students.

The most painful thing about all that grading was—hands down—grammar and formatting errors—a.k.a. “the rules.”

“But, Mrs. Schultz, I didn’t realize we had to use quotes.”

“Um, Nick, it’s a research paper.”  Are my ears bleeding?

Not surprisingly, it was much easier for me to read assignments that followed the rules.  Even if the actual quality of the assignment wasn’t all that mesmerizing, I breathed a sigh of relief to find that one, proofread, properly-formatted, grammatically-correct diamond in the rough whenever I graded.

Generally, if a student took the time to follow the rules, the assignment was better by nature than the crumpled pages his classmate dug out of the bottom of a book bag and handed in to me without so much as utilizing Spell Check.

In this way, I can understand—on a tiny scale (YES, I am qualifying here)—what it’s like to be a literary agent.

As well, I’d venture to guess that, just as correctly formatted papers earned better grades in my classes, queries/manuscripts that follow the rules probably make it further in the slush pile than the ones that don’t.  Even the ones with weaker plots.

Think about it.  Conference after conference, blog after blog, agents and editors  beg people to follow the rules.  It both amazes and disgusts me.

You mean, people aren’t doing this? Naïve Ricki gapes.

Once, I actually heard an attendee say he didn’t “bother” with “all that grammar and stuff” because “that is what an editor is for.”

Um, yes, I suppose that is true to a degree, but do you really think you’re going to get to that point if you’re not bothering with “all that grammar and stuff”?  Editors aren’t really there to do your work for you.

In terms of agents and “the rules,” each agency has its own submission guidelines, which is another way of saying, “These are the rules.”  Presumably, these rules have evolved from a mix of industry standards and the agents’/editors’ preferences.  They have become annoyed with X, Y, and Z and rejected X, Y, and Z so many times, it was necessary to put the rules in place.  This is another way they can weed out the serious from the not-so-serious—the professional from the amateur.

Furthermore, what is so difficult about following the rules?  If an agent says no snail-mail and you send a SASE anyway, should you really be that surprised when you get rejected?

What I’m NOT saying:

**I’m not saying to come up with a lousy idea but punctuate properly and, magically, you’ll be  represented. But, theoretically speaking, if you take that much care with “the rules,” you’ll probably take that much care in making the rest of your manuscript top-notch as well—and agents will notice and appreciate this.

**I’m not saying I’m perfect when it comes to “the rules.” No one is.  However, I turn up my nose to writers who disregard these hallowed rules.  After all, how can one really claim to be a writer and not have respect for the craft?

**I’m not saying there won’t be typos. Of course there will be typos—that’s just an annoying fact.  However, the more you proofread, the cleaner your copy will be. And, good news alert: According to one agent I talked to recently, the occasional typo doesn’t bother agents—as long as that’s what it is (and not a horrible grammar issue masquerading as a typo)

Where to go for help:

**Reference Books

If you don’t know all the rules (again, no one does), then bow down to the sacred grammar gods and treat Chicago Manual of Style; Write in Style; One Word, Two Words, Hyphen-ated?; and Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript (four of my favs) and the millions of other great resources out there as the sacred texts they are.

**Freelance Editors

After you and your spouse and your cousin’s husband who majored in English have all proofread your work, if you still aren’t sure you have done the rules justice, hire a freelance editor.  It can be expensive, yes, but there are some who will work with you in terms of pricing, based on what you want them to do.  (Shameless self-promotion alert: like me!)

Lastly, a Desperate Plea:

Agents look at a lot of bad writing because everyone thinks they have an idea for the great American novel and that publishers are going to fall in love with it, regardless of “all that grammar and stuff.”  But please.  Once you’ve gotten over your own ego (please see Part I of this series), give these agents a break.  Respect the rules, and give your work a fighting chance.

Teachers have to read everything. Lit agents don’t.  And, in that way, literary agents are kind of like rock stars to English teachers.

Teachers have to read everything. Lit agents don’t. And, in that way, literary agents are kind of like rock stars to English teachers.

Getting Your Work Read & Represented–Part I: You Are Not a Pioneer; Deal with It

Guess what. You aren't any of these people.

Guess what. You aren't any of these people.

Over the weekend, I read two blog posts that fired up my synapses: “This Has Never Been Done Before!” on literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog and “Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post” on Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog.

While not on the same subject, these two posts got me thinking about what works and what sells (“the norm”), grammar/formatting/submission guidelines (“the rules”), and how closely one should follow these things.

This summer, some individuals critiqued my YA manuscript.  Two critiquers echoed a concern I’d had about the time span I used in the story.  (It originally took place from a girl’s sophomore year of high school through her college graduation.)

Prior to these critiques, a friend of mine read my book for fun and liked the fact that it spanned this amount of time.  She said, quite rightly, that one doesn’t generally see many books out there of similar subject matter for girls in the 18-24-year-old age range unless they fall under chick lit.  She, therefore, concluded that my book would stand out because mine did.

This tugged at my gut a bit.  She was right.  Young adult literature is geared toward 12 and up, but the “up” doesn’t typically reach college age—my manuscript would stand out.  But did I want it to stand out for that reason?  If there’s no market for that age group or if that age group doesn’t really fit into that genre, shouldn’t I change it?

Of course, as any writer who has worked on a manuscript for a few years and who thought she was ready to query, I thought, Ugh.  I want to query now!

So this brought me to a dilemma: Do I overhaul it *one more time* (groan) and get it to conform more to the conventions of what’s already out there in YA lit in terms of time span, or do I forge ahead with what I already have and become a pioneer for an under-represented age group?

This was part of the reason I sought critiques.  I figured, if no one noticed the things the voices in my head said agents might red flag, then I’d give it a go and query right away.  But when two reviewers mentioned it, that tugging in my gut became more of a yanking.  If two people I respect as writers brought it up, literary agents would undoubtedly as well.

So that is where I am right now.  Overhauling one more time.  I believe in my writing ability, but I am not about to declare myself a pioneer and use that as an excuse to do whatever I want.  That’s just stupid.

Although you don’t want to write a cookie-cutter story, if you want to sell what you write, then stick to what works.  Stick to what sells.  If there isn’t a market for what you’re writing, there’s probably a reason.  Once you’ve been published and have sold tens of thousands of copies of your book, then maybe you can try to write that fantasy-romance hybrid geared toward men over 70, but keep it in your drawer for now.

I have quite a lot more to say about “the rules” and “the norm.”  Stay tuned for Part II.

Sugar Ray only did well when they released more conventional music.  Not that you want your books to be the equivalent of Sugar Ray songs...but I'm pretty sure they made a decent amount of money in their heyday, so who are we to judge?

Sugar Ray only started doing well when they released more conventional music. Not that you want to be the literary equivalent of Sugar Ray...but they made some cash in their heyday, so who are we to judge?