Guidelines? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Guidelines

Rejection Just Ahead Green Road Sign with Dramatic Storm Clouds and Sky.

Um, yeah, you do.

Confession: I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year. I have nine million irons in the fire right now, in the form of columns to write as well as reviews and my own fiction. Also, Fallout 4 hits this month. And Battlefront. So there’s that. Don’t let my nonparticipation in anyway discourage you from writing your novel. That’s not what this column is about.

What I do want to talk about are submission guidelines.

According to the numbers, 300,000 of you are participating in National (uh, international?) Novel Writing Month, and more than likely a small percentage of you will submit your work for publication. We will come back to those numbers later.

If you finished your book, then it’s time to bust out the champagne and celebrate. YOU DID IT! You wrote a whole book, and that is something to be very, very proud of.

Not many ever reach that mark.


In their whole lives.

It is a real accomplishment that is simultaneously as unsatisfying as it is gratifying. First, you actually completed a novel. Second, no one else gives a shit. Oh sure, your friends and family care, because that’s what they’re supposed to do, but if they don’t write, if they’ve never committed to a sprawling story on paper with plots and subplots and themes and characters, then they could never understand what it was that you accomplished. The people who don’t give a shit are the agents and editors and publishers.

They can’t care about what they will never see.

What do you mean, Mr. Bob?

Let me explain:

Once your book is done, and you’ve polished it up, and cleaned up all the grammatical errors and made it all look pretty, you’ll begin searching the web for places to submit your product.

I really hope you don’t do this.

Before you open up that particular can of nightmares, it would be wise to find some beta readers. Let people you can trust read your story. These people can be friends or family members, but I don’t advise that. Perhaps it’s best to reserve those folks as a last resort. Coworkers who read fiction are a good bet, simply because you should trust them, unless they’re douchebags, and you probably don’t hang out with them away from the job. The main thing is finding someone who will actually read your story and can be honest with you about what they read. The other beta readers, if at all possible, are people who actually write. Sure, this is easier said than done, but if you’re a writer, and you’re serious about it, you’ve probably built up a nice network of trustworthy people who may be willing to lend a hand and give your story a quick once over.

A word of caution here: if you’re friends with a really famous and well-known author on the social networks, say someone like, Gillian Flynn… she’s definitely NOT the person you want to ask to be a beta reader, so please, for all that is holy, don’t go there.

Beta readers can help you find the errors you missed, and once you’ve stepped away from the project for a little while, your own eyes will open up and you’ll see some other errors as well. It’s a good idea at this point to go on ahead and rewrite your novel.

Do what?

You heard me, rewrite it. Not from scratch, unless you want to, of course. This is a process you better get used to. If you’re one of the lucky ones who manage to get a contract, well… if you thought writing the novel was hard, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Get used to it, and just rewrite it, edit it, clean it up, whatever you want to call it, just do it. There are tons of great guides out there to read about getting your book ready for publication, and I suggest you read as many of them as you can get your hands on.

Now that your book has been beta read and spit shined to a nicely cut diamond, you might be ready to submit.


Make sure you research your market. This is worth repeating, so… Make. Sure. You. Research. Your. Market. If that’s still not crystal clear, just reread the previous sentence until it sinks in.

This is the part where you’re probably questioning my directions here, and let me tell you, if I was new to the writing business, I’d be questioning me as well. Hey, I get it, really. You’re still wet behind the ears. If you think about this, it all kind of makes sense in a condensed sort of way, right? I’m not going to provide you with all the tools because if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’ve got some snap. I mean, c’mon… you wrote a fucking book. A novel. That thing, writing the novel, makes your friend who can drink a whole twelve pack of PBR in less than thirty seconds look like a fucking loser-ass lightweight. So you’re smart, you wrote a book, you want to get it published, and you have the internet. So there ya go.

I’ve been writing for over thirty-five years. 35 YEARS. There will never be a time I will not be writing something. I’ve been extremely fortunate over the past seven years and had some pieces published here and there. Most of it is non-fiction, with a handful of fiction out there, and all of it I’m extremely proud of, and so very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. Most of what I submit is accepted. Most. Nearly every publication I’ve submitted to has interns who go through the submissions to find the stories they think the editors will want to read. This is a practice that has gone on since publishing, and it will probably never stop.

When I first started submitting, I was terrible. My stories sucked, and my writing was juvenile; I was writing at a second grade level. No plot at all, terrible characterization, and my grammar skills were nonexistent. Rejection became my middle name. Remember, this is thirty years ago, back in the dark ages before the internet.

Yes, there was a time before the internet.

We had to print out our manuscripts. We had to consult a book called the Writer’s Market, and God help you if you were using the previous year’s edition. We had to package our manuscripts in these giant pockets called envelopes and take them to the post office, walking barefoot for miles, in the snow, and pay for stamps, and then we’d mail it, careful to also include a S.A.S.E. (a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope, in which the editor could mail us back, just like the ‘reply’ button in an email), and then… oh joy, we would wait patiently for months, and months.

And months.


After about a year, you might get a reply back, and it was usually a rejection.

How do I know this? Well… and goddamn it finally feels good to get to the point of this whole article… I know this because 95% of those writers, including myself


Standard Manuscript Format. Learn it, live it, and by all means use it. Also, read the specific guidelines for that particular publication. That bears repeating, so read the previous sentence until it sinks in.

Oh… Mr. Bob? I hear what you’re saying, but remember that part about accomplishing something most writers will never do in their entire lives? Well, I wrote a whole novel, and… c’mon… who really follows those guidelines?

Who follows the guidelines? Editors, agents, and publishers, that’s who.

Well, rules were made to be broken.

Hey, I love your gusto, but I’m sorry, these guidelines are in place for very specific reasons, but one reason stands out from all the others: the ability to follow simple instructions. Editors are paid for their skills in acquiring the fiction the publication wants their audience to read, and for their expertise in taking that steaming pile of story you sent them in hand and helping you shape it into something they are proud to sell. Editors turn good stories into great stories.

So you think you’ve written the next Great American Novel… good for you. You’ll always be a legend in your own mind if an editor or agent never gets to see your story.

Remember the part about publishing houses using interns to go through the slush-pile? I want you to think of a small press for a second. Think of how many submissions they see in a week. A month. And this is during the times when the submission periods are closed. Imagine what it’s like when submissions are open. Imagine what it’s like at the larger publishing houses, or one of the big league agencies. Small presses probably see twenty-five to fifty manuscripts a week. Of course, those are emails, but still, that’s a lot of emails. The Big 6 publishers probably see hundreds a day, if not more. Editors rarely have time to read all those emails. Interns handle that duty, and their job is simple: Fail to follow instructions, you get a nice form letter rejection.

So you wrote your manuscript in Garamond 14 point, single spaced with no tab indents? Shit, you could have written the damn thing with a broken crayon in a Big Chief notebook at that point. If the guidelines called for 12 point, double spaced Courier with .4 indents and no spaces between the paragraphs, and you failed to follow the guidelines, I don’t care how beautiful your words are, or how compelling your story is, chances are very high the intern is not going to read it.

And if the intern doesn’t read your story, guess who else won’t read it.

The guidelines are there to see if you can follow instructions. That’s all. Why would an editor or agent care if you are able to follow instructions? Because if they offer you a contract, that means they want to buy your story, but it’ll always be their show, and they have an audience to please. If you cannot follow instructions, then they’re not going to be able to develop a personal relationship with you to make your good novel a great novel. So yeah, the instruction thing, it’s important. I’d be willing to bet good money that a very high percentage of rejections are based on that factor alone.

300,000 people writing a novel in a month. Less than a third of you will finish the novel. About a third of those that finish will find others to read it, and that third will actually edit the story. Eventually, only a small fraction of writers who actually started Nanowrimo will submit their story, and with that number a whopping 1% will get a contract.

That’s not negativity folks, that’s reality.

Please, please, please: find the guidelines, understand the guidelines, and follow the guidelines. To the letter. Don’t get a rejection because you couldn’t get your manuscript past an intern.

Follow the guidelines, and get a rejection because your story sucks balls.

I know that last bit is not very encouraging, but hey, you don’t get a gold star just for showing up around here, okay… so deal with it.

And good luck.

Now get to writing.


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