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Visit the active LitNet platform at www.litnet.co.za

Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Skryfsake | Writing matters > English

NetRaad: Michelle Matthews

Michelle Matthews - 2006-12-11

You can learn a lot about your craft from colleagues and from approaching your work with a positive, dedicated attitude. These ten tips are from a publisher’s perspective, and are more about how to get our attention.

1. Write well
The quickest way to attract the attention of a publisher is to be a good writer. Although, as Stephen King says, no amount of work can make a merely good writer a great writer, it’s possible to elevate your writing from mediocre to good. And good is often good enough, especially in the case of a well-conceived non-fiction pitch.
2. Choose the right publisher
Do your research with the PASA handbook and online. Publishing houses and imprints publish into specific areas: it’s no good sending a Zulu book about identifying birds to Lapa, for example. Also, publishing houses publishing the same types of books have different "flavours": Oshun’s fiction list focuses on commercial chick lit and thrillers, while Kwela’s has a more literary approach. If you write poetry and short stories, it’s usually best to approach a journal before you approach a book publisher.
3. Read
People who buy books generally read a lot of books, so you should too. Sometimes publishers receive manuscripts that claim to be unique ("It’s a memoir about how I restored a villa in Tuscany: I’ve never seen anything like it!"). Sometimes the submission claims to be a response to other books on a similar subject ("It’s so much better than The Da Vinci Code, which people have told me is a load of crap."). There are half a million books published in English in the world annually. No one expects you to read more than 30 or 40 of those a year, but publishers always consider competitive products and you should be familiar with what’s out there, particularly if it’s in your area of interest. Reading can also improve and inform your writing. 
4. Respect your own work
Don’t send us something that you scribbled at 2 am one sleepless night. Don’t send in a story full of spelling mistakes. Don’t act surprised when we reject a piece of work that you obviously have so little interest in yourself.
5. Know what you want to say (and say it)
If a reader gets to the end of a piece of writing and doesn’t know why they’ve read it or what they have gotten out of it, then it’s not a story. Sometimes this happens because a writer has no idea why she’s written the piece. Often it happens when she has focused on style or characters and forgotten about plot and pace – typical of writers doing writing exercises. Another trap some writers fall into is that of knowing what they want to say, and then just not saying it. Always, always say what you mean; don’t write so "pretty" that you actually obscure your point.
6. Be original
An original concept or a new take on a subject is usually a key factor in the success of your proposal. Don’t even think of plagiarising. Making an entire manuscript out of quotations from other sources strung together is not a good idea, unless it’s an anthology, academic review or gift book. Remember that you have to pay permission fees for everything you quote, so use extracts wisely and sparingly. (There is no such thing as a guideline word count for "fair use" – the definition is that there’s copyright infringement if you have used "substantial" pieces of a work. In a song, for example, that could be one line. Just to be safe, we apply for permission for everything and let the copyright holder tell us whether they consider it fair use or not.)
7. Edit yourself (and others)
Be strict with yourself. If you suspect a bit is boring or clunky when you’re reading over it, imagine what a publisher wading through her slush pile will think about it. Cut it out – put it in another file if you can’t bear to delete it forever – but don’t let the boring, clunky parts drag the rest of your manuscript down. Always keep your reader and their enjoyment in mind when editing.
Join a writers' group and offer to edit one another’s texts. This is a fantastic exercise to get you thinking about how to improve your own work (and hopefully your colleagues will get something good out of it too). It may also help you understand what an external edit is about for when you have to go through it yourself.
8. Be completely satisfied with the work that you submit
It’s hard to wait once you’ve typed "The End", but don’t send in the first draft. I often get e-mails from authors saying, “I’m so embarrassed about what I sent six months ago. Here’s the ‘real’ manuscript.” Also, don’t send it in just because you got stuck and you think the publisher can help you. Unfortunately we don’t have the resources to develop unsolicited manuscripts. Rather put it in a drawer for a while, or join a writers' group.
9. Consider submitting something else first
This may seem disingenuous, but if you’re working on a novel but could write well about something else, it’s worth considering submitting a non-fiction proposal first. The fiction market is an incredibly competitive one – publishers receive a lot of manuscripts and publish few titles – but readers and publishers are always looking for good, useful non-fiction titles. This is obviously not an option that would suit every writer, but if you can stomach it, a bit of income from a successful non-fiction title can support you while you pursue your passion project.
10. Respect the publisher
It is perfectly reasonable to send an e-mail or make a phone call following up on a tardy publisher’s promise to respond within a certain time frame. (We understand that our response is very important to you, but we are occasionally human.) Do not show up at reception and demand a meeting, do not pretend to be an old school friend of the MD to gain access to the offices, do not send out a press release claiming that the publisher is considering your book for publication before they’ve even seen it, do not post negative reviews online in an attempt to sabotage another of the publisher’s books that you believe is in competition with your own proposal. Yes, these are all things that potential (and as yet unsuccessful) authors have done. Remember that a publisher is considering entering into a long-term relationship with you, so initial impressions really count (this works both ways, of course).




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