02 February 2004

Marvin the Misunderstood Manuscript

Early this morning Making Light, the blog of Tor editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden, offered a fascinating and worthwhile discussion of the art of rejecting manuscripts. It's a very educational look at authors' complaints about rejection letters from the viewpoint of a leading speculative fiction editor. Keep that last in mind—as valuable as it is, being something that authors should read before they first submit a manuscript; I hope she will make it available in a more-permanent and more-visible form—because the perspective behind it is just a bit too narrow.

Nielsen Hayden offers the following list of reasons for rejecting a manuscript, presumably in some sort of hierarchical order:

  1. Author is functionally illiterate.
  2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don't publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.
  3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.
  4. Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, incentiary, reeking havoc, nearly penultimate, dire straights, viscous/vicious.
  5. Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs.
  6. Author has a moderate neurochemical disorder and can't tell when he or she has changed the subject. This greatly facilitates composition, but is hard on comprehension.
  7. Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.
    (At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)
  8. It's nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.
  9. Nobody but the author is ever going to care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book.
  10. The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it's not the author's, and everybody's already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.
    (You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)
  11. Someone could publish this book, but we don't see why it should be us.
  12. Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.
  13. It's a good book, but the house isn't going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it'll just get lost in the shuffle.
  14. Buy this book.

This is a useful list, but it leaves a lot of uncovered ground, particularly in nonfiction. I offer a few more reasons to put on the list:

0.9 The author has filled the cover letter with outrageous puffery (or worse, verifiable untruths) that the editor will surely spot.

1.1 The author has sent a syllabus and writing sample when we asked for the full manuscript (or vice versa).

1.2 The author has plastered the manuscript with copyright notices and constant assertions that the idea(s) is/are new/dangerous/valuable/unique.

1.3 The author is playing in somebody else's sandbox without permission. This ranges from media-fiction novels to workbooks based on bestselling self-help books—especially when submitted to a different publisher than the source or authorized licensee.

4.1 The author is on bad terms with the Muse of Logic. Although the sentences are in acceptable English, they substitute grandiosity for thought, being rife with non sequiturs, unstated assumptions, Olympic-caliber conclusion jumping, poor math skills, ad hominem arguments, straw-man attacks, and other grade-school-level fallacies.

4.2 The author is on bad terms with the Muse of Research. Although the subject is technical or controversial, the author has provided no reference material, perhaps not even a bibliography, and is not a recognized expert in the field.

5.1 The author's competent basic paragraphs are self-contained units that bear little relationship to each other. There is no there (or argument, or exposition, or story) there.

6.1 The author has a moderate (or worse) neurochemical disorder, and has submitted a book on a technical matter without any apparent qualifications or real familiarity with the matter.

6.2 The author has a moderate (or worse) neurochemical disorder, and has submitted a book based upon a conspiracy theory that one cannot follow from paragraph to paragraph.

7.1 Although the writing is technically adept, there isn't a character present who could stir up any reader involvement; the characters are all at best avatars of the author and the author's friends, but more likely are props for an idiot plot.

9.1 The author is filling a publish-or-perish requirement with little or no originality.

11.1 Someone could have published this book three years ago, but it will be entering a mature, cannibalistic marketing niche dominated by two or three other books without clear superiority.

11.2 We are already under contract with a more-established author for very similar material.

14 (replacement) Recommend to the acquisition committee that we buy this book (the reality is that a completed serious nonfiction manuscript ordinarily cannot be acquired by a single editor).

I would also quibble with the placement of item 13; it belongs at least a couple of considerations earlier, at least for nonfiction and mainstream fiction. Nonetheless, this is a useful list, and the remainder of the post is, umm, educational for those who do not know how the publishing industry really works.