Monday, May 08, 2006

Talking Plot Points, and Considering Submissions

Voila: The Essentials of Plot, the talk I delivered in Kansas City last week.

As I say in the introduction, this is a stripped-down version of "Aristotle, Austen, Plot, and Pleasure" -- the plot talk I gave at Asilomar -- where I basically cut out all the personal stuff (a long introduction on how I fell in love with Jane Austen) and replaced all the Pride and Prejudice examples with examples from contemporary children's literature. I think I will still post "Aristotle, Austen," at some point as a tribute to Owen Jenkins (who indirectly taught me pretty much everything in the talk) and for the pleasure of my fellow P&P fans, but this version is much tighter and easier to follow altogether, I do believe.

I also created an Aristotelian Plot Checklist to show how all the theoretical stuff in the talk can be applied to your WIP. Again as I say in the introduction, this checklist is very much my own editorial WIP, so if you use it to check over your novel, I'd love to hear what you find useful and not. The same for the talk: Feedback is enormously welcome! My e-mail address is on the talk page, or of course you can comment below.

On a completely different subject, I'm putting together new submissions guidelines to try to make my process faster and more efficient for everyone involved (especially, yes, me). The current guidelines are query letters only, for everything, but I find I really prefer to see samples of the writing itself, which usually saves me from requesting things I don't like. So this is what I'm considering going to:

Picture books: Query letter + full text
Novels: Query letter + two chapters + synopsis (in that order)
Other: Query letter + five-page sample of writing (five poems, five pages of nonfiction, etc.)

(Writers still have to send query letters because (a) query-writing is a good exercise and (b) it hopefully keeps me from being mail-bombed with picture-book texts and sample chapters from people too lazy to write query letters.) I will respond with a form letter to any query not appropriate for me; and if I ask to see the full text of something and it doesn't work for me, I will respond with a form letter unless I want a revision.

Does this sound fair? Comparable to what other houses are doing? I've always tried to send a thoughtful this-is-good/this-didn't-work letter to anything I requested and then decided to reject (and truly there is no better editorial training than writing personalized rejection letters); but this conscientiousness has resulted in a backlog that makes me feel guilty and the poor writers anxious, so I hope this new response policy will speed things up. Writers: What do you think?


  1. Given the number of us vs. the number of you, your approach to responding to submissions seems fair to me. But since most writers who submit to you are going to receive your form rejection, I'm curious: What's in it?

    In my experience, the most galling (insulting) things about form rejections were 1) receiving fifth-generation photocopies and 2) being advised to join SCBWI when my query letter had specifically mentioned my membership.

    What writers long for, even in form rejections, is a personal touch, a sense that an actual warm-blooded human individual received the writer's submission and is responding as best she can. Somehow, Cheryl, I doubt this will be lacking from your form letters.

  2. I think those submissions guidelines sound more than fair.
    I am impressed by how passionate you are about your job in just about everything I see from you.

  3. I would rather suffer a longer response time in order to receive a personal letter. If the letter is a rejection, the input is useful for re-tooling the work for future submissions. Form letters are impossible to interpret!

  4. I think your suggested guidelines sound fair. Of course, writers prefer personals, especially if the information helps them improve their manuscripts, but if you need to send mostly forms in order to allow sample chapters or a picture book text along with the query, then I think it is worth it. You might want to consider listing possible rejection reasons in your form, and then you can check off the reason/s or add a quick note.

    By the way, I think your current response time is surprisingly fast, considering the amount of mail you receive. And your thoughtful remarks are greatly appreciated.

  5. Having received a very lengthy personal rejection today from one of your peers, I can say that it stings no less and may even hurt more than a form. I get ticked off when I get a form, but this just hurts.

    By the way, I'd give my eyeteeth to work with you and so would a lot of people.

    And to answer your question, it sounds fair and comparable to what others do, and I agree with Chris Barton that the line about SCBWI is really irritating when one has clearly claimed membership in the query.

  6. Cheryl, your response plan sounds more than fair. Thanks for asking for sample chapters upfront. That makes a huge difference. As for form rejctions, sure, we all want to think an editor appreciated our work enough to jot down some thoughts. But let's be pros about this process. I'd rather know sooner with a form if my query didn't work for you, even if it encourages me to join SCBWI. : )

  7. Having never received a rejection letter, I don't know if I'm qualified to speak about this. (Pause while laughter dies down and shouts of "liar" are acknowledged). I agree with Chris and wonder if there might not be a couple different "form" letters to use, as I'm sure some writers DO need to join SCBWI. Maybe minor tweaks that might give that acknowledgement of a human having read the query/sbumission (where again, I agree with Chris that it's unlikely your letter wouldn't have that).

    The form rejection letters I've seen (obviously sent to OTHER writers) do their job well enough -- they tell me there's no interest from that (clearly deluded) editor. And it's unrealistic for writers to expect personalized comments with the amount y'all have to plow through. So we writers need to be part of the solution to your dilemna, both by targeting submissions well and by graciously accepting the fact that editors are only human.

  8. I think your new policy sounds fine. Shoot, you're only human; you want to have a life sometimes, don't you!

    I can put up with a form letter with requested stuff. Though you might write a quick "Sorry!" on each one to personalize it. Or stick a balloon sticker on it as one editor did. If a writer wants an opinion, he needs to get a critique group. Or a thicker skin, something. Then again, it took me years to get a thicker skin. But that's my own dang fault.

    Though Angela's idea, of a checklist, sounds like a helpful thing, at least as far as saving time and giving the writer a sense of "Well, at least I got something out of the rejection."

    With one editor, I get my cover letter back with a quick note scribbled on it. That might work too.

    However, to me the form letter sounds like it will help you survive. The writers are just going to have to take their lumps. Some will deal, some won't. As they say on earth, C'est la vie. You have a job to do and you're trying with all your might to do it. At least give yourself a break!

  9. Contrary to Anonymous above, I will say I would choose a personal anytime - the sting passes, but the potential for growth remains. This not to say that I would ever expect or feel one is due, but there is something about knowing what worked in a story and what didn't... sometimes just a few words will get you going in a completely different direction that proves the key to bringing in the magic. There are some manuscripts that you have a gut feel for - there's a lot that's right but there's other parts that you know need SOMETHING ... and you just can't get past the WHAT. That's where the wee word is golden :)

    That said, I echo those who have said that it is beyond expectation that you should reply personally to all... thus, my view of the personal response: adored but by no means expected.

    And I think your guidelines sound fair and compassionate and - I must say - far better explained than most :)

    Joan P.

  10. A voice from the LG Books peanut gallery: I have what I call a "Personalized Form Letter" in which the basic body of the letter always remains the same, but I type in the author's name and the title of the manuscript, and then have a fill-in-the-blanks sentence in which I try to write one phrase that encompasses what I liked best about the manuscript and one that encompasses what I think needs improvement. (ex: "While I thought your plot was quite intriguing, I'm afraid I found the ending to be a bit confusing and disjointed.") I'm not sure if this is at all helpful to authors, but when I've requested something, I always feel that I should pay a bit of extra attention to it, and so came up with this. I'd be happy to show you the letter, if you like. Oh, and I give similar guidlines for submission--cover letter + complete picture book ms, and cover letter + three chapters and a synopsis for novel-length works.

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  12. Thank you so much for the links to your plot talk and the Aristotelian Plot Checklist! I look forward to using the checklist and I'll let you know how it goes!

    As for your submisison/response guidelines, I think they are fair and appropriate. While a "personal" rejection is nice, it's not up to the editor to tell us what's wrong with our work. That is something we should try to figure out and resolve before we submit. :-)

    I do think the checklist suggestion is a good option, as is the "Personalized Form Rejection" Jill proposed. While not extremely helpful to a writer, a simple, "Not for me." would suffice if it gives you the time you need to get things done.

    I hope I never receive it, but I'm sure your form rejection will be excellent.

  13. Enclose a mix CD with all form letters! Works for me! I'd even send my own mix CD right back. Now wouldn't that make an editor's day? (Well, depending on the mix, of course.)

  14. Dear Cheryl,
    This sounds like a good idea.

    I was in the process of wrapping up a query letter for a PB and was glad to see you would accept the full text along with the query.

    The other options will make better use of your time and that of the author's as well.

    I appreciate you being considerate over the best way to serve writers.