My friend Sarah A. Hoyt asked for guest blogs, and I was happy to oblige. Since her blog deals with a lot of issues surrounding writing - from plotting to publication contracts - I thought I'd chime in with some of my observations. I'm running the full text here, but if you want to comment, please go over to her blog (http://accordingtohoyt.com/2012/09/15/a-guest-post-from-doctor-roberts/) to join the conversation.
Before going into my comments, here's her preface:
*Having been an editor, I know that some formatting is important. You need to be able to read the submission without battling for the information through a Horror Font or asterisks galore. However I know what Doctor Roberts is talking about. This is different. I’ve said before that gatekeepers get so jaded they lose track of what good stories are. Which is why they start hanging inflexibly on crazy stuff. I once read an interview with a major professional editor — back in the nineties — who said that he hated word processing because it made everyone look the same and he “couldn’t tell who is good.” Now, not to brag, but I usually know who is good after three paragraphs, even if it’s written in crayon on wax paper. I don’t propose that people should send crayon on wax paper stories, but to hang up on minor formatting issues is also insane. The other part of this is ageism. In a case of thinking they’re Hollywood, they think they need young writers to appeal to young readers, which is insane — not only do we not read by age, but most young readers aren’t looking for writers their age. The way they’ve found to discriminate against those forty and older is to say that pieces with two spaces after the period aren’t acceptable.*Now mine...
I have a bone to pick…
As a fiction writer, I admit that I’m still very much in the wannabe stage. I am not yet published in Science Fiction/Fantasy, although I have been submitting short stories to various contests for a few years now. I recently started submitting to the two big magazines – Analog and Asimov’s. As expected, to date I have received only rejections. That’s ok, I’m learning what they don’t want as I go along. I have no great expectations about getting published in my first or early tries, therefore I shall muddle on, keep writing and keep submitting.
Still, I have a bone to pick.
You see, I am not truly a novice at writing. I am a scientist – and not just a theoretical or practical spend-all-day-at-the-lab-bench type, but the I’ve-written-over-100-published-articles-20-book-chapters-and-25-years-worth-of-grant-applications type. I know how to write, how to speak, and how to use all of the tools that people of all professions use for writing.
Oh sure, you can say “but writing Science is not the same as writing Science Fiction” and I’d agree with you. I have a blog in which I am attempting to explain brain science to writers (and readers) of Science Fiction. I try to take the technical information and remove a lot of the jargon and details that require a PhD just to read. I have been told I do a decent job of explaining, even though I was recently criticized by a press officer for not making my explanations understandable at a 7th-8th grade reading level. Guilty as charged. I write science for the public at about high school graduate/first-year college level, and for people who don’t mind looking up the occasional term for further understanding.
But writing for the “common audience” is a different mind-set for me. So much so that I find I cannot switch back and forth between writing scientific articles or grant applications and writing SF/F (or my blog). If I am going to write for 2-4 days on a short story, I cannot read, write or even review scientific papers. Once I drop into the “public” writing mode, I dare not do any of my professional writing or I risk using inappropriately casual structure and colloquial language. This is less of a problem when writing my blog, since the material is still science-related, but I still have to be careful when I switch back to work-related writing.
That’s not the issue I have, though. I admit that my fiction writing is probably still not up to the standards of certain authors and publications, and I have much to learn about the craft of writing. I also freely admit that I have not necessarily been writing exactly what those magazines may be looking for. My stories tend to be at the long end of “short story” and I’ve been all over the place with genre as I try to experiment with my writing.
No, I don’t have a problem with rejection. My issue is with something else in the rejection letter.
Several of the letters have included the comment:
“In the future, we’d appreciate it if you formatted the story in standard manuscript format (SMF). You can find out more about SMF here: http://www.shunn.net/format/story.html“
My first reaction was “How could this be? I did format the manuscript as if it came off of a 50 year-old Royal typewriter! I did leave space above the title for those hypothetical handwritten notes from editor to typesetter, and I even included a word count and page number/title/author heading at the upper right (must be the right not left, because it may be clipped in the left) corner.
What was my crime? My infraction that may bring down the wrath of editor and industry upon my head? Was it the fact that I forgot and used my pen name in the heading, and not my real name? Was it that fact that I used “Courier New” instead of just plain old Courier monotype? As I read further, I discovered my crime.
I am guilty of inappropriate punctuation.
I learned to type on a typewriter and still tend to put two spaces after a period or colon. I use dashes in my text – somewhat like this – and I put spaces around them. In my defense, when using just about any proportionally-spaced font, my word processor will not automatically convert double or stand-alone hyphens to em-dashes unless I do put spaces around the character. My usage of three asterisks on a line by themselves to indicate a break in the story is yet another infraction, instead I should have been using a single centered hash mark:
#There are a couple of other minor details that I may have missed, but they are all just that… minor. I have been unable to find any major infractions in the stories I have submitted. I am thus left with the conclusion that my infractions have been minor. However, it also leaves me with the vague fear that if I do not correct these stylistic differences I may be labeled as unteachable (or worse yet, intractable) by the editors to whom I submit my manuscripts.
Mind you, I know something about the preparation and review of manuscripts. In 30 years I have written all or part of 100 articles that are published in scientific journals (about 10,000 to 15,000 words each). For the past 25 years, not a year has gone by that I have not written at least one grant application for submission to National Institutes of Health or other funding agency. During at least half of that tenure, I have also been a reviewer of such grant applications. Each application runs about 35,000 to 50,000 words in length and they are a veritable pain in the posterior to write and to review. Whereas an academic researcher such as I may write 1-to-3 grant applications a year, there is also the potential to review 10 applications (by invitation) for a single NIH review meeting (of which there are three per year). That’s the equivalent of 3-5 novel-length manuscripts read and commented upon in the course of about two weeks. A typical committee reviews a minimum of 75 applications per meeting, and there are currently 200 committees reviewing applications at a rate equivalent to 24,000 novel-length submissions to NIH. NIH has several standards for readability – Arial or Georgia 11-point fonts, they scan better. There are length, margin and line spacing standards. The reviewers need to write notes all over a grant application – yet all applications are single spaced because of length concerns. Surprisingly, NIH has found that monospaced fonts are harder to read than proportionally spaced fonts. I guess those dumb NIH reviewers just don’t know all the tricks that fiction editors can teach them!
Not that I have not even gotten into the numbers and perspective of writing scientific articles, but many of the same In scientific review, we do have those reviewers who pay close attention to the formatting details of a submission. We have a phrase for that – we call it “inappropriate attention to irrelevant details” and a reviewer either learns to pay attention to the appropriate aspects of the manuscript at hand, or they are no longer sent material to review.
As both a scientist and a writer, I find there is equal irritation with myself for failing to realize that there are certain formatting standards that I am failing to acquire – but I am also irritated with an industry that still adheres to a formatting style that is at least 30 years out-of-date (since the advent of the IBM Selectric and digital printers). With all of the discussion these past few months about changes in the publishing industry and failure to adopt appropriate business models, I find this to be a most egregious example of the “gatekeeper” mentality that Sarah Hoyt, Kris Rusch, Amanda Green and others have written about in recent months.
I do understand the need for a consistent format for readability, and I can certainly acknowledge that there is a standard format to which editors are accustomed. But if a writer has adopted a readable style, should they be scolded for missing the details, especially when those details are irrelevant to the story? Perhaps it’s just me and those of you reading this rant will tell me I’m wrong. But I don’t think so…
…And I personally have over a million words in print on my side of the argument.