by Libby Malin
The last time I posted here, I talked about my "first love" -- music. Even though music was the first love I dedicated my energy and passion to, writing has always, always, always called out to me. As soon as I could string words together, I wrote stories, poems and essays. In creative writing class in high school, friends and I would exchange "fan fiction" -- stories involving our favorite television shows.
But I didn't start dedicating energy and passion to getting my writing published until later in life. For that I have my dear sister to thank. She's the one who encouraged me to try getting a romance novel published when I was between freelance writing projects and looking for something to do to make money. Once I knew that this very practical person in my family wouldn't think I was crazy for spending so much time at the computer writing fiction, I was on my way.
For most published authors, it's a tough slog from that first moment you decide to really try to get a book into print. First, there's the actual writing journey. Then, there's the publishing business journey.
I had a chance to revisit my own writing and publishing journey recently when I picked up one of the first manuscripts I'd written. I wanted to review it for possible revision. A couple things struck me as I reread it. One was the memory of how many doubts and questions I had when I wrote it. How long should a chapter be -- is there a standard page count? How many points of view can I include? Do I have to account for every minute of each characters' time? How much "telling" versus "showing" of the action should I do? If I use "are" too much, is my writing weak? What's the most riveting way to begin a story?
The answers to those questions came in the fullness of time as I gained confidence as a writer (there's nothing like confidence to help you develop your own voice), and as I became a more observant reader, analyzing what other published authors did that succeeded in moving me as a reader.
Not surprisingly, the answers to my questions can be summed up in this statement: in writing, pretty much anything goes as long as it works. Sure, there are guidelines for certain genre lines. But there are no rules that can't be broken, even in genre fiction, if you tell the story well.
Nora Roberts gave an excellent talk about this years ago at the New Jersey Romance Writers conference. I remember her saying that she didn't know about all the rules when she started writing, so she was able to blow past any fears and doubts associated with them. She counseled the writers in the room to break rules when necessary to tell a good story, not just for the sake of daring.
Another worry memory popped into my head as I reviewed my old manuscript. I remembered how I used to sweat the small stuff when preparing to send my writing to the publishing world. Now the questions became: should it be set in Times New Roman or Courier? Must it have exactly 25 lines per page? Should I send only the first 50 pages when asked for a partial or can I send 60 since a terrific scene starts on page 51? Can I query more than one agent at the same agency? How long should I wait before following up? Will an editor think I'm rude if I remind her she's had my manuscript for six months?
Here, I discovered the rules of good etiquette applied. The goal of manuscript preparation is to make your manuscript easily readable and your interactions with editors and agents professional and pleasant. A readable serif face with standard margins will do the trick. And reasonable follow-up is certainly allowed as long as you're not whiny or petulant.
In fact, just as in writing, I discovered that there weren't many specific rules about manuscript submission -- just the general etiquette principles -- and that you could approach many editors on your own as long as you treated them the way you'd like to be treated yourself.
Selling your manuscripts is hard. This business is filled with rejection. As time went by, I learned that I needed to stop rejecting myself -- that is, stop rejecting my own ideas -- based on what I perceived to be the "rules." Only then would my writing voice learn to sing.