Some of the Macaronis recently had a chance to put down their poachers’ bags and take up their gamekeepers’ guns – Alex Beecroft asked us to be on the submissions assessment team for the charity anthology I Do so we spent a month being well and truly on the other side of the fence. As an experience it was by turns inspirational, educational and exasperating. Why exasperating? Because there were simple errors that kept cropping up; it seemed appropriate to share some tips, which might help any budding (or existing) authors to increase their chances of getting a manuscript over the submissions hurdle.

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1. Read the guidelines
These are what the publishers want; they’re not rules which apply to other people and from which you are somehow exempt. So if they want a short story, don’t send a novella. If they say ‘no fanfic’ then don’t send them fanfic. And if stories are supposed to be broadly supportive of a certain theme, submissions which are unconnected or contradictory to the theme will get the elbow, no matter how good they are.

2. Appear professional (even if you’re an amateur)
Sending a manuscript that hasn’t even been put through a spell checker doesn’t create any sort of a good first impression. It implies that the author doesn’t care/take care. It also created a favourable ‘atmosphere’ when accompanying correspondence was professional, especially when stories had been rejected; withdrawing gracefully or arguing a case in a polite fashion made us want to work with people again, even if it wasn’t possible this time.
We were looking first and foremost for the excellence of stories and for a team who could work jointly to put a project together on a short timeframe. A professional impression, even from an ‘amateur’ helped us a lot in our decisions (and we had some very close calls).

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3. Don’t make your story have to fight your text.
Several errors kept cropping up in manuscripts, errors which could have been avoided by getting someone to give the story a once over before you press the send button. None of us expected to receive perfect submissions, but ones riddled with errors did themselves little justice. It’s really hard to keep focussed on a tale when little sloppy bits of writing keep kicking in. Most common problems:

Tense. It doesn’t matter if you write in the past, present or future perfect – be consistent. There’s a great line in ‘Chariots of Fire’ where Sam Mussabini says that each stride in a 100 metres knocks you back. That’s what it feels like to read a submission where the tense keeps changing.

Too many characters, too soon. We were looking at short stories, so it was particularly noticeable when we were faced with the introduction of loads of people within a short space of time, leaving us feeling a bit confused. It’s a trap many of us fall into, especially if you dabble in fanfic, where characters need no introduction.

Complexity. Again, this was particularly noticeable in short stories; make sure that the story makes as much sense on paper as it does in your head.

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On the positive side, we discovered that if we really felt a story had potential, then we’d move heaven and earth to include it, even if that meant a lot of editing or asking (politely) for a thousand words to disappear. So things didn’t have to tick every box, or be absolutely perfect to get through. Whether that would apply to every submissions team, I’m not sure, but it was part of the learning process for me – that stories with a special ‘something’ were worth working with.

Don’t let your story’s special ‘something’ get obscured under a welter of shifting tenses or simple spelling mistakes!