Hello! Ready to get back to work?
We’re in the final week of FiYoShiMo, and before we go forward, we have reached an important crossroads.
For the remainder of FiYoShiMo, I’m operating under the assumption that your goal is to get your MS published. If you’re not doing that, it’s not the end of the world, this is just the assumption I’m making so that tomorrow and the day after when we talk about queries, there’s a point to it. But that’s for tomorrow.
Today we’re looking at packaging your story. Now I remember a time (I feel like I should tell a youngin’ to take a seat on my porch while I sip my lemon drink when I say that) when the only packaging option was a thick manila envelope with a heap of postage on it when you send it off to some gatekeeper who could axe your work over a dispassionate cup of coffee. Scary times kids. It’s a good thing that times, like underwear, change.
Packaging is how you want to disseminate your story to the reader(s). There’s no one single “best” way to do this, there’s no “wrong” way, and no one is wrong or bad (or meant to feel wrong or bad or stupid or whatever) for picking their package. Unless they’re picking their package in full view of children, because that’s gross and be better than that.
What I’m listing below is by no means a definitive list, it’s a list based on how frequently I see these items.
A Single Manuscript, abiding by Submission Guidelines
This is the most common way you see an MS, as a single document, formatted to submission guidelines. For those that don’t know submission guidelines are the set of instructions that a publisher (no matter whether they’re a traditional publisher or a website or whatever) has regarding publication. They often include things like word count, margin size, font size and typeface, a breakdown of rights and ownership, as well as page enumeration and chapter breaks. It may include things like payment schedules based on word count, and if you’re emailing it, whether they want it as an attachment or pasted into the body of the email.
As you can tell, the guidelines are incredibly variable, and just about every publisher has some, even if it’s just a bullet point or two about who to email and how long the response time might be. Unlike other guidelines, submission guidelines are meant to be followed explicitly. No, I don’t know why they’re called “guidelines” and not “rules.” I didn’t name them, and I agree, they need a better name. It’s a big deal to follow them, and I know this for two reasons:
a) Nearly every time I tweet about following them, every agent and editor I know retweets me
b) When I talk to writers about why they got rejected, they tell me that they didn’t follow them, and that’s why their rejection came swiftly
Follow them. It doesn’t take very long to change the format or font in a word processor. It isn’t going to break your fingers off to add a line break here and there. The word processor does the hard work, so let it.
Serialized, Complete Portions
Here’s an alternative to dropping some huge 110k super-document on someone’s lap. Let’s say your 110k MS is all about a woman who discovers love after she abandons her career as a TV weatherperson and takes a job with an erotic puppet troupe (hey, don’t judge, I’m making this stuff up).
Serialization means taking an MS and breaking it into smaller pieces. “Complete Portions” refers to breaking it up into pieces that more or less stand on their own, except they’re part of this larger story. This isn’t a series (that’s later in this post), but it’s one story that breaks at key points.
In our example, that 110k could be 4 portions of 27500 words each, so long as we break it at these points:
a) Where she attends her first puppet workshop
b) Where she goes on her first date post-puppet performance
c) Where her parents find out she makes puppets do the no-pants dance
d) The story wraps up with a pretty bow on it
We break that story by its development – after the first act, during the buildup, the climax, and end it at the resolution. If you’re going to break down the story into portions, you want those breaks to be organized and logical. Don’t just divide it up by number and wherever the word count falls (even in the middle of a sentence), you chop. Some pieces can be larger or smaller than the others.
Serialized, By Chapters
For over 170 years, this was how stories got distributed. You got a chapter per issue of a magazine or periodical, and although it gave you a short columnar summary of events prior to the installment, it was in your interest to be reading regularly. There are still journals and magazines that go this route, most of them are digital subscription services.
Here, it doesn’t matter how long the chapter is, you get space for 1 chapter. Yes, because this is part of a periodical, your space is further constrained by the other elements of publication (column inches, ad space, etc), but this is a dependable way of reaching an audience.
Let’s say our 110k sex puppet lady story has 35 chapters. You’d likely not see 35 installments, so maybe they’d crunch the numbers and say that each chapter is around 3150 words, so maybe they’ll do 9450 words per installment, giving them 12 installments, enough for a year’s run at one installment a month. (Publishing math is the one kind of math I can do)
When we’ve talked serials, we’ve talked 1 MS broken into smaller chunks. A series is a set of complete MSses that forms an arc unto itself. Each MS is complete with its own internal plot, but each completed MS also feeds into a larger canonical plot. Instead of having only chapters be climaxes, now books are series climaxes, and within those books you have climaxes (and yes, the editorial note for that is climax-climax), so everything develops on a macro and micro level somewhat simultaneously.
And series can be lucrative, well, they used to be, when publishing had great heaps of money not spent on cocaine and private parties, before people fell prey to pyramid schemes and supermergers with golden parachutes. (No I’m not bitter, not at all, whatever would give you that idea?) But things change, and series money is reduced now, and series are no longer the fast track to major authorial fame.
The average series length is now 3 or 4, down from 10, which was down from 15. Series come in two flavors, open and contiguous. An open series is where the stories are independent of each other more often than not, with very few elements cohering them beyond chronology or significant development. Many mysteries are like this (Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe), and television shows are often like this, when you don’t count two-parters for sweeps week. The only constants in this series are the titular characters, maybe their ages as well, and everything else is variable. An open series is a chance to develop characters and change a lot of circumstances, then like an Etch-A-Sketch, clear the screen and start all over with the same indivisible building blocks.
A contiguous series is a series where each successive story is dependent on the last. This is the kind of series fiction we’re most used to. Harry Potter does this, where knowledge and series plot is discovered incrementally over the course of each book, and the end book is the culmination of all previous books’ events.
Series are often published a book at a time (sometimes, but rarely, you see a whole series released at once … the exception being things like internet television shows, where the whole season goes live on a particular date), and that’s a great point to wrap up today.
Starting tomorrow, we’re spending two days on query letters, which you know, you’d need to write if you want to get anything published by someone else.
Have a great day, see you tomorrow.