By Cait Collins
I appreciate creativity. It propels the author to search for new ways to tell old stories. However, this does not mean anything goes when preparing a manuscript. There are rules and standard that should be followed if an author wants to be published. Some rules are genre specific and others are universal.
Whatever you write, grammar and punctuation rules must be followed. Youth writing competitions are designed to teach young people how to write. I have had teachers approach me and ask if we were serious about some of the rules. Surely we would not take off points for grammar and punctuation errors. After all, children are more informal in the way the write. Kids email and text, so the rules don’t apply. Would we really disqualify a work just because the young author refused to adhere to Times New Roman 12 point font and one inch margins all around? And what about the limitations on the number of pages for short stories and the number of lines for poems? How could the student’s choice to express creativity be grounds for disqualification? Then came the real kicker. “I told my students they didn’t have to follow these arbitrary rules.” Unfortunately for her students, many were disqualified.
The rules were set in accordance with industry standards and submission guidelines. In applying industry standards to the contest rules, we were attempting to teach the importance of following instructions. Failure to comply with the guidelines had consequences, Can you imagine reading a call for submissions and deciding the length, the subject matter, and the format were of no consequence? After all you are just expressing your creativity. Consider how many submissions editors receive. Do you honestly believe a busy editor will wade through submissions that flaunted the guidelines? Such works will no doubt wind up in the rejection pile.
Sadly, authors believe genre standards are non-existent. A young writer self-published and illustrated her children’s picture book. Her sales were not good and she didn’t know why. She asked me to read the story and give her some feedback. The pet was cute, grandma sweet and loving, but a book written for four and five year-olds centered on drug abuse and animal abuse. Additionally, there was no flow or continuity to the work and the illustrations were not to industry standards. It was also overpriced. When I attempted to explain both the good points and the problems, she became defensive. This was her story. Someone had to warn children about the evils in life. Her agent was too stupid and lazy to sell her book so she had no choice except to self-publish. My next quest was, “Did your agent point out problems with the manuscript?” Her response, “I told him I would not change anything. He didn’t even try to sell my book.” The real problem was her refusal to provide a work the agent could sell.
My way does not mean an author is permitted to be difficult in dealing with agents, editors, and critique groups. I’ve been in groups where a writer was told repeatedly by several members there were issues with the story. Week after week, chapter one was presented with minor changes and the major problems ignored. He could not understand why no one liked his protagonist. Just because the guy wasn’t macho, and aggressive didn’t mean he needed to change the characterization. Why didn’t women appreciate a man who would cater to her needs and do whatever necessary to make his love happy? Excuse me? A women’s fiction novel needs a strong male lead. His hero was a door mat and a pushover. He suggested we just didn’t understand his vision. Or what about the lady who stated in her cover letter she would not sell to any publisher who required her characters to smoke, drink, or be involved in illicit sex. Needless to say, she had no offers.
Does this mean a writer has no personal options when writing his story? Of course there are opportunities to explore your creativity. The trick is to learn the rules, practice them, and then learn when and how to break them. Creativity is best expressed in good plotting, character development, and scene setting. Show your way in adherence to submission guidelines and respect for agents, editors, and fellow writers. Your efforts will be appreciated.