Reading submissions—the process
A few bits of housekeeping on this first post.
Firstly, I am not employed by Angry Robot Books. I volunteered to read submissions. The views expressed here are my own and do not in any way reflect the views of Angry Robot Books.
I will not be able to comment on individual submissions although I am happy to answer general questions.
I am not currently contracted to Angry Robot Books. Yes, I have been rejected by them on a novel submission in the past. It hurt. I took it badly, but I moved on. So I do know how it feels to receive a rejection for your work. It was not the first time I received a rejection for a manuscript, either. Rejections are part of the business of writing.
Despite being rejected by the boys, I am happy to say they are great guys. I love what they are doing with the imprint. I’d drink with them anytime.
What possessed me to volunteer? Sigh. Well I started a post graduate course in editing this year. I saw the boys were doing the open submission month and I figured it would be a huge thing. I thought I could help out by reading a few submissions (cough) and maybe I would learn something and have something to add to my editing CV. That about sums it up. Did I know what I was letting myself in for. No-sir-ree, I did not.
What experience have I had?
Elsewhere on this blog I talk about the fiction editing I’ve done, the beta reading for published author friends and reviews. I also had a small press for a while so I know how hard it is to sell a book once you have printed it. I have also read a number of Angry Robot books. Not all but quite a number of them. I’ve also been writing in the genre for over ten years and have finally become competent, I think. The other big part of my life is my day job. I do performance audits (called Value for money audits in the UK, not quite the same but near enough). Half the job is research, evidence gathering and analysis and the other half is report writing, editing, restructuring, copy editing, proofing etc. This is the main reason I am doing the course so I can be more useful in the office and help others.
The lead up
In the lead up to opening the submission door, Angry Robot, prepared a brief for the readers outlining what they were looking for and certainly pointing us to their existing list and the same submission guidelines that were available to those authors submitting. This briefing gave me a bit of a start because I had imagined I’d be reading partials and recommending to the editors that the full submission should be called for. (as it is the easy part) As it stood, readers were to request the full submissions, read them and then decide it was so amazing that the editors had to read it.
Specifically Angry Robot said they were looking for:
A “voice”, that comes from…
• Confident writing
• Pacy writing
• Characters that live, have real relationships and emotions, even in extreme situations
• A sense of vision, a rounded universe that lives and breathes
• Clever construction, good plotting, a couple of surprises even for us jaded old read-it-alls
• Heightened experience – an intensity, extremity or just a way of treating plot or situation in a way we’ve not come across before. “Goes up to 11″, if you know what that means.
Do all those, and it will be almost irrelevant that your story is one or other sub-set of SF, fantasy or horror!
So then the 1 March 2011 came upon us and we started reading.
Basically, the emails came in and were sorted automatically to what the subject line said, Fantasy, SF and Horror. Lee, I believe, did preliminary checking for document type and other stuff. We also had a Misc file for those MSs that did not have appropriate labels. These were all in date time of receipt. Readers read from these piles. So I mainly read fantasy and other readers read SF or Horror or a mixture. So in my case I mainly stuck to fantasy with a few forays into the SF pile and the horror pile to help out when I got too far ahead date wise.
I noted on a few forums people wondering what was going on and why theirs didn’t seem to have been read at a particular time. This is because there were a number of readers reading at different times in different piles.
Next observation is that literally hundreds came through on the first couple of days, then the submissions were fairly steady and then hundreds came in again on the last couple of days. So if you were in the last bit, that’s why it took a while to get to you.
From my perspective, I was reading and the pile just kept getting larger. I thought I’d read ten submissions, then when I saw the pile grow I though I’d read 50 as that’s a nice number isn’t it? Then it became 100 and then I’d promise to stop. Mostly because people were urging me to continue with my own writing etc. I even wrote to Lee to say that I would stop, or taper off, and that I had a number of full mss to assess and that I’d done enough but then I’d go against that and be there again, making new goals of 150 and then 200 and then 250. When I got to 300 I gave up with the goals and the trying to get out of it. I saw that there was 150 or so left so I went for it. I said bugger it! Just do it.
You see I actually enjoyed reading submissions. Sometimes I’d grit my teeth but mostly I wanted to find something amazing there, something that would be the new best thing.
While there were a number of readers at the start, it seemed in the end to come down to me and Amanda. I’d see her whittling down her submission pile (she seemed mostly to read in horror and SF), see her requests for fulls when I’d go to fetch mine and she inspired me to keep going. We don’t know each other, but I felt she kept me company when I felt it was too much, that I wanted to stop, when it seemed impossible. Somehow she made it seem manageable.
Lee certainly cheered from the sidelines and listened to my garbled angst as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do regarding submissions (read or not to read). I remember looking at them, seeing these huge numbers, counting them all and feeling I hadn’t made a dent. There were nearly 1000 of them. I’d say to myself, walk away, Donna. It’s not your submission pile. Then I’d think about the people waiting to hear back. I’d go surfing the net and look at the conversations, the people talking about their submissions and how they were waiting and I guess that kept me on task. Also, fortunately I am on semester break so I can get most of the full submissions assessed before I start back at uni. (that’s a very recent realisation).
I took time off reading submissions over Easter to have a mini writing retreat and a bit after that to work on my novel. Then while reading I did other things like take up edits to a few short stories that were being published, work at my day job, look after the house, renovate bits of the house etc. So I have been rather busy after all.
What did I give up to read submissions? My handcrafts, regular reading, watching DVDs (some but not as much as usual and wait for it—housework! Yep not much at all in four months.
The luxury about reading partial novel submissions is that they are easy to fit around things. For example, renovation and work men in the house are generally not good for me for writing time. However, reading submissions, yes, definitely.
So what did I do?
Firstly I took it very slowly at first. I read slowly, analysed slowly and thought a lot. I would read a submission and then think about what was working and what wasn’t working. (More about how things evolved over time in a future post.)
I used technology. All the submissions were electronic so I used my ipad a lot. I would label about 10 submissions to me, write them up in my table where I kept a list of what I read and maybe some comments (not all the time) and then load them on the ipad. If you are interested, I used the Goodreader application, which reads rtf, doc and pdf files. This made the submissions transportable. My partner sleeps in a lot on the weekends (sorry Matthew!). I like to hang with him so I’d read submissions for three hours while he slept. Then we go to cafes and hang so I’d have my ipad and I’d read. Matthew is a writer so he reads or writes when we hang in cafes. No need to keep the conversation going. I’d read submissions before I went to bed. When my neck got sore I had to take the ipad to the table and sit properly, or revert to reading them on the pc, which I’d do of an evening. Some writing days I would read subs instead of write. If I found myself getting tired I’d take a break. If I couldn’t make up my mind or the submission wasn’t grabbing me I’d take a break and read it again. I took the submissions to work to read in my lunch break, in the waiting room at the doctors, at the hair dressers, in the car waiting for my son while he had music lessons. So pretty much I read obsessively and didn’t think about much else.
The main thing for me was the writing, the quality of the submission but more about that later. Next post the vexed question of comments versus no comments.