Jolene Paternoster provides manuscript preparation, ghostwriting, re-writing and research to writers and publishers. When editing, she usually offers suggestions for both contextual and grammatical problems. She can be reached at email@example.com.
SQF: Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions, Jolene. I've interviewed a number of publishers and editors as part of this project. I thought it might be helpful to our readers to hear from someone who works with the nitty-gritty aspects of publishing. Please provide us with an overview of what you do when you first receive a book from a publisher.
Jolene Paternoster: Thanks for including me in your project! When I first receive a manuscript, I like to flip through it to get an idea of what I’ll be dealing with. For example, if I’m about to read a novel about the Civil War, I might do a bit of research about the weaponry that was used to make sure I understand (and know how to spell) it. If I’m going to read a crime novel whose protagonist is a lawyer, I’ll make sure that I have a dictionary that includes legalese. But if I’m reading a story set in Mexico, I’ll jot down any Spanish words I see in the beginning of the manuscript, because they’ll probably pop up again and again.
After flipping through the manuscript, I get to work. I edit maybe ten to twenty pages and then take a break and write down a few notes about what I’ve corrected so far. If I’ve seen that the author isn’t sure about when to spell out numbers, I’ll go back to the first mistake I see and write the author a note in the margins (or leave a comment if I’m editing through Track Changes). I’ll still fix all of the mistakes I see, but I like to make sure that the author knows why something is wrong so he doesn’t make the same mistake in the next draft. I also always make sure to note any stylistic choices (like words misspelled because of a manuscript written in dialect) so I can respect the author’s decisions and make sure they’re consistent.
SQF: Many of the interviews I've published so far mention grammar as a particular problem. From our brief conversations, you find this true also. What are the biggest problem areas you find with grammar?
JP: As an editor, I realize that a large part of my job is correcting grammatical mistakes. However, I love reading a manuscript with few grammatical mistakes because that means that I can help the author work on bigger contextual issues to really make his next draft pop.
I would suggest that any aspiring author bone up on his knowledge of punctuation. For example, when writing dialogue, commas and periods need to be placed inside of the quotation marks. I know that seems like a little thing, and it is, but it’s the kind of thing that an agent or publisher could immediately spot.
In a slightly different vein, commas seem to be a big problem area for a lot of people. I see a lot of comma splices, which is when two independent clauses, or two phrases that could each stand on its own, are separated by only a comma. An example of a comma splice would be a sentence like, “I need to go Christmas shopping, I have no time.” Comma splices can be fixed with a coordinating conjunction (“but I have no time”), or a semi-colon. And, speaking of semi-colons, it seems that few people realize that they are used to separate two independent clauses and that they are not the same as commas.
I should also mention that I see a lot more mistakes towards the end of manuscripts than I do at the beginning. I understand that writing is hard work, and that you can get tired after writing 300 or more pages. But I’ve seen protagonists names misspelled and sentences without ending punctuation in the last few pages. For that reason, it can be helpful to re-read your manuscript from the end to the beginning before sending it out. That way, your mind is fresh when you read the closing chapters.
SQF: How about content. What are the main issues you encounter?
JP: One of the biggest contextual problem areas that I see is a lack of point of view. Point of view lets the reader know how a character sees the world, and, more importantly, it lets the reader see the world as that character. To illustrate point of view, I like to give my clients the following example: a doctor and an interior designer walk into a restaurant. I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke, but I give my clients that scenario and ask them to write a first-person scene from each person’s perspective. I point out that the doctor might notice that the waiter walks with a limp or that the person at the next table has a runny nose. The interior designer, though, might recognize the drapes, scoff at the carpet-chair combination, or wonder where the restaurant found those pictures. These two people see things differently and are influenced by different things because of their unique points of view.
I also see authors “tell” instead of “show.” It’s the difference between a narrated documentary and a movie. The narrator tells you what to think. He says, “They are in love.” But a movie without a narrator allows you to see how the couple gazes into each other’s eyes even when the television’s on. It lets you see how their feet find each other under the dinner table. Showing is much more detailed; instead of assuming that the reader knows what love likes like, it shows him what love looks like for two specific characters. It can make a tremendous difference in a manuscript. If you’re not sure where to start revising with showing and telling in mind, a good way to start is by looking for words like “they talked” that aren’t followed by a conversation.
SQF: Is manuscript formatting a big issue? Is it really that important in this age of computers and easy changes?
JP: Of course, computers have made format changes infinitely easier. Still, if you decide to send an unsolicited manuscript to a publisher or an agent, yes, formatting really can be a big issue. Proper manuscript format (one-sided pages, one-inch margins, a cover page, etc.) shows the publisher or agent that you’re really making an effort. It shows that you’ve been thorough, and that you’ve done your research. And if you’ve made an effort to format your work, chances are better that you’ve made an effort to read up on grammar and really develop your characters and their points of view. Publishers and agents receive a ton of manuscripts each year, and you want to immediately set yourself apart as a professional. If you’re not sure what proper format looks like, you might want to do some research. A good place to start is: http://hollylisle.com/how-to-format-a-manuscript.
SQF: Many writers are confused about cover letters? What is their purpose, what should writers include in one, and how long should they be?
JP: First of all, it might be good for me to point out the difference between a cover letter and a query letter. A cover letter accompanies a few chapters of a manuscript—it lets the agent know what he’ll be reading (if he chooses to read it!). A query letter, though, is sent out without any accompanying chapters; its job is to see if an agent would be interested in reading your manuscript.
That being said, a good cover letter can be your first introduction to an agent, and so it needs to be as good as it can be. As always, you should do some research before sending anything out. If you’re writing to an agent, chances are good that he’ll have specific guidelines (like reading periods, format, and genres specifications) for submitting on his website. In fact, agents won’t necessarily read a cover letter that doesn’t follow the guidelines—it’s an easy way to wade through a massive pile of letters more quickly. You should also address the letter to the specific agent to whom you are sending it. You want the agent to feel that out of all the people you could have submitted to, you chose him.
There are a few things that need to be present in any cover letter. First of all, you need to introduce yourself. Your introduction, though, should not be lengthy, and you should only offer information that is relevant to your history as a writer or to your manuscript. You’ll then need to give the agent the basics—word count and genre—of your book. Then comes the creative part of the letter. In as few words as possible, you need to captivate the agent with a summary of your book. The summary should be similar to the back cover or flap of a book in that you need to get the reader excited, and quickly. Then, you need to thank the agent for his time.
And that’s pretty much it. A cover letter should be no more than one page, and you’ll need to leave room at the bottom for your signature, so there’s not a lot of room. As such, you need to make sure that your writing is grammatically flawless, so you might consider consulting an editor or a literary friend. Lastly, many agents require that you send a stamped and unsealed envelope so that they can respond to you at no cost.
I want to let you and other authors know about a webpage that might be helpful. It shows you both what to do, and what not to do, when writing a cover letter.
SQF: Is there anything else you’d like to address?
JP: In parting, I’d like to point out that even the best authors are often unsuccessful, at least at first. The publishing industry is more unpredictable than ever. However, no rejection is final, and there’s always somewhere else you can send your manuscript. If you’re feeling discouraged, or if you feel the need to spruce up your manuscript before sending it out to another batch of agents or publishers, I have one piece of advice: keep reading. Read fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—anything creative that will take your mind off of your own work. I’m a writer myself, and this is the most helpful piece of advice that I’ve ever received, and the one that I’m most likely to pass on to authors. Reading somebody else’s work is learning by example; it lets you see how a successful author writes dialogue, expresses point of view, and develops characters and plot in an unexpected way. It may even give you some ideas for your own work, but that’s not the point. The point is to keep exposing yourself to your craft and expanding your idea of what successful writing looks like.
I would also absolutely suggest that any aspiring author buy or subscribe to a manual of style, which is essentially a big list of grammatical rule. Although publishers do differ on which style manual is best, being familiar with at least one is an excellent idea, and I, as well as many other people I know, consult the Chicago Manual for all of our editing questions. A subscription is about thirty-five dollars, and it’s a great investment.
Thank you again for interviewing me. I hope that I’ve been able to offer a good tip or two, and I’d like to encourage any writers with a question, comment, or potential project to feel free to get in touch with me.
Thank you, Jolene. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: Six Questions for Thomas Dodson, Founding Editor, Printer's Devil Review