Thursday, 7 July 2011

Some Thoughts on the Angry Robot Books Open Month

I was asked a little while ago if I would like to be one of the readers of the Angry Robot Open Month submission pile, and I leapt at the chance. For me, personally, it would allow me to see a small part of the publishing process, it would give me the opportunity to see what sort of manuscripts are submitted to agents/publishers, and it should look pretty decent on the “publishing CV” that I am attempting to build in an effort to one day possibly getting a toehold in the industry.

We received an email from Lee Harris, giving some guidelines about wordcount, genres, what Angry Robot are looking for in general – and then we were unleashed. This surprised me utterly! I did think that we wouldn’t be allowed so much responsibility – we were literally picking and choosing the manuscripts to put forward to Lee and Marc for consideration. I’ll say immediately: that scared me. The idea that I would be responsible for crushing someone’s hopes? Didn’t like that AT ALL. But I guess that is the kind of experience that I was looking to receive, and so I am incredibly grateful to the Angry Robot boys for allowing that sort of freedom.

One point that really made me thoughtful is the fact that there were six or so of us readers picked (although the bulk of the work was conducted by Donna and I), and, if someone else picked up a manuscript that you might have LOVED and championed but they didn’t like it, it would be rejected without you even seeing it. That caused me to pause. All those manuscripts that don’t get picked up – not because they are poor quality, but because the right pair of eyes didn’t glance over them. Having said that, this is what happened to J K Rowling. And this is why persistence is key to submitting novels to agents and publishers – what is wrong for one publisher might be RIGHT for another.

Straight off, I want to say how high the overall quality was. I had heard horror stories about the “slush piles” – the terrible quality, the bad submission letters etc. Out of the five hundred odd partials I cast my eye over, I would say that the number that would be put into that category for me was about twenty, which isn’t too bad. Certainly bearable for someone looking through them.

As I say, I looked at approximately five hundred submissions – across the full spectrum of fantasy, science fiction and horror – and I asked to receive just 61. And I suspect that number is artificially inflated because in the beginning I asked for some that, by the end, I would have dismissed.

For those who care, that 61 is broken down into 36 male writers and 25 female writers – and that is roughly proportional to the manuscripts being submitted.

Out of the 61 manuscripts I have so far read four of them. Two of them I rejected, having read part of the rest. Two of them I’ve put forward to Lee and Marc – I’m yet to hear what they thought of them, and I’m probably as nervous as the authors. Well, maybe not, but certainly it is a reflection on my taste if they reject them out of hand! *grins*

Regarding taste, I was pleased to see that five of the manuscripts I requested to see full versions of had been picked up by other publishers and agents. I mean, obviously not pleased on Angry Robot’s behalf, because it could have been a success for them – but pleased because it showed I was capable of picking out novels that had a chance to be successful.

For your interest, here are some of the fabulous titles I will be reading over the next few weeks (months?):

- 1942 A Very English Roswell
- Nazarene Paradox
- Inside the Living Museum
- The Boomerang Thief
- The Lives of Tao
- Hunt for Valamon

These certainly all pique my interest. So, there is the first of my thoughts on submitting a manuscript – make sure your working title is something that will make a submission reader sit up and pay attention. Some of the submissions I received had terrible titles. I still accepted a few of them, but it took a lot more work on the part of the author to make me consider them.

Here are some of my impressions on submitting a novel:

- Please, for the love of God, do not use weird fonts when submitting. Use something that is easy on the eye and easy to read. If I am struggling to read the submission, then it doesn’t matter what the story is like, it’s being rejected.

- This might be a matter of my preference, but don’t include a mocked up book cover or maps you’ve drawn in Microsoft Paint. It doesn’t look professional, in my opinion – in fact, some of the bad ones made me laugh. Most of these got a very quick rejection.

- In your author biography, keep it nice and simple. Funny is okay, but can sometimes be way off the mark, so, unless you’re confident that it hits the spot, leave it out. Personal stuff – i.e. how you came to the plot thanks to the darkness in your soul (yes, seriously!) – isn’t really necessary...


- Equally, using coloured script – blue or *gulps* pink isn’t going to make you stand out in a good way.

- If you’re going to cite an author as inspiration, please make sure you spell them correctly. I don’t like hearing about David Webber, Arthur Clark, Philip Dirk, and Frank Hebert. Yes, I did see all of those.

- As to the submission itself... I know we all LOVE a good weather scene to start off a novel, don’t we? No? I still saw an absolute ton of these. Slow burn starts can be fine, but probably best not describe the way the wind is sweeping through the town, or how the clouds are scudding across the darkening sky.

- Equally, an action scene just to avoid a quiet weather scene is also no good. If the action is part of the actual story, then great! If the action is just to get started and has no relevance on the rest of the story (had one of these), then it needs to be looked at again.

- Character names – keep them straightforward! When you come up with them, say them out loud. If you’re unable to pronounce them, then your reader hasn’t a chance in hell of knowing. One name I had went as follows: Terrllss-rr. Another went like this: Anandrianalistella. These are not *easy* names to pronounce and are likely to kick the reader out of their smooth reading experience.

- Sex scenes... Ah, sex scenes. Unless it drives the plot forward or you’re writing full-on erotica, probably best to leave these out. Also, if you’re uncomfortable writing it, it comes across in your writing and you end up with something stilted that uses BAD words to be associated with sex.

- The hardest manuscripts to reject are those with a truly brilliant idea that is poorly executed. Or those with absolutely acceptable writing and plot, but just missing that subjective ‘wow’ factor.

I’m sure there are more points, but I’m probably hammering home points that you can read on any good publishers’ submission guidelines.

Remember this: publishers and agents are receiving HUNDREDS upon HUNDREDS of submissions. Yours needs to stand out through a professional covering letter, and the quality of your writing/story. Nothing else.

I do just want to say a public thanks to Angry Robot Books for giving me the chance to do this – I thoroughly enjoyed the process, and would be more than happy to tackle slush reading at any time.


  1. I loved the sex scenes comment! You are right on too. If the author isn't comfortable with it, it comes out in the writing. It can completely ruin the mood of the novel. Contrary to what may believed about TV, sex doesn't always sell a book.

  2. This sounds like it was an awesome opportunity, and one that seems to have been very rewarding. Rather jealous.

  3. From Teresa Nielsen Hayden, one very important thing to remember in a manuscript submission is to include your contact address. It is hard to accept a manuscript otherwise.

  4. Good advice! Even though that may be the same sort of thing you'll find on any publisher's guidelines, hearing it from someone who I know has dealt directly with it is pretty cool!

    I have to admit, I kind of envy you for having the chance to read through the submissions and make decisions as to what gets through. While that may not exactly be my dream job, I know that's the kind of thing that I'd love to do, and that you got the opportunity to do so is pretty awesome!

  5. Aww man...

    I was going to write a book wherein the main character was named, "ALKDFOIGOUHWEOIGNG" (pronounced Aaron, obviously).

    I take it that's breaking a few of your rules. I may have to rethink this...

  6. So interesting, and like you said it can be a bit depressing to think that an amazing story could get rejected because of personal preference.

    Your advice is great (although I hope I wouldn't use neon pink font and type all in capitols!)

    It sounds like a great opportunity though :)

  7. great post! what an wonderfully overwhelming yet hopefully satisfying experience!

    just out of curiosity, how much time, on average, have you been spending with each manuscript? are you reading them like you a book you plan to review? skimming? just reading the first few chapters to get a feel for it? are you worried about burn out? :(

    lol, and speaking of sex scenes, my captcha was "mating"!

  8. Thanks for all the comments, peeps. I agree, I was very lucky and it was a tremendous opportunity - a case of right place, right time I think!

    @ redhead - With the partials, I gave the manuscript as long as I had interest in the writing and the story. Sometimes that was a chapter or so. A couple of times it was only a few pages. Those where I remained interested for the whole partial (i.e. 5 chapters/10,000 words) I asked for the full manuscript and I'm now in the process of reading through them.

    In all cases, I approached them as I would a proper novel. Reading them properly and analysing whether I liked or didn't like them and why. I also gave a consideration as to whether a lot of people might like the book or whether it would only appeal to a small section of the market. I haven't felt burnt out yet, but I have been doing it on and off since March without spending too much time at once on it, which I think has helped keep me fresh.

  9. Amanda

    Do you mind if I link to this from my site? I think we had very similar experiences, except I did not get sex scenes very much at all. Not even bad ones. Also, I did accidentally look at a couple of MSs that you ended up dealing with and you made the same choice I would have.


  10. Hi Donna,

    No, of course I don't mind you linking through to this :-)


  11. Loved hearing your insight and experience as a reader during open month. Thanks for sharing it!