Every time I go to a conference, I think about writing something on this topic. I might as well finally do it today before I get scatterbrained and forget.
There are a lot of aspiring authors out there who seem to think that there's a magic spell that will get them published. If you hang out at a writing conference or subscribe to any writing-related e-mail lists, you'll notice people who are desperately looking for the right combination of things they can do that will guarantee a book contract. I guess a recipe would have been an equally good metaphor, but I write books about magic, so I'm going with the magic spell metaphor, and besides, recipes are too close to science. When it comes to writing, there's no guaranteed outcome. In spite of what a lot of people seem to believe, it's not as though you can bury a canary feather under an oak tree at midnight during the full moon, then spin three times counterclockwise naked while chanting in Latin and then be sure your book will sell (though you're welcome to give it a try, and be sure to post pictures on the Internet and let us know how it goes).
The people looking for that magic spell seem to fall into two main groups. One group focuses on the process of writing. They're searching for that magical combination of ingredients that will give them a manuscript that sells. If they have their goals, motivations and conflicts determined, if they find the right character worksheet and fill it in the right way, if they can glean some specific insight from an editor on exactly what that editor is looking for beyond "a good book," then they can create a selling manuscript.
The problem is, there is no one single way to write a book that will sell, and following every single guideline won't guarantee that your book will sell. Each author has to find his or her own way of working, of finding story and characters and making them come together in a book. If you're like me, it changes with every book. When you go around looking for that one magical spell, you're in danger of your head exploding because every workshop speaker or how-to book author is going to tell you something different, and sometimes the advice contradicts. Not that workshops and how-to books are a waste of time. Try on all the various techniques and methods and see what resonates with you. My processes are a hodge-podge of things I've pulled together from a variety of sources, some of which actually aren't writing-related (I use self-help psychology books as characterization resources, for instance). Meanwhile, hearing what editors say they're looking for only helps you if you already happen to have a manuscript that fits that niche. If you have to run home and write something, by the time you get it done and submitted, it's probably too late. They won't be looking for that anymore. The one exception might be a new category line opening up, but while new lines can be great opportunities, they also offer their own pitfalls (and I speak from experience there). Chasing the market will only cause you frustration. You have to write what you want to write, what you want to read, and then you find the market niche it belongs to -- or create one.
But that group is sort of on the right track because at least they recognize that it's about the book itself, the material contained in those pages. The other group is closer to canary-feather-under-the-oak-tree territory because they really do seem to be trying to create a spell that will sell rather than worrying about the book. They spend a lot of time and energy worrying about manuscript format, fonts, word count, paper clips, binder clips, rubber bands, envelopes, how to seal the envelope, which month is best for submitting, query letters vs. sending pages of the manuscript, and so forth. These are the discussions that can rage for days on writing loops, and I've seen conference workshops deteriorate into debates over binder clips vs. rubber bands -- even when the workshop was supposed to be about the story elements that go into a breakout novel. It's like these people believe that if you use the right fonts, margins and paper type, if you bind it in just the right way, put it in just the right envelope, send just the right material, seal the envelope the right way and mail it at the right time, the book will sell, regardless of anything to do with the book itself.
I've been a published author for thirteen years now, and I can honestly say that very little of that stuff has ever made much of a difference. The word count and manuscript formatting to get the right formula for word count only makes a big difference if you're writing for category lines where they have very specific word count ranges. Even so, I didn't learn the formatting formula for calculating word count until after I'd written my two category romances. I used the totally wrong font (New York -- the default Mac font at the time -- instead of Courier) and the computer word count instead of the formula, and all that happened was that my books had to be trimmed a little in the copy editing process. They still sold and were published. I submitted my first novel, a short 40,000 word book, by sending it in a box instead of a large envelope. It still sold. I once said something about proper manuscript format to my current editor, and she gave me a blank look. She'd never heard of some of the so-called rules, and this is a fairly senior person at a major publishing company who has worked for other publishers, as well. True, she's the kind of person agents submit to who doesn't see the slush pile coming directly from authors, so agents may have reformatted manuscripts to send her, but as long as she can read it, she doesn't care much.
Mind you, this isn't open season for submitting your work handwritten in yellow crayon on sheets torn from spiral notebooks. You want to present yourself as a professional who has done some research on the business. But as long as a manuscript is reasonably professional looking (printed in black ink on white paper in a font and with margins that don't give someone a headache, and with page numbers and an identifying header on each page in case a draft blows through the office and scatters the manuscript), they're only looking at the content. If you've got a story that knocks their socks off, they don't care if your margins are too narrow or too wide or if you used a binder clip instead of a rubber band. I can't think of an editor out there who would say, "I's a terrific book that could be a bestseller, but the font was wrong, so we'll have to reject it." On the other hand, if your story isn't up to par or isn't what they're looking for, all the fonts, formats and clips in the world won't save it. You're not going to find an editor saying, "The book didn't do a lot for me, but that's the most professional-looking submission I've ever seen, and she followed all the rules, so let's publish it."
If an agent or publisher posts guidelines on how they want to get submissions, then follow them. There's nothing there to lose sleep over. Send them what they ask for. That may be the one place where it is important to follow the rules as stated. There are agents who won't read e-mail queries, and there are agents who won't read anything but e-mail queries, so send what they ask for. Beyond that, worry about the book.
Of course, the book is the hard part. Any idiot can format a manuscript. Writing a book that keeps people turning pages with characters that capture imaginations takes a combination of talent, hard work and maybe even the kind of magic we can't quantify, define or control.
Speaking of which, I'm nearing the halfway point on my revisions, and I'm feeling good about it so far. I'm still stressing over how long the book is turning out to be, given how much I feel like I still need to add. I've been cutting things I like that may not actually belong in this book, but I'm not entirely sure where they need to go. Y'all are going to have to help me out here by getting the word out and making sure this next book sells well enough for me to sell at least one more in this series because I've got a lot of things I keep putting aside to deal with later, and I'm running out of "later" unless I get another contract.