By John Gilstrap
If you’ve been visiting my little corner of The Killzone for any time at all, you probably know that my rules for writing are limited to only one: There are no rules. There are really good suggestions, but at the end of the day, if you can make something work on the page, it doesn’t matter if there’s a widely accepted “rule” against it. This game is all about originality.
But a little clarification is in order. When I say no rules, I really mean no universal rules. I have rules for my own writing because they work for me. I would never presume to suggest that the same rules would work for any other writer.
Every now and then, though—usually in the context of a writers’ conference involving manuscript evaluations—other writers’ rules collide with mine, and then things can get awkward.
Over the years, then, I have developed a list of Gilstrap’s Ten Rules for Manuscript Evaluation:
1. Number your pages and put your name or project title on every page. The reality is that I will lose your paper clip and I will drop your papers on the floor at least once. I don’t do this on purpose; it just always happens. Sometimes the pages get separated in my briefcase. However it happens, jumbled papers are jumbled papers. It helps to know which ones belong to whom, and in what order.
2. Have confidence in Times New Roman 12-point type. Reducing the font size to sneak in more story does not slip past unnoticed. I recently participated in a conference where someone actually gave me 15 pages of double-spaced 8-point type. Ignoring the fact that it pissed me off, I literally could not read the text. While I like to think of myself as young, my eyes are marching toward old age.
3. For me to believe that your story has any hope of success, something must happen in the first two hundred words. That’s the length of my interest fuse. Billowing clouds, pouring rain and beautiful flowers are not action. Characters interacting with each other or with their environment is action.
4. If you insist on walking into the whirling propeller that is a prologue, check first to make sure that your prologue is in fact not your first chapter in disguise. Next check to verify that your prologue is truly for the benefit of the reader, and not a crutch for the writer who needs to dump a bunch of backstory so that the first chapter will make sense.
5. Ten pages are plenty. Actually, five pages are plenty, but I understand that conference organizers can tout the larger number more easily. In my experience, unless dealing with a journeyman writer, the sins committed in the first few pages are replicated throughout. It’s rare that I discover a new issue on page thirteen or fifteen that hasn’t been noted several times previously.
6. Understand that I write thrillers. That’s really the only genre I understand—and at that, my understanding is tenuous. If you submit a romance or historical fiction manuscript to me, understand that it will be evaluated through the lens of a thriller writer. I’m not being obstinate here; I’m just not that intellectually nimble.
7. I write manuscripts, I don’t buy them. I am a terrible resource for determining what is and is not marketable. If I knew what the public was going to be clamoring for in two years, I would write those stories myself and sit atop the bestseller lists year after year.
8. Since you asked my opinion, I owe you honesty—as filtered through the prejudices and preferences of a self-taught writer of commercial fiction. I don’t demand that you agree with my opinion, but please don’t try to talk me out of it. Right or wrong, mine is the only opinion I have, and I can’t do much about it.
9. Understand that I do the evaluation exercise to be helpful. I can tell you what works and doesn’t work for me, and I can explain why. At the end of the day, though, your story is yours, and you are the only one who can fix it.
10. Unless you submit your best effort for evaluation—fully vetted, fact-checked and spell-checked—you’re wasting everybody’s time.