Manuscript formatting 101, part VIII: yet another great cosmic mystery explained, sort of

No, the statue is not a Christmas angel, but rather Nike, the wingèd goddess of victory, bringing a laurel wreath for reader ACD, who will be famed in song and story forevermore for the comment she posted on an earlier formatting blog. Why? Because she, clever soul, wrote in with a method for using Word’s Find and Replace feature to change single spaces between sentences into double spaces within sentences.

And if that’s not an achievement worthy of a laurel leaf or two, I should like to know what is.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the artist’s original intent with this particular statue (which comes to us courtesy of FreeFoto.com), but some celebration seemed appropriate, no?

And if THAT isn’t enough to meet whatever standard you may be cherishing for what constitutes a reason to initiate dancing in the streets, long-time reader, prolific commenter, and computer whiz Chris has once again gone far above and beyond the call of duty and written an entire blog post on the subject.

Thanks, Chris, ACD. and everyone who participated in the genuinely useful discussions on the subject here and here. Laurel leaves all around!

For the last week+, I have been running through the strictures of standard manuscript format and some common deviations from it, to demonstrate just how clearly our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, discerns the differences. At the end of a long day’s reading, they definitely jump out at her, and with good reason: once a professional reader gets used to seeing the similarities that pretty much all professional manuscripts share, submissions formatted in other ways might as well have UNPROFESSIONAL stamped on them in bright red ink.

And while Millicent may strive valiantly NOT to allow that impression to color her reading of the submission itself, it’s just not a good idea to assume that it won’t. She’s only human, after all.

It’s an even worse idea to assume a charitable reading for a contest entry, by the way. If anything, contest judges tend to be even more sensitive to the beauty of standard format than Millicent, for the simple reason that they’ve usually been reading a whole lot longer.

The agency gig may well be Millie’s first job out of college, but the judge handed your entry may well have just retired from a long and fruitful career teaching English composition. Her fingers positively ache for the red pen of correction.

This is not accidental — most well-respected contests require some professional credentials from their judges, either as writers, editors, or teachers. Which means, in practice, that judges have often been writing in standard format themselves for years or bludgeoning other writers into compliance with its requirements.

To put it another way, other kinds of formatting won’t look right to them, either. By now, you’re probably having a similar reaction, aren’t you?

Don’t think so? Or don’t want to believe you could conceivably share any traits with Millicent? Let’s test the proposition by trying a little Aphra Behn on for size.

If you don’t know her work, you should, at least historically: as far as we know, she was the first woman paid for writing in English. (She’s also hilarious.) Here is a page from THE FAIR JILT (1688):

You could tell instantly that there was something wrong here, couldn’t you, and not just because Miranda’s trying to seduce her priest? (For convent, read monastery.) Set aside her practically Dickensian affection for semicolons for the moment — which would tend to turn off a modern Millicent pretty quickly — and try to tote up in your mind all of the deviations from standard format.

To refresh your memory and gladden your now-sharpened eyes, here’s what it should have looked like:

Let’s take the problems on the first version from the top of the page: the incorrect version does not have a proper slug line. (For those of you joining us late, a slug line is AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/PAGE #, repeated on every page of the text.)

Seeing this lone page out of context, it’s quite obvious why a slug line is a dandy idea, isn’t it? Without it, how would it be even remotely possible to return this wandering page back into the manuscript from whence it came.

“Who wrote this?” Millicent cries in ire, glaring around her cubicle at the 47 manuscripts lying there. “It could be from any of these!”

At least Ms. Behn thought to number the pages of Example #1 — but did you catch the problem with how she did it? The page number is in the bottom right-hand margin, rather than in the slug line, where it belongs.

Did you catch any other difficulties?

What about the 10-point type, which will strain Millicent’s already overworked eyes? Or the Ariel typeface? There is nothing inherently wrong with either, but when she’s used to see practically every manuscript that heads out of the agency to publishing houses in 12-point Times New Roman, it (chant it with me here) just doesn’t look right.

Anything else? What about that right margin? Mighty straight, isn’t it? That look proper to you?

What’s going on here is called block-justification, and it’s another problem that can be laid squarely at the feet of those who insist that a manuscript and a published book should be identical. The text in many published books, and certainly in many magazines and newspapers, is spaced so that each line begins at exactly the same distance from the left-hand edge of the page and ends (unless it’s the last line of a paragraph) at exactly the same distance from the right-hand edge of the page.

Which, to let you in on why this type of neatness bugs professional readers, renders skimming quite a bit more difficult. Block formatting provides fewer landmarks, as it were; to the glancing eye, practically every line of narrative text resembles every other. To those of us used to the ragged right margins and even letter spacing of standard format, it’s actually kind of hard to read.

So there’s quite a bit in Example #1 that’s distracting, isn’t there? Doesn’t help sell the text, does it?

Okay, all of these rhetorical questions in a row are beginning to make me dizzy, so I’m going to wind down for the day. But before I do, let’s take one more look at Example #2, the one Millicent and a contest judge would like:

Now, let’s take a gander at the same page in — ugh — business format:

Startlingly different, isn’t it, considering that I made only two formatting changes? Did you catch them on your skim through?

All I did was I eliminate the indentations at the beginning of each paragraph and skipped a line between paragraphs to produce the norm for business correspondence, as well as for most of the text currently posted on the Internet.

Including this blog, unfortunately. As a professional writer and reader of manuscripts, it drives me NUTS that my blogging program won’t allow me to indent paragraphs.

Why? Because it just doesn’t look right. So much so that in a contest entry, business formatting is often grounds all by itself for knocking a manuscript out of finalist consideration.

Finding yourself asking why again? Well, technically, indented paragraphs are grammatically requisite, so to a judge, non-indented paragraphs may well seem as great a violation of everything we hold dear as frequent misspellings or use of the wrong form of there, their, and they’re.

Fortunately for judges and Millicents who care deeply about the health of the language, errors seldom come singly in entries and submissions. Like spelling errors, formatting mistakes are apparently social: they like to travel in packs, roving all over a manuscript together.

As a result of this phenomenon, a manuscript that contains errors within the first few lines (or on the first page) is easy for a professional reader to dismiss; statistically speaking, it’s a pretty good bet that if Millicent kept reading after a technically flawed opening, she would find more causes for umbrage.

Given how many submissions she has to screen between now and lunch, do you think she is going to (a) press on in the hope that the first error was a fluke, or (b) leap to the (perhaps unwarranted) assumption that there is more of the same to come and reject it right away?

I leave that one to your fine critical faculties to answer.

Why am I bringing this up in the middle of a discussion of the perils of business format, you ask? Because — are you sitting down, dislikers of indentation? — one hears rumors that there are Millicents out there (and agents, editors, and contest judges as well) who will leap directly from noticing a lack of indentation and unwarranted spaces between paragraphs to our friend, option (b): if the submitter is not aware of how to format a paragraph of English prose properly, she reasons, aren’t there inevitably more snafus to come?

Not every Millicent — or agent, judge, etc. — will have this knee-jerk reaction, of course. But do you really want to take the chance that she’s not going to seize the opportunity to save herself a little time?

The specter of illiteracy is not the only reason using business format is likely to cost you, either. To a professional reader, the differences between the last two examples would be more than visually jarring — they’d be downright confusing. In standard format, the only reason for a skipped line between paragraphs would be a section break, so Millicent would be expecting the second paragraph to be about something new.

Okay, so a misconception like that might distract her attention for only few consecutive seconds, but let’s not kid ourselves: your garden-variety Millicent is spending less than a minute on most of the submissions she rejects — it’s actually not all that uncommon for her not to make into the second or third paragraph before reaching for the SASE and a copy of that annoying form rejection letter.

Take a moment for the implications of that to sink in fully. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.

While those of you new to the speed with which rejection typically occurs are already in shock, let me add for the sake of anyone who doesn’t already know: those who regard business format as a symptom of creeping illiteracy — hey, I just report the news — are likely to frown upon it just as much in a query letter or synopsis as in a manuscript submission.

Time loss is not the only reason she might take umbrage at momentary confusion. Let me let you in on a little secret: professional readers, especially those who inhabit agencies and publishing houses, are not overly fond of having their mental image of the story they are reading at the moment jarred.

How do I know this? Well, for one thing, they commonly refer to it as being tricked. As in, “I hate being tricked by a first paragraph that is about someone other than the protagonist.”

There’s a practical basis to this dislike, of course, but it’s kind of complicated. I wrote a couple of fairly extensive posts on the subject last year (here’s a link to the first, and here’s a link to the second, in case you’re interested), but I’ll run over the thumbnail version now.

Comfortably seated?

To get through all of those manuscripts she’s assigned to screen each week, Millicent has to read quite quickly, right? If she doesn’t, she’ll get buried in paper, as basically, she’s got to make it through WAR AND PEACE several times over in a week.

That’s a whole lot of material to remember, by anyone’s standards — and remembering actually is important here. If she decides to allow a manuscript to make it to the next level of consideration, she is going to need to be able to tell her boss what the book is about: who the protagonist is, what the conflict is, and why that conflict is important enough to the protagonist for the reader to be drawn into it.

In essence, she’s going to need to be able to pitch it to the higher-ups at the agency, just as the agent is going to have to do in order to sell the book to an editor, and an editor is going to have to do in order to convince HIS higher-ups that the publishing house should acquire the book.

And, often, as first-round contest judges will need to do on an evaluation form in order to pass an entry onto the next round.

Okay, brace yourself, because explaining what comes next involves delving into one of the great cosmic mysteries. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Remember earlier in thus series, when I mentioned that agents and editors don’t read like other people? Well, one of the primary differences is that from line one of page one, they’re already imagining how they’re going to pitch this book.

So if paragraph 2 or 3 (or page 2 or 3) suddenly informs them that their mental patter has been about the wrong character, they feel as if they’ve been backing the wrong horse.

And while there may have been any number of perfectly reasonable narrative reasons for the text to concentrate upon an alternate character for the opening, unless the writing AND the story have already really wowed Millicent, her resentment about being trickedwrong about the identity of the protagonist is often sufficient to make her reach for that SASE and form letter.

Feel free to go scream into a pillow over that last piece of logic; you don’t want to keep that kind of existential cri de coeur pent up inside. I’ll wait until it’s out of your system.

Feel better? Good.

Before you go rushing off to see if your opening paragraphs might possibly be open to an interpretation of trickery — because, for instance, you might have taken the bold authorial step of noticing that there is more than one human being in the world, and reported a piece of action accordingly — let’s return to the formatting issue that prompted my little segue into the psychology of resentment. Can we extrapolate any practical lesson about business format from it?

You bet your boots we can: it’s not a good idea to give the impression of a section break where there isn’t one. And when producing pages for people who read all day, you might want to stick to the rules governing written English and indent your paragraphs.

Still a bit confused? Don’t worry: the show-and-tell is far from over. Hang in there for the rest of this series, and keep up the good work!

Manuscript formatting 101, part VII: God bless the Millicents, every one

For the last few days, I’ve been pursuing the dual goals of trying to show you just how obvious it is to a professional reader when a submission ISN’T in standard manuscript format (as opposed to being set up to ape the format of published books) and to drum up a little holiday sympathy for Millicent, everybody’s favorite agency screener.

Wipe that smirk off your face, please. Even if you aren’t in the habit of empathizing with people who reject writers for a living, there’s a good self-interested reason you should care about her state of mind: even with the best will in the world, grumpy, over-burdened, and/or rushed readers tend to be harder to please than cheerful, well-treated, well-rested ones.

Millicent is the Tiny Tim of the literary world, you know; at least the Bob Cratchits a little higher up on the office totem pole uniformly get paid, but our Millie sometimes doesn’t, or gets a paycheck that’s more an honorarium than a living wage. A phenomenon that one might expect to become increasingly common in the months to come: the worse a bad economy gets, the better an unpaid intern is going to look to a cash-conscious agency.

Even if she’s not an intern, she’s still unlikely to be paid very much, at least relative to the costs of living in the cities where the major publishers dwell. Her hours are typically long, and quite a lot of what she reads in the course of her day is, let’s face it, God-awful.

Not to mention poorly formatted. But I digress.

Millicent’s job, in short, is not the glamorous, power-wielding potentate position that those who have not yet passed the Rubicon of signing with an agency often assume it to be. Nor, ideally, will she be occupying the position of first screener long: rejecting queries and manuscripts by the score on-the-job training for a fledgling agent, in much the same way as an editorial assistant’s screening manuscripts at a publishing houses is the stepping-stone to becoming an editor.

You didn’t think determining a manuscript’s literary merits after just a few lines of text was a skill that came naturally to those who lead their lives right and got As in English, did you?

The aspiring writer’s learning curve is often not dissimilar to Millicent’s, actually: no one tumbles out of the womb already familiar with the rules of manuscript formatting. (Okay, so I practically was, growing up around so many authors, but I’m a rare exception.) Like Millicent, most of us learn the ropes only through reading a great deal.

She has the advantage over us, though: she gets to read books in manuscript form, and most aspiring writers, especially at the beginning of their journeys to publication, read books. The format is, as I believe that I have pointed out, oh, several hundred times before in this very forum, quite different.

So what writers tend to produce in their early submissions are essentially imitations of books. The problem is, there are many reasons that a manuscript in book format would be hard for an agent or editor to handle — and not merely because the individual pages would appear unprofessional to Millicent.

For starters, published books are printed on both sides of the page, manuscripts on one. Why the difference, in these days of declining tree populations and editors huffily informing writers at conferences that paper is expensive?

Simple: it’s easier to edit that way. Which is why, even in these days of widely available word processors, scads of professional editing is still done by hand.

Why? Well, it’s a mite hard to give trenchant feedback while traveling in a crowded subway car if you have to maneuver a laptop, and many agencies remain far too virus-fearful to allow their employees solicit attachments from writers who aren’t already clients. (Those who do generally have a policy that forbids the opening of unsolicited attachments.) Even in agencies that have caved in to new technology sufficiently to send their member agents on long airplane flights to writers’ conferences armed with a Kindle with 17 manuscripts on it, hand-written marginalia is still the norm, even if it means scanning hand-proofed pages and e-mailing them back to the author.

Ultimately, most editors edit in hard copy because they prefer it. The human eye is, of course, to blame for this: reading comprehension drops by about 70% when the material is presented on a computer screen; the eye tends to skim.

Which is why — you can hear this coming, can’t you? — a wise writer always reads her ENTIRE manuscript IN HARD COPY before submitting it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry. It’s much, much easier to catch typos and logic problems that way.

While you’ve got your hymnals out, long-time readers, let’s continue with the liturgy: manuscripts should also be typed (don’t laugh; it’s not unheard-of for diagrams to be hand-drawn in submissions, or for late-caught typos to be corrected in pen), double-spaced, and have 1-inch margins all the way around.

Time to see why, from an editing point of view.

Thought I’d gone too far afield to get back to the topic at hand, didn’t you? Not a chance. Let’s call upon our old friend Dickens again to see what a page of a manuscript should look like:

Nice and easy to read, isn’t it? (If it’s too small to read easily on your browser, try double-clicking on the image.)

To give you some idea of just how difficult — or even impossible — it would be to hand-edit a manuscript that was NOT double-spaced or had smaller margins, take a gander at this little monstrosity:

I believe the proper term for this is reader-hostile. Even an unusually patient and literature-loving Millicent would reject a submission like this immediately, without reading so much as a word.

Were there a few eggnog spit-takes out there during that last sentence? “My goodness, Anne,” those of you who are wiping the grog off your incredulous faces sputter, “why is it THAT serious an offense?”

Well, think about it: even with nice, empty page backs upon which to scrawl copy edits, trying to cram spelling or grammatical changes between those lines would be well-nigh impossible. Knowing that, Millicent would never dream of passing such a manuscript along to the agent who employs her; to do so would be to invite a stern and probably lengthy lecture on the vicissitudes of the editorial life.

She wasn’t born yesterday, you know. She’s SMART.

Don’t tempt her just to reject it unread — and don’t, I beg you, provide the same temptation to a contest judge. Given the sheer volume of submissions the average Millicent reads, she’s not all that likely to resist.

Even if the sum total of the provocation consists of a manuscript that’s shrunk to, say, 95% of the usual size.

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you, past contest entrants and submitters who wanted to squeeze in a particularly exciting scene before the end of those requested 50 pages?

No? Let me fill you in on a much-deplored practice, then: faced with a hard-and-fast page limit for submission, some wily writers will shrink the font or the margins, to shoehorn a few more words onto each page. After all, who is going to notice a tenth of an inch sliced off a left or right margin, or notice that the typeface is a trifle smaller than usual?

Millicent will notice, that’s who, and practically instantly. As will any reasonably experienced contest judge; after hours on end of reading 12-point type within 1-inch margins, a reader develops a visceral sense of when something is off.

Don’t believe me? Go back and study today’s first example, the correctly formatted average page. Then take a look at this:

I shaved only one-tenth of an inch off each margin and shrunk the text by 5% — far less than most fudgers attempt, incidentally. Yet admit it: you can tell it’s different, can’t you, even without whipping out a ruler?

So could a professional reader. And let me tell you, neither the Millicents of this world nor the contest judges tend to appreciate attempts to trick them into extraneous reading. Next!

The same principle applies, incidentally, to query letters: often, aspiring writers, despairing of fitting a coherent summary of their books within the standard single page, will shrink the margins or typeface.

Trust me, someone who reads queries all day, every day, will be able to tell. (And if you would like to see precisely why, please check out the posts under the QUERY LETTERS ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right.)

The other commonly-fudged spacing technique involves skipping only one space after periods and colons, rather than the grammatically-requisite two spaces. Frequently, writers won’t even realize that this IS fudging: as readers have pointed out in the comments whenever I have talked about this in the past, ever since published books began omitting these spaces in order to save paper, I’ve seen a theory propounded all over the Internet (and sometimes even in writing classes, where the teachers should know better) insisting that skipping the extra space is obsolete. Frequently, the proponents will insist that manuscripts that include the space look old-fashioned to agents and editors.

And I’m not going to lie to you here: to the agents who prefer this format, it is going to look old-fashioned. Sorry.

But guess what: standard manuscript format IS old-fashioned, by definition; that fact doesn’t seem to stop most of the currently-published authors of the English-speaking world from using it. In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen a manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon.

I have, however, heard endless complaint from professional readers — myself included — about those second spaces being omitted. Care to guess why?

Reward yourself with a virtual candy cane if you said that cutting those spaces throws off word count estimation; the industry estimates assume those doubled spaces. And give yourself twelve reindeer if you also suggested that omitting them renders a manuscript harder to hand-edit.

We all know the lecture Millicent is likely to get if she forgets about that, right?

Again, a pro isn’t going to have to look very hard at a space-deprived page to catch on that there’s something fishy going on. Since Dickens was so fond of half-page sentences, the examples I’ve been using above won’t illustrate this point very well, so (reaching blindly into the depths of the bookshelf next to my computer), let’s take a random page out of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s VERA:

There are 310 words on this page; I wasn’t kidding the other day about how far off the standard word count estimations were, obviously. Now cast your eye over the same text improperly formatted:

Doesn’t look much different to the naked eye, does it? The word count is only slightly lower on this version of this page — 295 words — but enough to make quite a difference over the course of an entire manuscript.

So I see some hands shooting up out there? “But Anne,” I hear some sharp-eyed readers exclaim, “wasn’t the word count lower because there was an entire line missing from the second version?”

Well spotted, criers-out: the natural tendency of omitting the second spaces would be to include MORE words per page, not less. But not spacing properly between sentences was not the only deviation from standard format here; Millicent, I assure you, would have caught two others.

I tossed a curve ball in here, to make sure you were reading as closely as she was. Wild guesses? Anyone? Anyone?

The error that chopped the word count was a pretty innocent one, almost always done unconsciously: the writer did not turn off the widow/orphan control, found in Word under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. This insidious little function, the default unless one changes it, prevents single lines of multi-line paragraphs from getting stranded on either the bottom of one page of the top of the next.

As you may see, keeping this function operational results in an uneven number of lines per page. Which, over the course of an entire manuscript, is going to do some serious damage to the word count.

The other problem — and frankly, the one that would have irritated a contest judge far more than Millicent — was on the last line of the page: using an emdash (“But—“) instead of a doubled dash. Here again, we see that the standards that apply to printed books are not proper for manuscripts.

Which brings me back to today’s moral: just because a particular piece of formatting looks right to those of us who have been reading books since we were three doesn’t mean that it is correct in a MANUSCRIPT.

Millicent reads manuscripts all day; contest judges read entries for hours at a time. After a while, a formatting issue that might well not even catch a lay reader’s attention can begin to seem gargantuan.

As I have perhaps pointed out once or twice throughout this series, if the writing is good, it deserves to be free of distracting formatting choices. You want agents, editors, and contest judges to be muttering, “Wow, this is good,” over your manuscript, not “Oh, God, he doesn’t know the rules about dashes,” don’t you?

Spare Millicent the chagrin, please; both you and she will be the happier for it. Believe me, she could use a brilliantly-written, impeccably-formatted submission to brighten her Dickensian day.

More show-and-tell follows next time. Keep up the good work!

Manuscript formatting 101, part VI: but published authors do it all the time, or, taking the time to keep those fingers intact

Did everyone have a jolly, merry, or otherwise acceptable Thanksgiving? I ended up cooking two dinners for different sets of people (don’t ask), so I’m not sure that I ever actually managed to eat anything.

I was thinking of you, though, during the extended prep process. My SO and I both came from families that cooked a good deal, so naturally, we were each taught wildly different knife techniques. A couple chopping under entirely disparate philosophies seems completely normal to me, because while my father favored the French cordon bleu technique, my mother was equally adamant about a method she had picked up from an issue of Gourmet sometime in the mid-1950s. Depending upon which parent happened to be supervising, then, I was expected to produce one of two techniques perfectly.

They had different philosophies about how best to hand-wash wine glasses, too. My childhood was an exercise in adaptation to rules, as those of you following the standard format series may have figured out by now. However, my parents did teach me well, and after all, a big part of the point of learning to chop properly is to keep one’s fingers intact, right?

Come to think of it, that’s a big part of the point of learning to hand-wash stemware correctly, too. A soapy glass can be very slippery.

Evidently, preserving one’s offspring’s fingers from harm is not a universal motivation amongst knife-technique teachers of the parental variety. Or so I gather from the results of the method my SO appears to have been instructed was the ONLY way to chop.

Let’s put it this way: after two days of prep work, my fingers remain pristine. His, on the other hand (other two hands, actually) are missing half a fingernail, gashed deeply on another finger, and generally covered with Band-Aids.

I don’t mention this to gloat, or to praise my parents’ techniques over his — although admittedly, since the folks who taught him theirs were sitting at our table yesterday, it was most tempting to ask what on earth they had been thinking. No, I bring this up because knowing how to chop vegetables without cutting one’s fingers, even if one is in a terrible hurry, is not all that conceptually dissimilar to learning to format a manuscript correctly, even when one is writing or revising on a deadline.

Yes, it’s a nit-picky pain to learn how to do it right — but your precious parts are more likely to be in one piece at the end of it. With a submission, the piece in question is the writerly ego.

I just mention.

For the last week or so I’ve been talking about how to format a manuscript professionally, and I’m beginning to fear that in my eagerness and vim, I may have scared some of you a little. My vehemence is kindly-motivated, I assure you: contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, how a submission is presented can indeed make a very great difference in how it’s received.

Yes, yes, I hear you, those of you who have been running around to writers’ conferences this season: you can hardly throw a piece of bread at an agent or editor’s forum without hitting a pro saying, “It all depends upon the writing.” They do indeed tend to spout this aphorism for a reason — it is in fact true.

But that doesn’t mean that the quality of the writing is the ONLY criterion agents, editors, contest judges, or any of the rest of us who read manuscripts for a living use when deciding whether to read beyond the first page of a submission. Professional presentation weighs in, as do marketability, a story’s probability of appealing to its target audience (not exactly the same thing), what happens to be the surprise bestseller of the moment — and yes, that whole slew of intangibles that make up personal taste.

There is, in short, no such thing as a foolproof formula for producing the perfect manuscript for submission.

As I’ve been arguing throughout this series on formatting, however, agents, editors, contest judges, screeners, and other professional readers develop an almost visceral sense of when a manuscript is properly formatted. So rather than screening submissions with a list of don’t by their sides, they more or less automatically discount pages that are cosmetically incorrect.

This is most emphatically not the same thing, though, as rejecting such pages on the spot because, say, an aspiring writer underlined a foreign-language word on page 1 instead of italicizing it.

Much as a reader with impeccable grammar will not necessarily throw down a book that misuses semicolons, most professional readers will not instantly reject an improperly-formatted submission without SOME further provocation. But believe me, the writer in both cases is going to have to work a whole lot harder to impress the reader as literate.

Unfortunately, the prevailing standards for printed books – which, as we have seen, differ in many significant respects from standard format for manuscripts – often lead innocent writers astray. Case in point: including a table of contents in a manuscript.

That seems as if it would be helpful, doesn’t it? In fiction, including it would enable an agent to go back and re-read the submission easily; in nonfiction, it would permit an editor to skip ahead to a chapter of particular interest.

And heck, if the manuscript fell upon the floor, a well-organized table of contents might make it a trifle easier to reassemble, right?

Wrong. In a published book, a table of contents, like an index, is a courtesy to bookstore browsers trying to get a feel for the contents and buyers who do not necessarily want to read the entire book. Why, runs the industry’s logic, would an agent or editor be interested in acquiring a book if he doesn’t like it well enough to read it all?

So really, a table of contents in a manuscript is just a wasted page. Do not include it in a submission, any more than you would include an index or those boxes around text that magazines are so fond of printing. To professional eyes, it looks unprofessional, especially in fiction.

It’s also an inconvenience – and it’s never a good idea to fritter away the energies of people you want to do you great big favors like representing your book, is it?

Why inconvenient? Well, think about our time-strapped friend Millicent the agency screener for a moment: when she turns over the title page, she expects to find the first page of text there waiting for her, all ready to be judged in a flash. Instead, she finds a table of contents, something she would only find helpful if she were to read the entire manuscript. Given that she tends to reject submissions somewhere between paragraph 1 and page 5, the information that Chapter 8 begins on page 112 will most likely strike her as at best gratuitous – and at worst presumptuous.

“What gives?” she’ll say, taking an extra sip of her too-hot latte as she impatiently gets the table of contents out of her way. “Doesn’t this writer know the difference between a manuscript and a book?”

‘Nuff said, I think.

Or maybe not — do I hear some aspiring nonfiction writers out there? “But Anne,” these excellent souls point out, “a book proposal is supposed to include a table of contents for the planned book!”

Ah, I’m glad that you brought this up, because this is a very common misconception amongst first-time proposers, who tend to cram precisely the table of contents they expect to see in their eventually-published books into their proposals. They look a little something like this:

Anyone out there see problems with this as a marketing document?

Actually, I’m sure that some of your hands shot into the air even before I showed this example, in your eagerness to take issue with the notion that a submission should resemble a published book in the first place. Well caught, eager wavers. Spot any other problems?

If you said that the example above doesn’t include information that could possibly be either accurate or useful, give yourself a gold star for the day. Obviously, it would be impossible for a proposer to state with certainty where the chapter breaks would fall in the proposed book when published; all the information s/he could reasonably offer in this sort of table of contents, then, would be educated guesses about how long each chapter might be. Or perhaps a list of where those breaks fall in the draft manuscript.

But that’s not the information nonfiction agents and editors want to see in the book proposal. The information they do want to see in the annotated table of contents is a brief description of the CONTENTS of each chapter.

The word annotated should have been a clue, I guess.

And like so many other differences between professional formating and, well, everything else they see in submissions, it’s really, really obvious at first glance to someone who has seen a book proposal before whether the submitter du jour has followed the rules. Compare what the first page of a correctly put-together annotated table of contents looks like with the truncated version above:

See the difference? I assure you, Millicent will. From ten paces away.

I don’t feel I may leave this topic without addressing the other EXTREMELY common opening-of-text decoration: epigraphs, those nifty little quotes from other sources that we writers so adore.

Nobody else likes them much, but we writers think they’re great, don’t we? There is something powerfully ritualistic about typing the words of a favorite author at the beginning of our manuscripts; it’s a way that we can not only show that we are literate, but that by writing a book, we are joining some pretty exalted company.

Feeling that way about the little dears, I truly hate to mention this, but here goes: it’s a waste of ink to include them in a submission. 99.9998% of the time, they will not be read at all.

Stop glaring at me that way; it’s not my fault.

It’s true, alas: I’ve literally never met a professional reader who doesn’t just skip ‘em in a first read — or (brace yourselves, italics-lovers) any other italicized paragraph or two at the very beginning of a manuscript. They just assume, often not entirely without justification, that if it’s in italics, it doesn’t really have much to do with the story at hand, which (they conclude, not always wrongly) begins with the first line of plain text.

There’s another reason that they tend to skip ‘em: the sad fact is, at the submission stage of the game, no one cares who a writer’s favorite authors are.

The official justification for this — yes, there is one — is quite interesting: even the busiest person at an agency or publishing house picks up a manuscript in order to read ITS author’s writing, not someone else’s.

Kinda hard to fault them for feeling that way, isn’t it, since we all want them to notice the individual brilliance of our respective work?

Sentiment aside, let’s look at what including an epigraph achieves on a practical level. Instead of startling Millicent with your erudition in picking such a great quote, the epigraph will to prompt her to start skimming BEFORE she gets to the first line of your text – AND you will have made her wonder agaub if you realized that manuscript format and book format are not the same.

Good idea? Or the worst marketing idea since New Coke?

If that all that hasn’t convinced you, try this on for size: while individual readers are free to transcribe extracts to their hearts’ contents, the issue of reproducing words published elsewhere is significantly more problematic for a publishing house. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, reproduction of published text without the author’s permission is known in the biz by another, less flattering name: copyright infringement.

If the quote is from a book that is not in the public domain, the publisher will need to obtain explicit permission to use any quote longer than fifty words. Ditto for ANY quote from a song that isn’t in the public domain, even if it is just a line or two.

So effectively, most epigraphs in manuscripts are signposts shouting to an editor: “Here is extra work for you, buddy, if you buy this book! You’re welcome!”

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some epigraph-huggers cry,
“the material I’m quoting at the opening of the book is absolutely vital to include! The book simply isn’t comprehensible without it!”

Okay, if you insist, I’ll run through the right and wrong ways to slip an epigraph into a manuscript — but bear in mind that I can’t promise that even the snazziest presentation will cajole Millicent into doing anything but skipping that quote you love so much. Agreed?

Regardless of while title page format you choose, do not, under any circumstances, include a quote on the title page as an epigraph — which is what submitters are most likely to do, alas. Let’s take a gander at what their title pages tend to look like:

How likely is Millicent to notice the quote at all? Well, this was what she was expecting to see:

Actually, that wasn’t precisely what she expected — did you catch the vital piece of information he left off his title page?

If you said that Eeyore neglected to include the book category on the second example, give yourself a pile of thistles. (Hey, that’s what he would have given you.) My point is, the quote in the first example is going to stand out to Millicent like the nail in a certain critter’s tail.

Other submitters choose to eschew the title page route in order to place an epigraph on the first page of text. The result is immensely cluttered, by anyone’s standards — especially if the submitter has made the very common mistake I mentioned in my discussion of title pages last time, omitting the title page altogether and cramming all of its information onto page 1:

Where did all of our lovely white space from yesterday and the day before go? Into quoting, partially.

The last popular but ill-advised way to include an introductory epigraph is to place it on a page all by itself, as it might appear in a published book:

What’s wrong with this, other than the fact that Poe died before our author wrote Sons and Lovers? Chant it with me now, everyone: A MANUSCRIPT IS NOT SUPPOSED TO RESEMBLE A PUBLISHED BOOK.

At best, Millicent is likely to huffily turn past this page unread. At worst, she’s going to think, “Oh, no, not another writer who doesn’t know how to format a manuscript properly. I’ll bet that when I turn to page one, it’s going to be rife with terrible errors.”

Does either outcome sound desirable to you? I thought not.

So what SHOULD an epigraph-insistent submitter do? Leave it out, of course — weren’t you listening before?

But if it must be there, our pal Mssr. Poe actually wasn’t all that far off: all he really did wrong here was include a slug line. The best way to include an introductory epigraph is on an unnumbered page PRIOR to page 1. On that unnumbered page, it should begin 12 lines down and be centered.

But I’m not going to show you an example of that. Why? Because I really, truly don’t think you should be including an epigraph at all at the submission stage.

Just in case I hadn’t made that clear.

That doesn’t mean you should abandon the idea of epigraphs altogether, however. Squirrel all of those marvelous quotes away until after you’ve sold the book to a publisher — then wow your editor with your erudition and taste.

Or, if you can’t wait that long, land an agent first and wow her with your erudition and taste. But don’t be surprised if she strongly advises you to keep those quotation marks to yourself for the time being.

If you are submitting directly to a publisher, do be aware that most publishing houses now place the responsibility for obtaining the necessary rights squarely upon the author. If you include epigraphs, many editors at these houses will simply assume that you have ALREADY obtained permission to use them. Ditto with self-publishing presses.

This expectation covers, incidentally, quotes from song lyrics, regardless of length.

I’m quite serious about this. If you want to use a lyric from a song that is not yet in the public domain, it is generally the author’s responsibility to get permission to use it — and while for other writing, a quote of less than 50 consecutive words is considered fair use, ANY excerpt from an owned song usually requires specific permission, at least in North America. Contact the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) for assistance in making such requests. (For a very funny first-hand view of just what a nightmare this process can be, please see FAAB Joel Derfner’s guest post on the subject.)

Have I talked you out of including an epigraph yet? I hope so.

Remember, just because you do not include your cherished quotes in your submission does not mean that they cannot be in the book as it is ultimately published. Contrary to what 99% of aspiring writers believe, a manuscript is a DRAFT, not a finished work. In actuality, nothing in a manuscript is unchangeable until the book is actually printed — and folks in the industry make editing requests accordingly.

In other words, you can always negotiate with your editor after the book is sold about including epigraphs. After you have worked out the permissions issue, of course.

Keep up the good work!

Manuscript formatting 101, part V: beauty and other judgment calls that reside in the eye of the beholder

Yesterday, I began a compare-and-contrast exercise, showing common examples of the first pages of submissions and fine-tuning your binoculars so you might see how our old friend Millicent the Agency Screener might view them. As I sincerely hope those of you who read the post can attest, it was pretty obvious that the professionally-formatted title page won the beauty contest hands-down.

Or, if the bulk of you aren’t willing to attest to that, may I at least hope that everyone is now at least aware that propriety, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder?

Yet after I posted it late last night, I heard wee pixie voices bearding me. “But Anne,” I heard these winsome creatures pipe, “aren’t you assuming that Millicent’s pretty shallow? Whenever I’ve heard agents and editors asked at conferences or on their websites about whether cosmetic issues can get a manuscript rejected, they generally disclaim the notion with scorn. I’ve even heard them say that they don’t care about issues like typeface, spaces after periods and colons, or where the chapter title lies — and that strikes me as significant, as I’ve never, ever heard one say it was okay to let a query letter run longer than a single page. Isn’t it the writing that matters in a submission, ultimately?”

Well, yes and no, querying sprites. Naturally, the writing matters MOST, with freshness, audience-appropriateness, marketability, and fit with the agent or editor reading it jostling for second place. Equally naturally, and something that I often point out here, individual agents, editors, and even contest judges harbor individual preferences as well and have been known to express them at conferences. One person’s pet peeve, however, will not be another’s, and since few aspiring writers of my acquaintance either take the trouble or have the information required to find out the preferences of every agent to whom they are submitting, adhering to standard format minimizes the probability of running afoul of unknown annoyance-triggers.

Yes, yes, I know — I’ve been harping on that last bit during this series, but it honestly is important to remember. If someone to whom you are submitting asks for something different, for heaven’s sake, give it to her; if, as is usually the case, you just don’t know, keep the presentation unprovocative so that your writing may shine.

In other words, don’t assume, as so many aspiring writers do, that the writing is the only thing that matters.

Taking the time to present your work professionally is honestly worth it. Yes, admittedly, one does hear of cases where a kind, literature-loving agent has looked past bizarre formatting in order to see a potential client’s, well, potential, one also hears of isolated cases where a manuscript rife with spelling and grammatical errors gets picked up, or one that has relatively little chance of selling well in the current market. The age of miracles has not entirely passed.

But — and this is a BIG but — these cases get talked about because they are exceptions, and rare ones at that. 9,999 times out of 10,000, any of these problems will result in, if not instantaneous rejection, then rejection upon Millicent’s lighting upon the next manuscript problem.

So why don’t aspiring writers hear that more often at conferences?

I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that’s not just because a sane, sensible individual with a reputation to protect is unlikely to stand up in front of 500 eager potential submitters and say, “Look, if you’re planning to submit a grimy photocopy of your book, or insist upon presenting it in 10-point type, or not indenting your paragraphs, just don’t bother to query me.”

Instantly, 500 pens would scrawl on 500 programs, DO NOT QUERY THIS ONE; SHE’S MEAN. Which would rather defeat the agent’s purpose in coming to the conference to recruit new clients, wouldn’t it?

As someone who teaches writing and formatting classes, I can think of another reason that a speaker might want to be careful about such pronouncements: an agent or editor doesn’t have to speak at many conferences (or blog for very long) before recognizing that anything they about submissions is likely to be repeated with the éclat of a proverb for years to come amongst the writing community.

Seriously, it’s true. I’ve heard offhand comments made from the dais, or even jokes, being debated for hours in conference hallways, particularly if those comments happen to relate to the cosmetic aspects of querying and submission. 5-4 Supreme Court decisions are discussed with less vim. Some of Miss Snark’s pronouncements have been more commented upon than St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

Okay, so that last is a slight exaggeration. My point is, the very notion of from-the-horse’s-mouth rightness carries such a luster thatsuch speakers are constantly in extreme danger of having everything they say quoted back to them as an inflexible rule.

Which is why, I have to say, I occasionally experience many qualm about presenting the rules of standard format as inflexible rules. On the pro side, we are talking, after all, about an industry that both values creativity and considers submitting a book proposal in anything but a black folder dangerously radical. On the con side, literally nothing else I talk about here consistently raises as much ire — so much so, in fact, that every time I revisit this topic, I find myself wondering by halfway through the series if I should ever return to it again. It’s emotionally trying.

Interestingly, it seems to be emotionally trying for a lot of people. Tell an aspiring writer that his dialogue is turgid, or his pacing drags, or that he’s left a necessary section out of his book proposal, and most of the time, he’ll be at least curious about why you think so. (If a bit defensive.) Yet suggest to the same writer that he might be better off reformatting his manuscript to include such niceties as paragraph indentation or moving his page number to the slug line, and a good quarter of the time, he’ll look at you as though you’d just kicked his grandmother.

Go figure, eh?

Presentation issues definitely do matter — which is, again, not to say that the quality of the writing doesn’t. But — and again, this is a BIG but — rejection decisions are often made on page 1 of a manuscript. Sometimes even within the course of the first paragraph. If the manuscript is hard to read, due to a funky typeface or odd spacing or just plain poor print quality, it may not be be read at all.

While these phenomena are, in fact, quite widely recognized as true, the person who announced them this baldly from the dais at a literary conference would be covered head to foot with flung tomatoes in twenty seconds flat.

Which is why I’m going to keep saying it until I’m blue in the face and you die of boredom: to the eye of someone who reads manuscripts for a living, professional formatting is simply the least distracting way a book can possibly be presented. Perversely, adhering to the industry’s cosmetic expectations renders it MORE likely that an agent or editor will concentrate upon the beauty of the writing, not less.

So instead of thinking of the rigors of standard format as a series of unimportant (or even silly) superficial choices, try regarding them as translating your calling card, a means of catching Millicent’s tired eye and informing her that this is a manuscript that should be taken seriously.

Because she can’t fall in love with your good writing until she reads it, can she?

Last time, I showed how the first page of text does not, from a professional perspective, make an adequate substitute for a title page. Instead of being a replica of a hoped-for book cover, as many submitters produce, or a shouted-out declaration of the book’s title and who wrote it, the properly-formatted title page is a quiet, practical piece of paper, containing a specific set of marketing information. It should look, in case you missed it, like this:

Like everything else in the manuscript, the title page should be entirely in 12-point type, unless an agent SPECIFICALLY requests otherwise. (Or contest’s rules; double-check for title page restrictions, which are quite common.) You may place the title in boldface if you like, but that’s it on the funkiness scale; a title page with photos, drawings, or bizarre fonts is just distracting.

I’m quite serious about this. No matter how cool your title page looks with 24-point type or the picture you would like to see on the book jacket, resist the urge, because Millicent will be able to tell from across the room if you didn’t.

Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

Quite a difference, isn’t it? Apart from the font choice, did you notice any other potentially-distracting dissimilarities between the first example and the second?

If you said that Mssr. Smith’s title page included both a slug line (the author’s name and title in the upper right margin of the page) and a page number in the bottom right corner, give yourself a gold star for the day. Add whipped cream and walnut clusters if you mentally added the reason that those additions are incorrect: because the title page is not the first page of text. Technically, it should not be numbered.

This means, incidentally, that the title page should not be counted as one of the 50 pages in those 50 pages the agent of your dreams asked you to submit, either. Nor would it count toward the total number of pages for a contest entry.

That loud whoop you just heard was contest-entering writers everywhere realizing that they could squeeze another page of text into their entries.

On both the title page and elsewhere, I would highly recommend using either Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces, both here and in the manuscript as well, as these are the standards of the industry.

I know, I know: another cosmetic weirdness. But like some of the other strictures of standard format, there’s a pretty good reason for this one: word count estimation is predicated upon these typefaces. The Times family is estimated at 250 words/page; Courier at 200. So a 400-page manuscript in Times New Roman is estimated to be roughly 100,000 words. (To make the math clear, 400 x 250 = 100,000; for further explanation, please see the WORD COUNT category on this list at right.)

Now, in actual fact, it’s probably closer to 115,000 words; as any writer who has compared the estimated word count for her book with the total her word processing program so kindly provides, they tend to differ wildly. But word count, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder: a novelist whose title page reported, accurately, that her 400–age novel was 115,000 words might well see it rejected out of hand on the grounds that it was too long.

Why? Well, math may not have been Millicent’s best subject (as one might expect, the inmates of agencies tend overwhelmingly English majors), but she can do third-grade multiplication in her head: 115,000 words at 250 words/page would equal a 460-page manuscript.

That’s quite a bit longer than editors tend to expect first novels in most genres to be. In other words, next!

“But Anne,” I hear you cry, “why is Millicent estimating at all? If she wants to know how long it is, why doesn’t she just flip to the last page and check the page number?”

Arguably, she might, but I wouldn’t bet upon it. I could give you a long song and dance about how much her wrists hurt from opening all those query envelopes all day, or how her secret midnight e-mail orgies have rendered pinching a torture, but in practice, the answer is far less personal: because the word count is right there on the title page. Why should she doubt it?

Also, how exactly could she manage to turn to page 400 of a manuscript, when her boss requested that the writer send only the first 50, without resorting to some pretty impressive maneuvering through time and space?

Let’s turn to the first page of the submission, to see how much of a difference font and typeface make at first glance. Here’s a correctly-formatted page 1 in Times New Roman:

Pretty spiffy, eh? And definitely not how this opening would appear in a published book, right?

Just for giggles, let’s take a peek at the same page, also correctly formatted, in Courier. Note how many fewer words per page it allows:

Got both of those firmly imbedded in your brainpan? Good. Now format your first pages that way for the rest of your natural life.

Well, my work here is obviously done.

Okay, okay — you want to see why it’s a good idea, don’t you? Take a gander at the SAME first page, not in standard manuscript format. See how many differences you can spot:

Interesting how just a few small formatting changes can alter the presentation, isn’t it? It’s exactly the same WRITING — but it just doesn’t look as professional.

To Millicent, who reads hundreds of pages per day, the differences between the last three examples could not be clearer.

And yet, if we’re going to be honest about it, there were really very few deviations from standard format in the last example. For those of you playing at home, the typeface is Georgia; the chapter title is in the wrong place, and there isn’t a slug line. Also, the page is numbered in the wrong place — the default setting, incidentally, in many word processing programs.

Again, none of these infractions against the rules of standard format are serious enough to cause Millicent to toss a submission aside as soon as she notices them. But when poor formatting is combined with literary experimentation — like, say, that paragraph-long first sentence ol’ Charles managed to cough up — which do you think she is going to conclude, that Dickens is a writer who took the time to polish his craft, or that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing?

Yup. Don’t tempt her to draw the wrong conclusion.

Of course, there is the occasional exception — if you answered that it all depends upon whether Millicent reading it before Dickens is a household name or after, give yourself yet another gold star for the day. Unless you happen to be famous, I wouldn’t advise taking the risk.

And if you do happen to be famous, could I interest you in writing a back jacket blurb?

At the risk of hatching an axiom, it’s worth a writer’s while pay attention to the little details. The longer you remain in the business, the more those little things will strike you as just, well, matters of right and wrong. As, fortunately or not, they do Millicent and her ilk.

Come to think of it, that sense of fitness may well be the reason that discussions of formatting tend to become so vitriol-stained: we all like to be right, and after all, propriety is in the eye of the beholder.

More show-and-tell follows next time. Keep up the good work!

Manuscript formatting 101, part IV: let’s see what this looks like in practice

Has everyone recovered from this weekend’s inoculation of professional formatting know-how? Yes, that was a whole lot of information to absorb at once, and it may have left a bit of a sore place, but much better a one-time quick sting than engendering years of rejection without knowing why, I always say. Once you’ve gotten exposed to the correct way to format a book manuscript, chances are that you’ll be immune to formatting problems in the future.

Why, yes, I have run that metaphor right into the ground. How kind of you to notice. But there’s a reason I’m hammering on it so hard: one of the great fringe benefits of inoculation is that, as unpleasant as it may have been at the sticking-point, so to speak, the stuck usually doesn’t have to think all that much about smallpox or whooping cough for quite a long time afterward.

So too with standard format for book manuscripts — once a writer gets used to how a professional submission is supposed to look, everything else is going to look wacky.

No, really. As I have been threatening promising you repeatedly every few minutes while running through the standard format strictures, once you get used to how a professional manuscript is put together, any other formatting is going to feel downright uncomfortable. And to prove it to you, I’m going to spend the rest of this series let you see precisely HOW different standard format and non-standard format appears to the pros.

The usual caveats: what I’m about to show you is for BOOKS and BOOK PROPOSALS, folks. At the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself and repeating myself), I’ve been talking for the last few days ONLY about how books and book proposals should be formatted, not about short stories, screenplays, poetry, magazine and newspaper articles, or anything else; if you’re looking for formatting tips for any of the latter, run, don’t walk, to consult with those knowledgeable souls who deal with that kind of writing on a day-to-day basis.

Translation: first, if the agent or editor of your dreams (or the agent or editor with whom you are currently signed, if they don’t happen to be the same person) has expressed a strong preference for his clients formatting in a manner opposed to what you see here, run with that — but only for submission to that particular agent.

Yes, major deviations from this format are genuinely uncommon — among manuscripts that agents are currently submitting to editors at major US publishing houses, at least — but let’s face it, you’re not going to get anywhere telling an established agent that no one else’s clients are using 18-point Copperplate Gothic Bold if he happens to have an unnatural affection for it. Part of working with an agent entails trusting that he knows more about marketing books than you do. If he doesn’t, you wouldn’t WANT to be working with him, right?

I must have misheard all of the query-weary submitters out there. The proper answer is YES.

And before my last statement sends anyone out there into that time-honored writerly I’ve just signed with an agency but what if I chose the wrong one? panic, remember this: if you’ve done your homework before you signed, and thus are certain that he has a solid recent track record selling books in your category, you have every reason to have faith in your representative.

Or so I keep telling myself when I can’t sleep at night. Handing one’s hopes and dreams to someone else to market is hard.

Second, please recognize that not everything that falls under the general rubric writing should be formatted identically. So if your favorite source — other than yours truly, of course — tells you to do something diametrically opposed to what I’m showing you here, may I suggest double-checking that the other source is indeed talking about book manuscripts and not, say, submissions to a magazine that accepts short stories?

Contrary to popular belief, standards differ by type of publication. Yet surprisingly often, those giving practical to aspiring writers will conflate the format for, say, short stories, one with that for book manuscripts, resulting in a first page that will look incorrect to either. (Although, generally speaking, such guidelines tend to stick closer to the short story format than to the book.)

Don’t worry; I’ll be showing you the first pages of both very soon. In the spirit of that old chestnut, SHOW, DON’T TELL, I shall demonstrate just how different a manuscript that follows the rules looks from one that doesn’t.

But not before I give you just one more reason to study these examples very, very carefully if you are planning to submit book-length work to a North American agent or editor anytime soon: writers often overlook odd formatting as a reason that an otherwise well-written manuscript might have been rejected.

Certainly, other reasons get a lot more airplay, particularly at writers’ conferences. If you want to take a long, hard look at some of the better-discussed reasons, I would urge you to gird your loins and plunge into the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE category at right. (For those of you who missed it, a couple of falls ago, I went over list of instant-response rejection reasons given by a group of agents going over a stack of actual submissions at a conference, one by painful one. Pretty horrifying.)

Yet surprisingly little conference time seems to be devoted to deviations from standard format for manuscripts. Why shouldn’t conference speakers take thirty seconds of their speaking gigs to pointing out, for instance, that the ways in which a professional manuscript does not resemble a published book — ways that are unfortunately quite obvious to an agent, editor, contest judge, etc., from practically the moment their eyes light upon a submission?

Why is it so very apparent, you ask? Because much of the time, submitting writers will work overtime to make it apparent.

Seriously, many aspiring writers clearly go out of their way to format their submissions to resemble published books, in the mistaken belief that this will make their work seem more professional. The opposite is generally true — and often, it’s apparent in a professional reader’s first glance at the first page of a submission.

If the implications of that last assertion made you dizzy — if, for instance, you found yourself picturing our old pal Millicent the agency screener pulling a submitted manuscript out of its envelope, casting a critical eye over the first page, hooting, and stuffing the whole thing into the handy SASE along with a photocopied rejection letter — try placing your head between your knees and breathing slowly. I’ll wait until you recover.

And then follow up with a hard truth: the VAST majority of submissions are rejected not only on page 1, but within the first few lines of page 1. And often, a harried Millicent will derive a negative impression of a manuscript even PRIOR to page 1.

Keep taking nice, deep breaths. That dizziness will pass shortly.

Ah, some of you have found your breaths again, haven’t you? “Oh, come on, Anne,” I hear some hard-boiled submission veterans scoff, “she makes up her mind prior to page 1? How is that even possible?”

Well, the most common trigger is the absence of any title page whatsoever. Many submitters, for reasons best known to themselves, omit the title page altogether — often, I suspect, because they are unaware that a professional book-length manuscript ALWAYS has a title page.

Why? Long-time readers (or even those who have been paying attention over the last several days), chant it with me now: a properly-formatted title page tells an agent PRECISELY how to contact the brilliant author who wrote it — and tells an editor PRECISELY how to contact the agent who represents her.

To set the minds of those of you who have title page-free submissions circulating at the moment, relax: forgetting to include a title page almost certainly won’t prevent Millicent from reading your submission at all; she tends to read even the most bizarrely-formatted submissions for at least a line or two (although often no more than that). But that initial impression of an author’s lack of professionalism — or, to call it by a kinder name, of having a lot to learn about how the publishing industry works — does often translate into a rather jaundiced reading eye for what comes next.

Why? Well, let’s take a peek through her reading glasses, shall we? The first thing Millicent sees when she opens the average requested materials package is something like this:

Or like this:

Or, heaven help us, like this:

So tell me: why might Millicent take one look at these and conclude that their respective submitters could use a good class on manuscript formatting — and thus would be time-consuming clients for her boss to sign?

I see all of you long-term blog readers out there with your hands in the air, jumping up and down, eager to tell everyone what’s wrong with this as a first page of text — and you’re absolutely right, of course. We’re going to be talking about precisely those points in the days to come.

For now, however, I want you to concentrate upon how this example has failed as both a title page and a first page of text: by not including the information that Millicent would expect to see on either.

What makes me so sure she would find this discovery, at best, disappointing? Because what she (or her boss agent, or an editor, or a contest judge) would have expected to see on top of that pile of paper was this:

This is a standard manuscript title page for the same book — rather different, isn’t it? Visibly different, in fact, from several paces away, even if Millicent isn’t wearing her reading glasses.

Again, submitting the first example rather than the second would not necessarily be instantly and automatically fatal to a manuscript’s chances, of course. Most of the time, Millicent will go ahead and plunge into that first paragraph of text anyway.

However, human nature and her blistering reading schedule being what they are (for those of you new to this screener’s always-rushed ways, she has a stack of manuscripts up to her chin to screen — and that’s at the end of a long day of screening queries; manuscript submission is in addition to that), if she has already decided that a submission is flawed, just how charitable an eye do you think she is likely to cast upon the NEXT problem on the page?

Uh-huh. To use her favorite word: next!

To be fair to Millicent, while it may well be uncharitable of her to leap to the conclusion that Faux Pas’ or Ridiculous’ manuscript is likely to be unpolished because they did not include a proper title page, agencies do have a vested interest in signing writers who present themselves professionally. For one thing, they’re cheaper to represent, in practical terms: the agent doesn’t have to spend as much time working with them, getting their manuscripts ready to submit to editors.

And no agent in his right mind would send out a manuscript that didn’t include a standard title page. It serves a number of important — nay, vital — marketing functions.

Let’s take another look at the professional version, shall we? So you don’t have to keep scrolling up and down the page, here it is again:

Did you take a nice, long look? Good. While we’re at it, let’s also take a gander at a proper title page for a book with a subtitle (I haven’t forgotten your question, Harvey!):

Those formats firmly in your mind? Excellent. Now for a pop quiz: how precisely do Rightly and Collie’s first sheets of paper promote their respective books than Faux Pas or Ridiculous’ first pages?

Well, right off the bat, the good examples tell a prospective agent or editor what kind of book it is, as well as its approximate length. (If you do not know how to estimate the number of words in a manuscript, or why you should use an estimate rather than relying upon your word processor’s count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) Both of these are pieces of information that will tell Millicent instantly whether the submission in her hand would meet the requirements of the editors to whom her agency tends to sell.

Oh, yes, that’s important in a submission, whether to an agency or a publishing house. Really, really important.

Why? Well, think about it: if Millicent’s boss had decided not to represent Action/Adventure anymore, or if editors at the major houses had started saying that they were only interested in seeing Action/Adventure books longer than 90,000 words, Rightly Stepped would be out of luck.

But then, being a savvy submitter, ol’ Rightly would also want his work to be represented by an agent who just ADORES very long Action/Adventure novels — and regularly goes to lunch with scads and scads of editors who feel precisely the same way, right?

As I MAY have mentioned seven or eight hundred times before (in this post, it feels like), the standard title page also tells Millicent precisely how to contact the author to offer representation — and that’s a very, very good thing for everyone concerned. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: it’s ALWAYS in an aspiring writer’s interest to make it easy for an agent to help her.

I might be wrong, of course, but I suspect that NOT forcing Millicent to forage through the mountain of paper on her desk to find a misplaced cover letter with your phone number on it MIGHT be a good start toward being easily helpable.

By contrast, Faux Pas’ first page doesn’t really do anything but announce the title of the book and leap right into the story. That’s one underachieving piece of paper.

Some writers attempt to consolidate the proper functions of the title page and first page of text into a single sheet of paper. This format is particularly common for contest entries, for some reason. Let’s take another look at Ridiculous and Faux Pas’ submissions:

While such a top page does indeed include the requisite information Millicent or her boss would need to contact the author (although Faux Pas’ does it better, by including more means of contact), cramming it onto the first page of text doesn’t really achieve anything but saving a piece of paper. It doesn’t even shorten the manuscript or contest entry, technically speaking: the title page is never included in a page count; that’s why pagination begins on the first page of text.

I shall go into what DOES belong on the first page of text tomorrow, with accompanying visual aids. For today, let’s keep our focus simple: all I ask is that you would look at the proper title and the unprofessional examples side by side.

Go back and look again. I’ve got some time to kill.

Got all of those images burned into your cranium? Good. Now weigh the probability that someone who reads as many manuscripts per day as Millicent — or her boss, or the editor to whom her boss likes to sell books — would NOT notice a fairly substantial difference in the presentation. Assess the probability of that perception’s coloring any subsequent reading of the manuscript in question.

Kind of obvious, once you know the difference, isn’t it?

Before I sign off for today, and while you’ve got R.Q. Snafu’ sexample still in the front of your mind, let me briefly address the still surprisingly common writerly belief that the agents and editors will automatically take a submission by a woman more seriously if the author submits it under her initials, rather than under her given first name. J.K. Rowling aside, this just isn’t true, at least in fiction circles.

So unless you have always hated your parents for christening you Susan, you won’t really gain anything professionally by using initials in your nom de plume instead. And even if you did, why not publish under a name you actually like instead?

That’ll show your Susan-loving parents.

I just ruffled a few feathers out there, didn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear an initialed purist exclaim, “I don’t want to be judged as a FEMALE writer — I want to be judged as a WRITER. What’s wrong with removing gender markers altogether?”

Well, there’s nothing wrong with it per se, Susan, except that these days, it almost invariably results in Millicent’s seeing such initials and thinking, “Oh, this is a female writer who doesn’t want to be identified as one,” rather than “Gee, I wonder who this mystery person without a first name is. I’m just going to leap right into this manuscript with no gender-based expectations at all.”

Why will Millie have this reaction, you ask? Because female writers — and with a few notable exceptions, almost exclusively, female writers — have been submitting this way for a couple of hundred years now. It’s not all that hard a code to crack.

Historically, the hide-my-sex-for-success strategy has been used far, far less by male authors — except, of course, that hugely prolific and apparently immortal author, Anonymous, and the reputedly male writers of such ostensibly female-penned classics of wantonness (avert your eyes, children) as THE HAPPY HOOKER and COFFEE, TEA, OR ME?. Even during periods when the most popular and respected novelists have been women (and there have been quite a few in the history of English prose, contrary to what your high school English textbook probably implied), when someone named Stanley Smith wrote a novel, the title page has generally said so.

Because, you see, even back then, readers would have assumed S. Smith the novelist was a nice lady named Susan.

Something else for initial-favoring fiction writers to consider: in North America, women buy the overwhelming majority of novels — and not just women’s fiction, either. Literary fiction readers (and agents, and editors) tend to have two X chromosomes — and some of them have been known to prefer reading books by Susans rather than Roberts.

I just mention.

All that being said, the choice to initial or not is entirely up to you — or, more accurately, to you and your agent. Some sets of initials look cool in print, just as some names look better than others on book jackets. Or so claimed my father, the intrepid fellow who demanded that the maternity ward nurse convey him to a typewriter to see how my name looked in print before committing to filling out my birth certificate. (And yes, for those of you who have wondered Anne Mini IS in fact my given name; it just happens to look great in print, thanks to a little forethought.)

Keep up the good work!

Manuscript formatting 101, part III: God (at least the one that Millicent worships) is in the details

For the last couple of days, I’ve been revisiting the strictures of standard format for manuscripts, and like many visits from old cronies from childhood, it feels as though it’s been going on BIT too long.

Oh, yes, I said childhood: picture me as a ten-year-old, saying, “But WHY do I have to type my book report when no one else does? And who cares if the margins are precisely an inch wide?” Or as a junior high schooler, shaking my head over a short story upon which my teacher had simply written “Good!” but whose margins were now filled with professional advice from kith and kin how to render it publishable in The New Yorker.

It all cost me years of therapy, of course, but I do I ever know how to format a manuscript! To coin a phrase, practice makes perfect.

More importantly, practice makes habitual. After a while, the impulse to conform to the rules of standard format becomes second nature, you’ll be happy to hear, a learned instinct that can save a writer oodles of time and misery come deadline time.

How, you ask? Well, to a writer for whom proper formatting has become automatic, there is no last-minute scramble to change the text. It came into the world correct — which, in turn, saves a writer revision time.

And sometimes, those conserved minutes and hours can save the writer’s proverbial backside as well. Scoff not: even a psychic with a very, very poor track record for predictions could tell you that there will be times in your career when you don’t have the time to proofread as closely as you would like. At some point, that half an hour it would take to reformat will make the difference between making and missing your deadline.

Perversely, this is a kind of stress that will probably make you happy — perhaps not in the moment you are experiencing it, but in general. The more successful you are as a writer – ANY kind of writer — the more often you will be in a hurry, predictably. No one has more last-minute deadlines than a writer with a book contract…just ask any author whose agent is breathing down her neck after a deadline has passed. Or about which neither the editor nor agent remembered to tell her in the first place.

Oh, how I wish I were kidding about that. And don’t even get me started on the phenomenon of one’s agent calling the day after Thanksgiving to announce, “I told the editor that you could have the last third of the book completely reworked by Christmas — that’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

Think you’re going to want to be worrying about your formatting at that juncture? (And no, I wasn’t making up that last example, either; I had a lousy holiday season.) Believe me, you’re going to be kissing yourself in retrospect for learning how to handle the rote matters right the first time, so you can concentrate on the hard stuff.

That’s the good news about how easily standard format sinks into one’s very bones. The down side, is that once people — like, say, the average agent, editor, or Millicent — have spent enough time staring at professionally-formatted manuscripts, anything else starts to look, well, unprofessional.

The implications of this mindset are vast. First, it means that IF AN AGENT OR EDITOR REQUESTED YOU TO SEND PAGES, S/HE IS EXPECTING THEM TO BE IN STANDARD FORMAT, unless s/he SPECIFICALLY tells you otherwise.

Translation: it’s so much assumed that s/he probably won’t even mention it, because most agents and editors believe that these rules are already part of every serious book-writer’s MO. So much so, in fact, that agents who’ve read my blog sometimes ask me why I go over these rules so often. Doesn’t everyone already know them? Isn’t this information already widely available?

I’ll leave you to answer those for yourselves. Suffice it to say that our old pal Millicent the agency screener believes the answers to be: because I like it, yes, and yes.

Second, this mindset means that seemingly little choices like font and whether to use a doubled dash or an emdash — of which more below — can make an IMMENSE difference to how Millicent perceives a manuscript. (Yes, I know: I point this out with some frequency. However, as it still seems to come as a great surprise to the vast majority aspiring writers; I can only assume that my voice hasn’t been carrying very far when I’ve said it.)

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but professional-level critique is HARSH; it’s like having your unmade-up face examined under a very, very bright light by someone who isn’t afraid to hurt your feelings by pointing out flaws. In the industry, this level of scrutiny is not considered even remotely mean. Actually, if your work generates tell-it-like-it-is feedback from a pro, you should be a bit flattered – it’s how they habitually treat professional authors.

Yet the aforementioned vast majority of submitting writers seem to assume, at least implicitly, that agents and their staffs will be hugely sympathetic readers of their submissions, willing to overlook technical problems because of the quality of the writing or the strength of the story.

I’m not going to lie to you — every once in a very, very long while, there is the odd exception that justifies this belief. If the writing is absolutely beautiful, or the story is drool-worthy, but the formatting is all akimbo and the spelling is lousy, there’s an outside chance that someone at an agency might be in a saintly enough mood to overlook the problems and take a chance on the writer.

You could also have a Horatio Alger moment where you find a billionaire’s wallet, return it to him still stuffed with thousand-dollar bills, and he adopts you as his new-found son or daughter.

Anything is possible, of course. But it’s probably prudent to assume, when your writing’s at stake, that yours is not going to be the one in 10,000,000 exception.

Virtually all of the time, an agent, editor, contest judge, or screener’s first reaction to an improperly-formatted manuscript is the same as to one that is dull but technically perfect: speedy rejection.

Yes, from a writerly point of view, this is indeed trying. Yet as I believe I may have mentioned once or twice before, I do not run the universe, and thus do not make the rules. Sorry. No matter how much I would like to absolve you from some of them, it is outside my power.

Take it up with the fairy godmother who neglected to endow me with that gift at birth, okay?

Until you have successfully made your case with her, I’m going to stick to using the skills that she DID grant me, a childhood filled with professional writers who made me learn to do it the right way the first time. Let’s recap some of the habits they inculcated, shall we?

(1) All manuscripts should be printed or typed in black ink and double-spaced, with one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should NOT resemble published books in this respect.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

(5) The ENTIRE manuscript should be in the same font and size. Industry standard is 12-point.

(6) Do NOT use boldface anywhere in the manuscript BUT on the title page — and not even there, necessarily.

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered EXCEPT the title page.

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.

(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page, with the chapter title appearing on the FIRST line of the page, NOT on the line immediately above where the text begins.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, NOT on page 1.

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

Everyone clear on all that? Good. Let’s move on.

(12) The beginning of EVERY paragraph of text should be indented five spaces. No exceptions, EVER.

To put it another way: NOTHING you send to anyone in the industry should EVER be in block-style business format. And for a pretty good reason: despite the fact that everyone from CEOs to the proverbial little old lady from Pasadena has been known to use block format from time to time(and blogs are set up to use nothing else), technically, non-indented paragraphs are not proper for English prose. Period.

So if you have been submitting manuscripts with block-formatted paragraphs, they have almost certainly been being rejected at first glance. Yes, even if you submitted them via e-mail. (See why I’m always harping on how submitting in hard copy, or at the very worst as a Word attachment, is inherently better for a submitter?)

Why the knee-jerk response? Well, although literacy has become decreasingly valued in the world at large, the people who have devoted themselves to bringing good writing to publications still tend to take it awfully darned seriously. To publishing types, any document with no indentations, skipping a line between paragraphs, and the whole shebang left-justified carries the stigma of (ugh) business correspondence — and that’s definitely not good.

Do you really want the person you’re trying to impress with your literary genius to wonder about your literacy? I thought not.

And which do you think is going to strike format-minded industry professionals as more literate, a query letter in business format or one in correspondence format (indented paragraphs, date and signature halfway across the page, no skipped line between paragraphs)?

Uh-huh. And don’t you wish that someone had told you THAT before you sent out your first query letter?

Trust me on this one: indent your paragraphs in any document that’s ever going to pass under the nose of anyone even remotely affiliated with the publishing industry.

Including the first paragraph of every chapter. Yes, published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. But again, that lack of indentation was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying it in a submission, no matter to whom it is intended as an homage, might get your work knocked out of consideration.

(13) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.

I’m serious about that being the ONLY exception: skip an extra line to indicate a section break in the text.

Really, this guideline is just common sense — so it’s a continual surprise to professional readers how often we see manuscripts that are single-spaced with a line skipped between paragraphs (much like blog format, seen here).

Why surprising? Well, since the entire manuscript should be double-spaced with indented paragraphs, there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break. (Which is, in case you were not aware of it, what a skipped line between paragraph means in a single-spaced or non-indented document.) In a double-spaced document, a skipped line means a section break, period.

Also — and this is far from insignificant, from a professional reader’s point of view — it’s COMPLETELY impossible to edit a single-spaced document, either in hard copy or on screen. The eye skips between lines too easily, and in hard copy, there’s nowhere to scrawl comments like Mr. Dickens, was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could hardly have been both!

So why do aspiring writers so often blithely send off manuscripts with skipped lines, single-spaced or otherwise? My guess would be for one of two reasons: either they think business format is proper English formatting (which it isn’t) or they’re used to seeing skipped lines in print. Magazine articles, mostly.

But — feel free to shout it along with me now; you know the words — A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD NOT RESEMBLE A PUBLISHED PIECE OF WRITING.

The * * * section break is obsolete, as is the #; no one will fault you for using either — although most Millicents will roll their eyes upon seeing one of these old-fashioned formats, and every agent I know makes old-fashioned writers take them out prior to submission — but still, these throwbacks to the age of typewriters are no longer necessary in a submission to an agency or publishing house.

Why were they ever used at all? To alert the typesetter that the missing line of text was intentional.

One caveat to contest-entrants: do check contest rules carefully, because some competitions still require * or #. You’d be amazed at how seldom long-running contests update their rules.

(14) NOTHING in a manuscript should be underlined. Titles of songs and publications, as well as words in foreign languages and those you wish to emphasize, should be italicized.

Fair warning: if you consult an old style manual (or a website that is relying upon an old style manual), you may be urged to underline the words and phrases mentioned above. And just so you know, anyone who follows AP style will tell you to underline these. As will anyone who learned how to format a manuscript before the home computer became common, for the exceedingly simple reason that the average typewriter doesn’t feature italic keys as well as regular type; underlining used to be the only option.

DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE TEMPTERS: AP style is for journalism, not book publishing. They are different fields, and have different standards. And although I remain fond of typewriters — growing up in a house filled with writers, the sound used to lull me to sleep as a child — the fact is, the publishing industry now assumes that all manuscripts are produced on computers. In Word, even.

So DO NOT BE TEMPTED. In a submission for the book industry, NOTHING should be underlined. Ever.

Professional readers are AMAZED at how often otherwise perfectly-formatted manuscripts get this backwards — seriously, many’s the time that a bunch of us has sat around and talked about it at the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. According to this informal and often not entirely sober polling data, an aspiring writer would have to be consulting a very, very outdated list of formatting restrictions to believe that underlining is ever acceptable.

Or, to put it another way: since your future agent is going to make you change all of that underlining to italics anyway, you might as well get out of the habit of underlining now. Like, say, before submitting your manuscript — because if Millicent happens to be having a bad day (what’s the probability?) when she happens upon underlining in a submission, she is very, very likely to roll her eyes and think, “Oh, God, not another one.”

Italics are one of the few concessions manuscript format has made to the computer age — again, for practical reasons: underlining uses more ink than italics in the book production process. Thus, italics are cheaper. So when should you use them and why?

a. The logic behind italicizing foreign words is very straightforward: you don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

b. The logic behind using italics for emphasis, as we’ve all seen a million times in print, is even more straightforward: writers used to use underlining for this. So did hand-writers.

c. Some authors like to use italics to indicate thought, but there is no hard-and-fast rule on this. Before you make the choice, do be aware that many agents and editors actively dislike this practice. Their logic, as I understand it: a good writer should be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type.

I have to confess, as a reader, I’m with them on this one, but that’s just my personal preference.

However, there are many other agents and editors who think it is perfectly fine — but you are unlikely to learn which is which until after you have sent in your manuscript, alas. You submit your work, you take your chances.

There is no fail-safe for this choice. Sorry.

(15) All numbers (except for dates) under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25. But numbers over 100 should be written as numbers: 1,243, not one thousand, two hundred and forty-three.

I’m surprised how often otherwise industry-savvy writers are unaware of this one, but the instinct to correct it in a submission is universal in professional readers. Translation: NOT doing it will not help you win friends and influence people at agencies and publishing houses.

Like pointing out foreign-language words with special formatting, this formatting rule was originally for the benefit of the manual typesetters. When numbers are entered as numbers, a single slip of a finger can result in an error, whereas when numbers are written out, the error has to be in the inputer’s mind.

Again, be warned, those of you who have been taught by teachers who adhere to the AP style: they will tell you to write out only numbers under 10.

Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but in a book manuscript, it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

Did I mention it was wrong? And that my aged eyes have actually seen contest entries knocked out of finalist consideration over this particular issue? More than once? And within the year?

(16) Dashes should be doubled — rather than using an emdash — with a space at either end. Hyphens are single and are not given extra spaces at either end, as in self-congratulatory.

Yes, yes, I know: you’ve probably heard that this rule is obsolete, too, gone the way of underlining. The usual argument for its demise: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy, so many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them. An AP-trained teacher will tell you to use the longer emdash, as will the Chicago Manual of Style.

In this, however, they are wrong, at least as far as manuscripts are concerned. Standard format is invariable upon this point: a doubled dash with a space on either end is correct; anything else is not.

And yes, it is a common enough pet peeve that the pros will complain to one another about how often submitters do it. They also whine about how often they see manuscripts where this rule is applied inconsistently: two-thirds of the dashes doubled, perhaps, sometimes with a space at either end and sometimes not, with the odd emdash and single dash dotting the text as well.

Your word-processing program probably changes a double dash to an emdash automatically, but CHANGE IT BACK. Any agent would make you do this before agreeing to submit your manuscript to an editor, so you might as well get into this salutary habit as soon as possible.

(17) Adhere to the standard rules of punctuation and grammar, not what it being done on the moment in newspapers, magazines, books, or on the Internet. Especially the rule calling for TWO spaces after every period and colon.

In other words, do as Strunk & White say, not what others do. Assume that Millicent graduated with honors from the best undergraduate English department in the country, taught by the grumpiest, meanest, least tolerant stickler for grammar that ever snarled at a student unfortunate enough to have made a typo, and you’ll be fine.

Imagining half the adults around me in my formative years who on the slightest hint of grammatical impropriety even in spoken English will work, too.

The primary deviation from proper grammar I’ve been seeing in the last couple of years is leaving only one space, rather than the standard two, after a period. Yes, printed books often do this, to save paper (the fewer the spaces on a page, the more words can be crammed onto it, right?). A number of writing-advice websites, I notice, and even some writing teachers have been telling people that this is the wave of the future — and that adhering to the two-space norm makes a manuscript look obsolete.

At the risk of sounding like the harsh grammar-mongers of my youth, poppycock.

There is a very, very practical reason to preserve that extra space after each sentence in a manuscript: ease of reading and thus editing. As anyone who has ever edited a long piece of writing can tell you, the white space on the page is where the comments — grammatical changes, pointing out flow problems, asking, “Does the brother really need to die here?” — go.

Less white space, less room to comment. It really is that simple.

Translation: until everyone in the industry makes the transition editing in soft copy — which is, as I have pointed out before, both harder and less efficient than scanning a printed page — the two-space rule is highly unlikely to change.

There you have it: the rules. Practice them until they are imbedded into your very bones, my friends: literally every page of text you submit to an agent, editor, or literary contest (yes, including the synopsis) for the rest of your professional life should be in standard format.

Oh, and it’s a good idea to make sure everything is spelled correctly, too, and to turn off the widow/orphan control; it makes pages into an uneven number of lines.

Time to be on my merry way — but wait; some of you remain unsatisfied with this list, don’t you?

In fact, throughout the preceding, I’ve been sensing those of you following submission guidelines gleaned from books written in 1953 shifting uncomfortably in your chairs — and those who have been driven mad by trying simultaneously to observe every rule found on the Internet probably turned bright purple three rules ago. All of this discussion of the logic behind this or that renders some of you uncomfortable, I gather.

Why the heck isn’t there, some of you are left wondering wistfully, just a single list of rules that you can follow, no questions asked, upon which literally every source agrees?

How do I know that some of you have been muttering over this? Because so many of you have been commenting on back posts in the archives in recent months, and generally speaking, for every commenter, there are at least 112 quiet mutterers. Some even post excerpts from other writing blogs or links to them, demanding that I reconcile my advice with someone of whom I have never even heard, or complain angrily that those of us in the biz should really get our act together and publish a fail-safe list of rules, as if there were a publishing world congress that met biannually to vote on such measures.

An interesting idea, actually, but quite unlikely to happen.

Seriously, those of you who read only the current posts have been missing out on a lot of angst about cross-source consistency in the archives. To quote from the most recent comment on the subject:

While everyone seems to agree upon the basics (double spaced, ragged right, 25 lines a page), it’s all the details that seem to lack all consensus. In fact, as I look over all the interesting material you’ve covered in this series (the details of formatting a bio, synopsis, query letter, and manuscript), I’ve found conflicting answers concerning every issue that I’m interested in, leading to nothing but uncertainty and headaches and wasted hours.

For example, the italics and underline debate. I’ve found plenty of authors and agents who say to underline, while others say it doesn’t matter. I’ve found some who describe a “proper” manuscript as having the slug line on the *left*, and not the right (and my 20-year-old manuscript software does it that way, too). Some say no spaces around the two hyphens that you use for em dashes. Others say insert a pound sign (#) centered on a line of its own to indicate a section break (while some say to use “# # #” here), and (for a short story manuscript) use “# # #” to indicate the end (others insist that “-86-” is okay while still others say to use the two words you use to end a novel manuscript: “THE END”).

In the first place, if anyone is looking for terse, bullet-pointed to-do lists for writers, I think any of my long-term readers can tell you that this blog is NOT the place to start. As the thousands of pages of archived posts here can attest, I am the queen of elaboration.

Lots and lots of elaboration.

That being said, I do think that this commenter and the many, many like him have a legitimate beef: there is a lot of formatting advice out there, and some of it is conflicting. In part, this is due to some few standards having changed over the last hundred years or so; the fact that standards differ by type of writing, as I mentioned, undoubtedly plays a role, too. And frankly, I suspect that when most advice-givers, myself included, post lists of what we believe to be helpful rules for neophytes, we don’t write them up anticipating that our readers will be comparing and contrasting what we say with every other source out there.

In that, I suspect we content-providers tend to be a bit naïve about how readers actually do research on the Internet.

I have sympathy for how confusing all of the various advice out there must be for those who have never seen a professional manuscript up close and personal — that is, as I have said many times, why I revisit this decidedly unsexy topic so often. But honestly, some of the rules that commenters have asked about over the last three years must be from sources that predate World War II, or perhaps the Boer War. I’ve been editing book manuscripts for most of my adult life (and proofing galleys since early junior high school), and I have to say, I’ve literally never seen a single one that ended with “-86-”

Again, many of these seemingly confusing standards are lifted from other types of writing. For a BOOK manuscript, the proper way to end it is simply to end it. No bells, no whistles, no # # #.

In fact, I know plenty of Millicents (and their bosses, and editors, and contest judges) who routinely giggle at the use of THE END to indicate that a manuscript is not, in fact, going to continue. “What is this writer thinking?” they ask one another, amused. “That I’m going to keep reading all of that blank space after the last paragraph, wondering where all of the ink went? That I’m incapable of understanding why there aren’t any more pages in the submission? Please!”

Remember what I was saying earlier about professional critique being harsh? Don’t even get me started about professional ridicule.

But you can sort of see Millicent’s point of view here, can’t you? As I mentioned yesterday, to people who read professional manuscripts for a living in the US, the very notion of there NOT being a consensus is downright odd: why, the evidence that there is a consensus is sitting right in front of them. The mailman bring stacks of it, every single day.

“Oh, come on — everyone doesn’t already know these rules?” Millicent asks, incredulous. “This information is widely available, isn’t it?”

That’s a QUOTE, people — but as someone who regularly works with folks on both sides of the submission aisle, I have come to believe that the wide availability of the information is actually part of the problem here. The rules governing book manuscripts haven’t changed all that much over the years, from an insider’s perspective, but from the POV of someone new to the game, the fact that they have changed at all, ever — coupled with these rules not being applicable to every conceivable type of professional writing — can look an awful lot like inconsistency.

Which is why, in case you have been wondering, I always spend so much time and space here explaining the logic behind each rule I advise using. I’m just not a fan of the do-it-because-I-say-so school of teaching, and besides, I want the right way to sink into your bones, so it may save you time for the rest of your writing career.

To that end, I’m going to do something that will show you just how big a difference these little tweaks can make to a professional reader: for the rest of this series, I’m going to be showing you concrete examples of properly-formatted pages side-by-side with other popular options. I think that this will be a far, far better use of your reading time — and my blogging time — than trying to take on every other giver of writing advice on the web.

If, by the end of this series, you don’t think that these rules make sense or are likely to improve your submissions’ chances of acceptance, don’t apply them; go embrace the advice of others, and the best of luck to you. If, however, you decide to do as I say — and, incidentally, as I do; the manuscript my agent is circulating right now is formatted in this manner — well, I think your work will be better off for it.

Seem fair? Excellent. See you next time, and keep up the good work!

Manuscript formatting 101, part II: presenting your writing nicely framed

Welcome back to my refresher course on standard format for manuscripts. Since I know that many of you are scrambling like crazy, trying to get submissions out the door before the dreaded holiday publishing world malaise sets in, or scrambling like crazy to get submissions in shape in anticipation of the moment that the agent of your dreams answers affirmatively to the query letter that you are sending out before the annual malaise, or are scrambling like crazy after yesterday’s post, since you hadn’t realized that there WAS a standard format for manuscript submissions, I wanted to take another run at it.

My apologies for revisiting this to those of you who are already formatting your manuscripts perfectly — but unless you are ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE that you are, you might want to sit in on this series, too.

If you’re not willing to do it for your own sake, do it for mine. It breaks my heart to see good writers, even great ones, making the same formatting mistakes year in and year out, getting rejected for reasons that are apparent to professional readers from halfway across the room.

And no, Virginia, I’m not kidding about the halfway across the room part.

Although it pains me to confess it, how a manuscript looks can have an IMMENSE impact upon how an agent, editor, contest judge, or even a book doctor like me will respond to it. Talent, style, and originality count, of course, but in order to notice any of those, a reader has to approach the page with a willingness to be wowed.

That willingness can wilt rapidly in the face of incorrect formatting — which isn’t, in response to what half of you just thought, the result of mere market-minded shallowness on the part of the reader. Reading manuscripts for a living makes deviations from standard format leap out at one. As do spelling and grammatical errors, phrase repetition, clichés, and all of the many notorious agents’ pet peeves. (If you think I’m exaggerating, check out some of the lulus under the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE and AGENCY SCREENERS’ PET PEEVES OF THE NOTORIOUS VARIETY categories on the list at right.)

The sheer repetition of mistakes across manuscripts means that professional readers tend to focus on technical details when scanning the work of a new writer. Because all professional manuscripts are formatted identically, it’s INCREDIBLY obvious when one isn’t.

This is a really, really good thing to know BEFORE you submit to an agent or editor: even if 99.9% of the format is right, that .1% deviation actually will distract a professional reader from even the most beautiful writing.

And that’s not merely a matter of being obsessive-compulsive (although truth compels me to say that in this line of work, OCD is hardly an occupational drawback) — as I shall be showing you later on in this series, to someone who reads manuscripts for a living, deviations from standard format might as well be printed in blood-red ink.

So while it may seem tedious, annoying, or just a whole lot of work to go through your submissions with the proverbial fine-toothed comb in order to weed out this kind of distraction.

I hear those of you who have spent years slaving over your craft groaning out there — believe me, I sympathize. I fully realize that many of the tiny-but-pervasive changes I am about to suggest that you make to your manuscript are going to be irksome to implement. Reformatting a manuscript is time-consuming and tedious – and I would be the first to admit that at first, some of these rules can seem arbitrary.

At least on their faces, that is.

Speaking as someone who reads manuscripts for a living, I can let you in on a little secret: quite a few of these restrictions remain beloved of the industry even in the age of electronic submissions because they render a manuscript a heck of a lot easier to edit in hard copy — still the norm, incidentally. As I will show later in this series, a lot of these rules exist for completely practical purposes — designed, for instance, to maximize white space in which the editor may scrawl trenchant comments like, “Wait, wasn’t the protagonist’s sister named Maeve in the last chapter? Why is she Belinda here?”

As I said above, this is one line of work where a touch of compulsiveness is a positive boon. Treat this brain pattern with the respect it deserves.

And treat your own writing with the respect it deserves by taking the time to present it professionally. Obviously, competition to land an agent and get published is very intense, but if you’re going to get rejected, wouldn’t you rather it be because an agent or editor legitimately disagreed with your writing choices, instead of because you didn’t follow the rules?

Or, more commonly, because you weren’t aware of them?

Frankly, it’s bad for writers everywhere that these rules are not more widely known. Okay, so it keeps freelance editors like me in business, but it has created a submission environment where poor formatting is generally considered a warning sign of poor WRITING to come.

By Millicent the agency screener, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, and their aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, in any case.

And that drives conscientious aspiring writers, the ones who — like you, perhaps — have invested considerable time and sweat in learning something about the trade, completely batty. Because, like so much generalized criticism, the fine folks who take the advice most seriously tend to be the ones who need it least, I know that there are thousands of you out there who stay up nights, compulsively going over their manuscripts for the 147th time, trying to ferret out that one last bit of less-than-professional presentation.

Bless your heart, if you’re one of those. You’re helping raise aspiring writers’ collective reputation within the industry.

One quick caveat before we get started today: the standard format restrictions I’m listing here are for BOOK submissions, not for short stories, poetry, journalistic articles, academic articles, or indeed any other form of writing. For the guidelines for these, you may — and should — seek elsewhere.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: the guidelines in this series are for BOOK manuscripts and proposals, and thus should not be applied to other kinds of writing. Similarly, the standards applicable to magazine articles, short stories, dissertations, etc. should not be applied to book proposals and manuscripts.

Which is a gentle way of saying that the formatting and grammatical choices you see in newspapers will not necessarily work in manuscripts. AP style is different from standard format in several important respects, not the least being that in standard format (as in other formal presentations in the English language), the first letter of the first word after a colon should NOT be capitalized, since technically, it’s not the beginning of a new sentence.

I don’t know who introduced the convention of post-colon capitalization, but believe me, those of us who read the submissions of aspiring book writers for a living have mentally consigned that language subversive to a pit of hell that would make even Dante avert his eyes in horror.

Everyone clear on that? Good, because — are you sitting down, lovers of newspapers? — embracing journalistic conventions like the post-colon capital and writing out only numbers under ten (see below) will just look like mistakes to Millicent and her ilk on the submission page.

And no, there is no court of appeal for such decisions. So if you were planning to cry out, “But that’s the way USA TODAY does it!” save your breath.

Unfortunately, although my aforementioned heart aches for those of you who intended to protest, “But how on earth is an aspiring writer to KNOW that the standards are different?” this is a cry that is going to fall on deaf ears as well. Which annoys me, frankly.

The sad fact is, submitters rejected for purely technical reasosn are almost never aware of it. With few exceptions, the rejecters will not even take the time to scrawl, “Take a formatting class!” or “Next time, spell-check!” on the returned manuscript. If a writer is truly talented, they figure, she’ll mend her ways and try again.

Call me zany, but I’d like to speed up that learning curve. I think that the way-mending might go a TRIFLE faster if the writer knew that the manuscript was broken

It’s not as though the strictures of standard format are state secrets, after all. To recap from yesterday:

(1) All manuscripts should be printed or typed in black ink and double-spaced, with one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should NOT resemble published books in this respect.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

Everyone clear on those? PLEASE pipe up with questions, if not. In the meantime, let’s move on.

(5) The ENTIRE manuscript should be in the same font and size. Industry standard is 12-point.

No exceptions. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a term in the industry for title pages with 24-point fonts, fancy typefaces, and illustrations.

It’s “high school book report.” Need I say more?

The font rule also applies to your title page, incidentally, where almost everyone gets a little wacky the first time out. No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type.

No pictures or symbols here, either, please. Just the facts. (If you don’t know how to format a title page professionally, please see the TITLE PAGE category on the list at right.)

(6) Do NOT use boldface anywhere in the manuscript BUT on the title page — and not even there, necessarily.

Yes, you read that correctly: you may place your title in boldface on the title page, if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be bolded.

This rule is a throwback to the old typewriter days, where only very fancy machines indeed could darken selected type. Historically, using bold in-text is considered a bit tacky for the same reason that wearing white shoes before Memorial Day is in certain circles: it’s a subtle display of wealth.

(You didn’t think all of those white shoes the Victorians wore cleaned themselves, did you? Shiny white shoes equaled scads of busily-polishing staff.)

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered EXCEPT the title page.

Violating this rule will result in instantaneous rejection virtually everywhere. Number those pages if it’s the last thing you do.

Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional manuscript reader (including yours truly, if I’m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission — it ranks right up there on their rudeness scale with assault, arson, and beginning a query letter with, “Dear Agent.”

Why? Gravity, my friends, gravity. What goes up tends to come down — and if the object in question happens to be an unbound stack of paper…

Did that seem like an abstract metaphor? Not at all. Picture, if you will, two manuscript-bearing interns colliding in an agency hallway.

You may giggle, but anyone who has ever worked with submissions has first-hand experience of this, as well as what comes next: after the blizzard of flying papers dies down, and the two combatants rehash that old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial’s dialogue (“You got romance novel in my literary fiction!” “You got literary fiction in my romance novel!”), what needs to happen?

Yup. Some luckless soul has to put all of those pages back in the proper order. Think about it: just how much more irksome is that task going to be if the pages are not numbered?

Number your pages. Trust me, it is far, far, FAR easier to toss the entire thing into the reject pile than to spend the hours required to guess which bite-sized piece of storyline belongs before which.

FYI, the first page of the text proper is page 1 of the text, not the title page, and should be numbered as such. If your opus has an introduction or preface, the first page of THAT is page 1, not the first page of chapter 1.

Why, you ask? Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals: BECAUSE A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD NOT LOOK IDENTICAL TO A PUBLISHED BOOK.

To run over the other most popular choices for pages to mislabel as page 1: manuscripts do not contain tables of contents, so there should be no question of pagination for that. Also, epigraphs — those quotations from other authors’ books so dear to the hearts of writers everywhere — should not appear on their own page in a manuscript, as they sometimes do in published books; if you feel you must include one (considering that 99.9999% of the time, Millicent will just skip over it), include it between the chapter title and text on page 1.

If that last sentence left your head in a whirl, don’t worry — I’ll show you how to format epigraphs properly later in this series. (Yes, including some discussion of that cryptic comment about Millicent.)

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.

Most writing handbooks and courses tend to be a trifle vague about this particular requirement, so allow me to define the relevant terms: a well-constructed slug line includes the author’s last name, book title, and page number, to deal with that intern-collision problem I mentioned earlier. (The slug line allows the aforementioned luckless individual to tell the romance novel from the literary fiction.) And the header, for those of you who have not yet surrendered to Microsoft Word’s lexicon, is the 1-inch margin at the top of each page.

Including the slug line means that every page of the manuscript has the author’s name on it — a great idea, should you, say, want an agent or editor to be able to contact you after s/he’s fallen in love with it.

The slug line should appear in the upper left-hand margin (although no one will sue you if you put it in the upper right-hand margin, left is the time-honored location) of every page of the text EXCEPT the title page (which should have nothing in the header or footer at all).

Traditionally, the slug line appears all in capital letters, but it’s not strictly necessary. Being something of a traditionalist, the third page of my memoir has a slug line that looks like this:

MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/3

Since the ONLY place a page number should appear on a page of text is in the slug line, if you are in the habit of placing numbers wacky places like the middle of the footer, do be aware that it does not look strictly professional to, well, professionals. Double-check that your word processing program is not automatically adding extraneous page markers.

Do not, I beg of you, yield like so many aspiring writers to the insidious temptation add little stylistic bells and whistles to the slug line, to tart it up. Page numbers should not have dashes on either side of them, be in italics or bold, or be preceded by the word “page.”

If that news strikes you as a disappointing barrier to your self-expression, remember, professional readers do not regard formatting choices as conveyers of personal style. The point here is not to make your slug line stand out for its innovative style, but for your manuscript’s pages to look exactly like every other professional writer’s.

And yes, I AM going to keep making that point over and over until you are murmuring it in your sleep. Why do you ask?

If you have a subtitle, don’t include it in the slug line — and if you have a very long title, feel free to abbreviate, to keep the slug line from running all the way across the top of the page. The goal here is to identify the manuscript at a glance, not to reproduce the entire book jacket.

Why not? Well, technically, a slug line should be 30 spaces or less, but there’s no need to stress about that in the computer age. A slug, you see, is the old-fashioned printer’s term for a pre-set chunk of, you guessed it, 30 spaces of type.)

Keep it brief. For instance. my agent is currently circulating a novel of mine entitled THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB — 26 characters, counting spaces. Since my last name is quite short, I could get away with putting it all in the slug line, to look like this:

MINI/THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB/1

If, however, my last name were something more complicated, such as Montenegro-Copperfield — 22 characters all by itself, including dash — I might well feel compelled to abbreviate:

MONTENEGRO-COPPERFIELD/BUDDHA/1

(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page, with the chapter title appearing on the FIRST line of the page, NOT on the line immediately above where the text begins.

That’s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally. The chapter name (or merely “Chapter One”) may appear on the FIRST line of the first page — not on the last line before the text, as so many writers mistakenly do. The chapter title or number should be centered, and it should NOT be in boldface or underlined.

Don’t panic if you’re having trouble visualizing this — I’ll be giving concrete examples of what the first page of a chapter should look like later in this series.

Why shouldn’t the title appear immediately above the text, as one so often sees? Because that’s where the title of a SHORT STORY lives, not a book’s.

Very frequently, agents, editors and contest judges are presented with improperly-formatted first pages that include the title of the book, “by Author’s Name,” and/or the writer’s contact information in the space above the text. This is classic rookie mistake. To professional eyes, a manuscript that includes any of this information on the first page of the manuscript (other than in the slug line, of course) seems term paper-ish.

So where does all of that necessary contact information go, you ask? Read on.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, NOT on page 1.

This is one of the main differences between a short story submission (say, to a literary journal) and a novel submission. To submit a manuscript — or contest entry, for that matter — with this information on page 1 is roughly the equivalent of taking a great big red marker and scrawling, “I don’t know much about the business of publishing,” across it.

Just don’t do it.

“But wait,” I hear some of you out there murmuring, “I need a title page? Since when?”

Funny you should mention that, because…

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

This one seems to come as a surprise to a LOT of aspiring writers. You should ALWAYS include a title page with ANY submission of ANY length, including contest entries and the chapters you send after the agent has fallen in love with your first 50 pages.

Why, you ask? Because it is genuinely unheard-of for a professional manuscript not to have a title page: literally every manuscript that any agent in North America sends to any editor will include one. Yet, astonishingly, 95% of writers submitting to agencies seem to be unaware that including it is industry standard.

On the bright side, this means that if you are industry-savvy enough to include a professionally-formatted title page with your work, your submission automatically looks like a top percentile ranker to professional eyes from the moment it’s pulled out of the envelope. It’s never too early to make a good first impression, right?

If you do not know how to format a proper title page (and yes, Virginia, there IS a special format for it, too), please see the TITLE PAGE category at right. Or wait a few days until I cover it later in this series. It’s entirely up to you.

Before anyone asks: omitting a title page is too common a mistake to be an automatic deal-breaker for most Millicents; she’s almost certainly not going to toss out a submission ONLY because it has a properly-formatted title page or none at all. And yes, one does occasionally run into an agent at a conference or one blogging online who says she doesn’t care one way or the other about whether a submission has a title page resting on top at all.

Bully for them for being so open-minded, but as I point out roughly 127,342 times per year in this forum, how can you be sure that the person deciding whether to pass your submission upstairs or reject it ISN’T a stickler for professionalism?

I sense some shoulders sagging at the very notion of all the work it’s going to be to alter your pages before you send them out. Please believe me when I tell you that, as tedious as it is to change these things in your manuscript now, by the time you’re on your third or fourth book, it will be second nature to you.

Why, I’ll bet that the next time you sit down to begin a new writing project, you will automatically format it correctly. Think of all of the time THAT will save you down the line.

More importantly, if you embrace these standards, any submissions you might happen to send out in the near future will look like the work of a pro. Again, call me zany, but I would rather see an agent or editor evaluate your book on the basis of your writing and your story, not your formatting knowledge.

I’m funny that way.

Next time, I’m going to finish going through the rules, so we may move on swiftly to concrete examples of what all of this formatting looks like in practice. Keep up the good work!

Author bios, part III: reporting YOUR uniqueness well

Happy Veterans’ Day, everybody. Isn’t it fabulous that we (or at any rate I) live in a country that still cares enough about World War I to stop mail delivery, close banks, and throw mattress sales to commemorate its armistice?

My father was a child during WWI (no, I’m not that old; he was when he had me); he recalled the day when the local doughboys came home. He would tell vivid anecdotes about watching protest marches in the streets, rationing, how his mother’s views on military service varied markedly as her only son approached draft age.

It was from him, and not from my school’s history books, that I learned that here in the States, it had been quite an unpopular war; years later, it was his stories of the home front that I would contrast with H.G. Wells’ brilliant 1916 description of the British home front, Mr. Britling Sees It Through. (In case you missed my oh-so-subtle plug for it above, here goes: if you’ve never read it and are even remotely interested in how human beings respond to their countries’ being at war, you might want to have the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver* add it to his list for you this year. I just mention.) It’s one of the great examples of why write what you know is often such great advice.

Not that why write what you know is as self-explanatory and all-encompassing a piece of advice as many writing teachers seem to think. As those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a good, long while are already aware, I’m no fan of one-size-fits-all writing advice — beyond the basic rules of grammar and formatting restrictions, of course. What works in one genre will not necessarily work in another, after all, nor are the stylistic tactics that made ‘em swoon in 1870 particularly likely to wow an agent or editor now.

Write what you know in particular has been over-used as writing advice, I think. All too often, it’s been used as a battering ram to deprecate the genuinely original and exciting work of science fiction and fantasy writers, for instance. “Stop being all imaginative,” WWYK-mongers have historically snarled at those who have eschewed slice-of-life storylines. “Stick to what actually happened; it won’t be plausible otherwise.”

Don’t you just hate it when someone uses imaginative as an insult? In some genres, it’s one of the highest compliments a writer can get on her work.

As a freelance editor, I see a heck of a lot of manuscripts in any given year, and I hate to tell you this, WWYK-huggers, but being lifted from real life most emphatically does NOT render something plausible on the page. Or even enjoyable. And who said that holding the mirror, as ’twere, up to nature was the only way to produce good writing, anyway?

Well, perhaps most famously, the renowned editor Maxwell Perkins, for one. I imagine that many of you who have spent much time in writing classes have already been bored by the oft-repeated story of how Perkins browbeat poor Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings into abandoning her first love — historical romance, if memory serves — to delve deep into real life and produce THE YEARLING, so I’ll spare you.

And yes, I’ll grant you, THE YEARLING is a very good book; it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and I’m quite fond of it. Rawlings was an exceptionally talented writer, by virtually everyone’s admission.

So why is it that one NEVER hears this particular write-what-you-know story told as though Rawlings were a talented enough writer to genre-jump, or as evidence that even the greatest editors harbor personal tastes that may or may not have anything to do with the actual demands of the marketplace? Literally every time I have ever heard a writing teacher share this anecdote, it’s always been told with sense a smug satisfaction that Rawlings hadn’t managed to gain literary recognition until she stopped fighting her editor.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to rewrite history so THE YEARLING was never written. But aren’t you just a bit curious about what might have happened if Rawlings had bumped into a publisher who actually liked historical romance?

Instead of one who rolled his eyes over her manuscripts and sighed, “”Stop being so imaginative, Marjorie.”

Why do I bring this up today, other than because the overuse of write what you know is, as you may perhaps have noticed, a pet peeve of mine? Because the author bio is one instance where Perkins’ advice to Rawlings is indeed quite applicable: in an author bio, you should absolutely write what you know — and only what you know — rather than trying to inflate your background into something it is not.

Didn’t see that conclusion coming after all that build-up, did you? I like to keep my readers on their toes, conceptually speaking.

Before I get too carried away on the vital importance of sticking to the truth in your bio, let’s define what we’re talking about for those of you joining us in mid-series: an author bio is an entertaining overview of the author’s background, an approximately 200-250 word description of your writing credentials, relevant experience, and educational attainments, designed to make you sound like a person whose work would be fascinating to read.

Go back and re-read that last bit, because it will prevent your making the single biggest mistake to which first time bio-writers fall prey. If your bio does not make you sound interesting, it is not a success. Period.

Aren’t you glad that I asked you to come up with a list of all the ways that you are fascinating before I mentioned that last little tidbit? I thought it might make you feel better at this juncture.

While you are going to want to hit many of the points you brainstormed earlier in this series (if you don’t have a list of your book’s selling points handy, please see the category at right that I have named, with startling originality, YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS), you will also want to include some of your quirks and background oddities, especially if they are relevant to the book.

I can hear the wheels of your brains turning, reeling at the possibilities. While they do, let me get the nitty-gritty out of the way:

(1) Use the third person, not the first.

(2) Start with whatever fact on your fascination list is most relevant to the book at hand, not with “The author was born…”

(3) Mention any past publications (in general terms), columns, lecturing experience, readings, as well as what you were doing for a living at the time that you wrote the book.

(4) Also toss in any and all educational background (relevant to the book’s subject matter or not), as well as any awards you may have won (ditto). But naturally, if your last book won the Pulitzer Prize, for instance, this would be the place to mention it.

(5) If the most interesting thing about you is not even remotely relevant to the book, consider mentioning it anyway. You want to be memorable, don’t you?

(6) Bios are virtually always single-page documents. Don’t make it longer unless an agent, editor, or contest guidelines ask you to do so.

Did #6 make some of you choke? To put the length in easier-to-understand terms (and so I don’t get an avalanche of comments from readers worried that their bios are 15 words too long), what we’re talking about here is 2-3 paragraphs, a 1/3 – 1/2 page (single-spaced) or 2/3 – 1 full page (double-spaced). And, as longtime readers of this blog have probably already anticipated, it should be in 12-pt. type, Times, Times New Roman or Courier, with 1-inch margins.

(If that last sentence read like Urdu to you or just seemed like micro-managing, PLEASE hie you hence to the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right with all possible speed. Trust me, your work will be better received if it conforms to the norms of the biz.)

I sense some restlessness out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear the conscientious rule-followers out there murmur, “haven’t you misspoken here? I could have sworn that you just said that the bio could be single-spaced — but that’s absurd, because you’re always telling us that everything that passes under professional eyes MUST be double-spaced with standard margins.”

Well-caught, rule-followers: this is indeed an exception to the general rule. Stand back, and I’ll shout it: unlike positively everything else you will ever produce for passing under an agent or editor’s beady eyes, it is sometimes acceptable to single-space an author bio.

Generally speaking, though, bios are only single-spaced when the author bio page contains a photograph of the author, and…wait, did I just feel the photo-shy amongst you just seize up?

Don’t worry; it’s optional at this stage, and I shall talk about this contingency later in this series.

Got that length firmly in your mind? It should seem familiar to you — it’s approximately the length of the standard biographical blurb on the inside back flap of a dust jacket. There’s a reason for that, of course: increasingly, the author, and not the publisher’s marketing department, is responsible for producing that blurb.

So busy writers on a deadline tend to recycle their author bios as jacket blurbs. Chance favors the prepared keyboard, apparently.

(I told you to stop tensing up about that photograph. No one is hiding in the closet, ready to leap out and snap a candid shot that will dog you on your book jackets until the end of your days.)

Before you launch into writing your own bio, slouch your way into a bookstore on your day off and start pulling books of the shelves in the area where you hope one day to see your book sitting. Many of my clients find this helpful, as it assists them in remembering that the author bio is, like a jacket blurb, a sales tool, not just a straightforward list of facts.

Don’t just look at books in general; be category-specific. Find books like yours.

If you write tragic romances, read a few dozen bio blurbs in tragic novels already on the market. If you write cyberpunk, see what those authors are saying about themselves, and so forth. Is there a pattern?

In good bios, there tends to be: the tone of the author bio echoes the tone of the book. This is a clever move, as it helps the potential book buyer (and, in the author bio, the potential agent and/or editor) assess whether this is a writer in whose company she wants to spend hours of her life.

For two FABULOUS examples of such matching, check out ENSLAVED BY DUCKS and FOWL WEATHER author Bob Tarte’s bio, as well as Author! Author! guest blogger and comic genius Jonathan Selwood’s. Both of these writers do an AMAZING job of not only giving a genuine taste of the (wildly different) senses of humor inherent to their books, but making themselves sound like no one else on the face of the earth.

(Which is, should the FNDGG be interested in more book-buying suggestions, one of the reasons that I enjoy these authors’ books very much indeed. I just mention.)

Yet if you read their bios closely, apparently, the Code of Hammurabi itself was written as a precursor to their bringing their respective works to the reading world. Now that’s a great author bio.

Why? Because it’s a terrific way to establish a credible platform without hitting the reader over the head with one’s credentials — yet, true to the bio-writing author’s brief, it presents the author as he actually is: interesting. REALLY interesting.

Don’t believe me? Think a stodgy list of credentials might have done it better? Take another gander at Bob Tarte’s. His animal-related background is genuinely impressive and might well look good just listed, but doesn’t this:

“Bob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell…Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, rabbits, doves, cats, hens, and one turkey.”

make you more likely to pick up his books than a simple, straightforward list of credentials?

Clever authors often tailor their bios to the book being promoted — because, let’s face it, the personality traits and background that might help a writer push a dead-serious political book would probably not be all that useful if the same writer was trying to sell chick lit. Fortunately, most of us are pretty darned complex people; few writers have so few quirks in their backgrounds that they cannot afford to pick and choose the bits most appropriate to the book being promoted.

Are you not believing me AGAIN? Okay, you asked for it — here’s the opening to the bio Jonathan Selwood posted on his website to promote his serious comic novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE, a story of pop art, dinosaur bone theft, and partying with billionaires punctuated by a massive earthquake, LA style:

I was born in Hollywood, California. In other words, the first time I played doctor as a kid was on a neighbor’s circular fur-covered waterbed with a mirror on the ceiling. The girl’s parents and two younger siblings were busy out by the pool hosting a nude cocaine party.

Not a traditional author bio, admittedly — but do you believe that Mssr. Selwood might have just a bit of insight into the partying habits of that part of the world? Absolutely.

And that’s one of the reasons that I really like these two authors’ bios: they have not — and this is unusual for an author bio — leaned on their formal credentials too heavily. In fact, I happen to know (my spies are everywhere, after all) that one of these gentlemen holds an MFA from a rather prestigious writing program, but you’d never know it from his bio.

And no, I’m not going to tell you which it is.

Why might he have left it off? Well, this is just a hunch on my part — my spies may be everywhere, but they’re not mind-readers — but I would imagine it’s because he’s a savvy marketer: mentions of Ivy League MFAs generally conjure heavily introspective books of exquisitely-crafted literary short stories about tiny, tiny slices of life in the suburban world. (Such exquisite little gems are known in the biz as “MFA stories,” a term that is often spoken with a slight, Elvis-like curl of the lip. Since they tend not to sell very well, they have as many detractors in the industry as enthusiasts.)

In short, I would imagine that he left off that genuinely impressive credential so he wouldn’t send the wrong single about the book he is trying to sell NOW. Because an author bio is, ultimately, not a cold, impersonal Who’s Who blurb, designed merely to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, but a piece of marketing material. If it doesn’t help sell the book, it’s just book flap decoration.

Happy bio hunting, folks: ferret out some good ones. Next time, I shall talk a bit about what makes a less-effective bio less effective, and then delve further into the mechanics of constructing your own.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

* For the benefit of those of you who weren’t reading this blog regularly throughout holiday seasons past, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (FNDGG) is a jolly elf who regularly graces this page in the winter months, ho, ho, hoing his way toward the end of the year. Better not pout, better not cry — and better get used to hearing about him, because he’s bound to pop up in the months to come.

I need to produce an author bio by WHEN?

I’m in a terrible, terrible mood today, my friends — and to make it worse, the source of my grumpiness would make a perfectly marvelous blog post so directly related to the issues we habitually confront here at Author! Author! that the Recording Angel himself would take one look at it and say, “Darn, that’s apt. Couldn’t have categorized that one any better myself.”

So why don’t I just let loose and spill all of the juicy details? Off the top of my head, I can think of two genuinely excellent reasons: first, as an agented and/or published writer could tell you, the slings and arrows of life after impressing Millicent are legion — and so different than the challenges that face the pre-agented writer that sometimes even mentioning them seems kind of mean. Every stage of the road to publication has its own potholes, and even if I find myself eyeballing one of the deeper ones at the moment, my describing it before I figure out how to traipse around it with my petticoats unmuddied would merely be scary to those treading earlier parts of the path.

Second — and this, too, anyone who has ever inked a representation contract could tell you — since publishing is a pretty fast-paced industry (except when it is being slow), what strikes everyone concerned as an insurmountable problem this week might not even be an issue a month hence. So what I wrote on this (jolly interesting) subject today would almost certainly not be even my final word on the subject, much less THE final word.

Realizing that, I’m going to limit myself to pointing out that developing a Zen-like calm in the face of continual change is a really, really valuable skill in a professional writer. Here’s hoping I get better at it soon.

I’m also going to go ahead and change the subject utterly, to something that I have been wanting to talk about for weeks: creating a great author bio.

Soothingly (at least to my present mood), author bios are one of the few marketing materials in the writer’s promotional kit that tends not change much throughout the agent-finding-through-publication process. Nor, even more comforting, have the basics of writing one changed much in the last 30 years.

Refreshing, huh? I feel calmer already.

Don’t go sinking into that lavender-scented bath too quickly, though, because one thing about the author bio HAS changed in recent years: the author is now expected to write it, and increasingly early in the publication process.

How early, you ask? Um, do you have time to start work on yours right now?

I’m not kidding about this: agents and editors routinely ask for bios routinely when they request pages. Even if the agent of your dreams does not, any novelist will need to have one to tuck at the bottom of her manuscript before AOYD sends it to an editor, and every NF writer will need it to form the last page of a book proposal.

So on a purely practical level, it’s a good idea to have one handy.

I sense some glancing at the clock out there, don’t I? “Um, Anne?” I hear the time-pressed pipe up. “Weren’t we talking as recently as last week about how bloody difficult it is for so many of us to carve out time in our schedules to write, much less to market our work to agents? I’m in the middle of my tenth revision of Chapter 3, and I’m trying to get a dozen queries in the mail before Thanksgiving. I also have a life. May I be excused, please, from dropping all that in order to sit down and compose something I only MIGHT need if one of those agents asks to see the book?”

Well, first off, clock-watchers, congratulations for having the foresight to send off a flotilla of queries before the onset of the holiday season. As long-term readers of this blog are already aware (I hope, given how frequently I mention it), the publishing industry is notorious for slowing W-A-Y down between Thanksgiving and the end of the year.

Best to get your query letters in before the proverbial Christmas rush, I always say. Because, really, if you don’t, you’re probably going to want to hold off on sending the next batch until after the new president is inaugurated.

Yes, in response to all of those shouted mental questions: I do mean after January 20th. 2009.

Why wait so long, you howl? Several reasons. First, as we discussed before, during, and after the traditional mid-August-through-Labor-Day publishing vacation period, Millicent’s desk is going to be piled pretty high with envelopes when she returns after her winter holidays. Place yourself in her snow boots for a moment: if you were the one going through all of that backlog of unopened queries, would you be more eager to reject any given one, or less?

I’m going to leave the answer to that between you and your conscience.

Second, in the US, agencies are required by law to produce tax documents for their clients by the end of January, documenting the royalties of the previous year. Yes, everyone knows it’s coming, but common sense will tell you that the vast majority of the inmates of agencies were English majors.

Have you ever watched an English major try to pull together her tax information? ‘Nuff said.

Third — and to my mind, the best reason by far — do you REALLY want your query (or submission) to get lost amongst similar documents from every unpublished writer in North America who made the not-uncommon New Year’s resolution, “By gum, I’m going to send out 20 queries a month, beginning January 1!”

Fortunately for Millicent’s sanity, the average New Year’s resolution lasts a grand total of three weeks — which, this coming January, lands quite nicely near Inauguration Day.

All that being said (and I had a surprising amount to say on the subject, didn’t I, considering that it could easily have been summarized as, “Get those queries out now!”), I would encourage all of you who are at the querying stage of your careers to set aside anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days to sit down and hammer out a great author bio for yourself.

Ideally, sometime really, really soon. Again, how does now sound?

Why I am I pressing you on this? For very, very practical reasons: often, the request for a bio comes when your mind is on other things, like doing a lightning-fast revision on your book proposal so you can send it to that nice editor who listened so attentively to your pitch at a conference or just before you start dancing around your living room in your underwear because your before-bed e-mail check revealed a response to a query.

Agents and editors tend to toss it out casually, as if it’s an afterthought: “Oh, and send me a bio.” The informality of the request can be a bit misleading, however: your one-page author bio is actually a very important tool in your marketing kit.

Yeah, I know: over the years (and definitely over this last summer, when I devoted a whole lot of our time together to querying, pitching, and submission issues), I have told you that many, many things were important tools in your marketing kit. Your synopsis, for instance. Your query letter. Your pitch. Your first 50 pages. Your first page.

And you know something? I wasn’t lying to you any of those times. They’re all important.

So just how important is the author bio, you ask? Well, it’s not unheard-of for editors, in particular, to decide to pass on the book they’re being offered, but ask the agent to see other work by the author, if the bio is intriguing enough.

Yes, really: it’s happened to me more than once.

Admittedly, I come from a pretty wacky background (detailed in my bio, if you’re interested), but I think a general axiom may be derived from the fact that attracting interest in this manner has happened to any writer, ever: it is not a tremendously good idea just to throw a few autobiographical paragraphs together in the last few minutes before a requested manuscript, proposal, or synopsis heads out the door.

Which is, I am sorry to report, precisely what most aspiring writers do. In the extra minute and a half they have left between dashing off a 20-minute synopsis and when the post office door locks for the night.

Big, big mistake: if the bio reads as dull, disorganized, or unprofessional, agents and editors may leap to the unwarranted conclusion that the writer is also dull, disorganized, and/or unprofessional. After all, they are likely to reason, the author’s life is the material that he should know best; if he can’t write about that well, how can he write well about anything else?

I know; wacky. But remember, these folks usually don’t know the writers who submit; Millicent and her ilk have to draw conclusions based upon the evidence on paper in front of them.

A good bio is especially important if you write any flavor of nonfiction, because the bio is where you establish your platform in its most tightly-summarized form.

In answer to the exasperated gasp that just arose in the ether: all of you nonfiction writers out there know what a platform is, don’t you?

You should: it is practically the first thing any agent or editor will ask you when you pitch a NF book. Your platform is the background that renders you — yes, YOU — the best person on earth to write the book you are pitching. This background can include, but is not limited to, educational credentials, relevant work experience, awards, and significant research time.

You know, the stuff we discussed in the selling points posts, back in the summer. (For those of you who missed it, a crash course in marketing a book to agents may be found under the BOOK MARKETING 101 category on the list at right; those of you looking for tips on how to figure out what your book’s selling points are might try looking under the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category on that list. Really, how DO I come up with these category titles?)

For a NF writer, the author bio is a compressed résumé, with a twist: unlike the cold, linear presentation of the résumé format, the author bio must also demonstrate that the author can put together an array of facts in a readable, compelling fashion.

Lest you fiction writers out there think that you are exempt from this daunting challenge, think again. “A bio?” novelists say nervously when agents and editors toss out the seemingly casual request. “You mean that thing on the back cover? Won’t my publisher’s marketing department write that for me?”

In a word, no. They might punch it up a little down the line, but in the manuscript-marketing stages, you’re on your own.

Here’s a bit of my authorial experience that I can share today: that tendency to assume that someone else will take care of your bio is practically universal amongst writers — until they have been through the book publication process. Unfortunately, despite the ubiquity of this misconception, hemming and/or hawing about the production of one’s bio is NOT the way to win friends and influence people in an agency.

Or a publishing house, for that matter. You think the marketing department isn’t eager to get to work reorganizing your bio?

So if you take nothing else from today’s blog, take this enduring truth and clutch it to your respective bosoms forevermore: whenever you are asked to provide extra material whilst marketing your work, train yourself not to equivocate.

Instead, learn to chirp happily, like the can-do sort of person you are: “A bio? You bet!”

Yes, even if the agent or editor in question has just asked you to produce some marketing data that strikes you as irrelevant or downright stupid. Even if what you’re being asked for will require you to take a week off work to deliver. Even in you have to dash to the nearest dictionary the second your meeting with an agent or editor is over to find out what you’ve just promised to send within a week IS.

Or, perhaps more sensibly, drop me an e-mail and inquire. That’s what my blog is here for, you know: to help writers get their work successfully out the door.

Why is appearing eager to comply and competent so important, I hear you ask? Because professionalism is one of the few selling points a writer CAN’T list in an author bio — and to most people in positions to bring your work to publication, it’s regarded as a sure indicator of how much extra time they will have to spend holding a new author’s hand on the way to publication, explaining how the industry works.

How much extra time will they want to spend on you and your book, I hear you ask, over and above the time required to sell it? (My readers are so smart; I can always rely on them to ask the perfect questions at the perfect times.) It varies from agent to agent, of course, but I believe I can give you a general ballpark estimate without going too far out on a limb: none.

Yes, I know — all the agency guides will tell the previously unpublished writer to seek out agencies with track records of taking on inexperienced writers. It’s good advice, but not because such agencies are habitually eager to expend their resources teaching newbies the ropes.

It’s good advice because such agencies have demonstrated that they are braver than many others: they are willing to take a chance on a new writer from time to time, provided that writer’s professionalism positively oozes off the page and from her manner.

I’ll bet you a nickel that the writers these agencies have signed did not respond evasively when asked for their bios.

Professionalism, as I believe I have pointed out several hundred times before, is demonstrated in many ways. Manuscripts that conform to standard format, for instance, or knowing not to call an agency unless there’s some question of requested materials actually having been lost. It is also, unfortunately for those new to the game, demonstrated through familiarity with the basic terms and expectations of the industry.

This is what is known colloquially as a Catch-22: you get into the biz by showing that you know how people in the biz act — which you learn by being in the biz.

So, as you have probably already figured out, “Bio? What’s that?” is not the most advisable response to an agent or editor’s request for one. Nor is hesitating, or saying that you’ll need some time to write one. (You’re perfectly free to take time to write one, of course; just don’t say so up front.)

Why is even hesitation problematic, I hear you ask? (Another terrific question; you really are on the ball today.)

Well, let me put it this way: have you ever walked into a deli on the isle of Manhattan unsure of what kind of sandwich you want to get? When you took the requisite few seconds to collect your thoughts on the crucial subjects of onions and mayo, did the guy behind the counter wait politely for you to state your well-considered preferences, or did he roll his eyes and move on to the next customer?

And did that next customer ruminate at length on the competing joys of ham on rye and pastrami on pumpernickel, soliciting the opinions of other customers with the open-mindedness of Socrates conducting a symposium, or did he just shout over your shoulder, “Reuben with a dill pickle!” with the ultra-imperative diction of an emergency room surgeon calling for a scalpel to perform a tracheotomy with seconds to spare before the patient sustains permanent brain damage from lack of oxygen?

If you frequent the same delis I do when I’m in town, the answers in both cases are emphatically the latter. Perhaps with some profanity thrown in for local color.

NYC-based agents and editors eat in those delis, my friends. They go there to RELAX.

This regional tendency to mistake thoughtful consideration or momentary hesitation, for malingering or even slow-wittedness often comes as an unpleasant shock to those of us who are West Coast bred and born, I must admit. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like to encourage meditation in daily life; there are retail emporia in the greater Seattle metropolitan area where the Buddha himself could happily hold a full-time job with no significant loss of contemplative time.

Even in retail. “I’m here if you need anything,” the Buddha would say, melting into the background to think. “Just let me know if you have questions about those socks. There’s no rush.”

This is why, in case you have been wondering, NYC-based agents and editors sometimes treat those of us out here like flakes. In certain minds, we’re all wandering around stoned in bellbottoms, offering flowers to strangers at airports, reusing and recycling paper, and spreading pinko propaganda like, “Have a nice day.”

That is, when we’re not writing our books in moss-covered lean-tos, surrounded by yeti in Birkenstocks.

Oh, you laugh, but I’m not entirely sure that my agent understands that I’m not composing my current novel in a yurt. But I’m getting a bit far afield, amn’t I?

My point is, it would behoove you to have an author bio already written by the time you are asked for it, so you will not hesitate for even one Buddha-like, yeti-consulting moment when the crucial request comes.

Take it from the writer who said last winter, “Write a different denouement? Two weeks? Sure — I’ll get right on that.” Make mine tempeh, avocado, and sprouts on sourdough, please, with a side of smoked salmon for my yeti friend here. We’ve got some revision to do.

Or any of the other grump-inducing tasks that are the career writer’s lot. Keep up the good work!

The president-elect’s passive protagonist, fair use of other people’s words, and a change in my long-standing strategic advice

Happy the one whom the muses love,
the one from whose lips language flows sweet.

— Hesiod

I thought about you the other night, readers, while I was listening with what I will admit was great pleasure to a certain acceptance speech…

Okay, before I go on, I should stop and say: I am not bringing this up to invite political debate. In the interests of making this site as accessible to as broad a range of writers as possible, I have a general policy of discouraging two types of discourse here at Author! Author! — I remove any language that would not be appropriate for the family hour, if you catch my drift, and I avoid discussion of political beliefs, mine or other people’s. However, I’m going to make an exception today.

Why? Well, the speechwriters made me do it: did you catch the narrative problem in the president-elect’s speech, a classic storytelling no-no, one we have discussed at some length here in the past? Say, in its primary illustrative anecdote?

Yes, decades of editing manuscripts does warp how one hears things. Why do you ask?

I refer, of course, to the anecdote about 106-year-old Georgia voter Ann Nixon Cooper. An inspirational story, undoubtedly, and an apt one for the occasion — which is precisely why it bugged me that it was not presented in a more effective manner. More importantly for our purposes here, its narrative problem is one to which submitted manuscripts are notoriously prey.

So let’s take an instructive walk through the text of the anecdote, shall we? (Word to the wise: ignore the misused semicolons; they’re not the biggest problem here.)

“She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin. And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America…At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot…When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose…When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved…She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.”…A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.”

Did you notice the narrative problem, one that substantially weakened the hearer’s (or, in this case, reader’s) sense of the protagonist? Anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would have. But admittedly, not all of us are blessed with Millicent’s ability to leap to conclusions about protagonists’ characters (big hint) from the word choices in the narratives they inhabit.

To see what this text would look like from a professional reader’s perspective, let’s highlight all of the verbs for which the admirable Ann was the subject:

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin. And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America…At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot…When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose…When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved…She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.”…A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.”

Did you catch it that time? No? Okay, let’s isolate all of those verb phrases — what do they tell you about the protagonist of this story?

She was born
she was a woman
she’s seen
she lived to see
she saw
she was there to witness
She was there
she touched her finger to a screen
she cast her vote
she knows

If you said, “Hey, wait a minute — these verb choices make our Ann seem like an awfully passive protagonist; the verb choices imply that she didn’t actually do anything until she cast her vote this year, as if she were merely an observer of the events of her time, rather than a participant in them,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Any professional reader would have derived this impression, too, simply from the word choices.

Fascinating, isn’t it, how much something as simple as the selection of verbs can affect a reader’s perception of a character? Especially, as in this case, when the verb choices are repetitive, conceptually as well as literally.

I’m going to be honest with you: this particular type of stultifying verb choice is so common in submissions that as an editor, I found myself thinking by the time the president-elect uttered the second passive verb in this anecdote, “Oh, please tell me that the first active thing she does in this story ISN’T going to be voting for him…”

Seriously, I did. Ask anyone who was sharing a room with me at the time.

Passive verb choices don’t only affect the pros’ perception of a protagonist, however. As a reader (okay, originally a hearer), I would have found Ann’s story substantially more engaging had it depicted the protagonist doing more than just sitting around and observing. I would bet a nickel that a more active telling would be more factually accurate, too: wouldn’t you tend to assume that someone who has lived through such exciting times would have done some pretty darned interesting things over the course of 106 years?

That nagging feeling that the narrator is concealing interesting material is precisely why a novel, memoir, or NF piece with passive protagonist tends to grab Millicent and her fellow agency screeners far less readily than a telling of the same story that presents the protagonist as actively engaged in the depicted events.

Gripping protagonists DO, not just observe. Yes, even in NF anecdotes — and no, an exciting story does not necessarily an active protagonist make.

Do I sense some shifting in chairs out there, at least amongst copyright-huggers? “Um, Anne?” I hear some of you pointing out, and rightly. “I appreciate seeing a concrete example of a passive protagonist in action — if that’s not a contradiction in terms — but didn’t you use a pretty hefty chunk of someone else’s writing to illustrate your point? Is that kosher?”

Well caught, chair-shifters: a writer should always exercise caution in quoting the work of others.

I’m not a lawyer, so do run off and consult one who specializes in copyright law if you are a quotation addict, but US-based authors observe some basic rules of thumb that help the inclined-to-excerpt stay out of trouble. It’s generally accepted, for instance, that political speeches are fair game for excerpts — they are, after all, usually read aloud, so one could arguably quote from that, rather than the printed version — but with published writing not yet in the public domain, anything beyond 50 consecutive words pushes the boundaries of fair use.

Beyond that, you will need to request permission from the copyright holder. As in formally, in writing, and often in exchange for payment.

And yes, authors are usually responsible for obtaining copyright permission, not publishers — and these days, the former are almost always the ones who end up paying for the rights, too. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

Oh, and if you wish to use an excerpt of ANY length from a song’s lyrics, you will need to obtain formal permission. (For an interesting and amusing description of just how difficult that can be, please see FAAB Joel Derfner’s guest blog on the subject.)

While we’re talking about copyright protection — aren’t you glad that you brought it up? — this seems like a good time to announce that I have decided to reverse my long-standing position on whether NF writers should register the copyright for their book proposals and sample chapters before submitting them to agents and publishing houses. In the past, I have not pushed it; it seemed like an unnecessary expense added to a promotional process that can be quite expensive for the writer.

I am reversing that position, in light of recent events: I now believe that it is in a US-based NF writer’s best interest to register the copyright for a book proposal, sample chapter, and related promotional materials prior to submission, if s/he can possibly afford it.

Don’t worry, though: the last time I checked, it cost a grand total of $35 if you register your work online. Even if you elect to register via mail, it merely involves filling out a one-page form.

More of you are shifting in your chairs anyway, though, aren’t you? “But Anne,” some long-term Author! Author! readers point out, and who can blame them? “The last time you went over copyright issues — recognizing that you’re a lawyer, of course, but were only expressing opinions based upon your personal experience in the series of posts beginning here — I derived the impression that a writer owns the copyright to his work as soon as he writes it; the registration process is merely the legal confirmation of that fact. Is that not true anymore?”

Well, those of you who are worried about it would do well to consult an attorney well-versed in this area, but as far as I know, copyright does inherently rest with the author. Registration is the best way to enforce that.

For many types of manuscripts, enforcement is virtually never necessary. For novels and other books where the writing, rather than the subject matter per se, is the primary selling point, or for memoirs, where the author is the only person on the planet who can tell that particular story from that perspective, it’s unlikely that authorship would ever be a matter of debate.

NF proposals are a rather different kettle of fish, however: while a proposal’s writer obviously owns her own writing — synopsis, sample chapter, the annotated table of contents that sets out the planned book’s structure, etc. — it would not be technically impossible for another writer to co-opt a topic after a proposal is written. It’s not beyond imagining, for instance, that someone who reads a fabulous book proposal could try to run off with a beautifully fleshed-out concept, passing it off as her own. Or, heaven help us, for an agent to say, “Hey, that’s a great book concept!” and hand it to a better-established author.

If your heart just stopped, shouldn’t you be calling 911, instead of reading on?

I’m not saying that this happens often — thank goodness, it seems to be exceedingly rare, even in these ethics-trying tough economic times — but frankly, the authorial grapevine has been buzzing with some pretty astonishing stories these days. In some of them, I can’t help but notice that writers who were active protagonists, guarding their own interests zealously, seem to be enjoying happier endings than the passive ones who merely sat around observing changing conditions around them.

Again, I’m the last person that anyone should ask for legal advice, of course. I’m just saying that when I hear these stories, I’m very glad that I have been an active protagonist in my NF books’ storylines.

Watch those verb choices, everyone, and keep up the good work!