Formatpalooza, part XVII: not all that glitters is…well, you know the rest

sequined hat

I had hoped to wrap up Formatpalooza by the end of the year, but frankly, I think it’s going to be a trifle on the tight side, unless I post a couple of times tomorrow. Even by my standards of vim, that might be overkill.

My vehemence is kindly-motivated, I assure you: contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, how a submission is presented can 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 in recent years: 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 tend to spout this aphorism for a very good reason — it is in fact true. But as we discussed both earlier in this series and in earlier ‘Paloozas, 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 plays a role, as does 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. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

As I’ve been arguing throughout this ‘Palooza, 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. (I know, I know: sacre bleu!) 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 as we discussed last time, the writer in both cases is going to have to work a whole lot harder to impress the pro as literate. Unfortunately, the prevailing standards for printed books — which, as we have seen, differ in many significant respects from manuscripts — often lead innocent writers astray.

Leading them to, say, include a table of contents in a manuscript submission.

That seems as if it would be a helpful page to tuck in there, doesn’t it? One can make an argument for it, certainly: 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 in the kind of you got chocolate in my peanut butter!/you got peanut butter in my chocolate! we witnessed with horror earlier in this series, a well-organized table of contents might render it a trifle easier to reassemble, right?

Wrong. Including a table of contents in a manuscript submission is a classic rookie mistake, the kind of stunt that makes Millicent the agency screener roll her eyes.

Why is it such a serious strategic error? Well, in a published book, a table of contents, like an index, is a courtesy to browsers trying to get a feel for the contents and buyers who do not necessarily want to read the entire book. In order to serve this function well, however, the pages listed would have to match up with the beginnings of the relevant sections, right?

This is difficult in a manuscript, for several reasons. First, Millicent doesn’t expect to see a table of contents, particularly in a novel submission; it just won’t look right to her. Second, since a published book is typically about 2/3rds the length of its original manuscript (documents shrink in the transition to the printed page), the pages listed on a manuscript table of contents would ultimately be inaccurate, anyway.

Third — and perhaps most relevant at the submission stage — including a table of contents implies that the writer does not expect the agent of her dreams to read the manuscript in its entirety, but merely to flip to the pages that interest him most. From the publishing industry’s point of view, that’s a pretty jaw-dropping assumption: why, they wonder, would an agent or editor be interested in acquiring a book if he doesn’t like it well enough to read it in full?

So really, including a table of contents in a manuscript is just wasting a page. It does not belong in a manuscript, any more than an index or those boxes around text that magazines are so fond of printing. To professional eyes, it looks unprofessional, especially in a novel submission.

It’s also an inconvenience — and yes, Virginia, to someone who has to skim as quickly as Millicent to get through the day’s reading, having to turn over an extra page is an actual inconvenience.

Don’t believe me? Okay, think about our time-strapped friend’s expectations when opening a submission envelope: when she turns over the title page, she is looking forward to finding the first page of text there waiting for her, all ready to be judged in a flash. If instead she finds a table of contents, something she would only find helpful if she were to read the entire manuscript, she may well be a trifle miffed. Given that she tends to reject most 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 clamoring for my attention? “But Anne,” these excellent souls point out, “a book proposal is supposed to include a table of contents for the planned book, isn’t it? I read it in an article on how to write a book proposal.”

Ah, I’m glad that you brought this up, nonfictionists, because first-time proposers often conflate the table of contents one might find in a published book with the annotated table of contents required in a book proposal. They are in fact quite different things.

Again, mixing up terms is a classic rookie mistake. Over and over again, I see aspiring writers new to the game simply assuming that because a term means something in one context, it must necessarily mean exactly the same thing in another context.

As a general rule of thumb, that’s not always true. In this case, it most definitely is not.

When hyper-literal proposers hear the term table of contents, they assume, wrongly, that an agent or editor is simply asking to see what the writer thinks the table of contents in the published book will look like, presumably as an exercise in guessing how many pages each of the proposed chapters will contain. (It’s hard to imagine it serving any other purpose.)

As a result, first-time proposals tend to include a section that looks a little something like this:

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that Millicent simply would not expect to see this page in a book proposal at all , do you see any problems with this as a marketing document intended to convince an editor to pay the writer to write the proposed book?

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 — and thus that the kind of table of contents one might expect to see in a nonfiction book would clearly be out of place in a submission.

Well caught, eager wavers. Spot any other problems?

If you said, “Well, for starters, the example above doesn’t include information that could possibly be either accurate or useful to an editor,” 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 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; they’re perfectly aware that since the book in question has not yet been written (or needn’t be), any length estimates must be just that, estimates, not fact. The information they do want to see in the annotated table of contents section of a book proposal is a brief description of the CONTENTS of each chapter.

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

Typically, each proposed chapter is summarized in one or two paragraphs. Well, typically is a bit of an exaggeration; what’s actually typical in a first time proposer’s book proposal is either the information-light version we saw in today’s first example or an entire page devoted to each chapter.

Neither is what is expected, however. The typical form I am talking about here is what professional nonfiction authors use.

And like so many other differences between professional formatting 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? Millicent will. From ten paces away.

Hey, while we’re on the subject, why don’t we take a quick gander at all of the constituent parts of a book proposal, so all of you nonfiction writers out there may be sure that Millicent will like the look of yours? To make the overview even more useful, let’s run through the sections in the order they would appear in the proposal.

First, let’s take a peek at the title page. See if you notice anything distinctive about it:

If you immediately cried, “Why, unlike a title page for a novel, the proposal’s title page does not include a word count,” give yourself another gold star. (You’re racking them up today, aren’t you?) The length of a nonfiction book is a contractual matter; since what a proposal is offering is not the finished book, but a book concept and an author to write it to the specifications desired by the publisher, it does not make sense for the writer to guesstimate the length up front.

Award yourself yet another if you also mentioned that the contact information listed here is Scaredy’s agent’s, not Scaredy’s. Naturally, if Napolèon does not yet have an agent, naturally, he would list his own contact info in the bottom-right corner.

Any guesses why his address would be replaced by his agent’s down the line?

The reason is pretty straightforward: no agent in his right mind would allow his clients to circulate their proposals (or manuscripts, for that matter) without his contact info on them. After all, if an editor falls in love with the proposal, it’s the agent she’s supposed to be contacting, not the writer.

What follows next in a book proposal is the overview, a brief description of what the book is about and why the writer proposing it is the best person on earth to write it. Never, ever forget that this is both a marketing document and a job application, proposers: you’re trying to get the publisher to hire you to write this book, right?)

Most first-time proposers just include the bare bones here, leaping right into the description, but I like to open with a little sample of the type of writing the editor may expect to see in the completed book. To this end, I always advise starting a proposal with a vividly-told illustrative anecdote.

The first page of the proposal, then, would look like this:

overview1

As you may see, like everything else in the book proposal, the overview should be in standard format: double-spaced, indented paragraphs, 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Unlike the opening of a chapter, however, each new section is simply titled, a line skipped, and the text begun. Since this is a nonfiction document, whether to place OVERVIEW in boldface is up to you; my agency happens to like it, as well as the all-caps titling.

Notice, please, that because this is a proposal for a memoir, the anecdote is written in the first person singular. The rest of the proposal should be as well. Many memoirists mistakenly believe that writing about their books in the third person is more professional, but that’s simply not the case.

Back to formatting. Just as a simple section break is sufficient to separate scenes in a novel or memoir, all that’s required in a proposal to differentiate the opening anecdote from the description of the proposed book is a skipped line:

overview2

Since the overview typically covers a broad range of topics, I like to break it down into several smaller sections, to make it easier for an agent or editor to find the answers to the pertinent questions any good book proposal must answer. Every proposal is slightly different, of course, but typically, apart from the opening anecdote and the book’s description, I advise including subsections on why the proposed book will appeal to readers (this is a great place to bring up any demographic information you may have collected on your readership), why the book is needed now (as opposed to any other time in publishing history; this provides an excellent opportunity to bring up any relevant trends), and how to convince the target readership that this is the book for them (not a specific marketing plan, mind you — that comes later in the proposal — but a brief explanation of who the target reader is and why that reader might pick it up).

Nit-picky? Sure. But that’s the nature of a book proposal.

How does one mark each of these subsections? You already know how to do this one, actually: as is permissible in a nonfiction manuscript, to differentiate between topics within sections — to alert the reader to the start of the subsection on why you’re the best person currently gracing the crust of the earth to tell this particular story, for instance, or to usher onstage your explanation of precisely why the literate world needs this story right now — you may insert a subheading. To reuse the example from the last time we discussed subheadings:

Wharton subheading example

When moving between major sections of a book proposal, convention dictates inserting a page break between sections. Why? Because unlike a novel manuscript, proposals are often broken apart, with one section going to a publisher’s marketing department another going to legal, a third staying with the editor interested in acquiring it, and so forth.

It’s also customary to begin a new major section with a centered title. For example, when moving from the overview to the competitive market analysis (i.e., the section of the proposal where the writer lists similar books currently on the market, then explains why his proposed book is different and better), the latter section would begin like this:

comp market analysis

I’ve written at some length about how to construct a competitive market analysis — contrary to popular opinion, it’s not just a list of similar books currently on the market — so I shan’t go into the ins and out of creating this narrative here. But if you’d like to hear more, please check out the posts collected under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at right.

There are a couple of formatting curiosities I would like to point out, however. First, the competitive market analysis should be written in a narrative style, not as a list. Second, it does not include all of the bibliographic information for the book. Just the author and title — in italics, as is appropriate for a book title in standard format — with the publisher and year of publication following in parentheses, will generally suffice. (Although if the agent of your dreams asks for something more, like the ISBN, for heaven’s sake, give it to her.)

Is that all there is to a book proposal, you ask hopefully? Heavens, no: there are several more vital sections. As usual, I have a great deal to say about each, so I am going to sign off for today and pick it up next time. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza XVI, in which we get downright chatty

partial pink roses

I ask you: how did it get to be Wednesday already? Clearly, some mad scientist has been sneaking into my life, boxing up hours at a time, and hauling them away to another dimension.

Or so I surmise, from the fact that I began this post yesterday morning, yet don’t seem to have posted it until this afternoon. Let’s get right down to business, before another fifteen-minute chunk just vanishes before my very eyes.

Manuscript submissions, like any other form of human communication, are subject to fashion. Nine months to a year after a surprise major bestseller hits the bookstores, for instance, agencies start seeing scads of queries for books with remarkably similar premises. About the same amount of time after a multiple-perspective novel hits it big, their inboxes are suddenly stuffed to bursting with multiple POV submissions. Even matters as small as semicolon use often, after a suitable lag for composition, enjoy the occasional renaissance.

It’s as predictable as the flowers in May — and just as likely to induce an allergic reaction in Millicent the agency screener, at least when the day’s submissions heavily à la mode. While a manuscript’s fitting neatly into an already well-established book can be a good thing, the fourth DA VINCI CODE knock-off of the morning can easily start to seem a little old.

Other trends, I must confess, catch professional readers by surprise. A few years back, about a tenth of the manuscript submissions appearing on agency doorsteps abruptly lost the second space after a period: one day, the second space was virtually universal; the next, it was as if a pair of giant hands had slapped the left and right margins of America, forcing all of those poor sentences into closer proximity with one another.

“What happened?” the pros demanded of one another, mystified. “Did I miss an industry-wide memo that the standards have just changed?”

In a manner of speaking, the people who ostensibly set those standards had. Miss Snark, a well-known agent-who-blogs of the time, had declared from behind her wall of anonymity that anyone who was anyone simply despised the second space after the period. Within a couple of weeks after she declared it verboten, agencies felt the effects, despite the fact that the standard within the industry had not actually changed.

Now, it wasn’t as though there hadn’t been banshees declaring the demise of the second period for a good decade before Miss Snark’s pronouncement: it had, in fact, been a fairly common writing-class admonition ever since some publishers started cutting it from published books in order to save paper. Surprisingly often, it was presented in precisely the same terms: the double-space convention is old-fashioned, and using it would instantly brand a writer as someone to ignore. That’s never actually been true — unless an agency or publishing house actually states a preference in its guidelines for only a single space after a period, using two is virtually unheard-of as a rejection-worthy offense all on its own — but it certainly sounds convincing, doesn’t it?

Since I already dealt with the one-space-two-space (red space, blue space?) debate in an earlier post, I shan’t go into its pros and cons again here. I merely bring it up to illustrate that although people outside of agencies and publishing houses periodically decide that this or that is the new normal for submissions, those decrees usually come as news to the fine folks on the receiving end of submissions.

You know, the individuals with actual power to change the rules in question. Imagine their surprise.

In a not entirely coincidental development, when one of these sea changes begins to take effect, Millicent’s response is just as likely to be annoyance as approval for those who have leapt on the bandwagon. In fact, the former is more likely. “Why are half the manuscripts I’ve seen today in blue ink?” she wonders. “Did someone at a writers’ conference make a joke that got misunderstood?”

Oh, it happens. And now, thanks to the Internet, such a misunderstanding can make it three times around the world before breakfast.

So when about a year ago, submissions suddenly began appearing in agencies with more than one speaker per paragraph in dialogue scenes, professional readers drew the obvious inference: either some soi-disant writing guru had declared the paragraph break between speakers so old-fashioned, or a recent bestseller had been composed by someone with a broken RETURN key, a broken right pinkie to hit it, or a deep-seated psychological aversion to clarity in dialogue.

“Why else,” Millicent has been heard to mutter, “would anyone deliberately chose a dialogue format that will confuse readers?”

You know what I’m talking about, right? Whereas traditional and — dare I say it? — old-fashioned dialogue is formatted like this:

Polly Purebred clutched a lace-napped handkerchief to her pale pink lips. “But I can’t pay the rent!”

“But you must pay the rent,” Dastardly Duke replied, twirling his mustache. “Or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.”

“But I can’t pay the rent!”

“But you must pay the rent, or I shall deal with you as I mentioned above.”

“But I can’t pay the rent!”

“What are you, a tape recorder? You gotta pay your rent, lady.”

A handsome stranger appeared in the doorway, slightly out of breath from having missed his cue. “I’ll pay the rent.”

Polly tapped on her watch meaningfully. “My hero.”

“Curses,” Duke remarked, yawning, “foiled again.”

On the manuscript page, that exchange (and possibly a little more) would be formatted as you see below. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the type, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

dialogue format

That should look at least a trifle familiar to you: the indented paragraphs, one speaker per paragraph convention, and properly-placed quotation marks are all just what you would see in a published book, right? Obviously, though, because this page appears in a manuscript, these dialogue paragraphs are presented in standard format, just as narrative paragraphs would be.

Really, there’s only one unusual element here: did you catch the quote within the quote in paragraph 10? Because Handsome Stranger is reproducing verbiage from Dastardly’s rental ad, rustic charmer with view of railroad track appears within single quotation marks (‘), rather than doubled (“); doubled quotation marks appear around the entire speech.

Everybody’s clear on that, right? If not, now would be a delightful time to speak up.

Clear being the operative word here: while clarity is always required for professional writing, lack of clarity in dialogue is especially likely to be fatal to a submission. If the punctuation had not made it plain that Handsome was in fact quoting something, that paragraph would have made less sense. See for yourself:

“I do believe I will.” The stranger removed his fetching Mountie hat before stepping into the cabin. “I’ve been traveling all morning. The rental ad didn’t mention just how far out of town rustic charmer with view of railroad track actually was.”

Yes, Millicent might have been able to figure out from context (a) that Handsome was indeed quoting and (b) which words in the sentence were being quoted, but you have to admit, it’s not completely obvious at first glance. And one of the practices to which most overworked Millicents are allergic is reading a sentence in a submission twice, because they did not understand it completely the first time around.

The form that allergic reaction typically takes? You’ve probably already guessed: “Next!”

Seem harsh? Actually, it isn’t: conceptual clarity is the minimum expectation for professional writing, not a feature for which a submitter will receive extra credit. By definition, if a reader has to go back over a sentence a couple of times in order to figure out what’s going on in it, it’s not particularly clear.

Fortunately, even though there are three characters talking on the page above, it’s always perfectly clear who is speaking when, isn’t it? That’s because the real hero of this scene is the humble RETURN key: each speaker has his or her own paragraph.

Again, this should not come as too much of a surprise to readers familiar with how dialogue is typically presented in books. Recently, however, Millicent has found herself scratching her pretty head over exchanges like these:

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly Purebred clutched a lace-napped handkerchief to her pale pink lips, but her obvious distress had no effect on Dastardly Duke. He twirled his mustache. “But you must pay the rent, or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.

See the problem? A skimmer might well assume that everything within quotation marks was Polly’s speech, and thus become — sacre bleu! — confused.

Why might a swiftly-reading observer leap to that conclusion? For one very good reason: in English prose, the character who gives the first speech in a dialogue paragraph is assumed to be the speaker for every speech within that paragraph, unless there is specific indication otherwise. If there is no tag line (he said, she said), the speaker is presumed to be the first character named in the narrative part of that paragraph.

So technically, Polly is the only speaker here. Even though there are two actors within this paragraph, there’s literally nothing in it to indicate a change of speaker. How could there be, when this paragraph violates the one speaker per paragraph rule of dialogue?

Not seeing it? Okay, let’s break down what the actual text is telling us is going on:

Polly: But I can’t pay the rent!

Polly: But you must pay the rent, or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.

Doesn’t make much sense, right? And to a professional reader, neither does cramming two characters’ speeches into the same dialogue paragraph. Not only is it improper, but it leads to needless confusion.

Frankly, this kind of formatting is likely to send Millicent into a sneezing fit if it happens even once in a submission; if it occurs early enough in the text, it’s likely to trigger instant rejection. If she’s in an unusually tolerant mood that day, she might continue reading, but if she spots it again, she will sneeze herself into a whirl of philosophical confusion: why, such paragraphs leave her wondering, would a writer want not to follow the one speaker per paragraph rule of dialogue? Not only is it the norm for dialogue, but it fends off that bugbear of submissions everywhere, conceptual confusion.

If the practice appears to be habitual, she is forced to come to one of only two possible conclusions: either the writer was trying to save a line by not hitting the RETURN key (a sneaky practice which, over the course of an entire manuscript, might actually trim quite a few pages from an over-long dialogue-heavy submission), or he was simply unaware that — wait for it — the character who gives the first speech in a dialogue paragraph is assumed to be the speaker for every speech within that paragraph.

Neither conclusion is, I’m afraid, going to make her think particularly highly of the manuscript in question; either would be ample justification for rejection. Think about it: both a writer unfamiliar with the rules of dialogue nor one who believes that Millicent won’t notice or care if he bends them are likely to be rather time-consuming to represent; their learning curves will need to be pretty sharp in order to work successfully with an editor at a publishing house. Or, indeed, with an agent in preparing a submission to said editor.

But that’s not why misformatting dialogue is potentially fatal to a submission, at least not all by itself. Like not indenting one’s paragraphs, not adhering to the one speaker/one paragraph rule implies, among other things, that one does not read a great deal of English prose containing dialogue. And that’s an extremely dangerous impression to create with a submission, as the publishing industry has long favored writers it perceives as unusually literate.

It’s hard to blame them for that preference, considering that the people who harbor it tend to be the ones correcting any deviations from standard punctuation and grammar. Agents and editors know from experience that a writer who doesn’t pay attention to — or doesn’t know — how to format or punctuate dialogue is simply more time-consuming to guide down the curvy path to publication.

Indeed, many agents feel — and rightly — that it isn’t really their job to play the grammar police. One of the basic requirements of being a professional writer is knowing the rules governing English prose, after all.

You would think this tenet would send aspiring writers everywhere stampeding toward community colleges to enroll in basic composition classes, wouldn’t you? As Millicent’s inbox abundantly demonstrates these days, that’s one trend that doesn’t seem to be sweeping the nation.

Did a dragon just fly by, or are some of you hyperventilating? “But Anne,” the puzzled gasp, “isn’t it just a tad unreasonable to draw sweeping conclusions about someone’s literacy based upon just a couple of paragraphs of dialogue? I mean, take another look at that last example: it’s pretty obvious from context that Dastardly is saying the second speech, isn’t it? Would it kill Millicent to extrapolate? Or even just to read it twice, if she’s gotten confused?”

Not kill her, perhaps, but definitely irk her: remember, many screeners will not re-read, on general principle. Bear in mind, too, that Millicent is often reading very, very quickly — she has a lot of submissions to get through in a day, recall, and it’s her job to reject most of what she reads. If she finds a dialogue scene when she skims, she’s likely to reject the manuscript, even if someone reading at a normal pace might be able to follow the passage in question.

Fortunately, there’s a magic fix: hit the RETURN key between speakers. Look at how few keystrokes remove any potential for confusion from our last example.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly Purebred clutched a lace-napped handkerchief to her pale pink lips.

Her obvious distress had no effect on Dastardly Duke. He twirled his mustache. “But you must pay the rent, or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.

Problem solved — and at no cost to the meaning of the original exchange. To reiterate Millicent’s earlier question, why wouldn’t a writer want to do it this way?

She also is left to wonder far more often than strikes her as reasonable why so many submissions of late have taken to violating the one speaker/actor per paragraph rule. All too often, she finds herself confronted with dialogue formatted like this:

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly reiterated.

“So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now.” She quailed before the rope he brandished. “Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

If we apply the principle that the first character named in a dialogue paragraph (in this case, she) is the presumed speaker, confusion once again reigns. Not sure why? When in doubt, break the exchange down into a play.

Polly: But I can’t pay the rent! So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now. “Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

Again, it doesn’t make much logical sense — and it’s not Millicent’s job to re-read it until it does. She’s likely to shout, “Next!” before she even notices that second paragraph presents effect (quailing) before it shows cause (brandishing).

Far, far easier simply to observe the rule that dictates in a dialogue paragraph, the speaker and the primary actor should be the same. If they are not, add a tag line to render who is speaking completely clear to the reader.

Let’s take a gander at both of those principles in practice, shall we? If we separate each speaker/actor by simply hitting the return key as needed, the confusion vanishes.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly reiterated.

“So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now.”

She quailed silently before the rope he brandished.

“Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

This isn’t an especially stylish solution, is it? The cause-effect reversal is still there — and technically, it takes at least two sentences to make up a narrative paragraph. Let’s experiment with adding a tag line, so see if we can’t clear up matters:

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly reiterated.

“So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now,” he said wearily, brandishing the rope at her. She quailed before it. “Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

Perfectly clear who is doing what now, is it not? While adult fiction tends to minimize tag lines in two-person dialogue, where simple alternation of paragraphs will let the reader know who is speaking when, there is nothing wrong with this last example. Indeed, were this a three-person dialogue, the tag line would be actually necessary, since paragraph alternation works only with two speakers.

Not sure why? Let’s take another peek at that three-person exchange, this time with the speaker identification removed:

dialogue 3 speakers no IDs

Rather difficult to follow the players without a program, isn’t it? In multiple-speaker dialogue, frequent reminders of who is speaking when are downright necessary.

Remember: clarity, clarity, clarity.

In two-person dialogue that adheres to the one speaker/actor per paragraph rule, though, frequent reminders of who is speaking, especially in the form of tag lines, are seldom required, or even helpful. Obviously, the narrative must establish who the speakers are, but once they fall into an alternating rhythm of exchange, most readers will be able to follow who is speaking when — provided that the exchange does not go on for too long, of course, and the two speakers have distinct points of view.

There’s another reason to minimize tag lines in adult fiction. To a professional’s eye, too many he said/she cried reminders can come across as a bit storybookish, as if the narrative were going to be read aloud. A higher level of speaker identification is required in dialogue that’s heard, rather than read: since the hearer cannot see those nifty paragraph breaks that differentiate speakers on the page, she would have a hard time telling the players apart without the narrative’s actually stating who is speaking when.

As much as I would like to sign off and leave you to ponder these weighty issues, I cannot in good conscience leave the issue of dialogue behind without bringing up yet another of Millicent’s tag line-related pet peeves. See if you can diagnose it in the following example — or rather, them. Only one of the three tag lines below is correct.

“I told you so,” Polly pointed to the oncoming train. “That’s the five-ten.”

Dastardly fumbled with the ropes, “But it’s only 4:45! I have should have twenty-five minutes to tie you to the tracks!”

“You’d better hurry up, then,” she said, inspecting her manicure.

If you spotted the third paragraph as the correct one, award yourself a gold star and a pat on the back. “You’d better hurry up, then,” she said, inspecting her manicure.
is a properly-formatted tag line, properly punctuated.

So what’s the problem with the first two dialogue paragraphs?

If you immediately cried out, “By gum, Anne, neither pointed nor fumbled are verbs related to speech,” take yourself out to dinner. A verb in a tag line — and thus form a continuation of the sentence containing the quote, rather than a separate sentence — must at least imply the act of comprehensible noise coming out of a mouth: said, asked, whispered, shouted, exclaimed, asserted, etc.

Since neither pointed nor fumbled are speaking verbs, they cannot take the place of said in a tag line. Thus, the commas are incorrect: Polly pointed to the oncoming train and Dastardly fumbled with the ropes are not continuations of the dialogue sentences in their respective paragraphs, but separate sentences. They should have been punctuated accordingly.

“I told you so.” Polly pointed to the oncoming train. “That’s the five-ten.”

Dastardly fumbled with the ropes. “But it’s only 4:45! I have should have twenty-five minutes to tie you to the tracks!”

Admittedly, that last one is a matter of punctuation, rather than formatting, but as I believe I have mentioned approximately 1,500 times throughout the last few months of ‘Paloozas, writing problems tend to flock together. Especially these days, when the length restrictions of Twitter and Facebook status updates have accustomed so many of us to seeing writing without punctuation.

As any professional reader could tell you to her chagrin, the more one sees incorrect punctuation, spelling, grammar, and formatting, the greater the danger that it will start looking right to one on the page, even if one is aware of the rule dictating its wrongness. So in moving swiftly to reject incorrectly put-together dialogue, Millicent is not only out to protect the language — she’s practicing self-defense.

At the risk of sounding like an editor (funny how that happens from time to time), if you find that you’re starting to become fuzzy about what looks right and what wrong, consult an authoritative source; just assuming that what you see in print must be right is no longer necessarily a good rule of thumb. And if, to the everlasting shame of the educational system that nurtured you, no one ever taught you the rules in the first place, or if they have faded in your recollection, consider investing a couple of months in a basic composition class; most community colleges in the U.S. offer solid refreshers at a very reasonable price.

Seriously, it’s not a bad idea to go in for a grammar tune-up once or twice a decade. Millicent’s not the only one barraged with omitted punctuation, misspelled words, and overlooked grammar rules, after all.

Just something to ponder. Next time, I shall be moving back to pure formatting issues. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

My favorite literary fiction debut of 2010 gears up to move into paperback — and to celebrate, we’re having a writing contest!

Durrow book cover

As regular readers of this blog may have figured out by now, I am a creature of enthusiasms. I notice that there wasn’t a great deal of credible, useful advice out there for aspiring writers, at least gathered in one place: I started Author! Author! An intrepid 11-year-old e-mailed me with a great question about breaking into print: I spent the next three weeks blogging about what a new writers should know — over and above the how-tos for querying and submitting that I had been sharing here for years — about how the business side of publishing works (now conveniently gathered under the START WITH THESE POSTS IF YOU ARE BRAND-NEW TO PUBLISHING category on the archive list at right). I conceived a crazy notion about spending Labor Day weekend posting querying tips every eight hours: not only had we undergone a crash course agent-approaching 27 posts later, but by the end of the year, we will have also completed intensive courses in synopsis-writing, constructing an author bio, and formatting a manuscript as well.

So when I discover a terrific new novelist, the results are probably predictable: I wax enthusiastic. It’s probably fair to say, though, that I have never waxed quite this enthusiastic about a first book by an author I didn’t actually know personally before she started to write it.

To what height of enthusiasm did my admiration for Heidi Durrow‘s breathtakingly delicate debut The Girl Who Fell from the Sky lead me, you ask with some well-justified trepidation? When I met Heidi recently at a writers’ conference where we both happened to be presenting, I asked her if she would be willing not only to give all of you lovely people some pointers on breaking into the hyper-competitive high literary fiction market, but if she would also join me in awarding the literary contest prizes I know everybody at Author! Author! likes best, feedback on readers’ actual writing.

Hold onto your hats, everybody, because she very graciously said yes on both counts.

That’s right, campers — as Author! Author!’s first act of 2011, we’re going to be recapping 2010’s immensely popular Great First Page Made Even Better contest. Only this time, the better to celebrate the January 11 paperback release of Heidi’s novel, we’re going to be focusing on literary fiction, memoir, and all of those brilliantly maddening novels that don’t quite fit neatly into a single book category.

May I assume that gargantuan gasp of astonishment I just heard echoing around the cosmos means that those of you who don’t like being shoved into predetermined categories are pleased that for once, your work will not be disqualified on sight?

It seems only appropriate, since Heidi’s book is all about defying expectations and neat categorization. Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

Durrow book coverRachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I., becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy after a fateful morning on their Chicago rooftop.

Forced to move to a new city, with her strict African-American grandmother as her guardian, Rachel is thrust for the first time into a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring a constant stream of attention her way. It’s there, as she grows up and tries to swallow her grief, that she comes to understand how the mystery and tragedy of her mother might be connected to her own uncertain identity.

This searing and heartwrenching portrait of a young biracial girl dealing with society’s ideas of race and class is the winner of the Bellwether Prize for best fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice.

Actually, I rather prefer the blurb from the author’s website; I think it speaks better to readers. Here’s a peek at it — and at Heidi, while we’re at it:

Heidi Durrow author photoThis debut novel tells the story of Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I. who becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy.

With her strict African American grandmother as her new guardian, Rachel moves to a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring mixed attention her way. Growing up in the 1980s, she learns to swallow her overwhelming grief and confronts her identity as a biracial young woman in a world that wants to see her as either black or white.

Meanwhile, a mystery unfolds, revealing the terrible truth about Rachel’s last morning on a Chicago rooftop. Interwoven are the voices of Jamie, a neighborhood boy who witnessed the events, and Laronne, a friend of Rachel’s mother. Inspired by a true story of a mother’s twisted love, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky reveals an unfathomable past and explores issues of identity at a time when many people are asking “Must race confine us and define us?”

In the tradition of Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John,Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, here is a portrait of a young girl—and society’s ideas of race, class, and beauty.

I could tell you about all of the critical praise the book has garnered or the many top ten of 2010 lists it has been gracing lately, but you could find all that out for yourself by clicking the links above. Instead, I’m going to tell you how I came to fall in love with this novel. Like so many good love stories, it began with a chance meeting in a bookstore.

Last March, I was visiting a dear friend in Lexington, Kentucky. Determined, as those chauffeurring Seattleites around other cities so often seem to be, to prove that her city did in fact offer passable espresso — not my favorite beverage, possibly due to having it urged upon me in so many metropolises across this coffee-saturated land of ours — she took me to her favorite local coffeeshop-cum-bookstore. As she had already stuffed me with excellent local hush puppies (a delicacy which, unlike espresso, is actually rather difficult to find in Seattle), I began to browse, as one does, the pleasingly over-crammed shelves.

All alone on tabletop in the middle of the store, a single copy of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky rested in a place of honor. A sign hand-printed on cardboard proclaimed what was already pretty obvious: it was one of the employees’ new favorite books. As I have a good deal of respect for both bookstore employees’ recommendations — who sees more new releases on a daily basis? — and the Bellwether Prize, I naturally picked up the book.

Fortunately, I am wise to the ways of book enthusiasts, so the clerk did not actually knock me over when she rushed across the store to tell me how much she loved the novel. “I kinda got that impression,” I said, gently extricating my shoulders from her grasp.

By the time my plane was over the Rockies, I was already raving about the book to anybody who would listen — that’s right, even before I finished it. Not just because it’s an intriguing mystery (although all of the protagonists are deeply affected by the titular fall from an apartment building’s roof, no one, even the sole survivor, is absolutely positive what occurred) based around incredibly real-feeling characters (what writer would not love a protagonist whose response to a racially-curious classmate’s question, “What are you?” is “I’m the best speller in my class”?), but because of the fascinating way the narrative uses language.

In particular, punctuation in dialogue. Heidi Durrow depicts social class and intellectual development through such subtle nuances in the characters’ speech patterns that at first, I kept having to re-read lines to make sure I was not imagining it.

I wasn’t; it’s one of the most brilliant uses of dialogue I’ve seen in years. (And trust me, I read a lot of dialogue in any given year.)

As those of you who follow the literary fiction market — including, I sincerely hope, 100% of you who write literary fiction — are perhaps already aware, genuinely experimental literary fiction is as rare as a yeti sighting in downtown San Francisco. Oh, quite a few new offerings are labeled as experimental, usually because the works in question resemble other, earlier books that were experimental in their day. The moniker has become as often an indicator of a certain school of literary writing as a neon sign flashing FIND SOMETHING NEW HERE.

Originality in language use or narrative structure, on the other hand, is not very common — and that is indeed surprising, as one of the standard definitions of literary fiction is a narrative that deliberately deviates from mainstream storytelling norms in order to illuminate character while stretching the language in new and lovely ways. (A few other defining features of the breed: typically, its vocabulary and sentence structure assumes a college-educated readership, and characterization, rather than plot, provides the driving force of the narrative.)

Literary fiction is not, as so many aspiring writers tend to assume, simply a non-genre story told prettily. In theory, really good literary fiction adds something new to the reader’s understanding of the inherent possibilities of the language. So why, you may well be wondering, am I not bursting with enthusiasm every other week about new literary fiction releases — or at least in the autumn, when they traditionally come out?

Well may you ask. Sadly, even a reader as enthusiastic as yours truly seldom has her sense of language positively challenged very often. (Emphasis upon positively.)

Have I whetted your appetite for hearing much, much more about all this — perhaps, for instance, in my January interview with Heidi? Or perhaps even for pre-ordering the paperback version at Amazon, or, if you prefer to patronize an independent bookseller, Powell’s. (While you are in a pre-ordering mood, you could also check out FAAB Shaun Attwood’s Hard Time, with a preface by yours truly.)

But I digress, do I not? A few last observations about genuine literary voice, then it’s on to the contest, I promise.

In addition to all of the constituent parts I mentioned above, good literary fiction needs, at least to my mind, something else: to make some original observations about the human condition. I’m not talking about drawing high-falutin’ philosophical conclusions or indulging in sweeping generalizations about what it is like to be alive on this planet right now, but drawing legitimately unique insights on human life.

We all recognize this kind of writing when we see it, don’t we? It’s like walking through a shaded forest into a suddenly-appearing pool of bright sunshine. It rings that true.

If you’re like most writers, you probably even have a visceral reaction to it. We writers emit little satisfied exclamations when we spot it on the page, circle the words, highlight them, scrawl them in our treasured quote books. Heck, we often save them up for epigraphs in the great books we hope to write.

So perhaps for you good people, I should really have limited my review of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky to this: the first time I read Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s — not to be confused with the movie version, which bears little similarity to it — I broke out in goosebumps. My shivering was so severe that my mother went rushing for a thermometer, convinced that I had contracted a fever.

Earlier this year, I had that same reaction three times within the first fifty pages of Heidi Durrow’s debut novel. It rang that true.

And now, it’s your turn to try to elicit goosebumps — and not just with literary fiction. The difference between memoir that rings true and memoir that’s simply a story well-told could not be greater, could it? (If you hesitated before you shouted, “Yes, by Jove!” then you might want to reread that stirring little peroration a few paragraphs up about the potential effect in print of legitimately unique observations on human life.)

Besides, the line between fiction and memoir is not always pellucidly clear, is it? Although we literary types seldom admit it in mixed company — mixed artist/non-artist, natch — fiction writers draw upon real life and memoirists utilize fiction techniques to such an extent that the distinctions often become rather blurred in practice. Heck, a rather well-known short story/memoirist of my acquaintance is fond of saying that she never knows for sure whether her latest work is fiction or nonfiction until her agent sells the collection to a publisher.

Presumably, at that juncture, her editor will tell her where to expect her next book to sit on a shelf in Barnes & Noble.

Speaking of definitional ambiguity, I’m also, for the first time in Author! Author! history, adding a contest category specifically designed for those of you who are not quite sure whether your writing is literary fiction or not. There is quite a bit of category overlap, after all: both high-end women’s fiction and a fair amount of commercial fiction frequently are written in literary voices, so where does one draw the line?

Just for the purposes of this contest, we won’t. Be sure to tell your writer friends who just can’t commit.

Is everyone all excited now? Excellent. Here are the rules.

The Author! Author! Rings True Writing Competition of 2011

Entries must consist of the first page and a 1-page synopsis (both double-spaced) for a previously unpublished work in English that logically belongs in one of the following book categories:

Category I: Literary fiction

Category II: Memoir

Category III: Fiction that could legitimately fit into several book categories

All entries must be submitted via e-mail to contest@annemini(dot)com by January 8, at midnight in your time zone. January 10, at noon in your time zone. Late entries will not be considered.

Entrants may enter more than one category, but please, do not enter the same page in more than one category. (If you’re in serious doubt, enter in Category III.) Please submit each entry in a separate e-mail.

Winners in each category will receive both public praise and feedback on their winning entries from Anne Mini and Heidi Durrow, to be posted on the Author! Author! blog. By entering the Rings True competition, entrants are giving permission for their first pages and synopses to be published on this site.

Because winners will also be awarded life-long bragging rights and coveted professional ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), the judges reserve the right to award as many (or as few) prizes as the quality of the entry pool warrants. Awards are purely up to the discretion of the judging panel.

Those are the general rules. Here are the specific steps required to win. Do read them all carefully, as I am anticipating close competition this time around.

1. Polish the first page of your manuscript to a high gloss and save it as a Word document.
Submissions should consist of the actual first page of a manuscript as you would submit it to an agent or editor, not simply a page’s worth of writing. The judges want to see the opening of your book in precisely the same format as Millicent the agency screener is likely to read it. That way, our feedback can be useful for your future submissions.

Only a single page of text will be accepted. Even if your first page ends mid-sentence, please do not include additional text. However, if you have been vacillating between two different openings, please feel free to enter each as separate entries.

No more than two entries per writer, please. Contest winners will benefit most by submitting recently-written work.

Only .doc entries in Word will be accepted — not TextEdit, PDF, or any other format. Please title the Word file with either your name or the title of your book, not just as contest entry. (The last time I ran a contest like this, I received 37 with that file name.)

2. Make sure that both the page and the synopsis is properly formatted.
All entries must be in standard format for book manuscripts. No exceptions. (And if you are not sure what standard format for a book-length manuscript is, you’re in luck: I’ve been talking about it all month here at Author! Author!, beginning here.

Please format your entry page precisely as you would the first page of a submission to an agency or publishing house, including slug line, skipped lines at the top of the page, and any necessary chapter designation. This will enable us to give you the most helpful possible feedback.

3. Please present the first page of your book and your 1-page synopsis as page 1 and 2, respectively, of the Word document.
In other words, please do not send these as two separate documents. Just insert a page break in between.

4. On a separate page of the same Word document, write a BRIEF (
In other words, what is fresh about your book? (Hint: this question will be significantly easier to answer if you mention what your book category of choice is.)

Please be as specific as you can about what is new and different about your book. Vague claims of being the best novel since WAR AND PEACE probably won’t help your case.

5. On the same page, include your contact information.
Name, address, and e-mail address will suffice. You want us to be able to let you know if you have won, don’t you?

6. Make sure to mention which category you are entering.
Again, the three possibilities are:

Category I: Literary fiction

Category II: Memoir

Category III: Fiction that could legitimately fit into several book categories

7. Attach the Word document you’ve created to an e-mail.
Please include RINGS TRUE ENTRY in the subject line, and mention the category you’re entering in the body of the e-mail. (It makes it easier to process the entries.) Make sure to say who you are, too, so we don’t get entries mixed up.

It’s also a nice touch to say something pleasant (like “Happy New Year, Anne!”) in the e-mail itself. I just mention.

8. E-mail the whole shebang to contest@annemini(dot)com by January 8, 2011, at midnight in your time zone. January 10, 2011, at noon in your time

Do I need to explain that the (dot) should be rendered as a period when you are typing the address? Nah, probably not.

And that’s it! I’m looking forward to being positively covered with goosebumps by mid-January.

Next time, I shall move on to the burning issue of formatting and punctuation in dialogue. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XV: contested territory in this season of concord, or, the surprisingly contentious issue of chapter title placement

peace y'all and angels

I begin today’s post in this season of concord with a commentary on disunity: “In all matters of opinion,” Mark Twain told us many, many years ago, “our adversaries are insane.”

Nowhere in modern life is this axiom more apt than in the vicious battleground that is airline seating. In recent years, most airlines have opted to make the space between rows of passengers smaller; in order to cram more seats per plane, many have also quietly made the window seats and even the seatbelts on window seats slightly smaller as well. (Try comparing sometime with the belt in the middle seat.)

The result for anyone who, like your humble correspondent, enjoys glancing out a window from time to time, is a seat tray rammed directly into one’s solar plexus if one happens to be trying to, say, use a laptop in flight. And that’s if the window-lover in the row ahead of me decides not to recline his seat.

On the last airline flight during which I tried to compose a blog in mid-air, the last condition did not, alas, apply. A honeymoon couple — he awash in some pepper-based cologne, she beamingly bouncing her ring upon every row she passed, so all might see it glimmer in the light — evidently mistook their seats for two single beds. Not only were their activities in them not, as my grandmother would have said, appropriate for every audience, but they seemed disappointed — nay, convinced — that their seats would not recline into a completely flat position, presumably so they could (ahem) elevate their performance art piece to the next level.

After the first time the lady in question caused my laptop to emit a loud crack of protest, I politely explained through the crack in the seats (now about five inches from my face) that the nearness of the rows rendered their desired level of reclining impossible. Even if I had not needed to be working on my computer throughout the flight — an absolute necessity, I assured them, due to the standard formatting educational needs of all of you fine people waiting who were at that very moment waiting impatiently for me to land — the only way I could possibly accommodate the angle they desired would involve my balancing my in-flight meal on the bride’s forehead as it hovered a few inches above my lap.

Apart from the meal part, the honeymoon couple thought that would be just fine. How nice of me to suggest it.

The hard-argued subsequent compromise involved my turning sideways, twisting one of my legs underneath me while resting, if it could be called that, my back against the window-side armrest. If I gingerly balanced my laptop on the tray table of the seat to my left, I could barely manage to type. My left hip and elbow swiftly fell asleep, and the position required my staring fixedly at the profile of the guy in 23C (whose wife, you will be astonished to hear, apparently doesn’t understand him), but that was a small price to pay for the approximately 19 degree incline my gymnastics permitted the honeymooners.

At least for the first twenty minutes or so. After that, they kept trying to recline their seats farther. Apparently, I was being unreasonable to expect enough personal space to keep my laptop open the 90 degrees recommended by the manufacturer for optimal screen visibility. I can now tell you from personal experience that while it’s still possible to read the screen down to roughly 49 degrees, the lower the lid, the less accurate the typing.

Also, the lower the lid, the more one is tempted to draw conclusions about the fundamental difference between content producers and content consumers. To the recliners, the notion that I would so need to express myself on any subject that it could not wait until after we had landed was, I gathered, completely incomprehensible.

Oh, wasn’t I done yet? They’d like to lean back and enjoy themselves properly.

As much as I would like to blame the honeymooners’ frankly not-very-neighborly attitude upon either a poor set of upbringings (raised by airline-phobic wolves, perhaps?) or some bizarre wedding-induced solipsism that made them sincerely believe that no other human happiness was important compared to theirs, I suspect something very simple was happening here: all three of us were basing our expectations of personal space not upon the current lay-out of the airplane, but our sense memories of what air travel had been in the past.

My body remembers fondly being able to operate a laptop in comfort on an airplane, and not all that long ago. And I can only assume that somewhere deep in the honeymooners’ musculature, their forms remembered equally well being able to flop backward with impunity, without violating anyone else’s space bubble.

Either that, or they were appallingly brought up. Either way, nobody was happy with the outcome.

A similar failure to communicate often characterizes the initial interactions between an aspiring writer and those he hopes will help his work get into print: agents, editors, contest judges, freelance editors, and of course, our old pal, Millicent the agency screener. From the new writer’s point of view, many of the hoops through which she’s expected to jump seem arbitrary, if not actively hostile to his progress. Yet from the other side of the divide, it’s practically incomprehensible that any serious writer would not be aware of prevailing standards.

Each side, in short, typically expects something different from the other than what the other believes he is expected to provide. If the communication gap is severe enough, each may even begin to suspect the other of violating expectations on purpose, just to be annoying.

But that’s very seldom the case, on either end. The expectations are simply different, as often as not because each side has in mind some mythical period when perfect communication was the norm, rather than the exception. Millicent sighs for the mythical days when the truly gifted tumbled out of the womb with a complete understanding of both standard format and changing market conditions; the aspiring writer longs for the fantastic era when every submission was read in its entirety, every time, and editors took the time to work with promising new authors on every promising sentence.

Both sides are perfectly at liberty to sigh nostalgically, of course. But the fact is, none of these conditions ever prevailed on a large scale.

Oh, well-advertised submission standards used to render looking professional a trifle easier, admittedly; back when the slush pile still existed at major publishers, a new author could occasionally leap-frog over a few levels of testing. And undoubtedly, editors formerly had more time to work with writers. Things change. But contrary to what many an aspiring writer would like to think, there’s never been a point in publishing history when mainstream publishers were purely non-profit enterprises, devoted solely to bringing new voices to the admiring masses, nor have the bulk of submissions ever been completely professional and market-oriented.

Those seats never reclined as fully as you remember them doing, either. Those tray tables have never been particularly spacious. And those minuscule bags of nuts and/or pretzels? Always chintzy.

All of which, I devoutly hope, will place you in the right frame of mind for confronting what seems to be a perennial controversy amongst aspiring writers: whether to place a chapter title (or just “Chapter One”) on the first line of a page or twelve lines below that, on the line just above where the text proper starts.

Don’t laugh, those of you who are new to this particular debate: this one has generated quite a body count over the years. Former comrades in arms, veterans of the writing trenches, have ceased speaking altogether over this issue; even judges within the same literary contest have been known to differ sharply on the subject.

Which is a trifle puzzling to those of us who deal with professional manuscripts for a living, frankly, because there actually isn’t a debate on our end. Nor do the Millicents gather over steaming lattes to debate the niceties of labeling a chapter. One way looks right to us for a book manuscript, period: the first page of a chapter should be formatted precisely the same way as the first page of a manuscript.

What does that mean in practice? Glad you asked.

The chapter title belongs at the top of the page (centered) if the manuscript is a book; as with the first page of a manuscript, the title appears at the top, with the text beginning twelve lines below. In a short story or article, by contrast, the title belongs twelve lines from the top of the page, on the double-spaced line above the text.

So yes, the spacing honestly does matter to the pros. As always, it’s to an aspiring writer’s advantage to use the format appropriate to the type of writing, if only because it will look right to the Millicent screening it.

The answer really is as simple as that. Why, then, the rampant confusion? And why, given that the difference is a relatively small one not necessarily reflective of the quality of the writing involved, might a professional reader like Millicent or Mehitabel the contest judge particularly care if a talented aspiring writer chose the wrong version?

As is my wont, I shall let you see for yourselves. To place the two vitriol-stained possibilities before you in all of their lush magnificence, the question here is should the first page of a book chapter look like this:

P&P opener right

Or like this:

P&P opener wrong

Quite a visceral difference, no? The first version is in standard format for a book manuscript; the second is for a short story or article. Although, as we have discussed earlier in this series, the first page of a short story, it would also include contact information for the author. Which means, in essence, that aspiring book writers who place the chapter heading immediately above the text are formatting it incorrectly for either a manuscript or a short story.

But let’s set that aside for the moment. The fact is, every week, Millicent sees huge numbers of submissions with chapter headings like the second example — and that makes her sigh. “Do they do this on purpose?” she mutters. “Just to annoy me?”

Seem like an overreaction? Not really: Millicents, the agents who employ them, and contest judges see far, far more examples of version #2 than #1 in book submissions. Many, many times more. So much so that — prepare to rejoice, because I haven’t said this very often throughout this series — although an agent would almost certainly make you move a low chapter title aloft, at this point in publishing history, you could probably get away with either chapter heading in a book submission.

If, of course, you didn’t care about making Millicent sigh.

I hasten to add, though, that I would be reluctant to buy into the astonishingly pervasive theory that if masses and masses of people do something, it automatically becomes correct. No matter how many times all of us see apostrophe + s used to make a noun plural, it’s just not proper — unless, of course, we’re talking about the Oakland A’s, where the erroneous apostrophe is actually part of the proper name.

Ditto with manuscript submissions: as anyone who screens manuscripts for a living would tell you (probably accompanied by a gigantic sigh), a much higher percentage of them are incorrectly formatted than presented properly. But that doesn’t make improper formatting right, does it? Nor does it render it reasonable to expect that Millicent will be pleased to see a chapter title lolling about just above the text.

As everyone’s mother was wont to say (at least on the West Coast), if everybody else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you, too?

I was delighted to discover when I moved to the East Coast for college that the moms out there were prone to asking the same question with reference to the Empire State Building. There must be something about that particular period of architecture (the GGB was built in 1933-37, the ESB in 1930-31) that promotes suicidal ideation.

Speaking of body counts. Back to the matter at hand.

The weird thing about this particular formatting oddity — I’m back to talking about chapter titles now, not suicide attempts, in case you found that last segue a mite confusing — is how often the incorrect version appears in otherwise perfectly presented manuscripts. That fact sets Millicent’s little head in a spin. As, I must admit, it does mine, as well as the brainpan of virtually every other professional reader I know.

Why is it so very puzzling to us, you ask? Because at least in my case — and I don’t think I’m revealing a trade secret here — although I have literally never seen an agent submit a manuscript to a publishing house with format #2, I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who insist that writing teachers and even contest judges have told them that #2 is the only acceptable version. That’s just weird to me, as I have never even heard of an agent, editor, or anyone else in the publishing industry’s asking for a chapter heading to be moved from the top of the page to just above the text. Although as I said, I do know agents who routinely ask for the shift in the other direction; mine, to name but one.

And believe me, I’ve heard some pretty strange requests from agents and editors in my time; I’m not easily shocked anymore. At this point in publishing history, to hear a professional reader insist upon placing the chapter heading where you have to skip down a third of a page to read it would have me reaching for my smelling salts.

(Do they even make smelling salts anymore? And if everyone else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge clutching them, would I?)

Clearly, somebody out there is preaching the place-it-just-above-the-text gospel, because agents, editors, and contest judges are simply inundated with examples of this formatting anomaly. We see bushels of ‘em. Hordes of aspiring writers are absolutely convinced that the sky will fall in if that chapter heading is located anywhere but immediately above the text. Sometimes, when those die-hard advocates become contest judges, they even dock correctly-formatted first pages for having the title in the right place.

In fact, many aspiring writers are so convinced of the rightness of the drooping title heading that it’s not all that uncommon for an editor to find that after she has left a couple of subtle hints like this that the writer should change the formatting…

…the subsequent drafts remain unchanged. The writer will have simply ignored the advice.

(A word to the wise: editors universally hate it when their advice is ignored. So do agents. Contest judges probably wouldn’t be all that fond of it, either, but blind submissions mean that in order to get dunned for brushing off a judge’s feedback, a writer would have to submit the same chapter two years running to the same contest, have the entry land in the same judge’s pile — in itself rather rare — and the judge would have to remember having given that feedback. Oh, and for the entrant to hear about it, the contest would have to be one of the few that gives editorial feedback.)

The up v. down debate may seem like a rather silly controversy — after all, in the cosmic scheme of things, why should it matter if the white space is above or below the title? — but sheer repetition and writerly tenacity in clinging to version #2 have turned it from a difference of opinion into a vitriol-stained professional reader pet peeve.

See earlier comment about how we tend to react to our advice being ignored; it’s seldom pretty.

Which, unfortunately, tends to mean that in discussions of the issue at conferences degenerate into writing-teacher-says-X, editor-at-Random-House-says-Y: lots of passion demonstrated, but very little rationale produced, beyond each side’s insisting that the other’s way just looks wrong.

However, there is a pretty good reason that moving the chapter heading information to just above the text looks wrong to someone who edits book manuscripts for a living: short stories’ first pages are supposedto look quite, quite different from those belonging to book manuscripts or proposals. Take a gander:

As you may see, for a short story like this one, there’s a mighty fine reason to list the title just above the text: a heck of a lot of information has to come first on the page, because short stories, unlike book manuscripts, are not submitted with a title page.

But that would not be proper in a book-length manuscript, would it? Let’s see what Noël’s editor might have said upon viewing this as the first page of a book:

Ouch. (That last bit would have been funnier if the entire page were readable, by the way, but my camera batteries were running low. Sorry about that.) Yet you must admit that at some level, the editor’s ire would have been justified: as Millicent and that angry mob of pitchfork-wielding ignored editors would be only too happy to tell you, short stories don’t HAVE chapters, so who on earth are they to be telling those of us in the book world how to format our manuscripts?

So I say it again: for a book manuscript, stick with version #1.

Which is not to say, of course, that this particular small deviation will automatically and invariably result in instantaneous rejection. It won’t, even in the latté-stained hands of the most format-sensitive Millicent. (See, she spilled coffee on her hands after she took a sip while it was still too hot — and if you didn’t get that joke, you probably haven’t been reading this blog for very long.) If a submission is beautifully written and technically correct in every other respect, she might only shake her head over the location of the chapter heading, making a mental note to tell you to change it between when her boss, the agent, signs the writer and when they will be submitting the manuscript to editors at publishing houses.

But if you don’t mind my saying so, that’s a mighty hefty set of ifs.

While I’m on the topic of common submitters’ misconceptions, this would probably be a good time to illustrate another ubiquitous agent and editor pet peeve, the bound manuscript — and you’re going to want to pay very close attention to this one, as it is almost universally an automatic-rejection offense.

Manuscript submissions, and I don’t care who hears me say it, should not be bound in any way. Ditto with book proposals. There’s an exceedingly simple reason for this: binding renders it impossible (or at least a major pain in the fingertips) to pull out a chapter, stuff it in one’s bag, and read it on the subway.

Hey, paper is heavy. Would you want to lug home ten manuscripts every night on the off chance you’ll read them? (And now that you’re pondering that one, are you still surprised at how many agents now routinely screen submissions on their Kindles?)

As with other ploys to make a manuscript appear identical to a published book, binding the loose pages of a manuscript for submission will not win you friends in the publishing world. Not only does this not look right (I spared you the chanting this time), but it seems so wrong that Millicent will be positively flabbergasted to see a submitter to do it.

She might, for instance, forget that her latte is still too hot to drink, take a sip, and scald her tongue. It’s been known to happen.

Seriously, the unbound manuscript is one of those rules so engrained in the professional reader’s mind that it seldom even occurs to authors, agents, or editors to mention it as a no-no at writers’ conferences. Heck, I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned it once within the first two years I was writing this blog — and by anyone’s standards, I’m unusually communicative about how manuscripts should be presented.

Talk about it all day, I will.

So I’m going to repeat myself, because you’re not going to hear this very often: by definition, book manuscripts should NEVER be bound in any way. Not staples, not spiral binding, not perfect binding. If you take nothing else away from this series, binding-lovers, I implore you to remember this.

Why am I making you swear to follow my advice this time around? Well, in practice, I’m sorry to report, a bound manuscript will seldom survive long enough in the screening process for the chapter-separation dilemma to arise, because — and it pains me to be the one to break this to those of you who’ve been submitting bound manuscripts, but if I don’t tell you, who will? — those pretty covers tend never to be opened at all.

Did you just exclaim, “Ye gods, WHY?” again? I can’t say as I blame you, but try for a moment to envision what a bound manuscript might look like from Millicent’s perspective.

To ramp up your stress levels to the proper level to understand her, envision a desk simply smothered with an immense pile of submissions to screen before going home for the day. Envision further that it’s already 6:30 PM, and eyeballs already dry as dust from a long, hard day of rejecting query letters.

Just lost your sympathy, didn’t she? Try, try again to place yourself in her desk chair.

Picturing that immense pile of envelopes clearly again? Okay, now slit open an envelope that reads REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside. (You do know that you should always scrawl that in two-inch letters in the lower left-hand corner of a submission envelope, don’t you, so your requested materials don’t get buried in the slush pile?)

If you’re Millicent — and right now, you are, singed tongue and all — you fully expect to see something like this lurking between the cover letter and the SASE tucked underneath:

P&P title right

But in the case of the bound manuscript, you would instead encounter something like this:

Kind of hard to miss the difference, isn’t it? Unfortunately, 999 times out of 1000, the next sound a bystander would hear would be all of that nice, expensive binding grating against the inside of the SASE, just before Millicent tucks a photocopied form rejection letter on top of it.

Honestly, it’s not that she is too lazy to flip open the cover; she just doesn’t see why she should. Clearly, this submitter has not done his homework.

That last phrase should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this autumn’s run of ‘Paloozas: it’s a standard euphemism for this writer would be difficult to work with, because he hasn’t bothered to learn what professional expectations for manuscripts/query letters/synopses/author bios are. Sigh…

This logic may not seen particularly open-minded, from a writerly perspective, but it’s a fairly common argument throughout the industry: if this binding-happy submitter does not know this very basic rule of manuscripts, how likely is he to know the rules of standard format? And if he does not know either, how likely is he to be producing polished prose? If he hasn’t taken the time to polish his prose, is this manuscript really finished?

And if it isn’t finished, why should I (you’re still Millicent, remember?) bother to invest my time in reading it before it is? (Again: sigh.)

I know, I know — this might not be a fair assessment in any individual case. Despite my best efforts over the last few years, there are plenty of good writers out there who happen to be clueless about the rules of standard format.

But even if they all jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, you shouldn’t.

This is yet another expectation-differential problem. From Millicent’s perspective, the fact that good writers aren’t necessarily born aware of the norms of the industry matters less than we writers would like — because, as unpleasant as it is for aspiring writers to realize, her agency is going to see enough technically perfect submissions this week to afford to be able to leap to unwarranted conclusions about this one.

The moral: don’t waste your money on binding.

Seem arbitrary? From a professional reader’s point of view, it isn’t — the enforcement of standard formatting isn’t actually any more complicated than the simple axiom that any game has rules, and you will play better if you take the time to learn them.

Think about it: if you saw a batter smack a baseball, then dash for third base instead of first on his way around the diamond, would you expect his home run to count? Would an archer who hit the bulls-eye in her neighbor’s target instead of her own win the grand prize? If you refused to pay the rent on Park Place because you didn’t like the color on the board, would you win the Monopoly game?

I can go on like this for days, you know. Please, I beg you, say that you are getting the parallels, so I may move on.

Submitting art to the marketplace has rules, too, and while your fourth-grade teacher probably did not impart them to you (as, if I ran the universe, s/he would have), you’re still going to be a whole lot better at playing the game if you embrace those rules, rather than fight them.

You’ll also, in the long run, enjoy playing the game more. It may not seem that way the first time one is struggling to change an already-written manuscript into standard format, but trust me, it will be much more fun when you finish your next manuscript and realize that there’s nothing that needs to be changed.

Let all of those other folks jump off the Golden Gate Bridge without you, I say. Remember, you’re playing this game by choice: you could, after all, make your own rules and publish your book yourself. If you want to play with the big kids, you’re going to need to abide by their rules.

At least at the submission stage.

Until you know the expectations of the lovely folks seated in the row behind you, don’t assume you can recline all the way back into their laps. Everyone on the plane is trying to get to the same place, after all. By following the rules, you can make it a more enjoyable trip for all concerned.

Next time, I shall tackle a less-common but still virulent misconception. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XIV: proclaim joy to the world, or at least broadcast consistent punctuation to it

angel on top of tree

Before I launch today, I have a genuinely delightful announcement: please join me in a big round of applause for Julie Wu, who has just sold her first novel to Algonquin! Congratulations, Julie, and I’m really looking forward to its publication!

I know: in this market. After an amazingly swift round of submissions. I’m excited about this book.

Although I always get a kick out of trumpeting the glad tidings that a good writer has at last been recognized for her talent, I have a more personal reason to be gleeful over this one: Julie was one of my freshman roommates at Harvard — which tells you a little something about how seriously the Housing Office took the rooming application essays in those thrilling days of yesteryear. Our dorm contained so many aspiring writers that the click-click-click of fingertips on keys was actually more deafening during the early weeks of the semester than when term papers were due.

Perhaps I do not need to underscore the moral, but when has that ever stopped me? It can be done, people. Keep on plugging away.

On a not entirely unrelated note: sincere congratulations, campers, for making so far in this extended series on standard format for manuscripts — book manuscripts, that is; once again, let me remind you that short stories, magazine articles, theses, dissertations, and other types of writing are subject to other restrictions. We’ve been tackling the big stuff all year, and I’m proud of all of you for having the gumption, not to mention the faith in your writing, to work through it with me.

Over the next few days (with perhaps a brief hiatus on a silent night I could mention), I shall be tying up the last few loose ends of standard format, including a reader-requested intensive discussion of the ins and outs of dialogue formatting and punctuation. As if that weren’t enough reason to tune in as soon as the turkey-induced stupor begins to subside a little, I have it on pretty good authority that a certain Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver will be dropping by on Boxing Day with the announcement of a contest that may be very interesting to those of you who write either literary fiction or memoir.

Or even both. Perhaps while I’m sitting on the FNDGG’s lap, we can discuss adding a third contest category for that pervasive kind of writing that walks the sometimes very thin line between the two.

Today, I would like to talk about two hallmarks of the professionally-presented manuscript, proper punctuation and consistency. Before any of you yawn prodigiously and turn one eye to watching yet another sitcom version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, please hear me out on this one, because these are two areas where the vast majority of submissions fall down on the job.

Perhaps because — feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, campers — the aforementioned vast majority of submissions are sent off without their writers taking the time to read the manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. And yes, Virginia, this is an excellent strategy, even if you happen to be planning to submit exclusively via e-mail.

Why is there honestly no substitute for that dramatic reading? It’s simply easier to catch typos, inadvertently skipped words, and punctuation gaffes in hard copy than on a computer screen — and as we discussed in last summer’s foray into the dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, some of the most common outcomes of repeated self-editing passes are style that varies markedly between one section of the manuscript and another, accidentally deleted words and punctuation, and yes, Virginia, uneven voice.

I’m not talking merely about manuscripts that require revision (although most submissions could use more liberal helpings of that, frankly), but also the fruits of repeated revision. Often, such errors are not the result of compositional carelessness, but of repeated revision. Zeroing in on the same page, paragraph, or even sentence over and over again without re-reading the entire section can easily result in a Frankenstein manuscript, one that reads in hard copy as though it were cobbled together from the corpses of several drafts, sometimes ones written in different voices.

Is it any wonder, then, that to a professional reader like our old pal Millicent the agency screener — happy holidays, Millie! — a manuscript whose author appears to know the rules of punctuation and grammar on page 5, but not on page 6, or whose authorial voice sounds substantially different on p. 1 and page 241, might seem ripe for rejection, on the assumption that the submitter needs to give it another round of polishing?

The same principle holds true for formatting, I’m afraid. Whether you choose to adhere to the rules of standard format we’ve been discussing over the last couple of weeks is ultimately, of course, up to you. But once you choose to follow a particular rule, you must obey it 100% of the time in your manuscript.

Let me repeat that, because it’s monumentally important: it’s not enough to adhere to a formatting rule most of the time; you must cleave to it in every single applicable instance in the text.Inconsistency — be it of voice or punctuation, spelling or format — simply isn’t going to look professional to people who read manuscripts for a living.

See now why it might behoove you to curl up in a comfy chair and start reading your manuscript out loud, Virginia? It’s the single best way to identify and root out Frankenstein tendencies.

I used to think that I didn’t actually need to state this requirement whenever I taught about standard format. After all, isn’t the part of the point of a rule that it should be followed on a regular basis, rather than merely periodically, as the whim strikes? However, I’ve seen enough manuscripts and contest entries (yes, I still judge from time to time; my, but you’re full of good questions today, Virginia) by good writers who sometimes use a single dash and sometimes a doubled one (if you’re not absolutely certain which is correct, I can only suggest that you reread this earlier ‘Palooza post), or whose Chapters 1-3, 6, and 17 have a (ugh) single space after periods and colons, whereas Chs. 4, 5, and 10-12 have two, and the rest feature both…

Well, you get the picture. Apparently, the need for consistency is not as self-evident as I — or Millicent — might like to believe. The overwhelming majority of aspiring writers simply do not reread their own work enough to have a clear sense of either its liabilities or its strengths.

Or so we must surmise from all of that inconsistent formatting. And spelling errors. And repeated words. And scenes where characters do or say things that they’ve done or said half a page before.

You know, the kind of stuff that any reader would catch if she sat down with the physical pages and read them closely. As in– wait for it — actually sitting down and reading a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD after every major revision pass.

Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a secret of good writing: it flows smoothly.

A sure narrative voice is a consistent one. That’s why writers brand-new to the writing game so often labor under the quite mistaken impression that their favorite books were their respective authors’ first drafts, and thus (one assumes) that their own first drafts should be marketable without further revision: because a the author of a well-crafted narrative works hard to create the illusion of spontaneous consistency.

Awfully hard. Seamlessness is no accident, you know.

So what do you think a professional reader like Millicent, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, or their Aunt Mehitabel the veteran contest judge thinks when they encounter, say, one sentence that’s in the past tense, followed by three that are in the present? Or a character named George on page 8 and Jorge on page 127?

“Inconsistency,” they breathe in unison. “This manuscript needs more work.”

Or at least a good authorial read-through IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. If not after every revision, then at least prior to submitting it.

It’s also not a bad idea to have more than one set of eyes go through it, because all of us simply see a great many more grammatical errors and formatting oddities than we did, say, fifteen years ago. Remember back when everyone thought it was so funny that the vice president at the time (I didn’t call that one) corrected a child at a spelling bee who had spelled potato correctly, causing him to change it to potatoe?

At the time, the literate world rocked with laughter. Now, we routinely see supermarket signs advertising potatoe and tomatoe prices. And that’s a bad thing for literacy, because the more you see the error, the more likely is to make it yourself.

Why? Like Millicent and standard formatting, sheer repetition can make it start to look right to you.

Especially when you spot such errors in ostensibly credible sources. It used to be a rarity to see a spelling mistake in a newspaper or magazine article, because they were so closely edited; since the advent of on-screen editing, it’s now not uncommon to see a misspelling or grammatical error in a published book.

Had I mentioned that there’s just no substitute for reading a piece of writing IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD? The eye is simply too likely to skip an error on-screen, partially because people read about 70% faster.

Then, too, AP standards — i.e., what governs what is considered correct in a newspaper or magazine — have, as we have discussed, recently adopted a number of practices that would not be kosher according to the dictates of standard format. The aforementioned single space after the period or colon, for instance, or capitalizing the first word after a colon.

All together now: sacre bleu!

While eliminating the extra space has been seen in published books for a while (but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily proper in a manuscript, right?), post-period capitalization was practically unheard-of in published books until just a couple of years ago. Now, one sees it periodically (often, not entirely coincidentally, in books by journalists), along with some rather peculiar interpretations of the semicolon and the ellipsis.

And what happens, Virginia, when you see rules routinely bent in this manner? That’s right: confusion. Inevitably resulting, no matter what my agent friend says, in good writers raising questions like this:

I tried searching for this, but didn’t find an answer. Ellipses! Is the proper format:?.[space].[space].?or … with no spaces? Thanks as always.

This is a perfectly reasonable question now, of course, but it’s not one that was at all likely to come up even five years ago. Prior to that, pretty much any printed source would have adhered to the traditional rules governing ellipses, with the natural result that fewer writers were confused. Heck, they might even have learned the contextual rules governing ellipses in school.

What’s that, Virginia? You want to know what those rules are, since I’ve brought them up? Happy to oblige.

1. Ellipses are most commonly used mid-sentence, to mark a pause in speech. In this context, the periods in the ellipse should appear without spaces between them — and without spaces between them and the surrounding words, either. In other words, they should look like this:

“I’m appalled,” Ghislaine said. “More than appalled. I’m…horrified.”

2. Ellipses may also be used to alert the reader to skipped text in the middle of a quote. In these instances, whether an ellipse should have a space between its end and the end of the next word is entirely dependent upon whether the beginning of the next quoted part is a new sentence. Thus, if the original quotation was,

“I am in no way endorsing this policy or any other, because I feel it would be bad for the nation. I cannot be held responsible for its unhappy results.”

It would be proper to reproduce excerpts as:

The prime minister’s statement was unequivocal: “I am in no way endorsing this policy…because I feel it would be bad for the nation.”

Or as:

The prime minister’s statement was unequivocal: “I am in no way endorsing this policy… I cannot be held responsible for its unhappy results.”

3. Ellipses may also be used to show where the narration expects the reader to fill in the subsequent logic, as well as when speaker’s voice has trailed off into silence. As in:

Harry smiled, slipping one arm out of a sleeve that didn’t cover too much of his arm in the first place. A quick wiggle, and the rest of his shirt was off. Then he reached for his belt…

As much as some of you might want me to complete that paragraph, this is a family-friendly website. Besides, you’re perfectly capable of imagining the rest for yourself, are you not? In this case, the ellipse indicates my faith in your imaginative powers.

As would this, if I were writing dialogue — the most common use of this type of ellipsis:

“My, it’s hot in here.” Coyly, Harry shrugged his Flashdance-style sweater off one shoulder. “If only there were a way we could cool off…”

4. In reproducing a quote, an ellipsis can tell the reader that the quote continued, despite the fact that the writer chose not to show it in its entirety. This can come in handy, especially when writing about the kind of speaker who drones on and on:

“I deny the allegations,” the senator said. “I deny them absolutely, unequivocally, and in every other way. I deny that I cavorted in the House; I deny that I cavorted with a mouse. I deny that I cavorted in socks; I deny that I cavorted with a fox…”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? (And just between us, Virginia, wasn’t this a clever way of me to answer a reader’s question in a post that’s really about a larger issue?)

As nit-picky as all of these rules are, sometimes, good writers over-think them. So much so that they sometimes extrapolate extra rules of their own — but don’t necessarily apply them consistently throughout their manuscripts.

Yes, you read that correctly, Virginia. (She’s getting quite a workout today, is she not?) In my experience, most aspiring writers are very good about following the rules, once they know about them. In fact, really conscientious writers are quite a bit more likely to subject their manuscripts to extra restrictions than to ignore any of the established rules.

What kind of extra rules, you ask? Well, in our last sojourn on the standard format merry-go-round, two different readers asked how to format apostrophes and quotation marks. Ripped ruthlessly from their original context:

Could you in one of your really wonderful (and I really mean wonderful) posts on standard manuscript formatting devote a paragraph to quote marks and apostrophes? Times New Roman can have them both straight and curly, so which should I use? Or should I just make sure I’m consistent and leave it at that?

and

A related problem I have is in trying to place an apostrophe at the beginning of a word, particularly when writing dialogue and attempting to add a bit of the vernacular. To just type it, the apostrophe ends up being a “front-end” single quotation mark. I have to resort to some spacing and deleting shenanigans to get to appear correctly.

I freely admit it: I’m always a bit nonplused when I get questions like this, ones that assume a rule that just isn’t observed in professional manuscripts. As tempting as it might be to dust off my personal preferences on the subject and present them as a binding rule — which, as we’ve discussed throughout each of this autumn’s ‘Paloozas, is not an unheard-of thing for either a professional reader or a writing advice-giver to do — but the fact is, the expectations about both apostrophes and quotation marks in manuscripts have remained unchanged since the days when every submission was produced on a manual typewriter.

Which, in case you haven’t seen one lately, provided precisely one option for an apostrophe (‘) and exactly one for a quotation mark (“). On the same key, on most typewriters.

What does this mean for manuscript format? Good news, insofar as it translates into less work for writers: as long as the format is consistent and the punctuation is correct, Millicent’s not going to care one way or the other. Pick the one you prefer, and cling to it like an unusually tenacious leech.

I can completely understand why the two writers who brought it up — or any aspiring writer — would have wondered about this point: as readers, we do see various styles of apostrophe and quotation mark turning up in published books. Many readers also seem unaware that while U.S. publishers use doubled quotation marks (“), U.K. publishers use single quotation marks (‘), resulting in a whole lot of writers on both sides of the pond wondering vaguely if those other types of quotation mark mean something different — to mark text as ironic, perhaps?

Oh, you may laugh, but actually, it’s not all that great a logical leap. Given how counter-intuitive some of the rules of standard format are, it would not be at all astonishing if the publishing industry harbored some formatting preference that half of the writers in the world had heard nothing about.

But that’s not the case here; there is no special punctuation for irony. You have my full permission never to think about it again. Go sleep the undisturbed sleep of the just.

Before you go, though, one more piece of formatting advice: as you make your way through the bewildering forest of advice out there, toting your massive grain of salt, be aware of the fact that many seemingly authoritative sources out there disagree on certain points for the very simple reason that they’re talking about different things.

Pay close attention to context, because advice-givers often do not say explicitly, as I do, “Look, what I’m talking about here applies to book manuscripts and proposals, not other types of writing. So if you are trying to format a short story for submission to a magazine, please seek elsewhere.” Because such a high percentage of the aspiring writers’ market wants easy answers, preferably in the form of a single-page list of rules universally applicable to every writing venue, the temptation to produce a short, one-size-fits-all list of rules is considerable.

That doesn’t mean you should disregard such lists entirely, of course. Just keep in mind that any list that purports to cover every type is necessarily going to run afoul of some established standard somewhere — and that occasionally, rules pop up online and at conferences that would make Millicent’s eyes pop out of their sockets with astonishment.

Which is why, in case you’ve been curious, I have been going over even the simplest of the actual rules in such great detail, and with practical illustrations; I want all of you not only to adhere to the strictures of standard format, but to understand why each rule is to your advantage to embrace. That’s why I keep asking (and asking, and asking) if anybody has any questions. I just don’t think handing creative-minded people a brief list of mysterious orders is the best means of helping you become comfortable with the industry’s expectations.

So 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.

Speaking of elaboration and unnecessary doohickeys writers sometimes shoehorn into their book manuscripts and proposals, let’s talk about what should happen on the last page. Here, too, aspiring writers often give themselves extra trouble.

For a book manuscript, the proper way to end it is simply to end it. No bells, no whistles, no # # #, no -86-. Just stop writing.

Even the ever-popular THE END is not needed. In fact, I know plenty of Millicents (and their bosses, and editors, and contest judges) who routinely giggle when they see THE END typed on a last page, presumably — excuse my going out on an interpretive limb here — 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 in this series about professional critique being harsh? Don’t even get me started on professional ridicule.

Personally, 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. 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-”

So truth compels me to admit that I can sort of see where Millicent might find it amusing to see in a submission. Or might not find it amusing to see punctuation used inconsistently, or chapters begun without an indented paragraph (more on that one next time), or dashes that are sometimes doubled and sometimes not. Because while much of writing is a matter of style, and might thus vary throughout a manuscript, format, punctuation, and voice require consistency. Otherwise, how is Millicent to tell what is a fluke, what a typo, and what a daring experiment in the English language?

To people who read book manuscripts for a living in the US, the very notion of there not being a consensus about formatting, punctuation, spelling, grammar, and the other rule-based aspects of writing is downright odd: why, the evidence that there is a consensus is sitting right in front of them. The mailman brings stacks of it, every single day.

“Oh, come on — everyone doesn’t already know these rules?” agents and editors frequently ask me, 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 point of view 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.

And we all know how Millie, Maury, and Mehitabel feel about that, don’t we?

If the flurry of rules starts to seem overwhelming, remind yourself that although submissions do indeed get rejected for very small reasons all the time, it’s virtually unheard-of for any manuscript to have only one problem. Like ants, manuscript red flags seldom travel alone.

So I would caution any aspiring writer against assuming that any single problem, formatting or otherwise, was the only reason a manuscript was getting rejected. Most of the time, it’s quite a few reasons working in tandem — which is why, unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon for Millicent and her cohorts to come to believe that an obviously improperly-formatted manuscript is unlikely to be well-written. The notion that changing only one thing, even a major one, in the average manuscript would render it rejection-proof is not particularly easy for a professional reader to swallow.

There is no such thing as a rejection-proof manuscript, you know — although there is definitely such a thing as a manuscript that rejects itself. While it would indeed be dandy if there were a magical formula that could be applied to any manuscript to render it pleasing to every Millicent out there, that formula simply doesn’t exist; individual tastes and market trends vary too much. Not to mention the fact that the slow economy is making most agents and editors really, really cautious about picking up any manuscript at all right now.

This is vital to understand about standard format: it’s not a magic wand that can be waved over a submission to make every agent, editor, and contest judge on the face of the earth squeal with delight at the very sight of it. But it is a basic means of presenting your writing professionally, so your garden-variety Millicent will be able to weigh it on its non-technical merits.

All I can claim for standard format — and this isn’t insignificant — is that adhering to it will make it less likely that your submission will be rejected on a knee-jerk basis. However, I’m not going to lie to you: even a perfectly-formatted manuscript is going to garner its share of rejections, if it’s sent out enough.

Why? Because every agent out there, just like every editor, harbors quirky, individuated ideas about how the perfect book should be written.

Sorry. If I ran the universe…

Well, you know the rest. Try not to lose too much sleep through trying to second-guess what Millicent and her ilk want to see. Just do your best: writing well and presenting a clean manuscript honestly is how pretty much all of us landed our agents.

Keep plugging ahead — I’m counting upon you to provide me the joyous literary announcements of years to come. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza XIII: I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter…and then insert it properly into a manuscript

Mail slot2Mail slotMail slot3

Yes, the photos are unusually small today, but if it’s any consolation, it’s because this post is going to be an unusually long one, even by my hyper-communicative standards. So fasten your seatbelts and extinguish all smoking materials, everybody — it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Oh, you thought I was going to post fluff pieces for Christmas week? Au contraire, mon frère: I’m hoping to wrap up Formatpalooza by the end of the year, so we have a lot of ground to cover. Besides, you asked for it.

You in the collective sense, of course: ever since I first started Author! Author! readers have been asking in the comments how to format letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, and other text-within-text opportunities within manuscripts. Today, I’m going to be answering that perpetual item on Literary Santa’s gift list.

Who do you thinks gives the good children books?

I begin today’s lesson with a parable. As someone who travels a lot (I teach all over the place, should anyone be interested in flying me someplace to hear me talk about, say, querying or pitching), I’ve become accustomed, if not precisely resigned, to the fact that pretty much every airport in the country has slightly different security regulations. Even within any given airport, enforcement is variable. What is required in, say, Los Angeles will sometimes get you scolded in Duluth — and sometimes even in Los Angeles, if a new manager happens to come on shift between the time you place your items on the conveyor belt and when they emerge on the other side.

Seriously, I’ve seen lipstick confiscated as a potential liquid in Seattle (yes, really), but been chided in Newark for cluttering my requisite 1-quart bag of carried-on liquids with Perky Passion. New Orleans seems to harbor an antipathy against pointy tweezers, a fear apparently reserved in Boston for the smallest gauge of knitting needles. In Chicago, I heard a lady screamed at because it hadn’t occurred to her to place her asthma inhaler in the plastic bag with her carried-on liquids; in Newark, the same poor woman was permitted to retain her inhaler, but was grilled mercilessly about the glass jar of seasoned salt that she was taking to her sister.

If there is any sort of national standard about whether shoes should be placed in a box or directly upon the conveyor belt, it must change at least twice weekly. And don’t even get me started on how a security guard reacted when I was reading Reza Aslan‘s fabulous new compilation of Middle Eastern writing, Tablet and Pen, in the Houston airport last month. Silly me, I thought, “Ma’am, what are you reading?” was an invitation to a literary discussion.

Like all of us, I try to be flexible, open-minded, and cooperative, reminding myself that the person chiding me for doing precisely what the official in the last airport told me to do four hours ago is merely enforcing the rules as she understands them, and that alerting her to the fact that she is apparently the only security officer in the continental U.S. that genuinely believes that socks, hats, and scarves, as well as shoes, need to be removed and run through the scanner is unlikely to improve the situation. Chances are, she’ll only get miffed, and I’ll still end up strolling through the metal detector barefooted except for the Perky Passion gracing my toes.

Coming home from a southern city that shall remain nameless earlier this year, however, I received an instruction that left me dumbfounded. After I scurried, shoeless, through the metal detector, the security officer made a grab at my skirt. “I have to pat it down,” she told me when I snatched it back. “New regulation.”

New, as in it had apparently been made up on the spot; this was a good six months before the new scan-or-pat rules were publicly announced. It also appeared to be rather sporadically enforced: even as she articulated it, beskirted women were passing unmolested through the three other security stations. As were men in baggy pants, priests in vestments, and bagpipers in kilts.

“I flew wearing this skirt two days ago,” I told her politely, “and nobody ran his hands over it. Is the regulation new as of today?”

She looked at me blankly. “I suppose,” she said after a moment’s thought, “I could have you turn around while I did it, to make it less embarrassing.”

A brief, enlightening chat with her very apologetic supervisor later, she still apparently didn’t understand just how she had misinterpreted the latest instructions. “But the skirt’s below her knee,” she kept saying, as if a strumpet in a miniskirt on that particular snowy 27° day would have been substantially less suspect than a lady dressed for the weather. “I have to pat her down, don’t I?”

As I reclaimed my hem from her grasp, I thought of you, my friends. Honestly, I did. There’s a moral here, one’s that’s highly applicable to any aspiring writer’s attempt to navigate all of the many conflicting pieces of formatting advice out there: while the rules themselves may be constant, interpretations do vary. In situations where the deciding party holds all the power, it’s best not to quibble over even the wackiest interpretations.

Or, to put it in the terms we use here at Author! Author!: if the agent of your dreams has just tweeted angrily that she hates seeing a second space after a period with a venom that less stalwart souls reserve for the sound of nails scratching a blackboard, being cut off in traffic, and nuclear war, it’s simply not worth your time or energy to pointing out that those spaces are in fact proper in typed documents in English. You’d be right, of course, but if she’s sure enough of her interpretation to devote 127 words to it, I can tell you now that you’re not going to win the fight.

Trust me, I’m not saying this because I am too lily-livered to take a stand on principle. Ask the security guard I gave a ten-minute lecture on the importance of a diversity of literary voices in a free society.

Give that agent PRECISELY what she says she wants — yes, even if finding out what she wants involves checking her agency’s website, guide listing, and her Twitter account. (I know, I know — that’s pretty time-consuming, but remember, it has probably never occurred to her that the good writers querying her are probably also trying to discover similar information for twenty or thirty other agents. She’s just trying to come up with something interesting to tweet.)

But don’t, whatever you do, assume that particular agent’s pet peeve is shared by everyone else in the industry, any more than one security guard’s antipathy to women carrying — gasp! — lipstick onto airplanes is a universal standard. As we’ve seen earlier in this series, not only are some of the newer standards far from standard; adhering to some of them might actually alienate more traditional agents and editors.

In fact, when trying to decide whether to follow any new guideline you’re hearing for the first time, it’s always prudent to consider the source. Someone new to the rules — who, for instance, is simply passing along a list he discovered somewhere — is far more likely to apply offbeat interpretations than someone who has had a great deal of practical experience with professional manuscripts. Advice heard first-hand from an agent or editor at a conference can (and often does) alter considerably by the time it becomes fourth- or fifth-hand news. All it takes to skew the message is one link in the chain to get a tiny detail wrong in the retelling, after all.

Or, as with my would-be groper, to misunderstand a key word or phrase in the original instructions. One person’s suspiciously abundant fabric below the waistband is another person’s lyrically flowing skirt.

Unfortunately, offbeat interpretations of the rules of standard format are not the exclusive province of fourth-hand advice-givers. Sometimes, newly-minted contest judges and even freshly-trained Millicents can give a tried-and-true rules a mighty original twist. In a contest that gives entrants critique or an agency that permits its screeners to scrawl individual observations in the margins of its form-letter rejections (as some do), even a small misunderstanding on the reader’s end has resulted in perplexing feedback for many an aspiring writer.

Even more unfortunately, the Mehitabels and Millicents producing this feedback seldom think to phrase their understanding of the relevant rule tactfully. To them, the rule’s the rule, just as calf-length skirts were security threats to my airport guard; why not just bark it as though it was true everywhere in the known universe?

The cumulative result of all of that barking of all of those interpretations of all of those rules: writers often end up feeling scolded, if not actually yelled at and shamed. Hands up, if this has ever happened to you.

My hand is raised, by the way. Back in my querying days, a West Coast Millicent once huffily informed me that he’d hated my premise when he’d first read my query three months before at his previous job in an East Coast agency — and he still hated it now. So much so that he took the time to write me a personalized rejection letter: a good two-thirds of a page of snarling admonition about doing my homework before querying. Evidently, I should have been following his professional movements closely enough to have taken wincing pains to avoid running my query under the same screener’s eye twice.

Shame on me for not having read his mind correctly. The next thing you know, I’ll be reading or wearing a skirt in an airport, scofflaw that I am.

Realistically, though, what good would it have done my submission to argue with him? It was indeed absurd of a faceless, anonymous Millicent to expect any aspiring writer to know anything about who is working behind the scenes at any agency, much less who is moving from one agency to another and when.

But do you know what would have been even more absurd and misguided? My automatically assuming that barker was right, simply because he was speaking from an apparent position of authority and with vehemence. Contrary to popular opinion, being right and sounding insistent have no necessary relationship to each other.

I’m bringing this up not because it is integral to understanding today’s foray into the complexities of formatting — it isn’t, especially — but to reiterate the importance of not simply adopting every formatting and writing tip you hear. Look those gift horses very closely in the mouth before you ride any of ‘em home.

Yes, even the ones grazing in my pasture. Many a soi-disant writing guru has ultimately proven to be factually wrong, and when that happens, it’s not the guru that gets hurt; it’s the aspiring writers who blithely follow his advice because it sounds authoritative. Ditto, unfortunately, when aspiring writers misinterpret agents’ pronouncements of their personal preferences as iron-clad rules of the industry.

Remember: when in doubt, the smart thing to do is ask follow-up questions; many an aspiring writer has run afoul of Millicent simply because he didn’t fully understand Rule #10 on an under-explained list of 27. Isn’t that a better use of your energies than fighting with an agent who cares enough about her personal hatred of italics to tweet about it every other month?

Another smart thing to do is to put in the necessary research time to track down a reasonable answer from a credible source. And yes, Virginia, that often means doing more than just Googling the question and averaging the answers on the first ten sites that pop up.

Since there actually isn’t all that much out there on today’s topic, I’m going to state it in nice, easily-searchable terms: today, we’re going to be talking about how to format a letter, diary entry, or long quote in a manuscript.

Or, to be more precise, the many different ways in which one could format them. The short answer to “How do I do that?” is, as it so often is in this game, it depends.

Upon what, you ask? Well, upon the length of the letter one wants to include, for one thing. Also, if we want to get technical about it (and the masses cry, We do! We do!), it depends upon whether the manuscript in question is an academic work or not — or is a nonfiction work of the type often produced by academics.

That last declaration left some of you scratching your heads, didn’t it? And like sensible writers, you formulate a follow-up question: “Why on earth would it make a difference whether a professor — or someone else who aspired to that level of expertise — wrote the darned thing? Standard format is standard format, isn’t it?”

Well, it is and it isn’t. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: what is proper in a book manuscript is not necessarily what’s proper in a short story manuscript; what’s expected in a book proposal is not precisely what’s expected in a novel submission; contests often have specific rules that run contrary to the prevailing rules of standard format. And as we have so often discussed, if an individual agent or editor publicly expresses a personal preference, anyone who submits to him should honor it. It’s the writer’s responsibility to check what’s appropriate for the submission at hand.

In other words, sometimes a skirt is just a skirt. Exceptions do exist.

As much as aspiring writers would love it if all written materials were subject to the same standards, assuming that any writing, anywhere, anytime should be formatted identically, or that any stack of papers called a manuscript will look the same, is simply wishful thinking. True, life would be a whole lot easier for writers everywhere if that particular wish came true, but in case you hadn’t yet noticed, the publishing world isn’t really set up with an eye to making things more convenient for those just breaking into the biz.

So how might a scholar handle this problem? A university press — or college professor reading a thesis, for that matter — would expect any quotation longer than 3 lines of text to be offset, devoid of quotation marks, and single-spaced, provided that the quote in question is not longer than a page; quotes less than three full lines long are simply placed within quotation marks. Offsetting, for the benefit of those intrepid readers who did not automatically skip the rest of this paragraph immediately after the words university press, is achieved by skipping a line, then indenting the quoted material five spaces (or half an inch, using Word’s standard tabs) on both the left and right margins. After the quote comes another blank line, then the text resumes normally.

In practice, then, a page featuring quotations in an academic manuscript might look a little something like this:

academic example

Why do scholars mark quotes from other works so VERY well? That way, there can be absolutely no question about when a professor is borrowing material from somebody else’s published or unpublished work. (There tends to be a lot of unpublished work floating around the average university at any given time, after all.)

In a book proposal or nonfiction manuscript that isn’t a memoir, it’s perfectly permissible to present long quotes in this manner — although in non-academic nonfiction, the offset quote would be double-spaced. It’s clear, it’s direct, and most important of all, Millicents who work for NF-representing agents will get it. (Although most ultimately published memoirs begin life as book proposals, at least in the U.S., memoir manuscripts follow the formatting conventions of novels. Hey, I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about ‘em.)

“That’s all very well and good,” enough of you to get together and raise a barn are probably muttering, “but this doesn’t really address Dave’s question, does it? You’ve told us that a letter in a novel or memoir manuscript should not be treated like a quote one academic lifted from another and stuffed wholesale into her dissertation, but you don’t tell us how it should be handled. And how about showing us a practical example of that double-spaced offset quote you mentioned above?”

Don’t worry: a concrete example follows below. (Hey, I wasn’t kidding about the length of this post!) On the other front, patience, my friends, patience — because, again, it depends.

If the letter in question is short (or the excerpt being reproduced in the narrative is), there’s no need to treat it as anything but a regular old quote, like any other in the novel:

novel-letter-example1

Perfectly obvious what’s going on here, isn’t it? It doesn’t require special formatting for the reader to understand that this is an excerpt from a letter.

For short letters — say, under a page — some writers prefer to use italics (probably because, as Dave pointed out, they’ve seen them used that way in published books), but frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it in a novel or a memoir manuscript. It implies an ignorance of the fact that the editor, not the author, is always the one who makes decisions about how text will appear in a published version.

However, since some of you are undoubtedly not going to listen to me on this one, here is how to use italics properly in this context:

novel-letter-example2

I sense some of you shaking your heads. “But Anne,” epistle-lovers everywhere cry in protest, “that doesn’t LOOK like a letter. I like a letter to look like a letter on the page; that’s part of its charm. So how do I convey that without seeming as though I’m usurping editorial authority?”

I had a feeling I would be hearing from you literalists: there’s no shortage of writers who feel very strongly that every single syllable of every note passed between characters must be reproduced faithfully and its entirety in the text, as if the average reader had never seen a letter before and thus could not even begin to imagine what one might look like.

Frankly, it’s seldom actually necessary to a plot to include the parts of a letter that would be hard to squeeze within the strictures of standard format: the letterhead, if any; the date; the salutation; the signature. Within the context of a novel (or memoir), some or all of these are often self-evident: honestly, if the heroine is addressing her long-lost lover by, say, his given name and signs with her own, what additional insight could even the most imaginative reader derive from reproducing those salutations and signatures for each and every letter they right? Or even just one?

Even if she habitually opened with, “Dear Snotnose,” and signed off with, “Your affectionate bedbug,” that would only be character-revealing the first time she did it, right?

But you head-shakers are not convinced by that, are you? I sense that I’m not going to be able to blandish you into believing that the 15-page letter starting on pg. 82 might work better simply broken off into its own chapter entitled The Letter, am I? (A fabulous solution with very long letters, by the way.)

Rather than fight you, I’m simply going to show you the two acceptable ways of formatting a letter like a letter in a manuscript — which, not entirely coincidentally, will also work beautifully for letters that go on for pages and pages. First, unsurprisingly, it may be presented like dialogue, within quotes:

novel-letter-example-long

As with any other multi-paragraph quote, quotation marks do not appear at the end of a paragraph if the opening of the next paragraph is still part of the letter. They do, however, show up at the beginning of each paragraph within the letter, to alert the reader that this is not normal text.

The other option — and this will work with long quotes in nonfiction as well — is to offset the letter text, as one would with a long quote in an academic work. In a non-academic manuscript, however, the offset quote should be double-spaced, like the rest of the text:

novel-letter-example-long2

Although this format does work well for long quotes, I’m not a huge fan of it for letters in fiction or memoir. To my eye, it’s not as distinctive as the first option, and there’s always the off chance that a rapidly-skimming reader (like, say, Millicent) might not realize that the salutation is the opening of an offset section.

Don’t laugh; it happens, and not for reasons that necessarily reflect negatively upon the average Millicent’s intelligence. She’s got hundreds of pages to get through in any given day, and skimming eyes can miss details.

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly: don’t fall into the extremely common aspiring writer’s trap of believing that every reader will read — and more importantly, absorb — every single syllable on every page of your entire manuscript.

Sometimes, being obvious is a really, really good idea, especially in a situation where a part of the text is deliberately in a different voice than the rest of the narrative, as is almost always the case with a letter. Bear in mind that because manuscripts do not resemble published books, the goal here is not to reproduce the letter as you would like to see it in the book or as the protagonist saw it — it’s to make it absolutely clear when the text is an excerpt from a letter and when it is not.

Like academic publishers, Millicents don’t like to leave such things open for interpretation; it tends to make her bark-prone. Don’t make her guess where a letter — or any other long quote — begins or ends. The format should make it clear — but never, under any circumstances, use a different typeface to differentiate a letter from the rest of the text.

That last format would work beautifully for an article or diary entry. Again, though, if all the reader needs to know could be summed up in a few short sentences, why not quote the diary entry within the regular text, just as you would an excerpt from a letter?

“But Anne!” diary-lovers exclaim. “I like to see entire diary entries in novels or memoirs! Even if some of the material in the entry is off-topic or even a trifle dull, that just adds to the sense of realism!”

Okay, okay — I know an idée fixe when I hear one; I’m not even going to try to talk you out of that one. (Except to remind you: Millicent’s threshold of boredom is quite a bit lower than the average reader’s. So’s Mehitabel’s; edit accordingly.) Let’s take a gander at all four types of diary entry format on the manuscript page.

Yes, I did indeed say four — because, again, it depends on the type of manuscript in which the diary entry appears. In a scholarly work, it would look like this:

academic diary entry

That’s not a tremendous surprise, right? In a nonfiction book on the subject not aimed at the academic market, however, Nellie’s diary would look like this on the page:

NF diary entry 1

No chance of Millicent’s not spotting the difference between the academic version and the standard format version, is there? To her eye, only the latter is formatted for professional consideration.

If the nonfiction writer preferred not to introduce the date of the entry in the paragraph preceding the diary entry, she could use a NF convention we discussed last week, the subheading. For many writers, there’s a distinct advantage to presenting a diary entry this way: a subheading, the entry would more closely resemble the way a reader might find it in a published book — although, again, that’s not really the goal here.

NF diary entry b

As you may see, this format takes up more room on the page — not always a minor consideration to a writer who is trying to edit for length. As with a letter, the more of the formal elements the writer chooses to include, the more space it will take. Which begs the question: is verisimilitude it worth taking up an extra few lines of text in a manuscript that’s already a bit on the long side? If so, a less literal rendering of frequent letters and diary entries can be a quick, easy way to reclaim a page or two of lines over the course of an entire manuscript.

For fiction or memoir, a similar format should be used for diary entries longer than a few lines but less than a couple of pages long — unless several diary entries appear back-to-back. (But of that, more below.)

A novelist or memoirist faces a structural problem, though: it can be considerably harder in fiction to work the entry’s date into the preceding text (although many a fine writer has managed it with such sterling phrases as The minute volume trembled in Gerald’s hand. On May 24, 1910, his mother had written:), so the subheading is a popular choice for indicating the date.

As with other subheadings in fiction, the date should not be in boldface. Let’s take a peek at what the resultant short diary entry would look like on the page.

diary fiction 1

Still quite clear what is and is not diary entry, isn’t it? By offsetting the text, even a swiftly-skimming Millicent would find it easy to figure out where Nellie’s words end and Gerald’s thoughts begin.

But how, you may well be wondering, would a writer present several short diary entries in a row? If the diary did not go on for more than a couple of pages, all that would be necessary would be to insert a section break between each.

In other words, by skipping a line between ‘em. Like so:

diary fiction 2

If a series of diary entries goes on for pages at a time, however, offsetting them makes less sense; the point of offsetting is, after all, to make a clear distinction between the special text and the regular text. After the third or fourth page of offsetting in a row, a skimming Millicent (or, more disastrous, an agent flipping forward in the manuscript) might leap to the incorrect conclusion that the margins just aren’t consistent in this manuscript.

May I suggest an elegant alternative, one that would side-step the possibility of this type of misinterpretation entirely? Consider devoting an entire chapter to them, titling that chapter something descriptive and unprovocative like Nellie’s Diary, and formatting all of the entries as regular text with subheadings.

Curious about what that might look like? You’re in luck; here are the first two pages of Chapter Eight:

diary chapter 1

diary chapter 2

Lovely and clear, isn’t it? It’s also, in case those of you who are trying to shorten your manuscripts happen to be interested, the most space-efficient means of presenting these diary entries on the page. What a difference a half an inch of margin on either side makes, eh?

If working through this often-misunderstood formatting issue doesn’t get me on Santa’s good list, what possibly would? Tomorrow’s foray into more formatting mysteries, perhaps. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza XII: it may be possible to see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour, but that doesn’t mean a submitter should play tricks with the space-time continuum

green anemone

For the past few posts in this series, we’ve been comparing manuscripts in standard format with improperly-formatted ones — on their title pages, their first pages, and their mid-text pages — to see the rules in action, as well as how your submission’s chances could be hurt if you deviate from them. I hope you’ve been finding this more useful than a simple list of submission guidelines; in my experience, most rookie submitter mistakes arise not merely from simple ignorance of the strictures of standard format, but from the low-level panic that comes from having to guess whether one is performing the secret handshake correctly.

The better an aspiring writer understands the rules, the less guesswork is involved. It may not eliminate the stress of submission entirely, but it does at least remove one of the most common stressors from the mix.

Heck, you might even become relaxed enough about the process to feel a few glimmerings of sympathy for Millicent the agency screener. Each and every week, she has to read thousands upon thousands of pages just like the ones we’ve been considering.

Does the very idea of empathizing with her seem strange to those of you new to the querying and submission process? Admittedly, she is also the person who rejects the vast majority of queries and submissions sent to her agency — remember, at a US agency of any size, a manuscript typically has to make it past one or two Millicents before getting anywhere near an agent’s desk; that’s one reason average turn-around times have risen in recent years from weeks to months. (Another reason: a lot of agencies have had to lay off Millicents and administrative assistants, meaning that fewer eyes are scanning more pages.)

Yet given what a small percentage of these documents are properly formatted and spell-checked and original andbook category-appropriate, much less well-written, it’s hard to blame her eye for becoming a trifle jaded over time. As enviable as her job sounds (Reading for a living! Sign me up! many writers think), reading for errors is actually not very pleasurable, usually.

And make no mistake: it’s a screener’s job to read for technical errors, with an eye to weeding out the aforementioned vast majority of submissions. Unfortunately, as a group, aspiring writers make it easier than it should be to reject a promising voice. Technical mistakes are so common that the lack of them is sometimes the difference between a well-written manuscript that strikes Millicent as well-written enough to keep reading beyond the first page or two and one that makes her exclaim, “Oh, too bad — this writer isn’t ready yet. Next!”

Way back in the dim days of yesteryear, before you had been initiated into the mysteries of standard format, the fact that the writing was not the only factor considered in rejection decisions probably annoyed you just a trifle, didn’t it? Now that you’ve passed the Rubicon and are formatting your manuscripts like a pro, you can afford to smile compassionately at both Millicent and the literally millions of queriers and submitters who ply her with unprofessional-looking pieces of paper.

Or does that smirk off your face mean that I’m once again overestimating my readers’ saintly willingness to walk a mile in the moccasins that routinely kick aspiring writers’ dreams into the rejection pile?

Okay, let me speak to the more practical side of your collective psyche: 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 — or an agent, editor, or contest judge’s, for that matter. Simply put, 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.

And she does tend, alas, to fall in the former categories on more days than the latter. 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 often gets a paycheck that’s more an honorarium than a living wage. Heck, some Millicents are not paid at all. Some do it for college credit — or just the experience.

Phenomena that one might reasonably expect to become increasingly common, by the way: the worse a bad economy gets, the better an unpaid intern is going to look to a cash-conscious agency. Or, heaven help us, a worried publishing house that’s been laying off editors. (And editorial assistants, increasing turn-around times at publishing houses, too.)

Fortunately, literary contests in the U.S. are almost exclusively judged by volunteer Mehitabels, at least prior to the finalist round, so writing competitions continue to be judged very much as they ever were. The Hitties of the world tend to be public-spirited authors, freelance editors, writing teachers, etc. who honestly are in it to help discover exciting new voices. If anything, however, that let’s-improve-the-literary-world orientation usually renders them less tolerant of technical errors in entries than Millicent is, not more.

Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Which is why — you ‘Palooza followers can hear this coming, can’t you? — a savvy submitter always reads her ENTIRE manuscript IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before sending it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with a literary contest or the publishing industry. It’s much, much easier to catch formatting issues, typos, and logic problems that way.

Even if Millie’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.

Oh, wait; I have mentioned it. Repeatedly.

“So why are you bringing it up yet again?” the masses shout indignantly.

On the outside chance that I’m being too subtle here: it’s vital to any aspiring writer’s happiness to be aware that while God-awful manuscripts and book proposals are, naturally, self-rejecting, every year, thousands upon thousands of otherwise well-written manuscripts get rejected on purely technical grounds.

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? To be good an their jobs, agents and editors have to learn to spot professional writing in the wild — which means, in part (out comes the broken record again) having to recognize what a properly-formatted manuscript should and should not look like.

Actually, the aspiring writer’s learning curve is often not dissimilar to Millicent’s: 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 only books. So what writers tend to produce in their early submissions are essentially imitations of books.

The problem is, the format of the two is, as I believe that I have pointed out, oh, several hundred times throughout this ‘Palooza, quite different — and not, as some of you may have been muttering in the darkness of your solitary studios throughout this series, merely because esoteric rules render it more difficult for new writers to break into the biz.

Just a few of the many, many things an aspiring writer often does not know before submitting for the first time: manuscripts should be typed (don’t laugh; it’s not unheard-of for diagrams to be hand-drawn, hand-number, or for late-caught typos to be corrected in pen), double-spaced, and have 1-inch margins all the way around.

Let’s see why all of those things are necessary, from a professional point of view. Speaking of Tiny Tim, let’s call upon our old friend Charles Dickens again to see what a page of a manuscript should look like,

Nice and easy to read, isn’t it? (Assuming that you find it so, of course. If it’s too small to read easily on your browser, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + until the type is large enough to read comfortably.)

To give you some idea of just how difficult it would be to read, much less 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. As would, more often than not, Mehitabel.

Did I hear a few spit-takes during that last paragraph? “My goodness, Anne,” those of you who are wiping coffee, tea, or the beverage of your choice off your incredulous faces sputter, “why would any sane person consider presentation violations that serious an offense? It is, after all, precisely the same writing.”

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 life editorial — and that fact that, despite impressive innovations in technology, most line editing a single-spaced document in either hard or soft copy is well-nigh impossible.

Too hard on the eyes — and where on earth would the comments go on the hard copy?

Don’t tempt her to reject your submission unread — and don’t even consider, I beg of you, providing the same temptation to a contest judge. Given the sheer volume of submissions Millicent reads, she’s not all that likely to resist. The contest judge, on the other hand, will be specifically instructed not to resist at all.

Yes, really. Even if the sum total of the provocation consists of a manuscript that’s shrunk to, say, 95% of the usual size, Mehitabel is likely to knock it out of the running on sight.

Some of you are blushing, aren’t you? Perhaps some 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, some wily writers will shrink the font or the margins, to shoehorn a few more words onto each page. After all, the logic runs, 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 roughly how many characters fit on a properly-formatted page.

Don’t believe me? Go back and study today’s first example, the correctly formatted page. Then take a gander at this wee gem of tricky intent:

I shaved only one-tenth of an inch off each margin and shrunk the text by 5% — far, far less of a reduction than most fudgers attempt. 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 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 on a query. Trust me, someone who reads queries all day, every day, will be able to tell.

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 we’ve discussed, and recently, ever since published books began omitting these spaces in order to save paper, there are plenty of folks out there who insist that skipping the extra space in manuscripts is obsolete.

Including, as we have also discussed, some agents — and yes, Virginia, it is the submitter’s responsibility to check agency websites to make sure whether the particular agent to whom he is submitting happens to harbor that particular preference. If you encounter an agent who does, your path is clear — and feel free to shout this one out along with me, conscientious ‘Palooza-followers: if an agency’s guidelines ask for something specific in a submission, for heaven’s sake, give it to them. Just don’t generalize individual preferences to the entire industry.

If they don’t express a preference for single-spacing, stick to standard format, regardless of what you may have heard online about how nobody is using double-spacing after periods and colons anymore. It’s simply not true.

But that’s not what you’d think from the vehemence of the single-space faithful, is it? Frequently, the proponents will insist that manuscripts that include the space look hopelessly old-fashioned to agents and editors.

Well, guess what, cookie — 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 an already agented 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 partridge in a pear tree if you said that cutting those spaces throws off word count estimation; the industry estimates assume those doubled spaces. (If you don’t know how and why word count is tallied, please see the HOW TO ESTIMATE WORD COUNT — AND WHY category on the archive list at right.)

And give yourself five golden rings 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 — and again, we’re going to take a gander at why. 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 wonderful take on the Bluebeard myth, VERA:

Vera correctly

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

Doesn’t look significantly 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.

Do 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. As we discussed only the other day, 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.

As would tinkering with the bottom margin to allow an extra line on the page. Here it is with only a minor change, a .9 inch bottom margin instead of 1 inch, a modification so minute that a non-professional reader would probably not notice that it was non-standard. To compress a bit more, let’s have only one space after each period.

Vera with extra line

A bit claustrophobic, is it not? If you don’t find it so, consider it as Millicent would: not as an individual page, isolated in space and time, but as one of the several thousand she has read that week. Lest we forget, most of the ones she will have been taking seriously will have looked like this:

Vera correctly

See it now? While Millicent is highly unlikely to have either the time or the inclination to whip out a ruler to check whether that bottom margin is really a full inch (although Mehitabel might), she will be able to tell that this page has more words on the page than the others she has seen that day. She might not be able to tell instantly precisely how this page has been modified, but she will be able to tell that something’s off.

“But Anne,” clever rule-manipulators all over North America shout, “I’ve been modifying my submissions this way for years, and nobody has ever called me out on it. Therefore, I do not believe it’s ever been a factor in my work being rejected — and it does allow me to stay under that all-important 400-page limit.”

Perhaps, rules-lawyers, but let me ask you a question: have you ever had such a manuscript accepted?

It’s an extremely common submitter’s misconception, especially amongst those brand-new to the game or who have only submitted pages as part of a query packet, rather than as requested materials, that if they were really doing something wrong, the rejecter would tell them so. In these days of form-letter rejections — and even no-reply rejections — this is simply an unrealistic expectation.

Especially for a formatting error. Since most submissions contain at least one — and remember, formatting problems, like spelling and grammar gaffes, tend to travel in packs — and since non-adherence to standard format is so universally regarded as symptomatic of a lack of professional knowledge, it would be prohibitively time-consuming for Millicent to scrawl try learning how to format a manuscript, then resubmit.

No, regardless of whether the ultimate rejection trigger was that extra line per page, the second misspelling in paragraph 2, or a premise that Millicent has seen seventeen times that week, the reasons given for sending back the submission will probably run like this: I’m sorry, but this manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. I just didn’t fall in love with this story, and I don’t feel that I can sell this in the current tough market. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

The moral of this sad, sad story: it seldom pays to assume that you’re doing it right just because you haven’t been told you are doing it wrong. And it pays even less often to conclude from the generalities of a boilerplate rejection that there can’t have been any specific technical problem that caused Millicent, if not to reject it outright, then at least to take the submission less seriously.

Besides, there was another notorious agents’ pet peeve in an earlier example — although, frankly, it would have irritated a contest judge far more than Millicent. Here’s the page again; see if you can spot it this time. (Hint: it was not in the properly-formatted version.)

Take ten lords a-leaping out of petty cash if you ran your eyes thoughtfully over this example and became riveted to the next-to-last line of the page: 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 to yet another moral for the day: 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.

Or book proposal. Or contest entry.

Remember, 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.

Please don’t dismiss this as unimportant to your success as a writer. If writing is solid, 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,” do you not?

Spare Tiny Tim 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 possibly Dickensian day. Be compassionate toward her plight — and your submission’s, proposal’s, and/or contest entry’s. Pay close enough attention to the technical details that yours the submission that makes her say, “Oh, here is good writing, well presented.”

Do you feel your self-editorial eyes sharpening? Excellent. Next time, I’ll bring more practical examples as whetting stones. And if you can manage to wipe that completely distasteful metaphor from your mind until tomorrow, keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: what’s the best book you ever got — or gave — as a gift?

Christmas decorations

This time of year, those of us who work with manuscripts for a living are inundated with questions from would-be Santas, ranging from the vague (“My co-worker loves to read — what should I get her?”) to the categorical (“What book should I give a 10-year-old boy?”) to the specific (“My best friend has read everything Maeve Binchy has ever written, and I’d love to introduce her to a new obsession. What author would you recommend?”) As flattering as such requests are, as a pro, my first instinct is to respond with a barrage of follow-up questions. What is the co-worker currently reading? What’s that 10-year-old like? What in particular about Mme. Binchy has captivated this friend?

Surprisingly often, the askers are taken aback by being expected to provide more information. Isn’t a great book a great book, period? Why wouldn’t any 10-year-old boy adore any well-written novel aimed at kids his age equally? Shouldn’t someone who works with books for a living just have a mental Rolodex of fabulous authors, cross-indexed by similarity to bestselling authors?

For those of you not already clutching your sides and screaming with laughter, the answers are: a great book for one reader will not be a great book for another; no, because kids have personal tastes — and personalities — just as adults do; why, yes, I do, but half the books on it have not yet been published. And in response to the implication that I’m just not trying hard enough, today alone I recommended Heidi Durrow’s stunning debut The Girl Who Fell From the Sky to an aspiring literary fiction author’s Secret Santa, William Gibson’s genre-shaping Neuromancer to a budding science fiction aficionado’s mom, William Pene Dubious charming The Twenty-One Balloons to an English professor at a loss about what to give his young nephew (oh, you would give ULYSSES to a 10-year-old?), and spent 45 minutes discussing how the Kindle’s ability to allow the reader to alter font, typeface, and orientation on the page changes the reader’s experience of writing patterns.

I’ve been on the job, in short. But now, I would like to hear your suggestions.

Rather than limiting what I hope will be a full and rich array of excellence across book categories, I’m going to keep it general: what was the best book you ever received as a gift, and why? Did you ever give the same book to somebody else, because it affected you so much, or did you hoard all of that literary goodness for yourself?

Or, for you inveterate book-givers, what is the best book you ever gave somebody else? How did you know it was the right book at the right time for that person?

I shall be looking forward to restocking my mental Rolodex with your marvelous suggestions. In the meantime, I’m going to get this laptop off my lap before my doctor notices. Keep up the good work!

First Pages that Grab: Gayton Gomez’ Book Worms

Gayton Gomez author photo 2Gayton Gomez author photo 1

Sorry that your promised reward for virtue is coming a couple of days late, campers — I was following the inviolate rule chez Mini that migraines and blogging do not mix. A wacky standard, true, but mine own.

Fortunately, the treat is, in my humble opinion, well worth the wait: the final winner in the YA category of the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, Gayton Gomez’ delightful BOOK WORMS. That’s the lady herself, depicted twice above.

Is she her own identical twin? No, merely kind enough to afford me an opportunity to discourse on the always-burning subject of author photos.

Remember back in the heady days of Authorbiopalooza, when I mentioned that it’s an excellent idea for an aspiring writer to start early to try to come up with a great author photo, because for most of us, finding one we like is a rather protracted process? At the time, you probably muttered, “Oh, yeah, Anne, it might take me months — nay, years — to find a photo that is both flattering and appropriate to my book’s subject matter. Because, alas, I do not have a professional photographer following me around on a daily basis, and I have never so far in the long and fascinating course of my life stumbled upon a non-professional shot of myself that I like, I am inclined to believe you when you say it is going to be a struggle.”

Well, yes, both of those are pretty common reasons that authors have a hard time coming up with an author photo on that happy day when the editor of their dreams says, “Oh, and we’ll need a photo for the jacket by Tuesday. You already have one, right?”

And the author, trooper that she is, does violence to her initial impulse to blurt out that she had been laboring under the widely-held misconception that publishing houses maintained in-house battalions of shutterbugs for this very purpose. Instead, she replies brightly, “Tuesday? No problem. Would you like a hard copy, or should I mail you a jpeg version?” Then she hands up the phone — and dissolves into a little pool of deadline panic.

At the risk of repeating myself: start asking either your friends or a pro to get snapping now. You will be infinitely happier once you have a book contract in hand — or once the agent of your dreams wants to start submitting your work to editors accompanied by a bio graced with your smiling mug.

Gayton has been savvy enough start grinning early at those shutters, and has ended up with the other species of author photo dilemma: how does one choose between two awfully good pictures?

I know, I know: we should all be lucky (and photogenic) enough to have this problem, but actually, it’s a serious one. Looking good is not the only criterion for judging an author photo, after all: one also wants to look smart, interesting, approachable, and, well, authorial, right?

Yet from a professional perspective, what authorial looks like would necessarily vary depending upon the book itself. And that often comes as a great big surprise to first-time authors, used to those 1970s-80s glamour shots that made every inside back dust flap seem more or less identical.

The photo on the right falls very firmly into this category: it is more or less precisely what most of us have in mind when we think author photo, isn’t it? It’s attractive, polished, filmy of background, and conveys seriousness of purpose. This, it says, is an intellect to take seriously.

But does this photo also say that this is someone who writes genuinely funny YA? Or does the one on the left convey that spirit better?

A forest of hands has sprouted up all across the English-writing world. “But Anne,” the visually-oriented cry, “how can I know which of these is a better photo of today’s winner? And surely, that eye-catching red would not be appropriate for every book jacket. Isn’t this an instance where playing safe is the better bet?”

Not necessarily, hand-raisers, but you are quite right that Gayton’s future (and lucky) publisher’s marketing department might well want to weigh in on the bright red issue. (Although generally speaking, book covers with red on them sell better than those sporting other colors, probably because the eye is attracted to red faster than any other color in the spectrum. Rumor has it that when Cary Grant first started making color pictures, he used to wander around the set, grabbing every red object and carting it out of shot. Too distracting from his handsome mug, he believed.)

Let’s assume for the sake of argument, however, that this photo is intended not for a book jacket — at least not right away — but for the top of an author bio to be tucked into a submission packet. Yes, credibility is important in a bio photo, but so is personality and book-appropriateness. After all, this rather intense shot of Elinor Glyn was perfect for her classic of romantic introspection, IT:

elinor-glyn-author-photo

Not to be confused, of course, with Stephen King’s horror classic, IT. Here’s what his author photo looks like these days:

Stephen King

Not exactly a 1980s glamour shot, is it? But you cannot deny that it is appropriately menacing for his chosen genre — that’s horror lighting if I have ever seen it. By the same token, Marcel Proust’s author photo just screams ravishing sensibilities.

Marcel Proust

What constitutes an appropriate visual clue to ravishing sensibilities changes over time, naturally. When Truman Capote’s first novel, OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS, was released, its publishers shocked the literary world with this author photo:

Truman Capote's first author photo

Quick, those of you who have never read this lovely debut: based upon the photo alone, what was the novel about? (Hint: this photo was an impeccable choice.)

What does all of this mean for Gayton’s photo choice? Well, you tell me. Let’s take a gander at some of her writing and see which you think would be a more appropriate match.

Here is the winning first page of BOOK WORMS — and, as always, if you are having trouble catching the details, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + until it is big enough to read.

Book Worms p 1

Quite the grabber, eh? Actually, Gayton piqued the judges’ interest with her answer to what her book would add to her chosen book category:

Cassandra Wainwright is the first teenage protagonist in the Young Adult genre to use a magical bookpass to jump into the plots of classic novels. She’s the first heroine of any genre to foil a Ponzi scheme run by Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, who is dating Cassandra’s unsuspecting older sister.

While there was a fair amount of debate about whether that first sentence is empirically true — several of us had dim recollections of having read something like this as children, but none could recall an actual book title — the second is almost certainly true. (Which just goes to show you, campers: book descriptions are not the best places for superlatives or claims to be the first writer to do anything. You can never be absolutely certain that (a) some Victorian spinster didn’t write a book with a similar premise that’s been out of print since Henry Ford invented the assembly line and (b) some agent, editor, or contest judge won’t have read the last extant copy as a preadolescent. Literary types find their way into all kinds of archives.)

All that is quibbling, however. Just look how charming the fleshed-out premise is:

Book Worms synopsis

Before we move on, I would just like to applaud Gayton for writing a really solid 1-page synopsis — which, as those of you brave souls who worked your way through Synopsispalooza can attest, is no mean feat. As a quick review, what makes this such a good example?

If you immediately cried out, “I was blown away by the fact that Gayton managed to present not just the premise, main characters, and central conflict, but some indication of how that conflict is resolved,” give yourself an A for the day. That’s a lot to pull off in a single page of text without making it real like a laundry list — well done, Gayton!

If you also shouted, “There are unique, telling details here!” go ahead and move to the top of the class for the entire weekend. Gayton has made the very smart move of including specifics in her synopsis, rather than the more common generalities — and done so in a light-hearted manner. I defy Millicent not to smile at the very sight of the phrase catches Cassandra and Eugene red-handed in Romeo and Juliet.

But all of you are getting impatient for the close textual analysis for which these prize posts are famous, are you not? Okay, here is that first page again, decorated with Millicent the agency screener’s patented scrawl.

Gayton edit

Surprised that such a grabber of an opening — and one that so perfectly captures the ambient mood of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic thriller, THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO, too — would attract this much editorial ink? Actually, there’s a red flag in that first sentence that would, unfortunately, prevent quite a few Millicents from reading beyond it. Can anyone tell me what it is?

If you are jumping up and down, shrieking, “It’s in the passive voice! It’s in the passive voice!” take yourself out for ice cream. It was constructions, while both traditional in fairy tales and more accepted in YA than in adult fiction, tend to be eschewed in professional writing, for the very simply reason that most Millicents (and their bosses, as well as the editors to whom they sell manuscripts) have been specifically trained to regard it as low-quality writing. While generally speaking, it’s a good idea to avoid the passive voice anywhere in a submission, the first line of the first page is a particularly fine place to excise it.

And why is that, ‘Palooza followers? Chant it with me now: professional readers do not read like other people. Instead of scanning an entire scene, page, or even paragraph before deciding whether they find the writing engaging, they read a single sentence at a time. If they like it, they move on; if they do not, they will usually just stop reading.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it: “Next!”

Gayton’s first page is a textbook example of a submission that might well charm a reader who picked it up in a bookstore, yet get rejected without comment by many pros. And that’s a real pity, for if Millicent would just keep reading, she would find a great premise here.

The tension is also very well established by the end of the page (speaking of sentences in the passive voice), but I have a couple of suggestions to heighten it even more. First — and I don’t know why writing teachers don’t bring this one up more — having the sentences get shorter and choppier as soon as Cassandra gets scared would automatically crank up the suspense.

Why? Well, think about it: a switch to shorter, pithier sentences conveys the impression of panting. Subconsciously, that seems scarier: a frightened person would tend to speak in shorter, breathier bursts than one relaxing on a couch like Uncle Truman above; her heart would pound, and she would look around quickly. While it would certainly be possible to describe all of that in long, luxurious sentences (as, indeed, I just did), why not allow the narrative structure to help draw the reader into the mood of the piece?

Another means of keeping that tension high, at least from Millicent’s point of view, is not to have the yes/no question in paragraph 4 answered with a no. This is not a bad general rule for any first page — or indeed, any dialogue: answering a yes/no question with yes or no is almost invariably the least interesting response, and most of the time not even necessary. Frequently, as here, the very next sentence or phrase will answer the question more fully than the binary choice.

There’s also a more conceptual reason that no tends to be a pet peeve for professional readers: it cuts off possibilities in a way that a less categorical response will not. While this tends to be more true in dialogue than in narration, we can see quite plainly in paragraph 4 how completely no prevents our heroine from exploring one of her previously viable options.

A third way that this page cuts tension is through describing the unfamiliar room in mostly negative terms, rendering it harder for the reader to picture than a more fleshed-out description would allow. Since the reader has not yet seen Cassandra’s normal bedroom, it’s simply not as startling to see it disappear than if we had seen it before. Even a couple of familiar details in the first paragraph would help establish a firm image of her reading in her cozy bed, all set to be shattered in the next paragraph.

The judges and I would also have liked to see the room in which she finds herself in more detail, particularly in terms of sensual specifics. Was the new room the same temperature as her bedroom, for instance? Did it smell the same? Was she alerted to the change by an abrupt shift from electric light to candlelight?

And so forth. YA is known for its lush and detailed physical descriptions, so it would be hard to go overboard here. The goal would be to immerse the reader in a completely unfamiliar space, to make her feel as though she, too, has been suddenly transported into another realm.

Which just goes to show you: even a grabber of an opening can often be improved. With just a little bit more polishing, Gayton’s hook could provide more alluring bait for Millicent.

I’m genuinely pleased that this protracted series on winning first pages has illustrated that point so beautifully. Often, aspiring writers think of their opening hooks purely in terms of premise (Godzilla meets the Nazis — who will win?), opening with conflict (His medals melted from the Godzilla’s breath, the Nazi drew his pistol…), or just plain pretty writing (Flames spurted lazily across the tar macadam, a modern-day Wotan surrounding his wayward daughter Brünnhilde with protective fire…). In practice, a true grabber incorporates all three, and does so in a manner so appropriate for the book’s chosen category that Millicent knows immediately precisely where it would sit on a shelf in Barnes & Noble.

A tall order? You bet. Doable for a good writer? Absolutely.

Have you reached a decision about which author photo fits the voice and story best? Personally, I would go for the more adventurous one — it comes across as both more dynamic and a trifle younger. The blurred traffic in the background gives the impression that she’s going places, just as Cassandra is in the book.

That being said, were this author to be writing across several book categories (am I remembering correctly that you do some travel writing, Gayton?), I would opt for the other photo for a general author bio. It’s a lovely example of a particular type of professional photo: as we discussed above, it does just scream this is an author.

That’s something I suspect no one who reads your manuscript will ever doubt, Gayton. Great job, and I’m sure all of us here at Author! Author! are looking forward to reading the rest of the book!

Refreshed from our little foray into close textual analysis? Excellent. Next time, we’ll be diving right back into the mysteries of standard format. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XI: setting some boundaries, or, wait, Millicent — why have you stopped reading?

Carcassone outer wall

Have you been enjoying our in-depth guided tour of the manuscript from the top down? Not gone tumbling down any parapets, have we>

No, that’s not just some clumsy publishing-world metaphor. So far, we’ve talked about the piece of paper on top of the submission stack, the title page; we’ve talked about the next sheet of paper, the first page of text and how it differs from both the title page and the pages that come after it; we’ve extrapolated from that first page to standards for the first page of each chapter and any titled section breaks.

Now, it’s time to talk about all of those pages in the middle Perhaps, while we’re at it, we could engage in some more of those nifty compare-and-contrast exercises we engaged in so fruitfully last time.

Hard to contain your enthusiasm within reasonable boundaries, isn’t it?

Okay, so it’s not a particularly sexy topic, but it’s a really, really good idea for an aspiring writer to devote some serious time to comparing properly and improperly formatted manuscripts. Writing time is precious for all of us — and scarce for most of us — and school compare-and-contrast exercises left most graduates with but think of it as an investment in your writing career: once you’re learned to spot formatting problems easily, you’ll be a much, much more effective proofreader. Not to mention being able to format your manuscripts correctly from the get-go.

Oh, that doesn’t sound like much of a door prize to you? Just wait until you’re trying madly to pull a submission packet together overnight in response to a request for materials, or frantically constructing a contest entry four hours before it needs to be postmarked. Or, even more stressfully marvelous, responding to a last-minute revision request from the editor who had originally told you that manuscript had been accepted as complete.

Believe me, when any of those stressful-but-happy days come, you’ll be very grateful then for every nanosecond that you don’t have to squander on wondering if your margins are consistent.

Because they had better be: believe me, our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, is very quick to discern the difference between a professionally-formatted manuscript and, well, everything else. 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, bless her literature-loving soul. 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.

I don’t want to frighten any of you out of entering literary contests, but her fingers positively ache for the red pen of correction.

This is not entirely 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.

Translation: non-standard formatting won’t look right to them, either. By now, you’re having a similar reaction, aren’t you?

Don’t think you’ve been developing professional eyes throughout this autumn of ‘Paloozas? 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 — which, as Virginia Woolf pointed out, means that every female writer who earns so much as a sou from it now should be laying wreaths on her grave in gratitude.

Our girl Aphra’s also hilarious — and if you think it’s easy for a joke written in 1688 to remain funny today, well, I look forward to reading your comedic stylings in the year 2332.

Don’t believe me? Slip your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins and consider the following page from THE FAIR JILT. (As always, if you’re having trouble reading the small writing, enlarge the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing +.) I defy you not to be too distracted by the story to notice how the page is put together.

Seriously, try not to think at all about the fact that Millicent probably would not even start to read this version. Don’t worry your pretty little head over why.

the fair jilt wrong

You clever souls 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 Aphra’s practically Dickensian affection for semicolons for the moment — which would tend to turn off a modern Millicent pretty quickly — and let’s ponder why this page almost certainly would not get a fair reading in a present-day agency.

Before you commit yourself irrevocably, here’s what it should have looked like in standard format:

Aphra Behn right

Quick, tell me: what’s the reason our Millie would not bother to start reading the first page 10, but would read the second?

If you flung your hand into the air and shouted, “The 10-point type, Anne! It will strain her already overworked eyes,” pat yourself on the back 47 times. If you also added, “And the Ariel typeface probably didn’t help here, either,” make that 48.

Why is the first in particular almost always a deal-breaker? She’s used to seeing every manuscript heading out of the agency to publishing houses in 12-point Times New Roman, so that first example — feel free to chant it with me here, ‘Palooza followers — it just doesn’t look right.

And why should she waste her time with that tiny type? She absolutely could not forward it to her boss that way; agents are susceptible to eye strain, too.

But those unfortunate cosmetic choices are not the only problems with the first version, are they? Let’s turn our magnifying glasses to the top of the page: the incorrect version does not have a proper slug line. 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. “This stray piece of paper 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. And it’s so far down in the footer that the number got caught off halfway during printing.

Did you catch any other problems that might register on Millicent’s umbrage meter? What about that right margin? Mighty straight, isn’t it? That look proper to you?

What’s going on here is called block-justification, 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.

Why would this species of neatness bug the heck out of professional readers? A very practical reason indeed: it renders skimming quite a bit more difficult.

Why? Well, block formatting provides fewer landmarks, as it were, to the glancing eye, As you may see for yourself, 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 from the actual writing, 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 let’s move on to Example #2, the one Millicent and a contest judge would like. To save your weary fingertips a modicum of scrolling (hey, I do what I can), here it is again:

Aphra Behn right

Now, let’s take a gander at the same page in — ugh — business format; if you don’t know why it’s ugh-worthy, you might want to revisit my earlier post on the immense value of indentation.

Startlingly different, isn’t it, considering that I made a grand total of two formatting changes?

You did catch both of them on your skim through, right? 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 like a literate human being.)

Again, why is Millicent unlikely even to start reading that last rendition of page 10? Because — wait for it — it just doesn’t look right.

In fact, in both submissions and contest entries, business format 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.

(Since not all of you laughed, allow me to beg you nervously: please tell me that some English teacher took the time to teach you the rules governing there, their, and they’re. We all see them used incorrectly so often nowadays that I shall not rest easy until I am positive that each and every one of you is aware that there refers to a place, their means belonging to them, and they’re is a contraction for they are. While I’m at it, I’d also like to point out that that it’s is a contraction for it is, whereas its means belonging to it. Thank you for humoring me; time to get back to the post already in progress.)

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 like Visigoths sacking Rome.

As a result of this convenient submission 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 the pages following 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. Let’s just say that her umbrage-taking threshold tends to be on the low side, especially immediately after she has taken a sip from that too-hot latte that always seems to be by her side when we are watching her in action. (Let it cool next time, okay, Millie?)

Why am I bringing this up in the middle of a discussion of the perils of business format? Well, for starters, an ever-increasing number of agents are not only accepting e-mailed queries (a genuine rarity until quite recently), including some who ask queriers to include the opening pages, a synopsis, and/or other writing samples with their queries. Since few agents open attachments from writers with whom they’ve had no previous contact, many request that those opening pages be included in the body of the e-mail, pasted just below the letter.

Sense a potential problem barreling in our general direction? That’s right: most e-mail programs are not set up for easy tabbing; consequently, business format is the norm for e-mail communications. But that doesn’t mean that the Millicent assigned to screen those queries won’t turn up her nose at non-indented paragraphs in those pages.

Again, why? Are you sitting down, dislikers of indentation?

I hate to be the one to break this to you, but there are Millicents out there — and agents, editors, contest judges, and literate people everywhere — who will leap directly from noting a lack of indentation and unwarranted spaces between paragraphs to our old 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?

Now, 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 to sink fully into your overtaxed brainpan. 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; I don’t dictate it — are every bit as 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, tend not to be 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, but it’s kind of complicated. I wrote a couple of fairly extensive posts on the subject a while back (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.

Is everybody comfortably seated? My thumbnails are a tad long. (Just try to get THAT image out of your head anytime soon.)

To get through all of the submissions 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 before she toddles wearily homeward on Friday afternoon.

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, why that conflict is important enough to the protagonist for the reader to be drawn into it, and so forth.

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 that has long perplexed aspiring writers the world over. 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 tricked actively misled mistaken 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 the nearest pillow over that last piece of convoluted 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 laying you open to a charge 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 written about an interpersonal relationship 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.

Starting to feel more at home with standard format? Excellent; my evil plan plot for world domination teaching strategy is working. Keep up the good work!