The rules, part IV: so that’s how a book manuscript should appear on the page!

Sorry about the unexpected hiatus between my last formatting post and this one, campers; I honestly did mean to follow up within two or three days. My blogging time has been a trifle more difficult to schedule since my car crash, however — I never know when someone is going to decide to pop me into an MRI machine. Or decide to cut my computer use in half.

I’m back on the job this evening, however, and raring to polish off our list of requirements for a professionally-formatted book manuscript. At the risk of repeating myself, allow me to underscore book manuscript: if you are planning to write anything else (say, a short story, article, or a tasty little tidbit for an academic journal), I would strongly urge you to look elsewhere. Different venues for publishing writing have different standards. So while I would always encourage even those writing books to check agency and small publishing house’s submission guidelines — like literary contests, the individuals who evaluate submissions sometimes harbor personal preferences — a writer’s best bet is always to find out how professionals submit their work to that particular venue and emulate it.

Rather than, say, do what most first-time submitters do: simply assume that presentation doesn’t matter if the writing is good. In any writing venue, adhering to its expected presentation will make your work look more professional to the pros, for the exceedingly simple reason that all professional manuscripts circulated by agencies in the United States conform to standard format.

Or, to put it another way, everything that editors at major publishing houses are used to reading, will look like the pages we saw in the first post in this series’ brief visual tour of a properly-formatted manuscript. So does our old pal, Millicent the agency screener.

Why are these expectations important for a writer to bear in mind while preparing a submission? Well, think about it: if editors want manuscripts in standard format (they’re easier to edit that way, incidentally), a savvy agent would make sure that all of her clients’ work adhered to that norm, right? It follows as night the day, then, that taking on a writer fond of formatting his work in any other manner will necessitate training him in professional formatting.

Which — are you sitting down? — pretty much everyone in publishing circles expects a writer serious about seeing his work in print to have invested the time and energy in learning before approaching an agency or publishing house. Knowing how to format a book manuscript properly is a basic professional skill for an author, after all. And arguably, it’s never been easier to pick up that skill.

Of course, those who argue that typically don’t spend much time trawling the Internet for tips. As I’m morally certain won’t come as even a vague surprise to those of you who have discovered this post — and only this post — in the course of an web-wide search on how to format manuscripts, there’s a heck of a lot of conflicting advice out there. Not all of it is equally well-informed, and an astoundingly high proportion fails to mention — as I may have pointed out fifteen or sixteen times throughout the course of this short series — that the rules the site in question is touting should not be applied to all writing, anywhere, anytime.

Why is that supposition problematic? Shall we chant our mantra, writers who have been following this series? Standard format for book manuscripts is not proper for every form of writing known to humanity, anywhere, anytime. It’s for — wait for it — books.

No one is born knowing that, however, nor with the publishing experience to tell good advice from, well, the other kind. I think a excellent case could be made that since the rise of the Internet — and the concomitant rise of the expectation that everything someone new to the publishing world needs to know should be possible to locate in, if not a bullet-pointed list, then at least in a 500-word post appearing on the first page of a Google search of the phrase manuscript format — it’s actually become quite a bit harder for those new to the game to learn the rules.

Understandably, then, many aspiring writers’ response to the plethora of advice floating around out there has been not to seek out the most credible, or even the one that appears to be speaking to the type of books they might happen to be writing, but rather to pick and choose elements from a buffet of options. The inevitable result: Millicent’s inbox has been awash in some rather odd admixtures in recent years. Mixing and matching standard format for book manuscripts, short stories, magazine articles, etc., perhaps with the piquant addition of an element or two from a published book, has become the norm in recent years, not the exception.

Am I correct in concluding that audible intake of collective breath indicates some personal experience with this phenomenon? “But Anne,” buffet-lovers across the world protest, and who could blame them? “I tried to find out how to do it, but there were so many different sets of rules — and virtually all of them barked as orders, instead of explained nicely, as I notice you have tried to do in this series — I just assumed that there wasn’t really a single standard. I can’t be the only one who’s felt this way. If so many of us are submitting our work in ways other than standard format would dictate, why doesn’t Millicent just, you know, lighten up and not pay attention to anything but the writing?”

Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? So would the overwhelming majority of writers trying to break into print. And if the publishing industry were run to please aspiring writers, Millicent might embrace your suggestion with vigor. Ditto if there were not hundreds of thousands of talented writers competing for the limited publication slots in any given book category in any given year.

Which is to say — and you might want to sit down for this one — it’s very helpful to Millicent that so many submissions arrive on her desk incorrectly formatted. Trust me, if she works for a well-established agent, she already receives a few hundred well-written, perfectly-formatted submissions for every opening her boss has for a new client. So if other manuscripts’ formatting allow her to draw the conclusion that their writers would be more time-consuming to represent than those who have made the effort to learn the ropes, well, can you really blame her for regarding them as less professional writing?

I sense some of you grumbling, and with some reason. “What about individual expression?” nonconformists everywhere cry, bless their ornery hearts. “How my writing appears on the page is part of my vision for my book. Why shouldn’t my manuscript reflect that?”

A fine question, and one that richly deserves a direct answer: because non-standard presentation will distract Millicent. In publishing circles, formatting matters like font size, margin width, and whether a new chapter begins on a fresh page are not matters of individual preference; standard format is just that, standard. That means, in practice, that when anything else appears on a submission’s pages, a professional reader’s eye is going to zoom right to it.

So I ask you: which would you rather have Millicent focus upon, your unique formatting vision — or your writing?

Remember, too, that neither Millicent, her boss, the agent of your dreams, nor your future lucky acquiring editor will expect your manuscript to resemble a published book. Standard format differs in many significant respects, from being double-spaced and printed on only one side of the page to how a dash appears on the page.

That comes as a surprise to many aspiring writers: all too often, they assume that deviating from standard format in order to, say, place the first letter of a chapter in a larger font size, or to remove the indentation from its first paragraph, will make sense to Millicent, because it’s sometimes done in published books. The way the manuscript is formatted for submission, they reason, will be their best chance to show their future acquiring editors how they would like to see their books appear in print.

How that reasoning plays out on the page will send a different message to Millicent, unfortunately. To her, as to anyone who reads manuscripts for a living, all such a page conveys is that the writer is not very familiar with the book publishing process. Specifically, the part in which the publishing house, not the author, gets to make the decisions about what the book looks like.

Does that glum silence mean that I’ve convinced you, or merely depressed you into a stupor? Both are quite normal reactions for writers hearing about all of this for the first time, or even the second or third. (Hey, there’s a reason I go over this every year.)

While you’re absorbing it all, let’s go over the rules we’ve discussed so far:

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

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on only one side of the page and unbound in any way. For submission to US-based agencies, publishing houses, and contests, the pages in question should be US-standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper.

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

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

(5) The entire manuscript should be in the same font and size — no switching typefaces for any reason. Industry standard is 12-point.

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

(7) Every page in the manuscript should be numbered — except the title page. The first page of text is page 1, not the title page.

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

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

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

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

(12) The beginning of every paragraph of text should be indented .5 inch. No exceptions, ever.

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

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

Before we move on, allow me to revisit #14, as it’s one that’s often misinterpreted. There are in fact forms of writing in which it is still quite proper to underline certain words under certain conditions. In a book manuscript (or a book proposal, as it happens), however, this is not acceptable.

No, no matter how much you want to emphasize a word or phrase; italics should be used for that. Ditto for any phrases you might choose to import from a foreign language — you wouldn’t want the agent of your dreams to think you had misspelled a word in English, would you? — and titles of books, songs, newspapers, and magazines. If you should desire to refer to an article, a poem, or a short story, however, those titles should appear within quotation marks.

You’ll find list of the rules for italics use in my last post, but as I’m a great fan of visual examples, here are those principles in action.

Minette waved the paper at him. “Honestly, Patrice, it’s all here in The Anytown, U.S.A. Gazette.”

He shrugged. “Chacun ? son go?t. I prefer to get my news from the moon, the stars, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and ‘The Road Not Taken,” my sweet.”

A less-than-convincing argument from a man whose idea of a first date flick had been Gore on Parade and whose most-quoted rhyme was “There Once Was a Man From Nantucket.” “Oh, look, honey. The article’s even called ‘Stuff Patrice McStubbornhead Habitually Gets Wrong.’ I think it might conceivably speak to you.”

He reached for his guitar. When she was in a mood like this, nothing soothed her so fast as a quick rendition of Greensleeves.

God, how I hate that song,” she muttered.

Everyone happy with that, at least provisionally? If not, this would be a dandy time to post questions in the comments. Please don’t be shy: believe me, if you have been wondering about any aspect of italics use, so have a quarter of a million of your fellow aspiring writers too shy to speak up.

Do ‘em a favor: ask. While you’re formulating your questions, let’s move on.

(15) Numbers over 100 and those containing decimal points (like currency) or colons (like specific times) should be written as numerals. Numbers under 100 should be written out in word form. Thus, twenty-five is correct; so are 1,473, 2:47 p.m., and $15.90. Page numbers, of course, should appear as numerals.

The instinct to correct this particular set of mistakes when they appear on the submission page is universal in professional readers. That’s potentially problematic for a submission. Why? Well, from that impulse to rejection is often a fairly short journey, because once the notion gee, this writer hasn’t taken the time to how book writing should be presented has occurred to a professional reader, it’s hard to unthink. After that, anything from a major clich? to a minor typo would just seem like corroboration of this uncharitable — and in some cases unfair — conclusion.

Translation: not presenting your numbers correctly will not help you win friends and influence people at agencies and publishing houses. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. This one makes our teeth grind.

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

And honestly, what could a manuscript possibly gain artistically by violating this particular rule? If Millicent will be happier to read text like this:

Abbott/The Great Voyage/82

The sandwich cost $3.76.

On November 11, 1492, fifty-three scholars divided into eighteen parties in preparation for sailing to Antarctica. It took 157 rowboats ten trips apiece to load all of their books, papers, and personal effects onboard.

Rather than (stop it, teeth!) like this:

Abbott/The Great Voyage/Eighty-two

The sandwich cost three dollars and seventy-six cents, cash American.

On November eleventh, fourteen hundred and ninety-two, fifty-three scholars divided into eighteen parties in preparation for sailing to Antarctica. It took a hundred and fifty-seven rowboats ten trips apiece to load all of their books, papers, and personal effects onboard.

Why not humor her? She puts in a long day at a hard job; she doesn’t have time for extra trips to the dentist.

Do I spot some hands waving in the air? “But Anne,” inveterate readers of newspapers protest, “I’m accustomed to seeing numbers like 11, 53, 18, and 72 written as numerals. Does that mean that when I read, say, a magazine article with numbers under 100 depicted this way, that some industrious editor manually changed all of those numbers after the manuscript was submitted?”

No, it doesn’t — although I must say, the mental picture of that poor, unfortunate soul assigned to years of searching tirelessly for those numbers and making such a nit-picky change saddens me. (Hang in there, brother!)

What we have here is yet another difference between book manuscript format and, well, every other kind of formatting out there: in journalism, they write out only numbers under 10. Yet — stop me when the song begins to sound familiar — there are many, many sources out there insisting that the over-10 rule should be applied to all forms of writing, anywhere, anytime. Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but in a book manuscript, it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

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

AP style differs from standard format in several important respects, not the least being that in standard format (as in other formal presentations in the English language), the first letter of the first word after a colon should not be capitalized, since technically, it’s not the beginning of a new sentence. I don’t know who introduced the convention of post-colon capitalization, but believe me, I’m not the only one who read the submissions of aspiring book writers for a living that’s mentally consigned that language subversive to a pit of hell that would make even Dante avert his eyes in horror.

That’s the way we nit-pickers roll. We like our formatting and grammatical boundaries firm.

Heck, compared to most professional readers, my feelings on the subject are downright non-confrontational. I’ve been in more than one contest judging conference where tables were actually banged, modern societies deplored, and the rise of the personal computer berated to the skies.

Again, I ask you: do you really want your contest entry to be the one that engenders this reaction?

So let’s all shout it together, shall we? The formatting and grammatical choices you see in newspapers will not necessarily work in manuscripts or literary contest entries.

Everyone clear on that? Good, because — are you sitting down, newspaper enthusiasts? — embracing journalistic conventions like the post-colon capital and writing out only numbers under ten will just look like mistakes to Millicent and her ilk in a book manuscript.

And no, there is no court of appeal for such decisions; proper format, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. So if you were planning to cry out, “But that’s the way The New Moreford Journal-Sentinel does it!” save your breath.

Although my aforementioned heart aches for those of you who intended to protest, “But how on earth is an aspiring writer to know that the standards are different?” this is a cry that is going to fall on deaf ears as well. The sad fact is, submitters rejected for purely technical reasons are almost never aware of it. With few exceptions, the rejecters will not even take the time to scrawl, “Take a formatting class!” or “Next time, spell-check!” on the returned manuscript. If a writer is truly talented, they figure, she’ll mend her ways and try again.

And that, in case any of you lovely people had been wondering, is why I revisit the topic of standard format so darned often. How can the talented mend their ways if they don’t know how — or even if — their ways are broken?

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

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

In this, however, they are wrong, at least as far as manuscripts are concerned. But you’re starting to get used to that, right?

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

Don’t stand there and tell me that you’ve seen the long dash in countless published books, or that those self-same volumes have not placed a space between the dashes in question and the words on either side. None of that is relevant. Standard format is invariable upon this point: a doubled dash with a space on either end is correct; anything else is not.

And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of doing it properly only when you think about it, or not doing a search for it before you submit your manuscript. It may seem like a minor, easily-fixable phenomenon from the writer’s side of the submission envelope, but believe me, inconsistency drives people trained to spot minor errors nuts. Seriously, the pros bemoan how often they see manuscripts in which this rule is applied inconsistently: two-thirds of the dashes doubled, perhaps, sometimes with a space at either end and sometimes not, with the odd emdash and single dash dotting the text as well.

Remember, consistency is not only a hallmark of a well-developed authorial voice; it’s a sign of professionalism in formatting, too. Or did you expect your future agent to invest the time in cleaning up your formatting and/or punctuation before submitting your work to editors? Even in the unlikely event that he would be willing to do it — good agents are very busy people — wouldn’t that expectation mean that he could never send out any of your writing without proofreading it?

As opposed to, say, a writer who had already gotten into the professional habits of consistent dash formatting and proofreading?

I’m going to leave the consistency-haters among you — oh, I know you’re out there — to ponder that one while the rest of us move on. Those who have spent the last few paragraphs resenting the necessity of going over your manuscript in this detail prior to submission will be pleased to hear that the next rule is one that will eat up very little of your time.

(17) Turn off the widow/orphan control in your Word program; leaving it on can result in pages containing varying numbers of lines.

Told you so: this is something that can be accomplished by highlighting your entire text (the shortcut for that in Word is COMMAND + A), then pulling down the FORMAT menu. Select PARAGRAPH…, then LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. Un-check the Widow/Orphan control box.

Voil? ! Every full page of text will have the same number of lines!

Oh, those of you new to the term would like to know why you did that, would you? Fair enough: as some of you clever souls may have already surmised, the widow/orphan control dictates how many lines appear on any given page. The default setting prevents the first line of a new paragraph from being left alone on a page if the rest of the paragraph is on the next (a line so left behind is called an orphan) or the last line of a paragraph begun on a previous page from appearing at the top of the next page all by itself (and that’s called a widow). Thus, if the widow/orphan control is left on, lines will be stolen from one page and added to the ones before and after.

Result: some of your pages will have more lines of text on them than others. Why might that be problematic? Well, unless your pages are standardized, you can’t justify estimating your word count (at # of pages x 250 in Times New Roman). Since word counts for book-length projects are expected to be estimated (you’ll need to use the actual count for short stories or articles), and actual count can be as much as 20% higher than estimated, it’s certainly in the best interest of anyone who tends to run a little long to estimate.

And even if your manuscript isn’t over 400 pages (100,000 words, estimated) — the time-honored dividing line for Millicent to cry, “Oh, too bad; it’s too long for a first novel in this book category. Next!” — she’s going to dislike seeing an extra inch of white space on the bottom of some of your pages. Not necessarily enough to shout, “Next!” all by itself, but need I ask you again if this is the response you want your writing to evoke?

I thought not. Let’s tackle the last rule.

(18) Adhere to the standard rules of punctuation and grammar, not what it being done on the moment in newspapers, magazines, books, or on the Internet.

In other words, “But I’ve seen other writers violate that rule!” is not going to fly here. Assume that Millicent graduated with honors from the best undergraduate English department in the country (or at least the fifteenth-best), taught by the grumpiest, meanest, least tolerant stickler for grammar that ever snarled at a student unfortunate enough to have made a typo, and you’ll be you’ll have set the level of proofreading concern just about right.

Why? Well, if you can bear yet another rhetorical question, do you really want to encourage Millicent to wonder whether you broke a rule on purpose — or if you simply were not aware of it?

Grammar aside, there’s been a tendency in recent years for submissions to ape the trend of paper-saving publishers across writing types to leave only one space, rather than the standard two, after a period or colon. The rationale runs thus: printed books often do this now: the fewer the spaces on a page, the more words can be crammed onto it. Since we’ve all seen it done in recently-released books, some argue — and vehemently — it would be ludicrous to format a manuscript any other way.

Indeed, some insist that the single-space convention is the ONLY way to format a manuscript. A number of writing-advice websites, I notice, and even some writing teachers have been telling people that this is the wave of, if not the present, then at least the future. They aver that adhering to the two-space norm makes a manuscript look old-fashioned. Some even claim that retaining the second space is a universal instant-rejection offense.

At the risk of sounding like the harsh grammar-mongers of my youth, poppycock. Agents, very good ones, routinely submit manuscripts with doubled spaces to editors, also very good ones, all the time. Successfully. That might be due to the fact that most editors who deal with manuscripts in hard copy actively prefer it.

Truth compels me to point out, though, that there are also agents, good ones, who have embraced the single-space convention, and quite adamantly. It’s become a less common preference over the last few years, but those who feel strongly about it tend to — you can see it coming, right? — feel strongly about it. In practice, the doubled space is still the norm — except amongst the minority who insist that it is not. In either case, though, it’s not a common rejection criterion.

Clear as pea soup, right?

So which convention should you embrace? The answer, as it so often is, involves doing your homework about the specific agent or publisher you are planning to approach, rather than treating submissions, as so many aspiring writers do, as generic. It’s always a good idea to check each and every agency’s submission guidelines before tossing that manuscript in the mail, anyway .

Fortunately for aspiring writers everywhere, agents with a strong preference for the single space tend not to keep mum about it. If they actually do tell their Millicents to regard a second space as a sign of creeping obsolescence, chances are very, very good that they’ll mention that fact on their websites. If you happen to be submitting to folks who specifically asks for single spaces, by all means, bow to their expressed preferences.

Sensing a pattern here?

Spoiler alert: once you get in the habit of doing that research, I suspect those of you who have heard horror stories about how everybody now positively hates the second space convention will be astonished to see how few agencies even mention it in their submission guidelines. If they don’t, it’s usually safe to assume that they adhere to the older convention — or don’t care.

Why should that be the default option, since proponents of eliminating the second space tend to be so very vocal? Those who cling to the older tradition tend to be, if anything, a shade more vehement.

Why, you ask? Editing experience, usually. Preserving that extra space after each sentence in a manuscript makes for greater ease of reading, and thus of editing. As anyone who has ever edited a long piece of writing can tell you, the white space on the page is where the comments — grammatical changes, pointing out flow problems, asking, “Does Ambrose the Bold really need to die so peacefully?” — go.

Less white space equals less room to comment. It honestly is that simple.

And just between us, it drives traditional-minded grammar-hounds nuts to hear that time-honored standards must necessarily be jettisoned in the name of progress. “What sane human being,” they ask through gritted teeth (I wasn’t kidding about those trips to the dentist), “seriously believes that replacing tonight with tonite, or all right with alright constitutes betterment of the human condition? Does any literate person genuinely believe that a colon means a new sentence has begun? Dropping those letters and spaces doesn’t even save significant page space!”

They have a point, you must admit. Yet as rule-seeking web-crawlers have no doubt discovered, traditionalists tend not to be nearly so well-represented online — nor so vitriolic in their condemnations — as advocates of the new. I don’t think that’s merely because proper grammar and spelling do not really require defense; to literate people, they just look right. I suspect that it’s for the same reason that agents and editors don’t habitually go online to check out what people are logging into any particular writers’ forum to suggest is the current rage in formatting: if you already know the rules, why would you be looking online for them?

Then, too, there’s a practical reason: until everyone in the industry makes the transition to editing in soft copy — which many of us find significantly harder and less efficient than scanning a printed page — the two-space rule is highly unlikely to change universally. Just ask a new agent immediately after the first time she’s submitted to an old-school senior editor: if she lets her clients deviate from the norms, she’s likely to be lectured for fifteen minutes on the great beauty of the English language and the imperative to protect its graceful strictures from the invading Goths, Visigoths, and journalists.

I sense that some of you are beginning to wring your hands and rend your garments in frustration. “I just can’t win here! Most want it one way, a few another. I’m so confused about what’s required that I keep switching back and forth between two spaces and one while I’m typing.”

Again, you might want to sit down for this one: inconsistent formatting is likely to annoy both sides of the aisle. Whichever choice you embrace, be consistent about it throughout your manuscript; don’t kid yourself that an experienced professional reader isn’t going to notice if you sometimes use one format, sometimes the other.

He will. So will a veteran contest judge. Pick a convention and stick with it.

But I wouldn’t fret over it too much. This honestly isn’t as burning a debate amongst agents and editors as many aspiring writers seem to think — and definitely nowhere near the snarling division so many online sources were claiming it was ten yeas ago. But as always: check before you submit.

And be open to the possibility — remember, I already advised you to sit down — that you may need to submit your manuscript formatted one way for a single agent on your list, and another for the other nineteen. That needn’t worry you at the querying stage, of course, but it might affect the order in which you will want to submit your work if, say, four of them ask to see your manuscript.

Hey, you’re busy, too, right? And it’s not as though what I’ve been suggesting throughout this series isn’t going to require setting aside some time to tinker with your manuscript. I realize that if you already have a full manuscript formatted in any other way, the very notion of applying all of these rules may seem intimidating.

Which is, if you will excuse my saying so, an awfully good reason to get into the laudable habit of writing your manuscripts in standard format from the get-go — in the long run, it will save you time to be consistent about applying the rules. It’s a very sensible long-term investment in your writing career, after all. Literally every page you will be showing to your future agent or editor will need to look like this; why not use the opportunity to practice the rules until they are imbedded into your very bones?

That, too, I shall leave you to ponder; I recognize that it’s a commitment. But doesn’t your good writing deserve the best possible presentation you can give it? Keep up the good work!

Queryfest X: all of these questions aren’t burning you out on querying, are they?

How are you faring, Queryfest participants? (I was on the cusp of dubbing you Queryfesters, but the image the word evoked was a trifle distasteful. An editor never stops thinking about how words will scan on a page, as well as what they mean and how they might sound spoken aloud.) Are your queries looking bright, shiny, and relatively free of the straightforward errors and omissions that dog the garden-variety letter to agents?

Or — and please be honest with me; I can take it — is your original query concept now hanging in tatters, wafting in the wind, mournfully longing for the day when it felt ready to stride out the door and into Millicent the agency’s screener’s overflowing inbox, blithely unaware of just how stiff the competition is there?

Oh, those of you who felt this way thought you were alone? Actually, it’s a pretty common response to realizing for the first time that in the publishing world, every syllable of everything a writer submits is a writing sample. There’s no such thing, then, as a successful query that’s just kinda close to what Millicent has been trained to seek, nor is just hitting every point on an agency’s posted querying guidelines generally sufficient.

I feel an aphorism coming on: while those new to querying often presume that the query is just a formality, composed of a series of hoops through which an aspiring writer must jump, and that their writing will not be judged until an agent requests and receives manuscript pages, that is simply not how the system works. For the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers out there, the query letter is literally the only sample of their writing anyone at the agency will read.

To put it another way, in order to get an agent (or editor, at a small publisher) to read any of your manuscript at all, you will first have to convince her to do so. Querying and pitching are your only options to do that politely — and frankly, most writers’ conferences that allow pitching are quite expensive. As querying is the lower-cost option, a good agent’s inbox, either tangible or virtual, constantly overflows with missives from aspiring writers.

A good half of those communications will be so unprofessionally put together, poorly written, and/or missing crucial pieces of information — the type of book it is, for instance — that Millicent the agency screener will be able to tell at a glance that her boss, the agent, will not be interested. Another third will be better written and contain most or all of the necessary elements, but will arrive at agencies that just don’t represent that kind of book. (Yes, really — you’d be astonished at how few queriers seem to research agents before hitting SEND.)

Then there’s that top 17% or so, the conscientious writers that have taken the time to learn something about how agencies actually work. Their queries tend to be aimed at agents who represent books like theirs, at least, but they often undersell their own stories by trying to make them sound too much like a recent bestseller. Or mystify Millicent by not indicating a book category at all. Or even — sacre bleu! — inadvertently make themselves look unprofessional by adopting an inappropriately informal tone (Hi, George. Looking for solid memoirs by self-made businesspeople — well, have I got a book for you!), engaging in a generic hard sell instead of demonstrating the book’s market appeal (This is the next Great American novel, and you’d be a fool to pass up your chance to get in on the ground floor of what’s sure to be a blockbuster series!, or making claims that reveal they’ve just not bothered to do very much research about what books like theirs are gracing bookstore shelves these days (This is the only novel ever written about a woodcarver’s deep love of his craft, a devotion so profound that his pieces seem alive to him.)

“Yeah, right!” Millicent chortles, reaching for the omnipresent stack of form-letter rejections. “Hey, Geppetto, ever heard of an obscure book called PINOCCHIO?”

I sensed at least 5% of you shifting in your seats. “Gracious, Anne,” the time-strapped cry, clutching their suddenly pale cheeks. “I get that it’s in my best interest to pick a book category and target only agents who represent it, but what makes you think I have TIME to keep up with all of the latest publications in my chosen genre? It took me years to carve out the requisite hours to write my manuscript/draft my book proposal, and having to query at all, much less construct a synopsis, is eating great big holes into my revision time. Isn’t it more important to write a good book than to figure out how to sell it to an agent?”

Well, yes and no, pale clock-watchers. Yes, your chances of getting published are substantially higher if you have written a good book, but that alone is not sufficient endeavor to land an equally good agent for it — a fact which, unfortunately, most first-time writers of good books don’t figure out until they have been querying for a while.

Often not even then. Hands up, everyone who has heard a rejected fellow writer complain that the publishing world just isn’t ready for his book — that it’s too revolutionary, uses language too well, presents an entirely new spin on human relationships, exposes a secret unlike any that has been seen on the printed page before, etc. Keep those hands in the air if, upon subsequent questioning, you discovered that this paragon of literature got rejected at the query stage, rather than as a submission. And wave those hands mightily if you said, either to yourself or to the huffy writer, “Excuse me, Ambrose, but if all the agent saw was your query, how could your startling insights, blistering prose, and/or trenchant analysis of the human condition have been the reason she rejected it? Mightn’t the problem have been, you know, the query?”

Because I love you people, I’m not going to ask those of you who have been the Ambrose in this situation to raise your hands. You know who you are.

I am, however, going to ask Ambrose and those who happen to be personally fond of him to take a moment to ponder the possibilities here. Far too many talented aspiring writers assume that the only reasons their queries could have been rejected is some problem with the book: the story’s not marketable enough, publishers stopped buying chick lit two years ago, the protagonist sounds like a downer, etc. Accordingly, they become discouraged — what would be the point of continuing to query a rejected book? — and just give up.

I get why giving up on querying might be tempting — honestly, I do. However, there’s no denying that the book that isn’t particularly marketable today may well be next year, or even next month; keeping a weather eye on recent releases could help you there. It’s also undoubtedly true that agents’ tastes often change over time, as do agencies’ plans for where they want to place their focus, so the agency that rejected your last book flat might well be interested in your next. And let’s face it, where one agent (or, more likely, his Millicent) does not see market potential, another will, but you’re not going to find that out unless you persevere.

Then, too, if your query lands on the wrong desk, no matter how great the book in question is, or even how beautifully the query is written, it doesn’t stand a chance, right? The same principle applies if you approach the wrong agent within an agency; since the standard etiquette dictates that a writer may query only one, it honestly is worth doing your homework first. You can also kiss that agent goodbye– and you wouldn’t believe how common this is — if you queried the perfect agent too soon after you finished writing the book, before you’ve had an opportunity to go back over it with the proverbial fine-toothed revision comb.

You were aware, right, that you’re only supposed to query any given agent once with any given writing project? Oh, Millicent turnover is so rapid these days that it’s unlikely that the same human being will screen your query two years apart, but if you realize three months hence that Chapter 2 contains a huge continuity problem, sending a repeat query isn’t likely to revivify your prospects at that agency.

As frequently as Millicent sees all of these faux pas — especially the one about beginning to query too soon: now that many agencies allow queriers to include the first few pages in their query packets, it’s apparent far earlier in the process who has and has not taken the time to re-read or even proofread her work — there’s one that crosses her desk even more. I am referring, of course. to the query that reads exactly like 30 others she has read that day, for the exceedingly simple reason that there’s a template out there that 31 of the day’s queriers heard somewhere was sure-fire.

Trust me on this one: a personalized query will stand out in that crowd — and one that sounds remotely like you’ve done some reading of recent releases in your chosen book category will practically bring tears of relief to Millicent’s weary eyes. Returning to our query troubleshooting list…

(25) Is it clear from my query that I’m familiar with recent releases like mine? Even better, do I sound as though I have picked this agent based upon that familiarity?
This may seem like a subtle one from the writer’s side of the querying relationship, but on the query page, it’s often painfully obvious if the querier is thinking of both his book and his query list in generic terms: he has a book to sell, and agents sell books for writers, so any agent who sells remotely similar books will do, right?

Wrong. No agent represents every kind of fiction — and certainly not every conceivable kind of memoir. Actually, although it may be hard to tell this from a brief blurb in an agency guide, it’s relatively rare for agents not to specialize within a particular book category. And I’m not just talking about an agent’s preference for Highland romance over romances set in Ancient Rome, either: these people often like to see particular types of sentence describing those lads and lassies. As will soon be apparent if you take the time to go to a bookstore, pull recent books by three or four of the agent’s clients of the shelves, and read a few opening pages.

Research, my dears, research; there’s just no substitute for it — and the more specifically you can show the fruits of that research, the better. Why, you ask? In the interest of inculcating good writing habits, instead of telling you, I shall show you.

Let’s say, for the sake of example, that Desperate Togetpublishedson has written a YA novel set against the backdrop of the highly competitive junior show jumping circuit, a sterling piece of literature entitled NEVER SAY NEIGH. Let’s further assume that Desperate wants to query Literate McSalesperson, an agent with a long-established track record of selling books about horses and the preteens who love them.

That’s a great choice, probably based upon some solid research on who’s selling books like Desperate’s these days. But Literate’s Millicent would never know it from a query that opened like this:

Because you represent YA aimed at young girls, I hope you will be interested in my novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

That’s not bad, but Desperate’s honest-to-goodness market research doesn’t really shine here, does it? The bit about Literate’s representing YA for young girls could have been gleaned by the most cursory glance at one of the standard agency guides — or even a simple web search. (And news flash: most YA is aimed at young girls; they tend to read more than young boys.)

Let’s take a peek at what happens if our Desperate decides to be a trifle more specific.

I read in Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents that you were “looking for YA with strong female protagonists.” My novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH, definitely fits the bill: it’s about a young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

Better, isn’t it? If a trifle literal-minded: does the direct quote of what anyone in the industry would consider a fairly generic preference honestly help the case here? And does it really matter where Desperate picked up this information? A less pedantic presentation of the same information would make the same point without — please forgive my putting it this way, but it is how Millicent would think of it — sounding as though Desperate had read somewhere that he should include a reason for approaching Literate, but couldn’t come up with anything specific?

Calm down, Desperate, and try it again. Literate isn’t really looking for citations here.

Since you represent YA with strong female protagonists, you may be interested in my novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. It’s the story of a young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

Ah, that’s nice — but if Desperate actually did go to the trouble of tracking down some other books Literate represented, that professional-level effort is not apparent here. Citing a specific book would leave no doubt on the matter. It’s an especially nice touch to bring up a first-time author’s title, underscoring that Desperate has done the requisite research to realize that Literate does take a chance on a new voice from time to time. (Not a foregone conclusion in the agenting world, by the way; it’s worth your while to check.)

Since you so ably represented Debuty de Firsttimer’s HOW AM I EVER GOING TO CLIMB INTO THAT SADDLE? I hope you will be interested in my YA novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. It’s the story of a strong, determined young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

“But Anne!” the literal-minded cry, and who can blame you? “That nifty bit about the strong protagonists fell out of this version! Since Literate feels strongly enough about that preference to have mentioned it in her guide listing, shouldn’t Desperate bring it up?”

Ah, but Desperate did bring it up — by depicting his protagonist as strong, rather than just saying she was. Nifty trick, eh?

Do be certain, though, that any book you cite actually is comparable to yours. Don’t stray outside your book’s category, or you’ll defeat the purpose here. I hate to show a bad example, just in case blog-skimmer out there decides to copy it under the assumption that I meant it as a guide (oh, you’d be astonished at some of the comments I get from people who don’t read carefully), but as Desperate has been generous to make this mistake first, I’d like you to benefit from his sad experience.

Since you handled science fiction writer Outta Myleague’s extraordinary debut, THIS STORY HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUNG GIRLS OR HORSES, I am writing you in the hope that you will be willing to represent my YA novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH, the story of a strong, determined young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

“Excuse me?” Millicent cries. “Do you not understand the term science fiction? Why on earth would an agent interested in one book want to read the other?”

Good question, Millie. Unfortunately, you’ve already rejected Desperate’s query, so I doubt you’re going to have the opportunity to discuss the matter with him anytime soon.

Do all of those glazed eyes out there indicate that some of you are frantically searching through your memories, trying to recall tidbits you have read about various agents and the books they have represented? Excellent. I have a bit more to say about how you might turn that information to your advantage, but in order to give you all some processing time, I’m going to veer our discussion back toward matters more technical.

(26) If I intend to submit this query to agents based in the United States, have I used ONLY US-spellings throughout my query packet? Or U.K. spellings, if I am sending it there or to Canada?
Hey, I told you the next one was going to be technical. While honour, judgement, and centre are perfectly correct in some places in the English-speaking world, they are incorrect in the US, just as honor, judgment, and center are on the other side of the pond, or even north of the border. And while your spell-checker may not find fault with either version, a New York-based Millicent is going to take one look at the former and say, “Great. Now some poor soul is going to have to comb through this manuscript, changing everything to U.S. spellings.”

I hate to burst any bubbles currently floating outside U.S. borders, but the publishing world’s opinion is united about who that poor soul should be: the writer. Who, let’s face it, might not be all that happy about the prospect. So in practice, when a query turns up here with U.K. or Canadian spellings, it says to Millicent, “Hi! If you ask to see this manuscript, not only will your finely-tuned editorial sense have you longing to correct the spelling every other page, but if your boss falls in love with the writing, she will have to have a rather unpleasant conversation with the writer.”

Yes, I am saying what you think I am, far-flung writers: if you’re planning to write for the American market, Millicent will expect you to use U.S. spellings in your query. Her boss is going to insist that you alter every single instance in your manuscript, anyway, so why not beat the Christmas rush and do it now?

You’re quite right — it’s annoying, but honestly, Millicent and her ilk have a point here. While books that have already hit the big time in the U.K. or Canada are routinely available in their original forms here, the original publication site dictates what is considered proper. Since a previously-unpublished manuscript with U.K. spellings would have to be altered before it could be released in the U.S. market, can you blame an agent for considering such a manuscript not ready for circulation to domestic agents?

At the query stage, though, the presumption of further revision’s being needed is not the only danger. You don’t want Millicent to think that you just don’t know how to spell, do you, oh centred, honourable person of sound judgement?

The same principle applies in reverse, of course: tailor your query and submission to what will look right to your intended audience, the agent, based upon where he resides. If you’re a Yank approaching a U.K.-based agent, you’ll be better off conforming to his view of the English language. (Unless, of course, you happen to be an American celebrity — then, your oddball spellings will be part of your complicated charm.)

Ready to start talking about books like yours again? Dandy.

(27) When I mentioned the book category in the first paragraph of my query, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?
Queriers new to the game often believe, mistakenly, that claiming that their books are so completely original, so unlike anything else currently for sale to the English-reading public, that even trying to squeeze them into one of the conceptual boxes provided by the industry would undersell their originality. Instead, these well-meaning souls just make up their own categories with names like Hilarious Western Romance with a Futuristic Feel to It or Time-Travel Thriller with Magical Realist Elements.

They think — again, mistakenly — that such descriptors are helpful to agents. How could being more specific than the average bookseller’s shelving system be bad?

In quite a number of ways, actually. To name but two, mythical book categories are unprofessional, and using them betrays a misunderstanding of why agents want to see them in query letters: to figure out whether the book presented is the kind that they currently want to sell. Also, an aspiring writer who clearly knows that she’s supposed to name a book category but tries to wiggle around it is playing rules lawyer, not a strategy likely to convince Millicent and her boss that she’s the type who just loves following directions without a fight.

Do it because they say so. If you’re at a loss about how to go about narrowing down the choices, please see the HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY section on the archive list at right.

“Can’t make me!” some rebels shout. “No one’s going to put my book in a conceptual box.”

That’s quite true: no one can force an aspiring writer to commit to a book category — at least before she’s signed with an agent, of course. Agents make their clients commit all the time. In fact, it’s not all that unusual for an agent to accept a new project as one category, ask for targeted revisions, then pitch it to editors as a different category.

A book category is nothing but a — wait for it — conceptual box, after all, a marketing label used to get a manuscript to the people who represent and sell similar books. So a categorical (so to speak) refusal to allow your work to be labeled at the query stage isn’t going to impress anybody familiar with how books are sold in this country.

Especially not Millicent — and especially if she happens to open your query at an inopportune moment.

Don’t believe me? Okay, picture this: Millicent’s subway train from her tiny apartment in Brooklyn that she shares with four other underpaid office workers has broken down, so she has arrived at work half an hour late. There’s an agency-wide meeting in an hour, and she needs to clear her desk of the 200 query letters that came yesterday, in order to be ready for the 14 manuscripts her boss is likely to hand her at the meeting. (Starting to read like a word problem in a math class, isn’t it?) After she has speed-read her way through 65 of the queries, a kind co-worker makes a Starbucks run. Just before Millicent slits open your query (#126), she takes a big gulp of much-needed caffeine — and scalds her tongue badly.

Oh, as though long-time readers of this blog didn’t see that coming.

Your query with its fanciful pseudo book category is now in her hand. What is she more likely to do, to humor your reluctance to place your book in the traditional conceptual box, as her boss will require her to do if she recommends picking you up as a client, or to shrug, say, “Here’s another one who doesn’t understand how the business works,” and move on to the next envelope?

Blistered tongue or not, do you really want to bait her? More to the point, is it really in your best interest to bait her?

If you’re absolutely, positively convinced that it would be an outrage upon the very name of truth to commit your novel to any one category, PLEASE don’t make up a hyphenate like Western-Vampire Romance-How-to, in order to try to nail it with scientific precision. In a pinch, if your novel doesn’t fall clearly into at least a general category, just label it FICTION and let the agent decide.

Provided, of course, that you are querying an agent who routinely represents fiction that does not fit neatly into any of the major established categories. I definitely wouldn’t advise this with, say, an agent who represents only romantica or hard-boiled mysteries.

But whatever you do, avoid cluttering up your query letter, synopsis — or indeed, any communication you may have with an agent or editor prior to clutching a signed contract with them in your hot little hand — with explanations about how your book transcends genre, shatters boundaries, or boldly goes where no novel has gone before.

Even if it’s true. Perhaps especially if it’s true.

Yes, such a speech makes a statement, but probably not the one the writer intends. Here’s how it translates into agent-speak: “This writer doesn’t know how books are sold.”

(28) Have I listed my credentials well in my platform paragraph? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?
I’m going to be revisiting the platform paragraph in more detail in a future post, but here’s the short version: if you have any background that substantially aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query.

Period. Even your camp trophy for woodworking can be a selling point, in the proper context. Ditto with any publication, anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether you were paid for writing it. A publication is a publication is a publication.

But truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. To professional eyes, these too are what I like to call ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy).

If you are a member of a regularly-meeting critique group, feel free to mention that as well, although this one is less effective than it used to be 10 or 20 years ago. (The Internet has spawned some pretty wacky writers’ groups, and Millicent knows it.) Anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include, though.

If you don’t have anything you feel you can legitimately report here, don’t stretch the truth; writers who do this almost invariably get caught in the long run. (The same holds true for queriers who include recommendations from people who didn’t actually recommend them, by the way.) Just leave out this paragraph. Unless, of course, you happen to be trying to find an agent or editor for a nonfiction work. Which brings me to…

(29) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a Millicent in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?
A platform, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the background that renders a nonfiction author qualified to write a particular book. Consequently, “What’s the author’s platform?” is pretty much always the first question either an agent or an editor will ask about any nonfiction book.

Which means, in practice, that a nonfiction query that does not make its writer’s platform absolutely clear and appealing will practically always be rejected. And yes, you do need to satisfy this criterion if your nonfiction field happens to be memoir.

I know, I know: it’s self-evident that a memoirist is the world’s leading authority on his own life, but as I’ve mentioned before, a memoir is almost invariably about something other than the author’s sitting in a room alone. If your memoir deals with other subject matter, the platform paragraph of your query letter is the ideal place to make the case that you are an expert on that.

(30) Have I made any of the standard faux pas, the ones about which agents complain early and often?
I like to think of this as a primary reason to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are some of the best places on earth to collect massive lists of the most recent additions to agents and editors’ pet peeves. I’ve been going through most of the major ones throughout this series, but some of them can be quite itty-bitty.

Referring to your book as a fiction novel, for instance, is invariably on the top of every agent’s list; in point of fact, all novels are fiction, by definition. A nonfiction memoir, a real-life memoir, a true memoirand nonfiction based on a true story, as well as permutations on these themes, are all similarly redundant.

Just don’t do it. If you thought Millicent was in a bad mood after she burned her tongue, trust me, you don’t want to see how she reacts to that memoir based on something that really happened to me.

Waffling about the book category is also a popular Millicent-irritant, as are queries longer than a single page, including promotional blurbs from people of whom the agent has never heard (Delphine Margason says this is the most moving book about figure skating she’s ever read!), or — chant it with me now, folks — ANY mention of the book’s potential for landing the author on a show hosted by someone like Oprah. Or Jon Stewart. Or Stephen Colbert. Or Charlie Rose.

Or…well, you get the picture.

Violating any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread. Especially the last; the average screener at a major NYC agency could easily wallpaper her third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn seven times over with query letters that make this claim — and I’m talking about ones that fell onto her desk within the last month.

Believe it or not, we still haven’t run through all of the common Millicent-irritants out there — and we have barely begun taking a serious gander at examples of what does and doesn’t work on the query page. Join me next time for more on these exciting topics, and, of course, to keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXIV, structural repetition, part II, or, are these concurrent series starting to get out of hand?

No, that image isn’t doctored — that’s a quick snapshot I took today of my garden’s first summer poppy. Eat your heart out, Georgia O’Keeffe.

I wasn’t playing hooky in the garden, honest; I was prowling my flowerbeds for bright, arresting color to illustrate our topic du jour. What, after all, would remind a self-editing writer more of structural repetition — the phenomenon of a writer’s falling in love with a certain kind of sentence and consequently over-using it throughout a manuscript — than a flower that might attract a passing motorist’s attention from half a block away?

“But Anne,” metaphor enthusiasts throughout the writing world protest, “I don’t get it. How are these two apparently unrelated things akin?”

That’s a perfectly legitimate question from a writerly point of view, metaphor-huggers, but from an editorial perspective, the connection is self-evident: both seem to leap out at the observer. To most of us who read manuscripts for a living, a manuscript that keeps recycling sentence structures, pet phrases, or even individual words might as well be covered with flashing neon signs.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here is a page stuffed to the gills with one of the more common types of repetition, the over-use of proper nouns in general and character names in particular. I’ve made the image a trifle larger than usual, to render the pattern easier to spot.

In fact, you don’t even have to read the text to notice it: stand up, back away from your computer until you can’t make out individual words, then walk slowly toward the screen. Ready, set — observe!

All of those Js and Ps were the first thing you saw on your return trip, were they not? A sharp-eyed pro like Millicent the agency screener would have that reaction scanning the page at a normal reading distance.

Now let’s take a gander at how the visual problem is exacerbated if the sentence structure is also repetitious. To render this tortured page even more likely to annoy our Millie, I’ve selected a common construction in the passive voice.

Quite a bit less amusing to read, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be at all astonished if you were tempted not to read it all the way to the end — although the page was not in fact made up entirely of it was X and it was as though sentences, it certainly began to feel like it by halfway down the page, didn’t it?

A trained eye would be drawn immediately toward those repeated patterns — and thus away from other aspects of the text a savvy writer might want a professional reader like our old pal Millicent to notice instead, such as the compelling storyline, the interesting characters, and/or the overall beauty of the writing. Because repetition in general and structural repetition in particular are so very common in submissions, Millicent and her ilk not only find it distracting; they tend to regard it a symptom of both a small authorial vocabulary and — you’re sitting down, I hope? — weak writing.

On the off chance that I’m being too subtle here: you might want to think twice about incorporating much repetition into your preferred authorial voice. Especially in your opening pages — which, lest we forget, folks who screen manuscripts for a living are prone to regard, rightly or not, as representative of the writing in the rest of the manuscript.

To put it rather less gently: if the sentence structure and vocabulary on page 1 don’t show much variation, Millicent’s unlikely to keep reading until page 50 to find out whether these traits are consistent features of the author’s chosen voice. Heck, she probably won’t turn to page 2 to confirm that suspicion.

It’s hard to blame her, given the provocation. As we saw in the second example, even when the word choices vary enough to keep things moderately interesting, it’s simply more tiring to read the same kind of sentence over and over than to read text where the form varies more.

That’s true, incidentally, regardless of the subject matter: even an inherently fascinating topic can quickly be rendered stultifying by the simple expedient of writing about it in structurally similar sentences. Repetitive phraseology can render even the most exciting, conflict-ridden scene quite a bit less nail-biting than its activity level should dictate. That’s true, surprisingly, even if the chosen structure is quite complex.

Did my reuse of the that’s true + adverb structure bug you more in that last paragraph, or the recycling of even? By this point, I would hope that neither escaped your attention.

Back to the principle at hand: let’s observe the soporific effect of a more complicated repeated structure in action. So I don’t plunge all of you into a deep, refreshing slumber, I shan’t subject you to an entire page of it.

Obviously, no one plans to crash a motorcycle into the side of a cross-town bus, but that is precisely what Barnaby did. Fortunately, he was wearing his inflatable jumpsuit, saving him from significant injury, but clearly, his morning was not going to be a smooth one. Resignedly, he collected his scattered belongings, including the small thermonuclear device he later planned to smuggle into the state dinner, but he could not resist cursing under his breath.

Something tells me that a scene with stakes this high could have been written about in a slightly more compelling manner. There’s more to good storytelling, after all, than just getting all of the facts down on the page. To see why this is true, we need look no farther than the early reader books of our youth.

You know the type, right? See Spot run. See Spot bite Dick. See Dick shiv Jane. Stab, Dick, stab.

Dull, from an adult perspective, weren’t they? But dull with a purpose: part of their point was to encourage new readers to recognize letter patterns as particular words. Varying the sentence structure enough to render the insipid story interesting to more advanced readers would merely have distracted from the task at hand.

So we were treated to the same sentence structure for what seemed like the entire book. I have a distinct memory of taking my kindergarten copy of FROG FUN home from school (Hop, frog, hop. Hop, hop, hop: hardly Thackeray), reading a two pages of it to my father, and both of us deciding simultaneously that no self-respecting human being would keep slogging through that much narrative repetition. He wrote a very amusing little note to my teacher about it.

Suffice it to say that my teacher quickly learned to send me to the library for alternate reading material. And stopped teaching kindergarten shortly thereafter. I’m told that she still winces whenever she sees a frog.

It’s even easier to make Millicent wince — at any given moment, her to-read pile overfloweth with submissions that, if not as word-repetitious as FROG FUN, have fairly obviously not been carefully revised with an eye to sentence variation. That’s a pity, because when a professional reader sees a manuscript that uses the same sentence structure or the same few verbs use over and over, the specters of Dick, Jane, and Spot seem to rise from the page, moaning, “This is not very sophisticated writing!”

Why? Well, when one’s eye is trained to note detail, it’s doesn’t take much redundancy to trigger a negative reaction.

In fact, a good professional reader will often catch a repetition the first time it recurs — as in the second time something is mentioned in the text. It’s not unheard-of for an editorial memo to contain an angry paragraph about the vital necessity to curb “your inordinate fondness for” phrase X when phrase X shows up only three or four times in the entire manuscript.

As in over the course of 382 pages. Had I mentioned that we pros are trained to be extremely sensitive to redundancy?

Imagine, then, how much more annoying they find it when every third sentence begins with a structure like, Blinking, Sheila backed away or George was…” or the ever-popular, As she was doing X, Y happened.

That last one caught you a bit off guard, didn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised: if an alien from the planet Targ were to base its understanding of human life solely upon the frequency with which protagonists in first novels do something while something else occurs, it would be forced to conclude that humanity is doomed to perpetual multitasking. Either that, or it would surmise that the space-time continuum is somehow compressed by the mere fact of someone’s writing about it.

Oh, you laugh, but how else could the poor visitor to our solar system possibly interpret a passage like this?

As Monique turned the corner, she spotted Clarence. He dodged as she came up to him. While he was looking for someplace convenient to hide, she calmly unearthed a crossbow from her purse.

Aiming, she cleared her throat. “The jig’s up, Clarence.”

That’s quite a bit of activity happening simultaneously — and quite a few logically similar sentence structures shouldering one another for prominence. But contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact that two things occurred at the same time is not particularly interesting to most readers. Unless the simultaneity of the motions in question is crucial to the reader’s understanding what’s going on, as and while can be awfully easy to overuse.

How so? Well, let me put it this way: if our imaginative little run-in with the Targian had not tipped you off in advance, would you have noticed that there were two things going on contemporaneously in every sentence in that last example?

If so, you’re certainly not alone: most aspiring writers — i.e., the folks who have not yet had the professional opportunity to hear an editor go on a tirade about it — would not see a problem with that excerpt. Millicent, however, would, and that’s likely to spark some rather unpleasant consequences at submission time.

So how might a savvy reviser rearrange that passage so as to leave her eyebrows mercifully unraised? Vary the sentence structure — and cut out any extraneous activity. While you’re at it, reserve as for those relatively rare occasions when it’s imperative that the reader be made aware that things happened at the same time. The result might look a little bit like this:

Monique strode around the corner, surprising Clarence so much that he dropped his bullwhip. While he was looking for someplace convenient to hide, she calmly unearthed a crossbow from her purse.

Carefully, she took aim at his Adam’s apple. “The jig’s up, my friend.”

The contrast between this version and the previous one is pretty stark, is it not? To repetition-sensitive eyes, a page filled with structural and word repetition is like badly-done CGI in movies, where battle scenes between thousands of characters are created by filming 50 extras flailing at one another, copying that image, and plastering it seventeen times across the scene, perhaps alternated with two or three other images of the same actors in different positions. Honestly, to those of us who count patterns for a living, that level of repetition can be downright migraine-inducing.

“Wait just a nit-picking minute, Anne!” I hear some conscientious revisers exclaiming. “English grammar only permits so many ways of arranging sentences properly. Isn’t any manuscript going to exhibit a certain amount of pattern repetition, necessarily?”

Yes, of course — but that does not give writers carte blanche to use the same structures back-to-back, or to utilize a favorite complex sentence form twice per page. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s not as though your garden-variety writer is repeating herself on purpose: in the vast majority of instances, the writer simply likes a kind of sentence or a particular verb enough to use it often.

You lucky souls, however, are going to be one up on that kind of writer come revision time, because we’re about to take a run at spotting the phenomenon in its natural habitat. Since last post’s foray into A TALE OF TWO CITIES was so obvious, let’s try a comparatively subtle one on for size.

Rubbing his sides for warmth, Stephen glanced unhappily at his fellow cheerleaders. Waving his pom-poms in a wan impression of good sportsmanship, he reminded himself never to be stupid enough to accept one of his sister’s bets again. Pulling up his flesh-colored tights –- oh, why hadn’t he listened to Brian, who had told him to wear nylons under them on this near-freezing night? – he wondered if Tammy would be vicious enough to demand the performance of the promised splits before the game ended. Sighing, he figured she would.

How did you do? Individually, there is nothing wrong with any given sentence in this paragraph, right? Yet taken communally — as sentences in submissions invariably are — the repetition of the same kind of opening each time starts to ring like a drumbeat in Millicent’s head, distracting her from the actual subject matter, the quality of the writing — and, alas, even the blistering pace you worked so hard to achieve on the page.

That’s not just a voice problem — it’s a marketing problem.

Why? Well, think about it: very, very few agents and editors can afford to work with specialists in a single type of sentence. And don’t start waving random pages ripped from Ernest Hemingway’s oeuvre at me, either: present-day readers expect a narrative with a broad array of sentence structures.

The sad thing is, most of the time, writers don’t even realize that they’re repeating patterns, because unless the repetition bug has really bitten them, the redundancy isn’t in every sentence. Or if it is, the repetition often lies in words or phrases that are similar, but not identical, so the writer does not think of them as the same word. Consider:

Arnold began sweating, sweating as though his sweat glands were going on strike tomorrow. Should he go to the window and throw it open, beginning the cooling-down process? Or should he go downstairs, into the basement, to the cool of the pickle cellar? Or should he wait for the seller on the cooler porch?

Subtle, isn’t it? Sometimes, the structures a writer favors may be common enough in themselves that she would need to read her pages IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch the problem. As in:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted, “because I had no reason.”

“But you did take it,” Edmund shot back, “because you needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Claire’s eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it, since you don’t know her.”

These three lines of dialogue feature different words, of course, but they sport identical structures. This may not seem like a serious problem on any given page, but once a professional reader notices a manuscript exhibiting this kind of repetition a couple of times, she will simply assume — feel free to sing along; you should know the words by now — that the pattern will recur throughout the manuscript.

How does s/he know, you ask? Experience, my dears, experience. How many horror films did you have to see before you realized that the monster/killer/Creature from the Black Lagoon wasn’t really dead the first time it appeared to be?

Go back and re-read that last example out loud: did you notice how similar those three paragraphs sound in the mouth — almost as though they were not the words of two different speakers? The repetitive structure here makes Claire and Edmund speak in essentially the same rhythm, as though they were echoes of the same voice. (Which, from an authorial point of view, they are.)

When two characters speak in the same rhythm, it mutes the conflict between them a little — not to mention making it harder for the reader to follow the dialogue. Check out how varying the sentence structure ramps up the tension between them, even in an excerpt this short:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted. “I had no conceivable reason.”

“You lie,” Edmond shot back. “You needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it, me bucko, since you don’t know her.”

“Aha! I knew you were concealing a pirate past!”

“I ought to keel-haul you.” Sullenly, she removed her eye patch. “What gave me away, the parrot?”

Nifty, eh? That, in case you were wondering, is the kind of character development benefit a writer is likely to derive from reading her work OUT LOUD. I just mention.

But a writer need not only pay attention to how many times he’s using the same words or similar sentence structures in back-to-back sentences, but also on any given page, or even over the course of a scene. Let’s take a look at how non-consecutive repetition might play out in practice.

As the car door opened, Beatrice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Harold’s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Harold, back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary.

My, but our examples are violent today. To most self-editors, this paragraph would not seem especially problematic. However, to a professional reader, it contains two of the most commonly-repeated structures, our old friends, the While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was Z…. Standing alone as individual sentences, either form is perfectly valid; the problem arises when either appears too frequently on the page. To a professional reader, this is how the paragraph above would scan:

As the car door opened, Beatrice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Harold’s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Harold, back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary.

See how even spread-out repetition jumps off the page, once you’re sensitized to it? Millicent (and her boss, and the editors at the publishing house across the street, and even the average contest judge after reading the first handful of entries) is so attuned to it that she might not even have made it as far as the end of the paragraph.

To use the most overworked word in her vocabulary: “Next!”

Of course, you may strike lucky: your submission may be read by a screener who hasn’t been at it very long, a contest judge brand-new to the game, or an agent whose tolerance for pattern repetition is unusually high. Heck, your work may even land on the desk of that rara avis, the saint who is willing to overlook some minor problems in a manuscript if the writer seems to have promising flair. In any of these cases, you may be able to put off winnowing out pattern repetition until after the book is sold to an editor — who is most unlikely to be so forgiving.

Do you honestly want to gamble on Millicent’s possible saintliness at the submission stage?

Because editorial response to this kind of repetition tends to be so strong — I wasn’t kidding about those migraines — you would be well advised to check your first chapter, especially your opening page, for inadvertent pattern repetitions. (Actually, since quick-skimming pros tend to concentrate upon the openings of sentences, you can get away with just checking the first few words after every period, in a pinch. But you didn’t hear that from me.)

The most straightforward way to do this is to sit down with five or ten pages of your manuscript and a number of different colored pens. Highlighters are dandy for this purpose. Mark each kind of sentence in its own color; reserve a special color for nouns and verbs that turn up more than once per page. You probably already know what your favorite kinds of sentence are, but it would be an excellent idea to pre-designate colors for not only the ever-popular While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was… sentences, but also for the X happened and then Y happened and Gerund Adverb Comma (as in Sitting silently, Hortense felt like a spy.) forms as well.

After you have finished coloring your pages, arrange all of the marked-up pages along some bare and visually uncomplicated surface — against the back of a couch, along a kitchen counter, diagonally across your bed — and take three steps backward. (Sorry, kitty; didn’t mean to step on your tail.)

Does one color predominate? If you notice one color turning up many times per page — or two or three times per paragraph – you might want to think about reworking your structures a little.

If this all seems terribly nit-picky to you, well, it is. But the more you can vary the structure and rhythm of your writing, the more interesting it will be for the reader – and, from a professional perspective, the more it will appeal to educated readers.

Think about it: good literary fiction very seldom relies heavily upon a single sentence structure throughout an entire text, does it?

You know what kinds of books use the same types of sentences over and over? The ones marketed to consumers with less-developed reading skills. If that is your target readership, great — run with the repetitive structure. (Run, Jane, run! Don’t let Dick stab, stab, stab.) But for most adult markets, the industry assumes at least a 10th-grade reading level.

In my high school, Ernest Hemingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA was assigned in the 9th grade. If you catch my drift.

Then, too, agency screeners and editorial assistants typically hold liberal arts degrees from pretty good colleges. That’s a long, long way from the reading level that was contented to watch Dick and Jane running all over the place with Spot and frogs having fun hop, hop, hopping.

Let your structural choices be as exciting as the writing contained within them — and let your voice emerge as more than a repetitive collection of your favorite words and sentences. Incorporate your pet structures and phrases, by all means, but have them appear rarely enough that they will seem like revelations, not just narrative-as-usual.

Above all, keep mixing up those sentence structures. You may be pleasantly surprised at how much interest merely preventing a sentence from reading like the one before it can produce. Keep up the good work!

A trip to the Formatpalooza annex: the stylish section break — the inculcation of some good writing habits

“If only I hadn’t been so polite.” — S.T.C.

Long time no see, eh, campers? Honestly, I’m as surprised as you are: I keep arising each morning fully intending to post. The noon hour sees me already mentally composing practical examples. Hardly an afternoon goes by when I do not glance over at my computer nestled somewhere in the sub-basement of the muses’ palace of fine arts and think, “Okay, just a few minutiae to get through first, my pet, and we’ll be hard at work on that stirring entry on book promotion.” Or querying. Or Frankenstein manuscript-revising.

Then suddenly, it’s late evening, and the clever arguments and cunning demonstrations of applied craft I have been constructing in my head all day come tumbling to the ground. “Oh, that will take me hours to write up properly,” I murmur into my welcoming pillow. “Rather than write something hasty tonight, I’ll take it up tomorrow and zzzzzzz…”

At least, I think that’s what I’ve been murmuring. It’s kind of hard to remember the particulars in the morning.

“My God, Anne,” my learned mother says. “Who raised you? I certainly did not bring you up to go to sleep without jotting writing ideas on the notepad that’s never more than eight inches from your pillow.”

She has a point: she didn’t raise me to set at naught one of the cardinal rules of professional writing. One of the great tangible benefits of growing up in a family of writers and editors is knowing not to fall into the unfortunately common Oh, I’m sure I’ll remember the marvelous idea I have right now in the morning/when I get home/after I dash off this e-mail syndrome: I was trained from the cradle to have a writing implement and paper within tiny arms’ reach at all times, so I could jot down a few notes on that unforgettable idea just in case I forgot it.

Why sew extra pockets into a kid’s clothes for toting around wee notebooks and golf pencils? Because my hyper-literary parents wanted me to have a long and happy creative life, that’s why. As every professional writer in the world can attest to his or her sorrow, it’s never safe to assume that marvelous writing idea that the muses just dropped fully formed into your brainpan will not vanish into the ether within the next fifteen minutes.

Fortunately for the happiness of writers everywhere, few problems inherent to the life literary are as simple to solve as the lost great idea.

Step 1: write it down. Immediately.

Step 2: make sure you always have the means to carry out Step 1.

You needn’t buy a special notebook for the purpose — just get into the habit of carrying some paper and a writing implement in your pocket, purse, backpack, and/or pocket. Install same on your bedside table, in your car, in the pocket of that nasty uniform your inflexible and unimaginative boss makes you wear. (Honestly, does he think that patrons at his bar won’t at least suspect that the person mixing drinks is the bartender if she is not sporting a cheesy uniform?) From this moment forth, you should never be without it.

And I do mean never. If you are about to climb Mount Everest and do not have an extra few square inches for a pen, ask an experienced sherpa to help you repack. Clutch the lapels of the firefighter toting you off to safety until you are actually out of the building, but as soon as you are on non-smoking ground, grab the nearest envelope so you can scrawl a few notes on the back. Your deathbed should have pen and paper within easy reach.

And don’t tell me that you’ll get to it eventually — slip that notebook into your pocket now. Don’t make me bore you with that ghastly tale about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s being interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock” while he was frantically trying to write Kubla Khan. While Coleridge apparently dined out on the story of how that untimely visitor made him forget the rest of the poem he’d already written in his mind, in my family, there was only one verdict about whose fault the loss was.

“He never should have answered the door,” my father would say.

“Not before jotting down a few notes,” my mother would agree.

Small comfort to Coleridge and every other writer who seen a good idea vanish in the face of the demands of quotidian life, naturally, but you’d be surprised at how little sympathy the lost great idea garners among professionals. “Well, why didn’t you write it down?” they will ask the writer, apparently oblivious to the fact she is valiantly choking back tears. “Didn’t you ever hear the story about Coleridge and Kubla Khan?”

Even if you have to grab a passing waiter’s pen from his apron to scrawl a few pertinent words on your hand or shirtsleeve, it honestly is in your best interest — and your next book’s — to get into the salutary habit of writing every fresh idea down right away. Which leads me to the lesser-known third portion of the cardinal rule:

Step 3: accept that performing (1) as often as you should will occasionally bring unfortunate social consequences.

You didn’t think that write down good ideas the instant they occur to you applied only to moments when you happened to be alone, did you? One never knows where inspiration will strike: amazing book ideas have been known to manifest in locales as inconvenient for note-taking as the shower, in the basket of a hot air balloon, on a Tilt-a-Whirl, and at dinners at the White House.

The muses can be most demanding mistresses. Heck, the premise of my last novel came to me while I was floating in an open-air hot tub nestled into the side of a mountain in the Oregon Cascades. I had to hop barefoot past a patch of poison oak to get to my ever-present pen and paper, and you don’t see me complaining.

Actually, once a writer becomes accustomed to noting every good idea for future use, she’s less likely to complain about it than those with whom she elects to spend her time. To that end, you also might want to train your kith and kin to hold their thoughts (and tongues) if — make that when — a brilliant idea strikes you.

Oh, you want, “Just hold off on carving that Thanksgiving turkey for a moment, Uncle Walter, while I write myself some notes,” to be the first your loved ones hear of your new-found good habit? Do you have any idea how many references to Kubla Khan it’s going to take to render that little surprise socially acceptable?

I sense half of you cringing at the very idea of stopping a conversation, dinner, or other things I will leave to your imagination if you are over the age of consent (you’ll understand when you’re older, Timmy) with a blithe, “Oh, excuse me, but Anne Mini says that if I intend to write for a living, I need to get this idea down at least in note form right away. Please feel free to continue without me.” I can understand where it might seem a trifle rude to the uninitiated.

But that’s precisely the point: it comes across as far more impolite to someone who doesn’t already know that serious writers do this. Frequently. It’s how the creative brain works: bursts of inspiration are part of our standard equipment. And the more seriously you take those inspirations, the more active your idea-generator will become.

It’s far, far better if you explain this to your kith and kin before the muses bop you over the head in the middle of that Broadway musical your partner has been dying to see for six months. Trust me on this one; it may seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually kinder that way. The sooner they get used to the idea that befriending a serious writer necessarily entails waiting in more or less supportive silence while you furiously scribble notes on the paper tablecloth in a crowded restaurant, the happier you — and they — will be once you are writing professionally.

Think of it as training for working with an agent or publishing house. Honestly — and I speak from experience here — “Hey, honey, the brand-new editor my publisher has just hired has asked me to come up with a new ending for my novel, pronto, so I’m not going to be able to pay the slightest attention for the next three weeks, okay?” will go over much better if Honey has already accustomed him- or herself to the reality that creativity is often rather inconsiderate about when it strikes.

So, as it happens, are deadlines. Just as there is no convenient time to sprain one’s ankle — again, I speak from experience — there is no really terrific time for a last-minute or rush revision request. Sorry about that.

I’m also sorry about this: no matter when it happens, it’s going to be hard on your loved ones, necessarily. But being the writer too nice to say to those loved ones now, “Look, I cherish our time together, but my writing is important enough that occasionally I will stop dead in the middle of an anecdote to make a note about a scene I want to write later,” is almost invariably equally reluctant to say in a nice, reasonable tone, “Remember how happy you were when I landed that agent? Well, this is the direct result: I need to spend this weekend making the revisions she’s requested,” or even, “Here, take twenty bucks from my rather paltry advance and go to a movie so I may honor the acquiring editor’s demand that I change my protagonist’s best friend’s name from Jolene to Joanne all 300 times it appears in my novel.”

Whenever you do it, it’s going to take some guts. I’m merely suggesting that if your kith and kin are already acclimated to your taking ten minutes out of lunch to scribble feverishly on the back of a menu, they’re less likely to find it unacceptable when you whip out a notebook in the third hour of Cousin Marvin’s testimonial dinner or in the course of the eighth inning of a particularly eventful baseball game. And at least they’ll have some inkling of why your work is important enough to you to cancel that long-planned trip to Disneyland because your editor abruptly got laid off and the new one just hates the chapter about the trip to Disneyland in your book.

Darn. It was going to be tax-deductible as a research expense, too.

Yes, yes, I know: writers tend to be conflict-avoiders. Try to think of getting them used to your ignoring them for two minutes in the middle of a movie as an inoculation — if they have already been exposed to the minor inconvenience, they won’t be made as sick at the onslaught of the major one. Don’t expect them to be thrilled about it, however; just expect them to cope. They’re never going to be thrilled if you spend most of your family reunion in the hotel room, fleshing out that fascinating conflict you’ve just dreamed up between your antagonist and the love interest’s second cousin, but at least it won’t seem out of character.

“Oh, that’s just Mavis,” your significant other/children/long-suffering parent will sigh. “We never know when the muses are going to kidnap her next.”

I would also recommend getting into the excellent habit of keeping a pad of paper by your computer while you are writing and revising, to jot down any inspirations that, while they might not be applicable to the page on your screen, might provide a piquant addition or necessary change to another part of the book. Taking the time to scrawl Did Arlo have a cocker spaniel prior to Chapter 4? on a scrap of paper now can save you the acute embarrassment of realizing that you’ve just sent the agent of your dreams a manuscript in which the dog’s breed is different in Chapters 2, 8, and 17 than it is in Chapter 1.

That’s particularly important if there happens to be more than one dog in the book, of course. “Wait,” Millicent the agency screener exclaims over page 47. “Is Marley the great Dane from page 2, or the Pekinese from Chapter 3? Or is it not a dog at all, but merely a reference to Ebenezer Scrooge’s late partner?”

Yes, readers who have been giggling for the past couple of paragraphs? “Oh, dear Anne,” the gigglers sigh. “You are such a Luddite. In the situation you just described, I would be working on my computer. Surely, that would obviate the need for rifling through the nearest wastepaper basket for a stray envelope. If I want to take notes, I’ll just open a new document and type them.”

I believe that you will, oh gigglers, but frankly, most writers caught up in the throes of one scene wouldn’t pause that long to type up an idea about another while it’s fresh in their minds. They would — sacre bleu! — just assume that they’d still remember that great notion by the time they had finished the current scene.

Think they will? Why take the chance? Jotting a quick note on a stray scrap of paper will take only a few seconds.

The other advantage of recording that idea on paper, rather than on one’s computer, Blackberry, or even in a recording device is that one can leave it sitting next to one’s computer, Blackberry, or recording device, all ready to remind one about that great notion. If you’re like me — and I suspect most writers are, at least in this respect — the very laws of inertia dictate that note written today will still be lying there a month hence, when you have time to get back to the scene you intended to write.

Oh, you tidy up your writing space every day? My good pile is almost as tall as the container holding the pens I used to write them.

If that same idea is memorialized electronically, by contrast, you have to remember to reopen that file or listen to that recording. Unless you are in the habit of regularly reviewing your computer files, that may not happen before you finish your current draft. You might not even stumble across it again — avert your eyes, children; this is going to be ugly — before you pop the completed draft in the mail to the agent of your dreams.

Isn’t taking a minute to write a note now preferable to bearding the heavens with your bootless cries of, “But I meant to go back and change the dog’s name from Marley to Charley prior to page 150!” later on?

The same principle applies, as I hope all of my regular readers are aware, to remembering technical questions that might arise during the writing or revision processes. Although a few intrepid souls might instantly close their Word programs and fly to this site (or a similar one, or ask a trusted writer friend) within a few seconds after running into an intractable problem, my impression is that most don’t.

And finally, I have managed to build a segue to the topic I had planned to discuss today! I wasn’t kidding about how easy it is to get sidetracked.

One of the many stacks currently threatening to topple over onto my mousing hand holds my To Blog Upon list. While the inspirations there range from the hyper-serious (one note reads blog about the desirability of an unpublished writer’s designating a literary executor in her will) to the practical (how long has it been since I discussed juggling offers from multiple agents?) to the completely frivolous (been overusing dog examples lately — switch to wombats?), many of the most intriguing ideas in this stack are print-outs (on the back sides of already-revised early drafts of my work, of course; reusing is as valuable as recycling) of questions readers have the comments.

(Note to self: all of those parentheses and italics are eye-distracting on the screen. Also, isn’t 93 words too long for a single sentence?)

I reserve a special stack — yes, my desk is precisely as cluttered as you are picturing it to be — for questions that are perfectly logical as follow-ups to formatting or craft issues, but wouldn’t necessarily occur to a professional reader as something that might be puzzling to those who have never seen a professional manuscript in person. When one stares at those pages for a living, one develops an almost visceral sense of what does and does not belong on the page. But how is someone new to the game to develop that sense?

Incisive and thoughtful reader Karin, for instance, raised a marvelous issue that I had overlooked in my Formatpalooza posts on section breaks. (Which were three: a post on the rules governing them, a post containing visual examples, and a post showing section breaks in a book proposal.) Even better, she was polite and charming as she brought it up.

I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time now and find your advice very clear and extremely thorough; thank you for the hours of work you put in trying to help us blind writers see the light of proper formatting and querying.

I have to admit, combing through pages of formatting advice, I may have missed the answer to my question, which, while small, addresses a concern I have on the fifth page of my manuscript, having to do with section breaks. Having turned off widow/orphan control and inserted a space between sections, I find that one section ends on the bottom of a page, which means the beginning of the next section starts after a blank line on the next page. Will professional eyes notice the blank line as a section break, or will it appear sloppy?

As you know, we all get very insecure wondering if these things spell doom for our publishing chances. If you have time, could you please put my fears to rest? Thank you very much!

As my To Blog Upon stack can attest, I get a lot of questions about section breaks. Partially, that seems to be due to the surprisingly pervasive practice among self-styled experts not to differentiate between what is proper to indicate a section break in a book manuscript or proposal (a skipped double-spaced line) and what is appropriate for a short story or article (#).

So before I address Karin’s specific concern, let’s see a properly-formatted section break in action in mid-page. A transition between two scenes in one of H.G. Wells’ social novels will do the trick nicely:

The image came out a trifle on the blurry side — my apologies about that — but the section break is quite clear, is it not? No bells, no whistles: just a skipped line between scenes.

While you have that fuzzy image firmly in mind, let’s take a gander at another rule of standard format that often puzzles those new to the game. Had ol’ H.G. (or whoever is doing his word processing these days) not followed Karin’s example and turned off the widow/orphan control in Word, this page would have had a too-large bottom margin. Like so:

See the problem? This page has fewer lines on it than the previous example, because Word did not want to leave the first line of the final paragraph behind on page 158 when the rest of the paragraph was on page 159.

Millicent, however, like the rest of us who read manuscripts for a living, prefers each page to feature the same number of lines of text. Otherwise, it would be impossible to estimate word count, right?

Including a section break does not run afoul of that preference: in theory, there are the same number of lines per page; the empty space is holding the place of a line of text. Because our Millie knows that a skipped line of text means a section break, she understands that.

But what if the last line of a scene ended on the next-to-last line of the page? The result would be the same number of lines on page 158 as if the widow/orphan control had axed the last line. The next section would begin on the first line of page 159.

Clear enough what’s going on, is it not? Since the subsequent scene would follow on the top line of the next page, Millicent would know that what she has just seen is not a formatting gaffe, but a transition between two separate sections of text.

But what if, as Karin feared, the first scene had ended on the last line of page 158? Should we take her suggestion of pushing the section-differentiating skipped line to the top of page 159? Let’s see what that would look like in practice, shall we?

Looks a trifle silly, doesn’t it? To Millicent’s eyes, it would look like something else: a manuscript that the writer had not bothered to check in hard copy to see how it would print out. “And if the writer didn’t read his work in hard copy before sending it to my boss,” she reasons, “he probably didn’t bother to proofread it, either.”

Not an instant-rejection offense, certainly, but not the impression of how serious you are about your writing that you would prefer she harbor, is it? H.G. has two options here: tinker with the first scene so that it does not end on the last line of the page — or take the chance that Millie will understand that when the first line on the top of page 159 is about a different time, place, and person than the last line on page 158, she might be dealing with a change of scene.

I would opt for trusting her: she’s smart. And honestly, on the page, the situation isn’t all that confusing. Take a gander:

Sometimes, a writer just has to have faith in his readers’ intelligence. Millicents read a heck of a lot of manuscripts, after all: they understand the limitations of standard format.

And if they don’t, they can always write themselves a note as a reminder to find out. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part X: and the screen goes wavy — or is it the type?

My, the metaphorical halls of Author! Author! grew quiet while we were considering the winning entries in the Author! Author! Rings True literary competition. Was that because everyone was so impressed by the high quality of the writing — or so astonished to see what I looked like on film? Or did those of you who stop by regularly for self-editing and marketing tips merely take a pass on checking out posts about other readers’ work?

I hope not, because actually, quite a bit of my commentary on the winning entries concerned precisely the sort of professional readers’ pet peeve that we have been discussing throughout this series. No matter how creative my examples are (and I do try to make them a tad unexpected, as a door prize for those of you dedicated enough to read through my page shots), there’s no better way to see what kinds of gaffes make our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sigh over submissions than to take a gander at good writing that’s not perfectly presented.

I think we can glean three overarching lessons from this. First, no matter how beautifully-written or genre-appropriate a text may be, professional readers will respond to it better if it adheres to the rules of standard format for book manuscripts. There’s a reason I go over standard format a couple of times per year on the blog, people: to Millicent, anything else simply looks wrong. Formatting is not a matter of style, at least at the submission stage; any effort a creative-minded aspiring writer puts into making his manuscript resemble a published book is not only wasted, but a signpost to Millie that he hasn’t done his homework about how the publishing industry works.

Harsh? Perhaps? True? Undoubtedly.

So if you are not familiar with the rigors of standard format, please invest an hour or two in going over the posts in the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right. Even if you think you know the rules, but have never actually beheld a professionally-formatted manuscript, please consider a quick review. And if you still have questions about what your work should look like on the page, please ask.

Yes, it honestly is that important. As we saw in the winning entries, even a small formatting problem can prove very distracting from good writing. I would much, much rather that you post a question in the comments than for you to risk annoying Millicent in a submission.

Second, and closely associated to the first lesson, no matter how lovely the turn of phrase, typos, punctuation problems, and the missing words that so often result from multiple revisions will render prose less effective. It’s significantly harder to catch such faux pas on a computer screen than on the page. There’s just no substitute for proofreading before submission, preferably — feel free to shout it along with me, long-term readers — IN THE TEXT’S ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Third, since formatting and proofreading oversights are the norm, not the exception, in even very good submissions, producing a clean manuscript will give an aspiring writer the advantage of novelty at submission or contest entry time. Believe me, after seeing the same gaffes over and over again, in page 1 after page 1, a properly-formatted manuscript devoid of typos is a genuine relief. The old screeners’ adage that most manuscripts reject themselves honestly is true — and the sad part is that most of those mistakes are 100% avoidable.

Hey, there’s a reason that the pros don’t have qualms about rejecting a manuscript that’s only a quick polish away from being marketable. They assume that aspiring writers capable of creating such pages will be serious enough about their craft to revise, reformat, and try again.

Seriously, it often comes as a surprise to them to hear that a talented writer they’ve rejected has given up — or even moved on to working on her next book. To a professional reader, a rejected project is not dead; it may merely be not ready for the big time yet.

A surprisingly common indicator that a submitter still has a bit to learn: a manuscript that’s formatted like a published book. I’m not just talking about deviations from the norms of standard format or selecting a funky typeface, either — I’m talking about a style choice so common in published fiction that it never occurs to most of the aspiring writers who copy it that it might be problematic in a submission.

I’m talking, in short, of opening a manuscript with a short section in italics.

Was that giant “Huh?” that just shook the trees outside my studio window an indication of surprise or disbelief? “But Anne,” italics-lovers all over the English-speaking world protest, “I see this done in published books all the time.”

Precisely: you also see published books that are single-spaced, printed in wacky typefaces, and have bindings. None of these things are true of properly-formatted manuscripts, for the exceedingly simple reason that professionally-formatted book manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, people who deal with manuscripts for a living tend to start yawning when aspiring writers try to drag them into the pseudo-debate about whether it’s obsolete to hit the space bar twice after a period or colon when typing a manuscript. Invariably, the primary piece of evidence offered is that many published books now omit the second space.

At the risk of being overly prolix in my response, so what?

I can sense that some of you still cling to the belief that what appears in print will necessarily fly in a submission. Okay, let’s take a gander at a representative sample of the kind of italicized opening that lands on Millicent’s desk two or three times per day: italics intended to alert the reader to the fact that the paragraphs in the funny type aren’t in the time, place, and/or mindset of the actual opening scene that follows immediately thereafter.

I didn’t fool you that time, did I? “Okay, Anne,” those of you who followed both this series and the recent prize posts chortle, “I know how this game is played. You’ve been trying to train us to catch Millicent’s pet peeves, so I kept my eye peeled not only for how italics are used here, but for other presentation problems that might have irked her.”

Well reasoned, chortlers. How many of them did you catch? For those of you who did not notice all 10 gaffes, here is the same page with all of the purely formatting problems corrected. (For your comparing-and-contrasting pleasure, I’ve touched nothing else.)

Seeing more of them now? If some of these differences jumped out at you, considering that Millicent stares at manuscript pages all day, every day, how many of them do you think she would spot within the first couple of seconds?

Just to make sure that we’re all on the same page with her, so to speak, let’s go over the purely cosmetic problems FIRST. In the order they appear on the page:

1. The slug line is in different typeface than the text. The slug line is in Arial, the body in Times New Roman.

2. The incorrectly formatted slug line includes author’s first name and middle initial, instead of just the last.

3. The incorrectly formatted slug line has a space between the forward slash and the title. The spacing in a slug line should be continuous: Name/Title/#

4. The incorrectly formatted slug line does not include the page number.

5. The page number is in wrong place on the page. It belongs in the slug line, not on the other side of the page.

6. The page number includes the word page. Although many aspiring writers think this looks nifty, a professionally-formatted manuscript would never include the word.

7. There’s an extra space before first word of paragraph 2. Yes, Virginia, most Millicents would catch that in either a hard or soft copy submission.

8. There’s only a single space between each period and beginning of the next sentence, while there are two after every other period. This kind of inconsistency is a common result of confusion over the great one space/two space debate. There is no single right answer here: some agents prefer a single space, although the industry standard is still two; check each agency’s submission guidelines before you submit. If they do not mention preferring the single space, use two. Whichever you pick, however, be 100% consistent about spacing throughout the manuscript.

9. At the beginning of the last paragraph, a number under 100 is expressed as a numeral, rather than being written out as a word.

10. In the final line of the page, there are two spaces between thrown and herself. To a professional reader, this is a dead giveaway that the submitter did not proofread in hard copy.

Quite a lot of eyebrow-raisers for such an innocent-looking page of text, isn’t it? That’s how closely agency screeners read — and we haven’t even begun to talk about the writing itself, you will notice. Take heart, though: unless Millicent is having a spectacularly bad day, none of these problems by itself, or even all of them together, will necessarily result in an on-the-spot cry of “Next!”

Why not? Well, believe it or not, the first version might be one of the more professional-looking first pages Millicent sees today. Most of the elements of standard format are in fact done correctly here, and it’s relatively free of misspellings and grammatical problems. So an optimistic aspiring writer often can — and does — get away with submitting a first page like the former.

Most professional readers, including agents, contest judges, and Millicents, are willing to overlook a small cosmetic error or two, just as they tend to discount the occasional typo, provided that it is not repeated in the manuscript. (The prevailing logic: the first misspelling of a word might legitimately be a slip of a finger; the second indicates that the writer just doesn’t know how to spell the word in question.)

It doesn’t take too many tiny problems, however, to render a pro much less sympathetic than she might otherwise have been to a larger problem like an awkward sentence or the appearance of a cliché. And that’s on a good day — do you really want to take the chance that Millicent won’t just have burned her lip on a too-hot latte just before turning to your first page?

I see a forest of hands waving in my general direction. “But Anne,” some of you point out, and rightly, “I’m finding this rather depressing. Taken individually, the deviations from standard format we’re talking about are all quite small; I just don’t want to believe that good writing could ever fall prey to what, frankly, looks at first glance like a pretty respectable formatting job. I’m not discounting Millicent’s ability to reject the submission that happens to be in front of her when she scalds herself, but surely nobody concerned really wants aspiring writers to believe that their work could be rejected based on anything but the writing.”

It depends upon whom you ask, actually. I’ve met plenty of screeners — as well as agents, editors, and contest judges, come to think of it — who regard writers that, as they tend to put it, “haven’t taken the time to learn the business,” just aren’t as ready to be published as those who have. (Hmm, haven’t I heard that someplace?) Part of working with an agent involves learning how to follow certain rules. It’s not as though any agent worth his salt would submit the first version above to an editor at a publishing house, after all; that would just be self-defeating.

Besides, these days, most good agents see so many cosmetically perfect submissions that they don’t lose too much sleep over rejecting those that are not. Or over Millicent’s having been more critical in the hour after she scalded her lip than on a normal day. They just figure that if a writer has real talent, s/he’ll go away, get better at presentation, and get picked up somewhere else.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, there’s no appeal for Millicent’s decisions: it’s not as though most agencies will run submissions past a second screener if the first did not like it, after all. Good writers are expected to be tenacious — and to take the time to learn how the publishing industry expects manuscripts to be presented.

So instead of regarding presentation as a secondary issue, try to think of paying attention to the cosmetic details as being polite to the person conducting the interview for a job you really, really want. Even if you have good reason to believe that some of the other interviewees are getting away with taking a few liberties, it honestly is in your best interest to be polite enough to show her your writing in the manner that Millicent is accustomed to seeing the best work in your chosen book category presented.

All that being said, did you spot the non-superficial reason this page might engender a knee-jerk rejection, even after just a superficial first glance?

If you flung your hand into the air and cried, “The second line of dialogue merely repeats the first, and thus adds nothing new to the scene,” good guess. This would indeed annoy most Millicents, particularly if this oh-so-common piece of redundancy appeared on page 1. Yes, people repeat what’s just been said to them all the time, usually as a means to indicate that they don’t understand the previous speaker’s last statement, but that doesn’t mean the repetition isn’t dull on the page.

But that’s a style issue. Any other guesses?

I can see the smoke rising from your thinking caps. “Well, what about the fact that the first line of dialogue is spoken by an unidentified speaker? There’s no legitimate reason to withhold that information from the reader, either at the outset or in this scene in general.”

Another excellent suggestion — the unidentified opening speech is indeed a very common professional readers’ pet peeve. However, the red flag I have in mind is a marketing issue. Hint: those of you who followed the contest winners’ posts carefully should already know what it is.

Need another hint? Okay, let me ask you the deceptively simple question that’s never far from Millicent’s thoughts while she is screening: based on this first page alone, in what book category does this manuscript belong?

It’s not readily apparent, is it? Depending upon the intended category, that could or could not be a problem. If this manuscript were, say, women’s fiction, this first page might not raise Millicent’s overactive eyebrows, but were it a mystery, the lack of species markings might well make her wonder when the mystery’s going to start. If it’s a paranormal, where are the supernatural creepy-crawlies? And don’t even get me started on what is missing if this were Action/Adventure, Western, any stripe of romance…

Well, you get the picture. Millicent needs to be able to tell if a submission falls into a category that her boss represents — and she likes to be able to tell by the bottom of page 1.

Seem strange that she would want to make up her mind on the subject so quickly? Her reason is very practical, I assure you: since every book category has its own particular style — language choices, conventions, stock characters, etc. — and no agent represents every book category, it can save Millie’s boss a heck of a lot of time in the long run if her loyal assistant weeds out manuscripts that don’t fit comfortably into the category. While many writers legitimately find this professional desire to place their work in a box a trifle maddening, it must be admitted that it’s usually far, far easier for an agent to sell a book if he knows which shelf it might occupy at Barnes & Noble. If any.

Why not wait until, say, page 50 before making that determination? Do you have any idea how many submissions Millicent has to get through this month? This week? Today?

It’s her job to narrow the field as quickly as possible. With that in mind, which Millicent do you think is most likely to reject the example above: one whose boss represents mainstream fiction, or one who represents primarily science fiction? Or, to put it another way, would you or would you not be surprised to learn that the page above is the opening to a fantasy novel?

Oh, you thought that Carla was going to be operating on humans, rather than refugees from the civil war on Planet Targ? Millicent would have leapt to the same conclusion. So wouldn’t Fledgling A. Writer have been better off, if not flinging the reader directly into an operating room stuffed to the gills with alien body parts, at least including a few recognizably fantastic elements on page 1?

Let’s go ahead and state the answer to that question as a general rule for revision: if a reader who knows nothing about your book cannot tell by the bottom of page 1 what type of manuscript it is, it’s very much in your interest to revise with an eye toward making the category more obvious from the get-go.

Don’t those of you who write exciting stories that begin in the everyday, mundane world, then leap into fast-paced action, wish you had heard that salient little piece of advice before you submitted for the first time? Yet I’m not sure how you would have known it — while it’s something that any agented writer could probably have told you, it’s one of those things that it’s just assumed every serious writer already knows.

“But Anne,” those of you not depressed into a stupor by that last statement point out, and rightly, “since we began this little foray into the joys of intensive nit-picking with a brief reference to italicized text, am I correct in assuming that even if ol’ Fledgling corrected every single problem we have discussed so far, and made it apparent from the first paragraph that this is a fantasy, the italicized part would still raise most Millicents’ eyebrows, if not red flags over the manuscript?”

In a word, yes — but perhaps not for the reasons you might expect.

Let’s face it: many aspiring writers radically overuse italics in their texts: emphasizing every word in dialogue that might conceivably deserve vocal stress, for instance, or using it to indicate irony, foreign words, and song titles. Each of these uses is fine on its own, but cumulatively, it can add up to quite a lot of squiggly text. And chant it with me now, campers: like any other writing device, the more italics are used for emphasis in a manuscript, the less effective each use will be.

So unless it’s absolutely necessary, a big block of italicized text tends to look out of place in a manuscript — and that’s potentially a problem. Why? Well, as I may have mentioned at some point in the dim, unrecorded past, manuscripts are not supposed to look like published books; they differ in many significant respects. Unfortunately, many, if not most, aspiring writers are not aware of those differences when they submit. Because of the sheer volume of incorrectly-formatted submissions, instead of treating deviations from expected formatting as an intriguing authorial choice, Millicent usually just regards it as (a) a mistake, (b) an indicator of the submitter’s lack of familiarity with the publication process, (c) carte blanche to take the submission less seriously, or (d) all of the above.

So when Millie spots an italicized opening paragraph or two, she tends not to exclaim, “Oh, here is a suggestion to the editor about what the formatting of the published book should look like,” as italics-loving submitters expect. Instead, she says, “Oh, here’s another one who doesn’t know that italicization choices are the province of a book’s editor, not the author.”

Besides, in many instances — as in, not entirely coincidentally, today’s example — the italics don’t actually change the meaning, or even the implication, of the opening. Italicized or not, this opening simply a fragment of a scene that is not directly connected to the section that follows — a differentiation made abundantly clear by the section break. The italics are not actually necessary.

So why not just take them out, since they might irritate Millicent? Here’s that same page again, with the squiggly type gone.

Come on, admit it — it doesn’t make much of a difference in meaning. It simply looks more like a normal manuscript page. That’s not a very high price to pay for removing the implication that Fledgling has not done his homework well enough to be aware that the decision to italicize an opening would ultimately be the acquiring editor’s call, not the author’s.

But did you notice that in fleeing from one pet peeve, poor Fledgling stumbled right into another? Technically,

But she thought: this can’t be happening, not today.

is redundant. Why? Well, while indicating thought by either using italics or saying she thought is acceptable in many book categories (but not all; taking the time to learn the conventions of your chosen book type will serve you well at submission time), it’s never considered right to use both simultaneously.

In other words, while Millicent would never consider the version above correct, depending upon the book category, she would be perfectly happy with either:

“She’s in the hospital?” she repeated. But she thought: this can’t be happening, not today.

or:

“She’s in the hospital?” she repeated. This can’t be happening, not today.

As we saw above with spaces after periods and colons, the trick is to pick one method of indicating thought and stick to it consistently throughout the manuscript — ideally, the method utilized in the current bestsellers in your chosen book category. If a conscientious flip through recent releases of your type of book does not reveal a category convention, don’t stress out about it; just use the method that appeals most to you.

When in doubt, I would lean toward losing the italics. There are quite a few professional readers out there — including a hefty minority of Millicents — who simply don’t like italicized thought on general principle. “Humph!” they say, wrinkling their noses over type dancing across the page. “Is this honestly necessary? Shouldn’t a good writer be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type?”

I have to admit, as a reader, I’m seldom inclined to argue with them on this point, particularly if the manuscript in question also uses italics (correctly) for emphasis (“I’m talking to you, Bertrand!”), to indicate foreign words (“You left off the requisite accent grave, Marie.”), or includes a lot of song or book titles (“I know — let’s play Rubber Band Man while reading My Life as a Contortionist by I.M. Bendy!”). Used rarely, there’s nothing inherently wrong with italics, but in a manuscript with a lot of italicized words, the skimming eye can easily become confused, even to the point of skipping lines.

I just heard you italics-huggers gulping. “Um, Anne,” lovers of italicized openings whisper fearfully. “You’re not about to tell me that a Millicent in a hurry — and when is she not, given how much she has to read in a day? — might simply skip that nice italicized opening, are you? Please tell me that I’ve simply grown paranoid from too much close textual analysis in a single sitting.”

Oh, dear. Are you sitting down?

If Millicent happens to work for an agent who has a pet peeve against this type of opening — as many, many agents do, I tremble to report — she will simply glide over it, treating the first normal line after it as the opening sentence of the manuscript. So she would see Fledgling’s page 1 like this:

“Why on earth,” italics-lovers the world over croak in aghast unison, “would any literature-loving human do such a thing? At the risk of getting redundant with my outrage, published books open all the time with italicized bits!”

A fair question — but actually, there’s a pretty fair answer. Most Millicents just assume, often not entirely without justification, that if it’s in italics, it doesn’t really have much to do with the story at hand, which, they conclude (and not always wrongly), begins with the first line of plain text. In their experience, that’s where the action usually begins.

In other words, they’re apt to skip the italicized bits to save themselves some time.

Which is, as some of you may have noticed, the justification for many, many of the instant rejection norms that plague the nightmares of submitters. Millicent’s workday moves along at quite a clip, after all.

To distract you from any well-justified artistic seething you might be tempted to do over that last observation, take another look at that formerly-italicized section. Can you spot any other problems our pal Millie might have with it?

Any luck? Would it help if I mentioned that the remaining red flag has historically been a deus ex machina favored by everyone from Victorian novelists to middle school short story writers?

That’s right: and then she woke up. The problem here isn’t merely because in narrative prose, if Sentence B follows Sentence A in the text, the action in Sentence B is assumed to have come after the action in Sentence A; therefore, and then is actually redundant in this instance. No, it’s that so darned many exciting openings have tricked Millicent into being drawn into what she thought was the story — but later turns out to be just another dream.

Do literally thousands of interesting novels open this way? You bet. Does it mean that Millicent won’t feel duped when it happens in Novel #10,001? Do you really want to take that chance?

If you’d had your heart set on a bait-and-switch opening that ended with your hero/ine waking up, do not despair. It’s possible to pull off this device well — as long as you are aware that (a) it’s a very, very time-worn device, (b) Millicent sees hundreds of such openings every year, so (c) you’d better do something with it that she’s never seen before.

And if that’s not a creative challenge, I should like to know what is. Keep up the good work!

Crowing for good reason: Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Bruce Alford’s ROOSTER

Today, I am delighted to bring you the winning entry in the recent Author! Author! Rings True literary competition, Bruce Alford of Mobile, Alabama. In addition to carrying off top honors in Category I: literary fiction, Bruce’s breathtakingly delicate first page and well-constructed 1-page synopsis for ROOSTER also garnered the coveted Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence. Well done, Bruce!

As has been the case for all of the winners in this contest, I sat down to discuss this exciting opening and premise with the ever-fabulous Heidi Durrow, author of the intriguing recent literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. (The contest was timed to celebrate the paperback release of her novel.) She writes literary fiction, and I edit it, so our appetites were very much whetted.

Especially for this entry. When the judges first clapped eyes upon it, the opening seemed almost eerily apt for this contest: the primary protagonist of Heidi’s marvelous literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, is half Danish, half African-American. It just goes to show you, campers — no matter how carefully a writer prepares a submission or contest entry, there’s no way that he can control what happens to be on Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s mind at the moment she happens to start reading it.

What’s that I hear you muttering, campers? You feel that’s a trifle unjust, that the imperatives of literature require that all manuscript assessments be made from a completely clear mind, as if Millicent and Mehitabel had not read 27 first pages earlier in that sitting? Or perhaps as if they had not previously screened any literary fiction at all, and had not become jaded toward common mistakes?

Fine — you try it. Here are Bruce’s materials as they might appear in a submission packet: page 1, synopsis, author bio. (As always, if you are having trouble seeing the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + to enlarge the image.) To make this an even fairer test, I shall not comment on the technical aspects at all until after Heidi and I discuss the content.

I’m going to stop you right here: quick, what’s your assessment of this book?

Approaching a new writer’s work with completely fresh eyes is more difficult than it might seem at first blush, isn’t it? Everything you have ever read, from your all-time favorite novel to your high school English literature textbook, contributes to your sense of what is and is not good writing.

So let me simplify the central issue for you: based on that first page alone, would you turn to page 2?

I would certainly read further. On the strength of that, let’s take a peek at the other materials in this packet.

Bruce Alford, a personal trainer, aerobics instructor and a former journalist, has published creative nonfiction and poetry in various literary journals. Alford’s “How to Write a Real Poem” was selected for Special Merit in the 2010 Muriel Craft Bailey Poetry Competition. His book of poems, Terminal Switching (Elk River Review Press), was published in 2007.

For a decade, he worked on drafts of Rooster. The book draws on tragedy in his family. His wife’s brother was missing for a week. Then migrant workers stumbled on his brother-in-law’s body near a tomato field in Louisiana. Over the years, as Alford wrote and re-wrote, he noticed that his relative’s short life and death said much about what being an American meant.

As an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama, he teaches a full schedule of classes, including British and American Literature, Poetry Writing and Creative Non-Fiction. He is a reviewer for First Draft, a publication of the Alabama Writers’ Forum.

Does ROOSTER’s plot sound vaguely familiar? It should: it’s Hamlet, cleverly updated and set in an unexpected setting. Many highly successful novels have taken time-honored stories we all know and transformed them. Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE, for instance, is a retelling of the Ugly Duckling; there have been so many versions of Cinderella that I cannot even begin to enumerate them.

While some writers might have chosen to conceal the eternal nature of the tale, Bruce has done something very interesting here: from the first line of the book, he evokes a fairy tale resonance. There was a girl in Denmark might be the opening of half of the stories in a Hans Christian Andersen storybook. That’s a definite marketing risk — chant it with me now, campers: most professional readers have been trained to regard the passive voice as stylistically weak writing, regardless of how and why it is used — but here, it may well pay off.

Did it? Heidi and I discussed that very question.