Continuing our discussion of standard format for book manuscripts: not all truths are self-evident

gumballs

Hard to believe anyone in his right mind would actually need to be told that those are gumballs, isn’t it? They strike me as the epitome of the breed: large, spherical, colorful, and — dare I say it? — potentially jaw-breaking. Yet clearly, at some point in the probably not-too-distant past, some passing myopic presumably asked the proprietor, “What are those, gumballs?”

Or maybe it was not a solitary forgetter of much-needed spectacles, or even a half-dozen passers-by with a shared clawing, pathological need to have even their most mundane personal observations confirmed by external sources. Perhaps the poor proprietor simply got tired of answering the same question 4,217 times per week and slapped up a sign.

Those of us who work with manuscripts for a living can sympathize. Merely breathing an editor (or my preferred title, a book doctor), preceded by the pronoun I and the verb to be in quick succession, anywhere in the vicinity of someone harboring even the slightest urge to pen the Great American Novel is to invite an avalanche of questions about manuscripts: how to get them published, how to position them under the eyes of an agent, how to keep them from getting rejected, and, surprisingly often, what they should look like.

Perfectly reasonable questions all, of course: no writer, regardless of how many times the Muses may have whacked her with their talent wands, is born knowing all about the practical aspects of manuscript production. As Plato suggests in his Theaetetus (oh, you thought I was just a pretty face?), in order to recognize something for what it truly is, one first must have a mental image of that thing with which to match it.

To put it a trifle less esoterically: it’s much, much harder to make your pages look right if you’ve never seen a professionally-formatted book manuscript. Call me zany, but in my experience, the best remedy for that is to show aspiring writers — wait for it — a few dozen examples of professionally-formatted book manuscript pages, rather than making them guess.

In close-up, even, as in the first post in this series. I like to think of this endeavor as both pleasing to ol’ Plato and a serious contribution to, if not the future of literature, at least to human happiness. Too many good writers have gotten rejected over the years for not being aware of the rules, or even that rules exist.

Look, kid, here’s a gumball. Study it well, so you may recognize it in the wild.

I know: how nice would it have been had some kind soul discreetly pulled you aside 35 seconds after you first decided to write a book and explained that to you, right? If you’re like most writers, it would have saved you a tremendous amount of time and chagrin to have known before you sat down to compose page 1 that since (a) all professional book manuscripts in the U.S. look more or less alike and (b) any writer who has worked with an agent or publisher would presumably be aware of that, (c) those of us who read for a living can often tell just how long an aspiring writer has been at it by the briefest glance at the page. Thus, contrary to what virtually every aspiring writer completely reasonably presumes at first, (d) one of the best things you can do to get your writing taken seriously by the pros is to format it according to their expectations.

Let me guess, though: you did not tumble squalling into this world knowing any of that, did you? The weird thing is that neither were agents, editors, contest judges, or screeners. Once you’ve had the benefit of seeing a few hundred thousand correctly-formatted manuscript pages, however, you don’t even have to look very hard to notice the difference between a page 1 like this:

And one that looked like this:

You can see the difference from halfway across the room, can you not? So, as it happens, can Millicent the agency screener, her boss, the agent of your dreams, and the editor who will someday, the Muses willing, acquire your book. That’s the inevitable result of experience. Year in, year out, come rain, shine, or hailing wildcats, we cast our eyes over book manuscripts done right and, well, the other kind.

And that, in case any of you perplexed by how much of the information about manuscript formatting floating around out there seems to come from somewhere in the ether, rather than directly from, say, an agency or a publishing house, is why professional readers don’t spend much time doing what I’m sure a lot of aspiring writers positively long for us do, policing the Internet for rogue advice on manuscript formatting. Why would someone who already familiar with the rigors and beauties of standard format bother to look it up online, much less fact-check?

We already know a properly-formatted page when we see it — and when we don’t. “What do you mean — are those gumballs?” we mutter, incredulous. “Isn’t it self-evident?”

So strongly do some of us have the Platonic standard manuscript page in mind that it might not even occur to us that, say, there exist writers in the English-speaking world not aware of what a slug line is. It astounds us to hear that indented paragraphs are not the automatic choice of every literate person. It makes sense to us that, as much as anyone might want to conserve paper, submitting a manuscript printed on both the front and back sides and/or — sacre bleu! — spiral- or perfect-bound would generally result in its being rejected unread.

Because we are so steeped in the standard format tradition, even the smallest deviation from it draws our attention like the lone zebra in a crowd of centaurs. How could it not affect our perception of a writer’s eye for detail to discover that s/he apparently thought her page 2 would look better like this:

Than like this:

Less obvious that time, wasn’t it? Still, I suspect you were unlikely to confuse the bona fide gumball with the stick of spearmint. Unless, of course, you’d heard someplace that the last thing Millicent ever want to see in gum is a spherical shape.

Oh, don’t bother to deny it — most aspiring writers glean at least a bit of misinformation while constructing their first book-length manuscripts. How do I know? Those of us who spend any time at all around aspiring writers find ourselves constantly in the position of being asked to confirm what to us has become through long experience self-evident. Even more often, we’re called upon to defend the shape of the Platonic gumball to those who have heard somewhere that even so much as a curled-up edge will result in instant and contemptuous rejection.

“What do you mean, paragraphs have to be indented?” writers who have entertained alternate theories often snap at us, flabbergasted. “I’ve heard that’s considered old-fashioned now. And are you mad, recommending doubled dashes?”

Since either of those formatting innovations would be news to folks who read manuscripts for a living, it can be a bit trying to be told otherwise, sometimes at ear-splitting volumes, early and often. Even as a great proponent of explanations as yours truly tends to find it wearying the 87th time in any given month that a total stranger burning for publication accosts me like the Ancient Mariner, wanting to spend two hours arguing about the latest rumor flying around the web about how standard format has abruptly altered in some fundamental-yet-mysteriously-secret manner rightly understood by only whatever generous soul chose to promulgate the change.

No one knows who this public benefactor is, of course; aspiring writers seeking confirmation of such rumors name their sources so seldom that by the turn of the century, I had begun to think of them collectively as He Who Must Not Be Named. (Take that, Voldemort!) In recent years, however, I have rechristened this shadowy figure by the name his proponents must often cite: But I heard…

But I Heard is an insidious opponent, believe you me, as only a faceless entity can be — he seems to be everywhere. His power, as nearly as I can tell, stems almost entirely from his amorphousness. Because it’s impossible to find out where he’s getting his ostensibly inside information, no amount of proof can refute his arguments to his adherents’ satisfaction; because he so seldom explains himself, logic has been known to bounce right off him and hit innocent bystanders. And that’s kind of annoying to those of us who juggle manuscripts on a daily basis, because But I Heard seems to be retailing some pretty wacky notions these days.

That puzzles the pros: standard format for manuscripts actually hasn’t changed all that much since Saul Bellow was a callow youth, much less since he shuffled off this mortal coil. Once typed manuscripts became the norm, standard format pulled up a chair and stayed for a while. And contrary to astoundingly popular opinion, it has shifted in its seat relatively little since Truman Capote joined the choir invisible.

But that’s not what you’ve heard, is it? The rise of the personal computer has made less of a difference than But I Heard would have you believe. Oh, underlining is out and italics are in to designate words in foreign languages (in the post-Capote universe, one should never underline anything in a book manuscript; I’ll be getting to that), and how one actually figures out how much to indent a paragraph has altered a bit with the adoption of Microsoft Word as the industry standard for electronic submission (unlike a typewriter, Word measures its tabs in fractions of an inch, not character spaces). Overall, though, the professionally-formatted book manuscript of today quite closely resembles the professionally-formatted book manuscript of, say, 1958.

Which is to say: not very much like the short stories of that very good year for short stories. The gumball’s shape has not altered much over that period, either.

The relative lack of change, But I Heard tells me, is far from self-evident. He would prefer to believe that all writing should be formatted identically, regardless of type. In that, alas, he is misinformed: short story format is different from standard format for books and book proposals, and has been for quite some time. So are essay format, academic format, journalistic format, and even how a published book will look on a page.

That very notion makes But I Heard squirm. But that’s not going to stop me from saying what I know from experience to be true: book manuscripts presented in standard format look professional to people who handle book manuscripts for a living. If those are the people a writer is trying to please, does it really matter what anybody else thinks writing should look like on the page?

Does that mean every professional reader, everywhere, every time, will want to see your work formatted as we have been discussing? No, of course not: should you happen to be submitting to an agent, editor, or contest that specifically asks you to do something other than I advise here, obviously, you should give him, her, or it what he or his stated guidelines request.

That’s just common sense, right? Not to mention basic courtesy. Yet judging by the plethora of ambient speculation on the subject, it’s not self-evident.

Yet if an agent or agency has been considerate enough of its future clients to post submission guidelines, it just makes sense to acknowledge their efforts. I would actively encourage every writer currently milling about the earth’s crust not only to check every agency’s website, every time, to make sure that any individual agent to whom you were planning to submit does not harbor alternate preferences — some do — but also to Google him, to double-check that he hasn’t stated in some public forum that, for instance, he is so deeply devoted to paper conservation that he actively prefers only a single space after a period or a colon. Or that due to a childhood trauma involving a newspaper (she doesn’t like to talk about it), she positively twitches at the sight of Times New Roman instead of Courier. Or that a particular agency’s staff believes that a doubled dash is the secret symbol of the kind of murderous cult that used to populate 1970s horror movies.

Really, though, if the agent of your dreams says he wants to see your submission formatted a particular way, can you think of any particular reason you wouldn’t want to honor that preference?

“I can think of one!” But I Heard shouts. “It would be considerably less work to format my manuscript once and submit it that way to every agent currently drawing breath, rather than taking the time to hunt down a specific agent’s expressed preferences, saving a separate copy of one’s manuscript, applying those preferences to it (and only it), and sending a personalized version to that agent. Why, think of how time-consuming to go through those same steps for every agent, every time!”

It might be, if alternate preferences were either widespread (they’re not, particularly) or often posted on agency websites (see previous parenthesis). At the risk of repeating myself, standard format is called that for a reason.

But I Heard certainly has a point, though. He also has, as you may have noticed over the years, an exceedingly simple means of promoting that point and ones just like it: by leaping to the conclusion that because one has a strong preference for a non-standard format element, every agent or agency must necessarily have tossed all previous norms to the winds in order to embrace that preference. And, for reasons best known to themselves, they’ve elected not to notify any working author you might care to mention about this monumental collective decision, preferring instead to disseminate the information via the much more reliable and trustworthy game of Telephone.

You remember that game, right? The first kid whispers a secret to the person next to her; #2 repeats what he heard to #3, and so on around the circle. By the time the news has passed through a dozen pairs of lips, the original content has become so transfigured in transit that it’s hardly recognizable.

I hate to spoil But I Heard’s good time — there’s little he likes better than inflating something someone said someone else overhead an agent said say at a conference once upon a time into the new trend sweeping the nation — but personal preferences do in fact exist. And contrary to what you might have heard, agents and agencies that favor specific deviations from standard format tend not to be all that shy about mentioning them.

In case I’m being too subtle here: check their websites. Or their listings in one of the major guides to literary agents.

Do I spot some timid hands raised out there in the ether? “But Anne,” point out some confused by conflicting advice — and who could blame them, given how busy But I Heard has been in recent years? “I’ve been checking websites, and the overwhelming majority of agency websites I’ve found don’t talk about manuscript format at all. Does that mean that they don’t care about how I present my writing?”

Of course, they care, but standard format is just that: standard. If what they want is a gumball, why should they take the time to explain that they don’t desire a bar of chocolate?

Yes, But I Heard? You would like to add something? “I get it,” he moans, rattling the Jacob Marley chains appropriate to his disembodied state. “All my long-time nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, cares about in a submission is how it looks, not how it is written. How literature has tumbled from its pedestal! No one cares about good writing anymore!”

Did you see what that dastardly wraith just did to my non-threatening piece of sugar-laden analysis? But I Heard is a past master at ripping statements out of context, blowing them out of proportion, and whisking them off to parts unknown to their original utterers. But you’re too savvy, I’m sure, to join him in the wild surmise that Millicent’s paying attention to how a manuscript looks means, or even implies, that how a submission is written doesn’t make a difference. Of course, writing talent, style, and originality count. Yet in order to be able to appreciate any of those properly, a reader has to approach the page with a willingness to be wowed.

That willingness can wilt rapidly in the face of incorrect formatting — which isn’t, in response to what But I Heard just shouted in your ears, necessarily the result of mere market-mindedness on Millie’s part. After you’ve read a few thousand manuscripts, deviations from standard format leap out at you. As will spelling and grammatical errors, phrase repetition, clich?s, telling rather than showing, and all of the tried-and-true submission red flags about which But I Heard has been kind enough to keep us informed over the years.

Again, he has a legitimate point: all of these are distractions from your good writing. So, as it happens, are deviations from standard format, to a reader used to seeing writing presented that way. That means, in practice, that presenting your manuscript as Millie expects to see it is the way that she is least likely to find distracting.

What does she see if you present your manuscript as she expects to see it? Your writing.

I hear those of you who have spent years slaving over your craft groaning — believe me, I sympathize. For those of you who have not already started composing your first drafts in standard format (which will save you a lot of time in the long run, incidentally), many of the tiny-but-pervasive changes I am about to suggest that you make to your manuscript are going to be irksome to implement. Reformatting a manuscript is time-consuming and tedious, and I would be the first to admit that at first, some of these rules can seem arbitrary.

At least on their faces. Quite a few of these restrictions remain beloved even in the age of electronic submissions because they render a manuscript a heck of a lot easier to edit — and to read, in either hard or soft copy. As I will demonstrate with abundant examples later in this series, a lot of these rules have survived for completely practical purposes — designed, for instance, to maximize white space in which the editor may scrawl trenchant comments like, “Wait, wasn’t the protagonist’s brother named James in the last chapter? Why is he Aloysius here?”

Ready to take my word for that in the meantime? Excellent; help yourself to a gumball. Let’s recap the rules we covered last time:

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

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

Is everyone happy with those? If not, I await your questions. While I’m waiting, however, I’m going to move on.

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

No exceptions, please. No matter how cool your favored typeface looks, be consistent. Yes, even on the title page, where almost everyone gets a little wacky the first time out.

No pictures or symbols here, either, please. Just the facts. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a term for title pages with 24-point fonts, fancy typefaces, and illustrations.

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

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere in the manuscript but on the title page — and not even there, it’s not a particularly good idea.

This seems like an odd one, right, since word processing programs render including boldface so easy? Actually, the no-bolding rule is a throwback to the old typewriter days, where only very fancy machines indeed could darken selected type. Historically, then using bold was considered a bit tacky for the same reason that wearing white shoes before Memorial Day is in certain circles: it’s a subtle display of wealth.

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

You may place your title in boldface on the title page, if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be in boldface. (Unless it’s a section heading in a nonfiction proposal or manuscript — but don’t worry about that for now; I’ll be showing you how to format both a book proposal and a section break later on in this series, I promise. I shall also be tossing many, many examples of properly-formatted title pages your way, never fear.)

(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.

Even if you choose to disregard literally everything else I’ve said here, please remember to number your pages. Millicent’s usual response to the sight of an unnumbered manuscript is to reject it unread.

Yes, really; this omission is considered genuinely rude. Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional reader (including yours truly, if I’m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission or contest entry. It ranks right up there with assault, arson, and beginning a query letter with, Dear Agent instead of Dear Ms. Smith.

Why? Gravity, my friends, gravity. What goes up tends to come down. If the object in question happens to be an unbound stack of paper, and the writer who sent it did not bother to number those pages…well, picture it for yourself: two manuscript-bearing interns walking toward each other in an agency hallway, each whistling a jaunty tune. Between them, a banana peel, a forgotten skateboard, and a pair of blindfolded participants in a three-legged race clutching a basket stuffed to the brim with ping-pong balls between them.

You may giggle, but anyone who has ever worked with submissions has first-hand experience of what would happen should any two of those elements come into direct contact. After the blizzard of flying papers has subsided, and the interns rehash that old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial’s dialogue (“You got romance novel in my literary fiction!” “You got literary fiction in my romance novel!”), guess what needs to happen?

Some luckless soul has to put all of those pages back in proper order, that’s what. Just how much more irksome is that task going to be if the pages are not numbered?

Obey Rule #7. Trust me, it is far, far easier for Millicent to toss the entire thing into the reject pile than to spend the hours required to guess which bite-sized piece of storyline belongs before which in an unnumbered manuscript.

Wondering why the first page of the text proper is page 1 of the text, not the title page, and should be numbered as such? Or why, if your opus has an introduction or preface, the first page of that is page 1, not the first page of chapter 1?

Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because gumballs are round, and books manuscripts do not resemble published books.

The title page is not the only one commonly mislabeled as 1, by the way: epigraphs — those quotations from other authors’ books so dear to the hearts of writers everywhere — should not appear on their own page in a manuscript, as they sometimes do in published books. If you feel you must include one (which you might want to reconsider at the submission stage: 99.9999% of the time, Millicent will just skip over it), include it between the chapter title and text on page 1.

If that last paragraph left your head in a whirl, don’t worry — I’ll show you how to format epigraphs properly later in this series. (Yes, including some discussion of that cryptic comment about Millicent’s wandering peepers. All in the fullness of time, my friends.)

(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.

Including the slug line means that every page of the manuscript has the author’s name on it — a great idea, should you, say, want an agent or editor to be able to contact you after s/he’s fallen in love with it. Or be able to tell your submission from the other one that ran afoul of the banana peel in our earlier example.

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

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

Having trouble finding it in our page examples above? Here’s a subtle hint:

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

Do not, I beg of you, yield like so many aspiring writers to the insidious temptation add little stylistic bells and whistles to the slug line, to tart it up. Page numbers should not have dashes on either side of them, be in italics or bold, or be preceded by the word page. Trust me, Millicent will know what that number is, provided that it appears here — and only here:

Sensing just a bit of urgency on this one? Good. Those of us predisposed to regard gumballs as inherently spherical are always surprised to see how many aspiring writers regard page numbering as a tempting forum for self-expression. Remember, professional readers do not regard formatting choices as matters of personal style. The point here is not to make your slug line stand out for its innovative visual impact, but to provide practical guidance in reestablishing sequence should those ping-pong balls start bouncing about underfoot.

If your book has a subtitle, don’t include it in the slug line — and if it boasts a very long title, feel free to abbreviate, to keep the slug line from running all the way across the top of the page. Millicent needs to be able to identify the manuscript at a glance, not to reproduce the entire book jacket.

Why not? Well, technically, a slug line should be 30 spaces or less, but there’s no need to stress about that in the computer age. (A slug, you see, is the old-fashioned printer’s term for a pre-set chunk of, you guessed it, 30 spaces of type. Aren’t you glad you asked?) Let’s assume for the sake of example that I’ve written a novel entitled THE SMILING FROWNER BEMUSED– 26 characters, counting spaces. Since my last name is quite short, I could get away with putting it all in the slug line, to look like this:

Mini/The Smiling Frowner Bemused/1

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

Montenegro-Copperfield/Smiling Frowner/1

Incidentally, should anyone out there come up with a bright idea for a category heading on the archive list for this issue other than SLUG LINE — a category that already exists, but is unlikely to be found by anyone not already familiar with the term — I’d be delighted to hear suggestions. I’ve called it a slug line ever since I first clapped eyes on a professional manuscript (an event that took place so long ago my response to the sight was not, “What’s that at the top of the page, Daddy?” but “Goo!”), so I’m probably not going to be coming up with a good alternative anytime soon. Thanks.

(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.

That’s fourteen single-spaced lines down, incidentally. The chapter title (or merely “Chapter One”) should be centered, and it should neither be in boldface nor underlined. To revisit today’s first example:

“But Anne,” But I Heard protests, “why shouldn’t the title appear immediately above the text? I’ve often seen that suggested — and illustrated online. What gives?”

Would any of you care to field that one? Perhaps someone who took the time to read the text of today’s positive and negative examples? Feel free to chant the answer with me, sharp-eyed perusers: “Because that’s where the title of a short story lives, not a book’s.”

Self-evident once you’ve heard it, isn’t it?

Because confusing the two formats is so common, very frequently, agents, editors and contest judges are presented with improperly-formatted first pages that have the title of the book, by Author’s Name, and/or the writer’s contact information floating in the space above the text. To professional eyes, a manuscript that includes any of this information on the first page of the manuscript (other than in the slug line, of course) seems like it just ended up in the wrong office. Clearly, the writer wanted not the agency to which she sent it, but the magazine down the street.

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

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

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

Just don’t do it. Millicent likes her gumballs.

“But wait,” I hear some of you out there murmuring, “My gumball — I mean, my manuscript — needs a title page? Since when?”

What a timely question.

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

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

And again, But I Heard expresses disgruntlement. “More work!” he cries. “If you’d only let us shoehorn our contact information onto page 1 (as I notice you have artfully resisted showing as a counterexample, lest some reader mistake it for acceptable book format), this would not be at all necessary!”

At the risk of sounding callous, so what? You want to make it as easy as humanly possible for the agent of your dreams to let you know that she wants to represent this book, don’t you? And it’s not as though she would ever dream of sending anything you wrote to an editor at a publishing house without a title page.

Yes, really. Literally every manuscript that any agent in North America submits to any editor in hard copy will include one, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s the page that includes the agent’s contact information.

Yet, astonishingly, a good 95% of writers submitting to agencies seem to be unaware that including it is standard. I blame But I Heard: to him, the cover letter, address on the SASE, or the e-mail to which the requested materials were attached are identification enough. But in practice, it’s none of those things will necessarily still be attached to your pages at the point when your ideal agent says, “By jingo, I’m thoroughly wowed. This is a writer I must sign, and pronto!”

Oh, you thought that your SASE won’t go flying when those interns collide in the hallway? Or that e-mails never get deleted accidentally? Once those ping-pong balls get rolling, they end up everywhere; the damage they do is incalculable.

On the plus side, the broad reach of But I Heard’s pernicious influence — coupled, I suspect, with the fact that including a title page just never occurs to a lot of first-time submitters — means that if you are industry-savvy enough to include a professionally-formatted title page, your submission automatically looks like a top percentile ranker to professional eyes from the moment it’s pulled out of the envelope. It’s never too early to make a good first impression, right?

If you do not know how to format a proper title page — and yes, Virginia, there is a special format for it, too — please see the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT TITLE PAGE category on the archive list at right. Or wait a few days until I cover it later in this series.

It’s entirely up to you. No pressure here. Have a gumball while you wait.

Before anyone who currently has a submission languishing at an agency begins to panic: you’re almost certainly not going to get rejected solely for forgetting to include a title page. It’s too common a gaffe to be an automatic deal-breaker for most Millicents. Ditto with improperly-formatted ones. And yes, one does occasionally run into an agent at a conference or one blogging online who says she doesn’t care one way or the other about whether a submission has a title page resting on top at all.

Bully for them for being so open-minded, but as I have pointed out to relative strangers roughly 147,329 times in the past year, how can you be sure that the person deciding whether to pass your submission upstairs or reject it isn’t a stickler for professionalism?

I sense some shoulders sagging at the very notion of all the work it’s going to be to alter your pages before you send them out. Please believe me when I tell you that, as tedious as it is to change these things in your manuscript now, by the time you’re on your third or fourth book, it will be second nature to you. Why, I’ll bet that the next time you sit down to begin a new writing project, you will automatically format it correctly.

Think of all of the time that will save you down the line. Goody, goody gumdrops.

More guidelines follow in the next couple of posts — yes, those of you whose hearts just sank audibly, standard format does indeed have that many rules — and then we shall move on swiftly to concrete examples of what all of this formatting looks like in practice. I want you to have enough information on the subject to be able to understand why following them might be a good idea.

Rather than, say, walking away with the vague feeling that you heard about these rules somewhere. Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: non-indented chapter openings, authors-that-blog, and other things we don’t often see in the natural world

I had planned to write more about comedy writing in contest entries today, campers, but a question from a reader gave me pause. Yes, I get questions from readers all the time (although, strangely, not on the current series on how to avoid common pitfalls in contest entries; I realize that many of you read Author! Author! on handheld devices, rendering posting a comment more difficult, but please remember, this is a blog, not a column; audience participation is an integral part of this community) without hitting the pause button on our ongoing discussions, but this one struck me as important to talk about as a community, for a couple of reasons.

I could just tell you what those reasons are, I suppose, but since publishers now routinely tell first-time authors they have just acquired to establish their own blogs, in order to ramp up their web presences, I thought it might be fun to give those of you planning on hitting the big time a little practice in comment-assessment. And, if you’re up for it, an unfettered discussion amongst ourselves about how writers — published, pre-published, and aspiring alike — feel about the relatively recent expectation that authors will invest significant amounts of time not only in writing their books, but in maintaining blogs, guest-blogging, social media-wrangling, and other online endeavors to promote their work.

Here’s the comment in question, posted today by repeat commenter Tony. If you, Famous Author of the Future, received this question from a reader — and you might: it’s not at all uncommon for fans to post writing questions on their favorite authors’ blogs — how would you respond?

RE: INDENTING THE PARAGRAPH’S FIRST CHAPTER.

Hi Anne.

Someone from the UK raised the point that indenting the first paragraph of a chapter is improper. She said “look at any published book you have–you’ll see.”

I looked. I was surprised to discover she appeared to be right. However, as I examined more books in my (quite extensive) collection, I see inconsistency.

Perhaps you could specifically address this issue in a future post?

Cheers,?

Tony

And no, in answer to what many of you just thought very loudly: Tony did not include a link to the discussion to which he was referring, probably (and politely) because he was aware that I ask commenters not to ask me to adjudicate disputes occurring on other writing blogs. (Thanks for that, Tony!) Nor did he indicate who the she is here, or what the significance of the geographical location is to this issue.

In short, Famous Author of the Future, you will have to assess this comment as any blogger would: based solely upon what it says and the relationship you hope to establish and maintain with your fans. How would you respond? Would you

(a) ignore it, since you were not writing an informational blog for writers?

(b) write a comment thanking Tony for posting, but also pointing out that you do not habitually give out advice about manuscript formatting?

(c) develop a one-size-fits-all response to copy and paste each time a reader asks a question like this, saying that you don’t have the time to answer this type of question?

(d) invest the time in doing a little research in where an aspiring writer might find the answer to a practical question about standard format, then post a link in the comment replying to Tony’s question?

(e) invest the research time, then e-mail Tony the link, so you will not encourage other readers to ask similar questions in your comments?

(f) pursue (e), then delete Tony’s comment, so other readers won’t think you pursued course (a)?

(g) bite the bullet and write the requested post? Or,

(h) write back immediately, “You know who answers arcane, practical questions like this all the time? Anne Mini — go ask her.”

There’s no right or wrong answer here, of course; I honestly want to know what you would do. Bloggers face this kind of dilemma every day — and the more successful a blogging author is, the more often she is likely to have to muddle through it. Responding to readers’ commentary is an essential part of blogging; it is — and stop me if this sounds familiar — the difference between writing a column and writing a blog.

For those of you whose answer was a shrug, I would urge you to reconsider. How to handle this is not an unimportant question, from a promotional perspective. Yes, Tony might be just one of your 21,362 adoring fans, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to be nice to him. If you’re not, he not only might not buy your next book — everyone he tells about your exchange might not buy it. And since the Internet offers so many opportunities for disgruntled fans to express their displeasure, even people neither you nor he know personally might well be influenced by what you do next.

Ah, now you are pale. That shows you are understanding the situation. Your future agent and editor will be so pleased that they will not have to explain it to you.

Now that we all understand how high the stakes are (and can be properly grateful to Tony for giving us the excuse to talk about those stakes), let’s consider the ramifications of each possible course of action. There’s no such thing as a completely safe choice here, after all. If you pursue…

(a) and ignore the question, well, you will be like a surprisingly high percentage of author-bloggers: they post what they have to say without glancing at the comments. That undoubtedly saves time, but you also run the risk of making a loyal blog reader and fan of your books feel as though you don’t care about your readers.

(b) and tell the commenter he has asked the question on the wrong kind of blog, you will be like many bloggers that habitually receive such questions. You also stand a very good chance of making someone who loves your writing and respects your opinion feel silly — and, if you don’t phrase it kindly, you could end up looking like kind of a jerk.

(c) and develop a one-size-fits-all response, you’ll be like many author-bloggers that have been at it for a while — and will almost certainly end up looking like a jerk who did not bother to read the question. Readers are smart; they know a canned reply when they see one.

(d) and invest the time in doing the research that, let’s face it, the commenter could have done himself, your fan will probably appreciate it, but you will have just done something that’s not your job for free — and demonstrated to other fans that you are willing to do it. Given that most Famous Authors of the Future will also have day jobs (you’d be astonished how often that’s the case now), is that a precedent you want to establish?

(e) and e-mail the commenter the link, you will still have donated your time to his learning curve, but you won’t get public credit for it. In fact, you will look to everyone else as though you pursued option (a). Your other readers will not enjoy the benefit of your efforts, so you may well end up answering the same questions this way over and over again.

Oh, and congratulations: you’ve just given a fan your e-mail address. Now that you two are on a friendly basis, there’s a better than even chance that the next time he has a question, he’ll just e-mail it to you, placing you in an even more intense version of the original dilemma.

(f) and be nice while deleting the original comment, you’ll get even less credit — and you’re even more likely to give the commenter the impression that you’ve formed a personal bond,

(g) and write the requested post, I can tell you now that other fans will see it and clamor for you to ask their questions. How do you think I got started writing an informational blog for writers?

Which is why I can point out the other risks here: in addition to being time-consuming (remember, you still have books to write), since so much of the formatting advice floating around out there for writers is just plain wrong, even if you post absolutely correct advice on your blog, some commenters will tell you that you are mistaken. That’s just the nature of blogging — and of being well-informed on a subject about which there is rampant speculation.

(h) and write back immediately, “You know who answers questions like this all the time? Anne Mini — go ask her,” well, you’ll be like a hefty percentage of writing conference presenters in this country. Commenters tell me all the time that other experts have sent them my way. And I appreciate that, especially when the suggestion comes with a link here.

As you may see, no option is cost-free — and all can potentially have ripple effects on your reputation. So again: what would you do?

While that intriguing question is rolling around in your brainpan, and before I move on to answering Tony’s question (I’m getting there, honest! I’m just trying to render the reply helpful to the broadest swathe of my readership), let me complicate our scenario. Let’s say that out of respect and love for your readership, you have fallen into the habit of giving authorial advice to those new to the game, at least in the comments section of your blog. Let’s further assume that you have answered the commenter’s specific question before.

Is your plan to respond to Tony’s question any different now? For most author-bloggers, it would be: it’s not at all unheard-of to see the same questions pop up in a blog’s comments month after month, or even year after year. (Oh, you thought your agent and editor wouldn’t want you to keep on blogging after your book had been out for a year or two?) And with a question like this, one that’s based on factual misinformation (sorry, Tony) posted by other authors, the more meticulously accurate the advice you post is, the more likely you are to receive comments that begin, Well, Other Famous Author of the Future says you’re wrong from fans who seem to be urging you and someone you have ever met to get into an entertaining brawl for their benefit. (Thanks again, Tony, for not including the link to the incorrect statement.)

So what are your options this time around? Off the top of my head, I would say that you could

(1) ignore the question, risking all of the negative outcomes of (a), above),

(2) write a comment peevishly telling the questioner that you’ve answered this question repeatedly, as a simple search of the site will demonstrate, despite the fact that this course exposes you to the risks of (b).

(3) if you formerly answered the question in a post, you could perform the requisite search of your blog, track down the link to that post, and include it in a comment, sucking quite a bit of time from your writing day,

(4) if you earlier answered the question in a comment (because, let’s face it, that’s what most commenters prefer; it’s typically speedier) and your comments section is not searchable (and most are not from the reader’s side of the blog), you could devote even more time to trying to track down that earlier response, then either post a link to the post on which it appeared or copy and paste what you said before. (Do I really need to point out how time-consuming that would be?)

(5) do the necessary research about where you now feel you should have sent everyone who has asked the question before — a site that specializes in such questions,

(6) Write a new response from scratch for the 15th time while you feel your blood pressure rise to the boiling point, or

(6) write back immediately, “I’d love to answer this, but you know whose website is stuffed to the gills with answers to questions like this, organized by topic? Anne Mini — go ask her.”

Again, no easy answers here. So what would you do?

I’m not saying that you should follow my example, but here’s what I did and the logic behind it. Tony asked the question in the comments of what I suspect was a post that he had bookmarked — and a good choice, too; it was an analysis of a former contest winner’s first page — rather than on the current post or in a post primarily about formatting. Why is that relevant? Well, while the post in question did discuss some standard format issues, it’s not a post that would turn up early in a site search (everybody sees that nifty little search engine in the upper right-hand corner of the blog, right?), so if I answered his question in the comments where he asked it, my reply would help only him. It’s a better use of my blogging time — and my readers’ reading time — to respond in a new post.

Why not just say, in the nicest way possible, that this is an issue I have addressed many times before, and he will find the answer in the posts under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT heading in the extensive archive list located on the right-hand side of this page? For the same reason that I didn’t search the archives myself and post a link to a relevant post: one of the ways I learn how readers in a rush read the archive list, and thus how I figure out how to improve the category listings on it, is through questions like this.

How so? Because the first thing I did was check to see if there was already a category on the list addressing Tony’s question. And there was, generally. But I have learned from previous exchanges with commenters that not everyone has the time or the patience to run through a logically-applicable-but conceptually-larger group of posts in order to find the answer to a specific question. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, so many of the categories in my archives are expressed as questions: search engines have taught people to expect that answers to specific questions will be instantly accessible.

But Tony, charmingly, did not operate on that assumption, and I appreciate that. Apparently, he presumed that if the answer was not expressed as a question on the archive list, I had not ever blogged on the subject.

Actually, that’s not true, but I can see why he would think so. I can also see how any number of other readers searching for direct advice on this often-misreported issue might not have known which category would give them the answer in the quickest manner. Here, then, is the post he asked me to write — and I have created a new category on the archive list, so the Tonys of the future will be able to pull it up instantly.

That’s entirely appropriate, because it’s actually a very easy question to answer: published books and book manuscripts are not supposed to look alike. Traditional publishers do not print books directly from Word files; print files are quite different. Also, authors have virtually no say over how text appears in a published book; that is the publisher’s decision, just as the typeface is, and no formatting decision the writer makes in the manuscript will necessarily be reflected in its published version.

Therefore, just look at any published book cannot logically be a legitimate reply to ANY question about manuscript formatting.

So the problem here, Tony, was not that published books are inconsistent about this — and you’re right; they are — but that the person expressing the opinion was evidently unfamiliar with how standard format for books actually works. Manuscripts differ in many, many ways from published versions of the same text: they are double-spaced, for instance, contain doubled dashes, have one-inch margins, feature uniformly indented paragraphs, contain a slug line, are numbered in the slug line and not elsewhere on the page, and so forth. You’ll find a complete list of the rules here.

If any of that is news to anyone that pulled up this response while trying to answer the indentation question, I would urge you to consult the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list. You’ll find full explanations of the rules of standard format there. Honest.

Contrary to surprisingly pervasive belief in recent years, standard format — and, indeed, any formal writing in American English — requires that every paragraph be indented .5 inch. So why do we occasionally see published books in which the first paragraph of a chapter is not indented? Because that was a publisher’s decision to ape the style common in medieval manuscripts. You know:

Obviously, that’s not what agents and editors expect to see these days — and you wouldn’t believe any self-styled expert who claimed it was, right? Any publishing professional would reject this on sight: it’s hand-written. How they expect to see a chapter open is like this:

Does that clear things up, Tony? If not, please feel free to ask follow-up questions in the comments. This is now where future readers who share your concerns will look first for answers. They — and I — thank you for prompting me to make that happen.

What’s that those voices wafting back from the future are saying? They would like to see page 2, to compare it with a properly-formatted page 1? Happy to oblige.

That looks familiar, I hope. If you’re having trouble seeing the individual words of that thrilling saga, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Okay, now it’s your turn, Future Famous Authors. To be clear, I’m not inviting critique of how I handled Tony’s question: I want to know what your policy would be. Or is, if you’re already an author-blogger.

And, of course, if you want to sound off on the necessity of having to write material over and above your book in order to promote it, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject, too. Please don’t treat this post as a column, everyone, and 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.