As those of you who have been perusing the sage advice underneath the pictures here at Author! Author! for some time may have noticed, I’m a big fan of artists’ looking at ordinary, everyday things and showing us the beauty inherent in them. The coy models in the shots above could not have been more prosaic if they had tried: clockwise from top left, that’s perfectly ordinary moss on a perfectly ordinary concrete wall, photographed during a perfectly ordinary Seattle rainstorm, a genuinely mundane gin-and-tonic (commonplace Bombay Sapphire, instead of my preferred Hendrick’s), a salt-of-the-earth beach rock nice enough to hold still and pose for me, and a regular old municipal light pole attacked by regular old municipal rust.
And while I was clicking away to capture that first shot, a perfectly run-of-the-mill artist-meets-dubious-public moment: while crunching my body sideways in order to get that first shot, a Central Casting mother told her standard-issue wee daughter to veer away from the you-meet-‘em-every-day crazy lady. Yet another case of a misunderstood artist — and another a child being warned that if she tries to look at something from an unusual perspective, people are bound to think she’s strange.
And that, my friends, is how budding artists are discouraged from potentially glorious careers: being told that normalcy requires seeing things just like everybody else does.
Perhaps not astonishingly, writers tend to find beauty in found words. An overhead scrap of conversation, perhaps, or a favorite phrase in a book. And often — far too often, from Millicent the agency screener’s perspective — aspiring writers celebrate these words lifted from other places by quoting them at the beginning of their manuscripts.
That’s right, campers: today, I’m going to be talking about proper formatting for that extremely popular opening-of-text decoration, the epigraph. You know, those nifty little quotes from other sources that we writers adore enough to want to reproduce in our own books.
And who can blame us? It’s not as though the publishing industry doesn’t encourage us to think of them this way: in a published book, the epigraph, if any, is almost always presented in a place of honor, either at the top of each chapter or by itself on the page before the text proper starts.
Take, for example, the placement of the well-known epigraph to Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE, an excerpt from Stevie Wonder’s DO LIKE YOU. Even in my cheap, well-worn paperback edition, it scores a page all to itself, right between the copyright information on the flip side of the title page and the opening of Chapter One.
Okay, so that picture didn’t really do the words justice; not all of my photos can be winners, you know. Let’s try a tighter shot:
Not only is it allocated space; it’s allocated white space, to set it off from the other text. That is quite an honor, in an age when acknowledgments pages are routinely omitted, along with the second spaces after periods and colons, in order to save paper.
Especially since nobody but writers like epigraphs much — but I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I?
We writers-who-read think they’re great, don’t we? Particularly if those pithy little quotes come from obscure sources; they feel so literary. Or deep-in-the-national-psyche, know-your-Everyman populist, if they’re culled from songs. By evoking the echo of another writer’s words, be it an author’s or a songwriter’s, we use them to set the tone for the story to come.
I don’t think conceptual aptness is all there is to the appeal, though. There is something powerfully ritualistic about typing the words of a favorite author at the beginning of our manuscripts; it’s a way that we can not only show that we are literate folk — as opposed to the (ugh!) other kind — but that by writing a book, we are joining some pretty exalted company.
Feeling that way about the little dears, I truly hate to mention this, but here goes: it’s a waste of ink to include them in a manuscript intended for submission to an agency. 99.9998% of the time, they will not be read at all.
Stop glaring at me; it’s not my fault. I don’t stand over Millicent with a bullhorn, admonishing her to treat every syllable of every submission with respect. (Although admittedly, that’s an interesting idea.)
The sad fact is, most Millicents are specifically trained not to read epigraphs in manuscripts; it’s widely considered a waste of time. I’ve literally never met a professional reader who doesn’t simply skip epigraphs in a first read — or (brace yourselves, italics-lovers) any other italicized paragraph or two at the very beginning of a manuscript, even if it was actually part of the text.
Oh, dear — I told you to brace yourselves. “Why on earth,” italics-lovers the world over gasp in aghast unison, “would any literature-loving human do such a thing? 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 opening is in italics, it doesn’t really have much to do with the story at hand, which (they conclude, not always wrongly) begins with the first line of plain text.
In other words, our Millie treats any slanted text at the beginning of a manuscript as if it were an epigraph. It’s kind of hard to blame her, really: she’s there to read your writing, not somebody else’s.
Of course, there’s another, less ego-flattering reason that Millicents tend to skip ‘em: at the submission stage of the game, no one cares who a writer’s favorite authors are. A writer’s reading habits, while undoubtedly influential in developing her personal voice, are properly the subject of post-publication interviews, not manuscript pre-screening considerations.
After all, it’s not as though Millicent can walk into her boss’ office and say, “Look, I think you should read this submission, rather than that one, because the first’s writer has really terrific literary taste — it opens with a quote from William Godwin’s CALEB WILLIAMS, OR THINGS AS THEY ARE,” can she?
For those of you who didn’t howl with laughter at that little history-of-publishing joke, novelist William Godwin was political theorist and novelist Mary Wollstonecraft’s editor around the time of the French Revolution. They also produced another literary marvel together: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, was their daughter. Isn’t it fun being hyper-literate?
Still not rolling in the aisles, are you? That’s how Millicent feels when confronted with a genuinely esoteric quote at the top of a manuscript.
Whichever reason to skip the darned thing most appeals to the Millicent who happens to have your submission lingering on her desk (right next to that too-hot latte she’s always sipping, no doubt), it’s a safe bet that she’s not going to be reading your carefully-chosen epigraph. She feels pretty good about this choice, too.
Why? Well, the official justification for this practice — yes, there is one to which Millicents will admit in public — is not only reasonable, but even noble-sounding. See if it sounds at all familiar: even the busiest person at an agency or publishing house picks up a submission in order to read its author’s writing, not somebody else’s.
Kind of hard to fault them for feeling that way, isn’t it? Given our druthers, I suspect it would be hard to find an aspiring writer who wouldn’t prefer that the pros notice the individual brilliance of her respective styles than marvel over her esoteric reading habits.
Some of you are still clutching your quote books to your heaving chests, aren’t you? Okay, sentiment aside, let’s look at what including an epigraph in a book achieves on a practical level, as well as its strategic liabilities.
Let’s assume for a moment that you have selected the perfect quotation to open your story. Even better than that, it’s gleaned from an author that readers in your chosen book category already know and respect. By picking that quote, you’re announcing from page 1 — or before page 1, if you allocate it its own page in your manuscript — you’re telling Millicent that not only are you well-read in your book category, but you’re ready and able to take your place amongst its best authors.
Sounds plausible from a writerly perspective, doesn’t it? That’s one hard-working little quote.
But what happens when Millicent first claps eyes on your startlingly apt epigraph? Instead of impressing her with your erudition, the epigraph will to prompt her to start skimming before she gets to the first line of your text — and you will have made her wonder if you realized that manuscript format and book format are not the same.
So you tell me: was including it a good idea? Or the worst marketing notion since New Coke?
If that all that hasn’t convinced you, try this on for size: while individual readers are free to transcribe extracts to their hearts’ contents, the issue of reproducing words published elsewhere is significantly more problematic for a publishing house. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, reproduction of published text without the author’s permission is known in the biz by another, less flattering name: copyright infringement.
What does that mean in practice? Well, if the epigraph is from a book that is not in the public domain, the publisher will need to obtain explicit permission to use any quote longer than fifty words. Ditto for any quote from a song that isn’t in the public domain, even if it is just a line or two.
So effectively, most epigraphs in manuscripts might as well be signposts shouting to an editor: “Here is extra work for you, buddy, if you buy this book! You’re welcome!”
I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some epigraph-huggers cry,
“the material I’m quoting at the opening of the book is absolutely vital! The book simply isn’t comprehensible without it!”
Before I respond, let me ask a follow-up question: do you mean that it is crucial to the reader’s understanding the story, or that you have your heart set on that particular quote’s opening this book when it’s published?
If it’s the latter, including the epigraph in your manuscript is absolutely the wrong way to go about making that dream come true. Like any other book formatting issue, whether to include an epigraph — or acknowledgements, or a dedication — is up to the editor, not the author.
And besides — chant it with me now, ‘Palooza faithful — a manuscript should not look like a published book.
Consequently, the right time to place your desired epigraph under professional eyes is after the publisher has acquired the book, not before. You may well be able to argue successfully for including that magically appropriate quote, if you broach the subject at the right time. Politely.
Just to set my trouble-borrowing mind at ease: you do know better than to include either acknowledgements or a dedication in your manuscripts at submission time, right? It’s for precisely the same reason: whether they’ll end up in the published book is the editor’s call. (I wouldn’t advise getting your hopes up, though: in these paper-conserving days, the answer is usually no on both counts, at least for a first book.)
Quite a few of you were beaming virtuously throughout those last three paragraphs, though, weren’t you? “I know better than to second-guess an editor,” stalwart souls everywhere announce proudly. “I honestly meant what I said: my opening quote is 100% essential to any reader, including Millicent and her cohorts, understanding my work.”
Okay, if you insist, I’ll run through the right and wrong ways to slip an epigraph into a manuscript — but bear in mind that I can’t promise that even the snazziest presentation will cajole Millicent into doing anything but skipping that quote you love so much.
For starters, do not, under any circumstances, include a quote on the title page as an epigraph. Which is, alas, what submitters are most likely to do. Let’s take a gander at what their title pages tend to look like:
Does that leave you wondering whether Millicent will notice the quote at all, much less find it obnoxious? She will, because this is was what she was expecting to see:
Actually, that was sort of a red herring — that page wasn’t precisely what she expected. Did you catch the vital piece of information Eeyore left off his title page?
If you said that he neglected to include the book category on the second example, award yourself a pile of thistles. (Hey, that’s what he would have given you.) His title page should have looked like this:
And yes, I am going to keep showing you properly-formatted title pages until you start seeing them in your sleep; why do you ask? Take a moment to compare the third example with the first: the quote in the first example is going to stand out to Millicent like the nail in a certain critter’s tail, isn’t it?
Other submitters choose to eschew the title page route in order to place an epigraph on the first page of text. The result is immensely cluttered, by anyone’s standards — especially if the submitter has made the very common mistake I mentioned in my discussion of title pages last time, omitting the title page altogether and cramming all of its information onto page 1:
Where did all of our lovely white space go? Into quoting Ambrose Bierce, partially.
Not that I’m against anyone doing that, ever. Except — wait for it — on the top of a manuscript submission.
The third popular but ill-advised way to include an introductory epigraph is to place it on a page all by itself in the manuscript, between the title page and the first page of text. In other words, as it might appear in a published book:
What’s wrong with this, other than the fact that Poe died before our boy D.H. wrote Sons and Lovers? At the risk of repeating myself, a manuscript is not supposed to look just like a published book; it has its own proper format.
At best, Millicent is likely to huffily turn past this page unread. At worst, she’s going to think, “Oh, no, not another writer who doesn’t know how to format a manuscript properly. I’ll bet that when I turn to page one, it’s going to be rife with terrible errors.”
Does either outcome sound especially desirable to you? I thought not.
So what should an epigraph-insistent submitter do? Leave it out of the submission, of course — weren’t you listening before?
But if it is absolutely artistically necessary to include it, Mssr. Poe actually wasn’t all that far off: all he really did wrong here was include a slug line. The best way to include an introductory epigraph is on an unnumbered page PRIOR to page 1. On that unnumbered page, it should begin 12 lines down and be centered. But I’m not going to show you an example of that.
Why? Because I really, truly would advise against including an epigraph at all at the submission stage.
Just in case I hadn’t made that clear. And had I mentioned that manuscripts specifically should not resemble published books?
That doesn’t mean you should abandon your cherished epigraph altogether, however. Squirrel all of those marvelous quotes away until after you’ve sold the book — then wow your editor with your erudition and taste.
“My,” the editor will say, “this writer has spent a whole lot of time scribbling down other authors’ words. He must read quite a bit.”
Or, if you can’t wait that long, land an agent first and wow her with your erudition and taste. But don’t be surprised if she strongly advises you to keep those quotation marks to yourself for the time being. After all, she will want the editor of her dreams to be reading your writing, not anyone else’s, right?
Wait — where have I heard that before?
If you are submitting directly to a small press, do be aware that most publishing houses now place the responsibility for obtaining the necessary rights squarely upon the author. If you include epigraphs, editors at these houses will simply assume that you have already obtained permission to use them. Ditto with self-publishing presses.
This expectation covers, incidentally, quotes from song lyrics, regardless of length.
Yes, really. If you want to use a lyric from a song that is not yet in the public domain, it is generally the author’s responsibility to get permission to use it — and while for other writing, a quote of less than 50 consecutive words is considered fair use, ANY excerpt from an owned song usually requires specific permission, at least in North America. Contact the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) for assistance in making such requests. (For a very funny first-hand view of just what a nightmare this process can be, please see FAAB Joel Derfner’s guest post on the subject.)
Have I talked you out of including an epigraph yet — particularly an excerpt from a copyrighted song, like Alice Walker’s? How about holding off for the creative reason: Millicent sees the same quotes over and over again?
Oh, you were positive that nobody else was a William Godwin fan?
I know that it hurts to cut your favorite quote from your manuscript, but take comfort in the fact that at the submission stage, no cut is permanent. Just because you do not include your beloved quote in your submission does not mean that it cannot be in the published book.
Contrary to what 99% of aspiring writers believe, at the submission stage, even the most polished manuscript is a draft, not a finished work. In actuality, nothing in a manuscript is exempt from alteration until the book is actually printed — and folks in the industry make editing requests accordingly.
That’s going to help all of you sleep better tonight, isn’t it? Actually, it should: just as tight copyright restrictions prevent your favorite authors from having long chunks of their texts excerpted without their permission — or, sacre bleu! entire paragraphs from CALEB WILLIAMS being passed off as somebody else’s work — so will it protect your writing from predatory borrowers.
Just a bit of proverbial food for thought. Keep noticing the beauty in the everyday, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!