Formatpalooza, part XIX: constructing a proposal an agent or editor would like to accept

Sorry about the uncharacteristically long silence, campers. Although you may have concluded that I had withdrawn, discreetly, in order to allow those of you who write literary fiction, memoir, and work that just doesn’t fit neatly into a pre-established category some extra time to prepare your entries in the Author! Author! Rings True Writing Competition — the deadline is Saturday at midnight in your time zone! — I was, alas, flat on my back.

Or rather resting at an incline, sniffling my way through one of the most annoying flus ever to work its way through the hapless citizenry of this part of the country. Normally, I can work through the haze of such contretemps, but this one was a lulu. I shall post through the weekend, though, to make up for the lost time.

Why the hurry? I know that some of you are eager to polish off — and polish up — your nonfiction book proposals.

Toward that laudable end, we have been bending our collective gaze — steely, to be sure — away from the green pastures of manuscript formatting to turn our attention to the wind-swept plains of book proposals and their proper formatting. As we have seen in our brief sojourn amid the majestic buffalo and skipping lambs, while the text of a book proposal is formatted largely in the same matter as a manuscript’s, the various headings and subheadings are often different.

Allow me to take a brief pause in the midst of all of that stirring imagery to sneeze violently.

Before we resume, did you notice how I dropped that running metaphor when it became apparent that it wasn’t working? That’s a good editing tip for any kind of writing: if it doesn’t fly, don’t force it. An even better one: while proofing you work, make sure you read all the way to the end of every sentence; it’s the only way to catch metaphors abandoned mid-stream.

Why, yes, Virginia, I do see orphaned metaphors wandering about ostensibly well-revised manuscripts. All the time. It’s one of the species markings of the Frankenstein manuscript.

As we saw last time, a professional book proposal contains a wide range of marketing materials, all written in the proposer’s best possible prose, cleverly fitted together in a manner to convince an agent or editor that the proposed book an interesting idea that will appeal to a very specific (and, ideally, well-established) target audience. Not only that, but that the proposer is the best (and, ideally, the only) conceivable person currently drawing breath to write this particular book.

Or, to put it in the language of the industry, it’s a marketable concept presented by a writer with a great platform.

Pardon me while I wrap myself up warmly — the thousand hands that just shot into the air created quite a draft. “Excuse me, Anne?” many would-be proposers inquire nervously. “You didn’t really mean that bit about the proposal written in the proposer’s best possible prose, did you? After all, the proposal is just a formality, a series of hoops through which I have to jump before a publisher buys my book, right? All that really matters is a great book concept.”

Actually, no — although I can certainly see why you might think so. Unlike novels, nonfiction books (yes, even most memoirs) are sold not because someone falls in love with the manuscript, but because a prospective author has made a convincing case in a proposal that a book that does not yet exist will be marketable to a specific audience and that s/he is the right person to write it.

Since the book concept and the argument for it are the primary sales pitch, most first-time proposers conclude that the writing in a proposal is of secondary importance. They’re absolutely wrong.

Why? Because every syllable of a book proposal is a writing sample — the only writing sample, in fact, upon which an agent or editor will base his or her conclusions about whether to pick up the book.

Picture, if you will (and you will, right?), Maury the editorial assistant, diligently scanning the day’s submissions from agents for the next promising nonfiction project. He has reason to be careful: he needs to be very, very selective about what he passes on to his boss, the editor of your dreams. (Let’s call her Ermintrude, just for giggles.) If he simply sends Ermintrude every proposal that sounds as if it might make a good book, he’s not really doing his job, is he? It’s not as though she can offer a publication contract to every interesting-sounding project, after all; at most, even an extremely busy editor might be able to take on somewhere between one and ten a year.

Yes, you read that correctly. Believe me, if Ermintrude had her druthers, she would be publishing at least 30 times that many, but her druthers are, alas, constrained by economic realities and marketing trends.

Please think about that, if were planning to toss together your book proposals over the next long weekend, or stuff them into the mailbox without running the text by another literate human being not already familiar with your book’s concept — or, sacre bleu! if you have already sent off a New Year’s resolution-fueled submission packet. Even though it has historically been quite a bit easier to land an agent and sell a first nonfiction book than a debut novel, the competition is still extremely fierce.

So when you see an agency’s submission guidelines seemingly casually asking nonfiction writers to query with proposal, this is not a requirement to approach lightly. The Millicents who screen those proposals for agents are expecting not a thrown-together, paint-by-numbers, bare-minimum document; they are expecting to see a polished, professional presentation of a terrific book concept written in beautiful, clear prose.

Why set the bar that high? Let’s wend our way back to Maury’s cubicle to find out.

It’s Maury’s job to prevent Ermintrude’s desk from becoming so over-stacked with proposals that she can’t find her phone. That means, in practice, that he’s going to weed out any proposal that doesn’t sound interesting right off the bat. He’s also going to reject those that don’t have a clearly-defined concept — which, in a screener’s world, means one that’s both grabbed his attention instantly and is comprehensible within the first few pages of the proposal — as well as those that either don’t define their target market well or do not strike him as likely to appeal to the readers already buying such books. Not to mention those that don’t seem to have a well laid-out marketing plan or chapters likely to deliver fully upon the premise of the proposal, or those proposed by writers who haven’t made a good case for their platforms to write the book.

That, frankly, is most of ‘em. I hate to be blunt about it, but because the book proposal is such a widely misunderstood marketing tool, Maury sees a whole lot of rambling proposals. And rambling, unprofessional proposals are most of what Millicent sees on a weekly basis.

In both cases, the response is the same: “Next!” Unfortunately, due to the sheer volume of submissions, it’s likely to be “Next!” for quite a few well-written ones, too.

Why, you cry in tones of anguish? Let’s be generous and assume that Maury’s had an unusually strong selection of proposals tumble onto his desk this week: out of 300, 10 are genuinely fascinating ideas for books aimed for a well-established audience.

He is facing a dilemma, right? Obviously, he can’t possibly pass them all along to his boss — remember, 10 is Ermintrude’s entire year’s allotment of books, even if she works nights, weekends, and funds the last two herself, and this is only the first week of the year. So how does he decide which one or two to send across the hall to her?

That’s right: the ones where the writing in the first few pages screams, “Excuse me, but had you noticed that there’s some talent here?”

Yes, I did indeed say the first few pages; as with a novel, if the opening doesn’t shine, a professional reader is unlikely to read on.

Don’t pout — this information is potentially empowering, because it can steer a nonfiction writer toward specific, helpful revisions. If a literate person like Maury can’t tell Ermintrude what the book is about and why you’re the best person on earth to write it by the time he is halfway through page 4, you might want to think about some serious revision. And if he doesn’t positively long to read the book by the middle of page 2, run, don’t walk, back to the drawing board to work on your prose and presentation.

Now that I’ve scared the living daylights out of you, let’s review the constituent parts of the book proposal — at least, the ones we have covered so far:

1. The title page

2. The overview, a comprehensive document that leaves Maury with no doubt whatsoever about how to answer the following questions:

(a) What is the proposed book will be about, and why are you the single best being currently possessing an operational circulatory system and fingers to write about it?

(b) What is the central question or problem of the book? Why the topic is important, and to whom?

(c) Why is this book needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history?

(d) Who is the target audience for this book?

(e) Why will this book appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market does?

(f) How will your platform enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might even think about writing this book?

(g) How strong a writer are you, and is this voice appropriate to the proposed book’s subject matter and target audience?

Okay, okay, so I kind of slipped that last one up the back staircase, but it’s an important question to consider when evaluating whether your book proposal is strong enough to head out the door. Let’s face it: most book proposals are very, very dry. That makes some sense, given that for even the most enthusiastic book proposer, comparing books currently on the market and talking about methods for reaching a target audience are not inherently exciting topics.

As a result, many a book proposal reads like a book report: all of the necessary parts are there, but the writing is perfunctory and, well, dull. Quite apart from the very real risk of boring Maury and Millicent — who, after all, read quite a few proposals in any given day, if their bosses handle nonfiction — a just-the-facts-ma’am proposal runs another risk: conveying the impression that the book being proposed will be sketchily or uncompellingly written as well.

But this is a marketing document, right? Why not use those pages to give Millicent and Maury a strong foretaste of what the book will be like? Or, to phrase it as an axiom: it’s a great asset to a book proposal if it is written in the same voice (and with the same vocabulary) as the eventual book.

Especially if you can do it excitingly within the first few paragraphs of the proposal. As we discussed last time, a fantastic way to establish authorial voice and interest in the subject matter is to start the proposal with a vividly illustrative anecdote or other method of direct appeal to the reader’s reason and emotions.

Opening with personality-free marketing material tends not to grab Maury’s attention anywhere near as well. Unless you would rather try to thrill him with a hook focused upon last year’s sales statistics?

3. The competitive market analysis
This section, as I hope you will recall from last time, consists of a brief examination of similar books that have come out within the last five years, accompanied in each case by an explanation of how the book being proposed will serve the shared target audience’s needs in a different and/or better manner. Not intended to be an exhaustive list, the competitive market analysis uses the publishing successes of similar books in order to make a case that there is a demonstrable already-existing audience for this book.

Sound familiar? It should: here is where the proposer proves the contentions he made in the overview. Preferably, with hard data.

Which of the many, many contentions, you ask, and how does talking about one’s competition prove them? Well, for starters, who the target audience is for your book?

Answer: the readers who have already bought the books listed in the competitive market analysis. The implicit logic: if those books sold well, that means these people buy a lot of books — and might be eager to buy more.

Remember, this should not be a list, but a compare-and-contrast essay, presented in standard format. The essay format is actually to your advantage: while you’re comparing and contrasting, you can demonstrate how your book is different and better than what’s already on the market — and yes, Virginia, that can (and should) be done without running down the competition, as long as you’re specific.

Think about it: if you mention the best points of the other books and can still make the case that your proposed volume will either do what they do, only more effectively (do you have a stronger platform than another author, for instance, or is the other book outdated now?) and/or not in the same way (what does your take on the subject offer that those other books do not?), your book is going to end up looking better by contrast than if you merely say that everything else is terrible.

Trust me on this one. If you can’t say anything nice about a particular comparable book, consider instead contrasting yours to one that you can praise with a straight face.

Some of you have had your hands raised since last time, have you not? “But Anne,” proposers everywhere exclaim, rubbing circulation back into their exhausted arms, “one of the reasons I wanted to write my book in the first place is that there isn’t another recent book on the subject. So how do I come up with a list for the competitive market analysis? Make things up?”

Glad you asked, patient arm-raisers — there’s a pro’s trick for handling this. But first, indulge me by participating in a short exercise in understanding your book’s appeal.

(a) Equip yourself with some scratch paper (the back sides of earlier drafts of your proposal, perhaps?) and a comfortable pen.
I would suggest selecting a comfortable chair, too, because you’re not to budge until you come up with a list to take with you to a bookstore.

(b) Brainstorm five different ways to describe your proposed book.
And I’m not talking about descriptors like well-written, either — describe your book the way a clerk in a bookstore might to a potential reader. Is it a memoir about your childhood spent following your mother as she worked as a gold-panner in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the 1920s? Then your list might run like this: memoir of 10-year-old girl, treasure-hunting, mountain living, 1920s, and women in unusual occupations.

Starting to get the hang of this? Let’s try another one: the proposer of a self-help book aimed at mothers with children suffering from life-threatening illnesses, illustrated with abundant real-life case studies might generate a list like this: self-help for mothers, terminal illness, medical memoir, parenting books, dealing with the prospect of death, and mourning.

Got your list firmly in hand? Good. Now…

(c) Hie yourself and your list hence to the nearest well-stocked brick-and-mortar bookstore.
Seriously, what I’m about to suggest is considerably harder to pull off online.

Standing in the store, feeling silly for carrying that list around? Excellent. Ready, set…

(d) Don’t find a book like yours. Instead find a couple of books that match one — and only one — descriptor on your list.
Yes, really: while it would be terrific to discover a book similar enough to yours that you can perform a direct point-by-point comparison, it’s actually not necessary for your book proposal. Instead, go to the first descriptor on your list and find several books that could be described with the same term.

Proposing a memoir, for instance? Stand in front of the memoir section and keep pulling books off the shelves until you discover a few that are similar in some way to yours — not identical, but exhibiting some subject matter or approach overlap.

It can be a very, very small way. Is it a childhood memoir by someone who grew up in the same part of the country as you did? Start taking notes. Is another by a dog-lover, while two chapters of your proposed book cover your relationship with beloved Spot? Sounds close enough to me. If your memoir set in the mid-1960s, find a few good nonfiction titles that cover similar aspects of the period.

After you’ve ferreted out a few useful titles, move on to the next descriptor on your list. If your cookbook is for vegans, how about including as few of the well put-together vegetarian cookbooks out recently? Not too hard to see how your book would be different and better for vegan readers than those, right? If your memoir features a chapter on the day your big brother ran away to join the army, wouldn’t it make sense to grab a couple of military memoirs, to check which dealt with family issues?

And so forth. The goal here is not necessarily to find a dozen books exactly like yours; it’s also perfectly permissible to devote a paragraph or two each to several different book categories into which your unique book might conceivably fall. Chances are, you’re going to find more books than you actually need. When in doubt, go with the ones that sold better and/or were released by major U.S. publishers; while a book from a smaller press, or one that sold only a few hundred copies, might actually be a better fit, it will provide less evidence to Millicent and her boss that there are editors at major houses already eager to buy books like yours.

Once you have come up with a dozen or so titles, you are ready to begin writing your competitive market analysis.

(e) Instead of trying to draw overall comparisons between your proposed book and each of the titles on your list, focus instead on the single point of overlap — and show how your book will address that particular point in a better way or with a different take than the already-published book.
Try not to fall into the trap of hyper-literalism here. If your book is about being raised by bears, and you are contrasting it with a memoir about being raised by wolves, you’re not going to get a lot of mileage out of saying, WOLF CHILD completely ignores the problems of the bear-raised human, so my book, CUB SCOUT, will appeal to the wild-animal/family market more.

Well, of course a book about wolves would not address bears; it’s not reasonable to expect otherwise. By concentrating upon more positive points of comparison, it’s easier to make your book’s legitimate selling points clear: like the best-selling WOLF CHILD, CUB SCOUT is a first-person account of being raised by wild animals. Wolves, however, have a long history of taking in abandoned human children; I was the first child in the Cascade region ever to have spent significant time with the grizzly without ending up a corpse.

See the difference? Again, the point here is not to convey the impression that you consider every similar book out there your competition, and therefore its author an enemy to be discredited. By demonstrating that there is already a market for books that match your five descriptors — as there must be, according to industry logic, or those recently-released books would not be on the shelves* — the implication is that past readers of each of those types of book might arguably be interested in yours.

(* Don’t waste your energies questioning this quite debatable assumption; you’ve got a proposal to write.)

Everyone clear now on the purpose and proper formatting of the competitive market analysis? If not, now would be a fabulous time to shout out a question or two. While I’m waiting with my hand cupped around my ear, let’s move on to the next section.

4. The annotated table of contents
It’s not surprising that this section falls flat in so many proposals; many, if not most, proposers don’t seem to understand the purpose of the annotated table of contents. Many, many proposers labor under the misconception that what agents and editors expect to see in this section is simply a list of chapter titles, accompanied by guesstimated page numbers. Many, many other proposers assume that they should devote a page to each chapter.

Or even several. For my sins, I’ve seen proposal drafts with 20-page annotated tables of contents. Believe me, Maury was far from pleased.

Avoid that dreadful fate in yours; keep it brief, but substantial. One to two paragraphs on each envisioned chapter is about right — remembering, of course, that everything in a book proposal is a writing sample. At the risk of repeating myself, show, don’t tell.

How does one pull that off when covering so much territory in so short a space as a paragraph or two? The same way you came up with the descriptive paragraph of your query letter, ideally: instead of trying to summarize everything that happens in a chapter in general terms, pick a particularly interesting scene or argument and present it in vivid terms.

In other words: be specific, not general. If you can possibly manage it, try to include details that Maury is unlikely to see in another proposal.

Again, you’re going to want to write this as narrative, not a list, but this section of the proposal has some odd conventions, ones that tend to come as a surprise to most first-time proposers. To see them in action, let’s take a gander at out example from the other day. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the specifics, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Notice anything here that might offend the muses of standard format, were this a novel? How about the fact that the title of the book appears at the top of the page, as if Annotated Table of Contents were a subtitle? Or the phenomenon of adding a section break between each chapter’s description? Or that the descriptions were in the present tense, like a synopsis?

Actually, there’s a pretty good explanation for the first two of these conventions. (Sorry; you’re on your own for the last.) Remember how I mentioned earlier in this sub-series that unlike a manuscript, book proposals are often broken up into their constituent parts on the reading end, so folks working in different departments at publishing houses may take a gander at ‘em?

Titling the annotated table of contents renders it easier to get those pages back into the right proposal. Skipping a line between chapters makes it simpler for an editor to find the chapter she is seeking when she’s in an editorial committee meeting or arguing with your agent about what will be in the final book.

Oh, you weren’t aware that editors often ask writers to change the proposed chapters? Happens all the time, so gird your loins, nonfiction-proposers, and prepare to play ball.

If the very notion of being asked to remove your meticulously-researched chapter on steam engines (in order to replace it with a similar section on cotton gins, about which the acquiring editor did her undergraduate thesis at Columbia) or to reduce your seven intended chapters on your life prior to the age of 17 into as many paragraphs (so you may concentrate at greater length on your four subsequent years as a sword-swallower) causes your skin crawl in revulsion, do not despair. You actually do have a means of making sure your favorite chapters pass the editorial test: write about them brilliantly in the annotated table of contents.

Seriously, if ever there was a time to show, not tell, this is it. The more vividly-depicted specifics you can work into those chapter descriptions, the better. Think of it as an opportunity to let Maury and Millicent know what a great storyteller you are.

Why is that especially important in the annotated table of contents, you ask? The vast majority of first proposals just summarize what’s going to be in each chapter, instead of using each chapter to tell a compelling separate story. Because you’re selling your talents as a writer here, as well as the subject matter of the book, that’s a serious faux pas.

If you just muttered to yourself, “Hey, might this not be an amazingly good place to demonstrate just how my book is different and better than the ones I was discussing in the last section?” congratulations — you’re starting to think like a pro. Especially in a memoir or cookbook proposal, this is a great spot to work in mention of how your book is uniquely yours:

annotated table of contents2

If you eagerly shot your hand into the air as you glanced over that last example, eager to point out that this example was formatted slightly differently than the one before it, congratulations again — your eye is sharpening. The last version is in the version my agency prefers; the desire for bolding and all caps is not universal.

Just thought you might like to see both. And if I haven’t said it often enough yet: if the agent of your dreams wants you to format your proposal differently from what I advise here — in, for example, clearly laid-out guidelines on the agency’s website — for heaven’s sake, give him what he wants. In the book proposal as well as the manuscript, the average agent is looking for evidence that a potential client can follow directions.

Don’t see why that would be an essential quality in a book-proposing client? Okay, let me ask you: if you were an agent, would you rather represent the writer who says, “Lose my Chapter 13 and dumb down the book’s vocabulary to an 8th-grade reading level? Can do, Ermintrude!” or the one who flies into an uncontrollable fury and comes weeping to the agent, demanding to cancel the book contract?

Oh, come on — you didn’t really hesitate over that choice as long as you pretended, did you?

I’ll be wrapping up book proposal formatting next time — literally: I’ll be talking about the folders that encase them. Until we meet again in that happy, not-too-distant future, keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XVIII: checking off all of those boxes, or, how to format a book proposal

How’s everybody doing out there? Are all of you nonfiction writers excited that I’ve been talking about writing specific to your book categories, or is everyone still too burned out from New Year’s festivities that you’re sitting there, glassy-eyed, silently willing the first Monday of 2011 to be over, already? Or — and I sincerely hope this is the case — are you paying attention to this post with one part of your brain, while another delightedly plots how to polish up your entries to the Author! Author! Rings True Writing Competition? There are both fiction and nonfiction categories this time around, folks, so I hope all of you memoirists who just dropped by for the formatting tips will at least consider entering.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what you’ll send in. As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while may have sensed, I honestly do like to see what my readers are writing.

And, of course, to know how I can help you present your manuscripts and proposals more professionally. If you have a question about standard format, or something for which you would like to see more practical examples, by all means, let me know. That’s why the comment function is there, folks!

Seriously, it’s to everybody’s benefit if you ask; trust me, if you have been wondering, so have hundreds of other writers. The overwhelming majority of aspiring writers have never seen a professionally-formatted manuscript or book proposal, after all. I would much, much rather you asked me than took a wild guess in your submissions.

Readers’ questions also allow me to fine-tune the archive list at right — I want to make it as intuitive as possible for a panicked aspiring writer to use. (Speaking of which, since no one has commented yet on last November’s rather radical rearrangement of the archive list, am I to conclude that (a) most of you are finding it easier to use than its previous incarnation, (b) most of you are finding it harder to use, but are too polite to say so, (c) despite the monumental effort of rearranging it under subheadings, the result is precisely as user-friendly as the simple alphabetical list it replaced, or (d) nobody has noticed? It would be quite helpful for me to know.)

I’m particularly interested in finding out what pieces of information are comparatively difficult to find in my frankly pretty hefty archives. Why, only last February, eagle-eyed reader Kim was kind enough to point out a fairly extensive omission in my twice-yearly examinations of standard format for manuscripts: although I had been providing illustrations of same for several years now, I’d never shown the innards of a properly-formatted book proposal. In fact, as Kim explained,

Anne — Thank you for this glorious blog. It is a wealth of information. I am putting together a submissions package (requested materials, yea!), which includes a book proposal. After searching through your site, I still can’t find a specific format for the thing. For example, should the chapter summaries be outlined? double-spaced? Should I start a new page for each subheading? Also, my book has several very short chapters (80 in total). Should I group some of them together in the summaries, lest it run too long? Or is it better to give a one sentence description of each? Thanks again.

My first response to this thoughtful set of observations, I must admit, was to say, “No way!” After all, I had written a quite extensive series entitled HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL (beginning here) as recently as…wait, did that date stamp say August of 2005?

As in within a month of when I started this blog? More to the point, since before I sold my second nonfiction book to a publisher? (No, you haven’t missed any big announcements, long-time readers: that one isn’t out yet, either.)

Clearly, I had a bit of catching up to do. Equally clearly, I am deeply indebted to my intrepid readers for telling me when they cannot find answers to their burning questions in the hugely extensive Author! Author! archives.

The burning question du jour: how is a book proposal formatted differently than a book manuscript? Or is it?

In most ways, it isn’t; in some ways, however, it is. Rather than assume, as I apparently did for four and a half years, that merely saying that book proposals should be in standard manuscript format (with certain minimal exceptions), let’s see what that might look like in action.

In fact, since I’ve been going over the constituent parts in order, let’s go ahead recap from the beginning, talking a little about what purpose each portion of it serves. Here, ladies and gentlemen of the Author! Author! community, are the building blocks of a professional book proposal, illustrated for your pleasure. As you will see, much of it is identical in presentation to a manuscript.

1. The title page
Like any other submission to an agent or editor, a book proposal should have a title page. Why? To make it easier to contact you — or your agent — and buy the book, of course.

As we discussed in our last ‘Palooza post, once a writer has landed an agent, the agency’s contact information belongs on the title page, so the editor of one’s dreams may contact one’s agent easily to acquire the book. Prior to either the happy day of an offer on one’s book or the equally blissful day one signs with an agent, the writer’s contact information belongs on the title page.

2. The overview
First-time proposers often shirk on this part, assuming — wrongly — that all that’s required to propose a nonfiction book is to provide the kind of 1-, 3-, or 5-page synopsis one might tuck into a query packet. In practice, however, a successful overview serves a wide variety of purposes:

(a) It tells the agent or editor what the proposed book will be about, and why you are the single best person on earth to write about it. Pretty much everyone gets that first part, but presenting one’s platform credibly is often overlooked in an overview. (I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if an agent or editor makes it to the bottom of page 3 of your proposal without understanding why you are a credible narrator for this topic, your proposal is going to fall flat, no matter how inherently interesting your topic may be.

(b) It presents the central question or problem of the book, explaining why the topic is important and to whom , amplifying on the argument in (a), couching it in larger terms and trends. Or, to put it another way: why will the world be a better place if this book is published?

No, that’s not an egomaniac’s way to look at it. Why do your readers need to read this book? How will their lives or understanding of the world around them be strengthened or reshaped by it?

(c) It demonstrates why this book is needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history. That one is self-explanatory, I hope.

(d) It answers the burning question: who is the target audience for this book, anyway? To reframe the question as Millicent’s boss will: how big is the intended market for this book, and how do we know that they’re ready to buy a book on this subject?

(e) It explains why this book will appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market will. (In other words, how are potential readers’ needs not being served by what’s been published within the last five years — the usual definition of the current market — and why will your book serve those needs in a better, or at any rate different, manner?

(f) It shows how your platform will enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might conceivably write this book. Essentially, this involves tying together all of the foregoing, adding your platform, and stirring.

(g) It makes abundantly clear the fact that you can write. Because, lest we forget, a book proposal is a job application at base: the writer’s primary goal is to get an agent or editor to believe that she is the right person to hire to write the book she’s proposing.

Yes, there should be separate sections of the book proposal that address all of these points in detail. The overview is just that: a quick summary of all of the important selling points for your book, presented in a manner intended to entice an agent or editor to read on to the specifics.

In the interest of establishing points (a), (b), and (g) right off the bat, I like to open a book proposal with an illustrative anecdote or direct personal appeal that thrusts the reader right smack into the middle of the central problem of the piece, reducing it to an individual human level. Basically, the point here is to answer the question why would a reader care about this subject? within the first few lines of the proposal, while showing off the writer’s best prose.

For a general nonfiction book — particularly one on a subject that Millicent might at first glance assume, perish the thought, to be a bit on the dry side — this is a great opportunity for the writer to give a very concrete impression of why a reader might care very deeply about the issue at hand. Often, the pros open such an anecdote with a rhetorical question.

overview NF page 1

The opening anecdote gambit works especially well for a memoir proposal, establishing both the voice and that the memoir’s central figure is an interesting person in an interesting situation. While it’s best to keep the anecdote brief — say, anywhere between a paragraph and a page and a half — it’s crucial to grab Millicent’s attention with vividly-drawn details and surprising turns of event. To revisit our example from last time:

overview1

overview2

As we saw in that last example, you can move from the anecdote or opening appeal without fanfare, simply by inserting a section break — in other words, by skipping a line. While many book proposals continue this practice throughout the overview, it’s visually more appealing to mark its more important sections with subheadings, like so:

subheading in proposal

Incorporating subheadings, while not strictly speaking necessary, renders it very, very easy for Millicent the agency screener to find the answers to the basic questions any book proposal must answer. If the text of the proposal can address those questions in a businesslike tone that’s also indicative of the intended voice of the proposed book, so much the better.

Please note, however, that I said businesslike, not in business format. Under no circumstances should a book proposal either be single-spaced or present non-indented paragraphs.

This one confuses a lot of first-time proposers, I’ve noticed. “But Anne!” they protest, and not entirely without justification. “A book proposal is a business document, isn’t it? Doesn’t that mean that it should be in business format?”

The short answer is my God — no! The not-so-short answer is: not if you want Millicent to read it. An aspiring writer who does not indent her paragraphs is presumed illiterate.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: the publishing industry does not use business format, even in its business letters; always, always, ALWAYS indent your paragraphs.

3. The competitive market analysis
The competitive market analysis is probably the most widely misunderstood portion of the book proposal. What the pros expect to see here is a brief examination of similar books that have come out within the last five years, accompanied by an explanation of how the book being proposed will serve the shared target audience’s needs in a different and/or better manner. Not intended to be an exhaustive list, the competitive market analysis uses the publishing successes of similar books in order to make a case that there is a demonstrable already-existing audience for this book.

But that’s not how you’ve heard this section described, is it? Let me take a stab at what most of you have probably heard: it’s a list of 6-12 similar books.

Period. The sad, sad result usually looks like this:

competitive market analysis bad

Makes it pretty plain that the writer thinks all that’s required here is proof that there actually have been other books published on the subject in the past, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, to Millicent’s critical eye, such a list doesn’t merely seem like ignorance of the goal of the competitive market analysis — it comes across as proof positive of the authorial laziness of a writer who hasn’t bothered to learn much about either how books are proposed or the current market for the book he’s proposing.

To be fair, this is the section where first-time proposers are most likely to skimp on the effort. Never a good idea, but a particularly poor tactic here. After all of these years, the average Millicent is darned tired of proposers missing the point of this section: all too often, first-time proposers assume that it has no point, other than to create busywork.

As you may see above, the bare-bones competitive market analysis makes the writer seem as if he’s gone out of his way to demonstrate just how stupid he thinks this particular exercise is. That’s because he’s missed the point of the exercise.

The goal here is not merely to show that other books exist, but that the book being proposed shares salient traits with books that readers are already buying. And because the publishing industry’s conception of the current market is not identical to what is actually on bookstore shelves at the moment, the savvy proposer includes in his competitive market analysis only books that have been released by major houses within the last five years.

That last point made some of you choke on your tea, didn’t it? Don’t you wish someone had mentioned that little tidbit to you before the first time you proposed?

Even when proposers do take the time to research and present the appropriate titles, a handful of other mistakes tend to mark the rookie’s proposal for Millicent. Rather than show you each of them individually, here’s an example that includes several. Take out your magnifying glass and see how many you can catch.

competitive market analysis 2

How did you do?

Let’s take the more straightforward, cosmetic problems first, the ones that should immediately leap out at anyone familiar with standard format. There’s no slug line, for starters: if this page fell out of the proposal — as it might; remember, proposals are unbound — Millicent would have no idea to which of the 17 proposals currently on her desk it belonged. It does contain a page number, but an unprofessionally-presented one, lingering at the bottom of the page with, heaven help us, dashes on either side.

Then, too, one of the titles is underlined, rather than italicized, demonstrating formatting inconsistency, and not all of the numbers under 100 are written out in full. Not to mention the fact that it’s single-spaced!

All of this is just going to look tacky to Millie, right?

Okay, what else? Obviously, this version is still presented as a list, albeit one that includes some actual analysis of the works in question; it should be in narrative form. Also, it includes the ISBN numbers, which to many Millicent implies — outrageously! — a writerly expectation that she’s going to take the time to look up the sales records on all of these books.

I can tell you now: it’s not gonna happen. If a particular book was a runaway bestseller, the analysis should have mentioned that salient fact.

There’s one other, subtler problem with this example — did you catch it?

I wouldn’t be astonished if you hadn’t; many a pro falls into this particular trap. Let’s take a peek at this same set of information, presented as it should be, to see if the gaffe jumps out at you by contrast.

competitive market analysis3

Any guesses? How about the fact that the last example’s criticism is much, much gentler than the one immediately before it?

Much too frequently, those new to proposing books will assume, wrongly, that their job in the competitive market analysis is rip apart every previous book on the subject. They try to make the case that every other book currently available has no redeeming features, as a means of making their own book concepts look better by contrast.

Strategically, this is almost always a mistake. Anybody out there have any ideas why?

If it occurred to you that perhaps, just perhaps, the editors, or even the agents, who handled the books mentioned might conceivably end up reading this book proposal, give yourself three gold stars. It’s likely, isn’t it? After all, agents and editors both tend to specialize; do you honestly want the guy who edited the book you trashed to know that you thought it was terrible?

Let me answer that one for you: no, you do not. Nor do you want to insult that author’s agent. Trust me on this one.

No need to go overboard and imply that a book you hated was the best thing you’ve ever read, of course — the point here is to show how your book will be different and better, so you will need some basis for comparison. You might want to avoid phrases like terrible, awful, or an unforgivable waste of good paper, okay?

I had hoped to get a little farther in the proposal, but as I’m already running long, I’m going to sign off for the day. But since you’re all doing so well, here’s one final pop quiz before I go: what lingering problem remains in this last version, something that might give even an interested Millicent pause in approving this proposal?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, shouting, “I know! I know! Most of these books came out more than five years ago, and of those, The Gluten-Free Gourmet is the only one that might be well enough known to justify including otherwise,” give yourself seven gold stars for the day.

Heck, take the rest of the day off; I am. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part IX: areas of authorial discretion, or, there are rules, and there are rules

full moon in the gutter

At the risk of seeming trite, I would like to point out that it has been raining a great deal in Seattle of late. Not the normal constant misty drizzle that characterizes our dark Pacific Northwest winters, but sheets. Buckets. The proverbial cats and dogs, with an antelope or two thrown in by whatever celestial water-monger has seen fit to try to drown us.

I’m not saying we’re worried. I’m saying my neighbors came over this evening to ask how long a cubit was, so they could read the blueprints for their ark.

But enough idly wondering where on earth they found a pair of yeti for their menagerie. Time to get back to the matter at hand: manuscript formatting.

Over the last couple of posts, we have been gladdening our hearts (okay, gladdening my detail-loving editorial heart) with discussion of something that Millicent the agency screener just loves to see, a properly-formatted first page of a manuscript, as well as phenomena she sees more often, but likes less, various species of improperly formatted page 1. The Millicent-pleasing version looked, if you will recall, a little something like this — and, as always, if you’re having trouble seeing the details, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly.

good example revised

Now that’s a lovely page 1: unprovocative, professional-looking, and flaunting lots of nice, clean white space at the top. “Ah,” Millicent murmurs, settling back into her chair, “now I can concentrate on the writing and the story.”

Contrast that, please, with the much more cluttered short story format all too many book and book proposal submitters mistakenly believe is universally applicable to any writing on paper:

Pretty distracting to the eye, is it not? Admittedly, not all embracers of this format will choose to clutter the space up further with an epigraph — which, as we discussed last time, it not generally the best idea at the submission stage, no matter what you want the published version of your book to look like — but one does not need to be the Amazing Kreskin to predict that their submission packets all share another unprofessional characteristic: no title page.

How do I know that? Well, think about it: since all of that eye-displacing verbiage — title, book category, word count, contact information — would in a properly-constructed submission packet appear on the title page, why would a submitter repeat all of it at the top of page 1?

Both page 1 and the opening of each subsequent chapter should include all of the spaciousness of that first example, not launching into the text until 14 single lines from the top of the page. (Or, to put it another way, 6 double-spaced lines under the chapter title. And for those of you who do not know how to insert a hard page break into a Word document, it’s located under the INSERT menu. Select BREAK, then PAGE BREAK.)

Did that bit about the subsequent chapters catch any of you by surprise? To prevent that kind of confusion in future, let’s go ahead and hatch a new axiom: each new chapter should begin on a fresh page, but the first page of every chapter should be formatted exactly like page 1.

Yes, Virginia: exactly, at least in terms of formatting. Since the book’s title should appear on the title page, why would the opening of the book and the opening of Chapter 6 be different?

So you may see that in action (and to prove that I practice what I preach), here’s what could be the first page of Chapter Six my memoir:

Memoir wo title

I said could, because actually, I’m not a big fan of chapters named Chapter Six, even if they happen to be the sixth chapter in the manuscript. It’s sort of like dubbing a suburban street lined with elm trees Elm Street: there’s nothing inherently wrong with a straightforward, descriptive title, but you must admit, it’s not startlingly original.

It’s not precisely going to come as a shock to many readers when Chapter Six appears immediately after Chapter Five, after all. At least not readers whose counting skills have moved past their first hand.

Speaking of hands, I see many of them waving in the air, apparently trying to attract my attention. “Okay, Anne,” those of you fond of naming things inquire, “how should a chapter title appear on the page, if I also want to number it? Or do I need to choose between numbering and titling?”

Not at all — go ahead and include both, if that makes you happy. In fact, it’s actually a little easier for agents and editors if you do number titled chapters; it’s simpler for a feedback-giver to say, “Please tone down the snarkiness in Chapter 6 of your memoir, Ermintrude,” than “You know the snarky tone in the chapter called something like How I Had My Way with Ocelots, or, Twenty-seven Ways to Skin a Cat? Give it a rest, Ermintrude.”

The formatting is very simple: just add the chapter title on the second double-spaced line of text, centered under the chapter number designation. (Freeing up mental space to speculate: what was Ermintrude doing with all of those ocelots?)

This format should sound at least a trifle familiar: we’ve already seen it in action in today’s first example. But in furtherance of my ongoing mission to place so many examples of correctly-formatted manuscript pages in front of your weary eyes that you’ll start automatically recoiling from pages in published books, muttering, “Well, that wouldn’t work in a manuscript submission, let’s take a gander at another one:

memoir w ch title

Actually, I had an ulterior motive in showing you that last example: in comparing it to the example just before it, do you notice anything about the amount of space between the chapter number and the beginning of the text?

If you immediately shot your hand into the air, exclaiming, “By gum, Anne, the area between the two appears identical! You’ve simply placed the chapter title within it, you clever lady,” award yourself an extra helping of hot fudge on your sundae. (If devoting a couple of weeks to discussing standard format doesn’t entitle an aspiring writer to dessert, nothing does.)

Regardless of whether a chapter’s opening page contains a chapter designation, a title, or both, the text should begin the same distance from the top of the page. The same logic would apply to any other information you might see fit to include at the beginning of a chapter — alerting the reader to a break between Part I and Part II of a book, for instance.

Since so many aspiring writers ask me about part breaks — hey, I’m not known as the Format Queen for nothing; I would much, much rather that my readers ask me than misformat their submissions — let’s take a look at the phenomenon in action. If Chapter 6 were the beginning of Part II of my memoir (it isn’t, but we aim to please here at Author! Author!), I would have formatted it thus:

memoir w part break

Starting to get the hang of this? Okay, let’s talk about inserting another common piece of introductory information in that heading: identifying a narrator-du-chapter in a multiple point-of-view novel.

If the switch comes at the beginning of a chapter, it couldn’t be easier: it’s simply another reader-signal that belongs above the pre-text white space, right? To see this principle in action, let’s pretend our ongoing example is fiction (which it isn’t; my middle school honestly was pelted with migratory spiders) and place the narrator’s name in the traditional spot:

new chapter with name

That’s the way one would handle the matter in a multiple POV manuscript like, say, Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, where the narrator changes with the chapter. If there were also a chapter title (perhaps not advisable in this case, as there’s already significant information at the top of that page for the reader to absorb), it would go between the chapter heading and the narrator identifier.

The important thing here is to be consistent — and that’s not always easy. Most seasoned authors probably wouldn’t appreciate my revealing a working secret, but pretty much everyone worries that someday her will forget to hit return one of the necessary times, so that Chapter 5 will begin — gasp! — twelve lines from the top, while Chapter 1-4 and 6 on will begin fourteen lines down.

Gives you the willies even to contemplate how Millicent might react to that level of formatting inconsistency, doesn’t it? Double-check each and every chapter opening before you submit; trust me, you’ll be happier in the long run.

Oh, my — that was an unpopular suggestion, wasn’t it? Fully a third of you have your hands waving impatiently in the air. “That would be absurdly time-consuming, Anne,” the irate third huff. “Oh, I understand that the chapter number or title needs to appear at the top of the first page and each subsequent chapter; I’m perfectly happy to leave six double-spaced blank lines between it and the first line of text, so the first paragraph starts seven lines down. But surely there’s an easier way to do this — a template or something? Perhaps Word has some sort of default setting I can employ so I need never worry about the issue again as long as I live?”

Standard format templates do exist, now that you mention it, but frankly, Word is already equipped with two perfectly dandy features for reproducing formatting exactly in more than one place in a document: COPY and PASTE.

In other words, create your own template. It’s very simple to do: just copy from “Chapter One” down through the first line of text, then paste it on the first page of Chapter 2, 3, etc. Once the format is in place, it’s a snap to fill in the information appropriate to the new chapter.

Oh, dear — now another group of you have raised your hands. Yes? “But Anne,” exclaim those of you who favor switching narrator (or place, or time) more often than once per chapter, “we are, as we believe the tag line identifying us as speakers just mentioned, advocates of those nifty mid-chapter signposts that we see all the time in published books, boldfaced notifications that the time, place, or speaker has just changed. How would I format that in a manuscript?”

You’re talking about incorporating subheadings into a novel, right? Or at least what would be a subheading in a nonfiction manuscript: a section break followed by a new title.

I’m fully prepared to answer this question, of course, if only to show all of you nonfiction writers out there what your subheadings should look like. Before I do, however, I’d like to ask novelists interested in adopting this strategy a quick question: are you absolutely positive that you want to do that?

That’s not an entirely flippant question, you know. There are plenty of Millicents out there who have been trained by old-fashioned agents — and even more editorial assistants who work for old-fashioned editors. And that’s important to know, because even in an age when mid-chapter subheadings aren’t all that uncommon in published books, there are still plenty of professional readers whose knee-jerk response to seeing ‘em is invariably, “What is this, a magazine article? In my day, fiction writers used language to indicate a change in time or place, rather than simply slapping down a subheading announcing it; if they wanted to indicate a change of point of view, they would either start a new chapter, find a graceful way to introduce the shift into the text, or have the narrative voice change so markedly that the shift would be immistakable! O tempore! O mores!

I just mention.

To this ilk of pros, the practice of titling a section, or even a chapter, with clear indicators of time, place, or speaker will always seem to be indicative of a show, don’t tell problem. And you have to admit, they sort of have a point: novelists have been indicating changes of time and space by statements such as The next day, back at the ranch… ever since the first writer put pen to paper, right?

As a result, fiction readers expect to see such orienting details emerge within the course of the narrative, rather than on top of it. Most of the time, this information isn’t all that hard to work into a narrative — and if a novelist is looking to please a tradition-hugging agent or editor, that’s probably a better strategy to embrace, at least at the submission stage. As with any other authorial preference for how a published book should look, you can always try to negotiate an editorial change of heart after a publisher acquires your novel.

At least if you don’t happen to write in a book category that routinely uses such subheadings. If recent releases in your book category are crammed with the things, don’t worry your pretty little head about editorial reaction to ‘em. An editor — or agent, Millicent, or contest judge — who routinely handles books in that category may be trusted to realize that you’re simply embracing the norms of your genre.

Millicents tend to approve of that. It shows that the submitter has taken the time to become conversant with what’s being published these days in the category within which he has chosen to write.

Which is to say: these days, plenty of very good fiction writers prefer to alert the reader to vital shifts with titles and subheadings. And nonfiction writers have been using them for decades; in fact, they’re more or less required in a book proposal. (More insight on those follows later in this series, I promise.) I just didn’t want any of you to be shocked if the agent of your dreams sniffs in the early days after signing you, “Mind taking out these subheadings? Seven of the ten editors to whom I’m planning to submit this hate them, and I’d rather be spared yet another lecture on the pernicious influence of newspapers and magazine formatting upon modern literature, okay?”

All that being said — and now that I’ve completely unnerved those of you who are considering submitting manuscripts with subheadings — you do need to know how to do it properly.

It’s quite straightforward, actually: a subheading is just a section break followed by a left-justified title. The text follows on the next double-spaced line.

Want to see that in action? Okay. Just to annoy traditionalists who draw a sharp distinction between fiction and nonfiction writing, let’s take a peek at a nonfiction page by a well-respected novelist:

Wharton subheading example

That caused some bloodshot eyes to pop wide open, didn’t it? “But Anne!” the detail-oriented exclaim, “that subheading is in BOLDFACE! Didn’t the rules of standard format specifically tell me never, under any circumstances, to boldface anything in my manuscript?”

Well caught, sharp-eyed ones: boldfacing the subheading does indeed violate that particular stricture of standard format. However, since nonfiction manuscripts and proposals have been routinely boldfacing subheadings (and only subheadings) for over a decade now — those crotchety old-fashioned editors are partially right about the creeping influence of article practices into the book world, you know — I thought that you should know about it.

It’s definitely not required, though; Millicent is unlikely to scowl at a nonfiction submission that doesn’t bold its subheadings. Like font choice, you make your decision, you take your chances.

In a fiction submission, though, I definitely wouldn’t advise it; traditionalists lurk in much, much higher concentrations on the fiction side of the industry, after all. Here’s the same page, formatted as fiction — and since we’re already talking about exceptions to the rules, let’s make this example a trifle more instructive by including a date and time in the subheading:

Wharton example2

Unsure why I used numerals in the subheading, rather than writing out all of the numbers under a hundred, as standard format usually requires? Full dates, like specific times and currency, are rendered in numeric form in manuscripts. Thus, I paid $14.17 for a train ticket at 12:45 a.m. on November 3, 1842, officer is correct; I paid fourteen dollars and seventeen cents for a train ticket at twelve forty-five a.m. on November three, eighteen hundred and forty-two is not. (It would, however, be perfectly permissible to include quarter to one in the afternoon on November third.)

Everybody clear on all of that that? Now would be a dandy time to start waving your hand at the Format Queen, if not.

Next time, we shall be continuing our in-depth look at chapter openings. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza has landed!

lunar landing

That’s right, campers: we’re rounding out this autumn of ‘Paloozas with arguably the most important one of all, a step-by-step guide to standard format, the way that book manuscripts should look on a page-by-page basis. Because yes, Virginia, there are professional standards, and once per year, I like to tell my readers about ‘em.

What? No public rejoicing? “Manuscript formatting?” I hear many an aspiring writer grumbling. “What on earth does that have to do with landing an agent and/or getting my book published?”

Plenty, actually; submitting a professionally-formatted manuscript gives an aspiring writer a competitive advantage in submission. And this time around, because some of you asked so nicely, I’m going to be devoting a few posts specifically to the ins and outs of formatting — and punctuating — dialogue.

Why concentrate on dialogue this time around? Well, remember my mentioning that a hefty percentage of the aspiring writers of North America tend to gird their loins, ratchet up their nerves, and send out queries and requested materials in early January of each year, in fulfillment of New Year’s resolutions to get cracking on getting published? These same resolutions lead freelance editors’ desks, or at any rate their e-mail inboxes, to groan under the weight of clients eager to seek their counsel, both at the close of the old year and the opening of the new. It’s also the time of year when we can get a preview of what Millicent the agency screener is likely to see for the next twelve to fifteen months.

I can already tell you the coming year’s trend: first- and tight third-person narratives in which other characters speak and the narrator thinks within the same paragraph. Last year, it was not double-spacing manuscripts; the year before, it was not indenting paragraphs.

And once again, Millicents all over New York will be shaking their heads, muttering, “What on earth made anyone think this was proper? Did I miss a bestseller that broke this particular rule?”

Yet virtually every time I mention to my fellow professional readers that many, if not most, aspiring writers are not fully aware of how a manuscript should be formatted — or, indeed, that such a thing as standard format exists, they tend to chortle with disbelief. “Oh, come on, Anne,” they scoff. “Anyone serious about getting published would have done his homework about that. Besides, the formatting isn’t really the problem for most of those writers. Most of the manuscripts you’re talking about would have gotten rejected by agencies, anyway; the ones who don’t double-space tend not to spell-check, either.”

And that, incidentally, is what a mixed-use dialogue paragraph in a first-person narrative looks like. In a novel, it tends to run like this:

Kyra laughed. “Over my dead body.” I thought about that for a moment. Not such a terrible idea.

“That could be arranged,” I said, much to her evident annoyance.

“No, but seriously, Ermintrude, I can’t let you take that book out from my library.” I raised my eyebrows at her. “What part of non-circulating collection don’t you understand?”

As opposed to the classic — and much clearer, logistically speaking — tradition of limiting each speaker/actor to distinct and separate paragraphs, so the formatting itself makes it plain who is speaking when:

Kyra laughed. “Over my dead body.”

Not such a terrible idea. “That could be arranged.”

The minuscule muscles at the side of her right eye twitched with annoyance. “No, but seriously, Ermintrude, I can’t let you take that book out from my library. What part of non-circulating collection don’t you understand?”

Easier for a skimming eye to follow what’s going on, isn’t it? Now, there’s no question of who is speaking — or acting — when; every twitch is easily attributable to the proper twitcher. We’re going to be talking about this dynamic, as well as other tips for dialogue formatting and clarity, later in this series.

But I digress from my composite discussion with other professional manuscript-readers. “But what about the ones who do spell-check?” I ask my cynical colleagues, “and proof-read, and take the time to get feedback on their work before sending it out? Improper formatting can as easily be the result of simple ignorance as of authorial laziness. I’m constantly meeting good writers new to the biz who haven’t the vaguest idea about what a professional manuscript looks like, for the exceedingly simple reason that they’ve never seen one.”

More scoffing around the table in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. One of the freelance editors might even trot out that old agents’ truism: “If a writer’s serious about getting published, he’ll take the time to learn what the formatting norms are. There are books that explain how to do it.”

“Not to mention your blog, Anne,” another quips, invariably. “How often are you revisiting the rules of standard format these days? Once a year? Twice?”

Actually, it used to be three, back in the dark days before I learned to keep reminding all of you, campers, to check the archive category list conveniently located on lower right-hand side of this page the early and often. (Speaking of formatting, how do folks like the new, improved, ostensibly easier-to-use format on the archive listings? Over the years, many of you had asked for the categories to be organized with headings.)

I feel that my colleagues are engaging in a bit of buck-passing. “I’m not denying that it’s possible to learn how to do it right; I’m just pointing out that most of the time, the writers whose manuscripts get rejected unread because of formatting problems have no idea that they’re not getting rejected on the writing itself.” Half the table looks skeptical. “Okay, fine — let’s do a little survey. Hands up: how many of you would read a single-spaced manuscript, if a potential client sent it to you? Or even one-and-a-half spacing? What about non-indented paragraphs?”

Crickets.

And that, my friends, should tell you a lot about just how seriously people who read manuscripts for a living take the norms of standard format. Even amongst the open-minded, there is a deep, pervasive prejudice against manuscripts that don’t look right cosmetically. Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, Mehitabel the contest judge: all of these readers who must approve a manuscript before it can impress an agent, get picked up by a publisher, or make the finals of a contest are so conditioned to expect professional formatting that when they see a submission that deviates from the rules in any significant respect, they tend to assume, as did the hypothetical tableful of editors above, that the writer is falling down on the job in other respects.

What does that mean in practical terms? Usually, that incorrectly-formatted manuscripts and contest entries are rejected on sight — and, in many cases, unread.

Why? Well, think about it: it’s one of the easiest ways conceivable to narrow the submission pool — which is job #1 for Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel, right? Do the math: if the average agent receives 800-1500 queries per week and agrees to read even five percent of the manuscripts (high for most agents, by the way), that’s 40-60 manuscripts per week, and thus somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000-3,000 per year.

Since even a very successful agent could take on, at most, 4-5 new clients per year, Millicent had better narrow down that applicant pool, pronto, hadn’t she? So had Maury. So had Mehitabel, since no matter how good a crop of contest entries is, there are generally only a fixed, small number of finalist slots. They’ve got to rule manuscripts out.

Isn’t it fortunate for them, then, that the vast majority of submitters present their writing unprofessionally?

Did some of you just do a double-take? Yes, Virginia, most submissions are incorrectly formatted. They either resemble published books (which is not correct for a manuscript submission), are submitted in short story format (ditto), or look like whatever the submitter happens to think looks nice on the page (extrapolate the answer from the previous two).

All of which makes Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel shout, “Hallelujah,” especially of late, when both query and submission rates have been skyrocketing. Writing a book has always been plan B for a lot of people — with the economy in its current state, many folks seem to be pulling partially-finished manuscripts out of desk drawers these days. (Okay, off their hard disks, but it amounts to the same thing.) The timing’s a tad unfortunate, since this is also a period where publishing houses have been laying off editors and other staff.

Translation: you know how fierce the competition to get picked up by an agent already was before the economy went south? It’s become even tougher.

While those of you who already suffering from query or submission fatigue are still reeling from the implications of that last statement, let me slip a few hard facts under the noses of those who have yet to submit for the first time:

(1) There is a an expected standard format to which US-based agents and editors expect book-length submissions and book proposals to adhere, regardless of whether those manuscripts are produced by seasoned pros with many book sales under their belts or those brand-new to the biz, and thus

(2) while deviating from standard format in a small way (or, more commonly, in a multiplicity of small ways) will not necessarily result in knee-jerk rejection, it does tend to prompt those who read manuscripts for a living to take the manuscript less seriously, on the assumption that an aspiring writer who has not taken the time to learn about standard format probably has not honed her craft much yet, either. Given the pervasiveness of this attitude,

(3) using fancy typefaces, including cover artwork, printing manuscript pages on colored paper, and/or any other deviations from standard format in one’s submission is most emphatically not regarded as interesting expressions of the author’s individual point of view, but rather as evidence that the author doesn’t know about (1). On the bright side,

(4) manuscripts submitted in standard format tend to be treated with substantially more respect by agency screeners, editorial assistants, contest judges, and pretty much everyone who happens to read unpublished prose for a living. Despite this fact,

(5) one does occasionally hear agents and editors ask for deviations from standard format; in these cases, an aspiring writer should definitely give them precisely what they ask to see. However,

(6) it’s never advisable to generalize from what one individual says s/he wants into a brand-new trend sweeping the industry. Nor is it a good idea to ape the formatting choices one sees in a published book, because

(7) book manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects, for many excellent, practical reasons that I shall be explaining at length throughout this ‘Palooza. That being the case, professional tend to draw unfavorable conclusions about submissions that do aspire to book formatting, much as they do when aspiring writers are not aware that

(8) standard format for book-length manuscripts is not business format and just using what you learned about short stories won’t do, either. Nor is it necessarily identical to what your word processor’s grammar checker will ask you to do, or even the AP style one sees in newspapers and magazines. None of these will look correct to an agent or editor who deals with book manuscripts, because the norms there are very specific.

This may seem nit-picky and irrelevant to the quality of the writing in question, but think about it: if a host asks you to a formal dinner, it’s only polite to wear formal attire; a guest who shows up in flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt is going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. (If it’s not clear to you why that might be problematic, review point 2.) Similarly,

(9) when placed side-by-side with professional manuscripts, as a successful submission inevitably will be, a wackily put-together manuscript will stand out as unprofessional, a phenomenon that all too often leads to

(10) most manuscript submissions getting rejected on page 1. Not always because they deviates from standard format — although, had I not yet made this point sufficiently, the vast majority of submissions do — but because an unprofessionally-formatted manuscript already has one strike against it, and who needs that? Ultimately,

(11) it’s just not worth your while to try to fudge your way out of these standards, since the price of a submission’s annoying a professional reader can be so high. And no matter how many times my readers, students, and editing clients ask me if agents, editors, and contest judges are REALLY serious about them, I’m not going to give you permission to ignore any single one of the standard format strictures. No way. Stop asking, already.

Why might knowing all this — and, more importantly, acting upon this knowledge — translate into higher acceptance rates? Well, the aspiring writer who acts upon this information conscientiously is probably producing submissions within the top 2% of what crosses Millicent’s desk on any given day.

Yes, really, Virginia; stop looking at me with those doubtful, pleading eyes. If any of the information on the list above came as a surprise to you in any way, it’s incredibly important that you should join me on a tiptoe through the intricacies of standard format.

In case I’ve been too subtle so far about why: agency screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges tend to regard submissions formatted in any other way as either unpolished (if they’re feeling generous) or unprofessional (if they’re not).

I implore those of you who have been through this material with me before: please don’t just skip these posts on standard format. I see manuscripts all the time by experienced albeit unpublished writers that contain serious standard format violations; heck, these problems occasionally turn up in the work of published writers, if the complaints their agents and editors make in those bars that are never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America are to be believed.

All of us could use a review from time to time — say, the once per year I bring the matter up here. Because, you see, I am far from the only professional reader who takes umbrage, when manuscripts deviate from certain time-honored restrictions. Believe me, Millicent started twitching at the very sight of them before she’d had her job three weeks.

Yes, even if the formatting in question would be perfectly legitimate in other writing environments. (See points 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8 above, for instance.) And yes, yes, oh, yes, even if the deviation is precisely what some agent, editor, writing guru, or darned fool writing expert like me has suddenly announced to the world is the new norm.

Millicent didn’t get that memo.

Why would she, unless she happens to work for the agent-who-blogs or editor-who-is-trying-to-be-helpful who promulgated the new advice? Indeed, why would anyone who works with manuscripts for a living go out looking to see what folks outside the industry — or, at minimum, outside her agency — are demanding of writers these days, when the basics of standard format have actually changed very little for decades?

Oh, should I have numbered that one?

Actually, it would be very much against her self-interest to go trolling for such information, because — chant it with me now, veterans of my previous forays into standard format’s underlying logic — it’s so much easier just to assume that submissions that don’t adhere to standard format are inherently unprofessional, and thus (by implication) less likely to contain writing destined to take the publishing world by storm.

To put it bluntly, not relying upon this convenient assumption would slow her per-submission rejection time. As I hope anyone who has been ‘Palooza-ing this autumn is already aware, the fine folks who read submissions (and queries) in order to decide who gets a break and who doesn’t are in a hurry.

Remember the stats above; these people have a heck of a lot of reading to do. In the face of that many pieces of paper to plow through, even the reading of eagerly-solicited submissions tends to be awfully rushed: the goal becomes to weed out as many as possible as quickly as possible, rather than seeking out gems. Once a professional reader like Millicent has been at it for a while, s/he will usually develop a knack for coming to a conclusion about a piece of writing within the first paragraph or two.

Sometimes even within the first line or two. (For a fairly frightening run-down of the common first-page rejection reasons, you might want to check out the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the list at right.)

Unfortunately for writers unaware of the rules, a non-standard manuscript is child’s play to spot from the moment a professional reader lays eyes upon it. That can be an extremely serious problem for a submission, because — wait for it — being identified as not professionally formatted renders it FAR more likely to be rejected.

Why? Shout it with me now: agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that a screener’s primary goal is to weed out the one she is reading at the moment.

The faster she can do that, the better, to move through that mountain of paper on her desk. So a first page that cries out the moment Millicent claps eyes upon it, “This writer is brand-new to the game and will require quite a bit of your boss’ time to coach into being able to produce a manuscript that an agent would be comfortable submitting to an editor!” is an outright gift to her: she can feel completely comfortable rejecting it at the very first typo, cliché, or word choice she doesn’t happen to like.

Heck, she might not even wait to spot any of the above. She might just say, “Oh, look — single-spacing. Next!”

What does this trigger-happiness mean for aspiring writers who scoff at standard format, or just don’t know about it? Right now, Harry Houdini himself would have extreme difficulty sneaking a non-standard manuscript past an agency screener, even though he undoubtedly has the world’s best platform to write a book on extricating oneself from tight situations. (And if that last quip didn’t make you groan, if not chuckle, it’s time to brush up on your industry-speak.)

This dark, dark cloud is not without its proverbial silver lining, however. By logical extension, the more professional your manuscript looks, the more likely it is to be read with interest by a screener in a hurry.

See now why aspiring writers cognizant of points (1) – (11) might enjoy a considerable competitive advantage at submission time? So to help give you that edge, I’m going to start running though the rules of standard format — and no, Virginia, none of them are negotiable. Stop asking, I tell you.

(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.

No exceptions, unless an agent or editor (or a contest’s rules) specifically asks you to do otherwise. And I’m dead serious about using only white paper: ecru paper, no off-white, no Dr. Seuss-type stripes.

Yes, buff or parchment can look very nice, now that you happen to mention it, Virginia, but there’s a strategic reason to use bright white paper. Very sharp black-white contrast is strongly preferred by virtually every professional reader out there, probably as a legacy of having read so many dim photocopies over the course of their lifetimes.

The only colored paper that should ever go anywhere near a manuscript is the single sheet that separates one copy of a submission or book proposal from the next, so it is easy for an agent to see where to break the stack. (But you don’t need to know about that until your agent asks you to send 15 copies of your book for submitting to editors. Put it out of your mind for now.)

Nice, clear, dark print is optimal here, so do spring for a new printer cartridge. You’d be amazed (at least, I hope you would) at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions; I’ve seem pages that looked as though the writer dunked them in a swiftly-flowing river several times before popping them in the mail.

Which is sad, because submissions with poor print quality are — you’re ahead of me on this one, aren’t you? — almost never read.

Speaking of never, never, ever, eversubmit a dim photocopy; print out an original every time. Oh, you may chuckle at the notion of sending out a grainy photocopy, but believe me, any contest judge has seen many, many entries submitted that way.

Mehitabel likes them, actually: for every one that pops up, her reading time is shortened. Any guesses why?

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way (again, unless you are specifically asked to do otherwise)

Yes, this IS criminally wasteful of paper, especially when you consider the literally millions of pages of submissions that go flying into the agencies and publishing houses every month. I assure you, if I ran the universe, paper conservation would be the norm, and recycling mandatory.

Also, writers would all be granted an extra month a year in which to write, excellent and inexpensive child care while writing, a cedar-lined cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan in which to do it, and a pineapple upside-down cake on Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday. Perhaps some hard candies on Truman Capote’s birthday as well, in affluent years, and dancing on Mme. de Staël’s.

But since the unhappy reality is that I do not run the universe, we shall all have to live with the status quo. Which is to say: the publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. Sorry.

Unbound means precisely what it says: no binding of any kind. You’d be surprised at how often writers violate the thou-shalt-not-bind rule, including paper clips, rubber bands, or even binders with their submissions. Since agents always circulate manuscripts without any sort of binding, these doohickeys just scream, “I’m unfamiliar with the industry.”

SASE, open wide: here comes a returned manuscript.

The only exception to this rule is a nonfiction book proposal — not the manuscript, mind you, just the proposal. Proposals are typically presented unbound in a black folder, the kind with horizontal pockets. (For tips, please see the aptly-titled HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK PROPOSAL category at right.)

Which doesn’t mean that you aren’t perfectly welcome to print double-sided or bind copies for your own purposes; just don’t show your work to the pros that way. As Author! Author!’s very first commenter Dave tends to chime in — and helpfully — whenever I bring this up, if you wish to make double-sided, 3-hole-punched, be-bindered drafts for circulating to your first readers for ease of toting around, that’s a dandy idea.

But never submit in that manner to a professional reader unless s/he has asked you to do so. Trust me on this one.

(3) The text should be left-justified, not block-justified, as published books, e-mails, business letters, and online writing tend to be.

Many fledgling writers find (3) nearly impossible to accept, as it is one of the most visually obvious ways in which a professional manuscript differs from a printed book. They believe, wrongly, that anything that makes their submission look more like what’s on the shelves at Barnes & Noble is inherently professional.

In practice, quite the opposite is true. Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along both side margins, and yes, your word processing program can replicate that practically effortlessly, if you ask it nicely to do so. Bully for it.

But don’t take advantage of that pleasing capacity, I beg you: the straight margin should be the left one; the right should be ragged, as if you had produced the manuscript on a typewriter.

Translation: the left margin should be straight; the right margin should not. In practice, that means that the left margin will be exactly 1 inch, while the right margin will be no less than an inch on any given line of text. Similarly, while the top margin should be exactly 1 inch, the bottom margin will typically be slightly more, because the spacing between lines of text needs to be constant. (You actually don’t need to fret over measuring any of this out, if you are using MS Word: just set the margins all around to 1″ and the spacing to double, and you will end up with a standard 23-line manuscript page.)

Fear not if you’re having trouble picturing this: I shall be showing you abundant concrete examples later in this series. For now, you’re just going to have to trust me when I tell you that block-justifying your submission is going to appeal to your garden-variety Millicent about as much as a pie in the face.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New; pick one and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

Yes, Virginia, even if you have a strong preference for the lettering in your book when it is published. Why? Shout it with me now: MANUSCRIPTS AND PUBLISHED BOOKS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO LOOK THE SAME.

So use one of these typefaces for submission purposes — unless, of course, an agency’s submission guidelines specifically ask for something different. There are a few agents out there who have their own font preferences (usually Courier, and usually because they also represent screenplays), so do check their websites and/or listings in the standard agency guides. As ever, the golden rule of dealing with an agent you want to represent you is give them precisely what they ask to see, not what you would like them to see.

Personally, I would never dream of allowing an editing client of mine to submit a manuscript in anything but Times New Roman, nor would I ever submit any of my work in anything else. It is the standard typeface of the publishing industry, just as Courier is the norm of screenwriting.

A tad silly, you say? Perhaps, but it’s one of the bizarre facts of publishing life that manuscripts in these fonts tend to be taken far more seriously, and with good reason: these are the typefaces upon which the most commonly-used word count estimations are based. (Psst: if you don’t know why you should be estimating the length of your manuscript rather than using actual word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

I hear you grumbling, lovers of interesting typefaces. Yes, most published books are in typefaces other than Times or Courier — but typeface decisions for published books are made by the publishing house, not the author. Submission time is not the appropriate period for making your preferences known.

If you’re very nice down the line, after a publishing house has acquired your book, they may listen to your suggestions. They may giggle a little, true, but they might listen. Ditto with the cover and the title, which are — brace yourselves — almost never under the author’s control.

Why? Because these are matters of packaging and marketing, not content.

All of which begs the question, of course: why do word processing programs tempt us so many typefaces from which to choose, if we’re not supposed to use them?

Answer: because the people who make word processing programs are not the same people who decide what books get published in North America. Which is why, in case you’re wondering, what Microsoft Word means by word count and what the average agent or editor does are not typically the same thing.

Fair warning: if you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, a submission is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Yes, one sees this in a published book occasionally, but I assure you, the choice to indulge in these formatting differences was the editor’s, not the author’s.

Sorry. See my earlier disclaimer about proprietorship of the universe.

I’m sensing a bit of dissention out there, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Almost invariably, around the time that I bring up Rule #4, someone posts a comment informing me huffily that website X advises something different, that this agent said at a conference she doesn’t care what typeface you use, that a certain manual said that standards have changed from the traditional guidelines I set out here, or some other observation presumably intended to make me rend my garments and cry, “Finally, I see the error of my ways! I guess I’ll disregard the fact that I’ve never seen the change you mention actually in use in a professional manuscript and declare it to be the new norm!”

To save you the trouble and sound like a broken record at the same time: it’s not gonna happen.

I have no doubt that all of these comments are indeed pointing out legitimate differences in advice, but it is not my purpose here to police the net for standardization of advice. If you like guidelines you find elsewhere better, by all means follow them.

All I claim for these rules — and it is not an insubstantial claim — is that nothing I advise here will ever strike a U.S.-based agent or editor as unprofessional. Even if any give agent, editor, or contest judge should happen to harbor personal preferences for other formatting choices, anyone who has been in the biz for a while will recognize pages in standard format as the industry norm.

In other words, adhering to these rules will mean that your writing is going to be judged on your writing, not your formatting. And that, my friends, is nothing at which to sneeze.

More of the rules of standard format follow next time, of course, as well as acres more explanation. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Authorbiopalooza VII: framing Jack O. Lantern’s smiling authorial face

grinning pumpkin 2

I’m smiling myself this morning, campers, although not quite as widely as Jack. Congratulate me, for I am officially the Nicest Lady in the Neighborhood, a title I hope to hold until next Halloween rolls around. How did I score this enviable title? Well, I am usually in the running: ours is the only house within a multi-block radius that gives out full-size candy bars. (You should see the look on the little ones’ faces when they first clap eyes on our candy tray.)

This year, however, we also had the dubious distinction of being one of the only houses in the neighborhood giving out candy at all. Blame the economy, not the neighbors, I say, but naturally, it was hard for the kids to understand. So I told them that if they went away for half an hour and came up with a story about the characters they were impersonating for the night, they could each have another three candy bars. One especially creative ninja reappeared three times, each with a different tale to tell.

I heard some great stories. Score one for the future writers of America, and a big loss for dental hygiene.

Back to business. I’m going to be wrapping up author bios and photos today, tying up a few loose ends and answering a few perennial first-time autobiographers’ lingering questions. Since this is my last Authorbiopalooza post — presuming that no one posts a magnificently insightful follow-up question as a comment over the next few days, hint, hint — I’m going to seize the opportunity to say something vital just one more time, for the benefit of all you procrastinators out there.

broken-recordPlease, I implore you, do not put off writing at least a viable first draft of your bio until the day after an agent or editor has actually asked you to provide one. Set aside some time to do it soon.

Why? Because unless an agency’s submission guidelines ask for a bio up front, chances are, the request to provide one is going to come swooping down at you out of a pellucidly blue sky. Tossed out as an afterthought just after you’ve given the best pitch in the history of Western civilization, for instance, or when the agent who fell in love with your first 50 pages asks to see the rest of the book. It will seem like good news — until you realize that you need to come up with a bio within the next forty-eight hours.

On that happy day, you will be a much, much happier human being in every way if you already have at least the beginnings of a great bio sitting on your hard drive. Trust me on this one.

To that end, may I suggest that those of you involved in writers’ groups — critique-based or support; in either case, good for you — devote part of a meeting to brainstorming about and giving feedback on one another’s bios? Or query letters, for that matter? And what about synopses?

Don’t look at me so blankly. Why wouldn’t a success-oriented group of writers want to invest time in mutual critique of marketing materials? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: every single sentence on every single page in a query or submission packet is a writing sample. It all needs to be polished.

It also, at the risk of starting up that broken record player, all needs to be interesting — and that’s where a little outside perspective can be very helpful. Yet even very market-focused critique groups seldom set aside time for mutual bio critique. A trifle mystifying to me, as a session devoted to it can be a whole lot of fun, as well as very useful indeed.

Besides, how much do you really know about that sharp-eyed person who keeps barking at you to show, not tell?

Speaking of great questions (yes, I know; I was speaking of it several paragraphs ago, but humor me here), let’s get right to the promised answers to past reader questions on bio-related points. Yes, shorter versions of these answers are already available elsewhere on this site, but since the comments are not searchable from your side of the site and not everyone reads the comment strings — especially, I notice, whilst perusing the archives — I wanted to have all of this information gathered in one place, all ready to pop up in a site search using that nifty search engine located in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

I love readers’ questions, because, frankly, you clever souls often come up with angles it would not otherwise have occurred to me to pursue. Those of us who have been staring at bios, queries, synopses, and professionally-formatted manuscripts for years may be able to tell in an instant how the page in front of us is not right, but since we have such a strong mental image of what the right format, for instance, is, we seldom invest time in considering how someone who had never seen a successful author bio formatted for submission, for example, might picture it.

That’s why, in case anybody had been wondering, I so often encourage my readers to ask challenging questions of agents and editors at conferences: the question that’s been bugging you for months might not be one a speaker would know to include in her talk. So for heaven’s sake, ask; it’s good for everybody concerned.

To illustrate, here is a question from intrepid reader Doug about how a writer using a pen name might approach the bio. Specifically,

Is the author’s name one’s pseudonym (when applicable)? Both in the heading and in the text?

This is a great question, Doug, one that I’m positive perplexes many a pseudonymous writer. To make sure that we’re all on the same page, so to speak, what Doug is inquiring about is the boldfaced author name at the top of the bio, as well as how to refer to the author within the bio itself. To borrow an example from last time, so we may see how the author’s name dots the page:

Ste. Cecile author bio2

In the bio, the author’s name should be the same as it is on the title page and in the slug line; it’s confusing if they’re different. So if you’ve decided to use a pseudonym under the By… part of the title page (as opposed to the contact info, which should use the name to which you’d prefer to have your royalty checks made out), be consistent throughout your query or submission packet.

You want to see that in action, don’t you? Fair enough.

pen name title page

If Arthur Worrieswhathisrelativeswillthink were to write an author bio — and he would definitely need to do so, even for a memoir, despite the fact that the entire manuscript could be construed as a bio — he has a choice: he can either show his real name on the bio, or he can list his pen name, Unabashed R. Pseudonym, as long as it is the name he uses (a) appears on the title page, as we’ve seen above, and (b) is the name in the slug line at the top of every manuscript page. In a first book, it’s usually more prudent to use one’s real name, so that contracts — like, say, the representation agreement Arthur wants the agent of his dreams to offer him — are made out properly.

One’s agent does, after all, have to know one’s real identity. So unless you are an international man of mystery fleeing justice (which would look terrific in a bio), it doesn’t really make sense to use a pseudonym at all at the querying or submission stage.

Think about it: a writer using a pen name doesn’t actually have to commit to it until after a publisher has already acquired the book. Both the representation contract and the publication contract are under the author’s legal name (although the publication contract may well stipulate the use of a pseudonym), so unless you feel that

(a) using your real name might somehow harm the book’s chances with the agent of your dreams (Begrunga Nevercleansherkitchen would be a lousy name for a cookbook writer, for instance),

(b) you already have something published in a different book category under your real name and want to avoid confusion, or

(c) you don’t want to tip Interpol off to your whereabouts,

you don’t really need to stress about the pseudonym issues until later on. Give your pretty little head a rest; you wouldn’t want your eyes to look tired in your author photo.

Everybody clear on that? Excellent. Here’s a thought-provoking question from long-time reader Gordon:

I’m not sure how to word this, but I’ll try – should an author bio written by an unpublished (in any media) writer include what you call ‘promotional parts’? Meaning life connections with the novel’s subject matter. As a youngster in his seventies there have been many twists and turns in my life. Should one’s bio chronologically hit the high points or mainly focus on the ones pertinent to the novel being submitted?

You did fine on the self-expression front, Gordon. The short answer is yes, on both counts.

Well, glad to have cleared THAT up. Moving along…

I didn’t really fool you there, did I? Especially since those of you who have been following Authorbiopalooza closely undoubtedly immediately cried, “Wait, Anne dealt with this in an earlier post. Perhaps she is trying, albeit clumsily, to drive home the point that good questions from readers help to expand the range of her posts.”

Well, I like to think so; I am, after all, the Nicest Lady in the Neighborhood, and this is an extremely common writerly conundrum. Let’s tackle it directly.

The direct answer: it depends.

To be specific, which way one should fall on the choice between devoting one’s bio to a chronological account of the highlights of one’s life as, say, an obituary might tell it (sorry, but it’s the obvious analogy) vs. creating the impression that every significant event in one’s life was leading inevitably to the writing of this book and no other depends largely upon several factors, including:

a) whether there are events in one’s life that are legitimately related to the subject matter of the book in question — and if they are easy for the reader to follow without too many logical leaps.

If mentioning a particular life experience would tend to make you a more credible source, it’s usually to your advantage to include it in your bio, to differentiate yourself from any other yahoo who might just have been guessing what that particular experience was like. Expressive Q. Author visited the Statue of Liberty once, when Expressive’s protagonist passes through Ellis Island briefly in Chapter Two, is a stretch; Expressive Q. Author spent twenty years as a merchant marine, when his entire plotline takes place on a pirate ship, is not.

b) whether one has genuinely lead a life that would produce a couple of entertaining paragraphs, regardless of connection to the book.

It never hurts to sound darned interesting in your bio. However — and in practice, this is a BIG however — writers of purely chronological bios often…how shall I put this delicately…overestimate the detail in which a rushed industry type might want to hear the life story of someone she has never met.

Remember, Millicent the agency screener reads a lot of bios; keep yours snappy.

If you’re in doubt whether yours is leaning toward overkill, hand your bio to someone who doesn’t know you particularly well (having asked politely for his assistance first, of course; don’t just accost a stranger) and have him read it through twice. Buy the cooperative soul a cup of coffee, and around the time that your cup begins to seem light in your hand, ask your guinea pig to tell your life story back to you uninterrupted.

The points that he can’t reproduce without prompting are probably inherently less memorable than the ones he can recount in glowing detail. Ask yourself about the ones left out or garbled: they honestly helping you look interesting and/or credible?

c) in the lucky instance where both (a) and (b) are genuinely true, whether the wealth of interesting biographical detail threatens to render the connections to the book less memorable.

When in doubt, lean toward the directly applicable; it’s more important information for the marketing department.

Remember, the point of an author bio is not to tell your life story — that’s what post-publication interviews and memoirs are for, right? — nor to include all of the things that you would like total strangers who pick up volumes in a future bookstore to know about you. The goal in a query or submission bio is to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question. Or, in the case of nonfiction, to write the book being proposed.

Everyone clear on the relevant distinctions? Good. Let’s move on to another question. Another long-term reader, Cerredwyn, wrote in to ask,

Does an author photo need to be a head shot?

No, it doesn’t — as long as you are identifiable (“That’s she, officer. That’s the author of the book!“) and the background isn’t too busy, you can certainly use a broader shot.

In fact, as Elinor Glyn’s author photo for IT clearly demonstrates, a head-and-torso shot is perfectly acceptable, and actually a bit more common on jacket flaps than the pure headshot.

However, 1/2, 3/4, and even full standing shots are not unheard-of. John Irving’s early works tended to have particularly hunky-looking shots from the waist up, for instance.

Not that I noticed as a teenager or anything. I was reading his books for the writing and the stories, I tell you.

If you’re having trouble deciding between different ranges of shot, spend some time in a well-stocked bookstore, taking a gander at the author photos published in books in your chosen book category within the last few years. Not in every new release, mind you, but in books like yours. If you notice an overall trend in styles, you’re not going to offend anyone by submitting something similar.

Oh, and speaking of styles, unless you have written something ultra-hip or happen to be a magazine writer (whose material by definition changes constantly), it’s usually not a great idea to dress in the latest fashion for your author photo — and it’s DEFINITELY not the time to sport a hairstyle that’s not likely to be around a decade hence.

Don’t believe me? Ask any 80s author who embraced a mohawk. Or Elinor Glyn, a decade after the photo above was taken.

Remember, if your book is successful, it will be gracing shelves in private homes, libraries, and book exchanges for even longer than it will be hanging out in Barnes & Noble. A too-trendy style will date the photo. So as a general rule, adorning yourself for your photo with the expectation that the resulting photo will dog you for the rest of your natural life is a good plan.

You also might want to give some thought to how certain colors and patterns photograph — and how a checkered jacket that works beautifully in an 8 x 10 glossy might just look dusty in a 3 x 5 or 2 x 3 (both fairly common sizes for jacket photos). Generally speaking, solids work better than prints, and strong, dark colors on the body are distract less from the face. Bear in mind, too, that black, white, and red sometimes look quite different in print than in real life, and that the eye tends to zoom in on the red and the shiny.

If that’s your lip gloss, great; if it’s your belt, less great. Unless you are trying to find an agent or publisher for a book about belts, that is.

The answer to the next reader question, posed by Jaepu, could be extrapolated from the last paragraph but one, I notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a trenchant question. Let’s revisit it, just in case anyone out there was wondering:

Must the author photo be in color?

No, it may be in black and white — in fact, until fairly recently, that was the norm. However, with the rise of digital photography, color author photos have become more common. Do be aware, though, that a black-and-white photo won’t tell an agent whether you might look good in a television interview as well as a color picture would.

The more important issue is photo clarity. You’d be surprised at how many author photos are actually out of focus, presumably because the writer prefers the blurry shot to other, clearer ones. (Either that, or he moves around too quickly to be caught easily on film.)

Nor is this a time to make a funny face, even if you write humor; this is, after all, a photo intended to present you as a professional to be taken seriously. Let’s face it, even if a less-sharp image is genuinely cool, this image of trick-or-treating expert Jack O. Lantern

jekll hyde pumpkin

is simply not as effective a marketing tool as this comparatively mundane smile.

Rick's pumpkin

My apologies to those with low self-esteem, but the author bio photo actually does have to look like you. Not some idealized, air-brushed ideal version of what someone who spends hours on end frantically tapping her thoughts on a keyboard, but you.

Pop quiz: what is good about both of these photos of Jack? (Hint: it has to do with his area of expertise.)

If you immediately cried, “By jingo, he’s depicted in a context that is relevant to the subject matter of his book!” take a candy bar out of the jar. Since Jack is writing about trick-or-treating, what would be a more natural background than his Halloween locale?

In fact, he could even take it a step farther, sacrificing a bit of facial close-up range for a photo that unquestionably establishes him as someone who knows his Halloween doorsteps. As long as his face is clearly visible, a slightly farther-away shot is fine.

cat and pumpkin

Speaking of low self-esteem, a reader apparently too shy to be comfortable with self-identification asked:

I’m all excited about my next book, but I’m marketing my first. Would it be completely tacky to mention what I’m working on now in my bio? What if the books are in different genres?

It’s far from being tacky, Anonymous One; in fact, it’s downright common for a bio to end with a mention of the author’s next writing project. Try to keep it to a single sentence, however, so it does not overpower the rest of the bio.

Lincoln lives in Springfield, Illinois with his wife, eight sons, and golden retriever, Manifest Destiny. He is currently working on his second book, Hey! Where Are You Taking Half of My Country?, a comic memoir covering the Civil War years.

“Yeah, right, Anne,” I hear some of you scoff. “Stop pulling our collective legs. I’ve never seen an author bio on a book jacket that covers future work, or even unpublished work. Bios, like tombstone epitaphs, are always backward-looking, aren’t they?”

Actually, jacket bios that mentioned future projects used to be fairly standard; in the mid-70s, the last line of most dust jacket bios was some flavor of Smith lives in Connecticut, where he is working on his next novel. Gradually, this has been falling out of fashion, perhaps because it implies some faith on the publisher’s part that Smith’s current release will sell well enough that they will WANT him to bring out another. (It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that this particular last sentence fell out of fashion at approximately the same time as multi-book contracts for first-time novelists.)

However, the author bio that an aspiring writer tucks into a query or submission packet and the one that ends up on a dust jacket are not the same thing — as we discussed earlier in Authorbiopalooza, they are intended for the eyes of two different audiences, to create two different impressions. The dust jacket bio is promotional copy aimed at the reader, designed to pique interest and answer basic questions like why should I believe this guy’s NF account of life on the moon? The query or submission bio, by contrast, is designed to impress agents, editors, and their respective Millicents with the author’s claim to be an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Is there an echo in here? I could have sworn that I’ve heard that last bit somewhere before.

Because the submission bio is geared for industry-savvy eyes, mentioning completed book projects in categories other than the one to which the currently-submitted manuscript belongs (try saying THAT three times fast), as the Anonymous Questioner suggested, is a perfectly legitimate use of page space. No need to hawk the other projects; simply mention the book category within the course of a single-sentence description that describes the project as still in progress. As in:

Now nicely recovered from his contretemps with an assassin, Garfield lives in retirement, working on his next book projects, a YA baseball romance and a historical retrospective of his own brief presidency.

Why would Pres. Garfield speak of his completed YA book as a work-in-progress? Strategy, my dears, strategy: it neatly sidesteps the question why isn’t it published? Clever, eh?

Finally, reader Rose inquired:

I’m at a whole single-spaced page, no photo. I have a pro photo, recently taken, that looks great. Would it be better to reduce the bio and add the photo?

I’m querying for a novel, btw — and I’d been under the impression that you shouldn’t submit an author photo when trying to pitch one.

Contrary to the impression Rose has, by her own admission, picked up she knows not where, there is no hard-and-fast rule about whether a fiction writer’s submission bio should to include a photo. No Millicent who has found a submission engaging enough to read all the way to the last page, where the author bio lurks, is going to cast her latte aside in a petulant fit at the sight of a photo, screaming, “Oh, darn — now I have to reject it. I liked that manuscript, too.”

The reason photos are often not included in novelists’ bios is not because they’re unwelcome, but because the burden for gathering marketing materials prior to selling a novel has historically been significantly lower than for a nonfiction book. (If any of you novelists doubt this, take a gander at a book proposal sometime; its many, many pages of marketing material will make you feel much, much better about having to write only a query letter and a synopsis.)

If your photo is pretty ravishing, Rose, I say go ahead and include it. A nice photo does make the bio look a touch more professional, after all, and it’s never a bad thing for an agent or editor to think, “Hey, this author is photogenic!”

Even without the picture, though, it sounds as though Rose’s bio is a bit long for professional purposes: the norm is one DOUBLE-spaced page, or 1/2 – 2/3 page single-spaced under a photo. Yes, one does occasionally hear agents mentioning that they’ve been seeing more single-spaced full-page bios lately — but as I’ve virtually always heard this pronounced with a gnashing of teeth, I’m inclined to regard such statements as complaints, not cries of rapture.

Call me zany, but I tend to interpret moaning as an indication that the moaned-about activity is unwelcome. I’d stick to a more standard length. As with a query letter, when in doubt, err on the side of brevity. Believe me, if your bio is too short, the agent of your dreams will be only to happy to tell you so –after she signs you.

(Don’t cringe: she’s going to want you to change a lot of things after she signs you, no matter how much she initially loved your book or book proposal. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

One last thought on the subject before I sign off for the day: stick to a single page, unless you are specifically asked for something much longer or shorter. (Requests for 1- or 2-paragraph bios aren’t that uncommon.) Beyond that, try not to obsess too much about length. Concentrate instead on sounding fascinating.

Seriously, if, over the years I’ve been a book doctor and particularly over the 5+ years I’ve been answering questions online, someone had given me a nickel for every time an aspiring writer asked me whether the spacing or length of the bio — or query, or synopsis — REALLY mattered, I would have been able to build my own publishing house.

I don’t mean that I would have been able to buy one; I mean that I would have been able to construct the necessary buildings and offices entirely out of coins.

Would it surprise you to hear, then, that even after that many repetitions of the same question, my answer has never changed, no matter how much aspiring writers might have wished it to do so? Or that if I could wave my magic wand and remove all formatting requirements, I probably wouldn’t do it?

Why, I hear you gasp? Because when an author bio — or query letter, or synopsis, or manuscript — is properly formatted, the only bases for judging it have to do with the quality of the writing, the premise’s marketability, whether the professional reader likes it, and so forth.

You know, the bases upon which aspiring writers WANT to be judged.

So yes, agents really tend to hold aspiring writers to the standards of the industry, just as they hold their clients to them. (See earlier comment about one’s dream agent making demands upon one.) They don’t do this to be mean; it’s just that when someone — like, say, Millicent — spends hour after hour, day after day, month after month staring at manuscripts, she’s unlikely not to notice if one is formatted differently than the norm.

As in, for instance, an author bio that doesn’t look like the ones I showed you last time. Even if a single-spaced bio sans photograph does indeed fit onto the requisite single page, thus meeting the bare minimum standard for professionalism, it’s not going to resemble the bios Millicent’s boss is sending out with her clients’ submissions.

Or at least, it probably will not. Naturally, as with any group of human beings, some agents have individual preferences that deviate from the industry standard — the source, I suspect, of Rose’s impression of unspecified origin — and if you can find out what these quirky desires are, you should definitely adhere to them in your submissions to that particular agent. It seldom pays, however, to assume that any one such preference is universal to the industry.

My point is, as annoying as it may be to bring your bios — and queries, synopses, and manuscripts — into line with the most common professional standards is so that Millicent may ignore the formatting and concentrate on what you are SAYING. Because, after all, your aim in your submission bio is not to cram as many facts as you can onto a single page, but to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Yes, you have heard that somewhere before. See, I don’t recommend sticking to the general standards just to be mean, either.

Congratulations, campers: I don’t know whether you have noticed it, but since Labor Day, you have completed a crash course in all of the standard elements of the query and submission packet. Which, in case you are the kind who likes to track such things, makes you more knowledgeable about how to market your writing to agents than roughly 97% of the aspiring writer population.

You should be very, very proud of yourself for taking the time — let’s face it, many of these posts have been hefty — to learn how to present yourself professionally. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part VI: you can tell the truth and nothing but the truth in a synopsis, but you just don’t have the space for the whole truth

I am Oz, the Great and Terrible, spoke the Beast, in a voice that was one great roar. Who are you, and why do you seek me?

I am Oz, the Great and Terrible, spoke the Beast, in a voice that was one great roar. Who are you, and why do you seek me?

Brace yourselves, campers: I’m going to be a positive fountain of apologies today. First, I’ve only just noticed that the post that I had scheduled for Thursday afternoon, then gone merrily on my way, assuming I had left you entertained and informed, apparently did not actually go up on Author! Author! until earlier today. I have no idea why. Technically, that is; I know why I took a couple of days off from posting. (Hint: dum de dum dum TO ME.)

Second, I’m sorry about the resolution of the picture above; something went wrong in the uploading process that I didn’t have time to figure out and fix because I’m currently writing on a pretty tight deadline. Third, my regrets about the fact that the dialogue I quoted above does not include the grammatically-necessary quotation marks found in the original text; my blogging program would not allow them in a caption, for some reason best known to its programmers. Fourth, I beg the forgiveness of every L. Frank Baum fan out there: I’ve only just noticed that the quote I used is not from Dorothy’s first visit to the Wizard — the subject of the drawing — but one of her companions’.

Fifth, my profound apologies to those of you who have been following this series on synopsis-writing who happen to be promoting a nonfiction book. Not everything I’ve covered so far in Synopsispalooza has applied to you.

In my defense, like so much of the above, that’s not entirely my fault: outside forces dictate that the fiction, memoir, and nonfiction synopsis must all be slightly different. Since novel and memoir synopses are typically closer than nonfiction synopses are to either, I tackled them first.

In the middle of this festival of summary I like to call Synopsispalooza, I’ve been concentrating for so far primarily upon the specialized problems of novel and memoir synopses. Specifically, I went on (and on and on) about the importance of a novel synopsis’ demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that its writer is a gifted storyteller.

For a memoir, this too is crucial: the most gripping real-life account is going to fall flat on the page if it’s not told well, right? So basically, a memoirist should use the same tactics as a novelist, except in the first person and the past tense: make the book sound like a terrific story.

Have I been gone so long that anybody out there does not remember how to pull that off in a 1-page synopsis? Just in case, let’s review its goals:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

All of these aims are easily transferable to a memoir, right? All you have to do is think of the memoir as story, rather than autobiography, and yourself as the protagonist, and summarize accordingly.

Does that seem a trifle vague? Okay, I’ll be more specific: A 1-page synopsis for a memoir should answer all of these burning questions — and some of these should sound awfully familiar:

Who am I? (other than the memoir’s author, that is)

What is my background? (Specifically, the part of it that renders it interesting enough to read about for 350 pages — and no, neither rampaging narcissism nor “But I spent all of this time writing it!” are adequate answers.)

How and why was/am I an interesting person in an interesting situation?

Who were the people in my life in the midst of all of this interestingness, and how do they move my story along?

What were my hopes and dreams — and what were the major barriers to my bringing them to fruition? Alternatively, what were my fears and how realistic were they?

What would I have gained by attaining these goals — and what would I have lost if I did not?

Here is how charming I am to follow on the page. Please fall in love with me as a protagonist, me as a writer, and ultimately, me as a client/new author signed to the publishing house/contest winner.

Piece of proverbial cake to pull off in a page, right? Now let’s add in the loftier additional goals of the slightly longer synopsis:

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Again, it’s not all that hard to envision synopsizing a memoir in this manner in 3 or 5 pages. Like a novel, a memoir — a good one, anyway — consists of fully-realized scenes, not just a litany I did this and I felt that. Treat Millicent the agency screener to snippets of those scenes, depicted as vividly as possible.

In other words: as for a novel synopsis, you should minimize the number of generalizations in your memoir synopsis. Instead, use as many concrete details as possible — and make sure to include some tidbits Millicent is highly unlikely to see in anybody else’s synopsis. Instead of concentrating upon cramming as much material as possible on the page, focus on making yourself sound original and fascinating.

My, I’m leaning upon the boldface button heavily this evening, amn’t I? It must be the weighty presence of Oz, the Great and Terrible.

Yet for nonfiction — and, if I’m going to be honest about it, some memoir as well — the task of constructing a synopsis is a trifle more complicated. Yes, you do need to come across as a great storyteller with a fascinating story to tell (and argument to make), but you also are charged with the sometimes heavy burden of convincing Millicent that your subject matter as interesting and important, as well as that you are the best possible writer in the universe to consult about it.

Naturally, that case is quite a bit easier to make if your subject matter is already widely recognized as interesting and important. Especially if you happen already to be celebrated internationally for your prowess in explaining it. In that case, you already have what people in publishing call a platform: a demonstrated ability to be able to get people to pay attention to you when you talk on this particular subject.

(Speaking of which, I’ve a favor to ask: over the years, quite a number of you have asked when I am planning to release this blog in book form, so you may have it sitting on your desk as you write. I am seriously considering pulling together a book proposal for a blog-based book this fall, and I could use some glowing blurbs of entreaty and/or testimonials from blog readers to dress up the proposal. If you’d like to help me out and earn my undying gratitude, drop me a line in the comments, and I shall contact you off-site. Thanks!)

If you are not already commanding public attention for your wit and wisdom on the subject matter of your nonfiction project, don’t worry — contrary to depressed murmurings on the writers’ conference circuit, a writer does not need to be already famous in order to have a platform for a particular book.

Yes, really. Trust me, I have a LOT of experience writing all three types of synopsis, as it happens: in recent years, I’ve sold both a memoir and a nonfiction book to publishers, and my second novel is making the rounds even as I type this. Not to mention all of the synopses I see as a frequent contest judge and even more frequent freelance editor. So yours truly has spent quite a bit of time in the last few years hunkered over the odd synopsis, let me tell you. I know whereat I speak.

In fact, just go ahead and imagine the following words of wisdom booming from the mouth of Oz, the Great and Terrible. It will save time and energy in the long run. (And if someone would be willing to say in a blurb that I’m more respected and feared than Oz in his heyday, there might be a candy bar in it for you. I just mention.)

In a nonfiction synopsis of any length, your goal is sixfold — and as those annoying disembodied voices on business’ voice mail systems so love to say, please listen carefully, as our options have changed in recent years:

(1) to present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter (even at an agency that specializes in your type of nonfiction, it’s unlikely that either Millicent or the agent will be very well-read in your particular area of expertise);

(2) to demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it (or, to put it another way: why should Millicent care about it?);

(3) to mention in passing who specifically is already interested in this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject (the Sierra Club, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Harpo Marx Fan Club, the entire scientific community, etc.);

(4) to give some indication of how you intend to prove your case, showing the argument in some detail (hey, you’re on your own on this one);

(5) to demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile (not the same thing as official, organized interest, necessarily), and

(6) to show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book (not, alas, always self-evident to our Millie).

In answer to that immense gulp I just heard: yes, a nonfiction writer does need to pull that off in anywhere from 1-5 pages, depending upon what the agent, publishing house, or contest rules request. I’m not entirely sure that I proved half that much in my master’s thesis.

And let me tell you, it was a pretty good master’s thesis. Oz was impressed, I’m told.

Nonfiction writers tend to have been stellar students, so I’m not at all astonished to see a plethora of hands politely raised already. Good students are frequently full of questions. “But Anne,” many of you point out politely — and believe me, I appreciate it. “That list above reads strikingly like the goals of a book proposal, a lengthy, heavily-detailed document that, correct me it I’m wrong, entire multi-page sections devoted to each of the numbered issues above. If I’m expected to accomplish all of that heavy lifting in the synopsis, what on earth am I supposed to be accomplishing in the proposal?”

The same thing, actually, but at greater length and with more evidence. Next question?

Just kidding; no need to burst into tears at the prospect. Lean in closer, and I’ll let you in on a little well-kept professional secret: a good nonfiction synopsis is not just a summary of the book’s argument, but a super-short book proposal.

Think of it as proposal concentrate. Add a sample chapter, a competitive market analysis, and an annotated table of contents, stir, and hey, you’ve got a book proposal. Not as tasty as fresh-squeezed, perhaps, but Millicent doesn’t have time to watch you argue it from scratch at the query packet stage.

I can feel you tensing up, but seriously, there’s no need. If you can write a book proposal — and you can, if you know enough about your subject matter to write a book — you can construct a really good nonfiction synopsis.

Where to begin, you ask? Well, I used to tell everyone who would listen that the argument was the most important element of a nonfiction synopsis — if it doesn’t come across as coherent and well-reasoned, after all, the book project is sunk. However, watching how nonfiction books are being marketed and bought these days, I’ve changed my tune. (To Dum de dum dum TO ME, apparently.)

Now, Oz the Great and Terrible is telling you that the single most vital aspect of a successful nonfiction synopsis lies in framing the central question of the book in a way that makes it appear not only interesting to Millicent – who, let’s face it, is almost certainly not going to be a specialist in your subject area; she was (or is) an English major, probably at a highly respected New England college — but likely to catch the notoriously fickle eye of the media. Basically, the synopsis needs to present the book’s concept as easy to promote to an already-existing audience.

If you doubt that, take a quick run to your local megabookstore and take a gander at how many political memoirs are coming out this month. It’s not that their subject matter is necessarily more fascinating than other nonfiction topics, or even, in many cases, that the author has such a terrific platform for telling the behind-the-scenes story. (The classic response of White House officials to tell-all books has historically been, “Who? Oh, didn’t he work here once for a week? I don’t even remember what he looked like.”) No, it’s that even the most poorly-written of these books are likely to be discussed on television and radio shows already devoted to such topics.

Hey, the 24-hour news cycle doesn’t feed itself, you know.

Thus, at the risk of observing the obvious, a query packet synopsis that makes Millicent exclaim by the end of the first paragraph, “Oh, this one would be a cinch to promote!” is far, far more likely to generate a request to see the book proposal than one that prompts her to muse, “Hmm, this is beautifully written. Too bad only four people in Southwestern Montana will be interested.”

Up go the hands again. “Excuse me, Anne? I had gathered from your Querypalooza series — conveniently gathered for the benefit of those who missed it under the category of that name on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page — that I was supposed to use the platform paragraph of my query to make the case that a readership already exists for my book. Wouldn’t tackling that again here be redundant?”

Ah, but synopses often end up places that query letters do not. A 1-page nonfiction synopsis might, for instance, sit by the phone for easy reference while an agent pitches the proposal to an editor; a 5-page synopsis might get circulated to an editorial committee before the acquiring editor makes and offer. The better a micro-proposal it is, the better legwork it can do for its writer.

That being said, the synopsis’ presentation of how and why the central problem of the book is typically a bit different from the query’s. It’s longer, for one thing, and less likely to include an explicit statement of how many articles The New York Times has run on the subject within the last two years.

It’s also more likely to be in the form of a story — and before any of you writing books on particle physics start guffawing, hear me out.

Every problem can be framed in the form of a tale; if you doubt that, just crack open any 7th-grade math textbook and take a gander at the word problems. While a purely technical exposition may well seem dry to the non-specialist, vividly-told real-world example of what can and does go wrong if the central problem of the book is not solves can instantly answer the questions, “So why will anybody care about this?” A gripping anecdote can serve the same function for a historical account.

So why not open your synopsis with a gripping one- or two-paragraph anecdote that illustrates what’s at stake in solving the problem tackled by the book?

Don’t laugh — it works. Especially for any sort of biography or memoir, a brief foray into storytelling can demonstrate not only that the writer is a fine storyteller, but can provide an intriguing entree to a subject that might at first glance appear dull to the non-specialist. Which, for example, does a better job of explaining the importance of breakthrough in sewing machine technology, this:

In the old days, a surprising number of textile workers lost fingers or even hands in industrial sewing machine accidents. Tamlyn Baker pondered the problem for forty-five years, invented a new kind of threading machine, then died in obscurity.

Or this:

The thread broke: for the eighth time that month, a burlap sack-maker lost a finger. Like the others, this woman would be fired and go home to tell her children to prepare to starve. Tamlyn swore once again to perfect her hands-free threading device, even if she had to burn every candle in the Midwest staying up to do it.

Okay, so the latter is a trifle melodramatic — but if you were Millicent, which book proposal would you request?

The second most important element of a nonfiction synopsis is the argument: it’s imperative that the synopsis-reader be able to follow it. Show it in logical order, rather than jumping around or leaving pieces out. No need to be pedantic about it, of course: In Chapter Eight… is not a transition likely to impress Millicent with your storytelling acumen.

Why is showing the basic argument of the book so important? Well, in a nonfiction synopsis, you should not only show the content of the book, but also that you can argue coherently.

Yes, you in the tenth row? “But Anne, this seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t the best way for an agent or editor to check out my argumentative style be to, you know, read my manuscript? Or at least my proposal?”

I could shoot that one down right away, but first, let’s all take a refreshing mental holiday and picture how much easier all of our lives would be people in the publishing industry actually thought that way. Ah, that’s nice: a world where writers’ talent was judged solely by thoughtful, well-paid, prose-loving agents and editors, lounging on comfy sofas in sun-drenched lofts, languidly turning over page after page of entire manuscripts sent to them by aspiring authors because they have literally nothing else to do all day.

And look, outside that massive loft window — do I see a pig flying by, with Jean Harlow on his back, waving sparklers and smooching Clark Gable?

Okay, back to the real world: realistically, a nonfiction synopsis does indeed need to encapsulate the argument that it takes an entire book to make in just a couple of pages — or at least to establish the central question and indicate how you’re going to go about answering it.

Think of it as a tap-dancing audition, your two-minute chance to show your fancy footwork: if you argue well enough here, an agent (or editor at a small publishing house) will ask to see the argument in the book.

Did I just hear some gasps out there? “Two minutes?” a few of you squeak. “How closely can she possibly read my synopsis in that short amount of time? The one-page version perhaps, but the 5-page?”

I didn’t mean to startle you — but yes, that’s about the maximum your synopsis will have under an agent’s (or, more likely, Millicent’s) bloodshot, overworked eyes. Contrary to popular opinion, nonfiction queries and submissions tend not to be treated to much closer or more respectful readings than novels these days — and that’s saying something.

Popular opinion may have a point here, at least at the agency level, because nonfiction has historically been quite a bit easier to sell to the major publishing houses than fiction. At this point in publishing history, though, the market is so tight that it just doesn’t make strategic sense for nonfiction writers to assume that they — or, more accurately, we — don’t need to present book projects as professionally and eye-catchingly as novelists do.

So assume two minutes, maximum, possibly less. Let’s face it, this isn’t a lot of time to establish an argument much more complicated than the recipe for your sainted mother’s cream of tomato soup.

Even if Mom’s methodology consisted primarily of opening a can of Campbell’s, you may find yourself in a descriptive pickle.

It is more than enough page space, however, to demonstrate that you have the writing skills to make an argument where each sentence leads logically to the next. It’s also enough time to show that you have a coherent plan for proving your propositions, and for indicating what evidence you intend to use.

If I seem to be harping on the necessity of making a COMPLETE, if skeletal, argument here, it’s because the single most common mistake nonfiction synopsizers make is to give only PART of the argument, or still worse, only the premise, with no indication of how they intend to make their case. Instead, they use the space to go on a rant about how necessary the book is, essentially squandering precious argumentative space with marketing jargon and premise.

But a solid underlying argument is the sine qua non of the nonfiction synopsis. Period. If it doesn’t appear to hold water — yes, even in a 1-page synopsis — the book simply isn’t going to strike the industry as marketable.

To make it appear as solid in the synopsis as I’m sure it is in the proposal and/or manuscript, don’t forget to mention what kind of evidence you will be using to support your claims. Have you done extensive research? Exhaustive interviews? Hung out with the right people?

If you have a professional background in the subject matter of your book that unquestionably renders you an expert, or personal experience that gives you a unique insight into the subject, try to work that into the synopsis, early on. Otherwise, stick to the subject matter and explain what your book is going to teach people about it;

I use the term teach advisedly, because it is often quite helpful for synopsis writers to think of the task as producing a course overview for the lesson that is the book’s content: how will this book help readers, and what kind of readers will it help? Ultimately, how will both these readers and the world around them be better off because they read this book?

Oh, you don’t think your work is that important? If you don’t believe that your writing is capable of making the world a better place, why put in all of the effort to write it, break your heart querying, or bite your nails down to the elbow while you are waiting to hear yea or nay on your book proposal?

Once you have made the book’s worth clear, how about demonstrating precisely what about your approach will captivate those readers as no other will? Of course, I’m not talking about TELLING a potential agent or editor how terrific the book is — that’s the book proposal’s job, right? — but SHOWING that you can write the heck out of this topic.

Remember, it’s your job to make your subject matter sound absolutely fascinating. To achieve this successfully, a good nonfiction synopsis needs to show how the book’s take on the topic on it is original.

At the risk of repeating myself, in order to do that, you are going to have to spell out your argument. Not merely in generalities, but in sufficient detail that — everyone chant it with me now — an agent, editor, or contest judge could understand it sufficiently to describe it to someone else without having read the book.

Because, let’s face it, that’s precisely what Millicent the agency screener is going to have to do in order to get her boss to ask to see your book proposal or manuscript — and what her cousin Maury the editorial assistant will have to do to get his boss even to consider publishing it.

Have I convinced you yet that you really do need to present a cohesive, well-argued theory here? And did I happen to mention the importance of its being cohesive?

Easier said than done, of course. In the author’s mind, the argument often lies the details, not in the larger, more theoretical points. How can you narrow it down? It’s helpful to have an outline of your proposed chapters in front of you, so you can use the synopsis to demonstrate how each chapter will build upon the next to make your overall case.

Oh, don’t groan. If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you are going to need to pull together a chapter-by-chapter overview anyway, to include in your book proposal: it’s called the annotated table of contents. This moniker is a tad misleading, because it brings to mind the simple chapter title + page number tables of contents we’ve all seen in published books. An annotated table of contents consists of the titles in order, yes, but it also contains a paragraph or two about the argument or material to be presented in that chapter.

For tips on how to pull this off successfully, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the list at right. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Don’t get so caught up in reproducing the argument in the synopsis, though, that you overlook working in a brief explanation of why the world needs your book, and why you are the best person imaginable to write it. This is typically the greatest difference between a fiction and a nonfiction synopsis: while a platform always helps for a novelist, it’s often not practicable for a science fiction writer to say, “I’m an expert on life on the planet Targ, having lived there for forty-seven Targian years (two months our time),” is it?

If you are writing on a subject that has already been well-trodden by past authors, it’s even more vital to make these points clear. The synopsis needs to render it apparent to Millicent and Maury at a glance why your book is different and better than what’s already on the market.

In answer to the small, instinctive moans of protest that just escaped from your gullet: yes, this is repetitive with material you will cover in your book proposal. As I mentioned above, in most of the contexts in which your synopsis will travel — tucked into an envelope with a query letter; accompanying a sample chapter or contest entry; floating around a publishing house after an editor has already fallen in love with your proposal — the reader will not also be clutching your proposal.

In other words: don’t count on its being available to make your case. Your goal should be to produce a synopsis that shows off your writing skills, the strength of your argument, and the inherent marketability of your book in a fraction of the space allotted to a proposal.

As always, there is no need to be heavy-handed in your own praise to achieve this, either. To prove it to you, I’m going to give you a sample opening, modest enough that it would strike no one as overbearing. Read carefully, as there will be a pop quiz afterward to see if you can spot the ways that this paragraph achieves Goals #3 and #4:

Have you ever wondered what goes on underneath the snow while you are skiing on top of it? Although there are many books currently on the market for the US’s 1.3 million snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist. Seen through the eyes of a professional rock hound with thirty years of experience in the field, the reader is introduced to mountains as more than an array of cold, hard rocks: mountains emerge as a historical document, teeming with life and redolent of all of the stages of human history.

How did you do? Give yourself points if you noticed that the opening question was an excellent hook: it grabbed the reader, showing immediately how this book might relate to the reader’s practical life; a rhetorical question for which the book itself provides an answer is a great way to establish a book’s appeal at the very beginning of the synopsis.

Also, pat yourself on the back fifty times if you zeroed in on the subtle way in which this paragraph dissed the competition — the implication here is that the authors all previous books on the subject were such boneheads that THEY thought mountains were just collections of rocks.

No one is naming names here, but those authors know who they are. Shame on you.

Take yourself out for a cupcake if you noted the clever (if I do say so myself) use of demographic information. (Which I made up wholesale for example’s sake, so for heaven’s sake, don’t quote it elsewhere.) If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them — here, and in your query letter, and in your pitch. As in:

Currently, two million Americans have been diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them — and only one that is actually written by an agoraphobic, someone who truly understands what it feels like to be shut in by fear.

Why is it so important to hammer home the statistics in every conceivable piece of marketing material for your book? Well, no matter how large the prospective audience for your book is (unless it is an already such a well-covered market that anyone in the industry could reasonably be expected know about it, such as golf fans), you can’t ever, ever assume that an agent or editor will be aware of its size.

ALWAYS assume that they will underestimate it — and thus the market appeal of your book. Oz, the Great and Terrible, tells you that more often than not, they will.

While Oz’ booming tones are echoing around in your brainpan, I think I shall end for the day, so all of your nonfiction writers out there may go off and meditate upon your target demographic and why it desperately needs your book. Join me tomorrow for another Synopsispalooza post, everyone, and keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XVIII: wrapping up the proposal neatly and tying it with a big red bow (not literally, of course; as you may see, it would not only look a tad silly, but would be difficult to mail without crushing the bow)

gift-wrapped proposal

As that rather cumbersome title implies, I’m going to be finishing up my whirlwind overview of book proposal formatting today. This exciting development (hey, everything’s relative) is, of course, merely a plateau in our continuing climb toward mastery of standard format for book manuscripts. Over the days to come, I shall be wrapping that up, too, via my favorite means: answering readers’ burning questions.

So if you’ve been holding back any, waiting for someone else to ask, now would be a dandy time to leap into the fray. The comments on today’s post would be a dandy place to bring up any lingering concerns.

While I’m trolling for commentary, would anybody be interested in my following this series with a short overview of what a query letter and synopsis should look like? Please weigh in, if so — or if not, for that matter. Personally, I kind of like the idea of having all of the formatting posts back-to-back in the archives, but as I’ve dealt with query letters fairly recently, I fear to bore the masses.

Which is a rather interesting statement for someone who’s just spent weeks on end meticulously detailing small formatting distinctions to make, come to think of it. Apparently, my faith in my own writing’s inherent fascination is boundless.

As is today’s intended subject matter, as it happens. I’m determined to polish off the proposal today, so this is bound to be a long one, folks.

Before we launch into this last installment, let’s recap, shall we? (Yes, yes, I know, I’ve covered all this before, but you’d be surprised at how many writers in a hurry will read only the most recent post in a series like this.) Here, once again, are the constituent parts of the book proposal, in the order they should appear:

1. The title page

2. The overview, a comprehensive document that leaves Maury with no doubt whatsoever about how to answer the following questions:

(a) What is the proposed book will be about, and why are you the single best being with an operational circulatory system and fingers to write about it?

(b) What is the central question or problem of the book? Why the topic is important, and to whom?

(c) Why is this book needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history?

(d) Who is the target audience for this book?

(e) Why will this book appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market does?

(f) How will your platform enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might even think about writing this book?

(g) How strong a writer are you, and is this voice appropriate to the proposed book’s subject matter and target audience?

3. The competitive market analysis

4. The annotated table of contents

Everyone relatively happy about all of those? Again, please pop a question into the comments, if not. Moving on:

5. The sample chapter(s)
Generally speaking, professional proposals use Chapter 1 as the sample, rather than one from farther into the storyline or argument, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s usually easier for the reader to follow that way. However, that’s not strictly necessary: in a cookbook proposal, for instance, Chapter 7′s Thanksgiving feast may well wow Millicent more than Chapter 1′s general introduction to baking techniques.

Use your best judgment — but as always, be open to your future agent’s informing you that you judged wrong and that you must write another sample chapter before she submits it to editors at publishing houses. (Yes, it happens. Quite a lot, in fact.)

When making the decision about which chapter to include here, bear in mind that this section is where you’re going to provide the most direct evidence of the voice and writing style of the proposed book. Neither of which, in a good proposal, will come as a surprise to Millicent, because the entire proposal should be written in the voice of the book.

Yes, even the dry marketing parts. Hey, you’re a writer — it’s your job to make even unquestionably dull stuff interesting to read.

A whole lot more work than simply throwing the necessary materials together and hoping that the sample chapter alone is enough to convince Millicent that your voice is right for this project? Undoubtedly. But a better marketing strategy than the far more common approach of composing the rest of the proposal in the faintly exasperated tone of the jumper through unnecessary hoops? Absolutely.

On the brighter side, for a well-prepared writer, the labor involved in incorporating the sample chapter into the proposal is comparatively light. Hold your applause, but in a proposal, the sample chapter is formatted precisely like a chapter in a manuscript.

Okay, you can clap now. You know you want to.

That’s right — provided that as much of the book as you’ve written so far is already in standard format, you can simply copy and paste it into your book proposal at the proper juncture. This means, of course, that the first page of the sample chapter will have more white space at the top than any other page of the proposal. (And if you found that last statement mystifying, may I suggest that you review my earlier post on chapter openings and how they should look on the page?)

I hear some of you muttering and shuffling your feet. You want to see the difference between the first page of the sample chapter and any old page of the proposal, don’t you? Good plan.

Here, for your comparing and contrasting pleasure, is a properly-formatted first page of a proposal. (You do remember, right, that the title page is neither numbered nor included in the page count?)

overview1

That looks familiar by now, right? Because the sample chapter is a major section of the proposal, let’s review how a major section change would be designated in a proposal:

competitive market analysis3

Now take a peek at a minor topic change — which, again, should be old hat by now. (Where on earth did that perverse little expression originate, I wonder?)

subheading in proposal

As I would devoutly hope would be abundantly clear to you by this late point in a series on standard formatting, none of the above remotely resembles the first page of a manuscript. The first page of a manuscript should, of course, look like this:

first page of text

Quite a difference, is it not? Millicent could tell which was a page from a proposal and which had fluttered free of a manuscript from ten paces away.

Now take a gander at the first page of the sample chapter in a proposal:

sample chapter opening

Those last two are remarkably similar, aren’t they? Pop quiz: see any formatting differences between this and the same chapter opening in the manuscript?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, exclaiming, “By Jove, Anne, the slug line clearly demonstrates that rather than starting pagination over again at page 1, the sample chapter’s first page shows where it falls within the book proposal,” congratulations: you have the eye of an editor. As you so astutely pointed out, the page numbers don’t start over at the beginning of the sample chapter; the entire proposal is numbered consecutively. For extra credit, would anyone care to guess why?

If you shouted, “To make it easier for Millicent to put the always unbound pages of the proposal back in order after she collides with someone in the hallway!” you’re really on a roll today. Help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash.

Otherwise, though, the sample chapter and the same chapter in manuscript form should be formatted identically. Realizing that, need I even add that part of what the writer is demonstrating in this section of the proposal is a familiarity with the standards of this industry?

Not to mention the tone and vocabulary norms of your chosen book category. I probably should mention it, though, because many a well-argued and even well-written book proposal has gotten rejected because the prose in the sample chapter just didn’t sound like, well, a book in that category.

As always, if you’re not familiar with what’s currently being published in your chosen book category, why not? And how on earth did you manage to write a convincing competitive market analysis without being up on all the recent releases, anyway?

I’m most emphatically not kidding about this: from an agent or editor’s point of view, a book proposer’s being conversant with the norms, trends, and current market for the type of book she’s proposing is not an optional extra — it’s a basic requirement. It comes standard with the professional nonfiction writer package.

Don’t tell me you can’t afford to buy everything that comes out in your category, either; that’s what libraries and bookstores with comfortable reading chairs are for.

One final word about the sample chapter before I move on to the remaining bits of the proposal: make absolutely sure that the sample chapter delivers on the promise of that chapter’s summary in the annotated table of contents. If there’s any doubt whatsoever in your mind about whether it fulfills that promise — or if it does not represent your best writing — either pick another chapter to use as your sample or start revising.

Cursory sample chapters are the bane of any proposal-reading Millicent or Maury’s existence, and for good reason: if their attention has been sufficiently grabbed by the overview and maintained throughout the middle part of the proposal, it’s a genuine disappointment to discover a sample chapter that just lies there. If they’ve read that far, trust me, they want — and expect — to be wowed.

They also expect that the sample chapter will demonstrate how you intend to flesh out the brief chapter summaries in the annotated table of contents, and rightly so. If the two parts of the proposal appear to be out of sync, M & M are going to wonder if your writing skills are up to the task of producing a consistent final manuscript.

Don’t tempt them to speculate on that score. Call me cynical, but I’ve seldom seen that type of speculation end well for the proposer. It’s not a screener’s job to give proposers the benefit of the doubt, after all.

Speaking of doing one’s job, it’s about time that I talked about the remaining elements of the proposal, isn’t it? Don’t worry; there aren’t many.

6. The author bio
Since writing a stellar author bio is an art form of its own, I’m not even going to attempt to describe here how to write one. For an in-depth discussion of the subject, please consult the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the archive list at right.

Seriously, go consult it. Again, this is a place where many first-time proposers skimp, thinking (erroneously, alas) that since they’ve already talked about their platforms earlier in the proposal, all that’s really necessary in the author bio is the kind of bare-bones, just-the-facts-ma’am author bios they’re accustomed to seeing inside the dust jackets of hardcover books. Do not, I implore you, be fooled by those brief paragraphs going by the same moniker as what’s required in a book proposal.

The purpose of an author bio in a book proposal is to provide a handy single-page summary of the writer’s platform for writing this particular book. That means, in practice, that a savvy writer may choose to use different author bio text — or even author photos — in proposals for different books.

Not sure why? Okay, tell me: if you were vacillating between acquiring two books on dog breeding, which bio would appeal to you more, one that simply lists the writer’s previous publications and credentials under a smiling head shot — or one that listed eight dog-related credentials under a snapshot of the writer with his arm around a happy Dalmatian?

No contest, is there?

Do not, for the sake of your own happiness, leave constructing your bio to the end of the proposal-writing process. It’s hard; budget time for it. Why? Well, really apt author bios are hard to write — and most of us go through quite a few photos before we find one of ourselves that we like.

Don’t believe me? Okay, care to guess how many shots my quite gifted photographer friend Marjon Floris took before she caught the one in my bio?

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 800. With two cameras. (Thank goodness for digital technology, eh?) Admittedly, my whole family is pretty camera-shy — my brother’s wedding photographer actually burst into tears during the reception, so frustrated was he at the difficulty of catching candids of any of us wily Minis — but still, a good author photo often takes a lot of trial and error.

Speaking of the camera-shy, am I seeing some of you waggling your fingertips in my peripheral vision? “But Anne,” the photography-averse murmur, making faces at the camera, “I don’t want to include a picture of myself in my bio; believe me, my book’s appeal would in no way be enhanced by a photo of me clutching a Dalmatian, or indeed, any creature whatsoever, warm- or cold-blooded. Can’t I, you know, skip it?”

You’re not going to believe this, but the answer is yes.

At least in a book proposal; it’s more or less de rigueur these days in a bio accompanying a manuscript submission. (Hey, both Millicent and Maury will want to be able to tell their bosses if the new writer they’ve just discovered is photogenic — like it or not, it does sometimes make a difference in marketing these days.)

Without an author photo, a proposal bio is simply another double-spaced single page of text with a title at the top. Here, for instance, is the super-serious bio I used a few years ago in the proposal for the political book I’ve been using as an example all day:

author bio

7. Relevant clippings, if any
This is another platform-proving exercise: if you have written articles, or even other books, it’s customary to include beautifully sharp photocopies of a few of them at the end of your book proposal. Similarly, if you happen to be famous enough for articles to have been written about you and your subject matter, feel free to include ‘em here — provided, in this second case, that they relate to your platform for this particular book.

Since our primary concern in this series is formatting (although I suspect that salient fact may have slipped all of our minds while I’ve been chatting at length about the content of a good book proposal; hey, I’m chatty), I’m going to leave to another time in-depth discussion of how to generate clippings. For now, I’ll content myself with urging you to make sure that the copies are pristine, with nice, clear, readable type.

Oh, and one other thing: do yourself a favor and scan each of the clippings, or have a computer-savvy someone do it for you. Not only will this enable you to submit your proposal to agents and small publishers who prefer online submissions (still relatively rare for nonfiction, but growing in popularity by the day), but it will also save you quite a bit of time down the line, once you’re working with an agent.

Why? Well, it has become quite common for agents to submit book proposals electronically to editors. Unscanned clippings can’t go into a virtual proposal, right?

Pant, pant, pant. Don’t stop running now — we’re practically at the end.

8. The proposal folder
I’ve written about this fairly extensively in the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL series (conveniently gathered under the category of the same name on the archive list at right), so I’m not going to delve too deeply into the particulars. Except to say: in the United States, book proposals are presented in plain black folders.

Period. Don’t even consider trying to get fancy — and whatever you do, do not bind your proposal in any way. Let those pages flap around loose, just as they do in a manuscript.

Well, not quite the same: tuck the pages (neatly please) into the folder, items 1-4 on the left-hand side (i.e., everything prior to the sample chapter), items 5-7 (the sample chapter and beyond on the right).

Don’t label the folder on the front, either; keep it plain. What Millicent, Maury, and everybody else in the industry expects to see coming out of a submission envelope is this:

book proposal folder1

I know: boring. That’s the way they like it.

The folders in question, by the way, are the ones with horizontal pockets inside, not the ones with brads in the middle. The latter are for high school book reports, the former for book proposals, and ne’er the twain shall meet. So if the folder in your hand does not look like this when you open it:

book proposal photo 2

scuttle on back to the office supply story and pick up one that does. Seriously, proposals in the wrong kind of folder will just look unprofessional to the pros.

And that — whew! — is a lightning-swift (for me) discussion of how to format a book proposal. Congratulations on absorbing so much practical information so rapidly, campers, and keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XVII: excuse me — you’re proposing WHAT?

marriage-proposal1

For the last couple of posts, we have bent our collective gaze — steely, to be sure — away from the green pastures of manuscript formatting to turn our attention to the wind-swept plains of book proposals and their proper formatting. As we have seen in our brief sojourn amid the majestic buffalo and skipping lambs, while the text of a book proposal is formatted largely in the same matter as a manuscript’s, the various headings and subheadings are often different.

Before I move on, allow me to digress: did you notice how I dropped that running metaphor when it became apparent that it wasn’t working? That’s a good editing tip for any kind of writing: don’t force it if it doesn’t fly. An even better one: while proofing you work, make sure you read all the way to the end of every sentence; it’s the only way to catch metaphors abandoned mid-stream. (And yes, Virginia, I do see orphaned metaphors wandering about ostensibly well-revised manuscripts. All the time.)

As we saw last time, a professional book proposal contains a wide range of marketing materials, all written in the proposer’s best possible prose, cleverly fitted together in a manner to convince an agent or editor that not only is the proposed book an interesting idea that will appeal to a very specific (and, ideally, well-established) target audience, but that the proposer is the best (and, ideally, the only) conceivable person currently drawing breath to write this particular book. Or, to put it in the language of the industry, it’s a marketable concept presented by a writer with a great platform.

A thousand hands just shot into the air mid-paragraph, didn’t they? “Um, Anne?” many would-be proposers inquire nervously. “You didn’t really mean that bit about the proposal written in the proposer’s best possible prose, did you? After all, the proposal is just a formality, a series of hoops through which I have to jump before a publisher buys my book, right?”

Actually, no — although I can certainly see why you might think so. Unlike novels, nonfiction books (yes, even most memoirs) are sold not because someone falls in love with the manuscript, but because a prospective author has made a convincing case in a proposal that a book that does not yet exist will be marketable to a specific audience and that s/he is the right person to write it. Since the book concept and the argument for it are the primary sales pitch, most first-time proposers conclude that the writing in a proposal is of secondary importance.

They’re absolutely wrong. Every syllable of a book proposal is a writing sample — the only writing sample, in fact, upon which an agent or editor will base his or her conclusions about whether to pick up the book.

If you’ll join me in a wee flight of fancy, I think you’ll see why that absolutely must be the case.

Picture, if you will (and you will, right?), Maury the editorial assistant, diligently scanning the day’s submissions from agents for the next promising nonfiction project. He has reason to be careful: he needs to be very, very selective about what he passes on to his boss, the editor of your dreams. (Let’s call her Ermintrude, just for giggles.) If he simply sends Ermintrude every proposal that sounds as if it might make a good book, he’s not really doing his job, is he? It’s not as though she can offer a publication contract to every interesting-sounding project, after all; at most, even an extremely busy editor might be able to take on somewhere between one and ten a year.

Yes, you read that correctly.

It’s Maury’s job to prevent Ermintrude’s desk from becoming so over-stacked with proposals that she can’t find her phone. So yes, he’s going to weed out any proposal that doesn’t sound interesting right off the bat. He’s also going to reject those that don’t have a clearly-defined concept — which, in a screener’s world, means one that’s both grabbed his attention instantly and is comprehensible within the first few pages of the proposal — as well as those that either don’t define their target market well or do not strike him as likely to appeal to the readers already buying such books. Not to mention those that don’t seem to have a well laid-out marketing plan or chapters likely to deliver fully upon the premise of the proposal, or those proposed by writers who haven’t made a good case for their platforms to write the book.

That’s going to weed out most of ‘em. (I hate to be blunt about it, but because the book proposal is such a widely misunderstood marketing tool, Maury sees a whole lot of rambling proposals. And rambling, unprofessional proposals are most of what Millicent, his cousin who screens agency submissions, sees on a weekly basis.) But let’s be generous and assume that Maury’s had an unusually strong selection of proposals submitted this week: out of 300, 10 are fascinating ideas for books aimed for a well-established audience.

He can’t possibly send them all — ten is Ermintrude’s entire year’s allotment of books, even if she works nights, weekends, and funds the last two herself. So how does he decide which one or two to send upstairs to his boss?

Uh-huh. The ones where the writing screams, “Excuse me, but had you noticed that there’s some talent here?”

Think about that, any of you who were planning to toss together your book proposals over the next long weekend, or stuff them into the mailbox without running the text by another literate human being not already familiar with your book’s concept. (Word to the wise: if that literate human can’t tell you what the book is about and why you’re the best person on earth to write it by the time she is halfway through page 4, you might want to think about some serious revision. And if she doesn’t want to read the book by the middle of page 2, run, don’t walk, back to the drawing board to work on your prose and presentation.)

Now that I’ve scared the living daylights out of you, let’s review the constituent parts of the book proposal — at least, the ones we have covered so far:

1. The title page

2. The overview, a comprehensive document that leaves Maury with no doubt whatsoever about how to answer the following questions:

(a) What is the proposed book will be about, and why are you the single best being with an operational circulatory system and fingers to write about it?

(b) What is the central question or problem of the book? Why the topic is important, and to whom?

(c) Why is this book needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history?

(d) Who is the target audience for this book?

(e) Why will this book appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market does?

(f) How will your platform enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might even think about writing this book?

(g) How strong a writer are you, and is this voice appropriate to the proposed book’s subject matter and target audience?

Okay, okay, so I kind of slipped that last one up the back staircase, but it’s a great asset to a book proposal if it is written in the same voice (and with the same vocabulary) as the eventual book.

Those aren’t the kind of things you want to leave to Maury’s imagination, are they? As we discussed last time, a fantastic way to establish authorial voice and interest in the subject matter is to open with a vividly illustrative anecdote or other method of direct appeal to the reader’s reason and emotions. Opening with dry marketing material tends not to grab Maury’s attention anywhere near as well.

3. The competitive market analysis
This section, as I hope you will recall from last time, is a brief examination of similar books that have come out within the last five years, accompanied by an explanation of how the book being proposed will serve the shared target audience’s needs in a different and/or better manner. Not intended to be an exhaustive list, the competitive market analysis uses the publishing successes of similar books in order to make a case that there is a demonstrable already-existing audience for this book.

Sound familiar? It should here is where the proposer proves the contentions he made in the overview with hard data.

Which of the many, many contentions, you ask, and how does talking about your competition prove them? Well, for starters, who the target audience is for your book? Answer: the readers who have already bought the books listed in the competitive market analysis. (The implicit logic: if those books sold well, that means these people buy a lot of books — and might be eager to buy more.)

Yet another reason that you might want to say something nice about your competition, eh?

You can also use this section to demonstrate how your book is different and better than what’s already on the market — and yes, that can (and should) be done without running down the competition, as long as you’re specific. Think about it: if you mention the best points of the other books and can still make the case that your proposed volume will either do what they do, only more effectively (do you have a stronger platform than another author, for instance, or is the other book outdated now?) and/or not in the same way (what does your take on the subject offer that those other books do not?), your book is going to end up looking better by contrast than if you merely say that everything else is terrible.

Trust me on this one. If you can’t say something nice about a particular comparable book, consider contrasting yours to one that you can praise with a straight face.

Some of you have had your hands raised since yesterday, have you not? “But Anne,” proposers everywhere exclaim, rubbing circulation back into their exhausted arms, “one of the reasons I wanted to write my book in the first place is that there isn’t another recent book on the subject. So how do I come up with a list for the competitive market analysis? Make things up?”

Glad you asked, patient arm-raisers — there’s a pro’s trick to this. But first, indulge me in a short exercise in understanding your book’s appeal.

First, equip yourself with some scratch paper (the back sides of earlier drafts of your proposal, perhaps?) and a comfortable pen. I would suggest selecting a comfortable chair, too, because you’re not to budge until you come up with five different ways to describe your proposed book. And I’m not talking about descriptors like well-written, either — describe your book the way a clerk in a bookstore might to a potential reader.

Got that list firmly in hand? Good. Now hie yourself and your list hence to the nearest well-stocked brick-and-mortar bookstore. (Seriously, what I’m about to suggest is considerably harder to pull off online.)

Standing in the store, feeling silly for carrying that list around. Excellent. Ready, set — don’t find a book like yours.

Yes, really. Instead, go to the first descriptor on your list and find several books that could be described the same way. Proposing a memoir, for instance? Stand in front of the memoir section and keep pulling books off the shelves until you discover a few that are similar in some way to yours.

It can be a very, very small way. Is it a childhood memoir by someone who grew up in the same part of the country as you did? Start taking notes. Is another by a dog-lover, while two chapters of your proposed book cover your relationship with beloved Fido? Sounds close enough to me.

After you’ve ferreted out a few useful titles, move on to the next descriptor on your list. If your memoir set in the mid-1960s, find a few good nonfiction titles that cover similar aspects of the period. If your cookbook is for vegans, how about including as few of the well put-together vegetarian cookbooks out recently? Not too hard to see how your book would be different and better for vegan readers than those, right?

And so forth. The goal here is not necessarily to find a dozen books exactly like yours; it’s also perfectly permissible to devote a paragraph or two each to several different book categories into which your unique book might conceivably fall. By demonstrating that there is already a market for books that match your five descriptors — as there must be, according to industry logic, or those recently-released books would not be on the shelves* — the implication is that past readers of each of those types of book will be interested in yours.

(* Don’t waste your energies questioning this quite questionable assumption; you’ve got a proposal to write.)

Everyone clear now on the purpose and proper formatting of the competitive market analysis? If not, now would be a fabulous time to shout out a question or two. While I’m waiting with my hand cupped around my ear, let’s move on to the next section.

4. The annotated table of contents
This section has some odd conventions, ones that tend to come as a surprise to most first-time proposers, so before I launch into a discussion, let’s take a gander at out example from the other day.

Notice anything here that might offend the muses of standard format? How about the fact that the title of the book appears at the top of the page, as if Annotated Table of Contents were a subtitle? Or the phenomenon of adding a section break between each chapter’s description? Or that the descriptions were in the present tense, like a synopsis?

Actually, there’s a pretty good explanation for the first two of these conventions. (Sorry; you’re on your own for the last.) Remember how I mentioned earlier in this sub-series that unlike a manuscript, book proposals are often broken up into their constituent parts on the reading end, so folks working in different departments at publishing houses may take a gander at ‘em? Titling the annotated table of contents renders it easier to get those pages back into the right proposal. And skipping a line between chapters makes it simpler for an editor to find the chapter she is seeking when she’s in an editorial committee meeting or arguing with your agent about what will be in the final book.

Oh, you weren’t aware that editors often ask writers to change the proposed chapters? Happens all the time, so gird your loins and prepare to play ball.

If the very notion of being asked to remove your meticulously-researched chapter on steam engines (in order to replace it with a similar section on cotton gins, about which the acquiring editor did her undergraduate thesis at Columbia) or to reduce your seven intended chapters on your life prior to the age of 17 into as many paragraphs (so you may concentrate at greater length on your four subsequent years as a sword-swallower) causes your skin crawl in revulsion, do not despair. You actually do have a means of making sure your favorite chapters pass the editorial test: write about them brilliantly in the annotated table of contents.

Seriously, if ever there was a time to show, not tell, this is it.

Why, you ask? Because the vast majority of first proposals just summarize what’s going to be in each chapter, instead of using each chapter to tell a compelling separate story. Because you’re selling your talents as a storyteller here, as well as the subject matter of the book, right?

It’s not surprising that this section falls flat in so many proposals; again, many, if not most, proposers don’t seem to understand the purpose of the annotated table of contents. As we discussed the other day, many, many proposers labor under the misconception that what agents and editors expect to see in this section is simply a list of chapter titles, accompanied by guesstimated page numbers. Many, many other proposers assume that they should devote a page to each chapter.

Or even several. For my sins, I’ve seen proposal drafts with 20-page annotated tables of contents. Believe me, Maury was far from pleased.

Avoid that dreadful fate in yours; keep it brief, but substantial. One to two paragraphs on each envisioned chapter is about right — remembering, of course, that everything in a book proposal is a writing sample. At the risk of repeating myself, show, not tell.

How does one pull that off when covering so much territory in so short a space as a paragraph or two? The same way you came up with the summary paragraph of your query letter, ideally: instead of trying to summarize everything that happens in a chapter in general terms, pick a particularly interesting scene or argument and present it in vivid terms.

In other words: be specific, not general. If you can possibly manage it, try to include details that Maury is unlikely to see in another proposal.

If you just muttered to yourself, “Hey, might this not be an amazingly good place to demonstrate just how my book is different and better than the ones I was discussing in the last section?” congratulations — you’re thinking like a pro. Especially in a memoir or cookbook proposal, this is the precise spot to work in mention of how your book is uniquely yours:

annotated table of contents2

And if you eagerly shot your hand into the air as you glanced over that last example, eager to point out that this example was formatted slightly differently than the one before it, congratulations again — your eye is sharpening. The last version is in the version my agency prefers; the desire for bolding and all caps is not universal.

Just thought you might like to see both. And if I haven’t said it often enough yet: if the agent of your dreams wants you to format your proposal differently from what I advise here — in, for example, clearly laid-out guidelines on the agency’s website — for heaven’s sake, give him what he wants. In the book proposal as well as the manuscript, the average agent is looking for evidence that a potential client can follow directions.

Don’t see why that would be an essential quality in a book-proposing client? Okay, let me ask you: if you were an agent, would you rather represent the writer who says, “Lose my Chapter 13 and dumb down the book’s vocabulary to an 8th-grade reading level? Can do, Editor!” or the one who flies into an uncontrollable fury?

Oh, come on — you didn’t really hesitate over that choice as long as you pretended, did you?

I’ll be wrapping up book proposal formatting next time — literally: I’ll be talking about the folders that encase them. Until we meet again in that happy, not-too-distant future, keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XI: page 137 deserves your loving scrutiny, too, or, no time for napping yet, gargoyle!

napping gargoyle in Carcassonne

Have you been enjoying our in-depth guided tour of the manuscript from the top down? Literally: so far, we’ve talked about the piece of paper on top of the submission stack, the title page; we’ve talked about the next sheet of paper, the first page of text and how it differs from both the title page and the pages that come after it; we’ve extrapolated from that first page to standards for the first page of each chapter and any titled section breaks.

Now, it’s time to talk about all of those pages in the middle, don’t you think? Perhaps, while we’re at it, we could engage in some more of those nifty compare-and-contrast exercises we engaged in so fruitfully yesterday.

I know, I know: hard to contain your enthusiasm, isn’t it?

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

Oh, that doesn’t sound like much of a door prize to you? Just wait until you’re trying madly to pull a submission packet together in response to a request for materials, or frantically constructing a contest entry four hours before it needs to be postmarked. Or, even more stressfully marvelous, responding to a last-minute revision request from your editor. Believe me, you’ll be very grateful then for every nanosecond that you don’t have to devote to wondering if your margins are consistent.

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

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

It’s an even worse idea to assume a charitable reading for a contest entry, by the way. If anything, contest judges tend to be even more sensitive to the beauty of standard format than Millicent, for the simple reason that they’ve usually been reading a whole lot longer. The agency gig may well be Millie’s first job out of college, but the judge handed your entry may well have just retired from a long and fruitful career teaching English composition.

Her fingers positively ache for the red pen of correction.

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

Translation: other kinds of formatting won’t look right to them, either. By now, you’re having a similar reaction, aren’t you?

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

If you don’t know her work, you should, at least historically: as far as we know, she was the first woman paid for writing in English — which, as Virginia Woolf pointed out, means that every female writer who earns so much as a sou from it now should be laying wreaths on her grave in gratitude.

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

Don’t believe me? Here is a page from THE FAIR JILT. (If you’re having trouble reading the small writing, try double-clicking on the image, then enlarging the resulting window.) Try not to be too distracted by the story to notice how the page is put together.

You clever souls could tell instantly that there was something wrong here, couldn’t you, and not just because Miranda’s trying to seduce her priest? (For convent, read monastery.) Set aside Aphra’s practically Dickensian affection for semicolons for the moment — which would tend to turn off a modern Millicent pretty quickly — why might this page have a hard time as a submission.

Before you commit to a final answer, here’s what it should have looked like in standard format:

Let’s take the problems in the first version from the top of the page: the incorrect version does not have a proper slug line. Seeing this lone page out of context, it’s quite obvious why a slug line is a dandy idea, isn’t it? Without it, how would it be even remotely possible to return this wandering page back into the manuscript from whence it came.

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

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

Okay, that’s enough review from my last post. Did you catch any other problems that might register on Millicent’s umbrage meter??

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

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

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

Which, to let you in on why this type of neatness bugs the heck out of professional readers, renders skimming quite a bit more difficult.

Why? Well, as you may see for yourself, block formatting provides fewer landmarks, as it were; to the glancing eye, practically every line of narrative text resembles every other. To those of us used to the ragged right margins and even letter spacing of standard format, it’s actually kind of hard to read.

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

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

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

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

You did catch both of them on your skim through, right? All I did was I eliminate the indentations at the beginning of each paragraph and skipped a line between paragraphs to produce the norm for business correspondence, as well as for most of the text currently posted on the Internet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I leave that one to your fine critical faculties to answer. Let’s just say that her umbrage-taking threshold tends to be on the low side.

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

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

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

I hate to be the one to break this to you, but there are Millicents out there (and agents, editors, and contest judges as well) who will leap directly from noticing a lack of indentation and unwarranted spaces between paragraphs to our friend, option (b): if the submitter is not aware of how to format a paragraph of English prose properly, she reasons, aren’t there inevitably more snafus to come?

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

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

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

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

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

Time loss is not the only reason she might take umbrage at momentary confusion. Let me let you in on a little secret: professional readers, especially those who inhabit agencies and publishing houses, tend not to be overly fond of having their mental image of the story they are reading at the moment jarred. How do I know this? Well, for one thing, they commonly refer to it as being tricked.

As in, “I hate being tricked by a first paragraph that is about someone other than the protagonist.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, brace yourself, because explaining what comes next involves delving into one of the great cosmic mysteries that has long perplexed aspiring writers the world over. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Remember earlier in thus series, when I mentioned that agents and editors don’t read like other people? Well, one of the primary differences is that from line one of page one, they’re already imagining how they’re going to pitch this book. So if paragraph 2 or 3 (or page 2 or 3) suddenly informs them that their mental patter has been about the wrong character, they feel as if they’ve been backing the wrong horse.

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

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

Feel better? Good.

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

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

Starting to feel more at home with standard format? Excellent; my evil plan plot for world domination teaching strategy is working. More compare-and-contrast exercises follow in the days to come, so keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part VI: me and you and a boy (?) named Snafu

Johnny_Cash_-_A_Boy_Named_SueJohnny_Cash_-_A_Boy_Named_SueJohnny_Cash_-_A_Boy_Named_Sue
Johnny_Cash_-_A_Boy_Named_SueJohnny_Cash_-_A_Boy_Named_SueJohnny_Cash_-_A_Boy_Named_Sue

Before I launch into today’s installment in our ongoing series on manuscript formatting, I’m delighted to announce some good news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: the ever-fabulous Joel Derfner, author of the genuinely hilarious and moving memoir SWISH: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Happened Instead has a new musical opening off-Broadway tonight! Here’s the skinny:

Signs of Life JoelSigns of Life is about a girl coming of age in Theresienstadt, the Czech town the Nazis set up as a propaganda ghetto to show the rest of the world how well Hitler was treating the Jews. Theresienstadt was filled with artists, musicians, and intellectuals; there were nightly concerts, there were swing bands, there were operas, there were enough instrumentalists to fill two symphony orchestras. So a piece of musical theater seemed like a natural fit.


Sounds fascinating, Joel, and congratulations! Tickets are available at Ovationtix; an unusually reliable little bird told me that throughout the month of February, if you use the promotion code HOUSE, you can get two tickets for the price of one.

I just mention. Back to business.

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

That is not always the purpose a title page serves in a submission, alas — if, indeed, the submitter is professional enough to include a title page at all. As I pointed out last time, some writers attempt to consolidate the proper functions of the title page and first page of text into a single sheet of paper. This formatting choice is particularly common for contest entries, for some reason. To get a sense of why this might be problematic, let’s take another look at R.Q. Snafu and Faux Pas’ submissions from yesterday:

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

So what should a proper title page for a book manuscript or proposal look like? Glad you asked:

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

The answer’s kind of obvious once you know the difference, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

No? Okay, take a gander at another type of title page Millicent often sees — one that contains the right information, but is so unprofessionally formatted that the care with which the writer followed the content rules gets entirely lost:

title picture

Where should I even begin with this one? It’s pretty, undoubtedly, but would anyone care to start listing any of the five things wrong with it?

If you immediately zeroed in on the picture, give yourself a gold star for the day; since there is literally no chance that any image a writer chooses to place on a manuscript or proposal’s title page will end up on the published book’s cover (the usual rationale for including them at this stage), decorating your submission’s title page with photos or drawings will just seem bizarre to Millicent. (And that goes double for Mehitabel, the veteran literary contest judge.)

Award yourself two gold stars if you said Ms. White should nix the red lettering — or any lettering that isn’t black, for that matter — or that her contact information should not have been centered. Pin a great big blue ribbon on yourself, too, if you also pointed out that Ms. White used two different typefaces here, a classic standard format no-no. Not to mention the fact — although I do seem to be mentioning it, don’t I? — that the type size varies.

I feel a rule coming on: like everything else in the manuscript, the title page should be entirely in 12-point type. It should also be in the same font as the rest of the manuscript.

With the usual caveat: unless an agent specifically requests otherwise, of course. Or contest’s rules; double-check for title page restrictions, which are quite common.

Otherwise, you may place the title in boldface if you like, but that’s it on the funkiness scale. No matter how cool your title page looks with 24-point type or the picture you would like to see on the book jacket, resist the urge, because Millicent will be able to tell from across the room if you didn’t.

Don’t believe me that size matters? See for yourself:

Quite a difference, isn’t it? Apart from Mssr. Smith’s tragic font choice and his not having countermanded Word’s annoying propensity to reproduce e-mail addresses in blue ink, did you notice any potentially-distracting problems with this title page?

If you said that it included both a slug line (the author’s name and title in the upper right margin of the page) and a page number in the bottom right corner, snag yourself yet another gold star from petty cash. Add whipped cream and walnut clusters if you mentally added the reason that those additions are incorrect: because the title page is not the first page of text, and thus should not be formatted as if it were.

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

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

Before I sign off for today — and while you’ve got title pages on the brain — let me briefly address incisive reader Lucy’s observation on today’s first example. Specifically, here’s what she had to say when I originally introduced it yesterday:

You mention initials being a gender-less faux-pas… what if you have a weird name which is gender confusing? Say a boy named Sue? Should he put Mr. Sue Unfortunate on his title page? Or just Sue Unfortunate?

Lucy’s responding, of course, to the fine print on R.Q.’s first page. Here it is again, to save you some scrolling:

I was having a little fun in that last paragraph with the still surprisingly common writerly belief that the agents and editors will automatically take a submission by a woman more seriously if the author submits it under her initials, rather than under her given first name. J.K. Rowling aside, this just isn’t true, at least in fiction circles.

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

Again, I just mention.

So unless you have always hated your parents for christening you Susan, you won’t really gain anything professionally by using initials in your nom de plume instead. Go ahead and state your name boldly:

unfortunate2

Even better, why not publish under a name you actually like instead? That’ll show your Susan-loving parents.

I just ruffled a few feathers out there, didn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear an initialed purist exclaim, “I don’t want to be judged as a female writer; I want to be judged as a writer. What’s wrong with removing gender markers altogether from my title page — or my query letter, for that matter?”

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

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

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

Because, you see, even back then, readers would have assumed S. Smith the novelist was a nice lady named Susan. It’s probably where your parents got the idea to christen you that.

All that being said, the choice to initial or not is entirely up to you — or, more accurately, to you and your agent. Some sets of initials look cool in print, just as some names look better than others on book jackets.

Or so claimed my father, the intrepid fellow who demanded that the maternity ward nurse convey him to a typewriter to see how my name looked in print before committing to filling out my birth certificate. You know, to see how if it would look good on a book jacket. So for those of you who have wondered: however improbable it sounds, Anne Mini IS in fact my given name; it just happens to look great in print, thanks to a little paternal forethought.

All of that, of course, is preliminary to answering Lucy’s trenchant question, which is: how on earth does a writer with a gender-ambiguous name delicately convey whether s/he would prefer to be addressed as Ms. or Mr.? Actually, s/he doesn’t, at least on the title page, or indeed in the query letter; that’s a matter for subsequent conversation with the agent. At worst, the agent will call and ask for Ms. Unfortunate; you can live with that, can’t you, Susan?

Besides, unless a writer’s gender is crucial to the story being told, why should it come up before then?

See earlier commentary about being judged by one’s writing, not one’s gender. But if a writer is genuinely worried about it, s/he could always embrace Sue’s strategy above, and use a more gender-definite middle name in the contact information.

And keep your chins up, Susans everywhere — you may have little control over what literary critics will say about your work, but you do have control over what name they call you. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

Keep up the good work!