So you’ve pitched or queried successfully — now what? Part XI: threats one can and cannot see coming, or, resisting the urge to call wolf

I had to laugh yesterday, campers: as so often happens here at Author! Author!, everyday life rushed to provide a perfect metaphor for something we had been discussing here on this very forum. Or, more accurately in this case, something about which I had been blogging extensively, while scores of aspiring writers read silently — and a tiny minority buttonholed me privately to try to discuss offline. Take a gander at what popped into my inbox:

I have parts of your blog and am thankful for your July 25, 2012 post regarding proper ms format. I just have a couple other questions that I didn’t see addressed in your post. If you could help me on this I would be greatly appreciated.

1. I have a finished memoir, just doing editing now from my printed copy. I am not sure how to deal with dialogue. I know obviously it is in quotes, me talking to someone or someone telling me something, but what I am not sure about is the format this dialogue should be in the ms itself. ie: is each speaking part on a separate line? or just within the paragraphs and continued on with the rest of the story afterwards?

2. And I know you mention this a little in your post, but I have a lot of areas in my ms where I mention where I thought something, or one of my other “characters” used to say something, etc. How do I format? You mention when a character has a thought to either put it in single quotes OR say I thought. But not sure if this pertains to my situation with my memoir. Also, do I do a separate line for these instances as well?

3. for my chapters, they are a little different than a normal book, each one is going to note the year, age, etc that that particular part of the story is referring to, is it ok to have the chapter title be 2 lines, and does it need to be in all caps?

Thanks so much for any help you can provide.

Why, since I receive artless little missives like this about once per week, did this one strike me as such an apt exemplar for our ongoing series on common post-pitching and post-querying faux pas? Well, several reasons. First, I was supposed to cover every aspect of professional manuscript formatting in a single post? Admittedly, the post in question did provide a visual overview of what standard format looks like, but in it, I urged readers new to the rules to consult the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right for fuller explanations. In addition, the aptly-named MANUSCRIPTS AND HOW TO FORMAT THEM PROPERLY category contains a heading for DIALOGUE FORMATTING, and there was this particularly handy post on dialogue formatting? Because third, and most to the point of this series, obviously, the proper place to ask this set of questions would have been — wait for it — in the comments section of my July 25th post, would it not?

Yet this puzzled writer, like so many others, saw fit to contact me privately about it. And that, frankly, would have mystified not only most bloggers, but anyone with significant experience with the publishing industry.

Let’s take the blog-related perplexity first. Even a couple of years ago, virtually no regular blog reader would have dreamt of asking questions anyplace but the comments. Oh, some of you might have chosen to inquire in the comments section of my most recent post — also a good option, by the way — in order to engender comment amongst regular readers, rather than tying your comments to the post in question, but logically, most readers understood that if they had a beef with a publicly-displayed post, the blog format featured a comments section for a reason.

And that reason was ease of discussion. The difference between a blog and a column, after all, lies largely in formatting — in a blog, readers have ready access to a forum in which to express their opinions, gratitude, and/or criticism of a post. While in the past, readers who wanted to chime would have had to sit down and write a letter to the editor of a publication, wait to see if the editor thought that letter worthy of publication, and then wait again to see if any other reader decided to write a letter in response to that letter, all a blog reader has to do to share his thoughts publicly is to — again, wait for it — click on COMMENTS and share his thoughts publicly.

Emphasis upon publicly: before the rise of hand-held devices, few readers would have considered it either acceptable or desirable to shatter the well-established wall between public and private by e-mailing a blogger to discuss the subject matter of a post. Not only does it defeat the purpose of a blog — which is, correct me if I am wrong, to discuss issues of mutual interest in a public forum — but in a blog devoted to helping the literally millions of aspiring writers deal with the thorny and often perplexing issues of manuscript submission, it’s inefficient.

Why? Well, if a question is asked and answered in the comments, there’s a reasonable hope that someone else will benefit from the answer, right? If, by contrast, I invited (or even permitted) every single one of you to contact me offline to ask (forgive me for putting it this way, but it’s true) the same fifteen or twenty questions over and over again, I wouldn’t be a blogger — I would be a secret question-answering service.

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, my archive list (conveniently located on the lower right-hand side of this page) is so extensive and contains so many specific questions: since I have been at this for more than seven years, I have addressed a plethora of common concerns. Rather than reinventing the wheel, as the saying goes, for each curious reader, I have chosen in the spirit of public discussion to make those previous posts easy to find.

And just a few years ago, that would have been considered going above and beyond the obligations of a blogger. These days, however, the individual’s ability to whip out her iPhone, perform a 15-second search, and come up with at least a superficial answer to most common questions has, rather surprisingly to many of us that provide online content, has lead to a pervasive expectation that any question, regardless of complexity, should be answerable and should already have been directly answered somewhere online.

How else, after all, would one find it in a 15-second search?

Actually, I don’t have a problem with that: one of the advantages of living in the current age is ease of information access; I would not have made thousands of pages of professional insight available had I not wished to — are you tired yet of being told to wait for it? — make them available to millions of struggling writers.

That does not mean, however, that I don’t find it surprising when a reader who does not instantly find what he wants on my site — and, as in this instance, apparently does not check the archive list to see if I’ve ever dealt with the issue before — leaps to the twin conclusions that (a) I must have fallen down on the job by not having anticipated the specific question he had in mind and (b) I must therefore be willing to donate my time for a private tutorial on the subject.

Instead of, say, donating my time to the writing community at large by blogging about it in public, where not only one, but millions of aspiring writers had access to the answer.

I’m bringing this up not because I’m peevish — although you might be surprised at how often those of us that blog for aspiring writers talk among ourselves about the startling recent rise in offline demands like this. I’m aware that sometimes, readers may feel a bit awkward about posting questions on months-old posts. (To set your minds at ease on this point: my blogging program informs me whenever any reader comments on any post, no matter how old. People post questions on old posts all the time.)

Throughout this series, we have been discussing the sometimes broad, wide, and deep gap between what aspiring writers can consider acceptable in approaching agents and editors and what the pros do. And, frankly, agents and editors who blog are not the only ones who have been receiving missives like this lately. Which, to someone familiar with how the publishing industry works, is genuinely shocking.

It’s become astonishingly common for aspiring writers to send long, chatty questions to agents to whom they have pitched at conferences, for instance — or even those they have merely heard speak at one. You’d be amazed at how many queries read like demands to drop everything and pay attention to the sender. And just the other day, an aspiring writer e-mailed me triumphantly to announce that, contrary to what I have always strenuously recommended on this blog, he had picked up the phone, called the agent that represented TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, and not immediately been rejected.

In fact, the nice person on the other end of the phone line answered his question: yes, cold-calling an agent to pitch is completely unacceptable. Who knew?

If you’ll pardon my saying so, anyone who reads this blog regularly would have. So would anyone who had taken the time to check the aforementioned extensively indexed archive list at right. Yet, like the formatting enthusiast above, the cold-caller not only did not check what I have written publicly to see if I had addressed the issue — he went out of his way to e-mail me to tell me so.

Privately. Where no other aspiring writer could possibly learn anything from the communication.

I tremble to add this, but it’s also become amazingly common for successful queriers and pitchers — you know, the ones who did take the time to learn how agencies work, made a polite approach to an agent or editor, and garnered a request for the opening pages — to expect to hear back from the requesting pros within a week or two. Or even just a few days.

That’s an unreasonable set of expectations, from a professional perspective: it’s not as though these writers’ manuscripts are the only ones that the agent or editor has requested in the last few months, right? It’s only fair that the pros would read what’s already on their desks before they turned to a newly-arrived submission. And savvy submitters know that, because — feel free to chant it with me now, campers — an agent or editor’s request for manuscript pages does not constitute a promise to drop everything and read your work.

Aspiring writers often believe otherwise, of course, but until fairly recently, norms of social behavior and high long-distance telephone rates rendered follow-up calling blessedly uncommon. In years past, these justifiably anxious submitters might have been forced to stew in their own impatience until they received either a thin letter asking for the rest of the manuscript or the return of their pages in a postally-battered SASE.

Admit it: even those of you who know better have been tempted to nag, right? That’s natural, but it’s also problematic, given the current state of technology: today, the ease of e-mail permits, if not downright encourages, gun-jumping. Many an excitable submitter has been known to stand it as long as she can, then shoot off an ill-advised message in the wee hours, demanding to know what on earth could possibly be taking so long.

And because many agents are darned nice people, she might actually receive a soothing, I’ll-get-to-it-soon reply. But fair warning, gun-jumpers: this is a response that a submitter is likely to get only once, if at all. Which is unfortunate, as many aspiring writers apparently find the ability to generate those soothing replies rather addictive. Or so I surmise, for I hear all time about — and from; had I mentioned that boundaries regarding e-mailing online advice-givers have become rather porous? — submitters who just can’t stand to wait another month. Or week. Or day.

In case I’m being too subtle here: whatever you do during what can be an extended wait to hear back about your manuscript, repress the urge to demand constant status updates. Trust me, it will not get your submission read faster — in fact, it might get your manuscript rejected on the spot.

Being pushy is not — how shall I put this? — likely to make you any friends at the agency. It’s considered quite rude for a writer to try to rush a decision, in fact. (Interesting, considering that writers often have only a week or two to decide whether to accept a publishing offer, and most agents will expect a yes or no on a representation offer right away.) It’s also not a good way to convince an agent that you’ll be a dream client: why would anyone at an agency believe that a writer that e-mails four times in a two-month period to try to find out if the agent has decided whether to represent a manuscript won’t do precisely the same thing if and when that agent is circulating that manuscript to publishing houses — a process that often takes months, if not years?

Oh, should I have warned you that one was coming? Crunching a dry cracker should help with the nausea.

I bring this up advisedly, because the often vast differential between writers’ expectations and publishing realities can, and increasingly frequently does, lead inexperienced pitchers, queriers, and submitters to believe, wrongly, that directly and forcefully contacting an agent or editor is not only acceptable, but appropriate. And as those of you who attend writers’ conferences or read agents’ blogs are probably already aware, people who handle manuscripts for a living tend not to be all that fond of being hounded, nagged, or otherwise blamed for — were you already waiting for it — not dropping everything to pay attention to any particular aspiring writer.

Fortunately, the genuinely rude are relatively rare; as those of us that work with aspiring writers like to say, 99.99% of the pros’ perennial complaints about how pushy writers are actually refer not to the ten thousand who approach respectfully, but the one who does not.

And that one, in my experience, tends to be brand-new to the game — and harboring the astoundingly popular misconception that a really good manuscript from a first-time writer is uncommon enough that the pros will want to be disturbed at work to hear about it. Or, now that e-mail makes disturbing total strangers so darned convenient, rousted in the dead of night to read a pitch.

Or — you saw this coming, right? — to answer a question from a writer they’ve never met, one who evidently doesn’t realize that there are literally millions of aspiring writers who want to get published every bit as much as she does. From a professional perspective, then, this type of approach is simply queue-jumping: rather than doing what pretty much every successful author has had to do, learn how the publishing industry actually works and abide by its quite strict rules of conduct, the dead-of-night e-mailer or spur-of-the-moment caller believes, wrongly, that those rules don’t apply to him.

He has talent, so how could they? And had he mentioned how much he wants to get his manuscript published?

Which, admittedly, is not a new thing for first-time writers to think — I can’t think of a time in modern publishing history when agents and editors did not complain of constantly receiving pay attention to me now! missives — but the technology that enables them to act upon these beliefs is. What’s interesting about the rise of e-mailed pushiness, I think, is not that there are so many impatient aspiring writers, or that a hefty swathe of them should have come to believe that it’s the pros’ job to drop everything to hear pitches or answer questions but how often these attempts appear to be the sender’s first attempt to track down the information.

How can we tell? Well, let’s take another peek at the undoubtedly well-intentioned questions my dead-of-night e-mailer sent me.

1. I have a finished memoir, just doing editing now from my printed copy. I am not sure how to deal with dialogue. I know obviously it is in quotes, me talking to someone or someone telling me something, but what I am not sure about is the format this dialogue should be in the ms itself. ie: is each speaking part on a separate line? or just within the paragraphs and continued on with the rest of the story afterwards?

2. And I know you mention this a little in your post, but I have a lot of areas in my ms where I mention where I thought something, or one of my other “characters” used to say something, etc. How do I format? You mention when a character has a thought to either put it in single quotes OR say I thought. But not sure if this pertains to my situation with my memoir. Also, do I do a separate line for these instances as well?

3. for my chapters, they are a little different than a normal book, each one is going to note the year, age, etc that that particular part of the story is referring to, is it ok to have the chapter title be 2 lines, and does it need to be in all caps?

From a professional perspective, these are rather revealing questions. First, my nocturnal e-mailer must be brand-new to submitting memoir, at least to US-based agencies: not only does she refer to the characters in her memoir as “characters,” as if characters existed only in fiction, but in this country, the overwhelming majority of memoir is not sold on a finished manuscript, but upon a book proposal. While some agencies do ask first-time memoirists to see a full manuscript first, that’s because it’s often emotionally very difficult to complete a memoir; the human psyche, after all, does not make a huge distinction between reliving an experience vividly enough to write about it well and living through it directly. The pros want to make sure someone new to the game is already dealing with that.

Then, too, questions (1) and (2) might have been answered by opening not only virtually any published memoir, but most published books. My guess here, then, is that what the sender was actually asking here is not a question about dialogue formatting per se. I think she really wanted to know is whether there is a special dialogue format for memoirs, or perhaps for first-person narratives in general.

The answer to that one is short, sweet, and could easily have been answered in the comments on that post: no. Dialogue is dialogue, period.

The question about thought would also raise eyebrows for another couple of reasons: in a first-person narrative, the narrator’s thought is generally presented as just part of the narrative; if everything in the book is from the memoirist’s perspective, it’s hardly necessary to keep informing the reader of the fact. And in a first-person narrative, of course, it’s impossible to cite the thought of any character other than the narrator, right? If the narrative is quoting somebody else’s speech, that’s dialogue, not thought.

And, while we’re being technical, would I be too editorial-minded of me to point out that I have literally never advised any aspiring writer formatting a work for the U.S. market to use single quotation marks for thought? Or, indeed, for anything purpose other than designating a quote within a quote, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s incorrect in American English?

Before we go into the horrifying possibility that my e-mailer contacted me about some other writing guru’s advice, let’s once again go over this often-misunderstood piece of punctuation. Contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, single quotation marks (‘) do not carry a special meaning in American English, nor is using them instead of italics to emphasize a word or phrase proper. Nor is the decision to use single quotation marks (‘) or the American standard double (“) a stylistic one, ever. So how may a single quotation mark be used in American English? In only one manner: when a character quotes something someone else has said. In that instance, the overall quote falls within doubled quotation marks, and with the single quotes designating what the speaker is saying someone else has said. As in:

“Well, then Antonio saw me and yelled, ‘Hey, get out of here,’ and I ran away,” Ellen explained. “But not before I shouted over my shoulder, ‘Watch out for the rampaging tiger behind you!’”

My point about the two — and only two — means of correctly formatting thought in a text has absolutely nothing to do with this. As, indeed, one might surmise from the fact that in the post in question, I specifically said not to place thought within quotation marks, as Jane Austen did; it’s exceedingly old-fashioned, and it obviates the point of quotation marks, which is to indicate to the reader that something was uttered out loud.

Or, to put it another way, thought is not dialogue. Easy to remember, isn’t it?

What I did say, as it happens, is that it drives Millicent the agency screener — and, indeed, any classically-trained professional reader — completely nuts when she sees thought designated redundantly on the page. It’s always proper to designate thought with — five, six, seven, eight — the phrase I thought, of course. However, in some book categories (not all; check recent releases in yours), it is also considered acceptable to use italics to show what is being thought, as opposed to said. Thus, both of these would be correct in standard format:

I’ll never come here again, Hermione thought, slamming the door behind her.

I’ll never come here again. Hermione slammed the door behind her.

Makes sense, right? Since Hermione thought and the italics are intended to convey precisely the same thing to the reader, this formulation would be redundant:

I’ll never come here again, Hermione thought, slamming the door behind her.

Everybody clear on that? Excellent. Now let’s return to the question that’s probably been burning in my mind far more than in yours: did my e-mail correspondent mix my advice up with somebody else’s — and is that what she actually meant when she mentioned that I have parts of your blog? Did some well-meaning but organizationally challenged third party copy excerpts of my formatting run-downs without my permission (a copyright violation, by the way), throw them into a bowl with bits of other online advice, stir, and hand it to our question-asking friend?

Or — and this seems to happen quite often to writers who glean most of their writing guidelines online — has simply read so many different and probably mutually contradictory sources that she has concluded that I was advising something quite far removed from what I actually recommended?

Either way, no wonder she was confused. Again, I could simply refer her to the extensive explanations and many visual aids under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category, but I honestly would like to figure out what happened here. Here’s the example I used in the post she cites, a page in standard format, with all of its constituent parts labeled:

And here is her question:

3. for my chapters, they are a little different than a normal book, each one is going to note the year, age, etc that that particular part of the story is referring to, is it ok to have the chapter title be 2 lines, and does it need to be in all caps?

See the problem? The example shows a two-line chapter heading — and nothing on this page is in all-caps formatting. Nor do any of the other examples I include in that post feature all-caps formatting; conscientiously, I went back and checked, although to the best of my recollection, I have never advised its use for a title.

Why would I? It wouldn’t be proper in standard format. We must reluctantly conclude, then, that my late-night correspondent was in fact asking about somebody else’s advice.

Again, I’m bringing this up not to be peevish, or even to call her out for disturbing my night with a question she fairly clearly should have been aiming at someone else; mixing up online writing advice is much more common than any of us who habitually give such advice might hope. That’s to be expected, given how much self-described expert advice is floating around out there and how many aspiring writers engage in 15-second searches of it. What is surprising is that, being confused, she approached me offline with her questions about it.

Now, we could easily get all Freudian about motivation here — is it possible that she contacted me privately because she was aware that she wasn’t entirely sure of the source of her confusion, and if so, have I completely defeated that purpose by discussing it in public? — but this is a practical blog: I am far more concerned about writers’ actions than their intentions. This e-mail caused me to worry, then, not only about how my correspondent and all of the many, many aspiring writers like her are acquiring and processing formatting and submission information, but what they might do with it.

Specifically, about whether anything about this missive would be likely to get this obviously well-meaning writer in trouble if she sent something similar to an agent. And the answer is yes.

Half of you just rolled your eyes, didn’t you? “Please don’t tell me again to ‘wait for it,’ Anne,” the more experienced submitters among you scoff, “although, naturally, I relish the opportunity to demonstrate that I am adept at using quotes within quotes. You’ve already made the point — and quite forcefully, too — that as charming and addictive as those 15-second searches can be, they might not always be the best means of finding reliable information upon subjects as inherently complex as successful writing, manuscript formatting, querying, and/or submission. You’ve also already explained, albeit indirectly, that just because it’s possible to discover a publishing professional’s e-mail address online doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good idea to use it in the dark of night. Or any other time, for that matter. But I can’t help but feel that few of us who have read through this post are likely to succumb to that temptation anytime soon — and that those of us who have been submitting for a good, long while already know better. So what may I, a reader that would never even consider snatching up a phone and calling an agent I have never met or sending repeated, nagging e-mails to one that has my submission, learn here?”

Well, a couple of things — but you’re right that most of this post has been aimed at those that are new to the biz. Frankly, the question of whether it’s okay to approach an agent or editor informally — or to cold-call them at all — is just not one that would occur to someone who has been hanging around publishing for long. Since agents and editors do not pick up new writers that way, to us, it’s a self-evidently self-defeating tactic.

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, there’s a reason that e-mails like this are seldom answered at all. In a world with rapidly-dissolving boundaries, the sub-world of books remains a place where manners count. Thank goodness.

I do have an ulterior motive for devoting a post within this particular series to the all-too-common problem of writers assuming that any publishing pro that’s nice to them, or even seems from afar to be approachable, is going to be willing to give private advice. In the first place, one does not have to work in publishing very long to be aware that there are literally millions of aspiring writers out there — as queriers and submitters so often lament, sheer volume prevents most agencies from having the time to respond individually to each. Heck, it’s become downright common for agencies not to tell a submitter at all if they’ve rejected a manuscript.

Yes, even if they requested the whole thing. From the writer’s perspective, one of the side effects of the astronomical increase of submission spurred by the wide use of personal computers has been that her submission’s getting rejected and simply having gotten lost, either in the mail or at a paper-laden agency, looks remarkably similar. I’m afraid that there’s little that aspiring writers can do about that, other than to send a single, well-mannered e-mail a few months after the manuscript has arrived at the agency, politely double-checking that it did in fact arrive in one piece.

If that e-mail does not elicit a reply, the only sensible course is to assume that it’s been rejected and move on. Again, as tempting as it may be to presume that having been asked to send pages has given a writer some rights, repeated or nagging e-mails are unlikely to help your case.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Ready for one that might be even harder to choke down?

Brace yourself, please: greater experience submitting — or even attending writers’ conferences, which tends to accelerate a writer’s learning curve about how the industry works — will not necessarily help an aspiring writer avoid the problems of over-familiarity or less-than-reasonable expectations. And that’s unfortunate, because just as the pros assume that any writer serious about getting published will take the time to learn how professional book manuscripts are put together — a presumption so pervasive that few agencies even list the strictures of standard format on their websites, speaking of things that might not pop up in a 15-second search — agents and editors tend to believe that any new writer accomplished enough to write beautiful prose will have learned along the way how submission works.

Find that hard to believe? When’s the last time you heard an agent say at even a very good literary conference, “Look, we have mountains of requested materials to read. If we asked for it, we are interested, but the idea that we would be ready to make an offer of representation on a manuscript we received a week ago is pretty laughable. Unless, of course, the book was written by a celebrity, there’s a clear pop culture demand for a book on that particular subject AND the writer happens to be an expert, or the writer’s just done awfully well in a prestigious writing contest. Or if I happen to be stuck on an airplane with nothing else to read, and you’re my college roommate’s ne’er-do-well younger brother. Otherwise, be prepared to wait.”

That’s all likely to be true, but it would be an extremely unwise speech to give at a writer’s conference, wouldn’t it? The attendees might well rush the stage, perhaps after first snatching up any torches and pitchforks that happened to be handy.

Because good writers so often send off their manuscripts without any clear notion of how long it might be before they are likely to see them again — if, indeed, they will see those pages again at all — and because successful pitchers in particular are prone to tumbling into the trap of believing that a nice conversation with an agent or editor at a conference implies both the beginning of a friendship and an implicit promise to toss aside whether happens to be on the pro’s desk to read their submissions the instant they arrive, I’m going to share one more case study before I sign off for the day. To be candid, the writer in this situation is someone of whom you have probably heard; he’s now a pretty well-established author. He finally gave in to my two years of blandishments to allow me to use his story here on the blog only if I changed enough details to render him unrecognizable.

So don’t even try. Just keep his fame in the back of your mind as you read his tale of woe and uproar, to remind you that no matter how talented a writer might happen to be, it’s easy to get sucked into unreasonable expectations. Not to mention unreasonable hopes.

And his story, too, begins with an e-mail I received in the dead of night. I had known Teddy — not his real name, naturally; nice try, guessers — for years before he got his first break; it’s actually not all that uncommon for writers that end up getting published to have met on the writers’ conference circuit. (Yet another reason that it’s a good idea to attend them: no one, but no one, will understand your joy at finally landing an agent or selling your first book than a fellow writer who has been rooting for you since you shared the last bagel on a conference breakfast buffet.) Yet this was the first time he had ever e-mailed me in a panic.

Bear with me here, because I have something to confess. Remember those agents you suggested I query if my pitches didn’t work out? Well, I have not yet contacted them because Respected P. Editorvich from Arewe, Literate, & How had asked me to send my book directly to him. Dream agency, dream connection, right?

I sent him the manuscript last September. I gritted my teeth until May of this year, then I e-mailed him. He said that he loved what he had read thus far, but had misplaced the book during a move! Okay, it happens. I resubmitted, telling him that I wanted my book in his hands.

That was five weeks ago. Last week, I sent him an e-mail asking about the book, but I haven’t heard back from him. At this point, I don’t know how to handle the situation. I’m a newbie in the confusing world of publication.

Do you mind if I ask for your advice? When Respected initially asked to see the book, he had told me I didn’t need an agent at that point. In my shoes, would you wait to hear from him or would you seek representation? Let the agent make the next move?

Finally, do you still think those agents are the best for my book? You keep a much closer eye on acquisitions than I do.

Okay, what did Teddy do wrong here? Or are those of you new to submitting reeling too much from the notion of not hearing back from September to May of the following year — or, indeed, for five weeks?

Or do all of those huffing sounds mean that some of you have taken umbrage at the very question of wrongdoing? “But Teddy did nothing wrong here!” some of you cry, demonstrating admirable loyalty to a fellow writer whom you have probably never met. “All he did was do what Respected asked!”

True enough, but he also did something Respected didn’t ask him to do — and something that placed himself at a genuine disadvantage. Any guesses?

Award yourself a gold star for the day if you immediately leapt to your feet and shouted, “He gave the editor an unrequested exclusive!” Unless Respected had already offered to acquire the manuscript (extraordinarily unlikely, considering that he had not yet read it) or stated point-blank that he would not look at it unless Teddy promised not to seek representation (which would have been ethically questionable), Teddy was under no obligation not to seek out an agent while Arewe, Literate, & How was considering the manuscript. He would certainly have been in a better position when the manuscript got lost if he had: while it’s always a trifle dicey for a writer to prod an editor politely to try to speed up reading times, it’s an integral part of an agent’s job. Everyone expects it, and rightly so.

Oh, dear, more huffing? Has my site been invaded by the Big, Bad Wolf? “But Anne, Respected said that he didn’t need an agent, under the circumstances! And Teddy waited a whole eight months before contacting the editor — far, far longer than I could have stood the suspense. So now, not only do I not think he did anything wrong; I think he’s a saint.”

Actually, his saintliness in this situation harmed him, too: he would have been well within his rights to send that polite follow-up e-mail within 6 months, if not 4. And while I’m sure that every aspiring writer currently treading the earth’s surface can sympathize with Teddy’s not wanting to put in the energy, effort, and emotional strain of querying agents while his dream publisher was mulling over the book, is he really better off now because he waited? Or merely going into the querying process more frustrated?

I get the appeal, of course: if Respected had snapped up the book right away, he probably would have referred Teddy to a good agent. But there was no guarantee of that — or, indeed, of Arewe, Literate, & How’s picking up the book. So, again, what did Teddy gain by holding off on seeking out an agent he might eventually have to find, anyway?

By the dark night Teddy sent me this e-mail, however, all of this was water under the bridge, spilled milk, and in all other ways beyond his power to change, short of constructing a time machine and returning to the day before the conference at which he met Respected. As he asked me at the time, what should he do now?

The short answer is no, I would not advise waiting until he hear from the editor. I would advise him to do now what he should have done the previous September: queried widely. Then, as now, his position with Arewe, Literate, & How’s could only have been strengthened by landing an agent.

Why? Well, a couple of reasons. As is common for major American publishers, ALH does have a policy against considering work by unrepresented authors. However, like some others, they do occasionally set that rule aside if they believe that they can pick up a book at a conference cheaper than they would be able to if an agent was involved. So it might well have made a great deal of sense to Respected to try to get in on the ground floor of Teddy’s book, so to speak, by trying to nab him before he signed with someone that would try to drive up the price.

Which is, incidentally, a good agent’s job, too. It’s expected — and the fact that Respected knew that there was not an agent involved might well have affected the timeline here. If Teddy had submitted his work through an agent, that agent could legitimately have been calling or e-mailing Respected every couple of weeks, to follow up. But since the editor was dealing with Teddy directly, he could rely upon aspiring writers’ well-founded fear of being pushy.

Because Teddy was one of the conscientious ones that worries about treading on professional toes, he knew better than to ask for updates too early and too often. Indeed, he erred on the side of caution: following up in 4-6 months, and then very politely, is what’s considered acceptable for a writer dealing with an editor directly.

Given this set of ambient expectations, then, it was not all that surprising that Respected did not respond to Teddy’s second e-mail; he had jumped the gun. It’s not as though the submission clock doesn’t start afresh with a requested resubmission, and five weeks is not a particularly long time, in publishing circles.

Especially for an unagented manuscript. Let’s face it, Teddy had already made it fairly plain that he’s not planning to introduce an agent into this situation: when he sent the second submission, told Respected that he would already agree to any terms ALH might want to set for publication. (How an editor would hear “I want my book in your hands,” in all probability.) Respected could also surmise from it that Teddy had not submitted it to other editors, either, so he has no reason to fear that another publishing house will buy it out from under him. Why, then, should he hurry?

See why placing all of your eggs in this one basket might not have been in Teddy’s best interest? Even though he did legitimately misinterpret Respected statement about not needing an agent — elicited, I later found out, in response to Teddy’s asking in the pitch meeting whether he would need to find an agent before sending the pages Respected requested — there is no such thing as a tacit request for an exclusive read.

Chant it with me now, campers: if an agent or editor wants to be the only one reading something, she will make a writer promise that will be the case.

But aspiring writers often walk away from pitch meetings with the opposite impression, don’t they? They believe, and with some reason, that if an editor is enthusiastic about a manuscript, she has made a provisional commitment to publishing it. And, let’s face it, it would be a lot easier on the writer if that were the case.. But a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference.

I know, I know: it doesn’t feel that way, but as Teddy’s case shows, what the writer feels a post-pitch conversation might have meant over and above what was actually said is not binding on anyone. He took a gamble that Respected would like the book enough that he could bypass the usual steps by which manuscripts get published. Even if everything had worked out perfectly, though, he would still have needed to get an agent eventually — it would have merely meant that he would have been doing so with a book contract in hand.

And then his agent would have spent the next two years telling Teddy that he should have brought to her before you signed it. Because that, too, is her job.

I can sense some cringing those of you terrified of offending the prose (bless your hearts), but honestly, Teddy would have not run any more risk of affronting Respected by pursuing representation five weeks into the second submission than if he’d floated fifty queries before he submitted at all. In fact, he needn’t even have told the editor he was doing it.

Why should he? The worst that could have happened if both Respected and an agent fell in love with it simultaneously is that Teddy would have told the agent that he wanted to go with ALH. His new agent would have been thrilled to be spared the work of pitching the manuscript to at least one likely prospect, and Respected would have had someone calling all the time to speed up him reading process — and to tell him if another editor was also reading it.

My advice to Teddy, then, was that he should query 5 or 10 agents right away (I cranked out a few more recommendations), and keep that many queries in circulation until he attracted a firm offer from somebody. I also cautioned him, though, not to contact Respected again until either he had some concrete news to report — that Teddy had landed an agent, that another editor was reading the book — or until Respected has had the new version for 4-6 months.

That’s not at all an unusual turn-around time these days, after all. And then, I would simply e-mail to ask if he is still interested.

Politely. Once. If Respected does not respond at that point, Teddy should move on.

Regardless of what happened next, however, under NO circumstances would it have ever been in Teddy’s best interest to contact Respected and say any version of, “Hey, what gives? You have not has not done as I expected!” Respected already knows how he has handled the manuscript; no good can come from reminding him.

So what, you may be wondering, was the overall moral here? Respect professional limits. Be polite. Resist the urge to hit SEND.

And no matter how many times you have queried or submitted, don’t assume that the pro asking to see your pages is saying anything more than that she wants to see your pages. If you’re in doubt whether you are being asked to submit exclusively, chances are that you’re not.

But, as always, if you’re not sure about what an agent or editor requesting your manuscript wants you to do, ask. Once. Politely. And in the proper forum. But do bear in mind that once you cry wolf, you can’t take it back.

Wow, this was a long one, even by my standards, wasn’t it? Well, when I disillusion people, I like to do it thoroughly. Keep posting those good questions in the comments, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXIV: how to format a query, or, directions for those who have gotten lost in the tall grass of competing querying advice

After so many white and gray Seattle winter images in a row, campers, I thought everyone might be refreshed by the sight of a little green. As I like to tell the students in my writing classes, hitting the same note over and over again, even in the name of realism, can get a little old. Breaking out of the mold occasionally can be very refreshing for the reader.

Speaking of getting set in one’s ways — or, at any rate, in one’s worldview — do you remember how at the beginning of this series, I mentioned that one reason that there’s so much conflicting advice out there about how to write a winning query letter is that to the people who handle them all the time, it honestly isn’t a matter that deserves much discussion? To an experienced agency screener like our old pal, Millicent, as well as the agent for whom she works, the differential between a solid, professional-looking query and one that, well, isn’t could not be more obvious. In addition to any content problems the latter might have, it just feels wrong to a pro.

There’s an excellent reason for that: despite continual online speculation on the subject, there honestly isn’t much debate in agency circles over what constitutes a good query letter. Nor is there really a trick to writing one: you simply need to find out what information the agent of your dreams wants to see and present it simply, cleanly, and professionally. And if the agency’s posted submission guidelines are silent about special requests — or, as still remains surprisingly common, those guidelines consist entirely of a terse query with SASE — find out what the norm is for your type of writing and gear your query toward that.

Piece of cake, right?

Actually, from an agency perspective, that’s a pretty straightforward set of directives. Because there are so many sites like this that explain what to do, as well as quite a few books, many a Millicent just can’t understand why so many aspiring writers complain that the process is confusing. They enjoy an advantage the vast majority of queriers do not, you see: they have the opportunity to see hundreds upon hundreds of professional queries for book projects. The good ones — that is, the ones that stand a significant chance of garnering a request for pages — all share certain traits. So what’s the big mystery?

Yes, yes, I know that you would never be able to tell that was the prevailing attitude, judging solely from the constant barrage of competing advice floating around out there on the subject, but frankly, the overwhelming majority of that is not written by people who have practical experience of the receiving side of the querying experience, if you catch my drift. An astonishingly high percentage of it seems to be authoritative statements by people who want to help writers, but are merely passing on what they have heard. And not always originating from a credible source.

And what’s the best way to deal with competing advice, Queryfest faithful? Chant it with me now: don’t believe everything you hear or read on the Internet, no matter how authoritatively it is phrased. Consider the source before applying the rule; if you don’t know who is recommending it, check another source. Don’t assume that a single agent’s expressed preference is applicable to the entire industry; check every single agency’s guidelines before querying or submitting. And never, ever follow a template or ostensibly must-do set of guidelines unless you are positive you understand why you need to do it that way.

Believe it or not (ah, good: you’re reading even my advice with the requisite grain of salt now), following those simple five guidelines will help remove almost all confusion. The fact is, a startlingly high proportion of the advice out there is presented both anonymously and without explanation. It’s just rules, often accompanied by dire threats aimed toward those who do not follow them. And, as I have mentioned earlier in this series, most aspiring writers instinctively quail before such threats, believing — wrongly — that credible agents feverishly crawl the web, making sure that no incorrect querying advice remains posted.

Except that doesn’t happen — frankly, there’s no reason it should. People who work in agencies already know what does and doesn’t make a good query letter, after all. Why on earth should they waste their time finding out what people outside their industry believe they want?

Especially when, let’s face it, the query they have in mind contains all of the information most agencies need in order to make a determination whether its inmates will be seriously interested in requesting pages of the book in question. Just so the list from which we’ve been working throughout Queryfest will be easily accessible to folks who (shudder!) expect to learn everything they need to know about querying a book or book proposal — again, not anything else — in a single post, please sing along, those of you with the laudable patience to have worked your way all the way through this series.

A query letter must contain:

1. The book’s title

2. The book’s category, expressed in existing category terms

3. A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book, ideally in a voice similar to the narrative’s.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph thanking the agent for considering the project.

6. The writer’s contact information and a SASE, if querying by mail

That all sounds at least a little bit familiar, I hope? If not, you will find extensive explanations — with visual examples! — earlier in this series. Moving on…

Optional elements it may prove helpful to include in your query:

7. A brief marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. (P.S.: before you claim that it’s literally the only book on your subject matter, do some checking; unsubstantiated sweeping generalizations are often rejection triggers.)

8. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book.

Despite this being review, I still sense some raised hands out there. Yes, those of you joining us toward the end of this series? “Okay, I can see where there’s some overlap between your list and what I’ve seen elsewhere. Since there is, why shouldn’t I just follow the templates I’ve seen posted elsewhere?”

That groan you hear rattling around the cosmos, questioners, is the cri de coeur of the conscientious: they’ve been listening to repetitions of this particular question from late entrants since this series began. Like so much of the solid, professional development advice out there for aspiring writers, what is aimed at the crowd that longs for quick answers often bounces off its intended target and hits those who have been doing their homework diligently. So while well-meaning agents tend to formulate both their agencies’ submission guidelines and statements they make at writers’ conferences at the good 90% of queriers who do not take the time to find out how agencies actually work, the frustrated tone of some of those comments strikes the professionally-oriented 10% right between their worried eyes.

Which is to say: you’ll find the answer to that issue earlier in this series, first-time questioners. Because I believe so strongly that it does a disservice to serious aspiring writers — that 10% with the crease rapidly becoming permanently etched between their thoughtful eyes — to provide only glib how-to lists, I would be the last to discourage anyone who wants to make a living writing books from learning the logic behind what Millicent expects her to do. (See earlier comment about this perhaps not being the blog for those who prefer short, simple answers to complicated questions.)

That being said, there is a short, simple answer to that particular question: because not all of the query templates out there are for books, that’s why. As I’ve mentioned before in this series, much of the query advice out there does not mention explicitly whether the query being described is for a book, a magazine article, a short story, an academic article…

Well, you get the idea, right? Contrary to popular opinion, not every entity dealing with writing carries the same expectations. Or desires the same type of query. Or expects identical formatting. Pretending that because a query designed to propose an article or short story was posted online, marked query, must necessarily be equally appropriate for a book proposal, despite the fact that the two would be read by completely different professional audiences, does not make it so.

Yet that is precisely what many of the templates out there do, frequently without telling those who stumble across them that the formula or visual approximation is geared toward a particular part of the writing industry. Because writing is writing, right?

Not to those who handle writing professionally, no — which is why, in case those of you confused (and who could blame you?) by competing querying advice had been wondering, the argument but I saw it done this way online!/in a book of advice for writers/in what a friend of a friend of a professional writer forwarded me! will cut no slack with Millicent. Why should it? In fact, why on earth would an agency that represents books and book proposals care at all what the querying norms are for any other kind of writing?

So let’s add a sixth simple rule, while we’re at it: don’t follow generic advice. If you read through querying advice carefully and still cannot tell whether it is intended to help writers of books, poets, short story writers, or those trying to break into journalism, move on to another, more specific source.

To make sure we’re all on the same page, so to speak, let me make it pellucidly clear: the advice in Queryfest is intended only to assist writers of book-length works querying agencies or small publishers within the United States. It is aimed at helping aspiring writers produce a solid query that will look and feel right to that specific group of readers. I make every attempt never to ask my readers to follow a rule without explaining it, and I encourage all of you to ask questions if anything remains unclear. (Do take the time to read the relevant post first, though, huh? Every advice-giving writing blogger I know positively hates it when commenters ask for a recap of questions already answered in that post.) As always, though, I would urge any writer following this advice to double-check any submission guidelines a particular agency might have taken the time to post or list in one of the standard agency guides.

Everybody okay with that? If not, may I suggest that Queryfest may not be for you, and wish you luck finding the answers you seek elsewhere?

The same train of logic applies, I tremble to tell you, to how a query is presented on a page. And that’s unfortunate for many queriers, for although neither the requirement that a query be limited to a single page nor the rules for correspondence format have actually not changed at all since the advent of the word processor — it’s merely easier to center things in Word than on a typewriter — fewer typing classes in schools have inevitably led to a lower percentage of the population’s being familiar with how a formal letter should look on a page. Which is, should anyone be wondering, like this:

Or like this:

Either will look right to Millicent, either in a paper query or via e-mail; for reasons I have explained at great length and with abundant visual examples earlier in this series, at a traditional agency, these are the only acceptable query formats. (Yes, yes: younger agents, ones who went through school after typing classes became rare, are less likely to care deeply, but business format has for so long been despised in the publishing industry as only semi-literate that it honestly isn’t prudent to use it in a paper query.)

Judging by the hundreds of queries I’m asked to evaluate every year (I’m currently running a limited-time special on it, should anyone be interested), correspondence format does not seem to be familiar to many aspiring writers, at least not in its typed form. So let’s pause for a moment to go over what will strike Millicent as right about both the letters above, shall we?

A paper query in correspondence format should feature, from top to bottom:

1. Single-spacing, with 1-inch margins on each side. The only acceptable exception to the latter is

2. The sender’s contact information, either centered in the header or appearing directly under the signature, never both. If you choose to use the centered at the top option, you may use boldface or a slightly larger font for this information. Otherwise,

3. Everything in the letter should be in the same font and size. For a query, the industry standard is 12-point Times New Roman or Courier. (More on the importance of that below.)

4. The date of writing, tabbed to halfway or just over halfway across the first line of text. In Word, that’s either 3.5″ or 4″.

5. The recipient’s full address. That one is borrowed from business format, actually, but it’s a prudent theft: it maximizes the probability that your missive will end up on the right desk.

6. A salutation in the form of Dear Ms. Smith or Dear Mr. Jones, followed by either a colon or a comma. Stick to one or the other, in both cases. In the U.S., unless you know for a fact that the recipient either (a) holds an earned doctorate, like your humble correspondent, (b) is an ordained minister, or (c) is a married woman who actively prefers being called Mrs., the only polite option for a female recipient is Ms. And no matter how gender-ambiguous an agent’s first name may be of the recipient’s sex, never address a query to Dear Chris Brown; check the agency’s website or call the agency to ask.

7. In the body of the letter, all paragraphs should be indented. No exceptions. In Word, the customary paragraph indention tab — which is to say, the one that’s expected in a manuscript, as well as a letter — is .5″. If you like and space permits, you may skip a line between paragraphs, for readability, but it is not mandatory.

8. In a query, titles of books may appear either in ALL CAPS or in italics. Choose one and be consistent throughout the letter; it drives a detail-oriented soul like Millicent nuts to see both on the same page. If you cite a magazine or newspaper in your query, its name should appear in italics.

9. A polite sign-off, tabbed to the same point on the page as the date. No need to be fancy; sincerely will do.

10. Three or four skipped lines for your actual signature.

11. Your name, printed, tabbed to the same point on the page as the sign-off, with your contact information below, if it has not appeared at the top of the page.

Those are the rules that would apply to any letter in correspondence format. For a paper query, observing other guidelines are also advisable.

12. A query should be printed in black ink on white paper. While it’s not mandatory to print your query on bright white paper, 20-lb. weight or better (I always advise my clients to use 24-lb; it won’t wilt with repeated readings), black ink shows up best upon it.

13. I mean it about the white paper: no exceptions. No matter how tempting it is to believe that your query will stand out more if you print it on, say, buff, gray, or ecru, it’s not a good idea. Yes, it will not look like the others, but this is a business that prides itself on uniformity of presentation. Don’t risk it.

14. A query should never exceed a single page. Again, no exceptions.

15. Sorry, queriers-from-afar, but if you plan on sending a paper query to a US-based agency, their Millicents will expect it to be printed on locally-standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper, not A4. On the bright side, they’ll expect your manuscript to be printed on that US paper, too, so you might as well stock up on it.

If you have trouble tracking down that size outside North America, try asking at your local FedEx (it ate Kinko’s, whose foreign branches almost always carried at least a few reams of our-sized paper, for the benefit of traveling business folk) or a hotel that caters to business travelers. You could also just go for broke and order a few reams of paper online from a US-based company — or an American-owned one like Amazon UK. Because I love you people, I’ve just checked the latter, and I found the proper size at a fairly reasonable price.

If you are querying via e-mail, of course, you should skip a few of these niceties: because it is difficult to ensure that spacing will remain intact in transit (it’s strange how much a different e-mail program can mangle an otherwise perfectly acceptable letter, isn’t it?), it’s safer not to skip lines between paragraphs. While indentation is still nice, it isn’t mandatory here, and as e-mails inherently contain a date marker, you need not include the date line. For the same reason, you may omit the recipient’s full address, beginning the e-mail instead with the salutation. Contact information belongs at the bottom of the letter, and most e-mailed correspondence features a left-justified sign-off and signature.

Having a bit of trouble picturing those differences? Here’s that letter again, as it would appear in an e-mail.

Looks quite different, does it not? That’s purely a matter of necessity, not of industry-wide preference: since many e-mail programs force users to opt for business format (no indentation, a skipped line between paragraphs, date, sign-off, and signature all lined up with the left margin), Millicent has, like her bosses, reluctantly come to accept non-indented paragraphs. But that doesn’t mean the purists in the industry like it as a trend.

They saw the slippery slope from a mile away, you see: because both the Internet and e-mail programs disproportionately favor (ugh) lack of indentation, an ever-increasing segment of the otherwise literate population has come to regard that format as (double ugh) perfectly proper. So although I wince even to bring it up, Millicent has also been seeing more and more actual manuscript submissions devoid of indentation, instead skipping lines between paragraphs.

Which is, incidentally, not the right way to format a book manuscript or proposal, as I devoutly hope those who read my Formatpalooza post on the subject already know. (And if any of that’s news to you, please run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.) In fact, business format so different from how agency denizens expect text to appear on a page intended for submission to a publishing house that Millicent typically won’t even begin to read it.

Why, those of you who write that way habitually scream in terror? Well, can you think of a better way for her to tell at a glance whether the submitter has taken the time to learn how book manuscripts and proposals are submitted to publishing houses? It’s not as though an agent could possibly submit an unindented manuscript to an editor, after all.

Was that resonant thunk I just heard the sound of thousands of writerly jaws hitting floors, or do I need to explain the direct implication for queries? “But Anne,” many of you moan, clutching your sore mandibles, “now that I see correspondence format in action, I realize that I have been borrowing elements from across a couple of styles for my regular mail queries. If I may borrow your last example for a moment to show you what I’ve been doing, can you tell me how Millicent might respond to it? And should I be sitting down before you answer?”

Of course, jaw-clutchers — and yes, a chair might be a good idea. Perhaps even a fainting couch, because I suspect what you have on your hands is a good, old-fashioned Frankenstein query.

Comfy? Okay, let’s take a gander — and to render this better practice, try slipping into Millicent’s spectacles for the duration. If you were she, what would strike you as incongruous, and thus distracting from the actual content of the letter?

Quite a contrast with what our Millie was expecting to see, isn’t it? Let’s start at the top of this discolored page — would you have read that, in Millicent’s desk chair? — and work our way down. First, in a charmingly archaic but misguided attempt to mimic casual letterhead (traditionally reserved for handwritten notes, by the way), the Frankenstein querier has chosen a truly wacky typeface to showcase his contact information. Doesn’t look very professional on the page, does it?

From there, the mish-mosh of styles becomes less visually distracting, but comes across as no less confused. While the left-justified date, lack of indentation in the body of the letter, and skipped lines between paragraph would lead anyone who began reading, as those zany screeners like to do, at the beginning of the letter and proceeding downward to presume that the letter is in business format, the sign-off and the signature are not in the right place for that format. Nor are they in the right place for correspondence format: they are too far right. Muddling things still further, the RE: line is appropriate for a memo, not a letter.

In the face of all that visual inconsistency, I wouldn’t blame you if you missed some of the subtler missteps, but I assure you, a well-trained Millicent wouldn’t. The missing comma in the date, for instance, or the fact that while one book title is presented in all capital letters, the other is in italics, for no conceivable reason. (Unless our querier is laboring under the false impression that published books’ titles should appear one way, and unpublished manuscripts another? Agencies typically make no such distinction.) Then, too, the oddball subject line appears in boldface, as well as The Washington Post. Again, why?

So while this query does indeed stand out from the crowd — doubtless the intent behind that horrendous yellow paper — it doesn’t leap from the stack for the right reasons. And what does it gain by the effort? By eschewing a more traditional presentation, all it really achieves is buying a little extra time for Millicent: this is not, apparently, a query she needs to take particularly seriously.

Shocked? Don’t be. Just as Millicent and her cronies have a sense of what information does and does not belong in a query, over time, as they process thousands of queries, she begins to gain the ability to tell at a glance which queries simply don’t have a chance of succeeding at her agency. The ones that don’t mention a book category, for instance, or those that present a book or proposal in a category her boss does not represent. The ones with typos, or the ones that are one long book description. The ones filled with typos. And — brace yourself — the ones that are formatted as though (and this is Millicent talking here, not me) the writer had never seen a letter before.

Oh, that last one isn’t always an automatic-rejection offense, but inevitably, odd formatting affects a pro’s perception of a writer’s professionalism. How? Well, just as agents and editors develop an almost visceral sense of whether a manuscript is in standard format or not, their screeners learn pretty fast what a good query looks like. And just as they often will automatically begin reading an unprofessionally-formatted submission with an expectation that the writing will not be as polished as that in a manuscript that looks right, Millicents frequently will read an oddly-presented query with a slightly jaundiced eye.

Especially, as it happens, if the query in question appears specifically designed to generate unnecessary eye strain. To someone who reads all day, every day, the difference between a query in the publishing industry’s standard, 12-point Times New Roman or Courier:

and precisely the same query in 10-point type:

could not possibly be greater, unless the latter were printed on that bizarre yellow paper from our previous example. The first utilizes the font size in which Millicent expects to see all manuscripts, book proposals, queries, synopses, and anything else its denizens ask to see; the second, well, isn’t. But that’s not the kind of thing an agent is likely to blurt out at a conference, mention on his blog, or even — you might want brace to yourself, if you’re new to the game — list as a required query attribute in the submission guidelines on his agency’s website.

Why, those of you surveying the difference for the first time ask in horror? Because 12-point is used universally for book manuscripts and proposals (in the U.S., at least), it would never occur to anyone who screens for a living that any other size of type was acceptable. Anything else simply looks wrong on the page.

To be blunt about it, most Millicents — heck, most professional readers — would consider the second example above not only strange; she’s also likely to regard it as rude. After all, from her perspective, all the smaller type means is greater eyestrain for her: clearly, the writer of the second version hadn’t considered that there might be a human being with tired eyes on the receiving end of that missive.

Seriously, if you were Millicent, how would you respond if a query with minuscule type appeared on your desk? Would you invest the extra minute or two in trying to make out what it says, or would you just move on?

For most Millicents, there’s just no contest: move on, and swiftly, just as she would if the query in question were a badly-smudged photocopy. Given that it’s her job to narrow the field of queries down to the 5% or less that her boss might conceivably have time to consider, why would she bother to give more than a passing glance to a missive that simply screams, “The person who wrote this is either unaware that manuscripts are supposed to be in 12-point type, or just doesn’t care how difficult he is making your life, screener!”

And yes, before anyone asks, she is equally likely to reach that unflattering conclusion regardless of whether Millicent is reading that query on a printed page or on a computer screen. Just because our Millie can increase the size of the e-mail in front of her does not mean that she will take — or even have — the time to do it, after all.

Especially when — again, you might want to brace yourself, neophytes — the single most logical explanation for why a querier would select the smaller type size would to be to commit the following instant-rejection offense; see if you can catch it. As always, if you are having difficulty reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image; just because Millicent doesn’t have the time to avoid eyestrain in this manner doesn’t mean you should tire out your peepers.

Awfully hard to read, isn’t it? Any guesses about why this version would set off rejection red flags, even if Millicent happened to be unusually fresh-eyed and in a good enough mood to try to make it out?

To someone as familiar with the standard one-page query as she, it would be perfectly plain that were these words in ordinary-sized type, this letter would be longer than the requisite single page. Which, as I hope we all already know, would automatically have resulted in rejection, even had Tricksy been honest enough to use a 12-point font.

And yes, in response to what half of you who favor e-querying just thought very loudly indeed, Millicent probably would also have caught the extra length had this query been sent via e-mail, where page length is less obvious. But whether Tricksy decided to avoid the necessity of trimming by typeface games or by just hoping no one would notice an extra few lines, trust me, she’s not likely to pull the wool over an experienced query reader like Millicent. Fudging is fudging, regardless of how it is done.

Remember, the one-page limit is not arbitrary, a mere hoop through which aspiring writers are expected to jump purely so Millicent can enjoy the spectacle; queries are also that short so she can get through even a quarter of the missives that arrive in a day at an even marginally established agency. It’s also, let’s face it, the first chance the agency has to see if a potential client can follow directions.

You would be flabbergasted at how many queries just bellow between their ill-formatted lines, “Hey, Millie, this one didn’t read the agency’s submission guidelines!” or “Hey, you’re going to have to explain things twice to this writer!” Or even, sadly, “Wow, this querier either has no idea what he is doing — or he is actively trying to circumvent the rules!” Is that really how you want the agent of your dreams (and her staff) to think of you as a writer?

Perhaps it is a bit counterintuitive, but to many Millicents, obvious attempts to cheat — yes, that’s how they tend to think of creative means of reformatting a too-long query so it will fit on the page — are every bit as off-putting as missing elements. Had querier Tricksy altered the margins, removed the date, and/or compressed the contact information in order to achieve the illusion of shortness, the result would probably have been instant rejection. Let’s nip any tendencies in that direction in the bud by showing just how ridiculous the hope that Millie wouldn’t notice this actually is.

Doesn’t stand a chance of passing as normal, does it? The sad thing is, had Tricksy put half as much effort into fine-tuning this query as she did trying to fool Millicent with fancy formatting tricks, she probably could have trimmed it to an acceptable length. As it stands, her formatting gymnastics are just too distracting from the letter’s content to be anything but a liability.

The moral of all this, should you be curious, is fourfold. First, rather than wasting time and energy resenting having to learn what Millicent and her ilk expect to see, or complaining that the pros have not, do not, and have no future intention of sifting through all of the competing querying advice out there — why should they, when they already know the rules? — why not invest that time and energy in researching what precisely it is the individual agents who interest you actually do want? That’s far more likely to bear fruit than searching for a single, foolproof, one-size fits all template to fit all of your querying needs. And no matter how much queriers would like it not to be the case, there’s just no substitute for checking every agency’s guidelines, every time.

Second, when you do that research, consider the source of information: is it credible, and is it specifically aimed at writers of your kind of work? If, after reading through the offerings, you can’t comfortably answer both of those questions, start looking for more information and asking for clarification. Before you take even the most authoritative-sounding advice — yes, even mine — it’s in your interest to make absolutely certain you understand precisely what you are being advised to do, and why.

Which brings me to the third moral: as nice as it would be if every agency currently accepting new clients posted a step-by-step guide to writing precisely the query letter it wants to see, the overwhelming majority of US-based agencies do not get very specific about it. Even those that do list requirements often leave them rather vague: give us some indication of who would want to read this book and why or tell us about your platform is about as prescriptive as they ever get.

And, let’s face it, when many writers new to the game read such requests, they feel as though they are being told that no one will ever want to read their books unless they somehow manage to become celebrities first. Which, for someone who was planning to attain celebrity by writing a terrific book, that impression can be terribly off-putting.

It should cheer you to know, however, that such statements are only rarely intended to scare newbies away. Indeed, agents often truly believe those admonitions to be helpful; remember, those directives are typically aimed at preventing the faux pas commonly made by the 90% of queriers who don’t do their research, not the 10% that do. And if submission guidelines tend to be a bit on the nebulous side, it’s just that to people who read queries and submissions for a living, sheer repetition has made the basic structure of a solid query seem to be self-evident. They’d no more think of explaining the difference between an unsuccessful descriptive paragraph and one that sings than they would undertake to explain to you how to walk. No one is born knowing how to do it, of course, but once a person has learned the mechanics, it becomes second nature.

Just how obvious do the elements of the query appear to the pros, you ask? Well, at the risk of seeming myopic, until this afternoon, it hadn’t occurred to me that any of you fine people might actually want a category on the archive list entitled HOW TO FORMAT A QUERY LETTER. After all, I had discussed formatting early in Queryfest; throughout the course of this series, I’ve posted dozens of visual examples. Yet when a reader asked me about it this afternoon, I was stunned to realize that I’d never done a post like this, one that listed all the requisite elements and the formatting requirements in one place.

I grew up surrounded by agented writers, you see; I actually can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what a properly-formatted query looked like. Or a properly-formatted manuscript, for that matter. Or that other kinds of writing called for different iterations of both.

Which leads me to the fourth and final moral of the evening: even the best-intentioned and most credible query advice-givers, the ones with actual professional experience to back up their opinions — who are, as we have discussed, usually in the minority online — may not always be able to second-guess what a writer brand-new to the game wants to know. Or even what he needs to know, because advice-dispensers like me are not always aware of what advice-takers don’t know.

Could you explain the pure mechanics of walking? Or of snapping your fingers? No, you probably just do both. That unthinking fluency is a product of practice, of long experience.

If you want to benefit from someone else’s experience, though — and isn’t that what seeking out advice is all about? — don’t expect the advisor either to read your mind or to tell you spontaneously what you want to know. Oh, I try; quite a few of us do. I hear from writers all the time who have landed agents following the advice I’ve posted here, and without ever having posted a question in the comments. But I can do a better job teaching you the ropes if you ask questions.

I don’t know what all of you do and don’t know, you see. It’s just a different perspective.

So as we wend our way through the last few Queryfest posts and back toward the more creatively-exciting pastures of craft and self-editing, I would strongly encourage you to post questions in the comments. Actually, I welcome questions all the time, but I’m especially interested in knowing if anything about the querying process remains fuzzy to those of you who have been following this series. I shall also, while we’re finishing up our examination of readers’ queries, be trotting out some well-founded readers’ questions that I’ve been intending to address at length for quite some time.

Many thanks to the reader who asked me for this post, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XIV: am I talking to myself, or is this guy not holding up his end of the conversation?

“A man of genius can hardly be sociable, for what dialogues could indeed be so intelligent and entertaining as his own monologues?” – Schopenhauer

Last time, I went on a rampage about one type of dialogue that tends to get professional readers’ proverbial goats: the astonishingly common practice of constructing tag lines centered upon verbs that do not imply speech. This one’s a goat-napper for good reason: since the whole point of the he said part of a dialogue paragraph is presumably to alert the reader to who is speaking those words encased within quotation marks, it’s both illogical and rather annoying when the text chooses to shoehorn a non-speaking activity into the sentence. As in:

“My uncle may be a murderer,” Hamlet carelessly scooped a nearby scull off the ground and contemplated it, “but you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

Since neither scooped nor contemplated are speaking verbs, they cannot reasonably be expected to form the basis of a tag line, right? What the writer actually meant was this:

“My uncle may be a murderer,” Hamlet said, carelessly scooping a nearby scull off the ground and contemplating it, “but you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

Now, that first comma makes sense: Hamlet said is the tag line completing the dialogue sentence. If a reviser were looking to minimize the number of tag lines in a scene — advisable in most types of adult fiction or memoir, to avoid a Jane, see Dick chase Spot feel to the text — that comma could be replaced by a period, and the original pseudo tag line transformed into an ordinary narrative sentence.

“My uncle may be a murderer.” Hamlet carelessly scooped a nearby scull off the ground and contemplated it. “But you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

After raising this issue and suggesting a couple of viable solutions, I was all set to go merrily on my way — then, as so often happens, some thoughtful readers took issue with one of the fixes. The quite interesting debate in the comments centered around the question of whether the actual speech in a sentence like

“My uncle may be a murderer,” Hamlet said, carelessly scooping a nearby scull off the ground and contemplating it, “but you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

meant something different than

“My uncle may be a murderer.” Hamlet carelessly scooped a nearby scull off the ground and contemplated it. “But you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

The literal meaning is the same, of course; the question here is a matter of rhythm. In the first version, the speeches before and after the tag line are presented as a single sentence: “My uncle may be a murderer, but you can’t fault his taste in wine.” The comma implies only a minimal pause in between the two halves. In the second version, the period indicates a longer pause: “My uncle may be a murderer. But you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

Unquestionably, there is a difference, but would it really matter to most readers? Probably not, unless Hamlet were in the last stages of emphysema, rendering the utterance of a sentence of the length of the first too great a strain on his lung capacity to be plausible. Even Millicent, our favorite long-suffering screener of submissions to agencies, would regard both versions as acceptable, unless the text had already established a speech pattern for Hamlet that rendered either length of pause uncharacteristic.

Was that giant collective gasp I just heard an indicator that some of you had not been carefully constructing individual speech patterns for your major characters? Or did half of you just realize that a professional reader might well be paying attention to how and whether the dialogue permits those characters to breathe?

If you’re like most aspiring novelists, it was probably a little of both. Writers new to dialogue usually concentrate almost exclusively upon the content of what their characters are saying, rather than how they are saying it: it’s no accident that in most submissions, any given line of dialogue could come as easily out of one mouth as another. The vocabulary or grammar might vary a little, but essentially, all of the characters are speaking in the same voice.

“I’m tired,” Hamlet said.

Ophelia sighed. “So am I.”

“Are you hungry? We could grab some cheeseburgers on the way home.”

“That would work for me. We could also swing by that all-night taco stand.”

Hamlet turned the wheel so the truck veered across three lanes. “I like tacos. Let’s do that.”

“You’re crazy,” Ophelia said, clutching the armrest for dear life. “I don’t like tacos enough to die for them.”

In short bursts, this type of dialogue can work very well. It’s not particularly character-revealing, but it gets the job done.

It’s a lost opportunity for character development, though. Look what a difference simply giving one of the characters a different cadence and larger vocabulary makes to this perfectly straightforward scene.

“I’m tired,” Hamlet said.

Ophelia sighed. “I believe it. It’s been an utterly exhausting day.”

“Are you hungry? We could grab some cheeseburgers on the way home.”

“If you that sounds tasty to you. We could also swing by that delightfully greasy all-night taco stand.”

Hamlet turned the wheel so the truck veered across three lanes. “I like tacos. Let’s do that.”

“You’re insane,” Ophelia said, clutching the armrest for dear life. “No taco in the world is worth spattering our brains on the pavement.”

The literal meaning is quite similar, but now, a reader could tell simply by the cadence and vocabulary who is speaking when. There’s also more tension in this version: because most readers assume that complexity of speech is an indicator (although not an infallible one) of complexity of thought, the differential in vocabulary could hints at the potential for underlying conflict. Does she want him to talk more, so she is being wordier — and does that attempt annoy him sufficiently that he wants to scare her by driving dangerously? Was he fired that day, and he’s working up nerve to tell her that their days of going out to fancy restaurants are gone for the foreseeable future? Or has he simply been angry with her for the entire exchange, and was expressing it by being terse with her?

Quite a bit of bang for the revision buck, is it not?

The individuated speech patterns also could reflect what occurred just before this exchange, or ongoing conflict. Her lines would take more breath to say than his simple declarative sentences, as well as more effort: is he conserving his energy because he is dog-tired, or is he the strong, silent type? Did he perceive her statement about the greasiness of the food at the taco stand as a dig about his eating habits, something she has been nagging him about for the entire book? Or do these two people suffer under a chronic failure to communicate, and so they take refuge in discussing only mundane topics like whether they would prefer cheeseburgers or tacos?

Seem like a lot to read into an ostensibly ordinary exchange? Professional readers tend to like dialogue that operates simultaneously on several different levels, not only dealing with what is happening in the moment, but with ongoing dynamics. Such exchanges are not only about what is said, but what is left unsaid.

The pros even have a name for this kind of scene, albeit a rather cumbersome one: there’s more happening than is happening. One also hears it as there’s more going on than is going on, but you get the point. Instead of using the dialogue as a blunt instrument to move the plot along, reserving character development for the narrative sections, complex exchanges move the plot along while revealing character, conflict roiling under a seemingly placid surface, long-concealed resentments, etc.

That’s a nifty trick, one that requires a sophisticated understanding of the characters and the story to pull off. It also requires an acceptance of the notion that the point of dialogue is not merely to reproduce how people speak in real life. Just as not every real-world action is worth depicting on the page, the bare fact that someone might actually say something does not necessarily render it entertaining dialogue. A novelist is not, after all, just a transcriptionist: a writer’s job is to improve upon reality, to embroider upon it, to show it to the reader in new and unanticipated ways.

Which is why, should anyone out there have been wondering, Millicent tends to get bored pretty by conversations that don’t seem to be going anywhere, even if the actual exchange is, as they say, ripped directly from real life. It’s hard to blame her, either, when so much of the dialogue she sees runs rather like this:

“Have a hard day?” Ophelia asked.


“I did, too.” She glanced at the clouds swiftly gathering over the moat. “Looks like rain.”

“Sure does. Did you bring the cat in?”

“Of course. You might want to bring the car into the garage, in case it hails.”

“It’s certainly been cold enough,” Hamlet agreed, “especially at night.”

“Um-hmm. Could you take the recycling to the curb on your way out?”

“Of course, hon.”

Yawn. We’ve all heard a million conversations like this, but since they are not particularly interesting to bystanders in real life, why would we buy a book to see them reproduced on the page? Or, to recast this in revision terms, if a discussion neither advances the plot nor reveals some heretofore-unseen aspect of character, why keep it?

Perhaps I’m an unusually demanding reader — I hope so; it’s my day job — but if dialogue is not entertaining or informative, I’m just not interested. If a character is spouting things that anyone might say, those stock phrases tell me nothing about who she is as an individual. All that standard chit-chat tells me is that the author has conflated realistic dialogue — i.e., speech that sounds as though a real human being might actually have said it — with real dialogue, actual speech transcribed on the page.

Learning to tell the difference is an essential skill for a novelist (and it’s pretty helpful for a memoirist as well). Why? To a professional reader, every line of dialogue has to earn its place on the page.

I heard all of you slice-of-life lovers gasp and mutter, but honestly, you would be hard-pressed to find even a single professional reader who would agree that any given line of dialogue has a right to appear on a manuscript page just because an actual person said it. Selectivity is the soul of good writing, after all. Realism is fine, in moderation, but after one has read a few thousand manuscripts in which characters say scads of not-very-interesting things simply because people talk that way, dialogue that is merely realistic can lose a lot of its charm.

Hey, didn’t someone mention something about the desirability of dialogue that serves more than one narrative purpose? Or did I dream that?

Exchanges that rely solely upon sounding like actual speech can seem especially trying if the one in front of Millicent happens to be the 10th or 20th of the day’s crop of manuscripts that features dialogue-only scenes. Why are they so common in submissions? Because an astonishingly high percentage of aspiring writers believe that dialogue in a novel is supposed to read like an excerpt from a play.

We’ve all read dialogue-only scenes, right? These exchanges that take the classic writing advice to make the dialogue itself, not an adverb in the tag line, say everything that needs to be said. After establishing who the two (seldom more) discussants are, the speeches alternate, sometimes for pages on end. Due to the subsequent absence of tag lines, descriptions of tone, mental asides, etc., the writer necessarily relies upon the reader to keep track of who is speaking when.

“To be or not to be,” Hamlet observed, “that is the question.”

“No, it isn’t,” Ophelia retorted. “Stop being melodramatic.”

“But I want to die.”

“You don’t want anything of the sort. You just don’t want to tell your mother that you accidentally smashed the vase she gave us as an engagement present.”

“If you had grown up with my mother, the sweet embrace of death would seem like the preferable option here.”

“If I had grown up with your mother, I would have stopped speaking to her by the age of ten and a half.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“And it’s easy for you to avoid telling her the truth. I’m tired of being the one who always has to break bad news to her.”

“You’re not always the one.”

“Who told her last year that our dog had dug up her prize begonias?”

“I was the one who broke it to her that we were getting married.”

“Along the broad spectrum of global disasters, that ranks pretty low.”

“Again, we clearly grew up with very different mothers. Whatever affects mine is a global disaster, by definition.”

This isn’t terrible dialogue, but you must admit, there’s nothing much happening here except what’s happening. Because of the presentation style, all the reader sees is what is on the surface. That’s not entirely coincidental: such exchanges are usually predicated on the assumption that human beings say precisely what is on their minds 100% of the time.

“So much for subtext,” Millicent mutters. “When I bicker, I like to think that my jibes connect on a variety of complex levels.”

I’m with you, Millie: I seldom find long dialogue-only scenes especially realistic, even if the speeches themselves ring true. Why? Well, the import of face-to-face human interactions seldom lies entirely in the words spoken. Tone, body language, nervous tics, grandiose gestures — all of these play into how one party interprets another’s intended meaning. By presenting the dialogue only, the writer is leaving the reader to fill in all of these potentially important details herself.

Then, too, at the risk of shocking you, it’s been my experience that few people say precisely what they mean every time they open their mouths. No one is perfectly articulate at all times, and frankly, who would want to be? Good manners alone dictate that not everything one thinks should come hopping out of one’s mouth.

Ask your mother. She’s with me on this one.

Speaking of not speaking out of turn, I’ve been sensing those of you who favor dialogue-only scenes squirming in your chairs for quite some time now. “But Anne,” tone-eschewers everywhere point out, “my high school English teacher told me that really good dialogue doesn’t need additional narrative text. If the dialogue genuinely fits the character and the situation, all of that body language stuff is merely window-dressing.”

I mean no disrespect to your sainted English teacher, squirmers, but that’s ridiculous. Admittedly, it was a very common type of ridiculousness in high school classrooms for about 40 years — specifically, the years when it was fashionable to try to teach every freshman to write like Ernest Hemingway. In recent years, adjectives and adverbs have come back into style.

The fact that there was a period in 20th-century American literature when they went out of style is why your English teacher encouraged you to minimize their use in tag lines, by the way. S/he was trying to discourage you from engaging in 19th century-style tag lines, known for their heavy reliance upon adverbs to add meaning to speech. Basically, s/he didn’t want you to write like this:

“To be or not to be,” Hamlet observed laconically, “that is the question.”

“No, it isn’t,” Ophelia retorted with some asperity. “Stop being melodramatic.”

“But I want to die,” he said morosely.

“You don’t want anything of the sort,” she replied irritatedly. You just don’t want to tell your mother that you accidentally smashed the vase she gave us as an engagement present.”

“If you had grown up with my mother,” he pointed out angrily, “the sweet embrace of death would seem like the preferable option here.”

“If I had grown up with your mother,” she said understandingly, “I would have stopped speaking to her by the age of ten and a half.”

A little of this style of tag line goes a long way, doesn’t it? Your teacher had a point: if the narrative relies upon how a character said something to convey the primary meaning of the speech, rather than the content or word choice, the dialogue plays a less important role in the scene. The practice discourages packing the maximum meaning into every line of dialogue.

What those of us for whom English class is but a far-off memory tend to forget, however, is that having students write dialogue-only scenes was an exercise intended to break the habit of leaning on tag lines, not a prescription for good dialogue. To extend that exercise and pretend that play-like exchanges are the only way to write dialogue well is to ignore the fact that most of the good novels of the last century have not embraced dialogue-only scenes as the norm.

In fact, acknowledging that human beings sometimes experience mixed motivations and respond to stimuli not in words or thoughts, but with their bodies has been a hallmark of literary and women’s fiction for several decades now. Or, as editors like to put it, “Could we get out of the protagonist’s head and into her body every so often, please?”

That’s not to say, of course, that dialogue-only scenes are never effective on the page — but like so many other high school English teacher-endorsed narrative tricks, it’s radically overused, and often applied to scenes where a fuller presentation of character, motivation, and non-verbal clues about what is going on would provide the reader with a better reading experience.

How so? Well, isn’t one of the primary benefits of a close third-person or first-person narrative the ability to show the reader what’s going on inside the protagonist’s head, torso, legs, and psyche? Dialogue-only scenes take that advantage and throw it out the window.

And with it often flies the sense that more is going on that meets the eye. Take a gander at how easy it is to add complexity to Hamlet and Ophelia’s philosophical debate by allowing for the possibility that the protagonist in this tight third-person scene has mixed motivations — and that her discussant is sending her non-verbal clues as to his mood.

Hamlet hung up the phone with a bang. “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

Oh, God, he was at it again. “Stop being melodramatic.”

“But I want to die.”

Ophelia hauled out her standard soothing argument and dusted it off for reuse. “You don’t want anything of the sort. You just don’t want to tell your mother that you accidentally smashed the vase she gave us as an engagement present.”

He slumped in his chair like a schoolboy waiting outside the principal’s office. “If you had grown up with my mother, the sweet embrace of death would seem like the preferable option here.”

“If I had grown up with your mother, I would have stopped speaking to her by the age of ten and a half.”

He picked at his nails, even though he knew it annoyed her. “Easy for you to say.”

Her jaw ached with the strain of not nagging him to stop. “And it’s easy for you to avoid telling her the truth. I’m tired of being the one who always has to break bad news to her.”

His face lit up; was he enjoying this? “You’re not always the one.”

She pictured him wrapping the lamp cord around his neck, jumping off the nearest bridge, sticking his pinkie into the light socket, but her tone remained sympathetic. “Who told her last year that our dog had dug up her prize begonias?”

“I was the one who broke it to her that we were getting married.”

Yeah, well, you’ve turned out to be no bargain, either, sweetheart. “Along the broad spectrum of global disasters, that ranks pretty low.”

“Again, we clearly grew up with very different mothers. Whatever affects mine is a global disaster, by definition.”

Quite a different scene, isn’t it? Not a syllable of dialogue is changed from the previous two examples, but now that we can see Hamlet’s behavior and hear Ophelia’s thoughts, the scene is infused with an adrenaline burst of conflict. On the surface, it’s not a fight, but few readers would not catch the underlying tension between these two characters.

To put it bluntly, that makes this a more interesting scene. Why? It operates on more than one level.

“But Anne,” those of you who shrink from depicting conflict on the page pipe up gently, “this makes Ophelia seem really hostile. If she were my protagonist, I would worry that readers would find her completely unlikable.”

That’s a completely legitimate concern, sweetness-mongers, but remember, in that last example, she’s not saying any of those things out loud. In fact, she is making a substantial effort not to be aggressive. She’s merely disagreeing with him.

And that would tend to render her a more interesting protagonist, from Millicent’s perspective; her inbox is perennially stuffed to the gills with books about people too nice (or too shy) to disagree with anyone, ever. Interpersonal harmony may be quite nice on the page, but it can make for some pretty stultifying dialogue.

Not sure why unvarying sugar and spice might get a tad tedious? Here is a representative sample of the kind of conflict-avoiding dialogue super-nice protagonists tend to utter.

Ophelia ran to meet Hamlet at the door. “You look exhausted, sweetheart. A bad day?”

“The worst.” He collapsed onto the couch without taking off his dust-covered jacket. “First, my stupid uncle yelled at me for being thirty seconds late to court this morning.”

“That’s awful.”

“After starting off on that delightful note, he then proceeded to lecture me for half an hour about how it was my responsibility to bring Laertes’ sword skills up to standard.”

“That’s so unfair.”

“I mean, why can’t he hire his own fencing tutor? It’s not as though I don’t have anything else to do. Dad keeps me up half the night, roaming the battlements, and Fortinbras is just waiting for my uncle to do something diplomatically stupid, so he would have an excuse to invade.”

“You’re only one person. You can’t do everything.”

He covered his face with his hand. “Sometimes, I just want to end it all.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s true.”


Had enough yet? Millicent has. If you’re not sure why, allow me to ask you: what precisely do Ophelia’s lines add to this scene, other than a vague undercurrent of supportiveness?

On the fence about that one? Okay, let’s apply a standard editorial test for whether a section of dialogue has slipped into the realm of monologue. Here it is again, with all but Ophelia’s first line excised.

Ophelia ran to meet Hamlet at the door. “You look exhausted, sweetheart. A bad day?”

“The worst.” He collapsed onto the couch without taking off his dust-covered jacket. “First, my stupid uncle yelled at me for being thirty seconds late to court this morning. “After starting off on that delightful note, he then proceeded to lecture me for half an hour about how it was my responsibility to bring Laertes’ sword skills up to standard. I mean, why can’t he hire his own fencing tutor? It’s not as though I don’t have anything else to do. Dad keeps me up half the night, roaming the battlements, and Fortinbras is just waiting for my uncle to do something diplomatically stupid, so he would have an excuse to invade.”

He covered his face with his hand. “Sometimes, I just want to end it all.”

Pretty much the same, isn’t it? By lobbing softball questions that do little more than prompt Hamlet to continue, Ophelia is not a full participant in this scene — she’s a bystander.

Surprisingly, while this kind of monologue-enabling behavior can seem quite supportive in real life — who doesn’t like someone to make sympathetic noises while pouring out one’s woes? — it usually does not render a protagonist more likable on the page. Why not? Well, think about it: is Ophelia helping move the plot along in the last set of examples? Or is she slowing it down by contributing dialogue that doesn’t add anything substantial to the exchange?

To be fair, a single scene of harmonious agreement is probably not going to lead the average reader to begin muttering, “Get on with it, plot.” That sort of response tends to greet the habitually non-confrontational protagonist.

But Millicent is not the average reader, is she? Particularly in dialogue gracing the opening pages of a manuscript, she wants to see not only conflict — external or internal — but dialogue that reveals character. Beyond the fact that Ophelia is generally supportive of Hamlet, what does her dialogue in that last example reveal?

So if the protagonist seems passive and not prone to complex reactions on page 1, would you keep reading just because she seems like a human being who might be nice to know in real life? Or would you shout, “Next!” and move on to the next submission in the hope of discovering a protagonist more likely to do something to move the plot along or surprise you with unexpected depth?

Don’t worry; I shan’t make you give your answer out loud. It might make you seem less likable to other writers.

Softball questions like “Really?” and “How so?” are one means of disguising monologue as dialogue. Another is to have one of the participants in a discussion go on far longer than most real-life hearers would tolerate. In everyday life, people can’t wait to give their opinions: they interrupt, ask questions, contradict, offer anecdotes from their own experience.

On the manuscript page, however, characters are all too given to waiting in tranquil silence while another character lectures them. Often, such speeches devolve into Hollywood narration, permitting the writer to wedge information that both parties already know into the dialogue, so the reader can learn about it, too.

Go ahead and pitch that softball, Ophelia, so Hamlet can take a swing at it.

“But I don’t understand,” Ophelia said. “You think your uncle did what?”

Hamlet took a deep breath, as if he were about to deliver a monologue in front of a packed house. “He poured poison into Dad’s ear while he slept in the garden. You see, Dad was still exhausted from battle; Uncle Claudius always did know how to keep refilling a wine glass without Dad’s noticing. He was a sitting duck. You know how loudly he snored; an elephant could have lumbered across the lawn, and he wouldn’t have been able to hear it. Uncle Claudius must have seen his chance to hold onto the throne — which, as you may recall, he had been occupying while Dad was off at war. Now that Dad was back, he was in line for a serious demotion.”

She shrugged impatiently. “Other people manage to adjust to a workplace organization without resorting to murder. This seems completely far-fetched to me.”

“That’s because you aren’t taking into account Uncle Claudius’ feelings for my mother. You’ve seen how he looks at her during banquets, after the mead gets flowing. He’s been after her for years, and while she’s done nothing but encourage him in public, she’s been sending him awfully mixed messages. Remember that time he nearly knocked Dad’s block off when Mom said only married or engaged couples could compete in the limbo contest? You thought she was only trying to prevent us from winning, or to push me to pop the question, but I’m positive that she was making sure no one would catch on about her secret limbo sessions with Uncle Claudius.”

“I did think that at the time, I’ll admit. But you still could be imagining most of this.”

Given how strongly Ophelia disagrees with what Hamlet is saying, it’s rather surprising that she lets him go on at such length before she even attempts to chime in, isn’t it? If this were a real-world argument, she would have jumped in every time he paused for breath.

How might a reviser know when that might be? You probably saw this one coming: by reading the scene IN ITS ENTIRETY and OUT LOUD. Unless Hamlet has the lung capacity of an Olympic swimmer, he’s not going to be able to get the extensive arguments above out of his mouth in single breaths. The exchange would probably be closer to this:

“But I don’t understand,” Ophelia said. “You think your uncle did what?”

Hamlet took a deep breath, as if he were about to deliver a monologue in front of a packed house. “He poured poison into Dad’s ear while he slept in the garden.”

She hated it when he stopped taking his medication. “Where anyone might have seen him do it?”

“But the garden was empty. Dad was still exhausted from battle; Uncle Claudius always did know how to keep refilling a wine glass without his noticing.”

“Claudius was wearing body armor that night. He couldn’t have budged without waking every bird in the garden.”

“You know how loudly Dad snored; an elephant could have lumbered across the lawn, and he wouldn’t have been able to hear it.”

She changed tactics. Maybe humoring his fantasy would calm him down. “Okay, let’s assume for the moment that it was possible. Why would your uncle want to kill his own brother?”

He looked at her as though he thought she’d tumbled off her rocker. “Because he didn’t want to give up the throne, of course. Now that Dad was back from the war…”

She shrugged impatiently. “Other people manage to adjust to a workplace organization without resorting to murder.”

“You aren’t taking into account Uncle Claudius’ feelings for my mother. You’ve seen how he looks at her during banquets, after the mead gets flowing.”

Not that old court gossip again. “Do you honestly believe that he has a chance? He’s her brother-in-law, for heaven’s sake.”

“Remember that time he nearly knocked Dad’s block off when Mom said only married or engaged couples could compete in the limbo contest?”

Darned right she remembered: Gertrude had never been light-handed with her hints about their getting married. “She just didn’t want us to win. I could limbo circles around her.”

He leaned close, whispering conspiratorially. “She was making sure no one would catch on about her secret limbo sessions with Uncle Claudius.”

Reads more like an argument, doesn’t it? That’s not only the effect of editing out the Hollywood narration: by breaking up Hamlet’s soliloquies into reasonable bursts of breath expenditure, the rhythm of the scene increases markedly.

Speaking of energy expenditure, that’s quite a few examples for a single post. Rather than lecture you further, I shall save my breath for future posts. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XXII: dates, places, and the passage of time

Before we launch into today’s festivities, a couple of quick announcements. First, all of us here at Author! Author! are wafting good wishes toward science fiction author Orson Scott Card, who suffered a mild stroke last Saturday. Here’s to a speedy recovery, OSC!

Second, a heads-up for Seattle residents and those lucky enough to live in her relatively snow-free environs: Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, will be giving a reading tonight at the Northwest African-American Museum (2300 S. Massachusetts St.), as well as signing her book at Costco (4401 4th Avenue S.) on Friday at 12:30 p.m. and reading at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way NE, Lake Forest Park) on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. I shall be at the Saturday night event, so please do come up and introduce yourself!

In other news, nominations for the Bloggies — which celebrate precisely what you think they do — are now open, and shall remain open through this coming Sunday, January 16th. So if anybody out there should happen to admire any particular blog, this would be a lovely time to express that sentiment through a nomination, if you catch my drift. Only the most-nominated blogs in any category (say, art/craft or topical) will proceed to the judging round, so if you have an opinion on the subject, now would be the time to weigh in about any blog you’d found particularly helpful within the last year.

I just mention. Back to the business at hand.

Earlier in this series, incisive reader Bruce (seconded by sharp-eyed reader Elizabeth) pointed out an issue that had somehow so far slipped between the cracks of Formatpalooza. Ahem:

The first page of my novel begins with a dateline. How would you treat it? As a typical dateline, as in a mag or newspaper? As a header?

or as something in-between?

At first, I must admit, I was a trifle nonplused by this question. Had we not discussed the issue of inserting articles, letters, and journal entries earlier in this series and did not that jolly little monologue include discussion of how to include a dateline?

Well, it did and it didn’t, as I learned upon going back and doing a spot of re-reading. That earlier post did indeed show a couple of options for including a dateline for an article, letter, or diary entry imbedded within a non-academic manuscript. (For guidelines covering this kind of long quote in academic work, please see that previous post.) One could introduce the relevant date in the text just before the excerpted bit:

That would work in either a fiction or nonfiction manuscript. Nonfiction writers, however, also enjoy the option of using a boldfaced subheading. This format is especially popular for excerpting newspaper articles, as it would more closely resemble the way a reader might find it in a published book. Take a gander:

Doesn’t leave much doubt about when ol’ Nellie wrote that journal entry, does it? If this same entry were to appear in a novel manuscript, however, the boldfacing would not be appropriate.

Why the dichotomy? Pull out your hymnals and sing along now: in a novel manuscript, nothing whatsoever should be in boldface or underlined. In a nonfiction manuscript, only subheadings may be in boldface.

Thus, in a novel, Nellie’s diary entry would look like this on the page:

Everybody clear on that? I want to make certain, because as we saw in our last Formatpalooza post, in the welter of manuscript-formatting information out there, it’s very, very easy for an aspiring writer to conflate what would be appropriate for a dateline in one context — in this case, mid-chapter in a fiction or nonfiction manuscript — with what is called for in another.

Say, if the date, time, and/or place designation were opening a chapter, or even, as Bruce and Elizabeth would like to do, the book.

I have good reason to be cautious: if an unwary writer were simply to type dateline + manuscript format into Google, much of what would pop up in the first page would be either inapplicable or wrong. Actually, I just did it, and Result #6 was a link to Bruce’s question on this site. It also turned up a self-styled expert ordering an eager questioner to use underlining instead of italics, which is flatly incorrect for a book manuscript. Not entirely surprisingly, the expert didn’t bother to mention — and perhaps was unaware — that standard format for short stories, articles, and books is different, and thus it’s absurd to pretend that all writing, anywhere, anytime should be formatted identically for submission.

The moral here: before you accept ANY formatting advice, make sure it is specifically aimed at your type of writing. If a list of guidelines claims, either by positive assertion or omission, to be universally applicable for all manuscripts, run, don’t walk, in the opposite direction. And perhaps this goes without saying, but if you don’t know what precisely makes the person giving the advice an expert, ask follow-up questions, rather than believing — as an astonishingly high percentage of aspiring writers seeking advice online seem to do — that all online sources are equally credible.

It’s just not true, and trying to follow all of that wildly disparate advice simultaneously will only drive you nuts. Seriously, it’s a waste of your valuable time and energy. Find a credible source for your particular type of writing, cross-check what that source says with agency and publishing house submission guidelines before you even consider following the source’s advice, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by every new suggestion you see online.

Especially if the source leaves you guessing whether the rule being touted is intended to apply to short story submissions (as, say, underlining to indicate italics would be) or book-length works (as in the imperative never to underline anything at all, under any circumstances). Just because the words manuscript, submission, and writing may be applied to both of these wildly different venues does not mean that the expectations are identical in each.

This is not a guessing game, after all. Actual standards do exist — they are merely industry-specific.

My point is — I honestly have had one lurking in the background throughout those last few paragraphs — one of the perennial problems faced by any aspiring writer trying to glean information online is the necessity for boiling complex concepts down to super-simple search terms. It’s led, unfortunately, to a tendency for definitional creepage.

You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s when a key word or phrase is ripped out of context often enough and used to mean other things in other venues that it comes to lose its specificity — and, eventually, its utility as a search term. Unfortunately, on the writing grapevine, definitional creepage is practically as common as complaints about how hard it is to land an agent in these trying times.

We saw a great example in our last post: a questioner used the term teaser to refer to a brief scene placed at the beginning of a novel, even though it would fall temporally later in the plot, in order to draw the reader into the book’s central conflict and open with action. It’s a comprehensible use of the word, but more specific uses, a teaser is everything from a promotional offer used in advertising to a rhetorical question used at the beginning of a newspaper or magazine article to tempt the reader into reading on to a theatrical curtain draped across the top of the proscenium arch to mask the flies and, along with the tormentors, provide a fabric frame for a stage.

And that’s not even counting the (avert your eyes, children) sexual definitions. The mind positively reels at the number of websites a curious writer might turn up by trying to find a little basic guidance on how to write one.

Think I’m digressing again? Au contraire, mon frère, because definitional creepage has almost certainly rendered it significantly more difficult for today’s brave questioners to find credible answers to this legitimate and serious formatting question.

Why? Well, primarily because not every date designation in writing is a dateline (or, in its more common usage, date line). In journalism, a dateline is the bit at the beginning of the article that tells the reader the date and place from which the news within the article was reported, usually presented in all capital letters: SEATTLE, JANUARY 12. Its purpose is not merely to indicate where the reporter was within the space-time continuum when she filed the story, but to enable readers to tell yesterday’s news from an article filed three weeks ago.

But that’s not its old definition, is it? Those of you addicted to looking things up will also be delighted to know that a date line is also how some earth scientists refer to the 180th meridian of longitude, better known to the rest of us as the International Date Line.

Now, clearly, Bruce wasn’t inquiring about the hypothetical dividing point where, by international agreement, a traveler moves from one day to the next. As a reasonable, sane human being, this definition did not even occur to me when I first read his question. Search engines, however, are not human beings, capable of considering the larger context, but must instead rely solely upon the search terms fed into them.

Yes, even extremely well-designed search engines. See the potential problem?

Why bring all of this up, rather than simply answering the original question? Two reasons. First, as an explanation and apology to all of the future web searchers who will undoubtedly end up on this page after having fed the term dateline or date line into their preferred search engines. Next time, you might want to add an extra term or to, to provide specific context.

Second, I’m REALLY glad that this term showed up in today’s question, because definitional creepage appears to be a factor in approximately 1 out of every 10 questions the Author! Author! comments. A lot of good writers out there seem to be frustrated by the results of insufficiently specific search terminology — and downright annoyed by the plethora of advice about ostensibly the same subject, when so many of the advice-givers are actually talking about different matters.

Didn’t think I could bring that diatribe full circle, did you? I’m a professional; don’t try this at home.

Let’s make things easy on the next aspiring writer looking for an answer to the question that Bruce and Elizabeth were kind and brave enough to bring forward for discussion by labeling the answer as clearly as humanly possible. Please, if you can think of other ways you might conceivably search for this information, mention it in the comments, so it can turn up in future web searches.

How to present a date and/or time at the beginning of a chapter or manuscript
As is often the case, the lucky writer has a couple of formatting options, both with concomitant advantages and disadvantages. One could, as we saw in our last post, simply use the date and/or time as the subtitle on page 1:

Or even as the title:

There is, however, a third and quite popular option: insert something that does in fact resemble a dateline in a newspaper article. Obviously, though, one would not want to format it exactly like a dateline — one should not, for instance, present it in all capital letters or substitute it for the necessary indentation at the beginning of the first paragraph of text.

And why wouldn’t we want to do either of those things, campers? Shout it out with me now: because a book manuscript should look like a book manuscript, not like any other kind of manuscript — or like any species of published writing. It is governed by its own rules.

Everybody got that, or should I attempt to wake up that deceased equine for another pummeling?

So how might a savvy writer of books format such a thing? By treating it like any other subheading in a manuscript, placing it where the first line of text would be if the date/time/place designation were not there.

In other words, the space format restrictions at the top of the chapter should not change at all. For fiction, it should look like this:

And for nonfiction, it should look like this:

Do I spot some raised hands waving at me from the ether? “But Anne,” a few thousand sharp-eyed readers point out, “that’s a less efficient use of page space! By adding the date as a subheading, we’ve lost a line of text!”

Quite true, date-lovers: there’s no such thing as a cost-free formatting alteration. While you gain in resemblance to an article’s dateline, you get fewer words per page. For those of you bumping up against that 400-page ceiling, the exchange might not be worth it. However, it’s up to you.

Thanks, Bruce and Elizabeth, for bringing this one up; I think the result has been a valuable addition to Formatpalooza. Thanks, too, to the many, many entrants to our recent Rings True competition whose first pages featured such date, time, and/or place designations; I honestly hadn’t realized that opening a book this way was enjoying a renaissance right now, at least amongst aspiring writers.

Keep those great questions rolling in, everybody. I’m planning to wrap up this series tomorrow, so we can launch back into nice, juicy craft questions over the weekend, but hey, I’m always delighted to clarify a formatting issue.

Keep up the good work!

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

Mail slot2Mail slotMail slot3

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

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

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

Who do you thinks gives the good children books?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

academic example

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

academic diary entry

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

NF diary entry 1

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

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

NF diary entry b

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

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

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

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

diary fiction 1

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

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

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

diary fiction 2

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

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

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

diary chapter 1

diary chapter 2

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

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

Formatpalooza, part V: the first thing Millicent the agency screener spots in a submission — and no, it’s not writing talent

Percival Grail Dove psychadelic

How well have your delicate writerly sensibilities been absorbing from the last few posts’ worth of inoculation with professional formatting know-how? Yes, Virginia, it has been a whole lot of information to take in all at once, now that you mention it. It may have left a bit of a sore place, but much better a one-time quick sting than engendering years of rejection without knowing why, I always say. Once you’ve gotten exposed to the correct way to format a book manuscript, chances are that you’ll be immune to formatting problems in the future.

Why, yes, I have run that metaphor right into the ground. How kind of you to notice.

There’s a reason I’m hammering on it so hard, however: one of the great fringe benefits of inoculation is that, as unpleasant as it may have been at the sticking-point, so to speak, the stuck usually doesn’t have to think all that much about smallpox or whooping cough for quite a long time afterward.

So too with standard format for book manuscripts — once a writer gets used to how a professional submission is supposed to look, everything else is going to look wacky. As I have been threatening imploring you to believe promising you repeatedly every few minutes while running through the standard format strictures, once you get used to how a professional manuscript is put together, any other formatting is going to feel downright uncomfortable.

And to prove it to you, I’m going to spend the rest of this series let you see precisely how different standard format and non-standard format appears to the pros. In the spirit of that old chestnut, SHOW, DON’T TELL, I shall be sliding in front of your astonished eyes pages that follow the rules right next to ones that don’t, for side-by-side comparison purposes.

That way, you’ll learn to tell which is which on those numerous future occasions when I don’t happen to be standing next to you, whispering in your ear. (I find that writers on a deadline tend to work better with minimal nearby murmurings.)

But before I launch into it, the usual caveats: what I’m about to show you relates to books, book proposals, and other occupants of query or submission packets only, folks. At the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself and repeating myself), standard format for manuscripts is just that, a set of guidelines for how book submissions should be formatted, not short stories, screenplays, poetry, magazine and newspaper articles, or anything else.

If you’re looking for formatting tips for any of the latter, run, don’t walk, to consult with those knowledgeable souls who deal with that kind of writing on a day-to-day basis. By the same token, it would be a trifle silly to look to those who deal exclusively with other types of formatting for guidance on constructing a book manuscript, wouldn’t it?

Yes, Virginia, I have mentioned this before, and recently. I shall no doubt mention it again: I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who believe, mistakenly, that writing is writing, and thus all of it should be formatted identically.

That’s just not the case. Out comes the broken record:

broken-record5 Please recognize that not everything that falls under the general rubric writing should be formatted identically. Book manuscripts should be formatted one way, short stories (to use the most commonly-encountered other set of rules) another.

So if your favorite source — other than yours truly, of course — tells you to do something diametrically opposed to what I’m showing you here, may I suggest double-checking that the other source is indeed talking about book manuscripts and not, say, submissions to a magazine that accepts short stories?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but contrary to popular belief, submission standards differ by type of publication. Yet surprisingly often, those giving practical to aspiring writers will conflate the format for, say, short stories, one with that for book manuscripts, resulting in a first page that will look incorrect to either. (Although, generally speaking, such guidelines tend to stick closer to the short story format than to the book.)

A word to the wise: if you have encountered conflicting bit of advice on the Internet — and if you’ve done even the most minimal search on the subject, I’m sure you have — consider the source. If that source does not make a distinction between book and short story format, or doesn’t seem to be aware that all professional manuscripts are not the same, be wary.

Everyone clear on that? Good, because I wouldn’t want any of you to be submitting articles to magazines using the format we’ve been discussing with such vim.

Caveat #2: as is always an excellent idea before you even consider submitting to any given agent, editor, or contest, check the individual agency’s, small publisher’s, or contest submission guidelines before you send anything. I’ve been presenting standard format here, but if the agent of your dreams (or the agent with whom you are currently signed, if they don’t happen to be the same person) has expressed a strong preference for his clients formatting in a manner opposed to what you see here, for heaven’s sake, run with that.

But only for submission to that particular agent, not to every single one currently dancing a jig on the earth’s crust. Contrary to what a good 95% of the generic submission advice out there maintains (or implies by omission), individual preferences do vary. Long-time members of the Author! Author! community, chant it with me now: not every piece of formatting advice writers hear at conferences or online refers to a hard-and-fast industry-wide expectation. Sometimes, an expressed preference is merely personal.

Admittedly, major deviations from standard format are genuinely uncommon — among manuscripts that agents are currently submitting to editors at major US publishing houses, at least — but let’s face it, you’re not going to get anywhere telling an established agent that no one else’s clients are using 18-point Copperplate Gothic Bold if he happens to have an unnatural affection for it. Part of working with an agent entails trusting that he knows more about marketing books than you do. If he doesn’t, you wouldn’t want to be working with him, right?

I must have misheard all of the query-weary submitters out there. The answer you meant to give is a resounding yes.

Before my last statement sends anyone out there into that time-honored writerly I’ve just signed with an agency but what if I chose the wrong one? panic, remember this: if you’ve done your homework before you signed, and thus are certain that he has a solid recent track record selling books in your category, you have every reason to have faith in your representative.

Or so I keep telling myself when I can’t sleep at night. Hey, handing one’s hopes and dreams to someone else to market is no emotional picnic.

On to the practical examples. Please study both the good and bad examples very, very carefully if you are planning to submit book-length work to a North American agent or editor anytime soon: writers often overlook non-standard formatting as a possible reason that an otherwise well-written manuscript might have been rejected.

Oh, not all by itself, generally speaking, unless the violation was truly egregious by industry standards, something along the lines of submitting unnumbered pages or not indenting paragraphs, for instance, the kind of faux pas that might actually cause Millicent to cast the entire submission aside, unread. But in a garden-variety well-written manuscript that combines non-standard format with even just a couple of the common agents’ pet peeves — a cliché on page 1, for instance, or several misspellings in the first paragraph — the result is generally fatal.

Certainly, other rejection reasons get a lot more airplay, particularly at writers’ conferences. If you want to take a long, hard look at some of the better-discussed reasons, I would urge you to gird your loins and plunge into the REJECTION ON PAGE ONE category at right. (Not for the faint of heart: in it, I go over a list of instant-response rejection reasons given by a group of agents going over a stack of actual submissions at a conference, one by painful one.)

Yet surprisingly little conference time seems to be devoted to deviations from standard format for manuscripts. Why shouldn’t conference speakers take thirty seconds of their speaking gigs to pointing out, for instance, that the ways in which a professional manuscript does not resemble a published book — ways that are unfortunately quite obvious to an agent, editor, contest judge, etc., from practically the moment their eyes light upon a submission?

Why is it so very apparent, you ask? Because much of the time, submitting writers will work overtime to make it apparent.

Seriously, many aspiring writers clearly go out of their way to format their submissions to resemble published books, in the mistaken belief that this will make their work seem more professional. As we’ve already discussed in this series, the opposite is generally true — and often, it’s apparent in a professional reader’s first glance at the first page of a submission.

If the implications of that last assertion made you dizzy — if, for instance, you found yourself picturing our old pal Millicent pulling a submitted manuscript out of its envelope, casting a critical eye over the first page, hooting, and stuffing the whole thing into the handy SASE along with a photocopied rejection letter — try placing your head between your knees and breathing slowly.

Go ahead. I’ll wait until you recover.

And then follow up with a hard truth that may get those of you new to the game hyperventilating again: the VAST majority of submissions are rejected not only on page 1, but within the first few lines of page 1. Heck, a harried Millicent will derive a negative impression of a manuscript even prior to page 1.

Keep taking those nice, deep breaths. That dizziness will pass shortly.

Ah, some of you have found your wind again, have you? “Oh, come on, Anne,” I hear some hard-boiled submission veterans scoff, “she makes up her mind that this isn’t a submission to take seriously before to page 1? How is that even possible?”

Well, the most common don’t-take-this-one-seriously trigger is the absence of any title page whatsoever. Many submitters, for reasons best known to themselves, omit the title page altogether from their submissions — often, I suspect, because they are unaware that a professional book-length manuscript always has a title page.

Why? Long-time readers (or even those who have been paying attention over the last couple of posts, pull out your hymnals and sing along with me now: a properly-formatted title page tells an agent precisely how to contact the brilliant author who wrote it — and tells an editor precisely how to contact the agent who represents her.

Was that gargantuan gasp a signal that those of you who have title page-free submissions circulating at the moment are just a teeny bit worried? If so, relax: forgetting to include a title page almost certainly won’t prevent Millicent from reading your submission at all.

She tends to read even the most bizarrely-formatted submissions for at least a line or two (although often no more than that). But that initial impression of an author’s lack of professionalism — or, to call it by a kinder name, of having a lot to learn about how the publishing industry works — does often translate into a rather jaundiced reading eye for what comes next.

Why? Well, let’s take a peek through her reading glasses, shall we? The first thing Millicent sees when she opens the average requested materials package is something like this:

If you’re having trouble reading the fine print, try double-clicking on the image.

Have it in sharp focus now? Good. Our Millie might also encounter a first page like this:

Or, heaven help us, like this:

Taken a good gander? Excellent. Now tell me: why might Millicent take one look at these and conclude that the respective submitters of these three first pages could use a good class on manuscript formatting — and thus would be time-consuming clients for her boss to sign?

I see all of you ‘Palooza followers out there with your hands in the air, jumping up and down, eager to tell everyone what’s wrong with this as a first page of text — and you’re absolutely right, of course. We’re going to be talking about precisely those points in the days to come.

For now, however, I want you to concentrate upon how this example has failed as both a title page and a first page of text: by not including the information that Millicent would expect to see on either.

What makes me so sure she would find this discovery disappointing, at best? Because what she (or her boss agent, or an editor, or a contest judge) would have expected to see on top of that pile of paper was this:

good title

This is a standard manuscript title page for the same book — rather different, isn’t it? Visibly different, in fact, from several paces away, even if Millicent isn’t wearing her reading glasses.

Again, submitting the earlier examples rather than that last would not necessarily be instantly and automatically fatal to a manuscript’s chances, of course. Most of the time, Millicent will go ahead and plunge into that first paragraph of text anyway.

However, human nature and her blistering reading schedule being what they are, she may not. And not necessarily just because she’s impatient with your formatting; she genuinely has only a minute or so to decide whether to read beyond page 1. For those of you new to this screener’s always-rushed days, she has a stack of manuscripts up to her chin to screen — and that’s at the end of a long day of screening queries; screening manuscript submissions is in addition to that.

Given the stack of submissions threatening to topple over onto her poor, aching head, if she has already decided that a submission is flawed, just how charitable an eye do you think she is likely to cast upon that typo in line 13? To use her favorite word: next!

To be fair to Millicent, while it may well be uncharitable of her to leap to the conclusion that Faux Pas’ or Ridiculous’ manuscripts are likely to be unpolished because they did not include a proper title page, agencies do have a vested interest in signing writers who present themselves professionally. For one thing, they’re cheaper to represent, in practical terms: the agent doesn’t have to spend as much time working with them, getting their manuscripts ready to submit to editors.

Let’s face it, no agent in his right mind would send out a manuscript that didn’t include a standard title page. It serves a number of important — nay, vital — marketing functions.

To understand why, let’s take another peek at the professional version. So you don’t have to keep scrolling up and down the page, here it is again:

good title

Did you take a nice, long look? Good. While we’re at it, let’s also take a gander at a proper title page for a book with a subtitle):

Those formats firmly in your mind? Excellent. Now for a pop quiz: how precisely do Rightly and Collie’s first sheets of paper promote their respective books than Faux Pas or Ridiculous’ first pages?

Well, right off the bat, a good title page tells a prospective agent or editor what kind of book it is, as well as its approximate length. (If you do not know how to estimate the number of words in a manuscript, or why you should use an estimate rather than relying upon your word processor’s count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) Both of these are pieces of information that will tell Millicent instantly whether the submission in her hand would meet the requirements of the editors to whom her agency tends to sell.

Oh, yes, that’s important in a submission, whether to an agency or a publishing house. Really, really important.

Why? Well, think about it: if Millicent’s boss had decided not to represent Action/Adventure anymore, or if editors at the major houses had started saying that they were only interested in seeing Action/Adventure books longer than 90,000 words, Rightly Stepped would be out of luck.

But then, being a savvy submitter, ol’ Rightly would also want his work to be represented by an agent who just adores very long Action/Adventure novels — and regularly goes to lunch with scads and scads of editors who feel precisely the same way, right?

As I may have mentioned seven or eight hundred times before (in this post, it feels like), the standard title page also tells Millicent precisely how to contact the author to offer representation — and that’s a very, very good thing for everyone concerned. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: it is always in a writer’s best interest to make it easy for an agent to help him.

I might be wrong, of course, but I suspect that not forcing Millicent to forage through the mountain of paper on her desk to find a misplaced cover letter with your phone number on it might be a good start toward being easily to assist. Like bothering to number your pages, identifying yourself clearly on your title page and providing contact information up front is a small way that you can make her life — and her boss’ — just a little less hectic.

By contrast, Faux Pas’ first page doesn’t really do anything but announce the title of the book and leap right into the story. That’s one underachieving piece of paper, isn’t it?

Starting to get a feel for how a title page is supposed to look — and how it isn’t? Don’t fret all night, if not: more concrete examples follow next time. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part IV: drawing some much-needed lines in the sand

lines in the sand

Before we begin today, a heads-up about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community’s exciting new project: tonight at 7 and 10 EST is the premiere of memoirist, blogger, and all-around fab guyJoel Derfner‘s new reality show, Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys on the Sundance Channel. Best of luck, Joel, and may the film editors be kind to you!

Those of you who have been hanging out here for a while may know Joel better under his commenting/blogging moniker, Faustus, M.D.. Or for his informative and funny guest blogs on getting permission to use song lyrics in one’s books (oh, yes, Virginia, explicit permission is required, unless the song is in the public domain) and how much input an author does and doesn’t get on his book covers. Or perhaps the name rings a bell because I have regularly been heard to say over the last couple of years that his memoir, SWISH: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Happened Instead, represents some of the best memoir writing of the last decade.

Who can say? Memory is a funny thing.

Speaking of which, you might want to bookmark this post, campers: since I’m going to be wrapping up my theoretical discussion of standard format today, I’m going to list all of the rules we have discussed so far.

That’s right: the whole shebang, listed in a single post. Can’t you feel the excitement in the air? Let’s get cracking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered EXCEPT the title page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of those make sense, I hope, at least provisionally? Excellent. Moving on…

(15) All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25. But numbers over 100 should be written as numbers: 1,243, not one thousand, two hundred and forty-three.

Violations of this one routinely make people who read manuscripts for a living twitch uncontrollably. Yet an unfortunately high percentage of otherwise industry-savvy aspiring writers are apparently unaware of this particular rule — or apply it incorrectly.

The instinct to correct it in a submission is universal in professional readers. From that impulse to rejection is often a fairly short journey, because once the notion gee, this writer hasn’t taken the time to learn the ropes has occurred to a professional reader, it’s hard to unthink. After that, anything from a major cliché to a minor typo would just seem like corroboration of this uncharitable — and in some cases unfair — conclusion.

Translation: NOT presenting your numbers correctly will not help you win friends and influence people at agencies and publishing houses. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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

There are only three exceptions to this rule: dates, currency, and, of course, page numbers. Thus, a properly-formatted manuscript dealing with events on November 11 would look like this on the page:

Abbott/The Great Voyage/82

The sandwich cost $3.76.

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

And not like this:

Abbott/The Great Voyage/Eighty-two

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

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

Do I see some hands waving in the air? “But Anne,” inveterate readers of newspapers protest, “I’m accustomed to seeing numbers like 11, 53, 18, and 10 written as numerals in print. Does that mean that when I read, say, a magazine article with numbers under 100 depicted this way, that some industrious editor manually changed all of those numbers after the manuscript was submitted?”

No, it doesn’t — although I must say, the mental picture of that poor, unfortunate soul assigned to spot and make such a nit-picky change is an intriguing one. What you have here is yet another difference between book manuscript format and, well, every other kind of formatting out there: in journalism, they write out only numbers under 10.

Unfortunately, many a writing teacher out there believes that the over-10 rule should be applied to all forms of writing, anywhere, anytime. Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but in a book manuscript, it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

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

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

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

Heck, amongst professional readers, my feelings on the subject are downright non-confrontational. I’ve been in more than one contest judging conference where tables were actually banged and modern societies deplored. Trust me, you don’t want your entry to be the one that engenders this reaction.

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

Everyone clear on that? Good, because — are you sitting down, lovers of newspapers? — embracing journalistic conventions like the post-colon capital and writing out only numbers under ten will just look like mistakes to Millicent and her ilk on the submission page.

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

Unfortunately, although my aforementioned heart aches for those of you who intended to protest, “But how on earth is an aspiring writer to know that the standards are different?” this is a cry that is going to fall on deaf ears as well. Which annoys me, frankly.

The sad fact is, submitters rejected for purely technical reasons are almost never aware of it. With few exceptions, the rejecters will not even take the time to scrawl, “Take a formatting class!” or “Next time, spell-check!” on the returned manuscript. If a writer is truly talented, they figure, she’ll mend her ways and try again.

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

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

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

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

Standard format is invariable upon this point: a doubled dash with a space on either end is correct; anything else is not.

And yes, it is indeed a common enough pet peeve that the pros will complain to one another about how often submitters get it wrong. They also bemoan how often they see manuscripts where this rule is applied inconsistently: two-thirds of the dashes doubled, perhaps, sometimes with a space at either end and sometimes not, with the odd emdash and single dash dotting the text as well.

It may seem like a minor, easily-fixable phenomenon from the writer’s side of the submission envelope, but believe me, inconsistency drives people trained to spot minor errors nuts.

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

(17) Adhere to the standard rules of punctuation and grammar, not what it being done on the moment in newspapers, magazines, books, or on the Internet — including the rule calling for TWO spaces after every period and colon.

In other words, do as Strunk & White say, not what others do. Assume that Millicent graduated with honors from the best undergraduate English department in the country (or at least the fifteenth-best), taught by the grumpiest, meanest, least tolerant stickler for grammar that ever snarled at a student unfortunate enough to have made a typo, and you’ll be fine.

Or, if that mental image isn’t frightening enough, try envisioning the many, many professional writers who delighted in leaping upon the slightest hint of grammatical impropriety even in spoken English throughout my formative years. I know that works for me.

The primary deviation I’ve been seeing in recent years is leaving only one space, rather than the standard two, after a period. The rationale runs thus: printed books usually do this now, to save paper; the fewer the spaces on a page, the more words can be crammed onto it. Since we’ve all seen it done in recently-released books, some argue — and vehemently — it would be ludicrous to format a manuscript any other way.

Indeed, you may have seen that one touted as the proper way to format a manuscript. A number of writing-advice websites, I notice, and even some writing teachers have been telling people that this is the wave of the future — and that adhering to the two-space norm makes a manuscript look obsolete. Some even tout this as a universal instant-rejection offense.

At the risk of sounding like the harsh grammar-mongers of my youth, poppycock. Agents, very good ones, routinely submit manuscripts with doubled spaces to editors, also very good ones, all the time. Successfully. But truth compels me to point out that there are also many agents, also good ones, who have embraced the single-space convention, and quite adamantly. Although some agents and editors do now request eliminating the second space at the submission stage, the doubled space is still the norm — except amongst the minority who feel very strongly that it is not.

Clear as pea soup, right?

So which convention should you embrace? The answer, as it so often is, involves doing your homework about the specific agent or publisher you are planning to approach. As always, it’s ultimately up to you; it’s really a question of choosing whom to please — or producing two different manuscripts for submission.

Once you get in the habit of doing that research, I suspect those of you who have heard horror stories about how everybody now positively hates the second space convention will be astonished to see how few agencies even mention it in their submission guidelines. If they don’t, it’s usually safe to assume that they adhere to the older convention — or at the very least, don’t care. If, however, you happen to be submitting to one of those people who specifically asks for single spaces, in which case, you’d be silly not to bow to their expressed preferences. (Sensing a pattern here?)

Fortunately, for aspiring writers everywhere, those agents who do harbor a strong preference for the single space tend not to keep mum about it. If they actually do tell their Millicents to regard a second space as a sign of creeping obsolescence, chances are very, very good that they’ll mention that fact on their websites.

Again, double-check before you submit. If the agent of your dreams has not specified, double-space.

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

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

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

Oh, and it drives the grammar-hounds nuts to hear that time-honored standards are being jettisoned in the name of progress. “What sane human being,” they ask through gritted teeth, “seriously believes that replacing tonight with tonite, or all right with alright constitutes progress? Dropping the necessary letters and spaces doesn’t even save significant page space!”

Those are some pretty vitriol-stained lines in the sand, aren’t they?

Let’s just say that until everyone in the industry makes the transition editing in soft copy — which is, as I have pointed out many times in this forum, both harder and less efficient than scanning a printed page — the two-space rule is highly unlikely to change universally. Just ask a new agent immediately after the first time he’s submitted to an old-school senior editor: if he lets his clients deviate from the norms, he’s likely to be lectured for fifteen minutes on the great beauty of the English language and the imperative to protect its graceful strictures from the invading Goths, Visigoths, and journalists.

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

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but inconsistent formatting is likely to annoy both sides of the aisle. Whichever choice you embrace, be consistent about it throughout your manuscript; don’t kid yourself that an experienced professional reader isn’t going to notice if you sometimes use one format, sometimes the other.

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

But don’t fret over it too much. This honestly isn’t as burning a debate amongst agents and editors as many aspiring writers seem to think. But as always: check before you submit. If the agent’s website, contest listing, and/or Twitter page doesn’t mention individual preferences, assume s/he’s going to be submitting to old-school editors and retain the second space.

And be open to the possibility — brace yourselves; you’re not going to like this — that you may need to submit your manuscript formatted one way for a single agent on your list, and another for the other nineteen.

Hey, I warned you that you weren’t going to like it.

(18) Turn off the widow/orphan control; it gives pages an uneven number of lines.

The widow/orphan control, for those of you new to the term. is the setting on a word processing program that controls how many lines appear on any given page. The default setting prevents the first line of a new paragraph from being left alone on a page if the rest of the paragraph is on the next (a line so left behind is called an orphan) or the last line of a paragraph begun on a previous page from appearing at the top of the next page all by itself (and that’s called a widow).

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

And even if your manuscript isn’t over 400 pages (100,000 words, estimated), the usual dividing line for Millicent to cry, “Oh, too bad; it’s too long for a first novel in this book category. Next!” she’s going to dislike seeing an extra inch of white space on the bottom of some of your pages. Not necessarily enough to shout, “Next!” anyway, but do you really want something that superficial to be your submission’s last straw?

Here’s how to turn it off in Word: under the FORMAT menu, select PARAGRAPH…, then LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. Un-check the Widow/Orphan control box, and you’re home free!

There you have it: the rules. Practice them until they are imbedded into your very bones, my friends: literally every page of text you submit to an agent, editor, or literary contest for the rest of your professional life (yes, including the synopsis) should be in standard format.

Confused? Now would be a delightful time to ask some questions. Tomorrow, it’s on to concrete examples. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part II: not all truths are self-evident


Hard to believe anyone would actually need to be told that those are gumballs, isn’t it? They are the epitome of the breed: large, spherical, colorful, and — dare I say it? — potentially jawbreaking. Yet clearly, at some point in the probably not-too-distant past, some passing myopic soul must have asked the proprietor, “So are those gumballs?”

I suspect that s/he just got tired of answering the same question 4200 times per week. Those of us who work with manuscripts for a living can sympathize.

Just to breathe the word editor (or my preferred title, book doctor) anywhere near the pronoun I and the verb am is to invite an avalanche of questions about manuscripts: how to get them published, how to get them under the eyes of an agent, how to keep them from getting rejected, and, surprisingly often, what they should look like.

Frankly, there seems to be a lot of confusion out there on that last subject — and that puzzles the pros, because standard format for manuscripts actually hasn’t changed all that much over the last 50 years. Oh, underlining is out and italics are in to designate words in foreign languages (currently, one should never underline anything in a book manuscript; I’ll be getting to that), and how one does indentation has altered a bit with the adoption of Microsoft Word as the industry standard for electronic submission (Word measures its tabs in fractions of an inch, not character spaces), but overall, the professionally-formatted manuscripts of today quite closely resemble the professionally-formatted manuscripts of, say, 1958.

That’s not to say, of course — or is it really that self-evident? — that all writing should be, or ever was, formatted in this manner. Short story format is different from standard format for books and book proposals, and has been for quite some time. So are essay format, academic format, journalistic format, and even how a published book will look on a page.

Which is, I suspect, the source of most of the confusion amongst aspiring writers of books. A tremendous amount of the formatting advice out there doesn’t seem to make the distinction between submitting writing to an agent or editor at a publishing house and submitting it to a magazine that prints short stories — or, indeed, presenting it in any context. That small omission leads many, many aspiring writers down the proverbial primrose path, because the fact is, the rules are different for different types of writing.

Do all of those eyebrows currently slapping into hairlines mean that this comes as a surprise to some of you? Were you under the impression that all writing should be formatted identically for submission anywhere, anytime?

If so, you are most emphatically not alone, especially since the rise of Google. Now, it’s far from uncommon for aspiring writers to plug manuscript page, submission format, or some similarly descriptive term into a search engine and come up with 25,000 pages, 65% of which will claim (or at least imply by omission) that they are stating the presentation rules for all professional writing.

Except they’re not. How do I know? Because it’s empirically impossible.

“But Anne,” some of you ask, cradling your sore brows, “why should that be the case? There are plenty of authors who write both short stories and novels, or essays and nonfiction books. Wouldn’t it just make sense that everybody would use the same format for writing?”

That would make sense, if (a) the overall system had been set up by writers, not publishers, (b) there had ever been an overall system governing all kinds of writing, and/or (c) the various species of writing were not published by completely distinct sets of people, each of whom have established norms for their own particular branches. Obviously — or is it so obvious? — the people outside an industry do not have the right to set submission standards for the people within it.

Or, to put it another way: just as all writing is not identical, neither is all publishing.

That very notion is making some of you squirm, isn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised: every time I have broached the subject formally, those who have heard rumors elsewhere that something has changed leap upon my well-intentioned little gazelles of advice with the ferocity of hungry lions, demanding that I either recant my not at all heretical beliefs or, as I mentioned last time, to compel literally every other writing advice-giver in North America to agree to abide by precisely the same rules.

To dispel any illusions up front: neither of those things is going to happen during Formatpalooza. In my professional experience, the formatting I’m discussing here is indeed important, and not just in theory. I have sold books adhering to these rules; my editing clients have sold books using them; agents, editors, and contest judges regularly complain about writers who don’t adhere to them — or even know such rules exist. So I feel entirely comfortable in saying early and often that manuscripts presented in standard format look professional to people who handle manuscripts for a living.

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

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

To make this last point pellucidly clear for those of you who have not been hanging around Author! Author! throughout our long autumn of ‘Paloozas: I would actively encourage you not only to check the standard agency guides for expressions of alternate preferences, but also to run an Internet search on any individual agent to whom you were planning to submit, to double-check that s/he hasn’t stated in some public forum that, for instance, s/he prefers only a single space after a period or a colon or can’t stand the sight of Times New Roman instead of Courier. Admittedly, it requires a bit more effort on the submitter’s part, but hey, it’s worth it.

Why? Chant it with me now, ‘Palooza devotees: if an agent or editor has been kind enough to take the time to tell aspiring writers precisely what s/he wants to see, be it in a query letter, storyline, or manuscript submission, a savvy writer should pay attention.

Again, that’s just being both smart and polite, isn’t it? If an agency has been considerate enough of its future clients to post submission guidelines, it’s only courteous to acknowledge their efforts.

I spot some timid hands raised out there. “But Anne,” point out some confused by conflicting advice — and who could blame them, given the multiplicity of it? “I’ve been doing my homework, and the overwhelming majority of the guide listings and agency websites I’ve found don’t talk about manuscript format at all. Does that mean that these fine folks just don’t care about how I present my writing?”

The short answer is no. The long answer is that standard format is just that: standard. So much so that to many folks who read and sell manuscripts for a living, it’s patently self-evident that they expect to see submissions in standard format.

So here is the mid-length answer: in the absence of specific alternate directions, the best course is always to adhere to the rules of standard format.

That’s why I revisit this topic regularly. To repeat the disclaimer I’ve run every single time I’ve run a series on formatting: these are the rules that I use myself, the ones that my lengthy experience tells me work. There are, however, other rules out there, presented by some very credible sources. If you find other guidelines that make sense to you, use them with my good wishes.

Seriously: as far as I’m concerned, what you do with your manuscript up to you. I’m only trying to be helpful here. Personally, I would strenuously advise against implementing any piece of formatting advice that deviates from the strictures of standard format unless you are positive that the specific agent or contest to whom you are planning to submit it wants to see your work that way — all too often, individual agents’ preferences fly around the rumor mill billed as the new universal expectation — but hey, I’m a realist: I’m aware that many, if not most, aspiring writers find it magnificently annoying to learn that they might have to produce more than one version of their manuscripts to submit to agents (or, even more common, writing contests) with different guidelines. They want to format their work once and be done with it, and who can blame them?

While I’m strenuously advising things, I would also urge you never to implement a rule you do not understand. That’s why I provide such extensive explanations for each of my suggested guidelines — so my readers may consider the various recommendations out there and form their own opinions.

You’re smart people; I know you’re up to the challenge.

I’m also confident that my readers are savvy enough to understand that paying attention to how a manuscript looks does not imply that how it is written doesn’t make a difference. Of course, writing talent, style, and originality count. Yet in order to notice any of those, a reader has to approach the page with a willingness to be wowed.

That willingness can wilt rapidly in the face of incorrect formatting — which isn’t, in response to what half of you just thought, necessarily the result of mere market-mindedness on the part of the reader. After you’ve read a few thousand manuscripts, deviations from standard format leap out at you. As will spelling and grammatical errors, phrase repetition, clichés, telling rather than showing, and all of the writing problems we’ve all heard so much.

They’re distractions from your good writing. My goal here is to help you minimize the distractions that would catch Millicent the agency screener’s eye first.

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

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

Perhaps this is self-evident from what I have already said, but here’s one last, quick caveat before I launch back into the list: the standard format restrictions I’m listing here are not intended to be applied to short stories, poetry, journalistic articles, academic articles, or indeed any other form of writing. The guidelines in this series are for BOOK manuscripts and proposals, and thus should not be applied to other kinds of writing. Similarly, the standards applicable to magazine articles, short stories, dissertations, etc. should not be applied to book proposals or manuscripts.

For the guidelines for these, you may — and should — seek elsewhere. (See my earlier rejection of universality.)

Everyone clear on that and ready to dive back into the matter at hand? Excellent; help yourself to a gumball. Let’s recap the rules we covered last time:

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

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

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

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

Is everyone happy with those? PLEASE pipe up with questions, if not. In the meantime, let’s move on.

(5) The ENTIRE manuscript should be in the same font and size. Industry standard is 12-point.

No exceptions, please. No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type.

Yes, even on the title page, where almost everyone gets a little wacky the first time out. No pictures or symbols here, either, please. Just the facts. (If you don’t know how to format a title page professionally — and yes, Virginia, there is a professional format for it — please see the TITLE PAGE category on the list at right.)

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a term for title pages with 24-point fonts, fancy typefaces, and illustrations.

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

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere in the manuscript BUT on the title page — and not even there, it’s not mandatory.

This seems like an odd one, right? Actually, the no-bolding rule is a throwback to the old typewriter days, where only very fancy machines indeed could darken selected type. So historically, using bold in-text is considered a bit tacky for the same reason that wearing white shoes before Memorial Day is in certain circles: it’s a subtle display of wealth.

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

You may place your title in boldface on the title page, if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be bolded. (Unless it’s a section heading in a nonfiction proposal or manuscript — but don’t worry about that for now; I’ll be showing you how to format both a book proposal and a section break later on in this series, I promise.)

(7) Every page in the manuscript should be numbered — except the title page.

I’m quite serious about this: even if you take no other advice from Formatpalooza, please remember to number your pages.

This may seem like a little thing, but you’d be surprised how often violating this rule results in instantaneous rejection. Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional manuscript reader (including yours truly, if I’m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission or contest entry. It ranks right up there on their rudeness scale with assault, arson, and beginning a query letter with, Dear Agent.

Why? Gravity, my friends, gravity. What goes up tends to come down — and if the object in question happens to be an unbound stack of paper…

Did that seem like an abstract metaphor? Not at all. Picture, if you will, two manuscript-bearing interns walking toward each other in an agency hallway. Between them, a banana peel. What is going to happen when the first slips, and the second tumbles on top of him, screaming?

You may giggle, but anyone who has ever worked with submissions has first-hand experience of this (okay, perhaps not the part about the banana peel, as well as what comes next: after the blizzard of flying papers dies down, and the two combatants rehash that old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial’s dialogue (“You got romance novel in my literary fiction!” “You got literary fiction in my romance novel!”), what needs to happen?

Yup. Some luckless soul has to put all of those pages back in the proper order. Put yourself in Millicent’s moccasins for a moment: just how much more irksome is that task going to be if the pages are not numbered?

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

FYI, the first page of the text proper is page 1 of the text, not the title page, and should be numbered as such. If your opus has an introduction or preface, the first page of that is page 1, not the first page of chapter 1.

Why, you ask? Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: BECAUSE A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD NOT LOOK IDENTICAL TO A PUBLISHED BOOK.

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

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

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

Including the slug line means that every page of the manuscript has the author’s name on it — a great idea, should you, say, want an agent or editor to be able to contact you after s/he’s fallen in love with it. The slug line should appear in the upper left-hand margin (although no one will sue you if you put it in the upper right-hand margin, left is the time-honored location) of every page of the text except the title page (which should have nothing in the header or footer at all).

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

Traditionally, the slug line appears all in capital letters, but it’s not strictly necessary; if the agent of your dreams has a preference on the matter, trust me, you’ll be the first to hear about it after she signs you. Personally, I find the all-caps format visually distracting, so the third page of my memoir has a slug line that looks like this:

Mini/A Family Darkly/3

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

Do not, I beg of you, yield like so many aspiring writers to the insidious temptation add little stylistic bells and whistles to the slug line, to tart it up. Page numbers should not have dashes on either side of them, be in italics or bold, or be preceded by the word page.

If that admonition strikes you as a disappointing barrier to your self-expression, remember, professional readers do not regard formatting choices as conveyers of personal style. The point here is not to make your slug line stand out for its innovative style, but your writing. In order for that to be possible, your manuscript’s pages to look exactly like every other professional writer’s.

And yes, Virginia, I am going to keep making that point over and over until you are murmuring it in your sleep. Why do you ask?

If you have a subtitle, don’t include it in the slug line — and if you have a very long title, feel free to abbreviate, to keep the slug line from running all the way across the top of the page. The goal here is to identify the manuscript at a glance, not to reproduce the entire book jacket.

Why not? Well, technically, a slug line should be 30 spaces or less, but there’s no need to stress about that in the computer age. (A slug, you see, is the old-fashioned printer’s term for a pre-set chunk of, you guessed it, 30 spaces of type. Aren’t you glad you asked?)

Keep it brief. For instance. my agent is currently circulating a novel of mine entitled THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB — 26 characters, counting spaces. Since my last name is quite short, I could get away with putting it all in the slug line, to look like this:

Mini/The Buddha in the Hot Tub/1

If, however, my last name were something more complicated, such as Montenegro-Copperfield — 22 characters all by itself, including dash — I might well feel compelled to abbreviate. Just for the sake of variety, let’s see it in all caps:


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

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

That’s fourteen single-spaced lines, incidentally. Don’t panic if you’re having trouble visualizing this — I’ll be giving concrete examples of what the first page of a chapter should look like later in this series.

The chapter title (or merely “Chapter One”) may appear on the first line of the first page — not on the last line before the text, as so many writers mistakenly do. The chapter title or number should be centered, and it should neither be in boldface nor underlined.

Why shouldn’t the title appear immediately above the text, as one so often sees — and, frankly, as some other writing sites advise? Because that’s where the title of a short story lives, not a book’s.

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

Because confusing the two formats is so common, very frequently, agents, editors and contest judges are presented with improperly-formatted first pages that include the title of the book, by Author’s Name, and/or the writer’s contact information in the space above the text. This is classic rookie mistake.

To professional eyes, a manuscript that includes any of this information on the first page of the manuscript (other than in the slug line, of course) seems like it just ended up in the wrong office. Clearly, the writer wanted not the agency to which she sent it, but the magazine down the street.

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

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

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

Just don’t do it.

“But wait,” I hear some of you out there murmuring, “I need a title page? Since when?”

Funny you should mention that, because…

(11) Every submission for a book-length work should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

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

Why, you ask? Because it is genuinely unheard-of for a professional manuscript not to have a title page: literally every manuscript that any agent in North America sends to any editor in hard copy will include one, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s the page that includes the agent’s contact information.

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

Oh, you think that the SASE won’t go flying when those interns collide in the hallway? Or that e-mails never get deleted accidentally?

On the bright side, the widespread ignorance that a title page is expected means that if you are industry-savvy enough to include a professionally-formatted title page with your work, your submission automatically looks like a top percentile ranker to professional eyes from the moment it’s pulled out of the envelope. It’s never too early to make a good first impression, right?

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

Again, it’s entirely up to you. No pressure here. Have a gumball while you wait.

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

Bully for them for being so open-minded, but as I point out roughly 127,348 times per year in this forum, how can you be sure that the person deciding whether to pass your submission upstairs or reject it isn’t a stickler for professionalism?

I sense some shoulders sagging at the very notion of all the work it’s going to be to alter your pages before you send them out. Please believe me when I tell you that, as tedious as it is to change these things in your manuscript now, by the time you’re on your third or fourth book, it will be second nature to you.

Why, I’ll bet that the next time you sit down to begin a new writing project, you will automatically format it correctly. Think of all of the time that will save you down the line.

Hey, in this business, you learn to take joy in the small victories.

More guidelines follow in the next couple of posts — yes, those of you whose hearts just sank audibly, standard format does indeed have that many rules — and then we shall move on swiftly to concrete examples of what all of this formatting looks like in practice. Why go over this in such detail? Because, again, I’m not asking you to embrace these guidelines just because I say so.

You should never do that, no matter how credible the source urging you to implement a rule that is new to you. I want you to have enough information on the subject to be able to understand why following them might be a good idea.

I’m funny that way. 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?”


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!

Querypalooza, part XXIV: torn between two agents, feeling like a fool…is submitting to both of you breaking all the rules?


I’m much more cheerful today, thanks. So much so, that I shall be returning to my cherished-since-last-Friday tradition of submission practicalities in the mornings, query content in the evenings as of right now. I have a couple of posts’ worth of letter examples waiting in the wings, but since posting them will extend Querypalooza yet another day beyond its previously-planned limits (hey, I have a lot to say on the subject), I’m going to go ahead and spend the next couple of submission posts to address a set of similarly-themed questions that I get about once per month from aspiring writers.

To whit: what’s the deal with simultaneous submissions? Or multiple querying, for that matter? Will any agent get angry at a writer for already having a submission out with someone else, and, if so, does that mean a writer should only submit to one agent at a time? Wouldn’t that take years, potentially?

This is a great set of questions, ones that fit into this series not only practically, but conceptually as well. Much of the art of successful querying and submission does lie in learning, figuring out, and sometimes outright guessing what the agent of one’s dreams wants one to do: how to approach, what elements should be in the query packet, what kind of first page will most grab her screener, and so forth. As theoretically-minded reader Jens commented so thoughtfully just the other day, a central theme running through Querypalooza has indeed been THOU SHALT OBEY.

I prefer the more gentle Fats Waller iteration: find out what they like and how they like it, and let ‘em have it just that way.

Part of the problem is, of course, that an aspiring writer doesn’t merely need to wade through multiple agency submission guidelines in order to learn the ropes — it’s more or less expected that a writer serious about getting published will invest the time in some class or Internet series like this. The way queries and submissions are presented professionally isn’t a secret; they’re just not self-evident. A writer new to the biz generally does need to find out how it’s done from a writer who isn’t.

That necessity tends to compound the confusion for many writers, alas: surely, I don’t have to tell any of you reading that there’s an awful lot of querying and submission advice out there, much of it contradictory. (Which is, in case you’d been wondering, why I always provide such extensive explanations for everything I advise: I know that you have to choose amongst quite a bit of competing information; it’s as important that you know why I’m suggesting something as to understand how to implement the suggestion. I never, ever want any of my readers to do what I say just because I say so. So there.)

As those of you following this series may have noted with alarm, an awful lot of the common wisdom about querying and submission just isn’t true, or at any rate, just isn’t true anymore. How, then, is someone brand-new to the process supposed to figure out what to do?

Frequently, aspiring writers attempt to resolve this dilemma by turning to someone like me — often, unfortunately, after they’ve inadvertently stumbled into an industry faux pas. Some of the most heart-rending perennial problems are the result of believing the common wisdom and applying it to every agent one might ever want to approach, rather than carefully reading each agency’s submission guidelines and treating each query/submission situation as unique.

Sometimes, though, even that level of hedging doesn’t prevent a writer from falling into a ditch. Witness, for instance, the situation into which completely innocent and well-meaning reader Virginia tumbled not too long ago:

I submitted only two queries to two agents. One got back to me quickly and did ask for exclusive right to review. A few days after I agreed to this, the second agent replied and asked for pages. I don’t want to violate my agreement, but how do I tell the second agent I’m really happy she wants to see more but she has to wait?

Successful queriers end up in this kind of dilemma all the time, often without understanding how they ended up there or why they’re stressed out about what is in fact the outcome they wanted: more than one agent interested in reading their work. An exclusive is always a good thing, they reason nervously, a sign that an agent was unusually eager to see a queried or pitched book, and thus decided to bypass her usual method of requesting manuscripts.

Not always, no. Sometimes, a request for an exclusive genuinely is the result of an agent’s being so excited by a query or pitch (especially if that book has just won a contest) that she’s afraid that another agent will snap it up first. But far more often, a surprise request for an exclusive is the natural and should-have-been-expected outcome when a writer queries an agency that has an exclusives-only policy that the querier simply didn’t do enough research on the agency to know about, and so is surprised by the request.

Especially gobsmacked by this (usually predictable) outcome: queriers who do what virtually every aspiring writer asked to submit materials does (and what I suspect occurred here), sending out pages within hours of receiving the request. Overjoyed at what they assume (in this case, wrongly) will be the only interest their queries will generate, many multiply-querying writers don’t pause to consider that multiple requests for manuscripts are always a possible outcome while sending out simultaneous queries. Thus, it follows as night the day, so is a situation where one of those agents requests an exclusive.

This is why, in case any of you inveterate conference-goers have been curious, agents, editors, and those of us who teach classes on marketing writing invariably sigh when an aspiring writer raises his hand to ask some form of this particular question — and it’s not for the reason that other aspiring writers will sigh at it. (The latter wish they had this problem, and who could blame them?) The pros will sigh because they’re thinking, Okay, did this writer just not do his homework on the agents he approached? Or is he asking me to tell him that he can blithely break the commitment he’s made to Agent #1? Does this writer seriously believe all agents are in league together, that I would be able to grant permission to insult one of my competitors?

That’s why everyone else will sigh. I, however, sigh whenever I hear this question because my thought process runs like this: okay, I have to assume that the questioner is someone who hasn’t read any of my blog posts on querying or submission, as much as that possibility pains me to consider. But since I have no fewer than four explicitly-named categories on my archive list — conveniently located at the bottom right-hand side of my website’s main page: EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION, EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS, SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS, and WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? — directly aimed at answering this question, and eight more that deal with it within the larger context of submission (AFTER YOU RECEIVE A REQUEST FOR PAGES, AFTER YOU SUBMIT, HOW LONG BEFORE THE REQUEST FOR PAGES EXPIRES? HOW SOON MUST I SEND REQUESTED MATERIALS? INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE, IS IT OKAY TO SUBMIT TO SEVERAL AGENTS AT ONCE? and REQUESTED MATERIALS), as well as a dramatically-reenacted scenario directly related to this issue in the Industry Etiquette series, I also have to assume that the questioner is facing a situation that I have managed to overlook addressing in any of these posts. So I shall eschew the temptation just to send the questioner to any or all of those categories, try to understand how and why this situation is unique, and answer the darned question for the 477th time.”

Yes, I can think with that much specificity in mid-sigh, thank you very much. It’s just one of my many, many talents.

All that being said — or at any rate thought loudly — it actually isn’t fair to leap to the conclusion that if aspiring writers read agents’ websites and agency guide listings more thoroughly, they would never end up in this situation. Sometimes, this request does come out of a genuinely blue sky, whacking a conscientious multiple querier or submitter right in the noggin.

In fact, it seems to be happening to aspiring writers more and more these days, and for a couple of excellent reasons. First, as a group, you’re querying more widely. That’s a good thing, as querying just a handful of agents isn’t a legitimate test of a book concept’s marketability. Second, as a group, agencies are taking significantly longer these days to get back to queriers and submitters, if they get back to them at all. That’s a bad thing, because quite a bit of the common wisdom out there dictates that writers should wait to hear back on one submission before sending out the next.


Excuse my salty language, but now that many agencies routinely just don’t respond to queries at all if the answer is no, it would be equally silly for a savvy writer to query them one at time and to wait to hear back from all of those simultaneous query recipients before submitting to the first agent who asks to see pages.

Ditto, unfortunately, for submissions in an environment where even a requested full manuscript may well sit on a corner of an agent’s desk for a year. (Millicent already decided she liked it.) If an agency has a no-reply-if-the-reply-will-be-no policy, stated or unstated, the hapless submitter can have no idea whether silence means no or I just haven’t had time to read the rest of it yet.

Yes, really. As agencies have been cutting their staffs over the last couple of years (and aspiring writers who wouldn’t have had time to query or submit three years ago have been digging old manuscripts out of bottom desk drawers now that they’ve been downsized), turn-around times have gotten demonstrably longer. So has the practice of not telling a submitter if the answer is no — or even hanging on to a manuscript someone at the agency likes in the hope that market conditions will change.

The result: I’ve been hearing more and more from writers who just don’t know whether their submissions have been rejected, are still in the reading pipeline, or have simply been lost. How could they, when industry etiquette dictates that submitters should not bug agents while they are considering?

But back to the question of exclusivity. Often, the writer simply will not know that exclusivity is a possibility until an agent asks for it. Unless an agency has an exclusives-only policy (and some do; check), the prospect generally will not be mentioned in its submission guidelines.

Then, too, the request for an exclusive is seldom formulated in a manner that informs a writer not already aware of the fact that she can say no. Or that she can grant it at a later date. Or put a time limit on the exclusive, if she agrees to it at all.

All of these things are perfectly legitimate writerly responses to an exclusivity request, incidentally. Unless an agency informs would-be queriers in advance that it has an exclusives-only submission policy, a submitting writer is under no obligation to grant an exclusive to an individual agent. And, as with any other favor, the writer has the right to place conditions on it if she grants it.

Was that deafening crash I just heard the sound of thousands of eyebrows hitting the ceiling? Yes, yes, I know: all of that runs counter to the tiptoe-around-the-agents common wisdom.

Other than much the common wisdom being seriously out of whack on this issue, why do so many aspiring writers not understand their options at this juncture? Well, for starters, 99.999% of the time, what an aspiring writer asked for an exclusive thinks the agent is saying in the request is not, “Okay, this sounds interesting and marketable, but I don’t want to have to rush to beat competing agents in reading the manuscript. Please remove the necessity of my having to hurry by agreeing not to show it to anyone else until I’ve gotten back to you.”

Which is, by the way, what a request for exclusivity means, at base. Rather deflating to think of it that way, isn’t it?

What 99.999% of aspiring writers in this situation hear is “Oh, my God — this is the most exciting book premise/query/pitch I’ve ever heard. I’m almost positive that I want to represent it, even though I have not yet read a word of the manuscript or book proposal. Because my marrow is thrilled to an unprecedented extent, I shall toss all of my usual submission expectations and procedures out the nearest window. If you grant my request for an exclusive, I’m going to clear my schedule so I may delve into this submission the nanosecond it arrives in my office. May I have it today — or, at the very latest, tomorrow — so I can stop holding my breath until it arrives?”

And then the giddy aspiring writer is astonished when weeks or months pass before the agent makes a decision, precisely as if there had been no exclusive involved. The only difference, from the writer’s point of view, is that she was honor-bound not to approach other agents until she heard back.

Pardon my asking, but what precisely did the writer gain by granting that exclusive?

I think that a couple of factors contribute the confusion so many agent-seeking writers seem to feel on this subject. First, many writers confuse initial interest with a commitment — why would an agent ask to see a manuscript exclusively, they reason, unless they already thought they might want to sign the author?

The short answer: typically, an agent won’t ask for an exclusive (or for pages, for that matter) unless he thinks representing it as a possibility; it is a genuine compliment. However, since agents who ask for exclusives seldom make the request of only one writer at a time, a writer should not assume that his is the only exclusive on the agent’s desk.

If that last bit made your stomach drop to somewhere around your knees, don’t feel blue, or even slightly mauve: the vast majority of writers who have ever been asked for an exclusive peek at their work were under laboring under the same misconception. The temptation to believe the request means more than it actually does is incalculable.

Second, as I mentioned above, aspiring writers agree to an exclusive, they don’t necessarily understand what it actually entails — and usually are either too excited or too shy to ask follow-up questions before they pack off those requested materials. So let’s invest some blog space into going over what granting that solo peek will and will not entail.

Within the context of submission, an exclusive involves a writer agreeing to allow an agent a specific amount of time to consider representing a particular manuscript, during which no other agent will be reviewing it. In practice, both the agent and the writer agree to abide by certain rules:

– ONLY that agent will have an opportunity to read the materials;

– no other agent is already looking at it;

– the writer will not submit it anywhere else;

– in return for these significant advantages (which, after all, pull the manuscript out of competition with other agents), the agent will make a legitimate effort to read and decide whether or not to offer representation within a specified time period, but

– if no time restriction is specified in advance, or if the agent always requests exclusives (yes, such agents do exist), the manuscript may simply be considered on precisely the same time scale as every other requested by the agency.

Is everyone clear on the rules? Be honest, now: they differ quite a bit from what you were expecting, don’t they?

Now that we know what Virginia agreed to do in granting an exclusive to Agent #1, let’s take a gander at her options after she has received a request for materials from Agent #2. If she wants to play by the rules — and she should, always — her choices are three.

If she specified a time limit on the exclusive — which an agent will rarely propose spontaneously; it’s not in his interest — the answer is very simple: if less than that amount of time has passed, don’t send the manuscript to anyone else until it has. On the day after the exclusive has elapsed, she is free to submit to other agents.

What is she to tell the other agent in the interim? Nothing, if the agreed-upon length of the exclusive is reasonable — say, between one and three months. (Three weeks used to be standard, but see remarks above re: backlogs at agencies.) Agents are perfectly used to writers taking some time to revise before submitting requested materials. Virginia’s second agent probably wouldn’t blink twice if she didn’t get back to him before then.

Remember, it’s not as though an agent who requests materials sits there, twiddling his thumbs, until he receives it. He’s got a lot of manuscripts already sitting on his desk — and piled on the floor, and threatening to tumble of his file cabinet, and waiting in Millicent’s cubicle…

Besides, what would Virginia gain by telling him she’d already promised an exclusive to another agent, other than implicitly informing him that she had already decided that if the other Agent #1 offered representation, she would take it? How exactly would that win her Brownie points with #2? Or, indeed, help her at all?

In practice, all waiting on fulfilling the second request means is that Virginia will have an attractive alternative if Agent #1 decides to pass on the manuscript. That’s bad because…?

Oh, wait: it isn’t. Actually, it’s an ideal situation for a just-rejected submitter to find herself occupying. Way to go, Virginia!

Worrying about what might happen to Virginia if Agent #1 doesn’t get back to her within the specified time frame? Relax; she still has several pretty good options: one completely above-board, one right on the board, and the last slightly under it.

First, the high road: about a week after the agreed-upon exclusive expires, Virginia could send Agent #1 an e-mail (not a call), reminding him that the exclusive has elapsed. Would A1 like more time to consider the manuscript solo, or should Virginia send the manuscript out to the other agents who have requested it? Naturally, if he selects the latter, she would be delighted to have him continue to consider the manuscript also.

That’s fortunate, because I can already tell you the answer will be the former. Or — and this has become disturbingly common of late — the answer will be silence, which it’s in a savvy Virginia’s interests to take as the former. (Yes, silence might mean that the agent’s no longer interested, but it might also mean that he intended to answer and forgot. Or that he honestly believes he can get to the manuscript before another agent has a chance to make an offer.) In any case, Virginia has been perfectly above-board here: ethically, she is no longer bound by that exclusive. She should it out to Agent #2.

The writer doesn’t achieve much by taking the high road, usually, other than possibly an extension of the exclusive. The level road is cosmetically similar, but frees the writer more.

Virginia could write an e-mail to the agent, informing him politely that since the agreed-upon period of exclusivity has elapsed, she’s going to start sending out requested materials to other agents. Then she should actually do it, informing Agent #2 in her cover letter that another agent is also considering the work.

That way, she gets what she wants — the ability to continue to market her work — while not violating her agreement with Agent #1. All she is doing is being up front about abiding by the terms of the exclusive.

The slightly subterranean but nevertheless justifiable third option would be not to send an e-mail at all, but merely wait until the exclusive has lapsed to send out the manuscript to Agent #2. She should, of course, inform A2 that there’s also another agent reading it. I don’t favor this option, personally, because despite the fact that Virginia would be perfectly within her rights to pursue it — the agent is the one who breached the agreement here, not the writer — because if Agent #1 does eventually decide to make an offer, Virginia will be left in a rather awkward position.

Enviable, of course, but still a bit uncomfortable.

When an exclusive does not carry an agreed-upon time limit — and most don’t, because writers don’t ask — the ethics are more nebulous, the costs to the writer significantly higher. Sometimes enough so that being asked to grant an exclusive turns out to be an actual liability.

As exciting as a request for an exclusive may be, it does tie the writer’s hands, for precisely the reason Virginia feels conflicted: throughout the duration of the exclusive, the writer agrees not to show the manuscript to any other agent. If other agents are also interested, this can mean a substantial delay in getting the manuscript onto their desks — not to mention the fact that if Agent A offers to represent it, B and C may not see it at all.

In an environment where it often takes months to hear back on a submission, it’s not all that hard to envision a situation where a writer might actually want to say no to an exclusive, is it?

While you’re pondering the implications, I’ll be changing the subject slightly, to underscore a few points. But never fear: I’m going to talk about the perils and escape hatches of the unlimited exclusive tomorrow; it’s too complex to toss off in just a few paragraphs.

For now, let’s concentrate on the kind of exclusives a savvy writer should be delighted to grant. To that end, I want to make absolutely certain that each and every querier and submitter out there understands two things — no, make that three:

1) As flattering as a request for an exclusive is to an aspiring writer, granting it is optional.

2) Since by definition, a writer cannot submit to other agents during the exclusive period — yes, even if the writer queried the others first — it’s ALWAYS a good idea to set a time limit.

3) Since granting it limits the writer’s options, it’s best reserved for situations where one’s top-choice agents are interested in the book.

Why limit it to your favorite picks? Try to think of granting an exclusive as if you were applying for early admission to an Ivy League school: if the school of your dreams lets you in, you’re not going to want to apply to other universities, right?

By applying early, you are saying that you will accept their offer of admission, and the school can add you to its roster of new students without having to worry that you’re going to go to another school instead. It’s a win/win, in other words.

So if the best agent in the known universe for your type of writing asks for an exclusive, you might genuinely want to say yes. But if you have any doubt in your mind about whether Harvard really is a better school for your intended studies than Yale, Columbia, or Berkeley — to mix my metaphors again — you might want to apply to all of them at the same time, so you may decide between those that do admit you.

To put it another way, if you are asked for an exclusive because your work is sought-after, it is up to you whether you would prefer to go steady right off the bat or date around a little. Got it?

If not, I can keep coming up with parallels all day, I assure you. Don’t make me start sending you to past posts.

That doesn’t mean you should necessarily say no to this type of exclusivity request, but if you say yes, set a reasonable time limit on it, so you don’t keep your book off the dating market too long. This prudent step will save you from the unfortunately common dilemma of the writer who granted an exclusive a year ago and still hasn’t heard back.

Yes, in response to that gigantic collective gasp I just heard out there: one does hear rumors of agents who ask for exclusives, then hold onto the manuscript for months on end. Within the past couple of years, such rumors have escalated astronomically.

Set a time limit. Three months is ample. (And no, turning it into three weeks will almost certainly not get your manuscript read any faster. This is no time to be unreasonable in your expectations.)

No need to turn asking for the time limit into an experiment in negotiation, either: simply include a sentence in your submission’s cover letter along the lines of I am delighted to give you an exclusive look at my manuscript, as you requested, for the next three months.

Simple, direct — and trust me, if the agent has a problem with the time you’ve specified, he’ll contact you to ask for more.

Of course, protecting your ability to market your work isn’t always that simple: negotiation is not possible with the other type of exclusive request, the kind that emerges from an agency that only reviews manuscripts if no one else is; the writer is not offered a choice in the matter. Consequently, a request for an exclusive from these folks is not so much a compliment to one’s work (over and above the sheer desire to read some of it, that is) as a way of doing business.

In essence, exclusive-only agencies are saying to writers, “Look, since you chose to query us, we assume that you have already done your homework about what we represent — and believe us, we would not ask to see your manuscript if we didn’t represent that kind of writing. So we expect you to say yes right away if we make you an offer.”

Noticing a homework theme in all of these unspoken assumptions? Good. Let me pull out the bullhorn to reiterate: because agents tend to assume that any serious writer would take the time to learn how the publishing industry does and doesn’t work, querying and submitting writers who don’t do their homework are significantly more likely to get rejected than those who do.

Okay, bullhorns down; back to the issue at hand. Why might an exclusive submissions policy be advantageous for an agency to embrace?

Well, for one thing, it prevents them from ever having to experience the fear associated with the first type of exclusive request. If you send them pages, they may safely assume that you won’t be e-mailing them a week later to say, “Um, Agent Q has just made me an offer, slowpoke. I still would like to consider your agency, so could you hurry up and finish reading my manuscript so you can give me an answer? As in by the end of the week?”

Okay, so you wouldn’t really be that rude. (PLEASE tell me you wouldn’t be that rude.) But let’s face it, agents who don’t require exclusive submissions do receive these types of e-mails fairly often: nervous writers often assume, mistakenly, that they should be sending agents who have their manuscripts constant updates. And agents hate the kind of missive mentioned in the last paragraph, because nobody, but nobody, reads faster than an agent who has just heard that the author of the manuscript that’s been propping up his wobbly coffee table is fielding multiple offers.

Agencies who demand exclusivity are, by definition, unlikely to find themselves in an Oh, my God, I have to read this 400-page novel by tomorrow! situation. After even the third or fourth panicked all-nighter, exclusives might start to look like a pretty good policy.

Increased speed is the usual response to multiple offers, note. Since people who work in agencies are perfectly well aware that turn-around times have been expanding exponentially of late, the mere fact that other agents are considering a manuscript isn’t likely to affect its place in the reading queue at all.

What does the writer get in return for agreeing not to submit to others for the time being? Not a heck of a lot, typically, unless the agency in question is in fact the best place for his work and she would unquestionably sign with them if they offered representation. But if one wants to submit to such an agency, one needs to follow its rules.

Happily, agencies that maintain this requirement tend to be far from quiet about it. Their agents will trumpet the fact from the conference dais. Requires exclusive submissions or even will accept only exclusive queries will appear upon their websites, in their listings in standard agency guides, and on their form replies requesting your first 50 pages.

(Yes, in response to that shocked wail your psyche just sent flying in my general direction: positive responses are often form-letters, too, even when they arrive in e-mail form. I sympathize with your dismay.)

If exclusives-only agencies had company T-shirts, in short, there would probably be an asterisk after the company’s name and a footnote on the back about not accepting simultaneous submissions. If they’re serious about the policy, they’re serious about it, and trying to shimmy around such a policy will only get a writer into trouble.

Do I feel some of you tensing up again? Relax — agencies with this requirement are not very common.

Why? It limits their querying pool. Because they require their potential clients to bring their often protracted agent search to a screeching halt while the submission is under consideration, such agencies are, in the long run, more time-consuming for a writer to deal with than others. As a result, many ambitious aspiring writers, cautious about committing their time, will avoid querying agencies with this policy.

Which, again, is a matter of personal choice. Or it is if you happened to notice before you queried that the agency in question had this policy.

Do check their T-shirts in advance, though, because I assure you, no one concerned is going to have any sympathy for a writer complaining about feeling trapped in an exclusive. They’ll just assume that she didn’t do her homework.

Tomorrow morning, I shall discuss other aspects of this particular dilemma. In tonight’s 8 pm post (hey, I need a bit of time to recover after physical therapy), it’s back to query example analysis. In the meantime, keep up the good work!