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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one that looked like this:

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

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

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

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

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

Than like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mini/The Smiling Frowner Bemused/1

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

Montenegro-Copperfield/Smiling Frowner/1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a timely question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You asked for it: a one-post overview of the rules of standard format for manuscripts. With pretty pictures!

As I don’t see how anyone prone to hanging out here at Author! Author! could fail to be aware, I’m not a big fan of making aspiring writers guess what they’re supposed to do; writing and submitting a first book is stressful enough without having to wonder what page 37 should look like or what query with synopsis means in practical terms. That’s why once a year, whether anyone likes it or not, I devote at least a couple of weeks to going over how professional book manuscripts should be formatted.

And yes, new readers, I do it in my trademarked level of detail. Nary a period, dash, or margin width shall go unexplained, if I can help it.

I didn’t incorporate illustrations into these explanations when I first began blogging, but after the first couple of years, I started including page shots. Why? Well, I kept hearing that many, many submissions and contest entries were striking Millicent the agency screener and her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, as unprofessional. That’s usually not an instant-rejection offense, but it does tend to mean that even if the writing on a wackily-presented page is very good, the pros begin reading it with a slightly jaundiced eye.

The logic runs thus: if a writer is really serious about getting published, s/he will take the time to learn how professional book manuscripts are formatted; if the manuscript/contest entry in front of them deviates from standard format in one or more significant respects, the writer must not have done that homework. From there, it’s not a very great conceptual leap to concluding that the writer has not taken the time to learn much about his or her chosen book category, writing craft, or other matters essential to becoming a successful author.

Personally, I don’t think a lack of authorial seriousness the usual reason manuscripts and contest entries so often show up looking like the writer isn’t aware of professional standards. I think it’s almost always because the writer has only a vague notion of what a book manuscript should look like — or simply does not know that a standard format exists. Most of the time, rookies simply assume that a manuscript and a published book should be, if not identical, at least close.

Adding to the ambient confusion: a staggeringly high proportion of the formatting information floating around out there does not draw a distinction between what’s proper for a book manuscript and how, say, a short story or magazine article should be formatted for submission. Contrary to popular belief, not all writing should be presented identically. Indeed, the first page of a short story and the first page of a book manuscript look so different that Millicent can tell at first glance whether the submitter knows the difference.

Yes, really — and yes, the difference honestly is that stark to those of us who deal with manuscripts for a living. Unfortunately, though, some of the particulars can be awfully hard to spot for someone who has never seen a professionally-formatted manuscript before.

Which is to say: virtually everyone submitting a manuscript to an agency for the first time.

Today, I’m going to attempt to remedy that. In this post, I shall be going over the rules of standard format very briefly — and, for the benefit of those of you brand-new to considering how words should look on a page, I shall be sharing snapshots of what your baby should look like on the page.

Never fear, extensive explanation-lovers: in the days to come, I shall revisit these rules, explaining them in greater detail. I just wanted to define our terms visually, since so many writers have difficulty picturing what they’ve never seen in person.

Which is, of course, completely understandable. But just try telling that to Millicent and Mehitabel.

Actually, I don’t only want to define the terms — although if you would like me to clarify anything below, please feel free to drop a question in the comments section at the end of this post. Many of you have asked over the years for a single-post rendition of the formatting rules, and frankly, I’ve resisted. I don’t like to lay down the law without telling you why adhering to a particular standard is necessary; I think barking unexplained orders is an insult to a writer’s intelligence.

Let’s face it, though: the Internet is a haven for one-stop information dumps. I hear all the time from writers new to this site that they would love to see here what they’ve found elsewhere, a bullet-pointed list of rules that they can scan in a few minutes. To which my response has, I’m afraid, habitually been: arf, arf.

I’ve been listening for years, however, to how members of the Author! Author! community talk about how talk about how they did — or didn’t — find out about the industry’s standards, and I have to say I’ve been hearing that most writers start out looking for one-stop answers. I’ve also noticed that the more visual examples I’ve worked into earlier posts on the subject, the better folks seem to like it. And, frankly, I’ve been wondering what someone for whom English was, say, a fourth or fifth language would make of the plethora of manuscript formatting out there.

Here, then, are the rules of standard format, suitably illustrated and with all of the relevant terms defined. I would encourage each and every one of you to learn more about how book manuscripts are put together, but hey, it’s a start.

No, wait: before we start, let’s take a quick look at the first couple of pages of a professionally-formatted manuscript. Page 1 or a book manuscript (remember, other types of writing adhere to other standards) should look like this in person:

If you’re having trouble seeing the individual words, don’t worry — for now, I just want to concentrate on the general shape of words on the page. If you prefer, though, you can either double-click on the image or hold down the COMMAND key and press + to enlarge the image. Here’s page 2, under a slightly brighter light:

Yes, yes, I know: full-spectrum light bulbs might have been a great choice for my studio in most respects, but untinted photography was not one of them. Ignore the golden tint, then, please: we’re looking for overall shapes and placement here. With them firmly in mind, let’s launch into the rules.

(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.

Let’s unpack all of that terminology, shall we? Handwritten manuscripts are not acceptable for books these days, but it is in fact possible to produce an acceptable manuscript on a typewriter. Eventually, your future agent and editor are going to expect you to be able to produce a copy of your book in MS Word, but unless an agency, publishing house, or contest’s rules specifically state that pages must be produced on a computer, submitting a typed version will seldom result in rejection. It will save you time in the long run, however, if you just write your book in Word.

Double-spacing is, I hope, fairly self-explanatory: unlike published books, manuscripts are not printed on every available line on the page. The margins are the spaces left blank on the left and right sides of the page, as well as the bottom and the top.

Okay, so I probably didn’t need to show you a picture of the margins. I invite you to notice, however, the impressive proof that I spent kindergarten reading while other children were acquiring much better arrow-cutting skills; the only scissors editors find themselves called upon to use regularly are metaphorical.

Am I correct in assuming, though, that some of you would enjoy seeing some clarification of what’s meant by 20-lb. or better white paper? Paper quality is measured by how much a certain number of pages weigh; as you’ve probably noticed in office supply stores, the heavier the paper, the more expensive it is. You’ll usually find the weight printed on the end of the ream:

As you may see, I generally use 24-lb. paper: it holds up better on repeated readings. That can be important in a submission, as more than one person at an agency, publishing house, and contest judging environment typically reads a page. 20-lb. paper is just fine for most submissions, though — it’s heavy enough that the type on the second page in a stack is not visible through the first.

Generally speaking, the greater the contrast between the whiteness of the paper and the darkness of the ink, the sharper your manuscript will look on the page, so this is no time to be trotting out the buff or ecru. Yes, choosing an off-white would make your pages stand out from the crowd, but believe me, it would not be in a good way.

Doubt that? Okay, compare the page 1 image above with page 2. If you were a Millicent expecting pages to be white, which would strike you as easier to read?

Stick with a bright white. Brightness levels can usually be found on the side of the ream, too.

All of that is clear, I hope? Excellent. Let’s move on to the second rule.

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

Again, much of this is probably self-explanatory, but since aspiring writers sometimes read the rules quite differently from those of us who work with manuscripts every day, I don’t want to take any definitions for granted. In that spirit, then, allow me to point out that the back of every page of your manuscript should look like this:

There’s a full page of text on the reverse side of that sheet, by the way, and your humble servant’s shadow cast near the bottom. See what I mean about the benefits of higher-quality paper? If an agent or editor wanted to write notes on it, there would be no visual distraction from bled-through ink.

Like many of us who handle manuscripts professionally, I’m always astonished if they show up bound, but spiral-binding does seem to be popular with a heck of a lot of aspiring writers. That’s fine for circulating your manuscript to your kith, kin, and writers’ group, but an agent or editor is going to want to be able to separate those pages. Your manuscript should pop out of its shipping container looking like this:

You will want to form it into a nice, neat stack, of course, but beyond that, it’s on its own. In order to help it navigate a long journey more happily, writers submitting to US-based agencies and publishing houses do need to be aware that regardless of whether requested materials arrive by mail or via e-mail, the expectation will be that the manuscript will be formatted for US business-size paper, not A4. (Don’t worry — I shall be tackling this sometimes thorny problem later in this series.)

Where might one find paper size, you ask? How about on the end of the ream, with the other relevant information?

Any questions so far? Lay ‘em on me. In the meantime, let’s move on to another rule.

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

This one seems to puzzle quite a few submitters — and even more literary contest entrants — I suspect because of the wording. It’s really not all that complicated: block-justified text produces a page on which the beginnings of the first word of each line form a straight line down the page on the left, while the end of each line on the right also ends at the same place.

We see this in magazines and newspapers all the time, right? I’m reluctant to show an example of block-justification, lest I throw anyone off. It’s easy, though, to get the basic idea from what the left margin is doing here.

As we can see in that example, though, a book manuscript is not block-justified, but left-justified. That means it boasts a straight margin on the left-hand side of the page, but an uneven right margin. Washing out the image a little makes the pattern down the page a bit easier to notice.

What Millicent will be expecting to see, in other words, are left and right margins that don’t look the same, like this:

All of which is, naturally, just another way of saying: just because you’ve seen formatting in print does not mean that it’s acceptable in a manuscript submission. It may look cool on the page, but remember, Millicent is not looking for cool. She’s looking for strong stories and good writing; non-standard format is only going to distract her from what the text is actually saying.

That’s also likely to be the case if the font is funky, by the way. Let’s talk about that next.

(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.

Aspiring writers often believe, wrongly, that if MS Word offers a font, it should be fair game to use in a manuscript. To be quite candid, this pervasive belief drives professional readers nuts, for precisely the reason we just saw: since professionally-formatted manuscripts utilize only a couple of font options, anything else just looks odd to Millicent.

Let’s see why. Here is a properly-formatted page of dialogue in 12-point Times New Roman, the industry standard:

Now here’s that same run of dialogue in Courier. Notice how many fewer words fit on the page.

Perfectly readable, right? Now take a gander at our interaction in one of the more fanciful fonts offered by Word:

Hard to read, isn’t it? It also comes across as unprofessional: clearly, the writer who sent this Millicent’s way did not understand that presentation mattered. That means, unfortunately, that this page would simply scream at her that this writer would require an unusual amount of work to represent. Someone would need to sit down with the person that considered this font nifty and explain what standard format is: the least distracting way possible to show one’s writing to an agent or editor.

Did you catch the extremely common gaffe in those last two examples? No? Okay, here’s a close-up:

Catch it that time? The slug line — that concise run of information in the header — was in Times New Roman, while the text below was in Courier. Sort of looks like our writer wasn’t paying very close attention, doesn’t it? It also violates our next rule.

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

No exceptions, I’m afraid, no matter what you have seen in published books. Any funky font choices in print are the publisher’s call, not the author’s.

The same principle applies, incidentally, to the title page; as we shall discuss later in this series, aspiring writers tend to go a little nuts there. Remember, though, the goal is not to grab Millicent’s eye with graphics, but with your writing. With that in mind, compare a properly-formatted title page in 12-point Times New Roman:

With the same title page with an array of fonts, some larger than 12 point:

The overwhelming majority of submitters would not see a great difference between the two — or, if they did, most would consider the second more visually appealing. As you may recall my having mentioned about thirty seconds ago, however, a savvy submitter does not lobby for an agent’s attention with anything other than the high quality of the writing and the strength of the story being told.

Trust me, you’re better off with something less flashy. Let’s move on.

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere in the manuscript but on the title page — and I would advise against it even there.

Again, just because Word provides a formatting option does not necessarily mean it is proper to include in a manuscript. If you want to emphasize words or phrases, use italics.

And on the title page, stick to the basics: remember, it’s the first part of your manuscript Millicent will see; it’s a great time to impress her with your professionalism. That being the case, I’m afraid the following is as dressed-up as a properly-formatted title page can manage:

Not much more exciting than the non-bold version above, is it? So it is really worth the trouble?

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

For some reason that absolutely no one who habitually works with manuscripts can understand, aspiring writers often don’t number their pages. It’s rude to the reader, period. It also makes it perfectly obvious that the writer has never read his own manuscript in hard copy; it’s very, very easy to mix up unnumbered pages.

Fortunately, standard format provides a number on every page. It belongs in the header.

A title page, though, is neither numbered nor included in the page count. As, indeed, our exuberant arrow indicates:

But what else is going on in that header, you ask? Good question.

(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.

Don’t let the slimy name intimidate you: a slug line is simply the author’s last name/book’s title/page #, included so that if a page accidentally falls out of the manuscript, someone at the agency will be able to figure out from which manuscript it tumbled. Let’s take another look at it on the page:

This is the only exception to the one-inch margin on all sides of the page, right? The slug line sits in the middle of the header, and the page number rests within it. If you have been working with a version of Word that automatically places the page number somewhere else, it’s your responsibility to change it.

Yes, it matters that much. Millicent won’t look for the page number anywhere else.

Speaking of elements of standard format that don’t always mesh seamlessly with Word’s defaults, here comes our next rule.

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

This is another one of the areas in which published books, short story format, and standard format for book manuscripts differ: a new chapter begins on a fresh page, 1/3 of the way down. And no, just because an agency’s submission guidelines ask queriers to send the first five pages with the query does not mean that it’s permissible to ignore the opening space requirement. Millicent is expecting page 1 to look like this:

And while we’re on the subject of how little standard format for book manuscripts and short story format look alike…

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

A surprisingly number of online sources seem not to make this distinction clear (or at all), but in a manuscript for a book-length work, the writer’s information should not be crammed onto page 1. That’s proper for a short story or article. It just goes to show you: not everything called a manuscript is identical — or aimed at the same group of professional readers.

Still, you will want to make it as simple as humanly possible for an agent who falls in love with your work to tell you so, right? We’ve already seen where it will be best appreciated — and where Millicent will be looking for it.

And yes, in response to what the overwhelming majority of writers who have been asked to submit partial manuscripts, just thought very loudly indeed, Millicent will be looking for that information if her boss requested only the first 50 pages as well. Which brings us to our next rule:

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

Again, omitting a title page is seldom an instant-rejection offense, but honestly, it looks more professional than simply stacking a cover letter on top of page 1 — and much, much more professional than just shoving the manuscript into an envelope with no toppers at all. Yet Millicent and I are perpetually gob smacked by how many requested partial manuscripts show up without any authorial identification at all. At least if the submitter has adhered to short story format, his contact information will be on the first page, but astonishingly often, the writer’s last name and title in the slug line constitute the only clues to the sender’s identity.

Don’t see why that would be a problem? Okay, pretend that you’re Millicent, and you’ve just opened a box containing a requested manuscript. This would be what you would see:

See the problem? If Millicent or her boss, the agent of this submitter’s dreams, fall in love with those opening pages, the agency’s staff will have to dig up the query letter or leaf through a few thousand e-mails to find the writer’s contact information. Millie thinks this is just inconsiderate, but I suspect something else is going on here: the writer who sent the title page-free manuscript simply doesn’t understand how many submissions a well-established agency receives in any given week.

By contrast, look how simple it is for Millicent to figure out who sent this little number:

Make it easy for them to ask for the rest of your manuscript. Include a title page with your contact information on it with any requested pages, no matter how few.

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

This would not have been a topic of discussion even thirty years ago, and frankly, most of us who read for a living don’t really accept that this would require explanation at all. The rise of both e-mail and business correspondence style has misled some aspiring writers into believing, wrongly, that it’s perfectly acceptable to omit indentation. Instead, they separate paragraphs by a skipped line.

That’s not how Millicent will expect a manuscript to be presented — or how her boss, the agent, would even consider submitting it to an editor at a publishing house. Everyone concerned will want your paragraphs to commence like this:

In other words, just the way paragraphs would be indented in a published book. Which means, of course, that those skipped lines that would have been necessary to keep paragraphs from running into one another have no place here. With one exception.

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

Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not necessary to do anything fancy to demonstrate in a book manuscript that one section of text has ended and the next has begun, as it is in a short story. (And in some contests for book-length works — check the rules.) For a book, all a writer has to do is hit the SPACE bar once. The result:

It resembles a section break in most published books, doesn’t it? Our next rule also adheres to that principle.

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

Actually, we’ve just seen this one in action in our previous example. As our attention was focused elsewhere, let’s take another peek.

I sense those of you fond of using italics to denote thought or find the common publishing practice of including an italicized opening champing at the bit, but hold those horses: I shall be devoting an entire post later in this series to the burning issue of when italics use is and is not acceptable. For now, let’s just assume that you’re going to be dotting your manuscript with ‘em, so we can move on to another peculiarity of book manuscripts.

(15) Numbers over 100 and those containing decimal points (like currency) or colons (like specific times) should be written as numerals. Numbers under 100 should be written out in word form.

So twenty-four should be written that way, but 1,557, 12:32 p.m., and $68.34 would be expressed numerically. Let’s see these principles in action on a page of text.

That’s fairly clear, I hope. One last rule that could bear a visual example, then we shall be done for the day.

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

My blogging program does not permit me to include manuscript-style dashes, I’m sorry to report — it automatically replaces them with that long line between words gracing this very sentence. I am forced, then, to resort to a page shot to provide you with the gratifying sight of proper dash use on a manuscript page.

See how the doubled dash and the spaces between the dashes and the words that surround them render it impossible to mistake the intended dash for a hyphen? Sometimes, aspiring writers mistakenly use this format for a hyphen, but that would be incorrect in any context. Why? Well, a hyphen joins parts of a single word — counter-intuitive, ten-foot pole, a three-year-old child — while a dash sets off a part of a compound sentence. As, indeed, two of them did in that last sentence.

You want to see a few more dashes and commas in their natural habitat, don’t you? Perfectly reasonable. Here are a few dancing across a manuscript page, suitably marked.

And those, my friends, are the basic contours of a book manuscript in standard format. If all of these images went by too fast, don’t worry: my next few posts will be going over the rules at a more leisurely pace, for the benefit of those who enjoy extensive explanations. After that, I shall be delving into some of the more common formatting faux pas. Sounds like fun, eh?

Well, maybe not, but would you rather guess how to do it? Or have me bark at you? Keep up the good work!

There’s more to writing a memoir than sitting down and telling the truth?

Surprised not to see a post on formatting occupying this space, campers? You should be: for the past seven years, I have embraced the decline of the old year and the advent of the new as an opportunity to provide the members of the Author! Author! community with a solid explanation of something that new writers are simply expected to know how to do before they even consider approaching an agent. For some reason that defies human understanding, formatting a book manuscript or proposal as the pros do is implicitly regarded as piece of practical know-how the Literature Fairy bestows on talented writers at birth.

Perhaps my decades of experience as a writer and editor have skewed my sample, but in my experience, approximately no one is born with that knowledge. Innate literary talent has nothing to do with the learned skill of presenting one’s writing professionally, any more than having a naturally good ear for dialogue correlates with the ability to place a comma in the right place or wield a semicolon correctly.

Contrary to popular belief, quite a lot goes into writing a book other than inspiration, patience, and the willingness to sit in one place, typing your little heart out, for a year or two. So don’t panic, rookies: I shall be reviving my annual explanatory tradition next week.

For the next few days, though, I’d like to talk with those of you writing about reality — as memoir, as narrative nonfiction, as everyday life interpreted on the pages of a novel. It’s some of the most difficult writing to do well, yet strangely, we writers tend to discuss walking the truth tightrope far less amongst ourselves than the more fanciful aspects of craft.

Why? Well, fact-based fiction is considerably in less popular than it used to be, for one thing. While 30 or 40 years ago, someone who burned to write would have tended to churn out a slice-of-life piece the first time out — and, in all likelihood, seen it treated as a more serious literary production than a nonfiction piece covering precisely the same subject matter — new writers in recent years have been turning in greater numbers to genre fiction. It’s not that Millicent the agency screener no longer sees the vividly-rendered descriptions of living room slipcovers, meaningful glances, and tense non-verbal exchanges over WASPy Thanksgiving dinners of yesteryear cross her desk; it’s that realism in fiction has very largely been supplanted by fast-paced street fighting, a little light bondage, and sparkling vampires who, in defiance of tradition, wander about freely in daylight.

Nothing wrong with that, of course: publishing has always been a trend-oriented business. The explosion of YA, paranormal, and fantasy in recent years has brought incredible richness to all of those categories, partially through definitional expansion — YA in particular now regularly takes up subject matter that would have made even the most hardened high school librarian blush in the 1970s — and partially, let’s face it, through good writers rushing toward those readerships. Since the economic downturn began, even quite well-established mainstream and adult fiction authors have found themselves gravitating toward these categories — and if they haven’t of their own accords, their agents may well have suggested it. Trends, you see.

Memoir, too, has seen quite a sea change in recent years — and that has generated some immensely positive effects for memoir aficionados and writers alike. My personal favorite: like genre fiction, good memoir writing has very largely lost the stigma it once carried.

Does that sharp collective intake of breath indicate that those of you new to the joys and challenges of memoir were not aware that for many years, it was not considered high literary writing? While there have always been wonderfully-written memoirs, it used to be routine for fiction-lovers to sniff at them as literary efforts — and not only in private. It was an accepted species of snobbery. Blame Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Parker, and their ilk: for a good century or more, even the most beautifully-composed first-hand nonfiction account was generally dismissed in literary circles as a less serious endeavor — or at least one that deserved to be taken less seriously — than garden-variety slice-of-life fiction. Even, interestingly enough, if they covered essentially the same subject matter at a similar level of characterization.

Oh, you may laugh, but writers of promise (what ever happened to that lovely phrase?) were often actively discouraged from writing nonfiction accounts. “That’s journalism,” the literati would say. “You would have to approach your subject matter with absolute objectivity. If you wrote it as fiction, you could be as subjective as you liked! Not to mention using nicer language.”

Today, however, if a novelist snorts derisively at the very notion of telling some aspect of his life story in nonfiction form — or, to put it a bit more bluntly, by being up front about his being a character in his own book — readers and interviewers alike tend to respond in much the same way they would if he said that genre fiction contains no legitimate character development. They’d just assume that he doesn’t read very widely.

Because, let’s face it, there is great writing in every book category. Being a well-read person no longer means reading only certain types of books; the average reader’s tastes are now recognized as being fairly eclectic.

And hallelujah for that, I say. Pretending that consumers of literary fiction never cracked a graphic novel or fantasy was a strain on everybody, was it not? Although watching a literary snob swiftly shove the paperback he was avidly reading into a copy of PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT did constitute one of the great amusements of modern life, it’s one that I readily gave up in the service of an expansion of what counts as good writing.

The rehabilitation of the memoir also owes a debt to the narrative nonfiction revolution. Largely the brainchild of novelists, narrative nonfiction brought fiction techniques to real-world subject matter, presenting actual events accurately (ideally, verifiably so) while casting the storyline as a novel would, with a distinct narrative arc, intensive character development, and fleshed-out scenes. Like literary fiction, narrative nonfiction’s language not only conveys the facts; it evokes a mood. And, unlike objective journalism, narrative nonfiction voice often contains a distinct authorial point of view.

Admittedly, as is so often the case in the literary world, definitions of narrative (also known as creative or literary) nonfiction vary. There is a certain amount of debate, for instance, about how much factual research must go into narrative nonfiction: need it be sourced as exhaustively as a journalistic treatment of the same story? If the writer was not physically present for certain scenes, how much can she legitimately make up? How extensively can she embellish a scene? If the storyline includes dull or dramatically unsatisfying sections, may they ethically be glossed over?

A question that does not crop up much in the publishing world, however, but one often hears aspiring writers of the real asking at literary conferences: should a first-person narrative dealing primarily with events in the author’s own life should be categorized as narrative nonfiction or memoir? The confusion is understandable, of course — while a cookbook containing travelogue or extensive personal stories is fairly obviously a cookbook (the recipes are a dead giveaway), where the precise line falls between a personal essay (a distinct sub-category of narrative nonfiction) and memoir can be less clear-cut.

So why don’t the pros get thrown by the question? While a narrative nonfiction book and a memoir might well share a distinct story arc, a strong authorial voice and point of view, and pretty writing, narrative nonfiction tends to be more concept-oriented than memoir. While a personal essay might bring in scenes, events, and characters from the author’s life to speak to an overall philosophical, analytical, or even political point, a memoir would concentrate primarily upon telling the story.

Still confused, writers of the real? Let me put it another way: while the writer can be a character in both memoir and narrative nonfiction, a memoir is first and foremost that character’s tale. A narrative nonfiction treatment of the same set of events might well include the author’s activities, but it’s often as an observer of larger events. Think MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL or IN COLD BLOOD, or, better still, if you happen to be a Capote fan, HANDCARVED COFFINS: while the reader does learn quite a bit about the writer over the course of those narratives, the narrator is an observer of a larger play.

In a good memoir, however, the reader gets not only to see through the narrator’s eyes, but live through her flesh — not only for individual scenes tucked within a mostly descriptive narrative, but throughout the entire storyline. Indeed, a memoir can hardly be said to be successful on a writing level if the reader isn’t drawn into the action sufficiently to feel and think along with the protagonist.

Some eyebrows just hit some hairlines, I’m guessing. “But Anne,” sputter flabbergasted memoirists the English-speaking world over, “I hadn’t been thinking of myself as the protagonist of my story, as if I were writing a novel. I’m the narrator in a nonfiction book — naturally, I’m bound by the truth, but I’m telling the reader what happened, the way I would recount my adventures to a friend. Or to someone I met at a party. Or, ideally, to the agent of my dreams, shortly after she claps eyes on my query letter.”

That may well be your intent, memoirists, but to an editorial eye, those three audiences would call for three completely different levels of narrative intimacy. You would almost certainly include more personal details in regaling your friend with your adventures, would you not, than a total stranger at some dubious social gathering? And wouldn’t you be more inclined to make yourself look good as a character if you were trying to impress the hearer?

I get what you’re saying, though: aiming for a chatty, anecdotal-style voice is a fairly common memoir tactic. Common enough, unfortunately, that it can be a problematic narrative choice at submission time. I’ve said it before and shall no doubt say it again: just as real-life dialogue is often stultifying if transcribed directly to the printed page, the storytelling norms of everyday speech tend to be rather boring to read.

For starters, spoken sentence structure and word choice typically fall far below the standards of good memoir writing. Everyday speech also leans pretty heavily on stock phrases. New writers often don’t think about this, but using the same words, phrases, and kinds of sentences over and over again, as most of us routinely do when chatting with our friends, is rather tiring for the reader. Take, for instance, how I might legitimately describe something that happened to me recently should you be unfortunate enough to allow me to buttonholed you at a cocktail party whilst I was still miffed:

I’m starting to think my UPS man can’t read. Since getting to my front door from my studio means climbing down a couple of flights of stairs, I put a great big sign over my doorbell reading: PLEASE LEAVE PACKAGES ON RIGHT SIDE PORCH. Every time I have a package delivered, I put it in the address line. My side door has a sign reading: THANK YOU FOR DELIVERING PACKAGES HERE. Yet on each of the last three business days before Christmas, there he was, standing at my front door, ringing the doorbell over and over again, whistling, expecting me to climb down all of those stairs to give him a signature. No amount of shouting down from second-floor windows can make him budge.

Not precisely Dickens, is it? Or perhaps it is, if we consider the notoriously word-repetitious opening sentence of A TALE OF TWO CITIES:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted upon its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Funny, certainly, but equally certainly stuffed with sweeping generalizations and eye-distracting word, phrase, and structural repetition. Not to mention being one lulu of a run-on sentence. Poor old Charles would have a heck of a time getting this opening past Millicent today — and not only because anything that read remotely like this would now be immediately dismissed as derivative of Dickens. That’s the trouble with those much-vaunted experiments in which disgruntled writers submit the opening pages of something like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to agencies in an attempt to prove that good, solid writing no longer stands a chance, by the way: any Millicent who has been at it a while would recognize, if not the first few lines of P&P itself, then at least a manuscript attempting to copy Austen’s well-known satirical voice.

What was fresh in 1813 can hardly be called the cutting edge of literary style today. Had I mentioned that this has always been a trend-driven business?

My point, should we all care to veer back to it, is that while some stalwart soul with magnificent lungs might conceivably be able to utter Dickens’ epic opening sentence within a single breath to a crowd of hearers who would not necessarily wince at all of that textual repetition, it would be significantly harder for a reader to plow through a similar speech on the page. (As perhaps you recall from sophomore English class.) People in publishing would find it even more difficult: because most adult readers become bored and/or distracted by repetitious prose — if you don’t believe that, consider how annoying it’s been that I’ve kept using various forms of repetition throughout the last few paragraphs — agents and editors develop a sharp eye for it.

So, as it happens, do experienced Millicents. Now that Uncle Charles has been kind enough to irritate you into noticing repetition (there’s that darned word again!), let’s take a peek at how our favorite screener would read our earlier example of ordinary-voiced memoir writing:

I’m starting to think my UPS man can’t read. Since getting to my front door from my studio means climbing down a couple of flights of stairs, I put a great big sign over my doorbell reading: PLEASE LEAVE PACKAGES ON RIGHT SIDE PORCH. Every time I have a package delivered, I put it in the address line. My side door has a sign reading : THANK YOU FOR DELIVERING PACKAGES HERE. Yet on each of the last three business days before Christmas, there he was, standing at my front door, ringing the doorbell over and over again, whistling, expecting me to climb down all of those stairs to give him a signature. No amount of shouting down from second-floor windows can make him budge.

Awfully hard to follow what’s going on in the face of all of that visual noise, isn’t it? And that’s not even factoring in how high the generalization to detail ratio is here: as is so often the case with verbal storytelling, this paragraph is a festival of telling, not showing. That’s entirely appropriate for interpersonal communication, but not necessarily the best tactic for sharing a real-world story in print.

Why? Well, verbal anecdotes tend to be light on specifics, relying on swiftness of telling and sudden reversals to maintain momentum. As a result, they often don’t work well when translated directly to the page, which cries out for detail and fully fleshed-out interactions.

That often comes as a gigantic surprise to first-time memoirists — especially if they happen to be funny people. They expect, and with good reason, that the same story told in the same words will evoke the same reaction in any context. Yet as Millicent knows to her sorrow, many an anecdote that’s been slaying ‘em at parties for decades falls completely flat on the printed page.

A spoken anecdote’s success with hearers is frequently dependent upon the teller’s storytelling skills — a different set of skills than a writer wields, and requiring a significantly different sense of timing. That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, a reader with a personal relationship with a writer of memoir (or personal essay, for that matter) will often have a significantly more positive response to reading that memoir or essay than a stranger would. The writer’s kith and/or kin will be mentally hearing the prose on the page in the writer’s spoken voice.

That’s impossible, obviously, for readers who don’t already know the author — a group which for your garden-variety aspiring writer includes Millicent, the agent of his dreams, his future acquiring editor, and, if we’re being honest, virtually everybody who will ever buy his book. I wish more aspiring memoirists thought about that; I can’t even begin to count how often I’ve seen great personal stories not be able to fly as memoir, simply because the narratives relied upon the reader to imagine tone and delivery style that just didn’t show up on the page.

Celebrity memoirs, particularly those written by comedians, are notoriously susceptible to this pitfall: if the reader can imagine the text read in the celebrity’s voice, it’s funny, but otherwise, the prose just sits on the page, unremarkable, crying out for a dramatic reading. These literary efforts represent, I think, a fundamental pessimism about the possibilities of readership. Presumably, the celebrity, the acquiring editor, and any ghost who might happen to have contributed some text to the festivities (allegedly) all believe in their heart of hearts that absolutely no one who has not heard the author’s speaking voice often enough to be able to produce a spontaneous and reasonably accurate impression would ever consider picking up his book. Were I a celebrity with something to say, I might find that a trifle depressing.

While stand-up comics and their ilk can indeed sell books that suffer under this presumption, it’s not the best strategic move for writers trying to make a name for themselves. Millicent does not use a smile for her umbrella, typically; she’s seen too many attempts at humor die a miserable death on the submission page. Unless you are absolutely positive that something is funny — and would be funny to a complete stranger who had never heard you utter a syllable out loud — you might want to consider punching it up. If you’re not sure, track down some objective feedback.

And don’t try to wiggle out of it by saying that your witticisms left your kith and kin rolling in the aisles. “But my mother thought it was hilarious!” has literally never convinced an agent or editor — or anyone else, for that matter — that an anecdote was funny if it didn’t elicit a chuckle on a first read. If there’s any rule to which those who work with writers cling tenaciously, it’s that the person who gave a writer birth — or shares his bed, or has been her best friend since the second grade — is not the ideal first reader for a memoirist. They’re simply too likely to read something into the text that isn’t actually on the page.

That’s true to a lesser extent of any form of writing, of course, but for memoir, the response of someone who knows the writer is likely to deviate even more wildly from the average reader’s. Even if your chum/relative/guy unwise enough to say, “Oh, you write? I’d love to read something of yours sometime,” isn’t actually a character in your memoir, s/he will already have formed opinions about you as a person, right? That relieves the narrative of the burden of character development for you, at least for that particular reader. Ongoing relationships also, more often than not, cause too-close first readers to peruse the text with a too-indulgent eye — or a too-critical one.

And although your kith and kin are no doubt delightful people, charming to know in any other context, when they are reading your memoir, they will probably also fill in necessary logic, should your narrative have happened to omit it. Indeed, many first-time memoirists so firmly picture their kith and kin’s past reactions to their verbal anecdotes that they elect to leave out connective logic, description, and character development requisite for an impartial reader to follow what’s happening.

Much to Millicent’s chagrin, many of these well-meaning writers — who, after all, are quite sensibly, they think, relying upon their past storytelling experience in constructing their memoir voices — will believe that telling their tales in a conversational manner will be an asset to the story. You wouldn’t believe how many memoir submissions open something like this, as if the narrator were addressing a close friend:

You’re not going to believe this, but that crazy UPS man appeared on my doorstep again. You know, the one who believes that the only physical space in the universe where it’s possible for a human being to sign for a package is the front doorstep?

I could go on, but why? There’s nothing wrong with the phrasing here, but already, the anecdote is predicated on the assumption that the reader will be willing to accept this rushed, limited back-story as a legitimate means of setting up what’s about to happen. Instead of showing us precisely how and why the guy’s nutty — or giving us enough insight into the narrator’s character to be able to discern whether we should take her word for this casual diagnosis — the text just expects us to try to picture what’s already happened before the story began, even though we don’t have access to enough information to be able to guess.

But that’s not the usual narrative presumption in a verbal anecdote, is it? We seldom assume that total strangers will already know what’s been going on in our lives, but fortunately for speed in storytelling, we’re often in the comparatively easy narrative position of relating our anecdotes to people who have already heard about our earlier interactions with the same characters. In this case, if I were actually telling this story to a friend (let’s call her Antoinette) I would have already regaled with my earlier interactions with the UPS man (which were positively hair-raising, incidentally). She also might have seen first-hand that since I’ve been walking with a cane since a car crash, hobbling down a flight of stairs, much less two, might be a trifle dangerous.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that any of the three times I shared this anecdote as memoir text? Changes your mental image of what’s going on, doesn’t it? An objective first reader might have caught that, but Antoinette probably wouldn’t.

That expectation of familiarity frequently haunts the anecdote-teller committing her tales to the page: the verbal anecdotalist can legitimately construct a tale under the assumption that the hearer will remember past accounts. Had Antoinette chatted with me on any day since midsummer, she might well have stood, glassy-eyed, while I treated her to a vivid account of how this sterling deliveryman raised my hair, as well as my hackles.

In essence, I am expecting Antoinette to follow a serial already in progress; woe to her if she had not paid attention to the earlier installments. She might have, but I can tell you now that Millicent hasn’t.

Yet you’d be astonished at how many memoir submissions toss poor Millie into the middle of an ongoing series of anecdotes. Perhaps not as obviously as Antoinette was, but honestly, would a screener not need to have pre-knowledge of the writer’s life to be able to make sense of a first paragraph like this?

I walked into my usual bar, ordered my usual drink, smiled at the lady who’s always sitting on that stool where the bar bends. So far, a completely ordinary day.

“I have no doubt of that,” Millicent sighs, “but since neither the reader nor I have any idea what your ordinary days are like, you’re leaving us in the dark here, narratively speaking. I suppose I could make the effort of conjuring up what the bar looked like, smelled like, and felt like underfoot, but that’s not the reader’s job, is it? Nor does my job description compel me to guess what you like to drink, the lady’s back-story, or even what time it is when you walked into the bar, so I can form no opinion about whether I should draw any conclusion whatsoever from your day’s including this activity. Next!”

Why, yes, that’s quite a bit of reaction to only two sentences of text, now that you mention it. But tell me truthfully: if you were Millicent, would you keep reading?

Yes, yes, I know: that’s an extremely difficult question for a memoirist to answer, and probably one that calls up an emotional response. Not only does it require an objective assessment of how the story’s being told here — an objective assessment which, by definition, no memoirist can possibly derive from her kith and kin, who will automatically bring their knowledge of you to the text — but it implies a critique of the events described, too, doesn’t it?

“How dare you?” the memoirist shouts. “Are you calling my story too boring to maintain anyone’s interest? Or are you saying that it’s badly written?”

Neither, necessarily. From Millicent’s perspective — which, lest we forget, will be shared by her boss, an acquiring editor, and the future readers of your book — the question of whether to read on past this paragraph has nothing to do with what’s actually going on in the scene. So far, all that’s happened is that the narrator has walked into a bar and ordered a drink: not a lot to judge there. The narrative style is plain, but perhaps that’s appropriate for the book’s subject matter and target audience.

“Wait a sec,” our beleaguered memoirist interrupts. “Target audience? What does that even mean for a memoir?”

Glad you asked. Most first-time memoirists don’t give any thought at all to who will want to read their books, much less who will be willing to shell out cash to read them. Or, if they do ponder it, the audience they have in mind consists largely of, you guessed it, the array of kith and kin who have already heard at least some of the memoir’s storyline in anecdotal form.

Now, I’m not saying that your Aunt Sadie, your best friend from work, and your significant other won’t be delighted enough to see you in print at last to rush out and buy your book. They probably will — especially if you’re clever enough to explain to them now that published authors get very few free copies; any you distribute to your loved ones gratis will not count toward your sales totals, and you may actually have to purchase them yourself. The sooner the fine folks who love you come to accept that the best way to support an author one happens to know personally is to buy their work, the happier you will be as a working writer.

But as your literary cheerleader and friend in the biz, is it wrong of me to hope that the people who already know you will not make up the entirety of the readership for your memoir? You want complete strangers to be enchanted with your prose, right? Presumably, if you didn’t want to reach readers outside your doubtless warm intimate circle, you would not be going to the effort and taking the considerable emotional risk of sending your work out to agents.

Especially because that risk is quite a bit higher when it’s your own story told as nonfiction, isn’t it, memoirists? I’m inclined to think, then, that you’re pretty committed to reaching some sympathetic strangers.

I applaud your bravery, but that means, in practice, that objective readers’ opinions of your memoir matter. Inevitably, like any book, your memoir will appeal to some readers and not others.

And before you get your mouth fully open to retort, let me stop you from asserting that anyone interested in good writing will like your book because it is a good story well written. I can tell you now that your future agent and editor will be amused, not convinced, by that argument.

Why? Well, from a publishing perspective, there is no such thing as a universally-appealing piece of writing. Some readers are drawn to one type of story, others another. That’s just a fact of pushing books. Even if you happen to have produced a memoir that both taps into an under-mined literary niche and catches the public imagination at just the right time (like, say, ANGELA’S ASHES), your future agent and editor will not think of it as just good writing about your life.

How will they think of it? As a memoir about a specific place and time, told in a specific voice — and as a book that will need to be sold to readers already in the habit of reading similar books.

“Similar books!” memoirists everywhere shout, insulted. “But my story’s unique! So is my narrative voice. How could any reader possibly form a sense of whether he will like it without reading it?”

Yes, yes, you’re a snowflake, but think about it: don’t you decide whether to pick up a book in a bookstore or search for it online without having read it? Don’t you as a reader gravitate toward certain types of narrative, particular varieties of story, a specific species of tone? Don’t you in fact do it all the time?

So does everybody else — including agents, editors, and anyone in a position to help you get your book published traditionally. No agent or editor, even those who handle nothing but memoir, will be attracted to every conceivable personal story that’s written well. Like every other individual reader currently milling about the earth’s crust, they have individual preferences.

And — brace yourselves; this next bit often comes as a shock to first-time memoirists — not all of those preferences concern writing style, or even having a compelling story to tell. Agents, editors, and memoir readers in general also tend to gravitate toward stories about specific types of experiences. From the publisher’s point of view — and thus an agent’s — memoirs are always about something other than the author’s life.

Mostly, I suspect, because to anyone familiar with the concept of a memoir, the statement “What’s the book about? Why, it’s about the author’s life!” is self-evident. It’s also self-evident to Millicent that not every interesting life translates easily into a page-turning memoir.

All of that can be difficult for writers fond of slice-of-life fiction to accept. “Isn’t the point of memoir,” they demand, and who could blame them? “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature? Good books about ordinary life are valuable. If a well-written story happens to be true, it’s automatically going to appeal to memoir readers, right?

Actually, no: thousands of memoirs come out every year, and by definition, all are about real events, yet only a few capture large readerships. Partially, that’s a matter of scarce marketing resources; it’s also often a matter of luck. Sometimes, it’s a function of the writing, but again, no publisher with her head screwed on straight would dream of promoting a memoir by saying, “Oh, it’s really well written. And had I mentioned that it was about the author’s life?”

Of course it is, but at the risk of repeating myself (oh, you thought I’d dropped my earlier point about textual repetition?), not every true story is equally appealing to every reader. Truth is a necessary attribute of memoir, not an optional extra. So are solid, clear writing and a dramatically-satisfying story arc.

If that last paragraph left you grumbling, well, you’re not alone. Most aspiring memoirists think of their books primarily as opportunities to share their life stories with a potentially admiring world. To them, the fact that they are telling their truth couldn’t possibly be more important: who in her right mind would put herself through the genuinely emotion-wracking process of reliving her ups and downs vividly enough to write about them well unless she felt her story burning inside her?

I’m entirely sympathetic to that yearning to shout the truth to the skies. However, as a memoirist myself — and as an author who has written a minor political celebrity’s memoir as well, a fascinating exercise in mind-melding — I know that there’s considerably more to constructing an emotionally and factually truthful memoir than simply telling the reader what happened. It’s not as though one can simply provide a list of events and expect the reader to extrapolate human feeling. A memoirist has to dig deep, be profoundly honest with himself — and then figure out what does and does not belong in the book.

Didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? As much as we memoirists like to claim the mantle of truth, not everything that occurs in even the most fascinating person’s life will be gripping on the page. Part of the art of memoir lies in selectivity — a good memoir tells the story of a particular part of a particular life, not everything that happened. That means, at both the book structuring and writing stages, you will need to weed out actual events that undoubtedly happened, ones that may in themselves be interesting, but do not advance the story arc of the book.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider that; it’s is an aspect of memoir-writing that often confuses those new to the game. Telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth may work admirably on the witness stand, but the goal of a memoir is not simply to provide the reader with either a complete transcript or general summary of the author’s life. It’s to recount a specific set of connected events in a truthful, well-written, and entertaining manner, in a narrative voice likable enough that the reader will want to accompany the narrator on that absorbing journey.

That’s necessarily the case, because, let’s face it, the alternative would not be much fun for the reader. In fact, it could be a heck of a lot of work: in an indiscriminate, sprawling memoir, the reader must try to determine which of many protagonist-centered activities are important to the central storyline. Indeed, it’s not at all uncommon for a loosely-organized memoir manuscript not to have a clearly-defined central storyline at all, for the exceedingly simple reason that most new memoirists don’t think of their lives that way.

But if you, the narrator, don’t know what the core story arc of your memoir is, how can a reader possibly figure it out? And is it really the reader’s job?

So I ask you again: what is your memoir about?

While you’re pondering that gargantuan and quite possibly terrifying question, let me share my favorite analogy for creative selectivity in nonfiction: throwing a stone into an otherwise still pond. That will cause a series of concentric ripples, right, altering the surface of the pond over time? A well thought-out memoir will depict the pond, as well as the thrower and the flinging process, following those many small waves as they change everything in their path.

How might that translate into a story arc derived from a rich and diverse life story? Think of the pond and its environs as your day-to-day life prior to a defining moment or decision. In order to gain a clear sense of just how much throwing that stone disturbed the pond, the reader is going to need to experience it as you did: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feelings, what you loved and wanted, what you feared and avoided.

You could simply summarize all of that, I suppose, but wouldn’t the reader gain a stronger impression of what it was like to be you standing on the shore, weighing whether to toss that rock, if you conveyed your experiences via small, evocative details and fully fleshed-out scenes? With all of those sensations filtered through your psyche and perceptions, wouldn’t the reader get to know you pretty well as the protagonist of your own story?

Once you’ve established yourself as an interesting person in an interesting situation, and an intriguingly observant one at that, the reader is going to care about where and whether you cast that rock — or, in a story about being overwhelmed by larger events, about how you were flung bodily into the middle of that pond. How did your life change as a result? What did you do in response? What did you want to have happen, and what barriers did you face?

Starting to sound much more like a cohesive storyline, isn’t it? Much as in fiction, figuring out what is and isn’t central to the overall story you’re telling is not merely a matter of explaining what happened: it’s a matter of identifying the most important conflict the protagonist faces, what obstacles she must overcome, and showing the reader how that conflict played out.

That conflict, my friend, is what your memoir is about. It’s every bit as unique as you had originally thought; it’s merely structured in a manner that’s easier for a reader who doesn’t already know you to follow.

Does it make more sense now that “What is your memoir about?” would be the first thing Millicent, her boss, your acquiring editor, and the reader who will ultimately buy your book would want to know? At least, unless you have had the foresight to have established yourself as a celebrity, giving rise to a reasonable expectation that the very sight of your name on a book jacket will make your target reader gasp with incredulous pleasure and reach for the volume. Barring that kind of extremely helpful platform, it honestly does make sense that your future publisher will want to aim your book at readers most likely to respond positively to it.

Which is why, in the extremely likely event that those of you grumbling your way through writing a book proposal had been wondering, agents and editors expect memoirists, like all hopeful nonfiction writers, to give some serious advance thought to who is likely to buy the book and why. It’s also part of the reason memoirs — again, like other nonfiction — are typically sold in the U.S. not based upon a full manuscript, but merely upon a book proposal and a sample chapter. In all likelihood, your acquiring editor will want to have some input into the selection process, to help define your story arc in the manner most likely to capture the interest of readers already buying similar stories.

But let me guess: you’d been thinking of the proposal as just an annoying hoop through which you would have to leap in order to land an agent for your story, right? Believe it or not, the proposal’s requirements genuinely are intended to help nonfiction writers think about their books — and for memoirists to think of their life stories — not merely as writing about facts, but as gripping stories aimed at a specific readership predisposed to like ‘em.

I wouldn’t lie to you about that; I’m a memoirist, selectively drawing from the world as I find it to create a narrative true on a wide variety of levels. Keep up the good work!

Riding the turbulent waves of the current literary marketplace

Here’s a thought-provoking question for the holiday season, campers: as a reader, how do you decide which books to buy?

I’m particularly interested in the logic behind picking up books by living authors — because, let’s face it, Dickens and Thackeray are not going to benefit much at this late date from your patronage. Are you, for instance, the type of reader whose purchases lean toward authors whose work you have enjoyed in the past? Do you operate mostly upon recommendations from friends?

Or are you a trawler of award lists, seeking out exciting new voices? Maybe you’re an inveterate reader of online reviews. Another popular route is to wait until a series hits the big time, jumping on the bandwagon at book 2 or 3.

Or, perhaps due to the persistent nagging of someone like your humble correspondent, are you among the minuscule minority of aspiring writers that regard keeping up with the current market in your chosen book category as a necessary — nay, indispensible — part of becoming a professional writer, and thus make a point of conscientiously snapping up its new releases? If you’re particularly saintly (or particularly aware of the logical effects of readers’ habits upon publishing decisions), you might even go out of your way to buy new releases by first-time authors, both on general principle and because savvy aspiring writers are aware that the best way to impress editors with the marketability of first books is for a heck of a lot of them to sell.

Or do you pursue the route embraced by a startlingly high percentage of aspiring writers, not buying books by living authors at all?

Seriously, I’m curious. Depending upon which source one favors for statistical analysis, somewhere between a quarter of a million and a million fresh titles come out each year, many of them by first-time authors. And with the explosion of the self-publishing market, the majority of those books will not have a major publisher’s marketing oomph behind them.

It’s not as though any of us have the resources — or the shelf space — to snap up more than a small fraction, after all. So again, I ask you: out of that bewildering array of titles, how do you decide which few will grace your bookshelves?

While that question is already roiling in your brainpan, allow me to add a follow-up: is that decision more or less complicated if the book you’re considering was self-published? If so, how did you even find out about the book in the first place?

And, if your mental processes are not already groaning under the weight of so many rhetorical questions in a row, let’s flip the question on its head: if you were a self-published author — and I know that a hefty percentage of you have at least considered it — how would you go about influencing a reader’s choice to pick up your book, given the vast array currently available to amaze, educate, and delight the reading public?

I sense some of you clutching your aching heads and moaning, “Oh, God — it’s hard enough to write a book; now I have to market it, too?” but honestly, these are not questions that authors, self-published or otherwise, discuss enough in public. Indeed, quite the opposite: we’ve all seen countless interviews in which successful authors talk about their craft as though the question of how to sell it to readers had never once sullied their creative processes, right? Apparently, the instant these authors typed THE END, the Publication Fairy tapped them on their respective shoulders, snatched the manuscripts from their trembling digits, and plopped them on a bookshelf in a well-established chain of stores. From that point, all the authors had to do was sit back and wait for the positive reviews to roll in — accompanied, naturally, by the monetary rewards that good authors deserve.

Come on, admit it: you’ve harbored this fantasy, too. It’s stunningly pervasive. And that’s fascinating, for in the literary world as we have known it in recent years, authors are routinely expected to promote their own books — and not just by showing up to publisher-arranged signings and interviews. Increasingly, they are their own book publicists.

So I ask you once more: how precisely would you go about it?

Yes, this is a heavy question for the holiday season; I would understand completely if you would prefer to slide it delicately to the back burner while you slipped out for an eggnog latté and a cranberry scone. But on the off chance that some of you haven’t noticed, I’ve devoted my blogging life to talking about the kinds of practical authorial issues that writers often actively avoid examining in serious detail. Or, in many cases, issues that aspiring writers did not know would be, if not crucial, then at least important to their books’ success.

Sensing a vicious circle? Published authors often — indeed, usually — struggle for years or even decades to break into print, then equally often find themselves unprepared to promote their books. Yet due to the pervasive belief in the Publication Fairy, it’s actually quite rare for first-time authors to talk about what they had to do to become so, at least in a forum in which an aspiring writer is likely to hear it. So while they are actually out busting their proverbial humps to sell just a few more volumes to a reading public that — spoiler alert — tends to buy books by authors whose work they already know, their fans frequently receive the impression that those authors’ only contribution to the process involved writing the book in the first place.

A significant achievement, of course: I don’t mean to imply otherwise. But certainly not the only one on a savvy modern author’s r?sum?. And certainly not the only one that would be beneficial for aspiring writers to see discussed.

That’s doubly true for writers considering self-publishing, of course. While their counterparts in the traditional publishing world have entire marketing departments to tell them what to do (and, surprisingly often, to change their titles, a perennial complaint of first-time authors), those brave and resourceful souls taking the adventurous leap into self-publishing often do so without a clear idea of what kind of environment is likely to greet their landing, if you catch my drift.

For all of these reasons, I am delighted to bring you a wide-ranging discussion with self-published author, blogger, and all-around fab guy D. Andrew McChesney, better known around Author! Author! as thoughtful and incisive inveterate commenter Dave. Here’s the blurb for his exciting naval fantasy — yes, you read that book category correctly — Beyond the Ocean’s Edge, available now from Outskirts Press.

Is it possible to sail beyond the ocean’s edge to another world? In 1802, Royal Navy Lieutenant Edward Pierce is ashore on half-pay because of the Peace of Amiens. He fortunately gains command of a vessel searching for a lost, legendary island. When the island is found, Pierce and his shipmates discover that it exists in an entirely different but similar world. Exploring the seas around Stone Island, HMS Island Expedition sails headlong into an arena of mistaken identities, violent naval battles, strange truces, dangerous liaisons, international intrigue, superstition, and ancient prophecies.

Sounds like quite the rollicking ride, does it not? But quick: on which shelf would you expect to find this in a brick-and-mortar bookstore?

Think that’s a stumper? Try this one on for size: how would you go about reaching the naval adventure and/or fantasy fans eager to read such a story — say, via the Internet? Heck, how would you even find out what sites those readers were already visiting? Or what books they were already reading?

Dave generously agreed to allow me to grill him on these points, as well as many other challenges that frequently come as surprises to traditional and self-published authors alike. Nor is this the first time he has offered his hard-earned insights: as I sincerely hope those of you considering sticking an exploratory toe onto the difficult path of self-publishing will recall, I blandished have last year into guest-blogging about the practical and absorbing task of choosing a press. You may also remember his second place entry for adult fiction in 2010’s Great First Page Made Even Better Competition and first place in the essay category of 2009’s Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. Heck, he even painted the canvas at the top of this post, providing the genre-nailing image for his book’s cover.

He’s paid his dues, in short, and then some. Let’s hear what he has to say, shall we?