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

gumballs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one that looked like this:

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

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

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

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

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

Than like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mini/The Smiling Frowner Bemused/1

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

Montenegro-Copperfield/Smiling Frowner/1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a timely question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RE: INDENTING THE PARAGRAPH’S FIRST CHAPTER.

Hi Anne.

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

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

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

Cheers,?

Tony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queryfest, part XXIX: I’ve just arrived via air mail, and boy, are my arms tired

As some of you may recall, I put out a call last autumn — seems so long ago, doesn’t it? — to Author! Author! readers, asking for fearless volunteers willing to subject their query drafts to our collective scrutiny toward the end of Queryfest. Yes, I had been including many, many — some might say too many — concrete examples of what does and does not work in a query, generally speaking. Since the vast majority of queriers new to the process tend to make the same fifteen or twenty missteps, that made sense. Still, I wondered: were there other up-and-coming query problems floating around out there that I had not yet addressed?

We’re now within a couple of posts of wrapping up this series, and I must say, I think the results have bordered upon magnificent. Largely, that’s thanks to the bravery and generosity of readers having volunteered their queries for discussion, offering a truth to which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, can easily attest: querying is not only a learned skill, but often a counter-intuitive one.

Perhaps the most counter-intuitive element of all: no matter how strong a query’s book description is, if it’s not presented in the manner Millicent has been trained to expect, it’s likely to trigger rejection.

Even now, I sense a few jaws hitting the floor out there, do I not? We would all like to believe that a great book’s chances could not be stymied by a less-than-great query — which would mean, by extension, that contrary to the publishing truism, good writing does not always find a home — but as this series has repeatedly demonstrated, it’s actually not all that hard to turn off Millicent.

And not just via the classic red flags, either. The recent run of readers’ queries only confirmed what we had already discussed in theory: time and again, we have seen how quite interesting-sounding books can be undersold by queries that could use some punching up.

So punch them up we have. On the assumption that it is a far, far better thing for me to call out a query for a problem here, in this writer-friendly forum, than for even a single precious one of you to risk tumbling into the same trap at the agency of your dreams, I’ve been running readers’ queries through the wringer, going after them with a fine-toothed comb, blue-penciling them, and engaging in every other stock euphemism for taking ‘em apart so we could rebuild them better, faster, stronger.

That’s why I was especially delighted to see a query from reader P. Gaseaux (not his real name, of course) drop into the entry box. Not merely because his story sounds, somewhat unusually for thriller descriptions in queries, actually thrilling, but also because it is a query addressed to a US-based agent. In this case, my fictional Hawkeye McAgentson, Millicent’s hard-nosed employer.

Why did spotting a query from foreign climes excite me so? Well, we American writing advice-givers don’t talk all that much, as a group, about the special problems confronting the writer querying from abroad. The difficulty in obtaining US postage for the SASE, for instance: while foreign post offices and copy centers do occasionally stock US postage for this purpose, they often sell them at a substantial mark-up. Rather than limiting themselves only to e-mailed queries, however, frugal far-flung writers can purchase US stamps at their face value directly from the US Postal Service.

Then, too, there’s the terminology difficulty: while US English, Canadian English, and UK English are mutually comprehensible, they do not have identical vocabulary or grammar. That can lead to problems at international submission time; what would be perfectly acceptable in London might well strike an American Millicent as improper, and rightly so.

Before anyone starts fuming, let me hasten to add: it’s an agency’s job to flag problems in clients’ manuscripts before even considering submitting them to editors at publishing houses. American books are typically written in American English. So would it really be in a London-based writer’s best interest if Millicent or her boss did not alert him to what would not read right to New York eyes?

Speaking of what would not look right to New Yorkers, I hope that my international readers (at least those planning to submit to US agencies) are aware that the standard paper size is different here than everywhere else in the world: 8.5″ x 11″ paper is called US letter for a reason. Why should a querier from afar care? Well, although A4 (8.26 x 11.69 inches) and US letter (8.5 x 11 inches) may not seem all that off at first glance, naturally, estimating word count would be quite a different proposition on each. Equally naturally, but often surprising to writers submitting from abroad, no US-based agency could possibly submit a manuscript printed on A4 to a US publisher.

That means, in practice, that if Millicent’s agency accepted submissions, or even query packets, on A4, they would be signing on for the difficulties of reconfiguring the text for US letter. While that’s actually not that big a deal in MS Word — all one really has to do is highlight the entire document, pull down the FILE menu, select PAGE SETUP…, and change the PAPER SIZE from US letter to A4 — it will, alas, take both time and explanation to pull off. And we all know what Millicent has been trained to say to potential clients who might be the teensiest bit more time-consuming to represent than others, right?

That’s right, campers: “Next!”

Don’t let that depress you into a stupor, far-off writers. Plenty of good foreign writers are represented by US agencies; there are a heck of a lot of readers here, after all. Also, in some genres, such as SF and fantasy, there are so many more agent options here than elsewhere that if you write in English, domestic or otherwise, sheer probability dictates that taking a swing at the American market might be very prudent move. For a lot of reasons, then, it can be very worth your while to query from abroad.

But in order to do so successfully, it’s vital to be aware precisely how and why standards here are different. Let’s take a look at what our valiant far-flung friend P. Gaseaux is planning to send to a New York-based Millicent, to see if we can help him punch it up a little.

The book description is intriguing, but I’m afraid that’s not what would catch Millicent’s eye first here. Sadly, many of these would not be apparent to eyes not born and bred in the good old U.S.A.

So let’s all pull together, those of us who were weaned on 8.5″ x 11. Any guesses about what eight — yes, you read that correctly — non-content-related factors would distract Millie here? Hint: not all of the formatting issues are related to paper size.

Oh, that wasn’t a broad enough hint for you? Okay, here are a few more.

1. Since many, many writers new to querying have never had the opportunity to see a professionally-written query — an oversight that Queryfest has been working, if not overtime, at least at great length to rectify — a hefty percentage of queriers would not have any idea that the first eye-catcher here is a red flag. In fact, we’ve seen it in earlier Queryfest examples.

2. We’ve also seen the second: like the first, it would be hard to catch at the composition phase, but quite obvious in a printed version. And, like the first, while it might not prevent Millicent from reading on to the body of the letter, it would raise enough doubts about the sender’s Word-wrangling acumen to cause her to assume, rightly or not, that P’s manuscript would not be in standard format.

Yes, really. Had I mentioned that it’s Millie’s job to draw conclusions about manuscripts based solely upon the contents of the query packet?

3. We’ve also talked about this one before. Because it is different in one significant respect than everything else on the page, it’s probably the first thing your eye hit. Considering that it’s not information likely to interest Millicent until after she has read the query in its entirety, that’s a misplaced emphasis.

4. This space-saver would be an instant-rejection offense in a manuscript or book proposal, but a surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers do not think of it as even a misdemeanor in a query. To Millicent, though, it just looks like cheating. Still worse, it probably caused Problem #2.

5. A deviation from standard format for manuscripts — and a classic Millicent-irritator.

6. Another space-saving tactic, this time at the bottom of the page. Again, most queriers would consider this acceptable, but to anyone who reads queries for a living, it merely looks like an attempt to get more words on the page. The sad thing is, if Problem #1 were not in evidence, #5 probably would not be, either.

7. A savvy stateside aspiring writer would probably have to draw this one as a conclusion from the problems above. It would be apparent to Millicent, however, as soon as she lifted the letter from its envelope and held it in her hand.

Have those clues whipped your brainstorm up to hurricane levels? I certainly hope so. To help that squall along, here’s P’s query again, with those eye-distracters corrected. For those of you who would like another hint, #7 will become substantially more apparent if you compare these two examples.

Let’s go through the changes one at a time, shall we? In the original:

1. The writer’s contact information begins on the first line of text, not in the header.

We’ve seen this one before, have we not? If the contact information is going to appear at the top of the page, mimicking pre-printed letterhead, it should be printed exactly where it would be on letterhead: in the header. Not only does placing it in the body of the page limit how much room P. has to describe his book, writing credentials, and so forth — its placement also implies that he’s unfamiliar with how the header function works.

And why might that prove problematic at query time, campers? Because Millicent must base her best guess about the professionalism of the manuscript upon what she has before her, no more, no less. For that reason, she would be within her rights to presume that P’s manuscript would place the slug line — the author’s last name/title/page # designation at the top of each and every manuscript page — on the top line of text, too, rather than the header.

Remember what I was saying above about how agencies feel about time-consuming clients? Consider it reiterated here.

2. The contact information was not centered on the page.

Rather than using Word’s centering function, P. has elected to hand-space his contact information. For some reason best known to himself, he has taken it only about a third of the way across the page, rather than half. It doesn’t look bad there, aesthetically speaking, but to Millicent, it will not look right.

This one may seem minor, but again, each individual presentation element adds up to an overall impression of professional seriousness. And think about it: would you rather have Millicent devote her often quite limited time — as in 30 seconds or so per query — with your missive to speculating about why the spacing is so funny, or to pondering what you have to say?

I thought as much. Let’s move on.

3. The writer’s e-mail address was printed in blue, not black, and was underlined.

Again, we’ve seen this one before in reader-submitted queries, and with good reason: Millicent sees it all the time. Recent versions of Word will, left to its own devices, automatically switch any e-mail address or URL into a link, underlining it and changing the color.

Change it back. Just as passively going along with what Word dictates will not yield standard format in manuscripts, its color and underlining preferences are not proper in a query, either. Chant it with me now, long-time readers: every word in a document sent to the publishing industry should be printed in black ink on white paper. No exceptions. And just as nothing should be underlined in a manuscript, nothing should be underlined in a query, either.

You wouldn’t want Millicent to leap to the conclusion that you don’t know how to format a manuscript, do you?

4. The left and right margins were not 1 inch in depth.

There’s a reason for this (and we shall discuss it below, never fear), but trust me, any experienced professional reader would notice that the right and left margins are not even. At the risk of making her seem eager to assume the worst — which is, after all, her job — Millicent is likely to place a negative construction on this.

Why? Well, since so many aspiring writers chafe against the one-page length restriction, she’s used to queries that tinker with the margins and typeface in order to cram more words onto the page. I don’t think that was P’s intention here, actually, but since neither he nor I are going to be there when Millie reads this letter, let’s not give her the excuse to malign his motives.

5. The dash in the last sentence of the second paragraph was single, rather than doubled.

To Millicent’s swift eye, as well as any well-trained professional reader’s, the dash should be doubled in this sentence: A showdown is imminent – crisscrossing Asia and careering out of control towards a bloody climax in the frozen valleys of West Virginia.

Oh, you didn’t catch that the first time around? Most queriers wouldn’t, for the exceedingly simple reason that most aspiring writers don’t know that in a book manuscript, dashes are always doubled, with a space at either end, rather than single. (Not to be confused with a hyphen, which separates compound words. That should be single, with no spaces between the punctuation and the word on either side. If the distinction remains unclear to anyone, drop a note in the comments, and I’ll show you some examples.)

6. The bottom margin was much under the requisite 1 inch.

Again, this is going to strike most Millicents as an attempt to force her to read more words than the 1-page limit allows. While that is indeed the case here, this tactic is completely unnecessary: as we may see in the revised version, simply moving the contact information to the header will free up more than enough space on the page to permit a standard-sized bottom margin.

7. The query was printed on A4 paper.

We discussed this one above, right? Simply switching the paper size will obviate this objection.

Judging by the hoots of derision out there in the ether, I sense that some of you reading this abroad don’t believe that this would be a particularly simple switch. “Darned right, Anne,” those of you who have never actually clapped eyes upon a piece of US letter-sized paper grumble, and who could blame you? “It’s not as though I can just march down to my local stationer’s and find stacks of your kind of paper waiting for me. And in those rare instances when I have found it, it’s been awfully expensive. Since Millicent must be aware of that, why should I go to the trouble and expense of tracking down odd-sized paper before I have any sort of a commitment from you bizarre paper-lovers on the other side of the Atlantic/Pacific?”

That’s a fair question, A4-lovers. Let me ask you an equally fair one in return: if a US-based writer were soliciting representation in your country, would an agent there expect her to submit a manuscript on your country’s favored paper size?

Of course he would, and for precisely the same reason that Millicent would expect submissions and queries on US letter here: it’s standard. It’s also, not to put too fine a point upon it, the size that would be in photocopiers — you didn’t think that your future agent was going to send out the only copy of your book she had, did you? An A4 original copied onto US letter would be missing quite a few words per page.

Don’t believe that would make an appreciable difference over the course of a manuscript? Okay, here is the first page of John Steinbeck’s CANNERY ROW (a great read, by the way) in standard format on US letter. As always, if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the image.

And here it is again, formatted for A4. Notice, please, how much more of the text appears on the page. My apologies for the poor image quality; my Yankee Doodle-humming computer, obviously took exception to the odd format.

And don’t think this issue doesn’t concern you if you submit only via e-mail, either. It’s not all that unusual for agents to print out electronic submissions that have already successfully run the Millicent gauntlet. How do you think a manuscript formatted for A4 paper is going to look printed on US letter?

Oh, you thought I was going to leave that one to your fertile imaginations? No such luck.

Looks like Uncle John is trying to sneak in some extra text, doesn’t it? Entirely inadvertent — just as it was when our friend P. used this format for his query. Their intentions were pure, but just try telling that to Millicent.

To be fair to her, in all probability, she’s the one who is going to have to figure out how to fix what she’s going to perceive as a printing problem. Given that she doesn’t have a whole lot of extra time in a day, how do you think she is going to feel about having to tinker with your squirrelly manuscript, P?

Remember, one of the best ways to convince an agency denizen that you’ll be a great client to handle is to require as little gratuitous time investment as possible at the querying and submission stages. Recognizing that in Rome, it might behoove one to do as the Romans do is thus pretty darn good strategy.

Now that we’ve fine-tuned P’s query so it just screams, “I may hail from Australia, but I’m hip to U.S. submission standards,” how else might we improve its chances with Millicent. Let’s take another peek at it, to refresh your memory.

Let’s start with that undoubtedly truthful, but nevertheless not particularly eye-catching opening paragraph. As we saw last time, an opening paragraph can contain every requisite element, but if it is written in a flat manner, it’s probably not going to make the best possible case for the book. That’s especially true in this case, where all of that useful information is crammed, wily-nilly, into a single sentence — and missing two necessary commas to boot. That’s like a neon sign hanging over the query, blaring I’m just trying to get through this as quickly as humanly possible.

Of course you are, P — no sane person actually likes writing queries. But trust me, reading thousands of them back-to-back is often no thrill fest, either. So why go out of your way to make that opening generic?

Yes, yes, I know: since P’s taken the trouble to seek out a similar book by one of Hawkeye’s clients, this opening actually isn’t generic. However, the purely market-based compliment — highly successful is nice, but it’s hardly high literary praise, is it? — doesn’t convey anything about why P. believes Hawkeye might be a good fit for his book.

Beyond, of course, the fact that she might be able to sell it. But since that’s an agent’s job, again, that hardly implies an admiration of her literary tastes.

The other element that makes this opening come across as a bit generic is the inclusion of the word count — and such a very round one, too. As we have discussed at length earlier in this series, the pervasive Internet rumor that every agent wants to see word count included in a query is flatly untrue; if they want it, they will ask for it in their submission guidelines. And if they do, it’s almost certainly because they like to use too-high and too-short estimates as reasons to reject queries on sight.

See why I don’t advise including it if it’s not requested? In this country, the accused have the right to eschew self-incrimination.

Hawkeye’s agency’s submission guidelines are both basic and standard (in their totality: query with SASE, far and away the most common in agency guides), so P. could easily omit this information. In fact, my sources at Picky & Pickier — oh, my spies are everywhere — tell me that would be an excellent idea for another reason: a query that claims its word count in such round terms, and precisely in the middle of the normal range, is slightly suspect. Any guesses why?

No takers? “Well, of course not, Anne,” those of you quick at doing math in your heads huff. “So P’s manuscript is precisely 360 pages — 250 words/page in Times New Roman x 360 pages = 90,000. What’s eyebrow-raising about that?”

Nothing, necessarily — provided that’s actually how P. arrived at that number. Even estimated, word counts seldom hit those big, round numbers precisely. Which might perhaps lead a jaded Millicent at the end of a long day of query-screening to wonder, fairly or not, whether the number here is accurate. Or — brace yourself; this is going to be a nasty one — if, like a surprisingly hefty percentage of first-time queriers, P. has taken the liberty of querying before he has finished writing the manuscript. 90,000 might then be his goal, not what’s already on paper.

I know, I know: I don’t think that’s what P’s doing here, either. But is including the unrequested information that the manuscript falls within standard length range for this genre really worth risking this kind of speculation? Especially when that opening paragraph could be used to make a better case for this book?

How, you ask? How about by complimenting the parallel book in terms that might also be used to review P’s novel? Or by mentioning why both books will appeal to the same audience?

Before I attempt either (or perhaps even both!) of those strategies, may I add yet another to that long list of rhetorical questions: why include the information that this is a debut novel? To Millicent, that would be self-evident from how this query is written — P. doesn’t list any previous publication history, nor does he mention previous representation. The implication, then, is that this book is a first novel.

That’s not a selling point — it’s a description. And since virtually every other query Millicent will have read this week will be for a first book, it’s a description that could be applied equally well to all of them.

Instead, why not use that valuable page space to highlight what’s legitimately unique about P’s story? How about emphasizing that genuinely remarkable authorial background?

Come on, admit it: even those of you who adore writing for writing’s sake find this query more compelling now, don’t you? It certainly reads as more professional. Instead of treating that opening paragraph as a necessary bit of business, dull but unavoidable, P. now comes across as a serious writer well-versed in the conventions of his genre. Even better, he has the real-world experience to inform his protagonist’s worldview.

But wait — who is the protagonist here? The very lengthy book description paragraph leaves Millicent to guess. Yes, the original query did mention after the description who the two protagonists are — phrased as such, a tactic those of us who read for a living tend to find a bit clumsy — but as the fact that the book is the first of a pair actually isn’t relevant here, it would show off P’s storytelling abilities better simply to present the plot in the book description as the story of those two characters.

I sensed some of you doing a double-take in the middle of that last paragraph. As we have discussed at length earlier in this series, while many aspiring writers believe that using English class terms to describe their work — protagonist, antagonist, climax, etc. — will make their work sound professional, but actually, these terms are academic and review-based. The publishing industry will just want you to tell the story.

Actually, Millicent will want P. to do more in the descriptive paragraph: she will want him to show what’s thrilling about this story via the inclusion of vivid details she has not seen before. Given P’s background, that shouldn’t be a tall order at all.

I wish I could show P. how to pull that off, but the description simply has not given me enough information to revise this. At minimum, the broad generalities leave quite a few questions unanswered. Draws what response from the strike team, for instance? Why does Washington send a bumbling agent, instead of a competent one? What is the agent’s name? What is the other guy’s name, and are the two mentioned in the second part of that sentence the other guy plus our hero? Where in the Far East do they travel, and what is the name of the woman they encounter? For what country is she prepared to give her life? Is the honest cop mentioned late in the description the same person as the bumbling agent — who, if he works for the FBI, isn’t technically a cop? Or is he a policeman that was recruited by the FBI? Does the showdown careen across Asia, or do the characters?

Yes, that’s a lot to want to know from a query, but honestly, including a few telling statistics, perhaps in the space cleared by omitting character analysis like The honest cop will never back down until he has solved the case. and The victim’s father…is disillusioned and approaching the twilight of his life , would go a long way toward making this legitimately exciting story seem unique. Which, come to think of it, is another argument for showing, not telling, the character development points: generally speaking, using stock phrases is not the best means of impressing Millicent with one’s one-of-a-kind writing style.

Not having read the book, though, I can’t answer any of these questions; I leave that to P’s no doubt talented revision pen. However, just breaking up that huge descriptive paragraph will help make the story come across as even more exciting. Take a gander:

Stronger now, isn’t it? Still, as a reader, I long to see more of the story. Fortunately, editing out the summary statements about character development has freed up quite a bit of page space for adding vivid details. Have at it, P!

Did you notice, though, that in my haste to rework this query, I messed up some of the spacing? Symmetry, my dears, symmetry: since there’s a skipped line between the salutation and the body of the letter, there should be a skipped line between the final paragraph and sincerely.

Before I correct that, though, were those of you reading this under the flag of Francis Scott Key — a forebear of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, by the way; that’s what the F. stands for — struck by anything in that otherwise quite charmingly polite final paragraph? Like, say, that some of the probably perfectly-reasonable-in-Australia statements it contains don’t really make sense stateside?

Something’s getting lost in translation here, clearly. Let’s all chip in to bridge the trans-Pacific divide. To aid in that effort, take a gander at that paragraph up close and personal:

I wish to thank you for reviewing this proposal and do hope the enclosed synopsis is suitable for your perusal. Please find enclosed a US Postal SASE and my employment credential if required.

First, let’s start with the terminology. In U.S. publishing circles, a query is not a proposal — in fact, a proposal is something quite different. It’s the collection of marketing materials, competitive market analysis, and sample chapter(s) that nonfiction writers put together to sell their books to publishers.

Also, by definition, a SASE in this country carries U.S. postage. And what, may I ask, is an employment credential, and why would it be beneficial to provide at the submission stage?

Which I suppose is another way of saying: no, it’s not required, P. — and please don’t send it. Believe me, Millicent won’t know what to do with it, and frankly, it’s radically premature. When your agent sells your manuscript and needs to process payments for you, she will tell you what information she needs.

There’s also something a trifle odd — to American literary eyes, at least — about the phrase I…do hope the enclosed synopsis is suitable for your perusal. First, it raises a question that it honestly isn’t in P’s interest for Millicent to ponder: is the enclosed synopsis suitable to be read, or is there something about it that may prompt her to reject it unread? Second — and this impression is abetted by the use of the word review earlier in the sentence to talk about something a screener is likely to read only once — the phrasing draws attention to the repeated use of the word enclosed. Since Millicent, like all professional readers, finds word and phrase repetition eye-distracting, this wording would tend to cause her to focus on what is in fact a standard polite closing, rather than the story being offered.

Third, I suspect this isn’t what P. actually means here: he probably hopes that she finds the synopsis acceptable — or, better yet, enjoyable. I’m guessing, too, that he wants to find a graceful way to bring up the fact that she’ll find a synopsis tucked into the envelope.

So why not say both directly? And while we’re at it, why not include some information that she’ll find useful if she wants to see his manuscript: the fact that contacting him by e-mail would be far faster than stuffing a let’s-see-pages missive into the SASE.

Here’s that query again, streamlined so as to render that ending quick, clean, and businesslike. That way, Millie’s attention can remain where it best serves the book’s interests: squarely upon the plot and P’s excellent background for writing this story.

One last nit-pick, then we’ll send P. on his merry way. I get that he would prefer to have an initial, rather than a first name, grace the cover of his books. It’s not a bad choice, either: it would indeed look rather good in print.

I have a practical concern, however: should Hawkeye the agent want to pick up the phone and call this exciting new author, to whom would she ask to speak? You must admit, even the bravest among us might harbor a few trepidations about calling a complete stranger and quavering, “Hello. May I speak to P., please?”

Oh, you may laugh, but queriers place poor Hawkeye and her cronies in this uncomfortable position all the time. It makes sense from an authorial perspective, of course: if one has decided a pen name is preferable to one’s own, one is naturally anxious to start using it. But as anyone who has written professionally under a pseudonym, like yours truly, could tell you behind closed doors, one’s identity remains a secret only from the reading public; the agent handling the writer knows her real name. So does her publisher.

There’s a very, very good reason for that: a writer doesn’t sign representation or publication contracts under her pen name; she signs with her real name. And wouldn’t all of us prefer to have advance and royalty checks made out to us in the name by which our banks know us?

(Never you mind what I’ve written under my noms de plume — yes, I’ve used several. Not at all uncommon for authors who write in more than one genre, or both fiction and nonfiction. But don’t shatter the illusions of the aforementioned reading public, please; let it be our little secret.)

So if I were toddling around in your shoes, P., I would go ahead and query with a full first name — and your real one. Neither of which, naturally, I am going to divulge here.

Hey, the pseudonymous need to stick together. We and Anonymous are going out for coffee later.

Join me, please, in offering profound thanks to P. for helping bring the special challenges of the far-flung querier to our attention — and please, international readers, chime in with the difficulties you have faced in querying and submitting to US-based agencies. As we have seen, sometimes chatting with a native can help iron out any lingering translation problems.

Keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: what we have here is a failure to communicate — in a business that’s all about communication

What do you mean, most manuscrips get rejected on page 1? That’s ridiculus.

I can’t believe you’re telling us that presentation can count as much as writing style. Agents know to look past any minor problems to the actual writing.

I hate Millicent. She must hate literature, or else how could she possibly reject subission so quickly?

The publish industry has become completely shallow. They only care about what sells, so it’s impossible for a genuiney talented new voice to get heard. Why even bother?

You got me, commenters on my series on professional readers’ pet peeves: the publishing industry doesn’t care whether books sell or not; it’s a non-profit enterprise devoted to the promotion of literary art. Nor are agencies at all market-oriented: while they don’t actually object if one of their pet authors happens to have a book that sells well, they can all afford to take on every project that appeals to them, regardless of whether they think they can sell it or not. Agents have limitless time to proofread — or even copyedit — their clients’ work before submitting it to editors, so it doesn’t matter what shape a manuscript is in when they take it on, and since they never specialize in a particular kind of book, they take chances on writing they just like all the time. In fact, they have so much time on their hands in any given workday that Millicent the agency screener doesn’t actually exist: she’s a figment of my imagination, intended to fill you with fear. In practice, every agent in the United States sits down to read every single query submitted, as well as every syllable of every requested manuscript, before making up her mind whether to reject it or not. Since only bad writing gets rejected, this of course an easy task.

In short, there’s no need for a naturally talented writer to take the time to learn how to format a manuscript, much less proofread it. Or, heaven forfend, find out how the publishing industry actually works.

Do I even need to shout, “April Fool,” campers?

I sincerely hope not. I’m writing about real-world phenomena here, not my opinion about how promising new talent ought to be discovered. I’m only telling you about the norms; I didn’t invent them. But now that some of you have brought your concerns about how difficult it is to get published to my attention, I’ll just wave my magic wand, and…

Oh, wait a minute: not being the Literature Fairy, I can’t change the publishing world upon request. No matter how often aspiring writers plead with me to say I didn’t really mean it when I said that there are practical things they can do to maximize the probability of their work making it past Millicent, I’m simply not in a position to alter reality in this respect. Sorry.

Which is why, in case any of you had been wondering, I’ve chosen to take the hard path here at Author! Author!, concentrating on craft and marketing issues, rather than just being a cheerleader for writers in general. I don’t believe (as some writing gurus out there apparently do) that it helps aspiring writers much to view the submission process through a rosy, hazy glow: as both a lover of literature and a great believer in the intelligence of writers, I would rather show you the actual conditions under which your work is going to be evaluated, encourage you not to worry about the factors that are outside your control, and, yes, to urge you to consider altering your texts to improve your chances of impressing Millicent.

Rather than, say, investing your energies in resenting Millicent for existing at all. It’s not her fault that the competition to grab an agent’s attention is so very fierce.

Surprised to see me defending her? Don’t be: I’m rather fond of our Millie. Without her, it simply would not be possible for agents to give even a passing glance to the avalanche of queries that constantly arrive in their offices. Then, too, it’s hard not to feel protective toward someone writers routinely blame for a system she did not create.

Heck, blame is putting it nicely: because most aspiring writers understandably don’t tend to think of their own queries or submissions as just one amongst the thousands an agency receives, many just assume that if they are rejected, the problem must lie in the obtuseness of the reader, rather than in any problems in the manuscript.

From Millicent’s perspective, this doesn’t make sense: there is quite a bit of truth to the industry aphorism that most manuscripts reject themselves. Not merely via the kind of opinion-influencing pet peeves we’ve been talking about throughout this series, but through plain old weak writing. Or a story that’s just not very interesting, or one that’s not original. Or — and this often comes as a gigantic surprise to those new to the process — because it’s not the kind of book that her boss habitually sells.

And frankly, in most cases, it genuinely is possible for a sharp reader to spot these problems within the first page. Sometimes with in the first couple of lines. Most of the time, it’s not a particularly hard decision, or one that ties her up in agonies of indecisiveness. To put it bluntly, from where Millicent is sitting, the vast majority of submissions deserve to be rejected.

To most aspiring writers, this attitude would come as a surprise, and with good reason: all they believe is being judged in a submission is the writing style and the overall story. The former is either good or bad, their logic tends to run, with few possibilities in between: if the writer is genuinely talented, it will be instantly obvious to an agent or editor.

If the prose needs work, well, that can always be fixed down the line: it’s the voice that counts. Regardless of how hard the text may be to read due to typos, skipped words, light gray type because the printer cartridge was running on empty, etc., an agent who truly loves literature is going to read the entire submission, because, after all, why would she ask for 50 pages if she didn’t intend to read every word? Nor will she worry about niggling marketing issues like who the target audience is for the book: good writing sells itself. And even if it didn’t, that would be the publishing house’s problem, not the author’s.

Is here where I get to shout, “April Fool!” again?

Unfortunately, no: while not all aspiring writers draw out the logic to this extent, this is the basic mindset reflected in the comments at the top of this post. These sentiments — including, heaven help us, the spelling — are not exaggerations to make a point: they are honestly representative of the feedback I have gotten from aspiring writers over the years whenever I have gotten specific about red flags in manuscripts.

Oh, not all of the feedback takes this tone, of course; this is merely a vocal minority. The Author! Author! community is rife with urbane, sensible aspiring writers who honestly do want to find out why some manuscripts get rejected and others do not. Which is why most of the protests that inevitably arise whenever I start going through common reasons that submissions get rejected on page 1 — as the vast majority of them do, much to the chagrin of aspiring writers all across the English-speaking world — tend to take a much more dignified, thoughtful tone.

Not to mention being spelled better. Why, just today, incisive reader Nancy posted this well-argued comment on yesterday’s celebration of pet peevery:

Thanks for the post. I’ve been giving some thought to page one & chapter one revisions. But one thing bothers me about this post & how you present it. It seems like we should be tailoring our early content for the sole benefit of an over-worked, bleary-eyed, impatient Millicent so that she doesn’t hurl our beloved pages into the trash. It doesn’t seem right to fashion our stories in this manner. It feels much like pandering to me. I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.

I love this kind of comment, because it both reflects a very natural resentment common amongst aspiring writers and an understanding rare amongst submitters that Millicent actually has an incredibly difficult job — much, much harder than it used to be before the advent of the home computer permitted the number of queries and submissions she has to get through in any given week to skyrocket. I’m not convinced that there are more people who want to get books published now than ever before, but technology has certainly made it significantly easier for the aspiring writer to get her work in front of Millicent’s aforementioned bleary eyes.

Oh, you had thought that she uses form-letter rejections — or, increasingly, no rejection letter at all — because she likes them? Au contraire, mon frère: it’s a matter of available time. Think about it: it’s her job to narrow the tens of thousands of queries and hundreds of requested materials packets down to the couple of dozen of manuscripts her boss, the agent of your dreams, could possibly read himself for consideration for the four or five (at most) new client slots he has this year.

Which is to say: our Millie doesn’t magically get more hours in the day if the current flock of submissions happens to be especially good. Talk to the Literature Fairy about that.

But that’s not how aspiring writers think about the submission process, is it? To the garden-variety hopeful querier or submitter, it’s practically unthinkable that the other writing projects the agency receives would have any effect on how an agent might view her book.

All that ever matters are the story and the writing style, right? Right?

From Millicent’s point of view, no. She is in charge of mediating the competition for those few client spots, not rewarding every prettily-worded submission that she sees. If her agency hasn’t been able to sell a story like the one in front of her for the last couple of years, she’s going to lean toward rejecting it. Furthermore, she reads too many manuscripts to believe that the way the text appears on the page is not reflective of how serious a writer is about his craft; she has observed too many book sales to regard whether an editor is likely to find the opening pages too slow as irrelevant to whether the manuscript would appeal to her boss.

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate, exacerbated by form-letter rejections that don’t let the writer know whether Millicent rejected a manuscript on page 1 or page 25. Or if abundant typos prompted her to stop reading, or if the story just didn’t interest her. Or — and this is positively mind-boggling, from a writerly perspective — whether she loved everything about the manuscript, but her boss just didn’t think it would sell in the current literary market.

Don’t think that’s a legitimate concern? Okay, let me ask you: why are you seeking an agent for your manuscript? Do you not hope and expect that agent to sell your book to a publisher?

Interesting to think of it in those terms, isn’t it?

Now that we are in a marketing mindset, let’s return to Nancy’s central question about yesterday’s post: if a writer bases a decision about what scene should open a manuscript upon what she thinks will appeal most to Millicent — or even gives some serious thought to how her book might appear to someone who read only the first page — is she pandering to the agency and, by implication, compromising her art? Or is she merely being market-savvy, and are the two mutually exclusive?

A perfectly legitimate set of questions from a writer’s point of view, right? To Millicent, they wouldn’t even make sense.

Why? Well, for the same reason that the question of selling out vs. artistic integrity has traditionally been much more of a concern for aspiring writers than ones who already do it for a living. From a professional point of view, there is not a necessary trade-off between good art and good marketing. If there were, getting published would be solely the province of those who don’t care about literary style, right?

“If an aspiring writer believes that,” Millicent says, scratching her head, “wouldn’t my being interested in his book be an insult? And how could a writer justify admiring an established author, who by definition writes for a specific market? This sounds like a Catch-22 to me — an unusually-structured novel that became a major bestseller, by the way — if playing to an audience necessarily means throwing one’s artistic values out the window, why would anyone who liked good writing ever read a successful author’s work?”

Allow me to translate, Millicent: aspiring writers sometimes assume that there’s only one right way to tell the story they have in mind — and that the author is only person who can determine what that running order is. From this point of view, it’s equally harmful to artistic freedom of expression for an editor to ask a writer to change the opening scene as for the writer to feel compelled to rearrange the text to begin with action, because someone giving advice on the Internet said — accurately, as it happens — that you tend to reject slow openings. In essence, both imperatives are based upon the assumption that it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice the most effective way of telling a story in order to sell a book.

“Please tell me,” Millicent replies, “that you’re about to shout, ‘April Fool!’ Are you seriously suggesting that it’s artistically inappropriate for an agent to say, ‘Okay, new client, I like your book, but it would resemble other books in your chosen category — and thus be easier to sell to the editors who acquired those books — if you rearrange the running order?’ Most published novels get revised fairly heavily between when an agent picks them up and publication, and while new authors tend to kick up a fuss about it, most ultimately agree in the long run that the requested revisions actually improved their books. So I think you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find anyone on my side of the submission packet who would say with a straight face that the author’s original version is the best or only way to structure a book.”

If you listen closely to both sides of this argument, you can hear how it comes back to that perennial difference of opinion about how and why books should get published. On the one hand, many aspiring writers would like to believe that it’s Millicent’s job — and the publishing industry’s duty — to base decisions upon what to accept and what to reject solely upon writing talent (defined by potential, rather than what’s actually on the page) and the inherent interest of the story (defined in artistic terms, and not by what readers might actually buy). On the other hand, many agents and editors — and their Millicents — proceed on the assumption that it’s the writer’s job to create interesting, marketable manuscripts written in a strong, unique authorial voice appropriate to the target audience’s already-established likes and dislikes.

A good writer, in their opinion, is one who can pull off this high-wire act without compromising the book’s artistic value.

Which is in fact possible, as the work of all of our favorite authors attest. But if a writer trying to break into the biz chooses to think of the demands of art and the market as necessarily mutually exclusive, it’s a significantly more difficult high-wire act to complete without tumbling to the ground.

And honestly, in my experience, speeding up an opening scene or making it read more like a story in its chosen book category seldom involves doing great violence the text. It’s often as simple as moving that great exchange on page 4 up to page 1, or drafting a conflict-ridden scene from later in the book to use as a prologue.

Or — brace yourselves, purists, because this one is going to sting a little — going into the composition process realizing that it would be desirable to open the book with conflict, rather than a scene where very little happens or one loaded with constant digressions for backstory. While you’re at it, including a strong, sensual opening image would be nice.

That’s not a matter of the market dictating content. That’s a matter of understanding how readers decide whether to get invested in a story or not.

I’m not just talking about Millicent, either. Plenty of readers habitually grab volumes off bookstore shelves and scan the first page or two before buying a book, after all. While readers’ pacing expectations vary widely by book category (and sometimes by country: even literary fiction published in the U.S. tends to start much faster than similar books published in the U.K.), you must admit that it’s rare to find a reader who says, “You know what I like? A story that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere until page 148.”

Is that blinding glare spreading across the horizon an indication that a whole lot of light bulbs just went off over a whole lot of writers’ heads? You performed the translation for yourself this time: the publishing industry — and its first reader, Millicent — believes it is doing right by its customers by habitually rejecting slow-opening books or those with plots that don’t seem to be going anywhere for the first 200 pages. It’s protecting them from — well, perhaps boredom is a harsh term, but certainly disappointment.

What makes publishing types think that they know what readers want? They have the sales statistics for what readers are already buying sitting in front of them.

Instead of debating whether past sales are necessarily indicative of the kind of book that will strike readers’ fancies a few years hence, let’s take a moment to consider from what Millicent is protecting the reading public. Generally speaking, it’s not vividly rendered, fascinatingly written exemplars of cutting-edge prose that send her groping for the form-letter rejection pile. A startlingly high percentage of what any screener or contest judge sees reads like this:

It was a dark and stormy night. It was cold in the castle. Myra shook her long, red hair down her back, shivering. She was tall, but not too tall, a medium height just perfect for melting into Byron’s arms. She walked from one side of the room to the other, pacing and thinking, thinking and pacing. The walls of the room were covered in tapestries needled by her mother who spent years bent over them. Myra barely glanced at them now.

Come on, admit it — you wouldn’t really blame Millicent if she rejected this, would you? The writing’s not interesting, the sentence structure is far too repetitive, and nothing’s really happening. About all it has going for it, from a professional perspective, is that all the words are spelled right.

Oh, you may laugh, but part of Millie’s job consists of saving the literary world from the rampant misspellings that characterize the average submission — and an astonishingly high proportion of otherwise rather well-written ones. Let’s don her super heroine’s cloak for a moment, to see just how difficult the decision to reject such a manuscript would be.

If you opened the day’s submissions and saw this novel’s opening, how likely would you be to recommend that your boss read it? Or even to turn to page 2 yourself?

This is not a particularly egregious example of the type of manuscript problem Millicent sees on a daily basis. If the formatting, spelling, grammar, and capitalization issues bugged you, you were reading like a professional: when a pro looks at a page like this, what she sees is how it could be improved. In this case, so much improvement is needed that she would automatically reject this submission. Better luck next time.

But if you were reading this page as most aspiring writers read their own work, you probably saw something different: the charm of the story, the rhythm of the writing, the great use of specifics. You would have reacted, in short, rather like Millicent would have had the page above been presented like this.

Now that the distractions are cleared away, it’s rather nice writing, isn’t it? It ought to be: it’s the opening of Nobel laureate in literature John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

As those of you prone to thinking cynically about how hard it is to get published nowadays may be pleased to note, it would be nearly impossible for an aspiring writer to get this first page past Millicent today, even in the second format. Actually, even a very well established author might have difficulty getting this published now: that many ands in a row would put many a professional reader off. Essentially, this is a long list, rather than a fully fleshed-out description.

It’s also, by current standards, a rather slow opening. “Who is the protagonist?” Millicent cries. “And what is this book about?”

Based upon this page alone, it appears to be primarily about the writing — and that renders the peculiar sentence structure and choice to open with this material even more pertinent. John Steinbeck, no doubt, considered those run-ons artistically necessary; presumably, he also had a reason for electing to begin his story with this series of lists. When you have a Nobel Prize in literature, your readers may well be tolerant of this kind of thing. Even as a reader quite fond of the book that follows, though, I can’t concur in his choices: this page 1 does not even remotely do justice to the fabulously quirky characters and hilarious plot twists to come.

“This book is funny?” Millicent asks incredulously. “Could have fooled me.”

Actually, the opening page fooled you, Millie, and it’s hard to hold anyone but the author responsible for that. In Uncle John’s defense, though, his target readership would have grown up on Victorian novels, books where the early pages were often devoted to establishing time and setting through generalities. (And in the passive voice: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc.) It just goes to show you, the standards of what constitutes good writing are constantly evolving.

“Aha!” Millicent shouts triumphantly. “So much for the notion that good writing is always good writing. Take that, writers who want to blame me for readers’ ever-changing tastes! If I advised my boss to snap up every manuscript that would have sold readily 10, 20, or 150 years ago, I would not only be ignoring current literary tastes, but doing a disservice to those old-fashioned writers. It breaks everyone’s heart when we can’t place a book we love.”

That doesn’t require translation, I hope. Part of my goal in presenting Millicent’s pet peeves is not only to help aspiring writers realize that there is a human being, not a literature-evaluating machine, reading their submissions, but that since professional readers honestly do tend to like good writing, it genuinely annoys them to see a nicely-written opening marred by technical problems. Or a story with a lot of potential squandering the reader’s attention with too much backstory up front. Or — you were anticipating this one, weren’t you? — a beautifully worded first page making itself hard to market by eschewing conflict.

Is that the same thing as requiring a writer to compromise his artistic integrity or harm the story he is trying to tell? She doesn’t think so, nor, I suspect, would anyone else who reads manuscripts for a living. They have faith, even if aspiring writers don’t, that a genuinely talented storyteller will possesses the skills and creativity to structure her tale to grab the reader from the top of page 1.

Which most emphatically does not mean, as today’s commenter suggested, that every opening needs to read like the first scene of a thriller: “I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.”

Yes, she is — and so was the argument in yesterday’s post. If I may take the liberty of quoting myself, I specifically urged everyone not to begin page 1 with explosions or other genre-inappropriate activity:

Not enough happens on page 1 is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. . On behalf of agency screeners, sleep-deprived and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.

And not merely, as so many writing gurus recommend, just any action: toss the reader directly into conflict, by all means, but let that conflict be directly relevant to the story you’re about to tell. Remember, the goal here is to surprise and delight Millicent, after all, not to trick her into thinking that the story that follows is more plot-heavy than it actually is.

Many, many aspiring writers misunderstand this point, so I am glad that Nancy brought it up. Allow me to restate it in clearer terms: no one is seriously suggesting that it would be desirable, or even appropriate, for a good writer to shoehorn conflict onto page 1 that doesn’t arise from legitimate plot elements and/or character development. Nor is anyone telling you that action-movie pyrotechnics are necessary to attract Millicent’s positive attention. To conclude that the publishing industry insists upon this kind of action at the opening of every book it decides to publish is to ignore what has actually appeared on page 1 of the vast majority of novels published in the United States this year — or, indeed, any year.

To professional readers, then, it’s downright puzzling to hear aspiring writers complain that the publishing industry has turned its back on non-sensational writing. Once again, we run into a translation problem.

This one arises, I suspect, from responding too literally to the words action and conflict. Although countless aspiring writers misinterpret marketing admonitions like open with action, throw the reader right into the book’s central conflict, and make sure there is action on page 1 to mean we’re not interested in any stories that could not be made into action films, that’s simply not what the advice means. (That’s why, in case anybody had been wondering, I was careful to phrase the rejection reason yesterday as not enough happens on page 1 and the story takes to long to get started, not as the more commonly-heard open the book with action.)

In literary circles, action and conflict can refer to relatively quiet activities. Yes, nearby objects blowing up are one kind of action, but so is the protagonist taking steps to try to challenge a situation she finds onerous, even in a very small way. Conflict can involve a Bruce Lee-style kung fu brawl, but it can also be a character silently disagreeing with the speech his boss is making, his subtle body movements demonstrating his ire. Neither term could be fruitfully applied, however, to the protagonist’s sitting around and thinking, multiple characters complacently agreeing with one another, or paragraph upon paragraph of backstory distracting from the current scene.

Even as feedback on a specific text, the advice open with action seldom means supply all of the ladies in the opening quilting scene with switchblades, and make sure that quilt is bloody by the bottom of page 1! Typically, when a professional reader suggests rearranging the running order or revising the scene to add action, it’s as an antidote to a scene that drags. Adding interpersonal conflict, placing a barrier in the protagonist’s path, or just plain having something exciting happen (“Look, there’s an albatross flying by, Grandma!”) are all standard ways to speed up a slow scene.

Again, none of these tactics would necessarily involve compromising the artistic integrity of the manuscript, interfering with the basic storyline, or tossing a Molotov cocktail into the middle of a sedate tea party. Implementing them successfully may, however, require some good, old-fashioned creative thinking to come up with a means of introducing believable conflict onto page 1 — and, indeed, onto every page of the text.

Why? Because conflict is interesting; readers like it. Do you need a better reason than that? Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part X: and the screen goes wavy — or is it the type?

My, the metaphorical halls of Author! Author! grew quiet while we were considering the winning entries in the Author! Author! Rings True literary competition. Was that because everyone was so impressed by the high quality of the writing — or so astonished to see what I looked like on film? Or did those of you who stop by regularly for self-editing and marketing tips merely take a pass on checking out posts about other readers’ work?

I hope not, because actually, quite a bit of my commentary on the winning entries concerned precisely the sort of professional readers’ pet peeve that we have been discussing throughout this series. No matter how creative my examples are (and I do try to make them a tad unexpected, as a door prize for those of you dedicated enough to read through my page shots), there’s no better way to see what kinds of gaffes make our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sigh over submissions than to take a gander at good writing that’s not perfectly presented.

I think we can glean three overarching lessons from this. First, no matter how beautifully-written or genre-appropriate a text may be, professional readers will respond to it better if it adheres to the rules of standard format for book manuscripts. There’s a reason I go over standard format a couple of times per year on the blog, people: to Millicent, anything else simply looks wrong. Formatting is not a matter of style, at least at the submission stage; any effort a creative-minded aspiring writer puts into making his manuscript resemble a published book is not only wasted, but a signpost to Millie that he hasn’t done his homework about how the publishing industry works.

Harsh? Perhaps? True? Undoubtedly.

So if you are not familiar with the rigors of standard format, please invest an hour or two in going over the posts in the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right. Even if you think you know the rules, but have never actually beheld a professionally-formatted manuscript, please consider a quick review. And if you still have questions about what your work should look like on the page, please ask.

Yes, it honestly is that important. As we saw in the winning entries, even a small formatting problem can prove very distracting from good writing. I would much, much rather that you post a question in the comments than for you to risk annoying Millicent in a submission.

Second, and closely associated to the first lesson, no matter how lovely the turn of phrase, typos, punctuation problems, and the missing words that so often result from multiple revisions will render prose less effective. It’s significantly harder to catch such faux pas on a computer screen than on the page. There’s just no substitute for proofreading before submission, preferably — feel free to shout it along with me, long-term readers — IN THE TEXT’S ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Third, since formatting and proofreading oversights are the norm, not the exception, in even very good submissions, producing a clean manuscript will give an aspiring writer the advantage of novelty at submission or contest entry time. Believe me, after seeing the same gaffes over and over again, in page 1 after page 1, a properly-formatted manuscript devoid of typos is a genuine relief. The old screeners’ adage that most manuscripts reject themselves honestly is true — and the sad part is that most of those mistakes are 100% avoidable.

Hey, there’s a reason that the pros don’t have qualms about rejecting a manuscript that’s only a quick polish away from being marketable. They assume that aspiring writers capable of creating such pages will be serious enough about their craft to revise, reformat, and try again.

Seriously, it often comes as a surprise to them to hear that a talented writer they’ve rejected has given up — or even moved on to working on her next book. To a professional reader, a rejected project is not dead; it may merely be not ready for the big time yet.

A surprisingly common indicator that a submitter still has a bit to learn: a manuscript that’s formatted like a published book. I’m not just talking about deviations from the norms of standard format or selecting a funky typeface, either — I’m talking about a style choice so common in published fiction that it never occurs to most of the aspiring writers who copy it that it might be problematic in a submission.

I’m talking, in short, of opening a manuscript with a short section in italics.

Was that giant “Huh?” that just shook the trees outside my studio window an indication of surprise or disbelief? “But Anne,” italics-lovers all over the English-speaking world protest, “I see this done in published books all the time.”

Precisely: you also see published books that are single-spaced, printed in wacky typefaces, and have bindings. None of these things are true of properly-formatted manuscripts, for the exceedingly simple reason that professionally-formatted book manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, people who deal with manuscripts for a living tend to start yawning when aspiring writers try to drag them into the pseudo-debate about whether it’s obsolete to hit the space bar twice after a period or colon when typing a manuscript. Invariably, the primary piece of evidence offered is that many published books now omit the second space.

At the risk of being overly prolix in my response, so what?

I can sense that some of you still cling to the belief that what appears in print will necessarily fly in a submission. Okay, let’s take a gander at a representative sample of the kind of italicized opening that lands on Millicent’s desk two or three times per day: italics intended to alert the reader to the fact that the paragraphs in the funny type aren’t in the time, place, and/or mindset of the actual opening scene that follows immediately thereafter.

I didn’t fool you that time, did I? “Okay, Anne,” those of you who followed both this series and the recent prize posts chortle, “I know how this game is played. You’ve been trying to train us to catch Millicent’s pet peeves, so I kept my eye peeled not only for how italics are used here, but for other presentation problems that might have irked her.”

Well reasoned, chortlers. How many of them did you catch? For those of you who did not notice all 10 gaffes, here is the same page with all of the purely formatting problems corrected. (For your comparing-and-contrasting pleasure, I’ve touched nothing else.)

Seeing more of them now? If some of these differences jumped out at you, considering that Millicent stares at manuscript pages all day, every day, how many of them do you think she would spot within the first couple of seconds?

Just to make sure that we’re all on the same page with her, so to speak, let’s go over the purely cosmetic problems FIRST. In the order they appear on the page:

1. The slug line is in different typeface than the text. The slug line is in Arial, the body in Times New Roman.

2. The incorrectly formatted slug line includes author’s first name and middle initial, instead of just the last.

3. The incorrectly formatted slug line has a space between the forward slash and the title. The spacing in a slug line should be continuous: Name/Title/#

4. The incorrectly formatted slug line does not include the page number.

5. The page number is in wrong place on the page. It belongs in the slug line, not on the other side of the page.

6. The page number includes the word page. Although many aspiring writers think this looks nifty, a professionally-formatted manuscript would never include the word.

7. There’s an extra space before first word of paragraph 2. Yes, Virginia, most Millicents would catch that in either a hard or soft copy submission.

8. There’s only a single space between each period and beginning of the next sentence, while there are two after every other period. This kind of inconsistency is a common result of confusion over the great one space/two space debate. There is no single right answer here: some agents prefer a single space, although the industry standard is still two; check each agency’s submission guidelines before you submit. If they do not mention preferring the single space, use two. Whichever you pick, however, be 100% consistent about spacing throughout the manuscript.

9. At the beginning of the last paragraph, a number under 100 is expressed as a numeral, rather than being written out as a word.

10. In the final line of the page, there are two spaces between thrown and herself. To a professional reader, this is a dead giveaway that the submitter did not proofread in hard copy.

Quite a lot of eyebrow-raisers for such an innocent-looking page of text, isn’t it? That’s how closely agency screeners read — and we haven’t even begun to talk about the writing itself, you will notice. Take heart, though: unless Millicent is having a spectacularly bad day, none of these problems by itself, or even all of them together, will necessarily result in an on-the-spot cry of “Next!”

Why not? Well, believe it or not, the first version might be one of the more professional-looking first pages Millicent sees today. Most of the elements of standard format are in fact done correctly here, and it’s relatively free of misspellings and grammatical problems. So an optimistic aspiring writer often can — and does — get away with submitting a first page like the former.

Most professional readers, including agents, contest judges, and Millicents, are willing to overlook a small cosmetic error or two, just as they tend to discount the occasional typo, provided that it is not repeated in the manuscript. (The prevailing logic: the first misspelling of a word might legitimately be a slip of a finger; the second indicates that the writer just doesn’t know how to spell the word in question.)

It doesn’t take too many tiny problems, however, to render a pro much less sympathetic than she might otherwise have been to a larger problem like an awkward sentence or the appearance of a cliché. And that’s on a good day — do you really want to take the chance that Millicent won’t just have burned her lip on a too-hot latte just before turning to your first page?

I see a forest of hands waving in my general direction. “But Anne,” some of you point out, and rightly, “I’m finding this rather depressing. Taken individually, the deviations from standard format we’re talking about are all quite small; I just don’t want to believe that good writing could ever fall prey to what, frankly, looks at first glance like a pretty respectable formatting job. I’m not discounting Millicent’s ability to reject the submission that happens to be in front of her when she scalds herself, but surely nobody concerned really wants aspiring writers to believe that their work could be rejected based on anything but the writing.”

It depends upon whom you ask, actually. I’ve met plenty of screeners — as well as agents, editors, and contest judges, come to think of it — who regard writers that, as they tend to put it, “haven’t taken the time to learn the business,” just aren’t as ready to be published as those who have. (Hmm, haven’t I heard that someplace?) Part of working with an agent involves learning how to follow certain rules. It’s not as though any agent worth his salt would submit the first version above to an editor at a publishing house, after all; that would just be self-defeating.

Besides, these days, most good agents see so many cosmetically perfect submissions that they don’t lose too much sleep over rejecting those that are not. Or over Millicent’s having been more critical in the hour after she scalded her lip than on a normal day. They just figure that if a writer has real talent, s/he’ll go away, get better at presentation, and get picked up somewhere else.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, there’s no appeal for Millicent’s decisions: it’s not as though most agencies will run submissions past a second screener if the first did not like it, after all. Good writers are expected to be tenacious — and to take the time to learn how the publishing industry expects manuscripts to be presented.

So instead of regarding presentation as a secondary issue, try to think of paying attention to the cosmetic details as being polite to the person conducting the interview for a job you really, really want. Even if you have good reason to believe that some of the other interviewees are getting away with taking a few liberties, it honestly is in your best interest to be polite enough to show her your writing in the manner that Millicent is accustomed to seeing the best work in your chosen book category presented.

All that being said, did you spot the non-superficial reason this page might engender a knee-jerk rejection, even after just a superficial first glance?

If you flung your hand into the air and cried, “The second line of dialogue merely repeats the first, and thus adds nothing new to the scene,” good guess. This would indeed annoy most Millicents, particularly if this oh-so-common piece of redundancy appeared on page 1. Yes, people repeat what’s just been said to them all the time, usually as a means to indicate that they don’t understand the previous speaker’s last statement, but that doesn’t mean the repetition isn’t dull on the page.

But that’s a style issue. Any other guesses?

I can see the smoke rising from your thinking caps. “Well, what about the fact that the first line of dialogue is spoken by an unidentified speaker? There’s no legitimate reason to withhold that information from the reader, either at the outset or in this scene in general.”

Another excellent suggestion — the unidentified opening speech is indeed a very common professional readers’ pet peeve. However, the red flag I have in mind is a marketing issue. Hint: those of you who followed the contest winners’ posts carefully should already know what it is.

Need another hint? Okay, let me ask you the deceptively simple question that’s never far from Millicent’s thoughts while she is screening: based on this first page alone, in what book category does this manuscript belong?

It’s not readily apparent, is it? Depending upon the intended category, that could or could not be a problem. If this manuscript were, say, women’s fiction, this first page might not raise Millicent’s overactive eyebrows, but were it a mystery, the lack of species markings might well make her wonder when the mystery’s going to start. If it’s a paranormal, where are the supernatural creepy-crawlies? And don’t even get me started on what is missing if this were Action/Adventure, Western, any stripe of romance…

Well, you get the picture. Millicent needs to be able to tell if a submission falls into a category that her boss represents — and she likes to be able to tell by the bottom of page 1.

Seem strange that she would want to make up her mind on the subject so quickly? Her reason is very practical, I assure you: since every book category has its own particular style — language choices, conventions, stock characters, etc. — and no agent represents every book category, it can save Millie’s boss a heck of a lot of time in the long run if her loyal assistant weeds out manuscripts that don’t fit comfortably into the category. While many writers legitimately find this professional desire to place their work in a box a trifle maddening, it must be admitted that it’s usually far, far easier for an agent to sell a book if he knows which shelf it might occupy at Barnes & Noble. If any.

Why not wait until, say, page 50 before making that determination? Do you have any idea how many submissions Millicent has to get through this month? This week? Today?

It’s her job to narrow the field as quickly as possible. With that in mind, which Millicent do you think is most likely to reject the example above: one whose boss represents mainstream fiction, or one who represents primarily science fiction? Or, to put it another way, would you or would you not be surprised to learn that the page above is the opening to a fantasy novel?

Oh, you thought that Carla was going to be operating on humans, rather than refugees from the civil war on Planet Targ? Millicent would have leapt to the same conclusion. So wouldn’t Fledgling A. Writer have been better off, if not flinging the reader directly into an operating room stuffed to the gills with alien body parts, at least including a few recognizably fantastic elements on page 1?

Let’s go ahead and state the answer to that question as a general rule for revision: if a reader who knows nothing about your book cannot tell by the bottom of page 1 what type of manuscript it is, it’s very much in your interest to revise with an eye toward making the category more obvious from the get-go.

Don’t those of you who write exciting stories that begin in the everyday, mundane world, then leap into fast-paced action, wish you had heard that salient little piece of advice before you submitted for the first time? Yet I’m not sure how you would have known it — while it’s something that any agented writer could probably have told you, it’s one of those things that it’s just assumed every serious writer already knows.

“But Anne,” those of you not depressed into a stupor by that last statement point out, and rightly, “since we began this little foray into the joys of intensive nit-picking with a brief reference to italicized text, am I correct in assuming that even if ol’ Fledgling corrected every single problem we have discussed so far, and made it apparent from the first paragraph that this is a fantasy, the italicized part would still raise most Millicents’ eyebrows, if not red flags over the manuscript?”

In a word, yes — but perhaps not for the reasons you might expect.

Let’s face it: many aspiring writers radically overuse italics in their texts: emphasizing every word in dialogue that might conceivably deserve vocal stress, for instance, or using it to indicate irony, foreign words, and song titles. Each of these uses is fine on its own, but cumulatively, it can add up to quite a lot of squiggly text. And chant it with me now, campers: like any other writing device, the more italics are used for emphasis in a manuscript, the less effective each use will be.

So unless it’s absolutely necessary, a big block of italicized text tends to look out of place in a manuscript — and that’s potentially a problem. Why? Well, as I may have mentioned at some point in the dim, unrecorded past, manuscripts are not supposed to look like published books; they differ in many significant respects. Unfortunately, many, if not most, aspiring writers are not aware of those differences when they submit. Because of the sheer volume of incorrectly-formatted submissions, instead of treating deviations from expected formatting as an intriguing authorial choice, Millicent usually just regards it as (a) a mistake, (b) an indicator of the submitter’s lack of familiarity with the publication process, (c) carte blanche to take the submission less seriously, or (d) all of the above.

So when Millie spots an italicized opening paragraph or two, she tends not to exclaim, “Oh, here is a suggestion to the editor about what the formatting of the published book should look like,” as italics-loving submitters expect. Instead, she says, “Oh, here’s another one who doesn’t know that italicization choices are the province of a book’s editor, not the author.”

Besides, in many instances — as in, not entirely coincidentally, today’s example — the italics don’t actually change the meaning, or even the implication, of the opening. Italicized or not, this opening simply a fragment of a scene that is not directly connected to the section that follows — a differentiation made abundantly clear by the section break. The italics are not actually necessary.

So why not just take them out, since they might irritate Millicent? Here’s that same page again, with the squiggly type gone.

Come on, admit it — it doesn’t make much of a difference in meaning. It simply looks more like a normal manuscript page. That’s not a very high price to pay for removing the implication that Fledgling has not done his homework well enough to be aware that the decision to italicize an opening would ultimately be the acquiring editor’s call, not the author’s.

But did you notice that in fleeing from one pet peeve, poor Fledgling stumbled right into another? Technically,

But she thought: this can’t be happening, not today.

is redundant. Why? Well, while indicating thought by either using italics or saying she thought is acceptable in many book categories (but not all; taking the time to learn the conventions of your chosen book type will serve you well at submission time), it’s never considered right to use both simultaneously.

In other words, while Millicent would never consider the version above correct, depending upon the book category, she would be perfectly happy with either:

“She’s in the hospital?” she repeated. But she thought: this can’t be happening, not today.

or:

“She’s in the hospital?” she repeated. This can’t be happening, not today.

As we saw above with spaces after periods and colons, the trick is to pick one method of indicating thought and stick to it consistently throughout the manuscript — ideally, the method utilized in the current bestsellers in your chosen book category. If a conscientious flip through recent releases of your type of book does not reveal a category convention, don’t stress out about it; just use the method that appeals most to you.

When in doubt, I would lean toward losing the italics. There are quite a few professional readers out there — including a hefty minority of Millicents — who simply don’t like italicized thought on general principle. “Humph!” they say, wrinkling their noses over type dancing across the page. “Is this honestly necessary? Shouldn’t a good writer be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type?”

I have to admit, as a reader, I’m seldom inclined to argue with them on this point, particularly if the manuscript in question also uses italics (correctly) for emphasis (“I’m talking to you, Bertrand!”), to indicate foreign words (“You left off the requisite accent grave, Marie.”), or includes a lot of song or book titles (“I know — let’s play Rubber Band Man while reading My Life as a Contortionist by I.M. Bendy!”). Used rarely, there’s nothing inherently wrong with italics, but in a manuscript with a lot of italicized words, the skimming eye can easily become confused, even to the point of skipping lines.

I just heard you italics-huggers gulping. “Um, Anne,” lovers of italicized openings whisper fearfully. “You’re not about to tell me that a Millicent in a hurry — and when is she not, given how much she has to read in a day? — might simply skip that nice italicized opening, are you? Please tell me that I’ve simply grown paranoid from too much close textual analysis in a single sitting.”

Oh, dear. Are you sitting down?

If Millicent happens to work for an agent who has a pet peeve against this type of opening — as many, many agents do, I tremble to report — she will simply glide over it, treating the first normal line after it as the opening sentence of the manuscript. So she would see Fledgling’s page 1 like this:

“Why on earth,” italics-lovers the world over croak in aghast unison, “would any literature-loving human do such a thing? At the risk of getting redundant with my outrage, published books open all the time with italicized bits!”

A fair question — but actually, there’s a pretty fair answer. Most Millicents just assume, often not entirely without justification, that if it’s in italics, it doesn’t really have much to do with the story at hand, which, they conclude (and not always wrongly), begins with the first line of plain text. In their experience, that’s where the action usually begins.

In other words, they’re apt to skip the italicized bits to save themselves some time.

Which is, as some of you may have noticed, the justification for many, many of the instant rejection norms that plague the nightmares of submitters. Millicent’s workday moves along at quite a clip, after all.

To distract you from any well-justified artistic seething you might be tempted to do over that last observation, take another look at that formerly-italicized section. Can you spot any other problems our pal Millie might have with it?

Any luck? Would it help if I mentioned that the remaining red flag has historically been a deus ex machina favored by everyone from Victorian novelists to middle school short story writers?

That’s right: and then she woke up. The problem here isn’t merely because in narrative prose, if Sentence B follows Sentence A in the text, the action in Sentence B is assumed to have come after the action in Sentence A; therefore, and then is actually redundant in this instance. No, it’s that so darned many exciting openings have tricked Millicent into being drawn into what she thought was the story — but later turns out to be just another dream.

Do literally thousands of interesting novels open this way? You bet. Does it mean that Millicent won’t feel duped when it happens in Novel #10,001? Do you really want to take that chance?

If you’d had your heart set on a bait-and-switch opening that ended with your hero/ine waking up, do not despair. It’s possible to pull off this device well — as long as you are aware that (a) it’s a very, very time-worn device, (b) Millicent sees hundreds of such openings every year, so (c) you’d better do something with it that she’s never seen before.

And if that’s not a creative challenge, I should like to know what is. Keep up the good work!

Crowing for good reason: Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Bruce Alford’s ROOSTER

Today, I am delighted to bring you the winning entry in the recent Author! Author! Rings True literary competition, Bruce Alford of Mobile, Alabama. In addition to carrying off top honors in Category I: literary fiction, Bruce’s breathtakingly delicate first page and well-constructed 1-page synopsis for ROOSTER also garnered the coveted Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence. Well done, Bruce!

As has been the case for all of the winners in this contest, I sat down to discuss this exciting opening and premise with the ever-fabulous Heidi Durrow, author of the intriguing recent literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. (The contest was timed to celebrate the paperback release of her novel.) She writes literary fiction, and I edit it, so our appetites were very much whetted.

Especially for this entry. When the judges first clapped eyes upon it, the opening seemed almost eerily apt for this contest: the primary protagonist of Heidi’s marvelous literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, is half Danish, half African-American. It just goes to show you, campers — no matter how carefully a writer prepares a submission or contest entry, there’s no way that he can control what happens to be on Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s mind at the moment she happens to start reading it.

What’s that I hear you muttering, campers? You feel that’s a trifle unjust, that the imperatives of literature require that all manuscript assessments be made from a completely clear mind, as if Millicent and Mehitabel had not read 27 first pages earlier in that sitting? Or perhaps as if they had not previously screened any literary fiction at all, and had not become jaded toward common mistakes?

Fine — you try it. Here are Bruce’s materials as they might appear in a submission packet: page 1, synopsis, author bio. (As always, if you are having trouble seeing the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + to enlarge the image.) To make this an even fairer test, I shall not comment on the technical aspects at all until after Heidi and I discuss the content.

I’m going to stop you right here: quick, what’s your assessment of this book?

Approaching a new writer’s work with completely fresh eyes is more difficult than it might seem at first blush, isn’t it? Everything you have ever read, from your all-time favorite novel to your high school English literature textbook, contributes to your sense of what is and is not good writing.

So let me simplify the central issue for you: based on that first page alone, would you turn to page 2?

I would certainly read further. On the strength of that, let’s take a peek at the other materials in this packet.

Bruce Alford, a personal trainer, aerobics instructor and a former journalist, has published creative nonfiction and poetry in various literary journals. Alford’s “How to Write a Real Poem” was selected for Special Merit in the 2010 Muriel Craft Bailey Poetry Competition. His book of poems, Terminal Switching (Elk River Review Press), was published in 2007.

For a decade, he worked on drafts of Rooster. The book draws on tragedy in his family. His wife’s brother was missing for a week. Then migrant workers stumbled on his brother-in-law’s body near a tomato field in Louisiana. Over the years, as Alford wrote and re-wrote, he noticed that his relative’s short life and death said much about what being an American meant.

As an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama, he teaches a full schedule of classes, including British and American Literature, Poetry Writing and Creative Non-Fiction. He is a reviewer for First Draft, a publication of the Alabama Writers’ Forum.

Does ROOSTER’s plot sound vaguely familiar? It should: it’s Hamlet, cleverly updated and set in an unexpected setting. Many highly successful novels have taken time-honored stories we all know and transformed them. Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE, for instance, is a retelling of the Ugly Duckling; there have been so many versions of Cinderella that I cannot even begin to enumerate them.

While some writers might have chosen to conceal the eternal nature of the tale, Bruce has done something very interesting here: from the first line of the book, he evokes a fairy tale resonance. There was a girl in Denmark might be the opening of half of the stories in a Hans Christian Andersen storybook. That’s a definite marketing risk — chant it with me now, campers: most professional readers have been trained to regard the passive voice as stylistically weak writing, regardless of how and why it is used — but here, it may well pay off.

Did it? Heidi and I discussed that very question.