A trip to the Formatpalooza annex: the stylish section break — the inculcation of some good writing habits

“If only I hadn’t been so polite.” — S.T.C.

Long time no see, eh, campers? Honestly, I’m as surprised as you are: I keep arising each morning fully intending to post. The noon hour sees me already mentally composing practical examples. Hardly an afternoon goes by when I do not glance over at my computer nestled somewhere in the sub-basement of the muses’ palace of fine arts and think, “Okay, just a few minutiae to get through first, my pet, and we’ll be hard at work on that stirring entry on book promotion.” Or querying. Or Frankenstein manuscript-revising.

Then suddenly, it’s late evening, and the clever arguments and cunning demonstrations of applied craft I have been constructing in my head all day come tumbling to the ground. “Oh, that will take me hours to write up properly,” I murmur into my welcoming pillow. “Rather than write something hasty tonight, I’ll take it up tomorrow and zzzzzzz…”

At least, I think that’s what I’ve been murmuring. It’s kind of hard to remember the particulars in the morning.

“My God, Anne,” my learned mother says. “Who raised you? I certainly did not bring you up to go to sleep without jotting writing ideas on the notepad that’s never more than eight inches from your pillow.”

She has a point: she didn’t raise me to set at naught one of the cardinal rules of professional writing. One of the great tangible benefits of growing up in a family of writers and editors is knowing not to fall into the unfortunately common Oh, I’m sure I’ll remember the marvelous idea I have right now in the morning/when I get home/after I dash off this e-mail syndrome: I was trained from the cradle to have a writing implement and paper within tiny arms’ reach at all times, so I could jot down a few notes on that unforgettable idea just in case I forgot it.

Why sew extra pockets into a kid’s clothes for toting around wee notebooks and golf pencils? Because my hyper-literary parents wanted me to have a long and happy creative life, that’s why. As every professional writer in the world can attest to his or her sorrow, it’s never safe to assume that marvelous writing idea that the muses just dropped fully formed into your brainpan will not vanish into the ether within the next fifteen minutes.

Fortunately for the happiness of writers everywhere, few problems inherent to the life literary are as simple to solve as the lost great idea.

Step 1: write it down. Immediately.

Step 2: make sure you always have the means to carry out Step 1.

You needn’t buy a special notebook for the purpose — just get into the habit of carrying some paper and a writing implement in your pocket, purse, backpack, and/or pocket. Install same on your bedside table, in your car, in the pocket of that nasty uniform your inflexible and unimaginative boss makes you wear. (Honestly, does he think that patrons at his bar won’t at least suspect that the person mixing drinks is the bartender if she is not sporting a cheesy uniform?) From this moment forth, you should never be without it.

And I do mean never. If you are about to climb Mount Everest and do not have an extra few square inches for a pen, ask an experienced sherpa to help you repack. Clutch the lapels of the firefighter toting you off to safety until you are actually out of the building, but as soon as you are on non-smoking ground, grab the nearest envelope so you can scrawl a few notes on the back. Your deathbed should have pen and paper within easy reach.

And don’t tell me that you’ll get to it eventually — slip that notebook into your pocket now. Don’t make me bore you with that ghastly tale about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s being interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock” while he was frantically trying to write Kubla Khan. While Coleridge apparently dined out on the story of how that untimely visitor made him forget the rest of the poem he’d already written in his mind, in my family, there was only one verdict about whose fault the loss was.

“He never should have answered the door,” my father would say.

“Not before jotting down a few notes,” my mother would agree.

Small comfort to Coleridge and every other writer who seen a good idea vanish in the face of the demands of quotidian life, naturally, but you’d be surprised at how little sympathy the lost great idea garners among professionals. “Well, why didn’t you write it down?” they will ask the writer, apparently oblivious to the fact she is valiantly choking back tears. “Didn’t you ever hear the story about Coleridge and Kubla Khan?”

Even if you have to grab a passing waiter’s pen from his apron to scrawl a few pertinent words on your hand or shirtsleeve, it honestly is in your best interest — and your next book’s — to get into the salutary habit of writing every fresh idea down right away. Which leads me to the lesser-known third portion of the cardinal rule:

Step 3: accept that performing (1) as often as you should will occasionally bring unfortunate social consequences.

You didn’t think that write down good ideas the instant they occur to you applied only to moments when you happened to be alone, did you? One never knows where inspiration will strike: amazing book ideas have been known to manifest in locales as inconvenient for note-taking as the shower, in the basket of a hot air balloon, on a Tilt-a-Whirl, and at dinners at the White House.

The muses can be most demanding mistresses. Heck, the premise of my last novel came to me while I was floating in an open-air hot tub nestled into the side of a mountain in the Oregon Cascades. I had to hop barefoot past a patch of poison oak to get to my ever-present pen and paper, and you don’t see me complaining.

Actually, once a writer becomes accustomed to noting every good idea for future use, she’s less likely to complain about it than those with whom she elects to spend her time. To that end, you also might want to train your kith and kin to hold their thoughts (and tongues) if — make that when — a brilliant idea strikes you.

Oh, you want, “Just hold off on carving that Thanksgiving turkey for a moment, Uncle Walter, while I write myself some notes,” to be the first your loved ones hear of your new-found good habit? Do you have any idea how many references to Kubla Khan it’s going to take to render that little surprise socially acceptable?

I sense half of you cringing at the very idea of stopping a conversation, dinner, or other things I will leave to your imagination if you are over the age of consent (you’ll understand when you’re older, Timmy) with a blithe, “Oh, excuse me, but Anne Mini says that if I intend to write for a living, I need to get this idea down at least in note form right away. Please feel free to continue without me.” I can understand where it might seem a trifle rude to the uninitiated.

But that’s precisely the point: it comes across as far more impolite to someone who doesn’t already know that serious writers do this. Frequently. It’s how the creative brain works: bursts of inspiration are part of our standard equipment. And the more seriously you take those inspirations, the more active your idea-generator will become.

It’s far, far better if you explain this to your kith and kin before the muses bop you over the head in the middle of that Broadway musical your partner has been dying to see for six months. Trust me on this one; it may seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually kinder that way. The sooner they get used to the idea that befriending a serious writer necessarily entails waiting in more or less supportive silence while you furiously scribble notes on the paper tablecloth in a crowded restaurant, the happier you — and they — will be once you are writing professionally.

Think of it as training for working with an agent or publishing house. Honestly — and I speak from experience here — “Hey, honey, the brand-new editor my publisher has just hired has asked me to come up with a new ending for my novel, pronto, so I’m not going to be able to pay the slightest attention for the next three weeks, okay?” will go over much better if Honey has already accustomed him- or herself to the reality that creativity is often rather inconsiderate about when it strikes.

So, as it happens, are deadlines. Just as there is no convenient time to sprain one’s ankle — again, I speak from experience — there is no really terrific time for a last-minute or rush revision request. Sorry about that.

I’m also sorry about this: no matter when it happens, it’s going to be hard on your loved ones, necessarily. But being the writer too nice to say to those loved ones now, “Look, I cherish our time together, but my writing is important enough that occasionally I will stop dead in the middle of an anecdote to make a note about a scene I want to write later,” is almost invariably equally reluctant to say in a nice, reasonable tone, “Remember how happy you were when I landed that agent? Well, this is the direct result: I need to spend this weekend making the revisions she’s requested,” or even, “Here, take twenty bucks from my rather paltry advance and go to a movie so I may honor the acquiring editor’s demand that I change my protagonist’s best friend’s name from Jolene to Joanne all 300 times it appears in my novel.”

Whenever you do it, it’s going to take some guts. I’m merely suggesting that if your kith and kin are already acclimated to your taking ten minutes out of lunch to scribble feverishly on the back of a menu, they’re less likely to find it unacceptable when you whip out a notebook in the third hour of Cousin Marvin’s testimonial dinner or in the course of the eighth inning of a particularly eventful baseball game. And at least they’ll have some inkling of why your work is important enough to you to cancel that long-planned trip to Disneyland because your editor abruptly got laid off and the new one just hates the chapter about the trip to Disneyland in your book.

Darn. It was going to be tax-deductible as a research expense, too.

Yes, yes, I know: writers tend to be conflict-avoiders. Try to think of getting them used to your ignoring them for two minutes in the middle of a movie as an inoculation — if they have already been exposed to the minor inconvenience, they won’t be made as sick at the onslaught of the major one. Don’t expect them to be thrilled about it, however; just expect them to cope. They’re never going to be thrilled if you spend most of your family reunion in the hotel room, fleshing out that fascinating conflict you’ve just dreamed up between your antagonist and the love interest’s second cousin, but at least it won’t seem out of character.

“Oh, that’s just Mavis,” your significant other/children/long-suffering parent will sigh. “We never know when the muses are going to kidnap her next.”

I would also recommend getting into the excellent habit of keeping a pad of paper by your computer while you are writing and revising, to jot down any inspirations that, while they might not be applicable to the page on your screen, might provide a piquant addition or necessary change to another part of the book. Taking the time to scrawl Did Arlo have a cocker spaniel prior to Chapter 4? on a scrap of paper now can save you the acute embarrassment of realizing that you’ve just sent the agent of your dreams a manuscript in which the dog’s breed is different in Chapters 2, 8, and 17 than it is in Chapter 1.

That’s particularly important if there happens to be more than one dog in the book, of course. “Wait,” Millicent the agency screener exclaims over page 47. “Is Marley the great Dane from page 2, or the Pekinese from Chapter 3? Or is it not a dog at all, but merely a reference to Ebenezer Scrooge’s late partner?”

Yes, readers who have been giggling for the past couple of paragraphs? “Oh, dear Anne,” the gigglers sigh. “You are such a Luddite. In the situation you just described, I would be working on my computer. Surely, that would obviate the need for rifling through the nearest wastepaper basket for a stray envelope. If I want to take notes, I’ll just open a new document and type them.”

I believe that you will, oh gigglers, but frankly, most writers caught up in the throes of one scene wouldn’t pause that long to type up an idea about another while it’s fresh in their minds. They would — sacre bleu! — just assume that they’d still remember that great notion by the time they had finished the current scene.

Think they will? Why take the chance? Jotting a quick note on a stray scrap of paper will take only a few seconds.

The other advantage of recording that idea on paper, rather than on one’s computer, Blackberry, or even in a recording device is that one can leave it sitting next to one’s computer, Blackberry, or recording device, all ready to remind one about that great notion. If you’re like me — and I suspect most writers are, at least in this respect — the very laws of inertia dictate that note written today will still be lying there a month hence, when you have time to get back to the scene you intended to write.

Oh, you tidy up your writing space every day? My good pile is almost as tall as the container holding the pens I used to write them.

If that same idea is memorialized electronically, by contrast, you have to remember to reopen that file or listen to that recording. Unless you are in the habit of regularly reviewing your computer files, that may not happen before you finish your current draft. You might not even stumble across it again — avert your eyes, children; this is going to be ugly — before you pop the completed draft in the mail to the agent of your dreams.

Isn’t taking a minute to write a note now preferable to bearding the heavens with your bootless cries of, “But I meant to go back and change the dog’s name from Marley to Charley prior to page 150!” later on?

The same principle applies, as I hope all of my regular readers are aware, to remembering technical questions that might arise during the writing or revision processes. Although a few intrepid souls might instantly close their Word programs and fly to this site (or a similar one, or ask a trusted writer friend) within a few seconds after running into an intractable problem, my impression is that most don’t.

And finally, I have managed to build a segue to the topic I had planned to discuss today! I wasn’t kidding about how easy it is to get sidetracked.

One of the many stacks currently threatening to topple over onto my mousing hand holds my To Blog Upon list. While the inspirations there range from the hyper-serious (one note reads blog about the desirability of an unpublished writer’s designating a literary executor in her will) to the practical (how long has it been since I discussed juggling offers from multiple agents?) to the completely frivolous (been overusing dog examples lately — switch to wombats?), many of the most intriguing ideas in this stack are print-outs (on the back sides of already-revised early drafts of my work, of course; reusing is as valuable as recycling) of questions readers have the comments.

(Note to self: all of those parentheses and italics are eye-distracting on the screen. Also, isn’t 93 words too long for a single sentence?)

I reserve a special stack — yes, my desk is precisely as cluttered as you are picturing it to be — for questions that are perfectly logical as follow-ups to formatting or craft issues, but wouldn’t necessarily occur to a professional reader as something that might be puzzling to those who have never seen a professional manuscript in person. When one stares at those pages for a living, one develops an almost visceral sense of what does and does not belong on the page. But how is someone new to the game to develop that sense?

Incisive and thoughtful reader Karin, for instance, raised a marvelous issue that I had overlooked in my Formatpalooza posts on section breaks. (Which were three: a post on the rules governing them, a post containing visual examples, and a post showing section breaks in a book proposal.) Even better, she was polite and charming as she brought it up.

I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time now and find your advice very clear and extremely thorough; thank you for the hours of work you put in trying to help us blind writers see the light of proper formatting and querying.

I have to admit, combing through pages of formatting advice, I may have missed the answer to my question, which, while small, addresses a concern I have on the fifth page of my manuscript, having to do with section breaks. Having turned off widow/orphan control and inserted a space between sections, I find that one section ends on the bottom of a page, which means the beginning of the next section starts after a blank line on the next page. Will professional eyes notice the blank line as a section break, or will it appear sloppy?

As you know, we all get very insecure wondering if these things spell doom for our publishing chances. If you have time, could you please put my fears to rest? Thank you very much!

As my To Blog Upon stack can attest, I get a lot of questions about section breaks. Partially, that seems to be due to the surprisingly pervasive practice among self-styled experts not to differentiate between what is proper to indicate a section break in a book manuscript or proposal (a skipped double-spaced line) and what is appropriate for a short story or article (#).

So before I address Karin’s specific concern, let’s see a properly-formatted section break in action in mid-page. A transition between two scenes in one of H.G. Wells’ social novels will do the trick nicely:

The image came out a trifle on the blurry side — my apologies about that — but the section break is quite clear, is it not? No bells, no whistles: just a skipped line between scenes.

While you have that fuzzy image firmly in mind, let’s take a gander at another rule of standard format that often puzzles those new to the game. Had ol’ H.G. (or whoever is doing his word processing these days) not followed Karin’s example and turned off the widow/orphan control in Word, this page would have had a too-large bottom margin. Like so:

See the problem? This page has fewer lines on it than the previous example, because Word did not want to leave the first line of the final paragraph behind on page 158 when the rest of the paragraph was on page 159.

Millicent, however, like the rest of us who read manuscripts for a living, prefers each page to feature the same number of lines of text. Otherwise, it would be impossible to estimate word count, right?

Including a section break does not run afoul of that preference: in theory, there are the same number of lines per page; the empty space is holding the place of a line of text. Because our Millie knows that a skipped line of text means a section break, she understands that.

But what if the last line of a scene ended on the next-to-last line of the page? The result would be the same number of lines on page 158 as if the widow/orphan control had axed the last line. The next section would begin on the first line of page 159.

Clear enough what’s going on, is it not? Since the subsequent scene would follow on the top line of the next page, Millicent would know that what she has just seen is not a formatting gaffe, but a transition between two separate sections of text.

But what if, as Karin feared, the first scene had ended on the last line of page 158? Should we take her suggestion of pushing the section-differentiating skipped line to the top of page 159? Let’s see what that would look like in practice, shall we?

Looks a trifle silly, doesn’t it? To Millicent’s eyes, it would look like something else: a manuscript that the writer had not bothered to check in hard copy to see how it would print out. “And if the writer didn’t read his work in hard copy before sending it to my boss,” she reasons, “he probably didn’t bother to proofread it, either.”

Not an instant-rejection offense, certainly, but not the impression of how serious you are about your writing that you would prefer she harbor, is it? H.G. has two options here: tinker with the first scene so that it does not end on the last line of the page — or take the chance that Millie will understand that when the first line on the top of page 159 is about a different time, place, and person than the last line on page 158, she might be dealing with a change of scene.

I would opt for trusting her: she’s smart. And honestly, on the page, the situation isn’t all that confusing. Take a gander:

Sometimes, a writer just has to have faith in his readers’ intelligence. Millicents read a heck of a lot of manuscripts, after all: they understand the limitations of standard format.

And if they don’t, they can always write themselves a note as a reminder to find out. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XXIII: taking the guesswork out of the equation — or are we?

Once again, I had to laugh, campers: just as we were winding up this series on standard format for manuscripts — that’s book manuscripts and book proposals, mind you; if you are writing short stories, magazine articles, or for an academic journal, please seek out their specific requirements elsewhere — news sources all over North America suddenly began shouting that astronomers had determined that the astrological zodiac was off by about thirty degrees. That meant that instead of twelve signs, there were now thirteen, and most people were forcibly dragged into the sign before the one they had been used to reading in the newspaper.

I assume you heard all of the noise about it. The only problem: it wasn’t true.

Now, this outcome probably was not all that surprising to those whose first response to the breaking story was, “Gee, isn’t astronomers declaring that the basic principles of astrology have changed rather like orthodontists deciding that everything we have previously known about lipstick application is misguided?” but unfortunately, in the rumor-based news market, under-researched reporting is not particularly rare. Even more unfortunately, the time-honored and honorable newspaper practice of printing retractions is not especially common in television media — and virtually unheard-of in Internet declarations.

As those of you who have ever tried to look up information about submission format online are undoubtedly already aware, the result is a lingering mish-mash of the true, the partially true, and the blatantly false, mostly declared in identical tones of certainty, and all equally prone to generating a, “But I heard…” response. The underlying assumption is, and not entirely unreasonably, that each individual is now responsible for doing the necessary background research that reporters used routinely to provide.

Hands up, everybody whose last ten Google searches involved any research whatsoever beyond typing in a keyword or two, hitting RETURN, and scrolling through the top ten or twenty hits. Realistically, although most surfers know that not everything posted online is true, busy lives dictate that they act as though it were.

Case in point: the dizzying array of formatting, submission, and even grammatical advice floating around out there. I have nothing but sympathy for any poor aspiring writer whose first — or only — attempt to understand how new writing gets published in this fine country is gleaned from typing how to get published, literary agents, or even manuscript format into a search engine. Although I am fully aware that’s how some of you might have stumbled upon Author! Author!, the fact that I’m barraged on a daily basis by pleas from confused writers, begging me to reconcile what they read somewhere with what I’m suggesting, leads me to believe that while the Internet has in some ways made obtaining credible guidance for professional submission easier, in many respects, it’s harder than it was ten years ago.

And that is indeed unfortunate, because, let’s face it, it’s also significantly harder for a new writer to land an agent than ten years ago. Not only is the competition greater, but the economic downturn and resulting contraction of the publishing industry has meant that at most agencies, more aspiring writers are competing for far fewer client slots.

In a banner year, an agent might take on three or four new clients. In a lean year — or in what is expected to be a lean year — it might be even fewer.

Let’s pause a moment, to allow the implications of that last statement to sink in fully. Although the overwhelming majority of submitters to agencies simply assume that the average agent will simply pick up any good writing that arrives on her doorstep, that’s always been a logistical impossibility; there are far, far too many good writers out there. Even the more sophisticated submitters, the ones who have done their homework sufficiently to understand that there is no such thing as a generalist agent, often operate on the assumption that the only factors playing into whether the agent of their dreams decides to offer to represent them or not are the quality of the writing in the manuscripts and their respective fit into their authors’ chosen book categories.

In practice, that’s always been far from true. Ostensibly, it’s the agent’s job to be able to tell the difference between good writing in general, good writing in a selected book category, and good writing in a selected book category that could potentially interest an editor in the current book market. Any well-respected agent will receive literally thousands of queries and submission per year that fall into the first two groups — and hundreds that fall into the last.

And if that doesn’t strike you as potentially problematic for even the best new writers in your chosen book category, I can only suggest that you go back and re-read the last three paragraphs. You might have missed something.

As we discussed throughout the autumn of ‘Paloozas — don’t worry; we’ll be moving away from submission matters and back to craft next week — an agent has to consider many, many factors in deciding which dish out of the rich buffet of offerings to embrace as his next project. Quite a few of those factors are entirely outside the writer’s control: publishing trends, social movements, what’s being whispered around editorial water coolers these days, what any particular agent has just heard pitched recently at a literary conference. If your book category doesn’t happen to be hot right now, it is necessarily going to be harder to interest an agent in selling your book than if your category is rumored to be the next big thing.

Some factors, however, lie completely within the writer’s hands. Whether the manuscript is presented in standard format, for instance, and whether the formatting is consistent. The typeface and size the writer chooses. The percentage of backstory included on page 1. Whether the story opens with conflict or with ordinary interaction. Whether all the phrasing on page 1 is original, or whether it is peppered with catchphrases.

And so forth. Despite the consistent writers’ conference complaint, we writers honestly do make most of the decisions about our own manuscripts. That comes at a cost: agents, editors, and contest judges therefore have a right to assess our work not only on the writing, but also upon how well we adhere to the rules of standard format, grammar, punctuation, and the like.

Was that giant sucking sound that just rocked the universe the sharp collective intake of breath by aspiring writers everywhere who hadn’t realized before that any or all of those matters could be rejection triggers all by themselves? Or was it merely the audible dismay of those of you who did not proofread your last e-mailed submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it off?

I mention e-mailed queries and submissions advisedly, because their steep rise in popularity has presented its own problem. Whereas in years passed, agents, editors, and contest judges were only able to judge submission only upon what appeared on the printed page, now, they can see not only the presentation polish of a submission, but also how the writer got it to look that way.

It is only reasonable, then, to expect Millicent the agency screener — who, after all, is employed specifically to reject the overwhelming majority of both queries and submissions before they get anywhere near the agent’s desk or computer screen — to take these matters seriously. While it has always been true that publishing types have associated incorrect grammar, punctuation, and even deviations from standard format with poor writing (an unfair correlation, perhaps, but a practically universal one), now that spell- and grammar-checkers are built into word processing programs and people like me yammer endlessly about proper manuscript format online, the tolerance for these gaffes has gone down, not up.

Anyone see the problem with that happening while we’re all constantly being exposed to the effects of the Internet’s unique combination of widespread disregard of the rules of grammar and punctuation, most e-mail and blogging programs’ outright hostility to proper indentation (oh, you thought I LIKED writing this in business format?), and the tendency of online advice-givers to contradict one another? Anyone?

Where these forces collide most harmfully for the aspiring writer is in the e-mailed or online submission. While a decade ago, an aspiring author who didn’t know to put the slug line in the header, but typed it at the top of each page of text, might have gotten past Millicent, in today’s online submission environment, his manuscript would be rejected by the top of page 2. Similarly, a writer could have gotten away with indenting each paragraph by hitting the space bar a certain number of times, as one would on a typewriter, whereas now, it’s immediately apparent to anyone looking at a soft copy submission that such a writer simply doesn’t know how to set tabs in Word.

Already, I’m sensing hands shooting into the air out there, but hold your proverbial horses, please: not everyone may have gotten why precisely Millicent might conclude that a writer who made these mistakes might be a harder client for her boss to represent, and thus one to reject right off the bat. Consider, please, these two submission openings — and, as always, if you are having trouble seeing the particulars, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + to enlarge the image:

Quick, tell me: what are the three major formatting differences between these two page 1s?

Oh, you didn’t spot them? That’s not too terribly surprising — in a paper submission, Millicent probably would not have caught them, either. They look more or less identical, right?

Had either you or Millicent been able to open the relevant Word file, however — as our Millie would have had to do in order to consider an e-mailed submission — you would instantly have noticed several serious problems. First, the slug line (Mini/The Good Example/1) is not located in the header, but typed laboriously at the top of each page. That would mean, in practice, that after virtually any revision, the slug lines would shift either lower on the page or backward onto the previous page, rendering the pagination useless.

Second, and as a direct result, the chapter designation is on the third line of page 1, not line 1, where it should be. Third, both the chapter designation and the chapter title were hand-centered by the simple expedient of hitting the space bar repeatedly until the text was in the right place, as one would on a typewriter. Third, all of the indentation was done not by setting a tab, but by hitting the space bar 9 times at the beginning of each paragraph.

“But Anne,” many of you cry out in protest, “why would it matter? Isn’t all that counts for standard format how the page looks?”

Yes and no, dismayed protesters. Yes, for a hard-copy manuscript, looking right is sufficient. No, for a soft-copy manuscript, the words being in the right positions on the page is not enough to look professional.

Why not? Well, ease of subsequent revision, mostly. Just as the page numbers would have to be changed by hand in the second version, using the typewriter-style centering would mean that if the title changed, the writer would have to refigure how many spaces to insert, rather than using the Center function (found on the FORMATTING PALETTE under the VIEW menu in Word) to recenter it automatically. And even on a typewriter, not setting a tab (easily done using the RULER function under the VIEW menu) for something that needs to be done at the beginning of each and every paragraph in the manuscript is, well, a trifle strange.

If you found that last paragraph mystifying, may I make a simple suggestion that will make your life as a submitting writer far, far easier in the long run? Invest a few hours in taking a basic class on the functions of Word, because any agent or editor currently working in the United States will expect a new writer to be familiar with how it works.

Unfortunately, this is not information you’re likely to be able to find in a 2-minute Google search. You’re going to want to take an actual class, so you can ask as many questions as you need in order to get comfortable with all the bells and whistles.

Call your local computer store and ask; if you use a Mac, most Apple stores offer these tutorials for free. If you can’t find a class near you, try calling the local community college, asking to be directed to the Computer Science or English departments, and inquiring whether there is an advanced student who might like to make a few bucks by spending an hour or two showing you how to set up a document according to the rules of standard format.

I would repeat the same advice, with different emphasis, to any aspiring writer unsure of the rules of punctuation and/or grammar. In the long run, one of the best things an aspiring writer can do to improve his chances of getting professional recognition is to invest the time in a good, basic grammar course. Heck, I’m a big fan of every writer taking a refresher course every five or ten years.

I realize that this flies in the face of the web-based expectation of instant answers, and yes, I am always delighted to answer such questions here, especially as they relate to page formatting (the Formatpalooza post on punctuation in dialogue was in response to a reader’s question, for instance). But at least for as long as my agent keeps insisting that now is not the right time to bring out Author! Author! in book form (a now that has extended for a good five years, only six months less than I’ve been blogging), I can’t be standing next to you while you are composing, can I?

Trust me, both the writing and submission processes are significantly easier for an aspiring writer with a firm grasp of the rules of the language. If for no other reason than that those who are already conversant with how to use a semicolon correctly don’t have to waste hours upon hours wading through the widely divergent advice on the subject currently to be found online.

This is, after all, a business in which both spelling and grammar count. Very much. I would even go so far as to say that being good at both are a job requirement for a professional writer.

Like the strictures of standard format, however, grammar is not something that anyone is born knowing. The rules need to be learned, and applying them is a learned skill. Just as no aspiring baseball player would expect to hit a home run the first time she steps up to bat, neither should an aspiring writer cling to a misguided belief that if her writing is good enough, Millicent will overlook spelling, grammar, or punctuation problems.

She won’t. Period. Less so now than ever, because these days, it’s widely believed in publishing circles that there is more than adequate training in such matters readily available on the web.

Tell me, those of you who have gone looking for it, is that true? And if it is, how easy is it to tell a credible source from one that’s just winging it?

The same perception dominates the publishing world about standard format for manuscripts, by the way. The last time I announced I was going to run through the rules of standard format again, an agent of my acquaintance, a tireless advocate for my giving up this blog in order to rechannel the considerable time and energy I devote to it into my other writing, even bet me a nickel that no one would even comment, much less ask questions, throughout my next foray into the subject. Despite my readers’ consistent devotion to improving both their writing skills and ability to present them professionally, he wagered that you would be so tired of formatting after my revisiting repeatedly it for five years that the posts that time around would pass relatively uncommented-upon.

Actually, he didn’t suggest betting on it until after I stopped laughing at his contention. “What’s so funny?” he demanded. “It’s not as though your past posts on the subject aren’t well-marked, or as if there aren’t a million other sites on the web devoted to the subject. Why can’t readers just go there to find out what to do?”

Because I like the guy and I’m not in the habit of lecturing agents, I restrained myself from suggesting that he just didn’t understand how a blog works. “Some will, but many of my readers don’t have the time to comb the archives.” (See? I honestly am aware of that.) “And the writers brand-new to the game may not yet know that there is a standard format at all. By going over it two or three times a year, I’m doing my part to make sure that everyone’s writing can look its best for you. You should be grateful.”

He was, in a word, not. “Did you spend your last three lifetimes blithely violating the rules of grammar and structure, condemning yourself to the Sisyphean task of explaining them over and over again this time around? You’re dreaming, my friend — your readership doesn’t need this. I’ll bet you twenty bucks that you get fewer comments this time than last.”

Well, great as my faith in my readers undoubtedly is, I seldom bet more than a nickel (although I did win a quarter off my mother during the last campaign season for accurately predicting the outcome of the Nevada senate race), so he had to settle for that. “You’ll see,” I told him. “Not only will readers comment more than usual, but they’ll come up with questions neither you nor I would have thought of addressing.”

He handed over the nickel after Part III. One of you lovely people asked a perfectly reasonable about indentation he’d never heard before. Better yet, one that had never occurred to him before.

Now he is yet another convert to what I have long held is the truth about aspiring writers: contrary to practically universal opinion amongst professional readers, deviations from standard format are not usually the result of writers’ being too lazy to find out how to present a manuscript. Most of the aspiring writers I encounter are downright starved for accurate information on the subject; the underlying problem is that there isn’t enough authoritative information out there to combat all of the inaccurate rumors.

I’ve always been a big proponent of agency websites simply posting a page with the formatting rules, if only so I could devote our shared time here to craft. Some do, but most don’t; virtually all that do simply assume that any aspiring writer serious about getting published will already be familiar with standard format.

And that, in case those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for years have been wondering, is why I revisit the strictures of standard format at least twice per year. Call it my charitable contribution to the writing community.

If you feel it has been helpful and you are reading this before 10 p.m. on Sunday, January 16, 2011, may I suggest that a delightful means of expressing that would be to take a couple of minutes to nominate Author! Author! for a Bloggie Award? The more nominations, the more likely the blog is to make it to the finalist round, and thus be read by judges.

Again, I just mention. No pressure, of course. But I’d really like to see the stars line up right this year.

Next time, we shall plunge head-first back into the rigors of craft. Keep up the good work!

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


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

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

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

I just mention. Back to the business at hand.

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

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

or as something in-between?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or even as the title:

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

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

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

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

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

And for nonfiction, it should look like this:

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XXI: the past is prologue. But is that hook at the beginning of your manuscript?

It’s going to be a quick one this evening, I’m afraid, campers. Yes, yes, I know that I often say that, and then writing 14 pages because I discover that I have a lot to say on the topic at hand, but this time, I honestly am going to try to keep it short and sweet, in honor of my early day tomorrow.

Which may well be rescheduled, due to what looks to be about six inches of snow on the tree outside my studio window. Seattle does have a tendency to shut down on the first day of a snowstorm — and I tend to stay off the road running alongside my house when kids are sledding upon it. Call me zany.

What I am not calling zany is an interesting recent question from thoughtful reader Jen, zeroing in on a topic that even I can’t believe I’ve never addressed as a formatting issue before:

As you’re winding up Formatpalooza, I was wishing you would cover the question of how to format a teaser (as opposed to a prologue) at the beginning of a manuscript. Perhaps you have covered this in the past, but I can’t seem to find it. Thank you for your valuable help!

I’m delighted to help, Jen — but before I do, truth compels me to point out that the term teaser can refer to quite a few different things. Like so many writing terms, it can answer to one of several definitions with relation to novels, a couple of others with respect to nonfiction, a third set of things in journalism, and so forth. From the comparison to a prologue (as well as from some enlightening follow-up banter of the type that regularly goes on in the comments, thank goodness), the meaning in this case is a few pages — or even paragraphs — in the front of the manuscript that stand alone, rather than being related to the action on the first page of chapter 1.

In a published book, such an opening might appear like this, with Chapter One beginning on the next page:

Technically, an opening teaser like this is a prologue, whether or not it is labeled as such. In a published novel, it is virtually always treated like one: instead of being paginated with Roman numerals, as introductions in nonfiction books often are, an opening like this is almost invariably page 1 of a novel. The first page of Chapter One is simply numbered as the next page after the prologue.

The same logic prevails in a book manuscript intended for professional submission, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. (Academic texts work by different rules, though.) In standard format, the first page of text is page 1, always, regardless of how it would be numbered in a published book.

And why is that last caveat important to bear in mind, campers? Feel free to shout it along with me: professionally-formatted manuscripts differ in many respects from formatting in published books.

So how should the example above appear in a manuscript? It should be formatted precisely like a chapter opening — and like the first page of any manuscript. It should, in short, look like this:

But that doesn’t completely answer Jen’s question, does it? What should the first page of Chapter One look like, coming after such an opening? Glad you asked.

Is that a forest of hands that just sprouted out there, or is the snow doing something funny to my long-range vision? “But Anne,” some prologue-lovers shout, “isn’t that kind of opening likely to confuse Millicent the agency screener? I mean, isn’t she expecting the top of page 1 to be labeled Chapter One — and isn’t she likely to respond negatively if it isn’t? Shouldn’t I respond to my overpowering fear of her rejecting my manuscript on superficial grounds by labeling that opening as a prologue, so there is absolutely no chance of her being confused for so much as a nanosecond?”

Well, you certainly could do that, fearful tremblers, but it’s not strictly necessary. If you did, though, page 1 of your submission would look like this:

That makes abundant sense, right? Just as a chapter title would appear as a subtitle under the chapter designation, the prologue label would appear on the first line of the page, with the title of the prologue on the next double-spaced line. Everything else remains the same.

In a book category where such brief prologues are common openings, however, you don’t need to worry too much about Millicent’s not understanding what those first couple of pages are: trust me, she’ll recognize them. At least well enough not to be startled or confused when Chapter One opens in another time and place entirely — in this case, much earlier in poor Louis’ story.

Unless, of course, the writer chose to submit those pages like our next set of examples; see if you can spot the problem. Hint: if you jumped up from your desk chair, ran to the other side of the room, and squinted in the general direction of your computer screen, it would probably still be visible.

Did you catch the not-particularly-subtle problem here? Millicent might indeed find this opening confusing, because there’s nothing to indicate a time and place switch in the story. (Particularly unfortunate in this case, as the chapter is in a different voice than the prologue, and a rambling one at that.) Heck, there’s now nothing in the prologue section to indicate that it isn’t taking place in the present, rather than a couple of hundred years ago.

Chant it with me now, campers: when in doubt in a submission, opt for clarity, clarity, clarity.

Clarity, clarity, clarity is also why the prologue and/or introduction of a nonfiction manuscript (at least one not intended for an academic press) should follow the first page of text = page 1 rule. Yes, even if published books in your chosen book category always employ Roman numerals for prologues and introductions: trust me, if Millicent’s boss, the agent of your dreams, handles those sorts of books for a living, Millie will be able to figure out that the prologue that begins on page 1 of the manuscript will need to be repaginated by the editor.

Why am I so sure about that? Could it be because pagination decisions, like any other formatting calls in a published book, are the editor’s call, not the author’s?

Is everyone comfortable with all that? Please pipe up with questions, if not. And best of luck with the teasing, Jen!

Hmm, I could get used to writing posts this length. Or perhaps my will to communicate is just too strong. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XVII: not all that glitters is…well, you know the rest

sequined hat

I had hoped to wrap up Formatpalooza by the end of the year, but frankly, I think it’s going to be a trifle on the tight side, unless I post a couple of times tomorrow. Even by my standards of vim, that might be overkill.

My vehemence is kindly-motivated, I assure you: contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, how a submission is presented can make a very great difference in how it’s received. Yes, yes, I hear you, those of you who have been running around to writers’ conferences in recent years: you can hardly throw a piece of bread at an agent or editor’s forum without hitting a pro saying, “It all depends upon the writing.”

They tend to spout this aphorism for a very good reason — it is in fact true. But as we discussed both earlier in this series and in earlier ‘Paloozas, that doesn’t mean that the quality of the writing is the only criterion agents, editors, contest judges, or any of the rest of us who read manuscripts for a living use when deciding whether to read beyond the first page of a submission. Professional presentation plays a role, as does marketability, a story’s probability of appealing to its target audience (not exactly the same thing), what happens to be the surprise bestseller of the moment — and yes, that whole slew of intangibles that make up personal taste.

There is, in short, no such thing as a foolproof formula for producing the perfect manuscript for submission. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

As I’ve been arguing throughout this ‘Palooza, however, agents, editors, contest judges, screeners, and other professional readers develop an almost visceral sense of when a manuscript is properly formatted. So rather than screening submissions with a list of don’t by their sides, they more or less automatically discount pages that are cosmetically incorrect.

This is most emphatically not the same thing, though, as rejecting such pages on the spot because, say, an aspiring writer underlined a foreign-language word on page 1 instead of italicizing it. (I know, I know: sacre bleu!) Much as a reader with impeccable grammar will not necessarily throw down a book that misuses semicolons, most professional readers will not instantly reject an improperly-formatted submission without some further provocation.

But as we discussed last time, the writer in both cases is going to have to work a whole lot harder to impress the pro as literate. Unfortunately, the prevailing standards for printed books — which, as we have seen, differ in many significant respects from manuscripts — often lead innocent writers astray.

Leading them to, say, include a table of contents in a manuscript submission.

That seems as if it would be a helpful page to tuck in there, doesn’t it? One can make an argument for it, certainly: in fiction, including it would enable an agent to go back and re-read the submission easily; in nonfiction, it would permit an editor to skip ahead to a chapter of particular interest. And heck, if the manuscript fell upon the floor in the kind of you got chocolate in my peanut butter!/you got peanut butter in my chocolate! we witnessed with horror earlier in this series, a well-organized table of contents might render it a trifle easier to reassemble, right?

Wrong. Including a table of contents in a manuscript submission is a classic rookie mistake, the kind of stunt that makes Millicent the agency screener roll her eyes.

Why is it such a serious strategic error? Well, in a published book, a table of contents, like an index, is a courtesy to browsers trying to get a feel for the contents and buyers who do not necessarily want to read the entire book. In order to serve this function well, however, the pages listed would have to match up with the beginnings of the relevant sections, right?

This is difficult in a manuscript, for several reasons. First, Millicent doesn’t expect to see a table of contents, particularly in a novel submission; it just won’t look right to her. Second, since a published book is typically about 2/3rds the length of its original manuscript (documents shrink in the transition to the printed page), the pages listed on a manuscript table of contents would ultimately be inaccurate, anyway.

Third — and perhaps most relevant at the submission stage — including a table of contents implies that the writer does not expect the agent of her dreams to read the manuscript in its entirety, but merely to flip to the pages that interest him most. From the publishing industry’s point of view, that’s a pretty jaw-dropping assumption: why, they wonder, would an agent or editor be interested in acquiring a book if he doesn’t like it well enough to read it in full?

So really, including a table of contents in a manuscript is just wasting a page. It does not belong in a manuscript, any more than an index or those boxes around text that magazines are so fond of printing. To professional eyes, it looks unprofessional, especially in a novel submission.

It’s also an inconvenience — and yes, Virginia, to someone who has to skim as quickly as Millicent to get through the day’s reading, having to turn over an extra page is an actual inconvenience.

Don’t believe me? Okay, think about our time-strapped friend’s expectations when opening a submission envelope: when she turns over the title page, she is looking forward to finding the first page of text there waiting for her, all ready to be judged in a flash. If instead she finds a table of contents, something she would only find helpful if she were to read the entire manuscript, she may well be a trifle miffed. Given that she tends to reject most submissions somewhere between paragraph 1 and page 5, the information that Chapter 8 begins on page 112 will most likely strike her as at best gratuitous — and at worst presumptuous.

“What gives?” she’ll say, taking an extra sip of her too-hot latte as she impatiently gets the table of contents out of her way. “Doesn’t this writer know the difference between a manuscript and a book?”

‘Nuff said, I think.

Or maybe not — do I hear some aspiring nonfiction writers clamoring for my attention? “But Anne,” these excellent souls point out, “a book proposal is supposed to include a table of contents for the planned book, isn’t it? I read it in an article on how to write a book proposal.”

Ah, I’m glad that you brought this up, nonfictionists, because first-time proposers often conflate the table of contents one might find in a published book with the annotated table of contents required in a book proposal. They are in fact quite different things.

Again, mixing up terms is a classic rookie mistake. Over and over again, I see aspiring writers new to the game simply assuming that because a term means something in one context, it must necessarily mean exactly the same thing in another context.

As a general rule of thumb, that’s not always true. In this case, it most definitely is not.

When hyper-literal proposers hear the term table of contents, they assume, wrongly, that an agent or editor is simply asking to see what the writer thinks the table of contents in the published book will look like, presumably as an exercise in guessing how many pages each of the proposed chapters will contain. (It’s hard to imagine it serving any other purpose.)

As a result, first-time proposals tend to include a section that looks a little something like this:

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that Millicent simply would not expect to see this page in a book proposal at all , do you see any problems with this as a marketing document intended to convince an editor to pay the writer to write the proposed book?

Actually, I’m sure that some of your hands shot into the air even before I showed this example, in your eagerness to take issue with the notion that a submission should resemble a published book in the first place — and thus that the kind of table of contents one might expect to see in a nonfiction book would clearly be out of place in a submission.

Well caught, eager wavers. Spot any other problems?

If you said, “Well, for starters, the example above doesn’t include information that could possibly be either accurate or useful to an editor,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Obviously, it would be impossible for a proposer to state with certainty where the chapter breaks would fall in the proposed book when published; all the information s/he could reasonably offer in this sort of table of contents would be educated guesses about how long each chapter might be. Or perhaps a list of where those breaks fall in the draft manuscript.

But that’s not the information nonfiction agents and editors want to see in the book proposal; they’re perfectly aware that since the book in question has not yet been written (or needn’t be), any length estimates must be just that, estimates, not fact. The information they do want to see in the annotated table of contents section of a book proposal is a brief description of the CONTENTS of each chapter.

The word annotated should have been a clue, I guess.

Typically, each proposed chapter is summarized in one or two paragraphs. Well, typically is a bit of an exaggeration; what’s actually typical in a first time proposer’s book proposal is either the information-light version we saw in today’s first example or an entire page devoted to each chapter.

Neither is what is expected, however. The typical form I am talking about here is what professional nonfiction authors use.

And like so many other differences between professional formatting and, well, everything else they see in submissions, it’s really, really obvious at first glance to someone who has seen a book proposal before whether the submitter du jour has followed the rules. Compare what the first page of a correctly put-together annotated table of contents looks like with the truncated version above:

See the difference? Millicent will. From ten paces away.

Hey, while we’re on the subject, why don’t we take a quick gander at all of the constituent parts of a book proposal, so all of you nonfiction writers out there may be sure that Millicent will like the look of yours? To make the overview even more useful, let’s run through the sections in the order they would appear in the proposal.

First, let’s take a peek at the title page. See if you notice anything distinctive about it:

If you immediately cried, “Why, unlike a title page for a novel, the proposal’s title page does not include a word count,” give yourself another gold star. (You’re racking them up today, aren’t you?) The length of a nonfiction book is a contractual matter; since what a proposal is offering is not the finished book, but a book concept and an author to write it to the specifications desired by the publisher, it does not make sense for the writer to guesstimate the length up front.

Award yourself yet another if you also mentioned that the contact information listed here is Scaredy’s agent’s, not Scaredy’s. Naturally, if Napolèon does not yet have an agent, naturally, he would list his own contact info in the bottom-right corner.

Any guesses why his address would be replaced by his agent’s down the line?

The reason is pretty straightforward: no agent in his right mind would allow his clients to circulate their proposals (or manuscripts, for that matter) without his contact info on them. After all, if an editor falls in love with the proposal, it’s the agent she’s supposed to be contacting, not the writer.

What follows next in a book proposal is the overview, a brief description of what the book is about and why the writer proposing it is the best person on earth to write it. Never, ever forget that this is both a marketing document and a job application, proposers: you’re trying to get the publisher to hire you to write this book, right?)

Most first-time proposers just include the bare bones here, leaping right into the description, but I like to open with a little sample of the type of writing the editor may expect to see in the completed book. To this end, I always advise starting a proposal with a vividly-told illustrative anecdote.

The first page of the proposal, then, would look like this:

overview1

As you may see, like everything else in the book proposal, the overview should be in standard format: double-spaced, indented paragraphs, 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Unlike the opening of a chapter, however, each new section is simply titled, a line skipped, and the text begun. Since this is a nonfiction document, whether to place OVERVIEW in boldface is up to you; my agency happens to like it, as well as the all-caps titling.

Notice, please, that because this is a proposal for a memoir, the anecdote is written in the first person singular. The rest of the proposal should be as well. Many memoirists mistakenly believe that writing about their books in the third person is more professional, but that’s simply not the case.

Back to formatting. Just as a simple section break is sufficient to separate scenes in a novel or memoir, all that’s required in a proposal to differentiate the opening anecdote from the description of the proposed book is a skipped line:

overview2

Since the overview typically covers a broad range of topics, I like to break it down into several smaller sections, to make it easier for an agent or editor to find the answers to the pertinent questions any good book proposal must answer. Every proposal is slightly different, of course, but typically, apart from the opening anecdote and the book’s description, I advise including subsections on why the proposed book will appeal to readers (this is a great place to bring up any demographic information you may have collected on your readership), why the book is needed now (as opposed to any other time in publishing history; this provides an excellent opportunity to bring up any relevant trends), and how to convince the target readership that this is the book for them (not a specific marketing plan, mind you — that comes later in the proposal — but a brief explanation of who the target reader is and why that reader might pick it up).

Nit-picky? Sure. But that’s the nature of a book proposal.

How does one mark each of these subsections? You already know how to do this one, actually: as is permissible in a nonfiction manuscript, to differentiate between topics within sections — to alert the reader to the start of the subsection on why you’re the best person currently gracing the crust of the earth to tell this particular story, for instance, or to usher onstage your explanation of precisely why the literate world needs this story right now — you may insert a subheading. To reuse the example from the last time we discussed subheadings:

Wharton subheading example

When moving between major sections of a book proposal, convention dictates inserting a page break between sections. Why? Because unlike a novel manuscript, proposals are often broken apart, with one section going to a publisher’s marketing department another going to legal, a third staying with the editor interested in acquiring it, and so forth.

It’s also customary to begin a new major section with a centered title. For example, when moving from the overview to the competitive market analysis (i.e., the section of the proposal where the writer lists similar books currently on the market, then explains why his proposed book is different and better), the latter section would begin like this:

comp market analysis

I’ve written at some length about how to construct a competitive market analysis — contrary to popular opinion, it’s not just a list of similar books currently on the market — so I shan’t go into the ins and out of creating this narrative here. But if you’d like to hear more, please check out the posts collected under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at right.

There are a couple of formatting curiosities I would like to point out, however. First, the competitive market analysis should be written in a narrative style, not as a list. Second, it does not include all of the bibliographic information for the book. Just the author and title — in italics, as is appropriate for a book title in standard format — with the publisher and year of publication following in parentheses, will generally suffice. (Although if the agent of your dreams asks for something more, like the ISBN, for heaven’s sake, give it to her.)

Is that all there is to a book proposal, you ask hopefully? Heavens, no: there are several more vital sections. As usual, I have a great deal to say about each, so I am going to sign off for today and pick it up next time. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza XVI, in which we get downright chatty

partial pink roses

I ask you: how did it get to be Wednesday already? Clearly, some mad scientist has been sneaking into my life, boxing up hours at a time, and hauling them away to another dimension.

Or so I surmise, from the fact that I began this post yesterday morning, yet don’t seem to have posted it until this afternoon. Let’s get right down to business, before another fifteen-minute chunk just vanishes before my very eyes.

Manuscript submissions, like any other form of human communication, are subject to fashion. Nine months to a year after a surprise major bestseller hits the bookstores, for instance, agencies start seeing scads of queries for books with remarkably similar premises. About the same amount of time after a multiple-perspective novel hits it big, their inboxes are suddenly stuffed to bursting with multiple POV submissions. Even matters as small as semicolon use often, after a suitable lag for composition, enjoy the occasional renaissance.

It’s as predictable as the flowers in May — and just as likely to induce an allergic reaction in Millicent the agency screener, at least when the day’s submissions heavily à la mode. While a manuscript’s fitting neatly into an already well-established book can be a good thing, the fourth DA VINCI CODE knock-off of the morning can easily start to seem a little old.

Other trends, I must confess, catch professional readers by surprise. A few years back, about a tenth of the manuscript submissions appearing on agency doorsteps abruptly lost the second space after a period: one day, the second space was virtually universal; the next, it was as if a pair of giant hands had slapped the left and right margins of America, forcing all of those poor sentences into closer proximity with one another.

“What happened?” the pros demanded of one another, mystified. “Did I miss an industry-wide memo that the standards have just changed?”

In a manner of speaking, the people who ostensibly set those standards had. Miss Snark, a well-known agent-who-blogs of the time, had declared from behind her wall of anonymity that anyone who was anyone simply despised the second space after the period. Within a couple of weeks after she declared it verboten, agencies felt the effects, despite the fact that the standard within the industry had not actually changed.

Now, it wasn’t as though there hadn’t been banshees declaring the demise of the second period for a good decade before Miss Snark’s pronouncement: it had, in fact, been a fairly common writing-class admonition ever since some publishers started cutting it from published books in order to save paper. Surprisingly often, it was presented in precisely the same terms: the double-space convention is old-fashioned, and using it would instantly brand a writer as someone to ignore. That’s never actually been true — unless an agency or publishing house actually states a preference in its guidelines for only a single space after a period, using two is virtually unheard-of as a rejection-worthy offense all on its own — but it certainly sounds convincing, doesn’t it?

Since I already dealt with the one-space-two-space (red space, blue space?) debate in an earlier post, I shan’t go into its pros and cons again here. I merely bring it up to illustrate that although people outside of agencies and publishing houses periodically decide that this or that is the new normal for submissions, those decrees usually come as news to the fine folks on the receiving end of submissions.

You know, the individuals with actual power to change the rules in question. Imagine their surprise.

In a not entirely coincidental development, when one of these sea changes begins to take effect, Millicent’s response is just as likely to be annoyance as approval for those who have leapt on the bandwagon. In fact, the former is more likely. “Why are half the manuscripts I’ve seen today in blue ink?” she wonders. “Did someone at a writers’ conference make a joke that got misunderstood?”

Oh, it happens. And now, thanks to the Internet, such a misunderstanding can make it three times around the world before breakfast.

So when about a year ago, submissions suddenly began appearing in agencies with more than one speaker per paragraph in dialogue scenes, professional readers drew the obvious inference: either some soi-disant writing guru had declared the paragraph break between speakers so old-fashioned, or a recent bestseller had been composed by someone with a broken RETURN key, a broken right pinkie to hit it, or a deep-seated psychological aversion to clarity in dialogue.

“Why else,” Millicent has been heard to mutter, “would anyone deliberately chose a dialogue format that will confuse readers?”

You know what I’m talking about, right? Whereas traditional and — dare I say it? — old-fashioned dialogue is formatted like this:

Polly Purebred clutched a lace-napped handkerchief to her pale pink lips. “But I can’t pay the rent!”

“But you must pay the rent,” Dastardly Duke replied, twirling his mustache. “Or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.”

“But I can’t pay the rent!”

“But you must pay the rent, or I shall deal with you as I mentioned above.”

“But I can’t pay the rent!”

“What are you, a tape recorder? You gotta pay your rent, lady.”

A handsome stranger appeared in the doorway, slightly out of breath from having missed his cue. “I’ll pay the rent.”

Polly tapped on her watch meaningfully. “My hero.”

“Curses,” Duke remarked, yawning, “foiled again.”

On the manuscript page, that exchange (and possibly a little more) would be formatted as you see below. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the type, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

dialogue format

That should look at least a trifle familiar to you: the indented paragraphs, one speaker per paragraph convention, and properly-placed quotation marks are all just what you would see in a published book, right? Obviously, though, because this page appears in a manuscript, these dialogue paragraphs are presented in standard format, just as narrative paragraphs would be.

Really, there’s only one unusual element here: did you catch the quote within the quote in paragraph 10? Because Handsome Stranger is reproducing verbiage from Dastardly’s rental ad, rustic charmer with view of railroad track appears within single quotation marks (‘), rather than doubled (“); doubled quotation marks appear around the entire speech.

Everybody’s clear on that, right? If not, now would be a delightful time to speak up.

Clear being the operative word here: while clarity is always required for professional writing, lack of clarity in dialogue is especially likely to be fatal to a submission. If the punctuation had not made it plain that Handsome was in fact quoting something, that paragraph would have made less sense. See for yourself:

“I do believe I will.” The stranger removed his fetching Mountie hat before stepping into the cabin. “I’ve been traveling all morning. The rental ad didn’t mention just how far out of town rustic charmer with view of railroad track actually was.”

Yes, Millicent might have been able to figure out from context (a) that Handsome was indeed quoting and (b) which words in the sentence were being quoted, but you have to admit, it’s not completely obvious at first glance. And one of the practices to which most overworked Millicents are allergic is reading a sentence in a submission twice, because they did not understand it completely the first time around.

The form that allergic reaction typically takes? You’ve probably already guessed: “Next!”

Seem harsh? Actually, it isn’t: conceptual clarity is the minimum expectation for professional writing, not a feature for which a submitter will receive extra credit. By definition, if a reader has to go back over a sentence a couple of times in order to figure out what’s going on in it, it’s not particularly clear.

Fortunately, even though there are three characters talking on the page above, it’s always perfectly clear who is speaking when, isn’t it? That’s because the real hero of this scene is the humble RETURN key: each speaker has his or her own paragraph.

Again, this should not come as too much of a surprise to readers familiar with how dialogue is typically presented in books. Recently, however, Millicent has found herself scratching her pretty head over exchanges like these:

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly Purebred clutched a lace-napped handkerchief to her pale pink lips, but her obvious distress had no effect on Dastardly Duke. He twirled his mustache. “But you must pay the rent, or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.

See the problem? A skimmer might well assume that everything within quotation marks was Polly’s speech, and thus become — sacre bleu! — confused.

Why might a swiftly-reading observer leap to that conclusion? For one very good reason: in English prose, the character who gives the first speech in a dialogue paragraph is assumed to be the speaker for every speech within that paragraph, unless there is specific indication otherwise. If there is no tag line (he said, she said), the speaker is presumed to be the first character named in the narrative part of that paragraph.

So technically, Polly is the only speaker here. Even though there are two actors within this paragraph, there’s literally nothing in it to indicate a change of speaker. How could there be, when this paragraph violates the one speaker per paragraph rule of dialogue?

Not seeing it? Okay, let’s break down what the actual text is telling us is going on:

Polly: But I can’t pay the rent!

Polly: But you must pay the rent, or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.

Doesn’t make much sense, right? And to a professional reader, neither does cramming two characters’ speeches into the same dialogue paragraph. Not only is it improper, but it leads to needless confusion.

Frankly, this kind of formatting is likely to send Millicent into a sneezing fit if it happens even once in a submission; if it occurs early enough in the text, it’s likely to trigger instant rejection. If she’s in an unusually tolerant mood that day, she might continue reading, but if she spots it again, she will sneeze herself into a whirl of philosophical confusion: why, such paragraphs leave her wondering, would a writer want not to follow the one speaker per paragraph rule of dialogue? Not only is it the norm for dialogue, but it fends off that bugbear of submissions everywhere, conceptual confusion.

If the practice appears to be habitual, she is forced to come to one of only two possible conclusions: either the writer was trying to save a line by not hitting the RETURN key (a sneaky practice which, over the course of an entire manuscript, might actually trim quite a few pages from an over-long dialogue-heavy submission), or he was simply unaware that — wait for it — the character who gives the first speech in a dialogue paragraph is assumed to be the speaker for every speech within that paragraph.

Neither conclusion is, I’m afraid, going to make her think particularly highly of the manuscript in question; either would be ample justification for rejection. Think about it: both a writer unfamiliar with the rules of dialogue nor one who believes that Millicent won’t notice or care if he bends them are likely to be rather time-consuming to represent; their learning curves will need to be pretty sharp in order to work successfully with an editor at a publishing house. Or, indeed, with an agent in preparing a submission to said editor.

But that’s not why misformatting dialogue is potentially fatal to a submission, at least not all by itself. Like not indenting one’s paragraphs, not adhering to the one speaker/one paragraph rule implies, among other things, that one does not read a great deal of English prose containing dialogue. And that’s an extremely dangerous impression to create with a submission, as the publishing industry has long favored writers it perceives as unusually literate.

It’s hard to blame them for that preference, considering that the people who harbor it tend to be the ones correcting any deviations from standard punctuation and grammar. Agents and editors know from experience that a writer who doesn’t pay attention to — or doesn’t know — how to format or punctuate dialogue is simply more time-consuming to guide down the curvy path to publication.

Indeed, many agents feel — and rightly — that it isn’t really their job to play the grammar police. One of the basic requirements of being a professional writer is knowing the rules governing English prose, after all.

You would think this tenet would send aspiring writers everywhere stampeding toward community colleges to enroll in basic composition classes, wouldn’t you? As Millicent’s inbox abundantly demonstrates these days, that’s one trend that doesn’t seem to be sweeping the nation.

Did a dragon just fly by, or are some of you hyperventilating? “But Anne,” the puzzled gasp, “isn’t it just a tad unreasonable to draw sweeping conclusions about someone’s literacy based upon just a couple of paragraphs of dialogue? I mean, take another look at that last example: it’s pretty obvious from context that Dastardly is saying the second speech, isn’t it? Would it kill Millicent to extrapolate? Or even just to read it twice, if she’s gotten confused?”

Not kill her, perhaps, but definitely irk her: remember, many screeners will not re-read, on general principle. Bear in mind, too, that Millicent is often reading very, very quickly — she has a lot of submissions to get through in a day, recall, and it’s her job to reject most of what she reads. If she finds a dialogue scene when she skims, she’s likely to reject the manuscript, even if someone reading at a normal pace might be able to follow the passage in question.

Fortunately, there’s a magic fix: hit the RETURN key between speakers. Look at how few keystrokes remove any potential for confusion from our last example.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly Purebred clutched a lace-napped handkerchief to her pale pink lips.

Her obvious distress had no effect on Dastardly Duke. He twirled his mustache. “But you must pay the rent, or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.

Problem solved — and at no cost to the meaning of the original exchange. To reiterate Millicent’s earlier question, why wouldn’t a writer want to do it this way?

She also is left to wonder far more often than strikes her as reasonable why so many submissions of late have taken to violating the one speaker/actor per paragraph rule. All too often, she finds herself confronted with dialogue formatted like this:

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly reiterated.

“So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now.” She quailed before the rope he brandished. “Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

If we apply the principle that the first character named in a dialogue paragraph (in this case, she) is the presumed speaker, confusion once again reigns. Not sure why? When in doubt, break the exchange down into a play.

Polly: But I can’t pay the rent! So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now. “Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

Again, it doesn’t make much logical sense — and it’s not Millicent’s job to re-read it until it does. She’s likely to shout, “Next!” before she even notices that second paragraph presents effect (quailing) before it shows cause (brandishing).

Far, far easier simply to observe the rule that dictates in a dialogue paragraph, the speaker and the primary actor should be the same. If they are not, add a tag line to render who is speaking completely clear to the reader.

Let’s take a gander at both of those principles in practice, shall we? If we separate each speaker/actor by simply hitting the return key as needed, the confusion vanishes.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly reiterated.

“So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now.”

She quailed silently before the rope he brandished.

“Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

This isn’t an especially stylish solution, is it? The cause-effect reversal is still there — and technically, it takes at least two sentences to make up a narrative paragraph. Let’s experiment with adding a tag line, so see if we can’t clear up matters:

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly reiterated.

“So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now,” he said wearily, brandishing the rope at her. She quailed before it. “Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

Perfectly clear who is doing what now, is it not? While adult fiction tends to minimize tag lines in two-person dialogue, where simple alternation of paragraphs will let the reader know who is speaking when, there is nothing wrong with this last example. Indeed, were this a three-person dialogue, the tag line would be actually necessary, since paragraph alternation works only with two speakers.

Not sure why? Let’s take another peek at that three-person exchange, this time with the speaker identification removed:

dialogue 3 speakers no IDs

Rather difficult to follow the players without a program, isn’t it? In multiple-speaker dialogue, frequent reminders of who is speaking when are downright necessary.

Remember: clarity, clarity, clarity.

In two-person dialogue that adheres to the one speaker/actor per paragraph rule, though, frequent reminders of who is speaking, especially in the form of tag lines, are seldom required, or even helpful. Obviously, the narrative must establish who the speakers are, but once they fall into an alternating rhythm of exchange, most readers will be able to follow who is speaking when — provided that the exchange does not go on for too long, of course, and the two speakers have distinct points of view.

There’s another reason to minimize tag lines in adult fiction. To a professional’s eye, too many he said/she cried reminders can come across as a bit storybookish, as if the narrative were going to be read aloud. A higher level of speaker identification is required in dialogue that’s heard, rather than read: since the hearer cannot see those nifty paragraph breaks that differentiate speakers on the page, she would have a hard time telling the players apart without the narrative’s actually stating who is speaking when.

As much as I would like to sign off and leave you to ponder these weighty issues, I cannot in good conscience leave the issue of dialogue behind without bringing up yet another of Millicent’s tag line-related pet peeves. See if you can diagnose it in the following example — or rather, them. Only one of the three tag lines below is correct.

“I told you so,” Polly pointed to the oncoming train. “That’s the five-ten.”

Dastardly fumbled with the ropes, “But it’s only 4:45! I have should have twenty-five minutes to tie you to the tracks!”

“You’d better hurry up, then,” she said, inspecting her manicure.

If you spotted the third paragraph as the correct one, award yourself a gold star and a pat on the back. “You’d better hurry up, then,” she said, inspecting her manicure.
is a properly-formatted tag line, properly punctuated.

So what’s the problem with the first two dialogue paragraphs?

If you immediately cried out, “By gum, Anne, neither pointed nor fumbled are verbs related to speech,” take yourself out to dinner. A verb in a tag line — and thus form a continuation of the sentence containing the quote, rather than a separate sentence — must at least imply the act of comprehensible noise coming out of a mouth: said, asked, whispered, shouted, exclaimed, asserted, etc.

Since neither pointed nor fumbled are speaking verbs, they cannot take the place of said in a tag line. Thus, the commas are incorrect: Polly pointed to the oncoming train and Dastardly fumbled with the ropes are not continuations of the dialogue sentences in their respective paragraphs, but separate sentences. They should have been punctuated accordingly.

“I told you so.” Polly pointed to the oncoming train. “That’s the five-ten.”

Dastardly fumbled with the ropes. “But it’s only 4:45! I have should have twenty-five minutes to tie you to the tracks!”

Admittedly, that last one is a matter of punctuation, rather than formatting, but as I believe I have mentioned approximately 1,500 times throughout the last few months of ‘Paloozas, writing problems tend to flock together. Especially these days, when the length restrictions of Twitter and Facebook status updates have accustomed so many of us to seeing writing without punctuation.

As any professional reader could tell you to her chagrin, the more one sees incorrect punctuation, spelling, grammar, and formatting, the greater the danger that it will start looking right to one on the page, even if one is aware of the rule dictating its wrongness. So in moving swiftly to reject incorrectly put-together dialogue, Millicent is not only out to protect the language — she’s practicing self-defense.

At the risk of sounding like an editor (funny how that happens from time to time), if you find that you’re starting to become fuzzy about what looks right and what wrong, consult an authoritative source; just assuming that what you see in print must be right is no longer necessarily a good rule of thumb. And if, to the everlasting shame of the educational system that nurtured you, no one ever taught you the rules in the first place, or if they have faded in your recollection, consider investing a couple of months in a basic composition class; most community colleges in the U.S. offer solid refreshers at a very reasonable price.

Seriously, it’s not a bad idea to go in for a grammar tune-up once or twice a decade. Millicent’s not the only one barraged with omitted punctuation, misspelled words, and overlooked grammar rules, after all.

Just something to ponder. Next time, I shall be moving back to pure formatting issues. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XV: contested territory in this season of concord, or, the surprisingly contentious issue of chapter title placement

peace y'all and angels

I begin today’s post in this season of concord with a commentary on disunity: “In all matters of opinion,” Mark Twain told us many, many years ago, “our adversaries are insane.”

Nowhere in modern life is this axiom more apt than in the vicious battleground that is airline seating. In recent years, most airlines have opted to make the space between rows of passengers smaller; in order to cram more seats per plane, many have also quietly made the window seats and even the seatbelts on window seats slightly smaller as well. (Try comparing sometime with the belt in the middle seat.)

The result for anyone who, like your humble correspondent, enjoys glancing out a window from time to time, is a seat tray rammed directly into one’s solar plexus if one happens to be trying to, say, use a laptop in flight. And that’s if the window-lover in the row ahead of me decides not to recline his seat.

On the last airline flight during which I tried to compose a blog in mid-air, the last condition did not, alas, apply. A honeymoon couple — he awash in some pepper-based cologne, she beamingly bouncing her ring upon every row she passed, so all might see it glimmer in the light — evidently mistook their seats for two single beds. Not only were their activities in them not, as my grandmother would have said, appropriate for every audience, but they seemed disappointed — nay, convinced — that their seats would not recline into a completely flat position, presumably so they could (ahem) elevate their performance art piece to the next level.

After the first time the lady in question caused my laptop to emit a loud crack of protest, I politely explained through the crack in the seats (now about five inches from my face) that the nearness of the rows rendered their desired level of reclining impossible. Even if I had not needed to be working on my computer throughout the flight — an absolute necessity, I assured them, due to the standard formatting educational needs of all of you fine people waiting who were at that very moment waiting impatiently for me to land — the only way I could possibly accommodate the angle they desired would involve my balancing my in-flight meal on the bride’s forehead as it hovered a few inches above my lap.

Apart from the meal part, the honeymoon couple thought that would be just fine. How nice of me to suggest it.

The hard-argued subsequent compromise involved my turning sideways, twisting one of my legs underneath me while resting, if it could be called that, my back against the window-side armrest. If I gingerly balanced my laptop on the tray table of the seat to my left, I could barely manage to type. My left hip and elbow swiftly fell asleep, and the position required my staring fixedly at the profile of the guy in 23C (whose wife, you will be astonished to hear, apparently doesn’t understand him), but that was a small price to pay for the approximately 19 degree incline my gymnastics permitted the honeymooners.

At least for the first twenty minutes or so. After that, they kept trying to recline their seats farther. Apparently, I was being unreasonable to expect enough personal space to keep my laptop open the 90 degrees recommended by the manufacturer for optimal screen visibility. I can now tell you from personal experience that while it’s still possible to read the screen down to roughly 49 degrees, the lower the lid, the less accurate the typing.

Also, the lower the lid, the more one is tempted to draw conclusions about the fundamental difference between content producers and content consumers. To the recliners, the notion that I would so need to express myself on any subject that it could not wait until after we had landed was, I gathered, completely incomprehensible.

Oh, wasn’t I done yet? They’d like to lean back and enjoy themselves properly.

As much as I would like to blame the honeymooners’ frankly not-very-neighborly attitude upon either a poor set of upbringings (raised by airline-phobic wolves, perhaps?) or some bizarre wedding-induced solipsism that made them sincerely believe that no other human happiness was important compared to theirs, I suspect something very simple was happening here: all three of us were basing our expectations of personal space not upon the current lay-out of the airplane, but our sense memories of what air travel had been in the past.

My body remembers fondly being able to operate a laptop in comfort on an airplane, and not all that long ago. And I can only assume that somewhere deep in the honeymooners’ musculature, their forms remembered equally well being able to flop backward with impunity, without violating anyone else’s space bubble.

Either that, or they were appallingly brought up. Either way, nobody was happy with the outcome.

A similar failure to communicate often characterizes the initial interactions between an aspiring writer and those he hopes will help his work get into print: agents, editors, contest judges, freelance editors, and of course, our old pal, Millicent the agency screener. From the new writer’s point of view, many of the hoops through which she’s expected to jump seem arbitrary, if not actively hostile to his progress. Yet from the other side of the divide, it’s practically incomprehensible that any serious writer would not be aware of prevailing standards.

Each side, in short, typically expects something different from the other than what the other believes he is expected to provide. If the communication gap is severe enough, each may even begin to suspect the other of violating expectations on purpose, just to be annoying.

But that’s very seldom the case, on either end. The expectations are simply different, as often as not because each side has in mind some mythical period when perfect communication was the norm, rather than the exception. Millicent sighs for the mythical days when the truly gifted tumbled out of the womb with a complete understanding of both standard format and changing market conditions; the aspiring writer longs for the fantastic era when every submission was read in its entirety, every time, and editors took the time to work with promising new authors on every promising sentence.

Both sides are perfectly at liberty to sigh nostalgically, of course. But the fact is, none of these conditions ever prevailed on a large scale.

Oh, well-advertised submission standards used to render looking professional a trifle easier, admittedly; back when the slush pile still existed at major publishers, a new author could occasionally leap-frog over a few levels of testing. And undoubtedly, editors formerly had more time to work with writers. Things change. But contrary to what many an aspiring writer would like to think, there’s never been a point in publishing history when mainstream publishers were purely non-profit enterprises, devoted solely to bringing new voices to the admiring masses, nor have the bulk of submissions ever been completely professional and market-oriented.

Those seats never reclined as fully as you remember them doing, either. Those tray tables have never been particularly spacious. And those minuscule bags of nuts and/or pretzels? Always chintzy.

All of which, I devoutly hope, will place you in the right frame of mind for confronting what seems to be a perennial controversy amongst aspiring writers: whether to place a chapter title (or just “Chapter One”) on the first line of a page or twelve lines below that, on the line just above where the text proper starts.

Don’t laugh, those of you who are new to this particular debate: this one has generated quite a body count over the years. Former comrades in arms, veterans of the writing trenches, have ceased speaking altogether over this issue; even judges within the same literary contest have been known to differ sharply on the subject.

Which is a trifle puzzling to those of us who deal with professional manuscripts for a living, frankly, because there actually isn’t a debate on our end. Nor do the Millicents gather over steaming lattes to debate the niceties of labeling a chapter. One way looks right to us for a book manuscript, period: the first page of a chapter should be formatted precisely the same way as the first page of a manuscript.

What does that mean in practice? Glad you asked.

The chapter title belongs at the top of the page (centered) if the manuscript is a book; as with the first page of a manuscript, the title appears at the top, with the text beginning twelve lines below. In a short story or article, by contrast, the title belongs twelve lines from the top of the page, on the double-spaced line above the text.

So yes, the spacing honestly does matter to the pros. As always, it’s to an aspiring writer’s advantage to use the format appropriate to the type of writing, if only because it will look right to the Millicent screening it.

The answer really is as simple as that. Why, then, the rampant confusion? And why, given that the difference is a relatively small one not necessarily reflective of the quality of the writing involved, might a professional reader like Millicent or Mehitabel the contest judge particularly care if a talented aspiring writer chose the wrong version?

As is my wont, I shall let you see for yourselves. To place the two vitriol-stained possibilities before you in all of their lush magnificence, the question here is should the first page of a book chapter look like this:

P&P opener right

Or like this:

P&P opener wrong

Quite a visceral difference, no? The first version is in standard format for a book manuscript; the second is for a short story or article. Although, as we have discussed earlier in this series, the first page of a short story, it would also include contact information for the author. Which means, in essence, that aspiring book writers who place the chapter heading immediately above the text are formatting it incorrectly for either a manuscript or a short story.

But let’s set that aside for the moment. The fact is, every week, Millicent sees huge numbers of submissions with chapter headings like the second example — and that makes her sigh. “Do they do this on purpose?” she mutters. “Just to annoy me?”

Seem like an overreaction? Not really: Millicents, the agents who employ them, and contest judges see far, far more examples of version #2 than #1 in book submissions. Many, many times more. So much so that — prepare to rejoice, because I haven’t said this very often throughout this series — although an agent would almost certainly make you move a low chapter title aloft, at this point in publishing history, you could probably get away with either chapter heading in a book submission.

If, of course, you didn’t care about making Millicent sigh.

I hasten to add, though, that I would be reluctant to buy into the astonishingly pervasive theory that if masses and masses of people do something, it automatically becomes correct. No matter how many times all of us see apostrophe + s used to make a noun plural, it’s just not proper — unless, of course, we’re talking about the Oakland A’s, where the erroneous apostrophe is actually part of the proper name.

Ditto with manuscript submissions: as anyone who screens manuscripts for a living would tell you (probably accompanied by a gigantic sigh), a much higher percentage of them are incorrectly formatted than presented properly. But that doesn’t make improper formatting right, does it? Nor does it render it reasonable to expect that Millicent will be pleased to see a chapter title lolling about just above the text.

As everyone’s mother was wont to say (at least on the West Coast), if everybody else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you, too?

I was delighted to discover when I moved to the East Coast for college that the moms out there were prone to asking the same question with reference to the Empire State Building. There must be something about that particular period of architecture (the GGB was built in 1933-37, the ESB in 1930-31) that promotes suicidal ideation.

Speaking of body counts. Back to the matter at hand.

The weird thing about this particular formatting oddity — I’m back to talking about chapter titles now, not suicide attempts, in case you found that last segue a mite confusing — is how often the incorrect version appears in otherwise perfectly presented manuscripts. That fact sets Millicent’s little head in a spin. As, I must admit, it does mine, as well as the brainpan of virtually every other professional reader I know.

Why is it so very puzzling to us, you ask? Because at least in my case — and I don’t think I’m revealing a trade secret here — although I have literally never seen an agent submit a manuscript to a publishing house with format #2, I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who insist that writing teachers and even contest judges have told them that #2 is the only acceptable version. That’s just weird to me, as I have never even heard of an agent, editor, or anyone else in the publishing industry’s asking for a chapter heading to be moved from the top of the page to just above the text. Although as I said, I do know agents who routinely ask for the shift in the other direction; mine, to name but one.

And believe me, I’ve heard some pretty strange requests from agents and editors in my time; I’m not easily shocked anymore. At this point in publishing history, to hear a professional reader insist upon placing the chapter heading where you have to skip down a third of a page to read it would have me reaching for my smelling salts.

(Do they even make smelling salts anymore? And if everyone else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge clutching them, would I?)

Clearly, somebody out there is preaching the place-it-just-above-the-text gospel, because agents, editors, and contest judges are simply inundated with examples of this formatting anomaly. We see bushels of ‘em. Hordes of aspiring writers are absolutely convinced that the sky will fall in if that chapter heading is located anywhere but immediately above the text. Sometimes, when those die-hard advocates become contest judges, they even dock correctly-formatted first pages for having the title in the right place.

In fact, many aspiring writers are so convinced of the rightness of the drooping title heading that it’s not all that uncommon for an editor to find that after she has left a couple of subtle hints like this that the writer should change the formatting…

…the subsequent drafts remain unchanged. The writer will have simply ignored the advice.

(A word to the wise: editors universally hate it when their advice is ignored. So do agents. Contest judges probably wouldn’t be all that fond of it, either, but blind submissions mean that in order to get dunned for brushing off a judge’s feedback, a writer would have to submit the same chapter two years running to the same contest, have the entry land in the same judge’s pile — in itself rather rare — and the judge would have to remember having given that feedback. Oh, and for the entrant to hear about it, the contest would have to be one of the few that gives editorial feedback.)

The up v. down debate may seem like a rather silly controversy — after all, in the cosmic scheme of things, why should it matter if the white space is above or below the title? — but sheer repetition and writerly tenacity in clinging to version #2 have turned it from a difference of opinion into a vitriol-stained professional reader pet peeve.

See earlier comment about how we tend to react to our advice being ignored; it’s seldom pretty.

Which, unfortunately, tends to mean that in discussions of the issue at conferences degenerate into writing-teacher-says-X, editor-at-Random-House-says-Y: lots of passion demonstrated, but very little rationale produced, beyond each side’s insisting that the other’s way just looks wrong.

However, there is a pretty good reason that moving the chapter heading information to just above the text looks wrong to someone who edits book manuscripts for a living: short stories’ first pages are supposedto look quite, quite different from those belonging to book manuscripts or proposals. Take a gander:

As you may see, for a short story like this one, there’s a mighty fine reason to list the title just above the text: a heck of a lot of information has to come first on the page, because short stories, unlike book manuscripts, are not submitted with a title page.

But that would not be proper in a book-length manuscript, would it? Let’s see what Noël’s editor might have said upon viewing this as the first page of a book:

Ouch. (That last bit would have been funnier if the entire page were readable, by the way, but my camera batteries were running low. Sorry about that.) Yet you must admit that at some level, the editor’s ire would have been justified: as Millicent and that angry mob of pitchfork-wielding ignored editors would be only too happy to tell you, short stories don’t HAVE chapters, so who on earth are they to be telling those of us in the book world how to format our manuscripts?

So I say it again: for a book manuscript, stick with version #1.

Which is not to say, of course, that this particular small deviation will automatically and invariably result in instantaneous rejection. It won’t, even in the latté-stained hands of the most format-sensitive Millicent. (See, she spilled coffee on her hands after she took a sip while it was still too hot — and if you didn’t get that joke, you probably haven’t been reading this blog for very long.) If a submission is beautifully written and technically correct in every other respect, she might only shake her head over the location of the chapter heading, making a mental note to tell you to change it between when her boss, the agent, signs the writer and when they will be submitting the manuscript to editors at publishing houses.

But if you don’t mind my saying so, that’s a mighty hefty set of ifs.

While I’m on the topic of common submitters’ misconceptions, this would probably be a good time to illustrate another ubiquitous agent and editor pet peeve, the bound manuscript — and you’re going to want to pay very close attention to this one, as it is almost universally an automatic-rejection offense.

Manuscript submissions, and I don’t care who hears me say it, should not be bound in any way. Ditto with book proposals. There’s an exceedingly simple reason for this: binding renders it impossible (or at least a major pain in the fingertips) to pull out a chapter, stuff it in one’s bag, and read it on the subway.

Hey, paper is heavy. Would you want to lug home ten manuscripts every night on the off chance you’ll read them? (And now that you’re pondering that one, are you still surprised at how many agents now routinely screen submissions on their Kindles?)

As with other ploys to make a manuscript appear identical to a published book, binding the loose pages of a manuscript for submission will not win you friends in the publishing world. Not only does this not look right (I spared you the chanting this time), but it seems so wrong that Millicent will be positively flabbergasted to see a submitter to do it.

She might, for instance, forget that her latte is still too hot to drink, take a sip, and scald her tongue. It’s been known to happen.

Seriously, the unbound manuscript is one of those rules so engrained in the professional reader’s mind that it seldom even occurs to authors, agents, or editors to mention it as a no-no at writers’ conferences. Heck, I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned it once within the first two years I was writing this blog — and by anyone’s standards, I’m unusually communicative about how manuscripts should be presented.

Talk about it all day, I will.

So I’m going to repeat myself, because you’re not going to hear this very often: by definition, book manuscripts should NEVER be bound in any way. Not staples, not spiral binding, not perfect binding. If you take nothing else away from this series, binding-lovers, I implore you to remember this.

Why am I making you swear to follow my advice this time around? Well, in practice, I’m sorry to report, a bound manuscript will seldom survive long enough in the screening process for the chapter-separation dilemma to arise, because — and it pains me to be the one to break this to those of you who’ve been submitting bound manuscripts, but if I don’t tell you, who will? — those pretty covers tend never to be opened at all.

Did you just exclaim, “Ye gods, WHY?” again? I can’t say as I blame you, but try for a moment to envision what a bound manuscript might look like from Millicent’s perspective.

To ramp up your stress levels to the proper level to understand her, envision a desk simply smothered with an immense pile of submissions to screen before going home for the day. Envision further that it’s already 6:30 PM, and eyeballs already dry as dust from a long, hard day of rejecting query letters.

Just lost your sympathy, didn’t she? Try, try again to place yourself in her desk chair.

Picturing that immense pile of envelopes clearly again? Okay, now slit open an envelope that reads REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside. (You do know that you should always scrawl that in two-inch letters in the lower left-hand corner of a submission envelope, don’t you, so your requested materials don’t get buried in the slush pile?)

If you’re Millicent — and right now, you are, singed tongue and all — you fully expect to see something like this lurking between the cover letter and the SASE tucked underneath:

P&P title right

But in the case of the bound manuscript, you would instead encounter something like this:

Kind of hard to miss the difference, isn’t it? Unfortunately, 999 times out of 1000, the next sound a bystander would hear would be all of that nice, expensive binding grating against the inside of the SASE, just before Millicent tucks a photocopied form rejection letter on top of it.

Honestly, it’s not that she is too lazy to flip open the cover; she just doesn’t see why she should. Clearly, this submitter has not done his homework.

That last phrase should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this autumn’s run of ‘Paloozas: it’s a standard euphemism for this writer would be difficult to work with, because he hasn’t bothered to learn what professional expectations for manuscripts/query letters/synopses/author bios are. Sigh…

This logic may not seen particularly open-minded, from a writerly perspective, but it’s a fairly common argument throughout the industry: if this binding-happy submitter does not know this very basic rule of manuscripts, how likely is he to know the rules of standard format? And if he does not know either, how likely is he to be producing polished prose? If he hasn’t taken the time to polish his prose, is this manuscript really finished?

And if it isn’t finished, why should I (you’re still Millicent, remember?) bother to invest my time in reading it before it is? (Again: sigh.)

I know, I know — this might not be a fair assessment in any individual case. Despite my best efforts over the last few years, there are plenty of good writers out there who happen to be clueless about the rules of standard format.

But even if they all jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, you shouldn’t.

This is yet another expectation-differential problem. From Millicent’s perspective, the fact that good writers aren’t necessarily born aware of the norms of the industry matters less than we writers would like — because, as unpleasant as it is for aspiring writers to realize, her agency is going to see enough technically perfect submissions this week to afford to be able to leap to unwarranted conclusions about this one.

The moral: don’t waste your money on binding.

Seem arbitrary? From a professional reader’s point of view, it isn’t — the enforcement of standard formatting isn’t actually any more complicated than the simple axiom that any game has rules, and you will play better if you take the time to learn them.

Think about it: if you saw a batter smack a baseball, then dash for third base instead of first on his way around the diamond, would you expect his home run to count? Would an archer who hit the bulls-eye in her neighbor’s target instead of her own win the grand prize? If you refused to pay the rent on Park Place because you didn’t like the color on the board, would you win the Monopoly game?

I can go on like this for days, you know. Please, I beg you, say that you are getting the parallels, so I may move on.

Submitting art to the marketplace has rules, too, and while your fourth-grade teacher probably did not impart them to you (as, if I ran the universe, s/he would have), you’re still going to be a whole lot better at playing the game if you embrace those rules, rather than fight them.

You’ll also, in the long run, enjoy playing the game more. It may not seem that way the first time one is struggling to change an already-written manuscript into standard format, but trust me, it will be much more fun when you finish your next manuscript and realize that there’s nothing that needs to be changed.

Let all of those other folks jump off the Golden Gate Bridge without you, I say. Remember, you’re playing this game by choice: you could, after all, make your own rules and publish your book yourself. If you want to play with the big kids, you’re going to need to abide by their rules.

At least at the submission stage.

Until you know the expectations of the lovely folks seated in the row behind you, don’t assume you can recline all the way back into their laps. Everyone on the plane is trying to get to the same place, after all. By following the rules, you can make it a more enjoyable trip for all concerned.

Next time, I shall tackle a less-common but still virulent misconception. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XIV: proclaim joy to the world, or at least broadcast consistent punctuation to it

angel on top of tree

Before I launch today, I have a genuinely delightful announcement: please join me in a big round of applause for Julie Wu, who has just sold her first novel to Algonquin! Congratulations, Julie, and I’m really looking forward to its publication!

I know: in this market. After an amazingly swift round of submissions. I’m excited about this book.

Although I always get a kick out of trumpeting the glad tidings that a good writer has at last been recognized for her talent, I have a more personal reason to be gleeful over this one: Julie was one of my freshman roommates at Harvard — which tells you a little something about how seriously the Housing Office took the rooming application essays in those thrilling days of yesteryear. Our dorm contained so many aspiring writers that the click-click-click of fingertips on keys was actually more deafening during the early weeks of the semester than when term papers were due.

Perhaps I do not need to underscore the moral, but when has that ever stopped me? It can be done, people. Keep on plugging away.

On a not entirely unrelated note: sincere congratulations, campers, for making so far in this extended series on standard format for manuscripts — book manuscripts, that is; once again, let me remind you that short stories, magazine articles, theses, dissertations, and other types of writing are subject to other restrictions. We’ve been tackling the big stuff all year, and I’m proud of all of you for having the gumption, not to mention the faith in your writing, to work through it with me.

Over the next few days (with perhaps a brief hiatus on a silent night I could mention), I shall be tying up the last few loose ends of standard format, including a reader-requested intensive discussion of the ins and outs of dialogue formatting and punctuation. As if that weren’t enough reason to tune in as soon as the turkey-induced stupor begins to subside a little, I have it on pretty good authority that a certain Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver will be dropping by on Boxing Day with the announcement of a contest that may be very interesting to those of you who write either literary fiction or memoir.

Or even both. Perhaps while I’m sitting on the FNDGG’s lap, we can discuss adding a third contest category for that pervasive kind of writing that walks the sometimes very thin line between the two.

Today, I would like to talk about two hallmarks of the professionally-presented manuscript, proper punctuation and consistency. Before any of you yawn prodigiously and turn one eye to watching yet another sitcom version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, please hear me out on this one, because these are two areas where the vast majority of submissions fall down on the job.

Perhaps because — feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, campers — the aforementioned vast majority of submissions are sent off without their writers taking the time to read the manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. And yes, Virginia, this is an excellent strategy, even if you happen to be planning to submit exclusively via e-mail.

Why is there honestly no substitute for that dramatic reading? It’s simply easier to catch typos, inadvertently skipped words, and punctuation gaffes in hard copy than on a computer screen — and as we discussed in last summer’s foray into the dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, some of the most common outcomes of repeated self-editing passes are style that varies markedly between one section of the manuscript and another, accidentally deleted words and punctuation, and yes, Virginia, uneven voice.

I’m not talking merely about manuscripts that require revision (although most submissions could use more liberal helpings of that, frankly), but also the fruits of repeated revision. Often, such errors are not the result of compositional carelessness, but of repeated revision. Zeroing in on the same page, paragraph, or even sentence over and over again without re-reading the entire section can easily result in a Frankenstein manuscript, one that reads in hard copy as though it were cobbled together from the corpses of several drafts, sometimes ones written in different voices.

Is it any wonder, then, that to a professional reader like our old pal Millicent the agency screener — happy holidays, Millie! — a manuscript whose author appears to know the rules of punctuation and grammar on page 5, but not on page 6, or whose authorial voice sounds substantially different on p. 1 and page 241, might seem ripe for rejection, on the assumption that the submitter needs to give it another round of polishing?

The same principle holds true for formatting, I’m afraid. Whether you choose to adhere to the rules of standard format we’ve been discussing over the last couple of weeks is ultimately, of course, up to you. But once you choose to follow a particular rule, you must obey it 100% of the time in your manuscript.

Let me repeat that, because it’s monumentally important: it’s not enough to adhere to a formatting rule most of the time; you must cleave to it in every single applicable instance in the text.Inconsistency — be it of voice or punctuation, spelling or format — simply isn’t going to look professional to people who read manuscripts for a living.

See now why it might behoove you to curl up in a comfy chair and start reading your manuscript out loud, Virginia? It’s the single best way to identify and root out Frankenstein tendencies.

I used to think that I didn’t actually need to state this requirement whenever I taught about standard format. After all, isn’t the part of the point of a rule that it should be followed on a regular basis, rather than merely periodically, as the whim strikes? However, I’ve seen enough manuscripts and contest entries (yes, I still judge from time to time; my, but you’re full of good questions today, Virginia) by good writers who sometimes use a single dash and sometimes a doubled one (if you’re not absolutely certain which is correct, I can only suggest that you reread this earlier ‘Palooza post), or whose Chapters 1-3, 6, and 17 have a (ugh) single space after periods and colons, whereas Chs. 4, 5, and 10-12 have two, and the rest feature both…

Well, you get the picture. Apparently, the need for consistency is not as self-evident as I — or Millicent — might like to believe. The overwhelming majority of aspiring writers simply do not reread their own work enough to have a clear sense of either its liabilities or its strengths.

Or so we must surmise from all of that inconsistent formatting. And spelling errors. And repeated words. And scenes where characters do or say things that they’ve done or said half a page before.

You know, the kind of stuff that any reader would catch if she sat down with the physical pages and read them closely. As in– wait for it — actually sitting down and reading a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD after every major revision pass.

Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a secret of good writing: it flows smoothly.

A sure narrative voice is a consistent one. That’s why writers brand-new to the writing game so often labor under the quite mistaken impression that their favorite books were their respective authors’ first drafts, and thus (one assumes) that their own first drafts should be marketable without further revision: because a the author of a well-crafted narrative works hard to create the illusion of spontaneous consistency.

Awfully hard. Seamlessness is no accident, you know.

So what do you think a professional reader like Millicent, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, or their Aunt Mehitabel the veteran contest judge thinks when they encounter, say, one sentence that’s in the past tense, followed by three that are in the present? Or a character named George on page 8 and Jorge on page 127?

“Inconsistency,” they breathe in unison. “This manuscript needs more work.”

Or at least a good authorial read-through IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. If not after every revision, then at least prior to submitting it.

It’s also not a bad idea to have more than one set of eyes go through it, because all of us simply see a great many more grammatical errors and formatting oddities than we did, say, fifteen years ago. Remember back when everyone thought it was so funny that the vice president at the time (I didn’t call that one) corrected a child at a spelling bee who had spelled potato correctly, causing him to change it to potatoe?

At the time, the literate world rocked with laughter. Now, we routinely see supermarket signs advertising potatoe and tomatoe prices. And that’s a bad thing for literacy, because the more you see the error, the more likely is to make it yourself.

Why? Like Millicent and standard formatting, sheer repetition can make it start to look right to you.

Especially when you spot such errors in ostensibly credible sources. It used to be a rarity to see a spelling mistake in a newspaper or magazine article, because they were so closely edited; since the advent of on-screen editing, it’s now not uncommon to see a misspelling or grammatical error in a published book.

Had I mentioned that there’s just no substitute for reading a piece of writing IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD? The eye is simply too likely to skip an error on-screen, partially because people read about 70% faster.

Then, too, AP standards — i.e., what governs what is considered correct in a newspaper or magazine — have, as we have discussed, recently adopted a number of practices that would not be kosher according to the dictates of standard format. The aforementioned single space after the period or colon, for instance, or capitalizing the first word after a colon.

All together now: sacre bleu!

While eliminating the extra space has been seen in published books for a while (but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily proper in a manuscript, right?), post-period capitalization was practically unheard-of in published books until just a couple of years ago. Now, one sees it periodically (often, not entirely coincidentally, in books by journalists), along with some rather peculiar interpretations of the semicolon and the ellipsis.

And what happens, Virginia, when you see rules routinely bent in this manner? That’s right: confusion. Inevitably resulting, no matter what my agent friend says, in good writers raising questions like this:

I tried searching for this, but didn’t find an answer. Ellipses! Is the proper format:?.[space].[space].?or … with no spaces? Thanks as always.

This is a perfectly reasonable question now, of course, but it’s not one that was at all likely to come up even five years ago. Prior to that, pretty much any printed source would have adhered to the traditional rules governing ellipses, with the natural result that fewer writers were confused. Heck, they might even have learned the contextual rules governing ellipses in school.

What’s that, Virginia? You want to know what those rules are, since I’ve brought them up? Happy to oblige.

1. Ellipses are most commonly used mid-sentence, to mark a pause in speech. In this context, the periods in the ellipse should appear without spaces between them — and without spaces between them and the surrounding words, either. In other words, they should look like this:

“I’m appalled,” Ghislaine said. “More than appalled. I’m…horrified.”

2. Ellipses may also be used to alert the reader to skipped text in the middle of a quote. In these instances, whether an ellipse should have a space between its end and the end of the next word is entirely dependent upon whether the beginning of the next quoted part is a new sentence. Thus, if the original quotation was,

“I am in no way endorsing this policy or any other, because I feel it would be bad for the nation. I cannot be held responsible for its unhappy results.”

It would be proper to reproduce excerpts as:

The prime minister’s statement was unequivocal: “I am in no way endorsing this policy…because I feel it would be bad for the nation.”

Or as:

The prime minister’s statement was unequivocal: “I am in no way endorsing this policy… I cannot be held responsible for its unhappy results.”

3. Ellipses may also be used to show where the narration expects the reader to fill in the subsequent logic, as well as when speaker’s voice has trailed off into silence. As in:

Harry smiled, slipping one arm out of a sleeve that didn’t cover too much of his arm in the first place. A quick wiggle, and the rest of his shirt was off. Then he reached for his belt…

As much as some of you might want me to complete that paragraph, this is a family-friendly website. Besides, you’re perfectly capable of imagining the rest for yourself, are you not? In this case, the ellipse indicates my faith in your imaginative powers.

As would this, if I were writing dialogue — the most common use of this type of ellipsis:

“My, it’s hot in here.” Coyly, Harry shrugged his Flashdance-style sweater off one shoulder. “If only there were a way we could cool off…”

4. In reproducing a quote, an ellipsis can tell the reader that the quote continued, despite the fact that the writer chose not to show it in its entirety. This can come in handy, especially when writing about the kind of speaker who drones on and on:

“I deny the allegations,” the senator said. “I deny them absolutely, unequivocally, and in every other way. I deny that I cavorted in the House; I deny that I cavorted with a mouse. I deny that I cavorted in socks; I deny that I cavorted with a fox…”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? (And just between us, Virginia, wasn’t this a clever way of me to answer a reader’s question in a post that’s really about a larger issue?)

As nit-picky as all of these rules are, sometimes, good writers over-think them. So much so that they sometimes extrapolate extra rules of their own — but don’t necessarily apply them consistently throughout their manuscripts.

Yes, you read that correctly, Virginia. (She’s getting quite a workout today, is she not?) In my experience, most aspiring writers are very good about following the rules, once they know about them. In fact, really conscientious writers are quite a bit more likely to subject their manuscripts to extra restrictions than to ignore any of the established rules.

What kind of extra rules, you ask? Well, in our last sojourn on the standard format merry-go-round, two different readers asked how to format apostrophes and quotation marks. Ripped ruthlessly from their original context:

Could you in one of your really wonderful (and I really mean wonderful) posts on standard manuscript formatting devote a paragraph to quote marks and apostrophes? Times New Roman can have them both straight and curly, so which should I use? Or should I just make sure I’m consistent and leave it at that?

and

A related problem I have is in trying to place an apostrophe at the beginning of a word, particularly when writing dialogue and attempting to add a bit of the vernacular. To just type it, the apostrophe ends up being a “front-end” single quotation mark. I have to resort to some spacing and deleting shenanigans to get to appear correctly.

I freely admit it: I’m always a bit nonplused when I get questions like this, ones that assume a rule that just isn’t observed in professional manuscripts. As tempting as it might be to dust off my personal preferences on the subject and present them as a binding rule — which, as we’ve discussed throughout each of this autumn’s ‘Paloozas, is not an unheard-of thing for either a professional reader or a writing advice-giver to do — but the fact is, the expectations about both apostrophes and quotation marks in manuscripts have remained unchanged since the days when every submission was produced on a manual typewriter.

Which, in case you haven’t seen one lately, provided precisely one option for an apostrophe (‘) and exactly one for a quotation mark (“). On the same key, on most typewriters.

What does this mean for manuscript format? Good news, insofar as it translates into less work for writers: as long as the format is consistent and the punctuation is correct, Millicent’s not going to care one way or the other. Pick the one you prefer, and cling to it like an unusually tenacious leech.

I can completely understand why the two writers who brought it up — or any aspiring writer — would have wondered about this point: as readers, we do see various styles of apostrophe and quotation mark turning up in published books. Many readers also seem unaware that while U.S. publishers use doubled quotation marks (“), U.K. publishers use single quotation marks (‘), resulting in a whole lot of writers on both sides of the pond wondering vaguely if those other types of quotation mark mean something different — to mark text as ironic, perhaps?

Oh, you may laugh, but actually, it’s not all that great a logical leap. Given how counter-intuitive some of the rules of standard format are, it would not be at all astonishing if the publishing industry harbored some formatting preference that half of the writers in the world had heard nothing about.

But that’s not the case here; there is no special punctuation for irony. You have my full permission never to think about it again. Go sleep the undisturbed sleep of the just.

Before you go, though, one more piece of formatting advice: as you make your way through the bewildering forest of advice out there, toting your massive grain of salt, be aware of the fact that many seemingly authoritative sources out there disagree on certain points for the very simple reason that they’re talking about different things.

Pay close attention to context, because advice-givers often do not say explicitly, as I do, “Look, what I’m talking about here applies to book manuscripts and proposals, not other types of writing. So if you are trying to format a short story for submission to a magazine, please seek elsewhere.” Because such a high percentage of the aspiring writers’ market wants easy answers, preferably in the form of a single-page list of rules universally applicable to every writing venue, the temptation to produce a short, one-size-fits-all list of rules is considerable.

That doesn’t mean you should disregard such lists entirely, of course. Just keep in mind that any list that purports to cover every type is necessarily going to run afoul of some established standard somewhere — and that occasionally, rules pop up online and at conferences that would make Millicent’s eyes pop out of their sockets with astonishment.

Which is why, in case you’ve been curious, I have been going over even the simplest of the actual rules in such great detail, and with practical illustrations; I want all of you not only to adhere to the strictures of standard format, but to understand why each rule is to your advantage to embrace. That’s why I keep asking (and asking, and asking) if anybody has any questions. I just don’t think handing creative-minded people a brief list of mysterious orders is the best means of helping you become comfortable with the industry’s expectations.

So if anyone is looking for terse, bullet-pointed to-do lists for writers, I think any of my long-term readers can tell you that this blog is NOT the place to start. As the thousands of pages of archived posts here can attest, I am the queen of elaboration. Lots and lots of elaboration.

Speaking of elaboration and unnecessary doohickeys writers sometimes shoehorn into their book manuscripts and proposals, let’s talk about what should happen on the last page. Here, too, aspiring writers often give themselves extra trouble.

For a book manuscript, the proper way to end it is simply to end it. No bells, no whistles, no # # #, no -86-. Just stop writing.

Even the ever-popular THE END is not needed. In fact, I know plenty of Millicents (and their bosses, and editors, and contest judges) who routinely giggle when they see THE END typed on a last page, presumably — excuse my going out on an interpretive limb here — to indicate that a manuscript is not, in fact, going to continue.

“What is this writer thinking?” they ask one another, amused. “That I’m going to keep reading all of that blank space after the last paragraph, wondering where all of the ink went? That I’m incapable of understanding why there aren’t any more pages in the submission? Please!”

Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about professional critique being harsh? Don’t even get me started on professional ridicule.

Personally, I have sympathy for how confusing all of the various advice out there must be for those who have never seen a professional manuscript up close and personal. But honestly, some of the rules that commenters have asked about over the last three years must be from sources that predate World War II, or perhaps the Boer War. I’ve been editing book manuscripts for most of my adult life (and proofing galleys since early junior high school), and I have to say, I’ve literally never seen a single one that ended with “-86-”

So truth compels me to admit that I can sort of see where Millicent might find it amusing to see in a submission. Or might not find it amusing to see punctuation used inconsistently, or chapters begun without an indented paragraph (more on that one next time), or dashes that are sometimes doubled and sometimes not. Because while much of writing is a matter of style, and might thus vary throughout a manuscript, format, punctuation, and voice require consistency. Otherwise, how is Millicent to tell what is a fluke, what a typo, and what a daring experiment in the English language?

To people who read book manuscripts for a living in the US, the very notion of there not being a consensus about formatting, punctuation, spelling, grammar, and the other rule-based aspects of writing is downright odd: why, the evidence that there is a consensus is sitting right in front of them. The mailman brings stacks of it, every single day.

“Oh, come on — everyone doesn’t already know these rules?” agents and editors frequently ask me, incredulous. “This information is widely available, isn’t it?”

That’s a quote, people — but as someone who regularly works with folks on both sides of the submission aisle, I have come to believe that the wide availability of the information is actually part of the problem here. The rules governing book manuscripts haven’t changed all that much over the years, from an insider’s perspective, but from the point of view of someone new to the game, the fact that they have changed at all, ever — coupled with these rules not being applicable to every conceivable type of professional writing — can look an awful lot like inconsistency.

And we all know how Millie, Maury, and Mehitabel feel about that, don’t we?

If the flurry of rules starts to seem overwhelming, remind yourself that although submissions do indeed get rejected for very small reasons all the time, it’s virtually unheard-of for any manuscript to have only one problem. Like ants, manuscript red flags seldom travel alone.

So I would caution any aspiring writer against assuming that any single problem, formatting or otherwise, was the only reason a manuscript was getting rejected. Most of the time, it’s quite a few reasons working in tandem — which is why, unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon for Millicent and her cohorts to come to believe that an obviously improperly-formatted manuscript is unlikely to be well-written. The notion that changing only one thing, even a major one, in the average manuscript would render it rejection-proof is not particularly easy for a professional reader to swallow.

There is no such thing as a rejection-proof manuscript, you know — although there is definitely such a thing as a manuscript that rejects itself. While it would indeed be dandy if there were a magical formula that could be applied to any manuscript to render it pleasing to every Millicent out there, that formula simply doesn’t exist; individual tastes and market trends vary too much. Not to mention the fact that the slow economy is making most agents and editors really, really cautious about picking up any manuscript at all right now.

This is vital to understand about standard format: it’s not a magic wand that can be waved over a submission to make every agent, editor, and contest judge on the face of the earth squeal with delight at the very sight of it. But it is a basic means of presenting your writing professionally, so your garden-variety Millicent will be able to weigh it on its non-technical merits.

All I can claim for standard format — and this isn’t insignificant — is that adhering to it will make it less likely that your submission will be rejected on a knee-jerk basis. However, I’m not going to lie to you: even a perfectly-formatted manuscript is going to garner its share of rejections, if it’s sent out enough.

Why? Because every agent out there, just like every editor, harbors quirky, individuated ideas about how the perfect book should be written.

Sorry. If I ran the universe…

Well, you know the rest. Try not to lose too much sleep through trying to second-guess what Millicent and her ilk want to see. Just do your best: writing well and presenting a clean manuscript honestly is how pretty much all of us landed our agents.

Keep plugging ahead — I’m counting upon you to provide me the joyous literary announcements of years to come. Keep up the good work!

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

Mail slot2Mail slotMail slot3

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

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

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

Who do you thinks gives the good children books?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

academic example

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

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

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

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

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

novel-letter-example1

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

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

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

novel-letter-example2

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

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

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

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

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

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

novel-letter-example-long

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

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

novel-letter-example-long2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

academic diary entry

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

NF diary entry 1

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

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

NF diary entry b

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

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

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

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

diary fiction 1

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

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

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

diary fiction 2

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

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

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

diary chapter 1

diary chapter 2

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

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

Formatpalooza XII: it may be possible to see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour, but that doesn’t mean a submitter should play tricks with the space-time continuum

green anemone

For the past few posts in this series, we’ve been comparing manuscripts in standard format with improperly-formatted ones — on their title pages, their first pages, and their mid-text pages — to see the rules in action, as well as how your submission’s chances could be hurt if you deviate from them. I hope you’ve been finding this more useful than a simple list of submission guidelines; in my experience, most rookie submitter mistakes arise not merely from simple ignorance of the strictures of standard format, but from the low-level panic that comes from having to guess whether one is performing the secret handshake correctly.

The better an aspiring writer understands the rules, the less guesswork is involved. It may not eliminate the stress of submission entirely, but it does at least remove one of the most common stressors from the mix.

Heck, you might even become relaxed enough about the process to feel a few glimmerings of sympathy for Millicent the agency screener. Each and every week, she has to read thousands upon thousands of pages just like the ones we’ve been considering.

Does the very idea of empathizing with her seem strange to those of you new to the querying and submission process? Admittedly, she is also the person who rejects the vast majority of queries and submissions sent to her agency — remember, at a US agency of any size, a manuscript typically has to make it past one or two Millicents before getting anywhere near an agent’s desk; that’s one reason average turn-around times have risen in recent years from weeks to months. (Another reason: a lot of agencies have had to lay off Millicents and administrative assistants, meaning that fewer eyes are scanning more pages.)

Yet given what a small percentage of these documents are properly formatted and spell-checked and original andbook category-appropriate, much less well-written, it’s hard to blame her eye for becoming a trifle jaded over time. As enviable as her job sounds (Reading for a living! Sign me up! many writers think), reading for errors is actually not very pleasurable, usually.

And make no mistake: it’s a screener’s job to read for technical errors, with an eye to weeding out the aforementioned vast majority of submissions. Unfortunately, as a group, aspiring writers make it easier than it should be to reject a promising voice. Technical mistakes are so common that the lack of them is sometimes the difference between a well-written manuscript that strikes Millicent as well-written enough to keep reading beyond the first page or two and one that makes her exclaim, “Oh, too bad — this writer isn’t ready yet. Next!”

Way back in the dim days of yesteryear, before you had been initiated into the mysteries of standard format, the fact that the writing was not the only factor considered in rejection decisions probably annoyed you just a trifle, didn’t it? Now that you’ve passed the Rubicon and are formatting your manuscripts like a pro, you can afford to smile compassionately at both Millicent and the literally millions of queriers and submitters who ply her with unprofessional-looking pieces of paper.

Or does that smirk off your face mean that I’m once again overestimating my readers’ saintly willingness to walk a mile in the moccasins that routinely kick aspiring writers’ dreams into the rejection pile?

Okay, let me speak to the more practical side of your collective psyche: even if you aren’t in the habit of empathizing with people who reject writers for a living, there’s a good self-interested reason you should care about her state of mind — or an agent, editor, or contest judge’s, for that matter. Simply put, Even with the best will in the world, grumpy, over-burdened, and/or rushed readers tend to be harder to please than cheerful, well-treated, well-rested ones.

And she does tend, alas, to fall in the former categories on more days than the latter. Millicent is the Tiny Tim of the literary world, you know; at least the Bob Cratchits a little higher up on the office totem pole uniformly get paid, but our Millie often gets a paycheck that’s more an honorarium than a living wage. Heck, some Millicents are not paid at all. Some do it for college credit — or just the experience.

Phenomena that one might reasonably expect to become increasingly common, by the way: the worse a bad economy gets, the better an unpaid intern is going to look to a cash-conscious agency. Or, heaven help us, a worried publishing house that’s been laying off editors. (And editorial assistants, increasing turn-around times at publishing houses, too.)

Fortunately, literary contests in the U.S. are almost exclusively judged by volunteer Mehitabels, at least prior to the finalist round, so writing competitions continue to be judged very much as they ever were. The Hitties of the world tend to be public-spirited authors, freelance editors, writing teachers, etc. who honestly are in it to help discover exciting new voices. If anything, however, that let’s-improve-the-literary-world orientation usually renders them less tolerant of technical errors in entries than Millicent is, not more.

Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Which is why — you ‘Palooza followers can hear this coming, can’t you? — a savvy submitter always reads her ENTIRE manuscript IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before sending it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with a literary contest or the publishing industry. It’s much, much easier to catch formatting issues, typos, and logic problems that way.

Even if Millie’s not an intern, she’s still unlikely to be paid very much, at least relative to the costs of living in the cities where the major publishers dwell. Her hours are typically long, and quite a lot of what she reads in the course of her day is, let’s face it, God-awful. Not to mention poorly formatted.

Oh, wait; I have mentioned it. Repeatedly.

“So why are you bringing it up yet again?” the masses shout indignantly.

On the outside chance that I’m being too subtle here: it’s vital to any aspiring writer’s happiness to be aware that while God-awful manuscripts and book proposals are, naturally, self-rejecting, every year, thousands upon thousands of otherwise well-written manuscripts get rejected on purely technical grounds.

Millicent’s job, in short, is not the glamorous, power-wielding potentate position that those who have not yet passed the Rubicon of signing with an agency often assume it to be. Nor, ideally, will she be occupying the position of first screener long: rejecting queries and manuscripts by the score on-the-job training for a fledgling agent, in much the same way as an editorial assistant’s screening manuscripts at a publishing houses is the stepping-stone to becoming an editor.

You didn’t think determining a manuscript’s literary merits after just a few lines of text was a skill that came naturally to those who lead their lives right and got As in English, did you? To be good an their jobs, agents and editors have to learn to spot professional writing in the wild — which means, in part (out comes the broken record again) having to recognize what a properly-formatted manuscript should and should not look like.

Actually, the aspiring writer’s learning curve is often not dissimilar to Millicent’s: no one tumbles out of the womb already familiar with the rules of manuscript formatting. (Okay, so I practically was, growing up around so many authors, but I’m a rare exception.) Like Millicent, most of us learn the ropes only through reading a great deal.

She has the advantage over us, though: she gets to read books in manuscript form, and most aspiring writers, especially at the beginning of their journeys to publication, read only books. So what writers tend to produce in their early submissions are essentially imitations of books.

The problem is, the format of the two is, as I believe that I have pointed out, oh, several hundred times throughout this ‘Palooza, quite different — and not, as some of you may have been muttering in the darkness of your solitary studios throughout this series, merely because esoteric rules render it more difficult for new writers to break into the biz.

Just a few of the many, many things an aspiring writer often does not know before submitting for the first time: manuscripts should be typed (don’t laugh; it’s not unheard-of for diagrams to be hand-drawn, hand-number, or for late-caught typos to be corrected in pen), double-spaced, and have 1-inch margins all the way around.

Let’s see why all of those things are necessary, from a professional point of view. Speaking of Tiny Tim, let’s call upon our old friend Charles Dickens again to see what a page of a manuscript should look like,

Nice and easy to read, isn’t it? (Assuming that you find it so, of course. If it’s too small to read easily on your browser, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + until the type is large enough to read comfortably.)

To give you some idea of just how difficult it would be to read, much less hand-edit, a manuscript that was not double-spaced or had smaller margins, take a gander at this little monstrosity:

I believe the proper term for this is reader-hostile. Even an unusually patient and literature-loving Millicent would reject a submission like this immediately, without reading so much as a word. As would, more often than not, Mehitabel.

Did I hear a few spit-takes during that last paragraph? “My goodness, Anne,” those of you who are wiping coffee, tea, or the beverage of your choice off your incredulous faces sputter, “why would any sane person consider presentation violations that serious an offense? It is, after all, precisely the same writing.”

Well, think about it: even with nice, empty page backs upon which to scrawl copy edits, trying to cram spelling or grammatical changes between those lines would be well-nigh impossible. Knowing that, Millicent would never dream of passing such a manuscript along to the agent who employs her; to do so would be to invite a stern and probably lengthy lecture on the vicissitudes of the life editorial — and that fact that, despite impressive innovations in technology, most line editing a single-spaced document in either hard or soft copy is well-nigh impossible.

Too hard on the eyes — and where on earth would the comments go on the hard copy?

Don’t tempt her to reject your submission unread — and don’t even consider, I beg of you, providing the same temptation to a contest judge. Given the sheer volume of submissions Millicent reads, she’s not all that likely to resist. The contest judge, on the other hand, will be specifically instructed not to resist at all.

Yes, really. Even if the sum total of the provocation consists of a manuscript that’s shrunk to, say, 95% of the usual size, Mehitabel is likely to knock it out of the running on sight.

Some of you are blushing, aren’t you? Perhaps some past contest entrants and submitters who wanted to squeeze in a particularly exciting scene before the end of those requested 50 pages?

No? Let me fill you in on a much-deplored practice, then: faced with a hard-and-fast page limit, some wily writers will shrink the font or the margins, to shoehorn a few more words onto each page. After all, the logic runs, who is going to notice a tenth of an inch sliced off a left or right margin, or notice that the typeface is a trifle smaller than usual?

Millicent will notice, that’s who, and practically instantly. As will any reasonably experienced contest judge; after hours on end of reading 12-point type within 1-inch margins, a reader develops a visceral sense of roughly how many characters fit on a properly-formatted page.

Don’t believe me? Go back and study today’s first example, the correctly formatted page. Then take a gander at this wee gem of tricky intent:

I shaved only one-tenth of an inch off each margin and shrunk the text by 5% — far, far less of a reduction than most fudgers attempt. Admit it: you can tell it’s different, can’t you, even without whipping out a ruler?

So could a professional reader. And let me tell you, neither the Millicents of this world nor the contest judges appreciate attempts to trick them into extraneous reading. Next!

The same principle applies, incidentally, to query letters: often, aspiring writers, despairing of fitting a coherent summary of their books within the standard single page, will shrink the margins or typeface on a query. Trust me, someone who reads queries all day, every day, will be able to tell.

The other commonly-fudged spacing technique involves skipping only one space after periods and colons, rather than the grammatically-requisite two spaces. Frequently, writers won’t even realize that this is fudging: as we’ve discussed, and recently, ever since published books began omitting these spaces in order to save paper, there are plenty of folks out there who insist that skipping the extra space in manuscripts is obsolete.

Including, as we have also discussed, some agents — and yes, Virginia, it is the submitter’s responsibility to check agency websites to make sure whether the particular agent to whom he is submitting happens to harbor that particular preference. If you encounter an agent who does, your path is clear — and feel free to shout this one out along with me, conscientious ‘Palooza-followers: if an agency’s guidelines ask for something specific in a submission, for heaven’s sake, give it to them. Just don’t generalize individual preferences to the entire industry.

If they don’t express a preference for single-spacing, stick to standard format, regardless of what you may have heard online about how nobody is using double-spacing after periods and colons anymore. It’s simply not true.

But that’s not what you’d think from the vehemence of the single-space faithful, is it? Frequently, the proponents will insist that manuscripts that include the space look hopelessly old-fashioned to agents and editors.

Well, guess what, cookie — standard manuscript format is old-fashioned, by definition; that fact doesn’t seem to stop most of the currently-published authors of the English-speaking world from using it. In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen an already agented manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon.

I have, however, heard endless complaint from professional readers — myself included — about those second spaces being omitted. Care to guess why?

Reward yourself with a virtual partridge in a pear tree if you said that cutting those spaces throws off word count estimation; the industry estimates assume those doubled spaces. (If you don’t know how and why word count is tallied, please see the HOW TO ESTIMATE WORD COUNT — AND WHY category on the archive list at right.)

And give yourself five golden rings if you also suggested that omitting them renders a manuscript harder to hand-edit. We all know the lecture Millicent is likely to get if she forgets about that, right?

Again, a pro isn’t going to have to look very hard at a space-deprived page to catch on that there’s something fishy going on — and again, we’re going to take a gander at why. Since Dickens was so fond of half-page sentences, the examples I’ve been using above won’t illustrate this point very well, so (reaching blindly into the depths of the bookshelf next to my computer), let’s take a random page out of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s wonderful take on the Bluebeard myth, VERA:

Vera correctly

There are 310 words on this page; I wasn’t kidding the other day about how far off the standard word count estimations were. Now cast your eye over the same text improperly formatted:

Doesn’t look significantly different to the naked eye, does it? The word count is only slightly lower on this version of this page — 295 words — but enough to make quite a difference over the course of an entire manuscript.

Do I see some hands shooting up out there? “But Anne,” I hear some sharp-eyed readers exclaim, “wasn’t the word count lower because there was an entire line missing from the second version?”?

Well spotted, criers-out: the natural tendency of omitting the second spaces would be to include more words per page, not less. But not spacing properly between sentences was not the only deviation from standard format here; Millicent, I assure you, would have caught two others.

I tossed a curve ball in here, to make sure you were reading as closely as she was. Wild guesses? Anyone? Anyone?

The error that chopped the word count was a pretty innocent one, almost always done unconsciously: the writer did not turn off the widow/orphan control, found in Word under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. As we discussed only the other day, this insidious little function, the default unless one changes it, prevents single lines of multi-line paragraphs from getting stranded on either the bottom of one page of the top of the next.

As you may see, keeping this function operational results in an uneven number of lines per page. Which, over the course of an entire manuscript, is going to do some serious damage to the word count.

As would tinkering with the bottom margin to allow an extra line on the page. Here it is with only a minor change, a .9 inch bottom margin instead of 1 inch, a modification so minute that a non-professional reader would probably not notice that it was non-standard. To compress a bit more, let’s have only one space after each period.

Vera with extra line

A bit claustrophobic, is it not? If you don’t find it so, consider it as Millicent would: not as an individual page, isolated in space and time, but as one of the several thousand she has read that week. Lest we forget, most of the ones she will have been taking seriously will have looked like this:

Vera correctly

See it now? While Millicent is highly unlikely to have either the time or the inclination to whip out a ruler to check whether that bottom margin is really a full inch (although Mehitabel might), she will be able to tell that this page has more words on the page than the others she has seen that day. She might not be able to tell instantly precisely how this page has been modified, but she will be able to tell that something’s off.

“But Anne,” clever rule-manipulators all over North America shout, “I’ve been modifying my submissions this way for years, and nobody has ever called me out on it. Therefore, I do not believe it’s ever been a factor in my work being rejected — and it does allow me to stay under that all-important 400-page limit.”

Perhaps, rules-lawyers, but let me ask you a question: have you ever had such a manuscript accepted?

It’s an extremely common submitter’s misconception, especially amongst those brand-new to the game or who have only submitted pages as part of a query packet, rather than as requested materials, that if they were really doing something wrong, the rejecter would tell them so. In these days of form-letter rejections — and even no-reply rejections — this is simply an unrealistic expectation.

Especially for a formatting error. Since most submissions contain at least one — and remember, formatting problems, like spelling and grammar gaffes, tend to travel in packs — and since non-adherence to standard format is so universally regarded as symptomatic of a lack of professional knowledge, it would be prohibitively time-consuming for Millicent to scrawl try learning how to format a manuscript, then resubmit.

No, regardless of whether the ultimate rejection trigger was that extra line per page, the second misspelling in paragraph 2, or a premise that Millicent has seen seventeen times that week, the reasons given for sending back the submission will probably run like this: I’m sorry, but this manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. I just didn’t fall in love with this story, and I don’t feel that I can sell this in the current tough market. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

The moral of this sad, sad story: it seldom pays to assume that you’re doing it right just because you haven’t been told you are doing it wrong. And it pays even less often to conclude from the generalities of a boilerplate rejection that there can’t have been any specific technical problem that caused Millicent, if not to reject it outright, then at least to take the submission less seriously.

Besides, there was another notorious agents’ pet peeve in an earlier example — although, frankly, it would have irritated a contest judge far more than Millicent. Here’s the page again; see if you can spot it this time. (Hint: it was not in the properly-formatted version.)

Take ten lords a-leaping out of petty cash if you ran your eyes thoughtfully over this example and became riveted to the next-to-last line of the page: an emdash (“But—“) instead of a doubled dash. Here again, we see that the standards that apply to printed books are not proper for manuscripts.

Which brings me to yet another moral for the day: just because a particular piece of formatting looks right to those of us who have been reading books since we were three doesn’t mean that it is correct in a manuscript.

Or book proposal. Or contest entry.

Remember, Millicent reads manuscripts all day; contest judges read entries for hours at a time. After a while, a formatting issue that might well not even catch a lay reader’s attention can begin to seem gargantuan.

Please don’t dismiss this as unimportant to your success as a writer. If writing is solid, it deserves to be free of distracting formatting choices. You want agents, editors, and contest judges to be muttering, “Wow, this is good,” over your manuscript, not “Oh, God, he doesn’t know the rules about dashes,” do you not?

Spare Tiny Tim the chagrin, please; both you and she will be the happier for it. Believe me, she could use a brilliantly-written, impeccably-formatted submission to brighten her possibly Dickensian day. Be compassionate toward her plight — and your submission’s, proposal’s, and/or contest entry’s. Pay close enough attention to the technical details that yours the submission that makes her say, “Oh, here is good writing, well presented.”

Do you feel your self-editorial eyes sharpening? Excellent. Next time, I’ll bring more practical examples as whetting stones. And if you can manage to wipe that completely distasteful metaphor from your mind until tomorrow, keep up the good work!