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

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

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

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


Hi Anne.

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harsh? Perhaps? True? Undoubtedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Oh, dear. Are you sitting down?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mail slot2Mail slotMail slot3

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

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

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

Who do you thinks gives the good children books?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

academic example

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

academic diary entry

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

NF diary entry 1

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

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

NF diary entry b

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

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

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

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

diary fiction 1

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

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

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

diary fiction 2

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

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

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

diary chapter 1

diary chapter 2

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

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