“Really?” Millicent says, gaping at her overflowing inbox. “It’s rejection season again?” and other things queriers and submitters don’t want to hear

disaproving gargoyles

 

Did you hear that long, low howl of despair in the early working hours this morning, campers? Did its mournful resonance chill your bones, or at least lightly chill your marrow? Did it prompt you to yank the covers over your head, reasoning that whether that terrible noise came from the wind or the collective resultants of holiday merry-makers returning to work, you wanted no part of it?

If you’re a writer, I hope you obeyed that instinct, at least so far as acting upon that New Year’s resolution to pop that query or submission into the mail (or e-mail) goes. Why, you ask, teeth chattering at the far-off sounds of wailing and the rending of garments? Because today marks the statistically worst day of the year for writers to send off their work electronically — or for an agency or publishing house to receive it in either soft copy or hard.

And it’s the single worst day every year. That’s why the moans of agency screeners — those excellent souls known here at Author! Author! under the collective name of Millicent, to help us remember that these are human beings with individual literary tastes working for agents with personal preferences, as well as literary market savvy — invariably beard the heavens on not only the first work day of the year, but for most of January.

“Great Caesar’s ghost,” they cry, or some equivalent, “I’ve never seen so many queries/submissions/literary contest entries in my life!”

Actually, pretty much everyone who reads manuscripts for a living tends to indulge in a bit of moaning right about now, and with good reason: the single most common New Year’s resolution writers make involves sending off a query or finally submitting those requested pages. To toil anywhere in the publishing vineyard is to spend the opening days of every year buried under an avalanche of writers’ dearest hopes.

It’s heartwarming, really, how many writers actually follow through on their determination to make take those intimidating baby steps toward bringing their writing to professional attention. Even back when querying and submission meant typing and retyping one’s baby on an Underwood, hundreds of thousands of bright-eyed resolvers queried and submitted in early January, every year. Since the arrival of the personal computer made these tasks easier, and e-mail sped up communication, the volumes have risen astronomically. For e-mailing queriers and submitters in particular, the first weekend of the year seems just made for keeping those laudable promises to oneself.

“And why not?” aspiring writers proud of themselves for having worked up the not inconsiderable nerve required to hit the SEND key yesterday. “As you like to say here at Author! Author!, the only manuscript that stands absolutely no chance of getting published is the one that never gets sent out, right? So here I go! This is the year I’m going to land an agent/get published/place a short story/fulfill other writing dreams dependent upon the approval of other people!”

I applaud your enthusiasm, SEND-hitters, truly. It’s not an easy thing, offering up your beloved writing to an agent or editor’s judgment. You know the prospects your work is facing: it’s tough for an original story or new voice to break into the current extremely tight literary market. Add to that the tens of thousands of queries a well-established agencies will receive, and those are some pretty long odds for even a great story and wonderful style to surmount.

But you’ll never know unless you try, right? Good for you for putting your talent to the test — many a brilliant writer never finds the courage to let those pages be seen by another human being, much less a professional reader with the power and authority to bring that writing to a broader audience. An audience that might pay to read it, even.

May I make a gentle suggestion about tilting those odds ever so slightly in your favor, however? Would you consider not querying or submitting at precisely the same time as every other New Year’s resolver? Would it really not be fulfilling your resolution if you held off until, say, after Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, when the sheer volume hitting Millicent’s inbox will be significantly lower?

Would you, in short, wait until we’re past the month of the year in which rejection rates are predictably the highest?

I know, I know: you are positively aching to get that query or submission out the door. You’re resolved, in fact, that this will be the January that you crack the publication code. And the sooner you launch your plans, the better, right, because otherwise, you might lose momentum?

Admirable intentions, all, but I would urge you to rethink the last. As the media so eager to urge you to make that resolution — or, indeed, any New Year’s resolution — will be telling you in a few weeks, the average New Year’s resolution lasts only a few weeks. So woe unto he who hesitates, the prevailing wisdom goes, because as everybody knows, it’s absolutely impossible to begin any new project except immediately after the start of the year. If you miss the resolution boat by so much as a week — or, scare bleu! a month — all of the good New Year’s juju will have been sucked up by others. The laggard’s only recourse will be to sit, sad and glum, until the starting-gun goes off next year.

Unless one’s resolution was to lose weight, in which case the cultural reset button will be slapped sometime in the spring. “You wouldn’t want to miss your chance to get ready for swimsuit season?” the ambient culture will ask breathlessly. And off a significant proportion of the population will run again.

We each know in our heart of hearts, though, that just as surely as beauty is only skin deep, it’s completely untrue that there are only a couple of times per year in which it’s humanly possible to shed a few pounds. Or give up smoking. Or get that query out the door.

News flash: in publishing circles, there’s no special prize for a writer’s query being the first of the year, or even first 100,00th. Ditto with submissions: when a lot come at a time, they just pile up on agency desks. In either case, poor Millicent the agency screener is going to be working some awfully long hours until those volumes decrease a little.

Which means, in practice, that far from being the best time of the year to act upon those laudable plans, the first few weeks of the year are strategically the worst. Every year, literally millions of aspiring writers across this fine land of ours make precisely the same New Year’s resolution — with the entirely predictable result that every year, rejection rates skyrocket in the first few weeks of January. It thus follows as night the day that this is the time of year when a query or submission is most likely to be rejected.

Yes, you read that correctly. Your agile creative mind probably also leapt to the next correct conclusion: the same query or manuscript rejected in January might not have been had it dropped onto Millicent’s desk at another time of year. At minimum, the average query or submission will receive less reading time now than in, say, March.

That resounding thunk you just heard reverberating throughout the cosmos was the sound of thousands of first-time queriers and submitters’ jaws hitting their respective floors. For most writers new to the game, the notion that any factors other than the quality of the writing and excellence of the book’s concept could possibly play a role in whether a query or submission gets rejected is, well, new. If a manuscript is genuinely good, these eager souls reason, it shouldn’t matter when it arrives at an agency or small publishing house, right? No matter what else is on Millicent’s desk — or whatever else is going on at the agency, be it wedding, funeral, or just having read a proposal for the single worst nonfiction book since Mein Kampf — the only conceivable response to the advent of a good story well written must be the general dropping of all other work, cries of “Hallelujah!” and capering in the hallways, mustn’t it?

Um, no. I hate to be the one to break it to first-time submitters, but yours is not the only good manuscript that’s been written in English this year. And no true lover of literature should want it to be.

Yet almost without exception, writers responding to requests for manuscript pages act as though the agent or editor asking for it had been standing there, twiddling her thumbs, with nothing else to do until those pages arrived. Startlingly often, aspiring writers just presume that a request for pages, particularly in response to a conference pitch, constitutes a pro’s commitment to cease all work activity the moment those pages show up. Never mind that over half of requested materials never do show up — possibly because the writers in question queried or pitched before the book was done, or are trying to work up nerve to submit, or are waiting for the next new year to roll around — the horror is always the same.

“What do you mean,” indignant submitters everywhere huff, “it’s unrealistic to expect to hear back within a week or two — or a month or two? You don’t understand: the agent asked to read my manuscript!”

Yes, I know. He also asked to see other manuscripts. But apply the same logic earlier in the process, and springs a heck of a lot of holes: if a query for a truly well-written book — which is, contrary to popular opinion, not the same thing as a truly well-written query — lands on a pro’s desk, it will be received in precisely the same manner if it’s the only query arriving that day, or if it must howl for attention next to hundreds or thousands of incoming queries.

The latter is far, far more likely. Inevitable, in fact, if that query arrives anywhere near January first.

And that’s why, boys and girls, agents, editors at small publishing houses, and the screeners who read their day’s allotment of queries opened their e-mail inboxes this morning and groaned, “Why does every aspiring writer in North America hit SEND on January 1? Do they all get together and form a pact?”

Effectively, you do. You all formed such similar New Year’s resolutions.

So did the tens of thousands of successful pitchers and queriers from last year who decided that in the immediate wake of December 31, they were going to stop fiddling with their manuscripts and send those pages the agent of their respective dreams requested, unfortunately. It won’t have occurred to them, understandably, that each of them is not the only one to regard the advent of a new year as the best possible time to take steps to achieve their dreams.

Instead of — opening my calendar at random here — February 12th. Or the fifth of May. Or October 3rd. Or, really, any time of the year other than the first three weeks of January, when the sheer weight of tradition would guarantee that competition would be stiffest for the very few new writer slots available at any well-established agency or small publishing house.

That made half of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “Wait — what do you mean, very few new writer slots ?” queriers and submitters new to the game gasp. “Don’t agents take on every beautifully-written new manuscript and intriguing book proposal that comes their way?”

That’s a lovely notion, of course, but once again, pouring some water into that sieve will show us some holes. Think about it: reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books to publishers and when those books earn royalties, right? There’s more to that than simply slapping covers on a book and shipping it to a local bookstore, after all. In any given year, only about 4% of traditionally-published books are by first-time authors, and those books tend as a group to be less profitable: unless a first-timer already enjoys wide name recognition, it’s simply more difficult for even the best marketing campaign to reach potential readers.

So at most agencies, most of the income comes from already-established clients — which means, on a day-to-day basis, a heck of a lot of agency time devoted to reading and promoting work by those authors. In recent years, selling even well-known authors’ work has gotten appreciably harder, as well as more time-consuming, yet like so many businesses, publishing houses and agencies alike have been downsizing. At the same time, since writing a book is so many people’s Plan B, hard economic times virtually always translate into increased query and submission volume.

Translation: agencies have to devote more hours than ever before to processing queries and submissions — an activity that, by definition, does not pay them anything in the short run — with fewer trained eyes to do it.

Why should any of that matter to a new writer chomping at the bit to land an agent in the new year? Several reasons. High querying and submission volume plus tight agency budgets result, inevitably, in less time spent on any given query or submission. The quicker the perusal, typically, the harder it is to impress an agent or an editor — and thus the more likely a time-strapped agency will be to employ Millicents to give queries and submissions the once-over. It’s not at all uncommon for a submission to have to make it past a couple of Millies empowered to say no before landing on the desk of anyone empowered to say yes.

So tell me: would you rather that Millicent had 15 other manuscripts to screen between now and lunch, if yours is No. 12, or 50? Or 150?

Got that appalling image firmly in your mind? Good. Now picture that same overworked, underpaid (or possibly not paid at all; many Millicents are interns) screener opening her e-mail inbox on the first Monday of the new year. Or the second. How much time do you think she’s going to be able to devote to each of the several thousand queries she’ll find deposited there? What about the next thousand arriving in her inbox tomorrow?

Actually, while you’re mentally trying on Millie’s moccasins, try taking a few more steps in them: how dismayed would you be at the prospect of doing ten (or more) times your usual work that day? Wouldn’t you tend to read just a trifle faster, with your fingertips lightly caressing the DELETE key? No matter how much you love literature and the good people who write it — as the overwhelming majority of folks currently working in publishing do — wouldn’t it be understandable if you found yourself screening those thousands of queries looking for quick reasons to reject, rather than eagerly perusing each one for every last clue that there might be talent hidden there?

Did I hear some momentary hesitation prior to your shouting, “By all the Muses’ togas, no! Were I lucky enough to read thousands upon thousands of queries every January, I would treat each and every one with respect — nay, reverence — down to the last semicolon and almost-legible signature!” Or at least before packing up the implied moral dilemma in your old kit bag and murmuring, “Well, if I ran the publishing world, querying wouldn’t be required; writers could simply send their manuscripts. Which agents would read in their entirety…”?

Ah, you just did the mental math, didn’t you? There’s a reason the vast majority of submissions get rejected on page 1.

But let’s get back to Millicent’s agonizing decision about how long to spend reading each query. Yes, it’s her job to find the diamonds amongst the rhinestones; yes, it’s unfair and even rather unreasonable that a writer of gem-like books must also devote time and energy to composing a brilliant query and synopsis. It’s an inescapable fact of our times, however — and you might want to sit down for this one — that the more successful an agent is, the more queries s/he will receive, and thus the greater the pressure on that agent’s screener to narrow down the field of contenders as rapidly as possible.

Why, you gasp, clutching your palpitating heart? Because time does not, alas, expand if one happens to have good intentions. Most good agents simply don’t have time to take on more than a handful of new clients per year.

Starting to think differently about the tens of thousands of queries that might be jostling yours in an agency’s inbox today if you hit SEND yesterday? Or the manuscripts that will be stacked next to yours if you stuff those requested pages into a mailbox later in the week?

Or, ‘fess up, were you one of the significant minority of aspiring writers whose first reaction to the idea that the agent of your dreams might be signing only 4 or 5 clients this year ran along the lines of “Apollo’s flame! I’d better make mine the first query he sees this year, then,” followed by a rapid glance at the nearest calendar? If so, relax: it’s not as though most agencies run on quotas, or as though your garden-variety great agent will fill his satchel with fabulous manuscripts for a month or two, then ignore everything else he reads until January 1 rolls around again.

It’s not, in short, as though the publishing world runs on New Year’s resolutions. (Although that’s an interesting idea.)

If you must take steps toward representation within the next few days or weeks, may I suggest something else that might improve your query’s chances? Invest the time in narrowing your querying list to agents with a solid, recent track record of selling books like yours.

Why will that help at the querying stage? Well, performing that research is relatively rare; a staggering number of queries arrive on the desks of people who have never represented a similar book in their professional lives. That’s a positive gift to a time-strapped Millicent, you know: the overwhelming majority of those thousands of New Year’s resolution-generated queries will be quite tempting to reject at first glance, and often for reasons that have little to do with the writing.

I find it sad that at this time of year especially, new writers often pick agents to query essentially at random. Their logic tends to run thus: if agents represent good books, and a book is well written, any agent could represent it successfully, right?

Actually, no: agents specialize, and it’s very much to both a good book and a good writer’s advantage that they should. The publishing industry is wide-ranging and complex, after all; no one who sells books for a living seriously believes that every well-written book will appeal to every single reader. Readers tend to specialize, too.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, the publishing world thinks of books in categories. While an individual reader may well enjoy books across a variety of categories — indeed, most do — readers who gravitate toward a certain type of book share expectations. A devotee of paranormals, for instance, would be disappointed if she picked up a book presented as a vampire fantasy, but the storyline didn’t contain a single bloodsucker. By the same token, a lover of literary fiction would be dismayed to discover the novel he’d been led to believe was an intensive character study of an American family turned out to be an explosion-packed thriller.

As annoying as it may be for aspiring writers to think about limiting their readerships, literary fiction, fantasy, YA, Western, memoir, etc., are the conceptual containers used to ensure that a particular kind of writing will be marketed to the specific target audience already buying similar books. It’s not (as writers new to the game often assume) that you’re being asked to say who wouldn’t be interested in reading your story, or that (as writers considering for the first time the question of genre frequently fear) that agents don’t understand that creativity can confound readers’ expectations. The goal of labeling your manuscript with a book category — as you should do in your query — is to help match the right book with the right readers in the long run, as well as with the right agent in the short run.

Not only does approaching an agent experienced in working with books in your chosen category maximize the probability that she will enjoy the story you’re telling — it also maximizes the probability that she’ll already have the professional connections to sell it. Since no editor or publishing house brings out every different kind of book, agents would be less effective at their jobs if their only criterion for selecting which books to represent was whether they liked the writing. Editors and imprints, too, tend to specialize, handling only certain book categories.

As a direct and sometimes disturbingly swift result, there is no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for a book in a category her boss does not represent. No matter how beautifully that query presents the book’s premise, that story will be a poor fit for her agency. Approaching an agent simply because he’s an agent, then, tends to be the first step on a path to rejection.

Especially, if you can stand my harping on this point, if a writer is doing it in January. New Year’s resolvers are frequently in a hurry to see results. You would not believe how many aspiring writers will simply type literary agent into Google, e-mailing the first few that pop up. Or how many more will enter a generic term like fiction into an agency search, intending to query the first 80 on the list, usually without checking out any of those agents’ websites or listings in one of the standard agents’ guides to find out what those fine folks actually represent.

That’s a pity, because — feel free to sing along; you should know the tune by now — not only is an agent who already has a solid track record selling a particular category more likely to be interested in similar books, but that agent will also have the connections to sell that type of book. Which means, ultimately, that approaching an agent specializing in books like yours could mean getting published faster than just querying every agent in Christendom.

Yes, really. You don’t just want to land any agent, do you? You want to entrust your book to the best possible representative for it.

I sense some grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled mutter, and who could blame you? “All I want to do is get my book published; I know that I need an agent to do that. But I don’t have a lot of time to devote to finding one. Thus my wanting to act upon my New Year’s resolution toute suite: I had a few spare moments over the holidays, so I was finally able to crank out a query draft. I understand that it might be a better use of my querying time to rule out agents who don’t represent my type of book at all, but why wouldn’t sending my query to a hundred agents that do be the fastest way to reach the right one? That way, I could get all of my queries out the door before I lose my nerve — or my burst of new year-fueled energy.”

That’s a good question, one that richly deserves an answer. I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about why generic queries tend not to be received as kindly in agencies as those that are more tightly targeted; there’s a reason, after all, that the stock advice on how to figure out which agents to query has for years been find a recently-released book you like and find out who represented it. Admittedly, that excellent axiom was substantially easier to follow back in the days when publishers routinely allowed authors to include acknowledgements; it used to be quite common to thank one’s agent. Any agency’s website will list its primary clients, however, and I think you’ll be charmed to discover how many authors’ websites include representation information.

In case I’m being too subtle here: no recipient of a generic query will believe that its sender had no way to find out what kinds of books she represents, or which established authors. Neither will her Millicent. Sorry about that.

Small wonder, then, that any screener that’s been at it a while can spot a query equally applicable to every agency in the biz at twenty paces — especially if, as so often is the case with mass-produced mailed queries, it’s addressed to Dear Agent, rather than a specific person. Or if it is rife with typos, too informal in tone, or simply doesn’t contain the information any agent would want to know before requesting pages. Like, say, the title or the book category.

Oh, you think I’m kidding about the title? Millicent’s seen 10 queries missing it today.

Given the intensity of competition for Millicent’s attention on an ordinary day of screening, any one of the problems mentioned above could trigger rejection. During the post-New Year’s query avalanche, it’s even more likely.

Let’s take a moment to picture why. Agents and editors, like pretty much everybody else, often enjoy the holidays; they’ve even been known to take time off then, contrary to popular opinion amongst New Year’s resolution queriers. Since it’s hard to pull together an editorial committee — and thus for an acquiring editor to gain permission to pick up a new book — with so many people on vacation, agents and editors alike frequently use work time during the holidays to catch up on their backlog of reading. (See earlier point about existing clients’ work.) It’s not, however, particularly common to employ that time reading queries.

Why? The annual New Year’s resolution barrage about to descend, of course: they know they’ll be spending January digging out from under it. How could they not, when all throughout the holiday season, writers across the English-speaking world have been working up both drafts and nerve?

Not only do the usual post-vacation backlog await them, but so will the fruits of every New Year’s resolver’s enthusiasm. Every inbox will be stuffed to overflowing; thousands of e-mails will be crowding the agency’s computers; the mailman will be staggering under armfuls of envelopes and manuscript boxes.

Care to revise your answer about how quickly you would be inclined to read through that tall, tall stack of queries if you were Millicent? How much time would you tend to spend on each one, compared to, say, what you might devote to it on March 8th? Would you be reading with a more or less charitable eye for the odd typo or a storyline that did not seem to correspond entirely with your boss’ current interests?

Before you respond to those burning questions, consider: working her way through that day’s correspondence is necessary to clear Millicent’s schedule, or even enable her to see her desk again. As January progresses, each day will bring still more for her to read. Not every New Year’s resolution gets implemented at the same pace, after all, nor do they have the same content. This month, however, Millicent may be sure that each fresh morning will provide additional evidence that writers everywhere have their noses to the wheel — and each Monday morning will demonstrate abundantly that New Year’s resolvers are using their weekends well.

At least for the first three weeks or so. After that, the resolution-generated flood peters out.

Not entirely coincidentally, that’s also when New Year’s resolution queriers tend to receive their first sets of mailed rejections — and when e-mailing queriers begin to suspect that they might not hear back at all. (For those who just clutched your hearts: rejection via silence has been the norm for the past few years.) The timing on those rejections is key to Millicent’s workload over the next few months, as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time queriers give up after only one or two attempts.

That’s completely understandable, of course: rejection hurts. But as any agent worth her salt could tell you, pushing a book past multiple rejections is a normal and expected part of the publication process. Every single author you admire has had to deal with it at some point in the process. Yes, really: just as — again, contrary to popular opinion — even the best books generally get rejected by quite a few agents before the right one makes an offer to represent it, manuscripts and book proposals seldom sell to the first editor that reads them.

That should give you hope, by the way: while it may feel like a single rejection from a single agent represents the publishing industry’s collective opinion about your writing, but it’s just not true. Individual agents have individual tastes; so do their Millicents. Keep trying until you find the right fit.

But you might want to wait a few weeks — and if it’s not clear yet why, I ask you again to step out of a writer’s shoes and into Millicent’s. If you knew from past experience how many fewer queries would be landing on your desk a few weeks hence, would you read through this week’s bumper crop more or less rapidly than usual? Would you be more or less likely to reject any particular one? Or, frankly, wouldn’t you be a bit more tired when you read Query #872 of the day than Query #96?

Still surprised that rejection rates are higher this time of year? Okay, let me add another factor to the mix: in the United States, agencies must produce the tax information for their clients’ advances and royalties for the previous year by the end of January.

That immense sucking sound you just heard was all of the English majors in the country gasping in unison. Representing good writing well isn’t just about aesthetic judgments, people; it’s a business. A business based upon aesthetic judgments, of course, but still, it’s not all hobnobbing with the literati and sipping bad Chardonnay at book launches.

It’s also a business run by people — living, breathing, caring individuals who, yes, love good writing, but also can get discouraged at the sight of a heavier-than-usual workload. They can become tired, like anyone else. Or even slightly irritated after reading the 11th generic query of the day, or spotting five misspellings in the 111th.

Imagine, then, what it might feel like to read the 1,100th. Of the day, if one happens to be screening within the first few weeks of January.

To repeat my word du jour: wait. You’re an original writer; why would you need to pick the same day — or month — to launch your dreams as everybody else?

Oh, and if you choose to disregard this advice — and I’ve been at this long enough to have accepted that a hefty percentage of you will — please, remember to include not only your manuscript title and book category in your query, but also to tuck your contact information into the letter. If you’re submitting a manuscript, include a title page with your contact information. You want the agent that’s just fallen in love with your voice to be able to tell you so, don’t you?

Stop laughing, please. You would be flabbergasted at how often e-mailing queriers and submitters just assume that all Millicent or her boss would have to do to get in touch would be to hit REPLY. I guess they’ve never heard of a forwarded e-mail.

Best of luck with your New Year’s resolutions — and with implementing them in the way that’s most likely to bring your dreams to fulfillment. Keep up the good work!

As the screen goes wavy again, or, what had already begun to bore Millicent by the time talkies rolled around

Orphans_of_the_Storm_(1921)_2

No time for a long-winded missive today, campers, but I could not let the occasion pass without posting a few words. What occasion rises to the mandatory observation level, you may well ask, eyeing both the lapse between this and my last post and the undeniable fact that Author! Author!’s older posts are still, alas, unhappily plagued with extraneous symbols? Participating in a species of conversation all too common behind the scenes in publishing circles.

It tends to run something like this: someone whose job it is to read submissions, all day, every day (except, of course, on those days she invests in skimming a few hundred queries at a sitting) quietly goes nuts while reading the 531rst submission of the month. Grounding her no doubt expensively straightened teeth to an extent that her former orthodontist would deplore, our Millicent — for yes, it is she, everybody’s favorite agency screener — she vents her frustration upon a sympathetic friend while she is waiting in line for her latté.

“It’s happened again,” she murmurs into her phone. “Three submissions in a row in which the text asserted that what was going on was…wait for it…just like something in a movie!”

Having been savvy enough to call a fellow professional reader, she’s sure to meet with sympathy. Calling me, however, might not have been the best choice. “I know, I know: it’s maddening to see writers rush to use the same metaphor, over and over again. But you must admit, it isn’t those three writers’ fault that you happened to read their submissions back to back.”

“Not their fault!” Predictably, Millicent burns her lip on her too-hot latt?. “Everybody knows that saying something happening on the page was just like a movie is bad writing.”

I can’t resist teasing her; we’ve had this discussion too many times. “It depends upon how the sentence using that tired old concept is constructed, doesn’t it? I could imagine it being expressed very prettily.”

“Fine. I’ll send the next fifteen manuscripts that use it to you, so you can compare their delightful sentence structure.”

She’s laughing by the time we hang up, but I must admit, she has a point. As anyone who reads for a living could tell you — particularly agents, editors, and the screeners they employ, all of whom by necessity must read manuscripts one after another, due to sheer volume — nothing quite makes the mind scream like spotting the same phrase, concept, or metaphor crop up repeatedly, page after page. When those pages happen to belong to different manuscripts, the frustration can be even greater: after the fourth or fifth time in a week, even the most literature-loving Millicent can start to wonder if half of the writers in the English-speaking world gathered someplace secret five months ago, to agree upon what the clich? of the season will be.

Hey, there are fashions in writing, just as in anything else that requires taste to appreciate. And, just as in runway fashion, once an innovative author hits the big time with a unique offering, the pros are used to seeing dozens — nay, hundreds — of copycat submissions flooding their inboxes shortly thereafter.

At first, that can be exciting: it’s no secret that publishers often attempt to capitalize upon the success of a bestseller by bringing out similar books in short order. Which makes sense, right? A certain group of readers have already demonstrated that they like that kind of book; why not offer them similar titles?

Actually, there’s a pretty good answer to that: after what can be an astonishingly short time, however, the readership for a particular type of story can, well, get tired of it. Perhaps more to the point for those trying to break into print, the Millicents tasked with screening all of those remarkably similar stories can begin to find them a bit predictable.

And those Millies are not the only ones. “Another Twilight knock-off?” their bosses exclaim. “This one had better have an awfully different spin.”

The rapid rise and fall of bestsellers and their followers is too well known in literary circles to raise many aspiring writers’ eyebrows these days. Come closer, though, and I’ll let you in on a little professional secret: that’s not the kind of repetition that causes Millicent to fling aside a submission, rend her garments, and rush out the door for a coffee refill. It’s seeing how many otherwise original, well-written manuscripts utilize precisely the same standard comparisons and hackneyed phrases as those that are neither prettily constructed nor particularly unique.

Seriously, it’s kind of startling to spot on the page. A pro will be reading along, enjoying a good story well told, when she’s abruptly confronted with a paragraph like this:

Ambrose staggered, stunned by the force of the blow. The world wavered before his eyes, as if he were watching an old movie and a flashback was just about to begin.

Nothing wrong with the writing there — so why might that last clause send Millicent’s hand automatically reaching for a form letter beginning Thank you so much for your submission, but I’m afraid it does not meet our needs at this time? Could it have anything to do with the fact that an hour ago, she had just rejected a manuscript containing this gem?

Mignonette clutched her head, trying to make sense of it all. It was surreal. She felt as if she was in a movie.

Leaving aside the relatively rare editorial pet peeve regarding how often narratives describe perfectly comprehensible scenes as surreal — not nearly so often as they label a situation utterly devoid of irony as ironic, admittedly, but still, frequently enough to become annoying — is it really so hard to understand why the lingering memory of Mignonette’s affection for film might color Millicent’s perception of the freshness of Ambrose’s reaction to the blow?

And a thousand writers’ hands shoot into the air. Yes? “This is ridiculous, Anne,” film aficionados everywhere grumble. “Why shouldn’t two writers embrace the same comparison, if they write about it differently? Feeling like you’re in a movie is a fairly common experience, after all; eschewing writing about it would be akin to declaring that depicting a character drinking milk an instant-rejection offense.”

An excellent argument, grumblers, but part of the problem is that so many manuscripts don’t write about it differently. Even in conversation, it was just like a movie is a clich? for a reason, after all: in everyday life, people tend to describe what you rightly point out is a common feeling in the modern world in a common way.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t one of the primary goals of developing an individual authorial voice not to express things precisely like everybody else does? And don’t we writers pride ourselves upon presenting our readers not merely with a mirror held up to their own lives, accompanied by a transcript of what they already hear, but our own personal take on reality, phrased in a way that is like no one else’s prose?

Do I sense writers of third-person fiction leaping to their collective feet, shouting, “Yes, by gum! Down with hackneyed phrases and concepts!” while those of you who spend your time crafting first-person narratives sat on your hands? I’m not entirely astonished: writers of first-person fiction and memoir frequently work under the principle that if good first-person narration reads as though an actual human being might conceivably have said it out loud, and if most people incorporate clich?s into their everyday speech, then loading a first-person narrative with clich?s is only being true to life, right?

Well, arguably. It can — and all too often does — result in a narrative voice that sounds not like a specific individual, but just anybody. Millicent is also confronted with this kind of opening many times a day:

Oh, my God, I can’t believe it. I’m sick of this. The gall of some people! I’m so over it. I’m out of here.

Believable verbal expression? Oh, yes. But I ask you: what do those stock phrases actually tell you about this narrator? Or about the situation, for that matter?

Hackneyed phrases and concepts are, after all, generic. That’s why polite exchanges so often bore readers: by definition, those phrases that everybody says in particular situations convey no individualized meaning.

Did I just hear some eyebrows hitting the ceiling? I kid you not: as delightful as courtesy is to encounter in real life, it can be stultifying on the page. Take a gander:

Kendrick held out his right hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Pleased to meet you, too,” Ghislaine said. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“Yes, the weather is nice. Oh, here’s Maurice. How are you, Maurice?”

They shook hands like old friends, as indeed they were. “Fine,” Maurice said. “How are you?”

“Oh, fine. Ghislaine, this is Maurice.”

Maurice shook her hand. “How are you?”

“Fine. How are you?”

Longing yet for death’s sweet embrace? What if you had read similar personality-free conversations eight or nine times today?

Does that prospect appall you? Or have you caught up pitchforks and torches for some other reason?

“Oh, come on, Anne,” polite people everywhere scoff, genteelly brandishing weaponry. “Everyone understands that these are stock phrases — but that’s the point, isn’t it? By having the characters spout courteous clich?s, the narrative is letting the reader know that these are nice people.”

Perhaps, but surely, that’s not the only way to demonstrate their many sterling qualities. If Kendrick complimented Ghislaine on her fetching frock, would he not come across as a pretty nice guy? If she were rushing back from her volunteer work with homeless children, pausing only briefly to exchange pleasantries before her shift at the leper colony began, might the reader not gain an inkling of her other-orientation? If Maurice had just experienced the loss of his beloved pet ocelot, would you consider her rude if he mentioned it?

Actually, that last one’s not the best example, as Millicent would hasten to tell you. She could not even begin to estimate how many times in any given week of screening her tired peepers fall on a scene like this:

“How are you?” Kendrick asked.

“Fine.” Maurice drew his sleeve across his eyes. “Except my beloved pet ocelot, Coriolanus, has just passed away.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Kendrick said. “Oh, here comes Ghislaine. Ghislaine, Coriolanus died!”

“Oh, Maurice!” she exclaimed. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

I could go on and show what the policeman on the corner, all seventeen of Maurice’s coworkers, and his great-aunt said upon hearing the news, but you’re sensing a pattern, right? I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: just because people say something in real life doesn’t mean that it will make good reading on the page.

Or, to put it another way: strong dialogue doesn’t need to sound like everyday speech to work in print. It’s needs to be more interesting than everyday speech.

If it’s to impress Millicent with its originality and beauty, that is. After hours of too-polite dialogue, imagine what a relief it could be to read an exchange like this:

Ghislaine realized that she knew the man tugging on her arm. “Why, Kendrick, you look just awful!”

“I feel as if my guts have been ripped out.” He managed a brave smile. “Haven’t you heard about Maurice’s ocelot?”

Her intestines squirmed with anticipated horror. “What’s happened to Coriolanus?”

“Killed in a freak basketball accident. He was prowling along the top of the backboard, and a rogue shot knocked him to the ground.”

“Oh, my God!” Ghislaine cried. “It’s just like something in a movie!”

Oh, so close! Millicent was just settling in for a nice, interesting read, and the manuscript had to throw up a red flag. It might not be the final red flag for this submission — you would want to find out why there’s an ocelot in this story, right? — but in most professional readers, Ghislaine’s cri de coeur would at least elicit a roll of the eyes.

Were there other problems on the page, though, it might well prompt a cry of “Next!” Remember, it’s Millicent’s job to thin the submission pile. Her boss, the agent of your dreams, can only take on a few new clients per year; naturally, there’s a heck of a lot of competition for those spots.

That being the case, is it truly sensible submission strategy to decorate your manuscript with that observation about how the ongoing situation resembles what one might expect to encounter on the big screen?

Do I hear some cries of despair out there in the ether? “There you go again,” frustrated writers complain, and who could blame you? “You’re just accepting Millicent’s claim that everybody knows that the movie comparison is bad writing. At the risk of repeating the grumble from earlier in this post, doesn’t it all depend upon the writing?”

Yes, of course — and no. You see, good writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum; readers of every stripe tend to read more than one author in their lifetimes. They have come to expect the work of one author to differ from every other’s.

And they’re right to expect that: imagine how boring life would be if all well-written books sounded as though they had all been written by the same person!

In an agency, publishing house, or even within the context of a writing competition, good writing doesn’t magically rise to the top of the submission or entry pile. To get to it, Millicent and her ilk read through everything else. Since a submitter cannot control the order in which his work is read, it really doesn’t make strategic sense to rely upon the hope that his use of the movie trope — or any other commonly-employed comparison or phrase — will not pass under a screener’s eyes immediately after somebody else’s attempt to do the same thing.

Even the best of literary devices can start to seem overused with repetition after all. Think about Millie’s screening day for a moment. What kind of pretty prose do you suppose greeted her over the morning’s first latté?

She ran through the bleak forest, her long, red hair streaming behind her. Were those dogs she heard in the distance? Why had Fidelio placed her in this horrible position?

No time to wonder — those villagers with torches would catch up with her any minute now. If she’d been the monster in a Frankenstein movie, she couldn’t have been in more danger.

Come on, admit it — you’re starting to tire of the film references. And although I’m certain it doesn’t feel that way, so far, only four of the examples in this post have contained it.

Yes, really. This comparison gets old fast.

Picture, then, how Millicent’s weary eye must twitch upon catching sight of yet another iteration of the same concept. Especially if the next manuscript in the pile read like this:

Silvia couldn’t believe it — this was all so surreal. She didn’t even feel like herself: it was like she was watching herself on television.

In response to what fully a quarter of you just thought: no, Virginia, referring to television instead of a movie wouldn’t lessen the negativity of Millicent’s reaction. She would merely think that the writer of that last one didn’t get out as often as the writer of the one before it.

She would have a hard time justifying sliding either page under her boss’ nose, and not just because, like any experienced professional reader, the agent for whom Millie works may safely be assumed to have seen the movie/television/music video comparison thousands of times already. Like many publishing professionals, that agent may also feel a certain resentment towards movies, television, music videos, and new media for taking up time that right-minded people used to devote to reading.

But it didn’t occur to our submitter to say that Silvia’s surreal experience was like something in a novel, did it?

Still not convinced? Okay, I’m dropping all pretense: there’s one other reason that Millicent might hesitate to overlook this particular red flag on the page. This next example is infected with a mild case of the phenomenon; see if you can spot it.

Ricardo ducked behind the nearest desk, gasping as if he were about to have a heart attack. What a great movie this chase would make! Except that no one would believe it.

Yes, this passage contains the dreaded movie comparison, but did you catch the secondary problem? Essentially, what a great movie this chase would make! is a review of the scene currently in progress: not only is the narrator telling the reader that this chase would be exciting on the big screen — the text goes so far as to say that the result would be great.

If Millicent and her kind cringe when they spot a hackneyed phrase or concept in a submission, they see red when they think a manuscript is indulging in self-review. “It’s not your job to tell me how great you are,” she’s likely to snap at the manuscript. “It’s your job to show me. And it’s my job to decide whether you’re great, good, or so-so.”

The moral here, should you care to know it: it’s a heck of a lot easier to impress a professional reader with good writing that’s original than good writing that strays into overused territory, either in terms of wording or concept. Stock phrases and comparisons might sound right in the privacy of your writing studio — as well they should: people actually do talk in clich?s. But by definition, clich?s are not fresh; clichés are not original.

And trust me on this one: that clich? about how the current scene is like a movie ceased causing agents and editors to exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that on the page before!” approximately two and a half years into the silent era.

Maybe it’s time to give it a rest. Instead, why not startle and delight Millicent with an insight and phrasing only you could have produced?

It’s worth a try, anyway. Keep up the good work!

Please raise a glass (or three) to my 1600th post!

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A few weeks ago, while I was deep in the throes of contemplating what subject I should tackle for this, my 1600th post at Author! Author!, a non-writer — or so I surmise, from the bent of her discourse — abruptly flung a rather profound question in my direction. It was, happily for today’s post, one of those questions that would never, ever occur to anyone who had devoted serious time to courting a Muse.

“You’ve been blogging for 7 1/2 years on the same subject?” she gasped, practically indignant with incredulity. “You’ve posted hundreds of times, haven’t you? It’s only writing — what could you possibly still have to say?”

I know, I know: I was sorely tempted to laugh, too. From a writer’s or editor’s perspective, the notion that everything an aspiring writer could possibly need or want to know about the ins and outs of writing and revising a manuscript, let alone how to land an agent, work with a publishing house, promote a book, and/or launch into one’s next writing project, could be covered adequately in a mere 1599 blog posts borders on the absurd. Writing a compelling book constitutes one of the most challenging endeavors life offers to a creative persons mind, heart, and soul; it’s not as though there’s a simple, one-size-fits-all formula for literary success.

At the same time, I could hear in her question an echo of a quite ubiquitous compound misconception about writing. It runs a little something like this: if people are born with certain talents, then good writers are born, not made; if true writers tumble onto this terrestrial sphere already knowing deep down how to write, then all a gifted person needs to do is put pen to paper and let the Muse speak in order to produce a solid piece of writing; since all solid pieces of writing inevitably find a home — an old-fashioned publishing euphemism for being offered a contract by an agent or publishing house — if a writer has been experiencing any difficulty whatsoever getting her book published, she must not be talented. Q.E.D.

With a slight caveat: all of those presumptions are false. Demonstrably so — egregiously so, even. Just ask virtually any author of an overnight bestseller: good books are typically years, or even decades, in the making.

What could I possibly still want to say to writers to help them improve their manuscripts’ chances of success? How long have you got?

We’ve come a long way together, campers: when Author! Author! first took its baby steps back in August, 2005, in its original incarnation as the Resident Writer spot on the nation’s largest writers’ association’s website, little did I — or, I imagine, my earliest readers, some of whom are still loyal commenters, bless ‘em — imagine that I will still be dreaming up post for you all so many years into the future.

Heck, at the outset, I had only envisioned a matter of months. The Organization that Shall Remain Nameless had projected even less: when it first recruited me to churn out advice for aspiring writers everywhere, my brief was to do it a couple of times per week for a month, to see how it went. They didn’t want me to blog, per se — in order to comment, intrepid souls had to e-mail the organization, which then forwarded questions it deemed appropriate to me.

As your contributions flew in and my posts flew up, I have to confess, the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless seemed rather taken aback. Who knew, its president asked, and frequently, that there were so many writers out there longing for some straightforward, practical-minded advice on how to navigate a Byzantine and apparently sometimes arbitrary system? What publishing professional could have sensed the confusion so many first-time writers felt when faced with the welter of advice barked at them online? What do you mean, the guidelines found on the web often directly contradict one another?

And what on earth was the insidious source of this bizarre preference for the advice-giver’s being nice to writers while explaining things to them? It wasn’t as though much of the online advisors actually in the know — as opposed to the vast majority of writing advice that stems from opinion, rumor, and something that somebody may have heard an agent say at a conference somewhere once — were ever huffy, standoffish, or dismissive when they explained what a query letter was, right?

That rolling thunderclap you just heard bouncing off the edges of the universe was, of course, the roars of laughter from every writer who tried to find credible guidance for their writing careers online around about 2006.

Yet the officers of the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless were not the only ones mystified that there was any audience at all for, say, my posts on how to format a manuscript professionally. Or how to give a pitch. Or how to spot editor-irritating red flags in your own writing. They actually tried to talk me out of blogging about some of these things — because every writer serious about getting published already knows all of that, right?

So why precisely did I think it would be valuable for my readers to be able to see one another’s questions and comments? If I was so interested in building writing community, they suggested, why didn’t I join them in transforming what had arguably been the writers’ association best at helping its members get published into a force to help those already in print find a wider audience? Wouldn’t that be, you know, more upbeat and, well, inspirational than giving all of that pesky and potentially depressing practical advice?

Almost a year and many brisk arguments about respect for writers later, I decided to start my own website. That enabled me to turn Author! Author! into a true blog, a space that welcomed writers struggling and established to share their thoughts, questions, concerns, and, sometimes, their often quite justified irritation at the apparently increasing number of hoops through which good writing — and, consequently, good writers — were being expected to jump prior to publication.

Oh, those of you new to searching for an agent have no idea how tough things were back then. A few of the larger agencies had just started not responding to queries if the answer was no — can you believe it? Some agencies, although far from all, agents had begun accepting e-mailed queries, but naturally, your chances were generally better if your approached them by letter. And I don’t want to shock you, but occasionally, an agent would request a full manuscript, but send a form-letter rejection.

Picture the horror: a book turned down, and the writer had no idea why!

Ah, those days seem so innocent now, do they not? How time flies when you don’t know whether your manuscript is moldering third from the top in a backlogged submission pile, has been rejected without comment, or simply got lost in the mail. Sometimes, it feels as though those much-vaunted hoops have not only gotten smaller, but have been set on fire.

Let’s face it: the always long and generally bumpy road to publication has gotten longer and bumpier in recent years. Not that it was ever true that all that was necessary in order to see your work in print was to write a good book, of course; that’s a pretty myth that has been making folks in publishing circles roll their eyes since approximately fifteen minutes after Gutenberg came rushing out of his workshop, waving a mechanically-printed piece of paper. Timing, what’s currently selling well, what is expected to sell well a couple of years hence, when a book acquired now by a traditional publisher would actual come out, the agent of your dreams’ experience with trying to sell a book similar to yours — all of this, and even just plain, dumb luck, have pretty much always affected what readers found beckoning them from the shelves.

But you’d never know that from most of what people say about how books get published, would you? To hear folks talk, you’d think that the only factor involved was writing talent. Or that agencies and publishing houses were charitable organizations, selflessly devoted to the noble task of bringing the best books written every year to an admiring public.

Because, of course, there is universal agreement about what constitutes good writing, right? And good writing in one genre is identical to good writing for every type of book, isn’t it?

None of that is true, of course — and honestly, no one who works with manuscripts for a living could survive long believing it. The daily heartbreak would be too painful to bear.

But I don’t need to explain that to those of you who have been at this writing gig for a while, do I? I’m sure you recall vividly how you felt the day when you realized that not every good, or even great, manuscript written got published, my friends. Or has that terrible sense of betrayal long since receded into the dim realm of memory? Or, as we discussed over the holidays, does it spring to gory life afresh each time some well-meaning soul who has never put pen to paper asks, “What, you still haven’t published your book? But you’ve been at it for years!”

Now, you could answer those questions literally, I suppose, grimly listing every obstacle even the best manuscript faces on its way to traditional publication. You could, too, explain at length why you have chosen to pursue traditional publishing, if you have, or why you have decided to self-publish, if that’s your route.

I could also have given that flabbergasted lady who asked me why I thought there was anything left to say about writing a stirring speech about the vital importance of craft to fine literature. Or regaled her with horror stories about good memoirs suddenly slapped with gratuitous lawsuits. I could even, I suppose, have launched into a two-hour lecture on common misuses of the semicolon without running out of examples, but honestly, what would have been the point? If wonderful writing conveys the impression of having been the first set of words to travel from a talented author’s fingertips to a keyboard, why dispel that illusion?

Instead of quibbling over whether it’s ever likely — or possible — for a first draft to take the literary world by storm, may I suggest that those of us who write could use our time together more productively? For today, at least, let’s tune out all of the insistent voices telling us that if only we were really talented, our work would already be gracing the shelves of the nearest public library, and settle down into a nice, serious discussion of craft.

Humor me: I’ve been at this more than 7 1/2 years. In the blogging realm, that makes me a great-grandmother.

At the risk of sounding as though I’m 105 — the number of candles on my own great-grandmother’s last cake, incidentally; the women in my family are cookies of great toughness — I’d like to turn our collective attention to a craft problem that seldom gets discussed in these decadent days: how movies and television have caused many manuscripts, fiction and nonfiction both, to introduce their characters in a specific manner.

Do I hear peals of laughter bouncing off the corners of the cosmos again? “Oh, come on, Anne,” readers not old enough to have followed Walter Winchell snicker, “isn’t it a trifle late in the day to be focusing on such a problem? At this juncture, I feel it safe to say that TV and movies are here to stay.”

Ah, but that’s just my point: they are here to stay, and the fact that those forms of storytelling are limited to exploiting only two of the audience’s senses — vision and hearing — for creating their effects has, as we have discussed many times before, prompted generation after generation of novelists and memoirists to create narratives that call upon no other sense. If, at the end of a hard day of reading submissions, an alien from the planet Targ were to appear to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener and ask her how many senses the average Earthling possesses, a good 95% of the pages she had seen recently would prompt her to answer, “Two.”

A swift glance at the human head, however, would prove her wrong. Why, I’ve seen people sporting noses and tongues, in addition to eyes and ears, and I’m not ashamed to say it. If you’re willing to cast those overworked peepers down our subject’s body, you might even catch the hands, skin, muscles, and so forth responding to external stimuli.

So would it really be so outrageous to incorporate some sensations your characters acquire through other sensible organs, as Jane Austen liked to call them? Millicent would be so pleased.

If you’d really like to make her happy — and it would behoove you to consider her felicity: her perception of your writing, after all, is what stands between your manuscript and a reading by the agent or editor of your dreams — how about bucking another trend ushered in by the advent of movies and television? What about introducing a new character’s physical characteristics slowly, over the course of a scene or even several, rather than describing the fresh arrival top to toe the instant he enters the book?

Sacre bleu!” I hear the overwhelming majority of hopeful novelists and memoirists shouting. “Are you mad? The other characters in the scene — including, if I’m writing in either the first or the tight third person, my protagonist — will first experience that new person visually! Naturally, I must stop the ongoing action dead in its tracks in order to show the reader what s/he looks like. If I didn’t, the reader might — gasp! — form a mental image that’s different from what I’m seeing in my head!”

Why, yes, that’s possible. Indeed, it’s probable. But I ask you: is that necessarily a problem? No narrative describes a character down to the last mitochondrion in his last cell, after all; something is always left to the reader’s imagination.

Which is, if we’re being truthful about it, a reflection of real life, is it not? Rarely, for instance, would an initial glance reveal everything about a character’s looks. Clothes hide a lot, if they’re doing their job, and distance can be quite a concealer. And really, do you count every freckle on the face of each person passing you on the street?

You might be surprised by how many narratives do, especially in the opening pages of a book. Take a gander at how Millicent all too often makes a protagonist’s acquaintance.

A lean man loped into the distance, shading the horizon with his length even from eighty yards away. Tall as his hero, Abe Lincoln, Jake’s narrow face was hidden by a full beard as red as the hair he had cut himself without a mirror. Calluses deformed his hands, speaking eloquently of years spent yanking on ropes as touch as he was. That those ropes had harnessed the wind for merchant ships was apparent from his bow-legged gait. Pointy of elbow and knee, his body seemed to be moving more slowly than the rest of him as he strode toward the Arbogasts’ encampment.

Henriette eyed him as he approached. His eyes were blue, as washed-out as the baked sky above. Bushy eyebrows punctuated his thoughts. Clearly, those thoughts were deep; how else could she have spotted his anger at twenty paces?

His long nose stretched as he spoke. “Good day, madam,” he said, his dry lips cracking under the strain of speech, “but could I interest you in some life insurance?”

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this description, as descriptions go. Millicent might legitimately wonder if Henriette is secretly Superman, given how sharp her vision seems to be at such great distances (has anybody ever seen Henriette and Superman together?), and it goes on for quite some time, but she might well forgive that: the scene does call for Henriette to watch Jake walking toward her. Millie be less likely to overlook the five uses of as in the first paragraph, admittedly, but you can’t have everything.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed them? Any professional reader undoubtedly would, and for good reason: as is as common in the average submission as…well, anything you’d care to name is anywhere it’s common.

That means — and it’s a perpetual astonishment to those of us who read for a living how seldom aspiring writers seem to think of this — that by definition, over-reliance on as cannot be a matter of individual authorial voice. Voice consists of how an author’s narratives differ from how other writers’ work reads on the page, not in how it’s similar. Nor can it sound just like ordinary people talk, another extremely popular narrative choice. For a new voice to strike Millicent and her boss as original, it must be unique to the author.

The same holds true, by the way, for the ultra-common narrative practice of blurting out everything there is to know about a character visually at his initial appearance: it’s not an original or creative means of slipping the guy into the story. It can’t possibly be, since that tactic has over the past half-century struck a hefty proportion of the writing population as the right or even the only way to bring a new character into a story.

Don’t believe that someone who reads manuscripts all day, every day would quickly tire of how fond writers are of this method. Okay, let’s take a peek at the next few paragraphs of Henriette’s saga.

She backed away, her brown suede skirt catching on the nearby sagebrush. She tossed her long, blonde hair out of her face. Her hazel eyes, just the color of the trim on her prim, gray high-necked blouse, so appropriate for the schoolmarm/demolitions expert that she was, snapped as strongly as her voice. A pleasing contralto, when she was not furious, but Jake might never get a chance to hear her sing.

“On your way, mister,” she hissed, adjusting her two-inch leather belt with the fetching iron clasp. Marvin had forged that clasp for her, just before he was carried off by a pack of angry rattlesnakes. She could still envision his tuxedo-clad body rolling above its stripy captors, his black patent leather shoes shining in the harsh midday sun. “We don’t cotton to your kind here.”

An unspecified sound of vague origin came from behind her. She whirled around, scuffing her stylish mid-calf boots. She almost broke one of her lengthy, scarlet-polished fingernails while drawing her gun.

Morris grinned back at her, his tanned, rugged face scrunching into a sea of sun-bleached stubble. His pine-green eyes blinked at the reflection from the full-length mirror Jake had whipped out from under his tattered corduroy coat. It showed her trim backside admirably, or at least as much as was visible under her violet bustle. Her hair — which could be described no other way than as long and blonde — tumbled down her back, confined only by her late mother’s cherished magenta hair ribbon.

Morris caught sight of himself in the mirror. My, he was looking the worse for wear. He wore an open-collared poet’s shirt as red as the previous day’s sunset over a well-cut pant of vermillion velvet. Dust obscured the paisley pattern at the cuff and neck, embroidered by his half-sister, Marguerite, who could be spotted across the street at a second-floor window, playing the cello. Her ebony locks trailed over her bare shoulder as her loosely-cut orange tea gown slipped from its accustomed place.

Had enough yet? Millicent would — and we’re still on page 1. So could you really blame her if she cried over this manuscript, “For heaven’s sake, stop showing me what these people look like and have them do something!”

To which I would like to add my own editorial cri de coeur: would somebody please tell this writer that while clothes may make the man in some real-world contexts, it’s really not all that character-revealing to describe a person’s outfit on the page? Come on, admit it: after a while, Henriette’s story started to read like a clothing catalogue. But since it’s a novel set in 1872, long before any of the characters could reasonably have been expected to watch Project Runway marathons, could we possibly spring for another consonant and let the man wear what most people call them, pants, instead of a pant?

Does that slumped posture and defeated moaning mean that some of you manuscript-revisers are finding seeing these storytelling habits from Millicent’s perspective convincing? “Okay, Anne,” you sigh, “you got me. Swayed by the cultural dominance of visual storytelling, I’ve grown accustomed to describing a face, a body, a hank of hair, etc., as soon as I reveal a character’s existence to the refer. But honestly, I’m not sure how to structure these descriptions differently. Unless you’re suggesting that Henriette should have smelled or tasted each new arrival?”

Well, that would be an interesting approach. It would also, I suspect, be a quite different book, one not aimed at the middle grade reader, if you catch my drift.

Your options are legion, you will be happy to hear: once a writer breaks free of the perceived necessity to run a narrative camera, so to speak, over each character as she traipses onto the page, how to reveal what appearance-related detail becomes a matter of style. And that, my friends, should be as original as your voice.

If my goal in blogging were merely to be inspirational, as Author! Author!’s original hosts had hoped, that would have been a dandy place to end the post, wouldn’t it? That last paragraph, while undoubtedly possessed of some sterling writing truths, did not cough up much actual guidance. And you fine people, I know from long experience, come to this site for practical advice, illustrated by examples.

For insight into how breaking up a physical description for a new character can knock the style ball out of the proverbial park, I can do no better than to direct your attention to that much-copied miracle of authorial originality, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. To render this example even more frantically literary, I have transcribed these excerpts from the 1908 F.F. Collier and Son edition (W. Blaydes, translator) Philip K. Dick gave me for my eleventh birthday.

Why that particular edition, for a reader so young? Because the Colliers had the foresight to corral another novelist in whose work Philip had been trying to interest me, into writing the introduction. Henry James was considered a real up-and-comer at the turn of the twentieth century.

Feeling sufficiently highbrow? Excellent. Here’s the reader’s first glimpse of the immortal Emma Bovary:

A young woman, clad in a dress of blue merino trimmed with three flounces, came to the threshold of the house to receive M. Bovary, whom she introduced into the kitchen where there blazed a big fire. The breakfast of the household was ready prepared and boiling hot, in little pots of unequal size, distributed about. Damp clothes were drying within the chimney-place…

That’s it. Rather sparse as physical descriptions go, isn’t it, considering that this novel’s account of this woman’s passions is arguably one of the most acclaimed in Western literature? Yet at this moment, set amongst the various objects and activities in M. Roulaut’s household, she almost seems to get lost among the furniture.

Ah, but just look at the next time she appears. Charles, the hero of the book so far, now begins to notice her, but not entirely positively.

To provide splints, someone went to fetch a bundle of laths from under the carts. Charles selected one of them, cut it in pieces and polished it with a splinter of glass, while the servant tore up sheets to make bandages and Mlle. Emma tried to sew the necessary bolsters. As she was a long time finding her needle-case, her father grew impatient; she made no reply to him, but, as she sewed, she pricked her fingers, which she then raised to her mouth and sucked.

That’s a nice hunk of character development, isn’t it? Very space-efficient, too: in those few lines, we learn her first name, that she’s not very good at sewing, and that she’s not especially well-organized, as well as quite a lot about her relationship with her father. Could a minute description of her face, figure, and petticoat have accomplished as much so quickly?

But wait: there’s more. Watch how the extreme specificity of Flaubert’s choice of an ostensibly practically-employed body part draws Charles’ sudden observation. At this point in the novel, he and Emma have known each other for two pages.

Charles was surprised by the whiteness of her nails. They were bright, fine at the tips, ore polished than the ivories of Dieppe, and cut almond-shape. Her hand, however, was not beautiful: hardly, perhaps, pale enough, and rather lean about the finger joints; it was too long, also, and without soft inflections of line in the contours.

His being so critical of her caught you off guard, did it not? The paragraph continues:

A feature really beautiful in her was her eyes; although they were brown, they seemed black by reason of their lashes, and her glance came to you frankly with a candid assurance.

This passage reveals as much about Charles as about Emma, I think: how brilliant to show the reader only what happens to catch this rather limited man’s notice. Because his observation has so far been almost entirely limited to the physical, it isn’t until half a page later that the reader gains any sense that he’s ever heard her speak. Even then, the reader only gets to hear Charles’ vague summaries of what she says, rather than seeing her choice of words.

The conversation at first turned on the sick man, then on the weather, the extreme cold, the wolves that scoured the fields at night. Mlle. Rouault did not find a country life very amusing, now especially that the care of the farm devolved almost entirely on herself alone. As the room was chilly, she shivered as she ate, and the shivering caused her full lips, which in her moments of silence she had a habit of biting, to part slightly.

Didn’t take Charles — or the narrative — long to slip back to the external, did it? Now, and only now, is the reader allowed the kind of unfettered, close-up look at her that Millicent so often finds beginning in the first sentence in the book that mentions the character.

Her neck issued from a white turned-down collar. Her hair, so smooth and glossy that each of the two black fillets in which it was arranged seemed a single solid mass, was divided by a fine parting in the middle, which rose or sank slightly as it followed the curve of her skull; and, covering all but the lobe of the ears, it was gathered behind into a large chignon, with a waved spring towards the temples, which the country doctor now observed for the first time in his life. Her cheeks were pink over the bones. She carried, passed in masculine style between two buttons of her bodice, eye-glasses of tortoise-shell.

Quite a sensuous means of tipping the reader off that she’s a fellow reader, isn’t it? Two paragraphs later, we hear her speak for the first time:

“Are you looking for something?” she asked.

The initial words a major character speaks in a story, I’ve found, are often key to developing character on the page. Choose them carefully: in a third-person narrative, it’s the first time that this person can speak for herself. Make them count.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not urging any of you to copy Flaubert. His narrative voice would be pretty hard to sell in the current literary market, for one thing — did you catch all of those which clauses that would have been edited out today? — and, frankly, his work has been so well-loved for so long that a novel that aped his word use would instantly strike most Millicents as derivative. As some wise person once said, a strong authorial voice is unique.

Oh, wait, that was me, and it was just a few minutes ago. How time flies when we’re talking craft.

I hear those gusty sighs out there, and you’re quite right: developing an individual voice and polishing your style can be time-consuming. It took Flaubert five years to write Madame Bovary.

Take that, naysayers who cling to the notion that the only true measure of talent is whether a first draft is publishable. The Muses love the writer willing to roll up her sleeves, take a long, hard look at her own work, and invest some serious effort in making sure that all of that glorious inspiration shows up on the page.

So what, in the end, did I say to the lady who exclaimed over the notion that I could possibly have spent more than seven years writing about writing? Oh, I treated to her the usual explanation of how tastes change, trends waver, and the demands of professional writing differ from year to year, if not day to day. If the expression in her stark blue eyes was any indication, she lost interest midway through my third sentence.

The true answer, however, came to me later: in all of these years, and in 1599 posts, I had never shared my favorite depiction of falling in love with you charming people. A shallow love, to be sure, but a memorable description. And for the prompt to whip out this volume, I owe that lady some thanks.

Do I have more to say about writing? Just try to stop me. Keep up the good work!

Do you mind if we talk about something else? Like, say, the times that try editors’ souls?

redundant sign 2

Or, to put it in more practical terms, if I promise to show you more properly-formatted pages while I’m at it, will you forgive my devoting tonight’s post to a foray into a notorious editorial pet peeve? What about if I talk about several?

It’s not as though there aren’t dozens from which to choose: as I may have horrified you with depressed you into a stupor by bringing up mentioned in passing last time, those of us fortunate enough to read for a living are expected — and often rigorously trained — to notice patterns in writing. How often a manuscript uses the word blanched, for instance, or describes anything as being mauve.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with either word choice, mind you, when used sparingly. Surely I will astonish no one, however, if I suggest that your garden-variety reader might prefer not to see characters blanching at the sight of mauve objects on every other page. Adult readers, if you must know, tend to become bored by word and phrase repetition every bit as quickly as they lose interest in a slow-moving plot, dull explanation, or unsympathetic protagonist’s plight. In order to spare the reading public that pain, editors strive to catch not only larger narrative issues, but also redundancies, whether they be of concept, image, or phrase.

And, bless our hearts, we are seldom shy about pointing them out, sometimes as early as the second or third time an author uses a pet word or action. “For heaven’s sake, Mavis,” we have been known to scrawl in manuscript margins, “Jeremy has blanched, went pale, and felt the blood drain from his face already in a 4-page scene — need he also waste the reader’s time noticing his ashen face in the nearest mirror? What’s a mirror doing in the middle of a forest, anyway? And while we’re talking plausibility,” Mavis would be expected to turn the page over here, to read the editorial scribblings on the back of the page, “are you planning at some point to provide the reader with some explanation for all of the mauve leaves on the purple trees? Is the water supply in this forest somehow tainted? Are the trees subject to some sort of lavender mite infestation? Or have you perhaps forgotten that the trees on the other side of the world you’re describing were also on the mauve side?”

Given so much provocation on the page, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that one of the great long-term liabilities of reading for a living — or one of the great advantages, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — is that over time, the dedicated pro becomes decreasingly able to read anything without scrawling corrections in the margins. I’m not merely talking about manuscripts, synopses, and queries here, mind you, but all typed words on a page. The New York Times, for instance, once the standard of American prose, now seldom passes under my long-lashed eyes without picking up some entirely justified marginalia. Nor do magazines go unscathed: I’m looking at you, Radcliffe Quarterly.

Heck, I routinely take a corrective pen to menus, fliers, and wedding programs. One recent November, I had to be restrained bodily from correcting a grievous misprint on my ballot for a county election; the proper spelling would have confused the counting machine, I’m told.

But would that not have been preferable to asking the citizenry to select a superior court joge? Possibly to serve in mauve robes?

While in some walks of life, this level of habitual scrutiny might prove somewhat problematic, for professional readers like agents, editors, and contest judges (or, in this county, joges), it’s a positive boon. So what if in some benighted professions, it is neither expected nor considered particularly sane to look one’s coworker in the eye and say, “I like the content of you’re saying, Ziggy, but the fact that you uttered the word exciting fourteen times over the course of a six-minute speech, insisted upon using impact as a verb, and failed to define a good third of your basic terms detracted from your presentation’s effectiveness,” without finding oneself cordially disinvited from all future meetings? Someone has to defend the language. And by gum, if that means rending our garments and wailing to the heavens, “You’ve used this metaphor twice in 137 pages! And phrased it almost identically each time, you…you?torturer,” well, we’re up to the task.

I see some of you blanching, doubtless at the thought of that manuscript you recently sent out to the agent of your dreams. Well might you turn pale, ashen-faced ones. If the same metaphor graced page 1 and page 241, a good editor would catch it. So is it really so much of a surprise that an even ordinarily conscientious agent — or, for that matter, Millicent, the agency screener — felt all of the blood draining from her face when that metaphor cropped up on pp. 1 and 5? Or — sacre bleu! — twice on page 1?

Half the good professional readers I know would not only have become impatient at any of these levels of metaphor repetition — they would have leapt to the conclusion that the writer was repeating himself so much on purpose. Clearly, this is an authorial plot to get away with lazy writing. As opposed to, say, an authorial failure to recognize that his pet phrase of today was also the pet phrase of three months, eight days, and sixteen hours ago.

How could you? You know how much such things upset Millicent.

Actually, you probably didn’t, at least when you first began to write. Until a writer has enjoyed the incomparable pleasure of having her work dissected disemboweled subjected to professional critique, she tends not to have any idea of how closely an agent or editor is likely to read, much less a Millicent. As we discussed yesterday, the overwhelming majority of first-time queriers and submitters fully expect their pages to be read with, if not a completely charitable eye, than at least a willingness to look past little things like conceptual redundancy and an over-reliance upon a select group of particularly nice words. It’s the overall writing that counts, right?

Can you hear Millicent giggling? From a professional reader’s perspective, the very notion that repetitious word choice, recycled notions, or even frequent typos would not be considered part of the authorial voice being offered in a submission is pretty funny. A screener can judge writing only by what’s on the manuscript page, after all. And is Millicent really so wrong to believe that a manuscript in which every inanimate object is apparently mauve-tinted might be indicative of a slight compositional problem?

Then, too, most writers radically underestimate how good a well-trained professional reader’s memory for text will be. Remember, Millicent is usually in training to become either an agent, who would be expected to read a client’s fourth revision and be able to tell how it had changed from the three previous drafts, or an editor, who might conceivably find himself telling a bestselling author, “By jingo, Maurice, I’m not going to let you do it! You used precisely that simile in Book I of this five-part series; you can’t reuse it in Book V!”

Oh, you think I’m exaggerating, do you? Earlier today, I found my text-addled mind drifting back to a novel-cum-memoir I had read, I kid you not, in junior high school. And not merely because Memorial Day is a natural time to consider the noble calling of memoir-writing. A pivotal scene in that book, I felt, would provide such a glorious illustration of a common narrative mistake — both in manuscripts and in queries, as it happens — that I just had to drop our series-in-progress and track down the book.

Yes, yes, I know: sometimes, even other editors are surprised at how well I remember text. A few years ago, when my own memoir was lumbering its way through the publication process, my acquiring editor scrawled in my margins, “Oh, yeah, right — you remember a biography of the Wright Brothers that you read in the third grade? Prove it!” I was able not only to give him a chapter breakdown of the book, but tell him the publisher and correctly identify the typeface.

That’s how little girls with braids grow up to be editors, in case you had been wondering. If anyone wants to talk about the estimable Katharine Wright Haskell, apparently the only member of the Wright family bright enough to realize that heaving the first airplane off the ground might be of more significance if somebody bothered to alert the media, I’m still prepared and raring to go.

So I had good reason to believe that my recollection of a fictionalized memoir ostensibly written by a childhood friend of Joan of Arc was reasonably accurate. A lighthearted burrow through the roughly two thousand volumes I carted up from California after my mother moved from my childhood home, so she would have to tote only the remaining eight thousand with her (long story), and voil?! The very pages I had in mind.

Care to guess whether I’d remembered the font correctly?

I’m delighted that I did, as this excerpt provides excellent examples of the kind of narrative missteps that Millicent thinks so many of you do on purpose, just to annoy her. For starters, it exhibits the all-too-common narrative trick of echoing the verbal habit of using and as a substitute for a period in first-person narration, in a misguided attempt to make the narrative voice sound more like everyday speech. It can work, but let’s face it, quite a bit of everyday speech is so repetitious that it would be stultifying if transcribed directly to the printed page.

It also, you will be pleased to hear, beautifully demonstrates another classic memoir bugbear: telling an anecdote on the page as one might do out loud at a cocktail party, with practically every sentence a summary statement. (Hey, there’s a reason that show, don’t tell is such a pervasive piece of editorial feedback.) And, most common of all in both memoir and fictional first-person narratives, the pages in question much character development for anyone but the protagonist.

All sounds pretty terrible, doesn’t it? Actually, the scene isn’t badly written; the aforementioned garden-variety reader might not even have noticed some of these problems. Nor, unfortunately, would most aspiring writers prior to submission, for the exceedingly simple reason that far too few of them ever actually sit down and read their work beginning to end, as any other reader would. The writer already knows what’s on the page, right?

Or does he? My guess is that in this instance, the writer had very little idea that what he was slapping on the page was even vaguely problematic.

But you shall judge for yourself. To render the parallels to what Millicent sees on a daily basis more obvious, as well as to continue our exercises in learning to know properly-formatted manuscript pages when we see ‘em, I’m presenting that memorable scene here in standard format. As always, my blogging program is for some reasons best known to itself a trifle hostile to page shots, so if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the images.

Twain page 1

Twain page 2

Twain page 3

Come on, admit it — while you might have excused all of those ands if you had heard this tale told out loud, they’re a trifle eye-distracting on the page, are they not? Ditto with the word repetition — could this author possibly have crammed any more uses of to be, to get, or to see into these three pages? And don’t even get me started on concept repetition.

I sense those of you committed to the noble path of writing memoir — or writing reality-based fiction — shifting uncomfortably in your chairs. “But Anne,” you protest, averting your eyes, “this isn’t the powerful negative example you led us to expect. I get what you mean about the sheer volume of ands, but other than that, there’s nothing wrong with the narrative voice here, given that this is a memoir. Isn’t part of the point of any memoir that the voice does sound like someone might speak? Is that not, in fact, one of the charms of first-person narration in general?”

Well, yes, but just as an event’s having actually occurred in real life (and it’s true, too!) does not necessarily mean that it will inevitably strike the reader as plausible on the page, first-person narration’s reading like everyday speech does not guarantee readability. In print, narrative chattiness may work against the reader’s enjoyment, because chatty people, like the rest of us, reuse words and phrases so darned much. Even talented verbal anecdotalists seldom embellish their tales with the level of detail that the most threadbare of written accounts would require. And funny out loud, let’s face it, does not always equal funny on the page.

Which is to say: as delightful as our example above might have been tumbling out of the mouth of a gifted storyteller, as a story on a page, it’s lacking quite a few elements. A sense of place, for one — is there a reason, the reader must wonder, not to give us some sense of what either the woods or the village were like? If both are left so completely to the reader’s imagination, is there not some danger that a Millicent fresh from polishing off the manuscript before this one might automatically assume that those trees were mauve, and those villages occupied by the wan?

Oh, you thought I’d dropped that running joke? In a blog, I can get away with going back to that same well this often. How many times, though, do you think I could revisit the joke in a book before the reader got bored? Or Millicent became irritated?

While you’re pondering those troubling questions, let’s return to our example. How else does it fall short?

Well, as so often happens in memoir, we’re just told that the action is happening here or there, rather than shown what those places were like. And lest anyone be tempted to shout out that old writing truism, “But it’s stylish to leave something to the reader’s imagination!, let me ask you: based upon the pages above, could you tell me where these people are with enough specificity that a reader would be able to feel like she’s there?

“But that’s not fair!” I would not blame you for shouting indignantly. “It’s the writer’s job to establish a sense of place, not the reader’s job to guess.”

Precisely what Millicent would say. She would object, and rightly, to this scene’s providing her with too little description to enable her to picture Joan and her young friends operating within an environment. Nor are those friends fleshed out much, either in character or physical trait.

Heck, poor Millie doesn’t even get to see the frightening Benoist: instead, the memoirist merely asserts repeatedly that he and Joan were getting closer, without showing us what that have looked like to a bystander. Like, say, the narrator of the scene.

Speaking of the narrator, were you able to glean much of a sense of who he is as a person? How about what his relationship is to Joan? Are you even sure of their respective ages? Any idea what year it is? Heck, if you did not already know that the girl would grow up to be the patron saint of France — actually, one of four, but Joan of Arc is certainly the best known in this country — would anything but the children’s names tip you off about what part of the world these characters inhabit?

While I’m asking so many rhetorical questions in a row — another occupational hazard, I’m afraid; margins absorb them like a sponge does water — let me ask a more fundamental one: did you notice that although this excerpt is apparently about how the village’s children reacted to Joan, there’s practically no character development for her at all?

That’s at least marginally problematic, in a book entitled — wait for it — PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC. What, we are left to wonder, does she look like? Why doesn’t she stand up to her playmates (beyond, of course, the justification of being “so girlish and shrinking in all ways”) or, failing that, why doesn’t she simply walk away from the nasty little beasts?

And don’t stand there telling me that the narrator had no choice in the matter, because that’s how it really happened. Yes, a memoir or fact-based fictional story should be true, but it also has to be both interesting in the page and plausible. Reality, unfortunately, is not always plausible; it’s the writer’s job to make it so on the page.

Which begs another editorial question: why can’t a kid brave enough to face down the village madman’s axe (or ax, depending upon where it falls in this passage; the error is in the book in front of me), a rather interesting thing for a person to do, come up with more revealing answers to questions than a simple yes? This is another notorious editorial pet peeve: almost without exception, the least character-revealing way for anyone to answer a yes-or-no question is with — again, wait for it — a simple yes or no.

Are some of you writers of the real blanching now? “But Anne,” you gasp, clutching your ashen cheeks so heavily drained of blood, “people actually do answer questions that way! And isn’t the point of written dialogue to reproduce the feel of actual speech?”

Well, that’s one of the points of dialogue. Another is not to bore the reader to death, isn’t it? And, if at all possible, it should be entertaining.

Just holding a tape recorder up to nature tends not to be the surest means of hitting any of those excellent goals. Why? Chant it with me now: most everyday speech is repetitious.

I can stand here and keep saying that as long as necessary, people. Again and again and again.

As we may see in the scene above, a character that keeps saying nothing but “Yes” isn’t exactly thrilling the reader with deep insight into her thought processes. Or even into the scene itself: little Joan is not, after all, a hostile witness in a murder trial, but a child talking with her playmates. Wouldn’t it ultimately be more realistic, then, if she sounded like the latter?

Speaking of realism, would it be too much to ask the narrator to explain why the villagers left an axe lying anywhere near the madman’s cage in the first place? Might not the locals’ efforts have been more productively expended making sure he can’t get out than chopping off his fingers?

And yes, in response to what half of you just thought: this is precisely the kind of thing an editor would have gripped her pen angrily and inked into the margins of a manuscript. Not because she’s mean, but because she’s trying to help the writer give the reader a more enjoyable reader experience.

That’s a noble calling, too, you know. But in the unlikely event that some writer out there might care less about the moral beauty of Millicent and her ilk’s devotion to textual excellence than how to worm his way past it in order improve his submission’s chances of getting picked up by an agency, let me hasten to add that the sooner a writer learns to read his own manuscript the way a professional reader would, the easier he will find self-editing. Not to mention being able to catch the Millicent-irritants that can prompt a screener or contest judge to stop reading.

In the interest of helping you fine people develop that ability, let me ask you another question about today’s example: if you had previously known absolutely nothing about what the what the real-life Jeanne d’Arc achieved, wouldn’t you find it at least a trifle too pat that her playmates choose to picture her doing more or less what she grew up to do — and to laugh at her about it? If the girl had suggested this role herself, it might merely have been not-particularly-subtle foreshadowing, but honestly, can you think of any reason to include this at all except to make the reader feel cleverer than St. Joan’s playmates?

Millicent wouldn’t be able to think of one. Neither would most professional readers; it’s our job to deplore this sort of narrative ham-handedness.

“Just how ill-informed would a reader have to be not to find that first bit clumsy?” we mutter into our much-beloved coffee mugs. “Isn’t it safe to assume that anyone who would pick up a book about Joan of Arc would know that she lead an army and was burned at the stake, even if that reader knew nothing else about her? And if your garden-variety reader knows that much, isn’t it an insult to his intelligence to drop a giant sign reading Hey, dummy, this is foreshadowing?”

Was that mighty gust of wind that just whipped the cosmos the sound of half of the memoirists out there huffing with annoyance, or was it merely the first-person novelists sighing gustily? “But Anne,” both groups think loudly in unison, rather like the remarkably collective-minded children in the anecdote above, “this is how I was taught to write first-person narration. It’s supposed to sound exactly like a real person’s speech. So why shouldn’t St. Joan’s unnamed childhood buddy sound like anybody else telling anecdotes out loud?”

A couple of reasons, actually. Yes, good first-person narration takes into account the narrator’s individual speech patterns; no dialogue should sound like just anybody. Which is precisely the problem with all of those yeses, right? All by themselves, yes and no are generally presumed to mean the same thing, regardless of who is saying them. So, like polite spoken clich?s of the “Excuse me” and “I’m so sorry for your loss” ilk, they are too generic to convey personalized content.

Strong dialogue also typically reflects the narrator’s social status and education, personal prejudices, and what s/he could conceivably know in the situation at hand. And then there are those pesky individual quirks and, yes, the century in which s/he lived.

So I ask you, first-person writers: just how does the narrative voice in this passage indicate that this particular anecdote took place not too long after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415? As opposed to, say, the 1890s, when this account was first published?

And if you were tempted even for a nanosecond to mutter in response, “Well, if the 1980s is when readers would have been seeing this dialogue, sounding like that just would have seemed normal,” let me ask a follow-up question: if this scene were narrated in the voice of a pre-teen texting this to a friend today, would that make this scene ring truer to today’s readers? Or would it merely read as though the writer either hadn’t thought much about how Joan and her friends might have communicated with one another — or was presuming that today’s readers were not capable of following any type of dialogue than their own?

Those of us who read for a living have a term for that kind of assumption: insulting the reader’s intelligence. We often find ourselves scrawling it in margins.

How often, you ask, your faces a mask of pallid horror? Well, operating on the assumption that internal monologues have both always sounded pretty much like modern speech and don’t vary much from individual to individual is as common a mistake in first-person narratives as having all teenage characters sigh and roll their eyes is in YA submissions. Yes, some people do think and talk that way, but must everybody? Should Helen of Troy formulate her innermost thoughts in the same way as, say, Eleanor Roosevelt, Louisa May Alcott, or Confucius?

There’s a dinner party, eh? I’ll bring the stuffed grape leaves.

Doesn’t it make for more interesting narration if your narrator’s speech bears at least some marks of time? And if she has some individual quirks of thought and expression?

Besides, if we are going to be true to the rules of first-person narration, shouldn’t we be objecting to how often our narrator here professes to read the other children’s minds — although, notably, not Joan’s? I don’t know about you, but I find that most of the time, my thoughts are located in my own head, not floating somewhere in the middle of a group of bystanders. Millicent, too, tends to regard her own thoughts as separate from other people’s. The inevitable consequence: characters who think together tend to annoy her, unless their shared brains crop up within science fiction or fantasy context, where they can be plausible.

That cast a different light upon the narrative choice here, doesn’t it? As an editor might well scrawl in the margin, are we supposed to believe that our narrator in this instance is a mind-reader, or that the local children were too simple-minded to be able to form individual opinions about what is going on in front of them? Is the narrator just not familiar enough with the individual characters to be able to guess how their thoughts might have differed, or, (turn page over here) since he’s of a different social class than they are — not abundantly apparent in this scene, is it? — does his reporting that they all thought the same way a function of his views of their training in rational thinking? Or does it indicate the opposite, that he feels so close to them that he presumes that his beloved friends and he could only have thought and felt identically?

“Or, Mark,” the editor might conclude, “did you originally write this scene in the third person, with an omniscient narrator that could plausibly read everyone’s thoughts? If so, you can’t legitimately endow your first-person narrator with that ability. Pick a narrative perspective and stick to it!”

In fairness to Mark, as well as all of the blanching first-person narrative writers out there, plenty of writers actually were taught to write first-person narration this way — in short stories in their high school English classes. And with good faith, too: in short bursts, run-on sentences do indeed come across as ordinary speech-like. In the published examples of this type of narration that tend to turn up in class, it’s not all that unusual for the author’s voice and the first-person narrator’s voice to merge into colloquial harmony.

Or, to put it another way, Mark Twain tends to sound like Mark Twain, for instance, no matter whose perspective is dominating a particular story. That’s part of his branding as an author, right, his distinctive narrative voice and humorous worldview?

Admittedly, adopting a chatty voice makes quite a bit of sense for narrative voice in memoir. The reader is going to have to like how the narrator/protagonist talks about her life well enough to want to follow the story for a few hundred pages, after all; we might as well get friendly. Yet in practice, the primary danger of relying on the repetitive phrasing, clich?s, and percussive and use to achieve realistic-sounding narrative cadence is precisely that it will put off the reader because as the pages pass, it can become, at the risk of repeating myself, rather boring.

Think about it: even if a memoir were being told as a collection of verbal anecdotes, wouldn’t you rather listen to a storyteller with some individual flair for phrasing, instead of someone who just sounded like everyone else? No matter how inherently exciting a personal story is, a great telling can make it better reading. So can a narrative voice reflective of the time, place, and society in which that tale takes place.

But just try telling that to Mark Twain — who, as the sharper-eyed among you may already have noticed, wrote the scene above, in what he considered his best book. Although that retrospective assessment is a trifle hard to take seriously, in light of the fact that he published the book both under a pen name and in serial form. Actually, he took it to even one more remove: he wrote a preface under a nom de plume, presenting himself as the translator of a memoir written by one of young Joan’s contemporaries.

Why go to all that trouble? Because by all accounts, he felt that the poor sales of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER were largely attributable to his established audience’s expecting anything published under the name of Mark Twain to be a comedy. Good branding has its drawbacks for a creative artist.

Take that, purists who would like to believe that writing with an eye toward market concerns is a product of an increasingly cynical publishing industry over the last twenty or thirty years. Twain and his publisher worked out that tactic in the 1890s.

But I digress. As a reader, how well do you think his narrative choices worked here, either as fiction narration or as the memoir narration it originally professed to be? In your opinion as a writer, how do you feel about those slips into the first person plural — is the reader carried along with the we perspective as a narrative choice, as we were in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, or does it read like a perspective slip?

In today’s example, do you feel that the mostly distinctly modern narrative voice, coupled with the almost entirely uncritical view of Joan, was the best way to tell this tale? Reviewers in Twain’s time did not think so — they believed (and I must say I agreed with them back in junior high school) that a protagonist who never does anything wrong is a trifle on the dull side, as far as the reader is concerned. Twain’s Joan never sets a wee foot wrong; even in her earliest youth, he tells us, she raised her voice in anger only once, and even then it was to voice a patriotic thought.

A taciturnity unusual in a rabble-rouser, you must admit. Also an unusual characteristic for someone who challenged social norms enough for anyone to want to burn her at the stake: Twain’s narrator presents her as a quiet, universally beloved little girl. Butter, as folks used to say, would not melt in her mouth.

But is that how little girls with braids grow up to lead armies?

Twain evidently thought so. No matter how outside-the-box her observations or actions are shown to be (or, as we saw above, summarized to be), in this narrative, nothing she did or said from birth to the age of fourteen so much as ruffled the composure of the inhabitants of a querulous small village in wartime. Surprising, to say the least, in a young lady who by her own account had been engaging in frequent heart-to-heart chats with a couple of your more illustrious virgin martyrs since the age of twelve.

Perhaps the querulous small village where I spent my formative years was atypical, but I’m inclined to think that had I gone around snatching murder weapons from the clutches of local lunatics or holding confabs with deceased ancient Roman maidens, the locals might have had a thing or two to say about it. I’m also inclined to think that their observations would not have been entirely favorable, regardless of how winsome and girlish I might have been while disarming the maniac in question. It doesn’t strike me as the type of endeavor best undertaken in a party dress.

I’m not saying that Twain is necessarily factually incorrect about any of this; naturally, his best guess is as good as ours on a lot of these points. The little lady lived rather a long time ago, so the issue here is less historical accuracy than dramatic plausibility. Still, just because something really happened does not mean it will necessarily come across as plausible on the page; as agents like to say, it all depends on the writing.

As an editor, though, I think it was Uncle Mark’s job as a writer’s to make me believe his take on this. Presuming you agree with me — speak now or forever hold your peace — I ask you: was this narrative choice the best fit for the story he wanted to tell? And if not, should Millicent accept this manuscript?

Does the fact that a good third of you just began hyperventilating mean that it had not occurred to you that whether a story is not only well-written, but attacked from an appropriate narrative angle is a potential rejection trigger? It is, inevitably. Wouldn’t it have been nice if your last rejection letter had told you that, if Millicent or her boss thought that your first-person story would have worked better as a third-person narrative, or vice-versa?

Literary taste is, of course, to a very great extent individual, so only you can answer my question about Uncle Mark’s narrative choices to your own satisfaction. Am I correct in presuming, though, that you are at least a tiny bit curious about how an editor currently holding down the literary fort in the U.S. publishing world might respond to the choices he did make? Glad you asked. Let the scrawling begin!



What am I hoping you will take from this, you ask, eyes wide with horror and previously rosy cheeks drained of blood? Not merely that being a brilliant writer does not necessarily preclude turning out a clunker of a first draft from time to time — although that’s not a bad thing for aspiring writers to bear in mind. The popular conception of true literary talent’s consisting of letter-perfect creative phrasing dripping from one’s fingertips directly onto the page, with no further polishing necessary, each and every time, does not match up particularly well with reality. As any experienced editor could tell you, most of the books people regard as semi-miraculous productions of pure inspiration have actually been worked, reworked, and run past half a dozen critical readers.

And I mean critical readers. The kind who will remember what the author did in the same scene in each previous draft.

Remember that, please, the next time you’re struggling with a scene that just doesn’t seem to want to hit the page gracefully — or with much specificity. In moments like that, it can be very tempting to embrace the tack Twain did above, writing up the scene in summary form, with few vivid details, just to get the darned thing committed to paper as rapidly as humanly possible.

What makes me think that this was written quickly? Editorial instinct, mostly: I find it hard to believe that a humorist as gifted at reading out loud as I know Twain to have been would have killed the comedy — or bored the reader — with this much word repetition unless he was writing on a pretty tight deadline. Serialization tended to be submitted that way back then, you know, as Dickens would have been only too glad to tell you. Had Uncle Mark taken the time to revisit this scene and iron out its wrinkles, I don’t think there would have been quite so many references to eyes — and, frankly, I don’t think that he would have had his narrator faint at the climax of the scene. He was too good a storyteller.

But that choice certainly saved the author the trouble of having to figure out how the girl convinced the wild man to give up the axe, though, didn’t it? Trust me on this one: experienced editors — and Millicents — see this type of narrative shortcut often enough to recognize it for what it is.

So what should a savvy writer do when faced with this sort of first-draft dilemma? Go ahead, give in to temptation; there is value in getting a full scene on paper. Just make sure to set aside time later in the writing process to return to that scene and flesh it out.

Unless you would prefer to have your future editor bark at you, “This is lazy writing, Ambrose. Didn’t anybody ever tell you to show, don’t tell?”

Just in case nobody has yet snarled that in the general direction of your manuscript: show, don’t tell. Immerse your reader in sufficient details for her to be able to feel as though she is part of the scene, rather than leaving her to fill in the specifics for herself.

Oh, you don’t think that’s what Twain is doing here? Okay, rise from your chair, grab the nearest willing partner, and try to act out this interaction between young Joan and Benoist, based solely upon the choreography the narrator above chose to provide us:

She stood up and faced the man, and remained so. As we reached the wood that borders the grassy clearing and jumped into its shelter, two or three of us glanced back to see if Benoist was gaining on us, and this is what we saw — Joan standing, and the maniac gliding stealthily toward her with his axe lifted. The sight was sickening. We stood where we were, trembling and not able to move. I did not want to see murder done, and yet I could not take my eyes away. Now I saw Joan step forward to meet the man, though I believed my eyes must be deceiving me. Then I saw him stop. He threatened her with his ax, as if to warn her not to come further, but went steadily on, until she was right in front of him — right under his axe. Then she stopped, and seemed to begin to talk with him. It made me sick, yes, giddy, and everything swam around me, and I could not see anything for a time — whether long or brief I do not know. When this passed and I looked again, Joan was walking by the man’s side toward the village, holding him by his hand. The axe was in her other hand.

Not much practical guidance for the actors there, eh? Other than all of that seeing (a word most writers tend to overuse in early drafts, incidentally), the actual movements mentioned here are pretty routine: one party standing still, the other moving toward her. The mover threatens, but we are not told how. Admittedly, a lifted axe doesn’t have to move much to seem threatening, but did you notice how pretty much all of the sense of danger is conveyed via the narrator’s dread, rather than through showing the reader vivid, terrifying specifics? And how virtually all of that dread is summarized, rather than shown in any detail?

From an editorial perspective, that lack of specificity distances the reader from what should have been a thrilling scene: by leaving us to fill in the details, the narrator abdicates his proper role here. It’s his job to make us feel that we were there, or at least to show us the scene engagingly enough that we have that illusion.

Yes, he grounds us in his experience by telling us repeatedly that he is seeing this or that, and that these sights made him feel sick (and ultimately pass out). But great heavens, man, if you’re going to narrate a story like this, isn’t it your job to at least ask a bystander what happened, so you could share that information with the reader?

Don’t tell me that once you’ve seen one axe-wielding madman, you’ve seen ‘em all. As both a reader and an editor, I want to know what this particular madman looked, sounded, moved, smelled, and felt like. I want to know precisely what our heroine did that gave Benoist pause; I want to be shown how he crept up on her stealthily while apparently walking straight into her line of vision. And gosh darn it, I want to know how an axe of 1415 differed from one I might buy at the corner hardware store today.

Without those details, and phrased in fairly ordinary terms, this excerpt is indeed like everyday speech, in the negative sense, despite the inherently exciting subject matter. Substitute a memo-wielding boss for the axe-bearing madman, and this could have been an anecdote overheard in a coffee house after work, couldn’t it?

Please don’t limit your answer to a simple yes or no. I was hoping to learn something about you.

Distancing the reader from the action in this manner is an unfortunately common tactic in memoirs and first-person fictional narratives alike. Instead of showing the reader what happened through a fully realized scene, the narrator simply summarizes; rather than demonstrating relationship dynamics through dialogue or action, the narrator just sums up what was said. And by describing subsequent actions in the same words or in hackneyed terms (I believed my eyes must be deceiving me? Really, Mark?), the action may move forward, but the reader’s understanding of what’s going on does not.

Joan stood; Benoist glided. Then Joan stood while Benoist glided. Then she stopped — odd as the narrative had not shown her going forward. Then the narrator conveniently blacks out so we cannot see what is going on. Then the problem is solved. The end.

A bit mauve, isn’t it? Well might you turn pale.

Seldom is this the most interesting way to convey a story, in my experience. Like having characters answer yes-or-no questions with yes or no, as opposed to more detailed (and thus more character-revealing) responses, the summary route closes off story possibilities. And by definition, repeated phrasing adds nothing new to the scene.

Neither, incidentally, do all of those thens: logically, they are unnecessary. Why? Well, in a story in which events are being presented in chronological order, the occurrences in Sentence 1 are presumed to have happened before those in Sentence 2, which in turn came before what’s described in Sentence 3.

Thens, then, as we have seen them used in that last example, are logically redundant; most editors would advise you to reserve them for moments when what happens next is genuinely unexpected. Take a gander:

Joan stood; Benoist glided toward her with an axe. Then the Wright Brothers and their sister, Katherine, swooped through an opening in the forest canopy in a motorized glider to snatch the weapon away.

Admit it — you didn’t see that last twist coming, did you? As a reader, didn’t you get a kick out of that?

Remember, there’s more to telling a story than simply listing its events in the order they occurred. Racing from its beginning to its end may not be the best way to engage the reader. You want the journey to be both memorable and enjoyable, right? And if the narrative can manage either to surprise the reader with an unanticipated turn of events, delight her with astonishing imagery, or intrigue her with beautiful phrasing — ideally, all three — all the better.

Before I release you to ponder the challenges of expanding a first-person narrative from the anecdotal level into a completely inhabited scene, I want to talk about another common faux pas: the further distancing effect of the narrative’s reminding us repeatedly that the narrator is seeing, hearing, or observing this or that. Obviously — at least from a professional reader’s perspective — if an action or object is depicted in a first-person narrative, the narrator perceived it; otherwise, she could not legitimately bring it up, right?

So when Twain’s narrator tells us repeatedly that he saw Joan do this or Benoist do that, it’s logically redundant. Of course, he saw it: he was standing right there. Why bother to remind the reader of that self-evident fact? Or, to put it as a garment-rending professional reader might, does the author think the reader is too brain-dead to remember who the narrator is and that he is present?

Oh, you don’t want the pros to take every word you commit to the page that seriously? But it’s how they show their respect for your eventual readers!

And for your literary gifts. Again: if it’s on the page and the writer appears to possess even the slightest vestige of talent, Millicent is going to assume that you put it there on purpose. She’s also going to believe, with good reason, that if a writer has set up rules for how the story is to be told — in this case, from the point of view of a childhood friend of Joan’s, and only from his perspective — the narrative will follow those rules consistently.

This, too, trips up quite a lot of memoirists and other first-person narrator-wranglers. Once a narrative is committed to a single perspective, it cannot report anything outside of it without shattering the illusion of a limited point of view. Thus, when the narrator slips into the first person plural, informing us that we saw this or thought that, it’s jarring to the reader’s sensibilities.

And when, like Twain’s narrator, he professes to know what we all are thinking…well, let’s just say that maybe Joan isn’t the only one who needs to be worrying about going on trial for dabbling in the supernatural. Unless the narrative establishes some means by which a first-person narrator could possibly have reliable insight into other characters’ thoughts and feelings, he should really stick to his own.

If his thoughts and feelings are somehow different from every Tom, Dick, and Benoist who might be hanging around in the same place at the same time, great. If he can manage to express them in language evocative, memorable, and tailored to his individual worldview, though, even better. And if he can work in a little character development, perhaps through revealing dialogue, terrific.

Which is not a bad definition of memoir voice, if you think about it: a narrator with a strong personality and specific worldview recounting situations of significance to an overall dramatic story arc in language and from a perspective unique to the teller. If every sentence of your memoir — and, to bring this back to our series-in-progress, every sentence of your query’s book description — does not rise to that level, you might want to think about revising it.

Millicent will thank you. So will your readers.

So Mark, darling, as much as I admire your writing in general and short stories in particular, if I were your editor — oh, you thought that editors don’t live in the hope that this type of activity would be the first, best use of a time machine? — I would insist that you sat down and revised these three pages. Actually, I would do it because I admire your writing: your narrative voice, even in this rather serious book, is better than what we’re seeing here.

And that axe you keep telling us you’re seeing, narrator? Try to think of it as your editor, chopping away all of that phrasing and conceptual redundancy. Trust your reader’s intelligence a bit more, please.

Do bear in mind, too, that while reality itself can be convoluted and devoid of point, readers have a right to expect a book based upon real events to be a good story possessed of an identifiable story arc. It should be dramatically satisfying. And if the real-life version is not, believe me, Millicent isn’t going to be inclined to take that as an excuse.

No need to go pale about this. You can do it. But in order to pull it off successfully, you’re going to have to be able to read your work not only like a writer, but also like a reader.

Oh, it feels good to be delving back into craft. Would anyone mind if I continued to keep standard format illustration on the back burner for a bit and made narrative voice my topic of the week?

Actually, that’s a rhetorical question, come to think of it. Keep up the good work!

Me and you and a boy? girl? dog? named Snafu

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Sorry about my recent slow rate of posting, campers; as the sharper-eyed among you may have noticed, we here at Author! Author! have been experiencing what the old television shows used to call euphemistically technical difficulties. Quite a bit of progress can be seen behind the scenes, I assure you, but it will be a little while before the full benefits will be visible from your side of the page. Mea culpa, and thanks for hanging in there.

I’ve been hesitant to keep pressing forward with our series-in-progress on manuscript formatting while the visual examples are still acting a bit squirrelly. Writers’ conference season is almost upon us, however, and proper formatting can make the difference between an enthusiastically-read post-pitch submission and one that our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, picks up with trepidation, so I’d like to smuggle the standard format basics into everyone’s writing tool kit sooner rather than later. Let us press on unabashed, therefore.

When last we broached the subject, I showed how the first page of text does not, from a professional perspective, make an adequate substitute for a title page in a book manuscript — a demonstration that, if past is any prologue, may well have left some of you scraping your jaws off the floor. Don’t be too hard on yourself, if so: most first-time submitters simply assume that if a manuscript does include a title page — and a hefty majority of submissions arrive without one — it should be a replica of a hoped-for book cover. That’s what they’ve seen in bookstores (ask your grandparents, children), so that must be what looks professional to the professionals, right?

As I hope those of you who have been following his series have already shouted: heavens, no. Standard format for manuscripts does not resemble what’s on the printed page of a published book in many respects.

You’d be surprised at how many aspiring writers are not aware of that, judging by how many single-spaced, non-indented, photo-heavy submissions turn up at agencies. Even the more industry-savvy rookies — the ones who have taken the time to learn that book manuscripts must be double spaced, contain indented paragraphs, be printed on one side of the page, etc. — are frequently unaware that that in traditional publishing circles, the author typically has very little say over what does and does not grace the cover.

Millicent is quite cognizant of that fact, however; experience watching books travel the often bumpy road from initial concept to publication have shown her that cover art is almost invariably the publishing house’s choice. So is pretty much everything on the dust jacket, including the back jacket copy, the book’s typeface, and every other cosmetic consideration. So when she opens requested materials to find something like this:

she sees not a manuscript perfectly ready for publication — that’s what some of you, thought, right? — but evidence that the sender does not understand the difference between a published book and a manuscript. At minimum, this admittedly rather pretty top page demonstrates that the writer does not understand that throughout the publication process, the title page of a manuscript is not just its top cover.

Nor is it merely the shouted-out declaration of the book’s title and who wrote it, another popular choice in submissions. What possible practical purpose could a title page like this serve at the submission stage?

Not much doubt about what it’s called or who wrote it, true, and the typeface certainly blares those two facts with gratifying gusto, but how precisely does this (unusually small, for some reason best known to the writer) sheet of paper fulfill any of the functions the agent or small publisher to whom it was submitted might need it to serve? How, in fact, is it a better title page than the most common of all, the following?

No, your eyes are not deceiving you: the single most popular title page option in manuscript submissions is none. It’s an especially common omission in e-mailed submissions. Half the time, e-mail submitters don’t even include a cover letter; they just attach the requested number of pages. “I’ve been asked to send this,” title page-eschewers murmur, doubtless to convince themselves, “so the agency has to know who I am. Besides, my name and the title are in the slug line — that’s the writer’s name and title in the upper right margin of the page, should anyone have been wondering. Surely, that’s enough to identify the manuscript.”

Well, it might be, if Millicent were fond of guessing games, but hands up, anyone who seriously believes that agents ask to see so few manuscripts in any given year based upon the tens of thousands of queries they receive that any requested materials must be instantly recognizable not only to their weary peepers, but to the entire staffs of their agencies. Keep those hands up if you also cling to the writer-flattering notion that agents and editors hearing pitches at conference find so few of them convincing that they could easily identify both book and writer by the storyline alone.

Found better uses for your hands, did you? Glad to hear it. But if presenting a fantasy book cover isn’t the point of including a title page, and if its main goal is not to shout that you — yes, YOU — managed to pull off the quite impressive achievement of writing an entire book or book proposal, what meaning is this poor, misunderstood page supposed to convey to Millicent?

Its mission is not particularly romantic, I’m afraid: a properly-formatted title page is simply a quiet, practical piece of paper, containing a specific set of marketing information any agent or editor would need in order to bring your book to publication. If Millicent doesn’t spot that information as soon as she claps eyes on the pages her boss, the agent of your dreams, asked you to send, her first impression of your submission will be that you’ve made her life a little harder.

Call me zany, but I doubt that was Ann Gardiner’s goal when she put all of that effort into designing that pretty faux book cover and popped it into the envelope with her first 50 pages. I would be surprised if Ama Narcissist actively desired to make it difficult for an agent who fell in love with her writing to contact her. And I would be downright flabbergasted if the e-mailing submitter that just didn’t think to include a title page with his Word document hadn’t just assumed that Millicent keeps every single one of the thousands of e-mails her agency receives in any given week in a special file, all ready to be leafed through so if her boss wants to see more of the manuscript, she can waste 17 hours trying to track down the sender’s original e-mailed query. Because all that’s required to respond to an e-mailed submission is to hit REPLY, right?

Again: heavens, no. Any reasonably established agency may be relied upon to be juggling far, far too many submissions at any given time.

Do those inarticulate gasps of frustration mean that some of you have under-labeled manuscripts in circulation at this very moment, or merely that you have questions? “But Anne,” hyperventilating writers the English-speaking world over gasp, “I’m an inveterate reader of agency and small publishing houses’ submission guidelines, and they rarely state a preference for including a title page. What gives?”

What gives, my air-deprived friends, is that it’s actually pretty uncommon for submission guidelines to get down to the nitty-gritty of page formatting. As much as the strictures of standard format may seem new and strange to an aspiring writer confronting them for the first time, it’s just how the publishing industry expects professional book writing to be presented. A title page is so presumed to be part of a properly-formatted manuscript that many submission guidelines might not bother to mention it at all.

Which may be why, in practice, submitting without a title page is far more common than including one, especially for electronic submissions. This presentation choice is particularly common for contest entries, perhaps because contest rules seldom come right out and say, “Hey, buddy, include a title page, why doncha?” — and they virtually never say, “Hey, buddy, don’t bother with a title page, because we don’t need it.” Instead, they usually just ask entrants to include certain information with their entries: the category the writer is entering, perhaps, with contact information on a separate sheet of paper.

Which has, you may be interested to hear, a name amongst those who handle manuscripts for a living. It’s called, if memory serves, a title page.

Ah, a forest of hands has sprouted in the air. “But Anne,” murmur those of you who currently have submissions floating around out there without your contact information attached, “I’d like to go back to that part about the expectation that a manuscript should include a title page being so widespread that a pro putting together submission guidelines might not even think to bring it up. Assuming that pretty much everyone else whose submission will land on Millicent’s desk on the same day as mine was in the dark about this as I was until I read your recent fine-yet-sleep-disturbing post, should I even worry about not having included a title page? I mean, if Millie were going to reject manuscripts on this basis alone, she’d be a non-stop rejection machine.”

Of course, she isn’t a non-stop rejection machine. She’s a virtually non-stop rejection machine. She genuinely gets excited about quite a few submissions.

But that wasn’t really the crux of your question, was it, worried submitters? You’re quite right that this omission is too common to be an instant-rejection offense at most agencies, despite the fact that including it renders it far, far easier for the agent of your dreams to contact you after he has fallen in love with your writing. However, any deviation from standard format on page 1 — or, in the case of the title page, before page 1 — will make a manuscript look less professional to someone who reads submissions day in, day out. It lowers expectations about what is to follow.

To gain a better a sense of why, let’s revisit a couple of our examples from earlier in this series. Welcome back, R.Q. Snafu and Faux Pas. See if you can spot where they went astray.

While opening pages like these do indeed include the requisite information Millicent or her boss would need to contact the author (although Faux Pas’ pulls it off it better, by including more means of contact), cramming all of it onto the first page of text doesn’t really achieve anything but saving a piece of paper, does it? What precisely would be the point of that? This tactic wouldn’t even shorten the manuscript or contest entry, technically speaking: the title page is never included in a page count. That’s why pagination begins on the first page of text.

So what should a proper title page for a book manuscript or proposal look like? Glad you asked:

Got all three of those last three images indelibly burned into your cranium? Excellent. Now weigh the probability that someone who reads as many manuscripts per day as Millicent — or her boss, or the editor to whom her boss likes to sell books — would not notice a fairly substantial difference in the presentation.

Exactly. Now assess the likelihood of that perception’s coloring any subsequent reading of the manuscript in question.

The answers are kind of obvious once you’ve seen the difference, are they not? Trust me, Millicent will have seen the difference thousands of times.

Again, I see many raised hands out there in the ether. “But Anne,” upright individuals the globe over protest, “I get that including all of the information in that last example would render it simpler for a Millicent who fell in love with the first three chapters of MADAME BOVARY to contact Mssr. Flaubert to ask for the rest of the manuscript. I’m not averse to making that part of her job as easy as humanly possible. However, I don’t quite understand why my presentation of that array of facts need be quite so visually boring. Wouldn’t my manuscript be more memorable — and thus enjoy a competitive advantage — if the title page were unique?”

At the risk of damaging your tender eardrums, HEAVENS, no! To folks who handle book manuscripts for a living, a title page is most emphatically not the proper place for individual artistic expression; it’s the place to — stop me if you’ve heard this before — provide them with specific information necessary for dealing with a submission.

Anything else is, in a word, distracting. To gain a sense of why, let’s take a gander at another type of title page Millicent sees with great frequency — one that contains all of the right information, but is so unprofessionally formatted that the care with which the writer followed the content rules gets entirely subsumed in the visuals.

title picture

Where should I even begin with this one? It’s pretty, undoubtedly, but would anyone care to start listing any of the five things wrong with it?

If you immediately zeroed in on the picture, give yourself a gold star for the day. Since there is literally no chance that any image a writer chooses to place on a manuscript or proposal’s title page will end up on the published book’s cover, what’s the point of placing it here? Decorating your submission’s title page with photos or drawings will just seem bizarre to Millicent. (And that goes double for Mehitabel, the veteran literary contest judge. She is likely to emit a well-bred little scream when she opens the entry envelope.)

Award yourself two gold stars if you said Ms. White should nix the red lettering — or any lettering that isn’t black, for that matter. Like every other page in the manuscript, the title page should be printed in black ink on white paper. No exceptions.

Help yourself to a third gold star out of petty cash if you also caught that her contact information should not have been centered. Pin a great big blue ribbon on yourself, too, if you pointed out that Ms. White used two different typefaces here, a classic standard format no-no. Not to mention the fact — although I do seem to be mentioning it, don’t I? — that the type size varies.

Feel free to chant it with me, axiom-lovers: like everything else in the manuscript, the title page should be entirely in 12-point type. It should also be in the same font as the rest of the manuscript.

With the usual caveat: unless an agent specifically requests otherwise, of course. Or contest’s rules; double-check for title page restrictions. (Why? Well, since the title page is generally the first part of an entry Mehitabel sees, not adhering to the rules there can knock an otherwise promising submission out of finalist consideration before she has a chance to read the first line of text. Contest rules exist for a reason, you know.)

You may place the title — and only the title — in boldface if you like, but that’s about as far as it’s safe to venture on the funkiness scale. Do not, I beg you, give in to the temptation of playing with the typeface. No matter how cool your title page looks with 24-point type, resist the urge, because Millicent will be able to tell from across the room if you didn’t.

Don’t believe that size matters? See for yourself:

Quite a difference, isn’t it? Apart from Mssr. Smith’s tragic font choice and his not having countermanded Word’s annoying propensity to reproduce e-mail addresses in blue ink, did you notice any potentially-distracting problems with this title page?

If you said that the last example included both a slug line and a page number in the bottom right corner, snag yourself yet another gold star. Add whipped cream and walnut clusters if you mentally added the reason that those additions are incorrect: because the title page is not the first page of text, and should not be formatted as if it were.

While I’m on a boldface kick, title pages should not be numbered. This means, incidentally, that the title page should not be counted as one of the 50 pages in those 50 pages the agent of your dreams asked you to submit. Nor would it count toward the total number of pages for a contest entry.

That loud whoop you just heard was contest-entering writers everywhere realizing that they could squeeze another page of text into their entries. Who knew so many of them could tap-dance?

While you’ve got those title pages firmly imprinted upon your brainpan, let me briefly address a question from incisive reader Lucy, one of many aspiring writers enamored of the clean, classic look of initials on a book cover. As you may have noticed, our pall Snafu shares the same preference. Lucy wondered if other naming choices might raise other distracting thoughts.

What if you have a weird name which is gender confusing? Say a boy named Sue? Should he put Mr. Sue Unfortunate on his title page? Or just Sue Unfortunate?

Lucy’s responding, of course, to the fine print on R.Q.’s first page. Here it is again, to save you some scrolling:

I was having a little fun in that last paragraph with the still surprisingly common writerly belief that the agents and editors will automatically take a submission by a woman more seriously if the author submits it under her initials, rather than under her given first name. J.K. Rowling aside, this just isn’t true, at least in fiction circles.

In fact, in North America, women buy the overwhelming majority of novels — and not just women’s fiction, either. A good 90% of literary fiction readers (and agents, and editors) have two X chromosomes — and some of them have been known to prefer reading books by Susans rather than Roberts.

So unless you have always hated your parents for christening you Susan, you won’t really gain anything professionally by using initials in your nom de plume instead. Go ahead and state your name boldly, Sue.

unfortunate2

Even better, why not publish under a name you actually like instead? That’ll show your Susan-loving parents, Norm.

I just ruffled a few feathers out there, didn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear many an initialed purist exclaim, “I don’t want to be judged as a female writer; I want to be judged as a writer. What’s wrong with removing gender markers altogether from my title page — or my query letter, for that matter?”

Well, there’s nothing wrong with it per se, Susan, except that people are probably going to leap to a conclusion about your sex regardless, at least if you happen to be writing in a book category that tends to be marketed more to one sex than another. In most fiction and pretty much all nonfiction categories, Millicent’s first response upon seeing initials on a title page, especially if neither the By part and the contact information contain a first name, will often be, “Oh, this is a female writer who doesn’t want to be identified as one,” rather than “Gee, I wonder who this intriguing person without a first name is. I’m just going to leap right into this manuscript with no gender-based expectations at all.”

Why might young Millie have this reaction — and her older boss be even more likely to respond this way? Because female writers (and with a few notable exceptions, almost exclusively female writers) have been submitting this way for a couple of hundred years now. It’s not all that hard a code to crack.

Historically, the hide-my-sex-for-success strategy has been used far, far less by male authors — except, of course, that hugely prolific and apparently immortal author, Anonymous, and the reputedly male writers of such ostensibly female-penned first-person classics of estrogen-fueled wantonness (avert your eyes, children) as THE HAPPY HOOKER, COFFEE, TEA, OR ME? and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. Even during periods when some of the most popular and respected novelists have been women (and there have been quite a few such periods in the history of English and American prose, contrary to what your high school English textbook probably implied), when someone named Stanley Smith wrote a novel, the title page has generally said so.

Because, you see, even back in the 19th century, many readers would have just assumed S. Smith the novelist was a nice lady named Susan. (It’s probably where your parents got the idea to christen you that, Norman.) Or those readers would have assumed that you were an Oxford don writing scurrilous fiction that might have shocked your colleagues on the side. That avocation has historically resulted in fewer book readers naming their children Susan, though.

That being said, an author’s pen name is ultimately up to the author. The choice to identify yourself with initials or not is entirely up to you — or, more accurately, to you and your agent, you and your editor, and you and your future publisher’s marketing department. Some sets of initials look cooler than others in print, just as some names look better than others on book jackets.

Or so claimed my father, the intrepid fellow who demanded that the maternity ward nurse convey him to a typewriter to see how my name looked in print before committing to filling out my birth certificate. The better to check if it would look good on a book jacket, my dear. So for those of you who have wondered: however improbable it sounds, Anne Mini is in fact my given name; it just happens to look great in print, thanks to a little paternal forethought.

If I had preferred to publish under A. Mini, though, I doubt anyone but my father would have strenuously objected. Certainly not at the submission stage — when, for some reason that mystifies Millicents, many aspiring writers seem to believe that the question of pen name must be settled for good. It doesn’t. Should you already be absolutely certain that you would prefer to go by your initials, rather than your given name, feel free to identify yourself that way on your title page.

For convenience’s sake, however, it’s customary for the contact information to list the name one prefers an agent to ask to speak to on the telephone.

Which brings us back to Lucy’s trenchant question: how on earth does a writer with a gender-ambiguous name delicately convey whether s/he would prefer to be addressed as Ms. or Mr.? S/he doesn’t, at least on the title page, or indeed in the query letter: that’s a matter for subsequent conversation with one’s agent. These days, though, it’s unlikely that the agent who has just fallen in love with the writer of our last example would address a potential client so formally: the e-mail or phone call offering representation would probably begin Dear Norman.

At worst, an agent reading in a hurry might call and ask for Ms. Unfortunate. But you can live with that, can’t you, Susan?

Besides, unless a writer’s gender (or sex, for that matter) is crucial to the story being told, why should it come up before then?

See earlier commentary about being judged by one’s writing, not one’s sex. If a writer is genuinely worried about it, s/he could always embrace Norman’s strategy above, and use a more gender-definite middle name in the contact information.

Keep your chins up, Susans everywhere — you may have little control over what literary critics will say about your work, but you do have control over what name they call will you while they’re doing it. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

More concrete examples of properly and improperly formatted manuscripts follow next time. Keep those questions coming, and as always, keep up the good work!

The rules, part IV: so that’s how a book manuscript should appear on the page!

Sorry about the unexpected hiatus between my last formatting post and this one, campers; I honestly did mean to follow up within two or three days. My blogging time has been a trifle more difficult to schedule since my car crash, however — I never know when someone is going to decide to pop me into an MRI machine. Or decide to cut my computer use in half.

I’m back on the job this evening, however, and raring to polish off our list of requirements for a professionally-formatted book manuscript. At the risk of repeating myself, allow me to underscore book manuscript: if you are planning to write anything else (say, a short story, article, or a tasty little tidbit for an academic journal), I would strongly urge you to look elsewhere. Different venues for publishing writing have different standards. So while I would always encourage even those writing books to check agency and small publishing house’s submission guidelines — like literary contests, the individuals who evaluate submissions sometimes harbor personal preferences — a writer’s best bet is always to find out how professionals submit their work to that particular venue and emulate it.

Rather than, say, do what most first-time submitters do: simply assume that presentation doesn’t matter if the writing is good. In any writing venue, adhering to its expected presentation will make your work look more professional to the pros, for the exceedingly simple reason that all professional manuscripts circulated by agencies in the United States conform to standard format.

Or, to put it another way, everything that editors at major publishing houses are used to reading, will look like the pages we saw in the first post in this series’ brief visual tour of a properly-formatted manuscript. So does our old pal, Millicent the agency screener.

Why are these expectations important for a writer to bear in mind while preparing a submission? Well, think about it: if editors want manuscripts in standard format (they’re easier to edit that way, incidentally), a savvy agent would make sure that all of her clients’ work adhered to that norm, right? It follows as night the day, then, that taking on a writer fond of formatting his work in any other manner will necessitate training him in professional formatting.

Which — are you sitting down? — pretty much everyone in publishing circles expects a writer serious about seeing his work in print to have invested the time and energy in learning before approaching an agency or publishing house. Knowing how to format a book manuscript properly is a basic professional skill for an author, after all. And arguably, it’s never been easier to pick up that skill.

Of course, those who argue that typically don’t spend much time trawling the Internet for tips. As I’m morally certain won’t come as even a vague surprise to those of you who have discovered this post — and only this post — in the course of an web-wide search on how to format manuscripts, there’s a heck of a lot of conflicting advice out there. Not all of it is equally well-informed, and an astoundingly high proportion fails to mention — as I may have pointed out fifteen or sixteen times throughout the course of this short series — that the rules the site in question is touting should not be applied to all writing, anywhere, anytime.

Why is that supposition problematic? Shall we chant our mantra, writers who have been following this series? Standard format for book manuscripts is not proper for every form of writing known to humanity, anywhere, anytime. It’s for — wait for it — books.

No one is born knowing that, however, nor with the publishing experience to tell good advice from, well, the other kind. I think a excellent case could be made that since the rise of the Internet — and the concomitant rise of the expectation that everything someone new to the publishing world needs to know should be possible to locate in, if not a bullet-pointed list, then at least in a 500-word post appearing on the first page of a Google search of the phrase manuscript format — it’s actually become quite a bit harder for those new to the game to learn the rules.

Understandably, then, many aspiring writers’ response to the plethora of advice floating around out there has been not to seek out the most credible, or even the one that appears to be speaking to the type of books they might happen to be writing, but rather to pick and choose elements from a buffet of options. The inevitable result: Millicent’s inbox has been awash in some rather odd admixtures in recent years. Mixing and matching standard format for book manuscripts, short stories, magazine articles, etc., perhaps with the piquant addition of an element or two from a published book, has become the norm in recent years, not the exception.

Am I correct in concluding that audible intake of collective breath indicates some personal experience with this phenomenon? “But Anne,” buffet-lovers across the world protest, and who could blame them? “I tried to find out how to do it, but there were so many different sets of rules — and virtually all of them barked as orders, instead of explained nicely, as I notice you have tried to do in this series — I just assumed that there wasn’t really a single standard. I can’t be the only one who’s felt this way. If so many of us are submitting our work in ways other than standard format would dictate, why doesn’t Millicent just, you know, lighten up and not pay attention to anything but the writing?”

Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? So would the overwhelming majority of writers trying to break into print. And if the publishing industry were run to please aspiring writers, Millicent might embrace your suggestion with vigor. Ditto if there were not hundreds of thousands of talented writers competing for the limited publication slots in any given book category in any given year.

Which is to say — and you might want to sit down for this one — it’s very helpful to Millicent that so many submissions arrive on her desk incorrectly formatted. Trust me, if she works for a well-established agent, she already receives a few hundred well-written, perfectly-formatted submissions for every opening her boss has for a new client. So if other manuscripts’ formatting allow her to draw the conclusion that their writers would be more time-consuming to represent than those who have made the effort to learn the ropes, well, can you really blame her for regarding them as less professional writing?

I sense some of you grumbling, and with some reason. “What about individual expression?” nonconformists everywhere cry, bless their ornery hearts. “How my writing appears on the page is part of my vision for my book. Why shouldn’t my manuscript reflect that?”

A fine question, and one that richly deserves a direct answer: because non-standard presentation will distract Millicent. In publishing circles, formatting matters like font size, margin width, and whether a new chapter begins on a fresh page are not matters of individual preference; standard format is just that, standard. That means, in practice, that when anything else appears on a submission’s pages, a professional reader’s eye is going to zoom right to it.

So I ask you: which would you rather have Millicent focus upon, your unique formatting vision — or your writing?

Remember, too, that neither Millicent, her boss, the agent of your dreams, nor your future lucky acquiring editor will expect your manuscript to resemble a published book. Standard format differs in many significant respects, from being double-spaced and printed on only one side of the page to how a dash appears on the page.

That comes as a surprise to many aspiring writers: all too often, they assume that deviating from standard format in order to, say, place the first letter of a chapter in a larger font size, or to remove the indentation from its first paragraph, will make sense to Millicent, because it’s sometimes done in published books. The way the manuscript is formatted for submission, they reason, will be their best chance to show their future acquiring editors how they would like to see their books appear in print.

How that reasoning plays out on the page will send a different message to Millicent, unfortunately. To her, as to anyone who reads manuscripts for a living, all such a page conveys is that the writer is not very familiar with the book publishing process. Specifically, the part in which the publishing house, not the author, gets to make the decisions about what the book looks like.

Does that glum silence mean that I’ve convinced you, or merely depressed you into a stupor? Both are quite normal reactions for writers hearing about all of this for the first time, or even the second or third. (Hey, there’s a reason I go over this every year.)

While you’re absorbing it all, let’s go over the rules we’ve discussed so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before we move on, allow me to revisit #14, as it’s one that’s often misinterpreted. There are in fact forms of writing in which it is still quite proper to underline certain words under certain conditions. In a book manuscript (or a book proposal, as it happens), however, this is not acceptable.

No, no matter how much you want to emphasize a word or phrase; italics should be used for that. Ditto for any phrases you might choose to import from a foreign language — you wouldn’t want the agent of your dreams to think you had misspelled a word in English, would you? — and titles of books, songs, newspapers, and magazines. If you should desire to refer to an article, a poem, or a short story, however, those titles should appear within quotation marks.

You’ll find list of the rules for italics use in my last post, but as I’m a great fan of visual examples, here are those principles in action.

Minette waved the paper at him. “Honestly, Patrice, it’s all here in The Anytown, U.S.A. Gazette.”

He shrugged. “Chacun ? son go?t. I prefer to get my news from the moon, the stars, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and ‘The Road Not Taken,” my sweet.”

A less-than-convincing argument from a man whose idea of a first date flick had been Gore on Parade and whose most-quoted rhyme was “There Once Was a Man From Nantucket.” “Oh, look, honey. The article’s even called ‘Stuff Patrice McStubbornhead Habitually Gets Wrong.’ I think it might conceivably speak to you.”

He reached for his guitar. When she was in a mood like this, nothing soothed her so fast as a quick rendition of Greensleeves.

God, how I hate that song,” she muttered.

Everyone happy with that, at least provisionally? If not, this would be a dandy time to post questions in the comments. Please don’t be shy: believe me, if you have been wondering about any aspect of italics use, so have a quarter of a million of your fellow aspiring writers too shy to speak up.

Do ‘em a favor: ask. While you’re formulating your questions, let’s move on.

(15) Numbers over 100 and those containing decimal points (like currency) or colons (like specific times) should be written as numerals. Numbers under 100 should be written out in word form. Thus, twenty-five is correct; so are 1,473, 2:47 p.m., and $15.90. Page numbers, of course, should appear as numerals.

The instinct to correct this particular set of mistakes when they appear on the submission page is universal in professional readers. That’s potentially problematic for a submission. Why? Well, from that impulse to rejection is often a fairly short journey, because once the notion gee, this writer hasn’t taken the time to how book writing should be presented has occurred to a professional reader, it’s hard to unthink. After that, anything from a major clich? to a minor typo would just seem like corroboration of this uncharitable — and in some cases unfair — conclusion.

Translation: not presenting your numbers correctly will not help you win friends and influence people at agencies and publishing houses. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. This one makes our teeth grind.

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

And honestly, what could a manuscript possibly gain artistically by violating this particular rule? If Millicent will be happier to read text like this:

Abbott/The Great Voyage/82

The sandwich cost $3.76.

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

Rather than (stop it, teeth!) like this:

Abbott/The Great Voyage/Eighty-two

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

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

Why not humor her? She puts in a long day at a hard job; she doesn’t have time for extra trips to the dentist.

Do I spot some hands waving in the air? “But Anne,” inveterate readers of newspapers protest, “I’m accustomed to seeing numbers like 11, 53, 18, and 72 written as numerals. Does that mean that when I read, say, a magazine article with numbers under 100 depicted this way, that some industrious editor manually changed all of those numbers after the manuscript was submitted?”

No, it doesn’t — although I must say, the mental picture of that poor, unfortunate soul assigned to years of searching tirelessly for those numbers and making such a nit-picky change saddens me. (Hang in there, brother!)

What we have here is yet another difference between book manuscript format and, well, every other kind of formatting out there: in journalism, they write out only numbers under 10. Yet — stop me when the song begins to sound familiar — there are many, many sources out there insisting that the over-10 rule should be applied to all forms of writing, anywhere, anytime. Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but in a book manuscript, it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

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

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

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

Heck, compared to most professional readers, my feelings on the subject are downright non-confrontational. I’ve been in more than one contest judging conference where tables were actually banged, modern societies deplored, and the rise of the personal computer berated to the skies.

Again, I ask you: do you really want your contest entry to be the one that engenders this reaction?

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

Everyone clear on that? Good, because — are you sitting down, newspaper enthusiasts? — embracing journalistic conventions like the post-colon capital and writing out only numbers under ten will just look like mistakes to Millicent and her ilk in a book manuscript.

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

Although my aforementioned heart aches for those of you who intended to protest, “But how on earth is an aspiring writer to know that the standards are different?” this is a cry that is going to fall on deaf ears as well. The sad fact is, submitters rejected for purely technical reasons are almost never aware of it. With few exceptions, the rejecters will not even take the time to scrawl, “Take a formatting class!” or “Next time, spell-check!” on the returned manuscript. If a writer is truly talented, they figure, she’ll mend her ways and try again.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t stand there and tell me that you’ve seen the long dash in countless published books, or that those self-same volumes have not placed a space between the dashes in question and the words on either side. None of that is relevant. Standard format is invariable upon this point: a doubled dash with a space on either end is correct; anything else is not.

And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of doing it properly only when you think about it, or not doing a search for it before you submit your manuscript. It may seem like a minor, easily-fixable phenomenon from the writer’s side of the submission envelope, but believe me, inconsistency drives people trained to spot minor errors nuts. Seriously, the pros bemoan how often they see manuscripts in which this rule is applied inconsistently: two-thirds of the dashes doubled, perhaps, sometimes with a space at either end and sometimes not, with the odd emdash and single dash dotting the text as well.

Remember, consistency is not only a hallmark of a well-developed authorial voice; it’s a sign of professionalism in formatting, too. Or did you expect your future agent to invest the time in cleaning up your formatting and/or punctuation before submitting your work to editors? Even in the unlikely event that he would be willing to do it — good agents are very busy people — wouldn’t that expectation mean that he could never send out any of your writing without proofreading it?

As opposed to, say, a writer who had already gotten into the professional habits of consistent dash formatting and proofreading?

I’m going to leave the consistency-haters among you — oh, I know you’re out there — to ponder that one while the rest of us move on. Those who have spent the last few paragraphs resenting the necessity of going over your manuscript in this detail prior to submission will be pleased to hear that the next rule is one that will eat up very little of your time.

(17) Turn off the widow/orphan control in your Word program; leaving it on can result in pages containing varying numbers of lines.

Told you so: this is something that can be accomplished by highlighting your entire text (the shortcut for that in Word is COMMAND + A), then pulling down the FORMAT menu. Select PARAGRAPH…, then LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. Un-check the Widow/Orphan control box.

Voil? ! Every full page of text will have the same number of lines!

Oh, those of you new to the term would like to know why you did that, would you? Fair enough: as some of you clever souls may have already surmised, the widow/orphan control dictates how many lines appear on any given page. The default setting prevents the first line of a new paragraph from being left alone on a page if the rest of the paragraph is on the next (a line so left behind is called an orphan) or the last line of a paragraph begun on a previous page from appearing at the top of the next page all by itself (and that’s called a widow). Thus, if the widow/orphan control is left on, lines will be stolen from one page and added to the ones before and after.

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

And even if your manuscript isn’t over 400 pages (100,000 words, estimated) — the time-honored dividing line for Millicent to cry, “Oh, too bad; it’s too long for a first novel in this book category. Next!” — she’s going to dislike seeing an extra inch of white space on the bottom of some of your pages. Not necessarily enough to shout, “Next!” all by itself, but need I ask you again if this is the response you want your writing to evoke?

I thought not. Let’s tackle the last rule.

(18) Adhere to the standard rules of punctuation and grammar, not what it being done on the moment in newspapers, magazines, books, or on the Internet.

In other words, “But I’ve seen other writers violate that rule!” is not going to fly here. Assume that Millicent graduated with honors from the best undergraduate English department in the country (or at least the fifteenth-best), taught by the grumpiest, meanest, least tolerant stickler for grammar that ever snarled at a student unfortunate enough to have made a typo, and you’ll be you’ll have set the level of proofreading concern just about right.

Why? Well, if you can bear yet another rhetorical question, do you really want to encourage Millicent to wonder whether you broke a rule on purpose — or if you simply were not aware of it?

Grammar aside, there’s been a tendency in recent years for submissions to ape the trend of paper-saving publishers across writing types to leave only one space, rather than the standard two, after a period or colon. The rationale runs thus: printed books often do this now: the fewer the spaces on a page, the more words can be crammed onto it. Since we’ve all seen it done in recently-released books, some argue — and vehemently — it would be ludicrous to format a manuscript any other way.

Indeed, some insist that the single-space convention is the ONLY way to format a manuscript. A number of writing-advice websites, I notice, and even some writing teachers have been telling people that this is the wave of, if not the present, then at least the future. They aver that adhering to the two-space norm makes a manuscript look old-fashioned. Some even claim that retaining the second space is a universal instant-rejection offense.

At the risk of sounding like the harsh grammar-mongers of my youth, poppycock. Agents, very good ones, routinely submit manuscripts with doubled spaces to editors, also very good ones, all the time. Successfully. That might be due to the fact that most editors who deal with manuscripts in hard copy actively prefer it.

Truth compels me to point out, though, that there are also agents, good ones, who have embraced the single-space convention, and quite adamantly. It’s become a less common preference over the last few years, but those who feel strongly about it tend to — you can see it coming, right? — feel strongly about it. In practice, the doubled space is still the norm — except amongst the minority who insist that it is not. In either case, though, it’s not a common rejection criterion.

Clear as pea soup, right?

So which convention should you embrace? The answer, as it so often is, involves doing your homework about the specific agent or publisher you are planning to approach, rather than treating submissions, as so many aspiring writers do, as generic. It’s always a good idea to check each and every agency’s submission guidelines before tossing that manuscript in the mail, anyway .

Fortunately for aspiring writers everywhere, agents with a strong preference for the single space tend not to keep mum about it. If they actually do tell their Millicents to regard a second space as a sign of creeping obsolescence, chances are very, very good that they’ll mention that fact on their websites. If you happen to be submitting to folks who specifically asks for single spaces, by all means, bow to their expressed preferences.

Sensing a pattern here?

Spoiler alert: once you get in the habit of doing that research, I suspect those of you who have heard horror stories about how everybody now positively hates the second space convention will be astonished to see how few agencies even mention it in their submission guidelines. If they don’t, it’s usually safe to assume that they adhere to the older convention — or don’t care.

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

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

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

And just between us, it drives traditional-minded grammar-hounds nuts to hear that time-honored standards must necessarily be jettisoned in the name of progress. “What sane human being,” they ask through gritted teeth (I wasn’t kidding about those trips to the dentist), “seriously believes that replacing tonight with tonite, or all right with alright constitutes betterment of the human condition? Does any literate person genuinely believe that a colon means a new sentence has begun? Dropping those letters and spaces doesn’t even save significant page space!”

They have a point, you must admit. Yet as rule-seeking web-crawlers have no doubt discovered, traditionalists tend not to be nearly so well-represented online — nor so vitriolic in their condemnations — as advocates of the new. I don’t think that’s merely because proper grammar and spelling do not really require defense; to literate people, they just look right. I suspect that it’s for the same reason that agents and editors don’t habitually go online to check out what people are logging into any particular writers’ forum to suggest is the current rage in formatting: if you already know the rules, why would you be looking online for them?

Then, too, there’s a practical reason: until everyone in the industry makes the transition to editing in soft copy — which many of us find significantly harder and less efficient than scanning a printed page — the two-space rule is highly unlikely to change universally. Just ask a new agent immediately after the first time she’s submitted to an old-school senior editor: if she lets her clients deviate from the norms, she’s likely to be lectured for fifteen minutes on the great beauty of the English language and the imperative to protect its graceful strictures from the invading Goths, Visigoths, and journalists.

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

Again, you might want to sit down for this one: inconsistent formatting is likely to annoy both sides of the aisle. Whichever choice you embrace, be consistent about it throughout your manuscript; don’t kid yourself that an experienced professional reader isn’t going to notice if you sometimes use one format, sometimes the other.

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

But I wouldn’t fret over it too much. This honestly isn’t as burning a debate amongst agents and editors as many aspiring writers seem to think — and definitely nowhere near the snarling division so many online sources were claiming it was ten yeas ago. But as always: check before you submit.

And be open to the possibility — remember, I already advised you to sit down — that you may need to submit your manuscript formatted one way for a single agent on your list, and another for the other nineteen. That needn’t worry you at the querying stage, of course, but it might affect the order in which you will want to submit your work if, say, four of them ask to see your manuscript.

Hey, you’re busy, too, right? And it’s not as though what I’ve been suggesting throughout this series isn’t going to require setting aside some time to tinker with your manuscript. I realize that if you already have a full manuscript formatted in any other way, the very notion of applying all of these rules may seem intimidating.

Which is, if you will excuse my saying so, an awfully good reason to get into the laudable habit of writing your manuscripts in standard format from the get-go — in the long run, it will save you time to be consistent about applying the rules. It’s a very sensible long-term investment in your writing career, after all. Literally every page you will be showing to your future agent or editor will need to look like this; why not use the opportunity to practice the rules until they are imbedded into your very bones?

That, too, I shall leave you to ponder; I recognize that it’s a commitment. But doesn’t your good writing deserve the best possible presentation you can give it? Keep up the good work!

The rules, part III: the bare necessities

restrooms & cemeteries

The wee tourist trap where I took this is stuffed to the gills with practical people, evidently. If you look closely in the background, you’ll see that there’s also a liquor-and-sundries store. In retrospect, I wish I’d documented what the locals considered sundry, as opposed to requisite.

Beginning to sense a theme here? Excellent. Today, I would like us to focus our collective minds firmly on the practical while we continue our chat about how to present a book manuscript in a professional manner.

I would hate, after all, for any of you lovely people to fall into the oh-so-common pre-submission trap of believing that because implementing one or more of these rules will take some time (and thus slow the egress of your manuscript from your writing digs), any of them may be treated as optional. Oh, our old pal Millicent the agency screener isn’t going to burst into your studio, wrest the keyboard from your trembling hands, and forcibly insert indentation into your paragraphs. She’s not going to take a ruler to your margins, either, in all probability, or call you on the phone to yell at you because Chapter 2 began on the same page as the end of Chapter 1, any more than she’s likely to tell everyone in the literary world that for some reason best known to yourself, you’ve evidently decided that Microsoft’s defaults have come to dictate formatting in the entirely unrelated publishing industry.

She simply doesn’t have the time to do any of that. She’s got hundreds of submissions to read.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a screener or contest judge might not get the urge to indulge in a little educational mayhem. Like anyone else in a position to read an average day’s complement of submissions, our Millicent sees an incredible amount of good writing presented as though presentation couldn’t possibly matter.

As I’m hoping today’s grim opening image will remind you, that’s just not true. Inevitably, the cosmetic aspects of a submission affect how someone who works with professionally-formatted manuscripts will respond to what’s on the page.

Don’t believe me? Perhaps you missed our recent brief visual tour of a properly-formatted manuscript. If so, slip your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins and compare what you would have expected a page 1 to look like:

With the following page 1, riddled with fairly common deviations from standard format. If you’re having trouble seeing the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Visibly different from across the room, isn’t it? As we’ve been discussing, since U.S.-based agencies send out their clients’ manuscripts in a specific format, a submission presented in any other manner just doesn’t look right to those of us who read for a living. Once you know how a page is supposed to look, even minor deviations distract the eye.

Since that generally comes as a big, ugly surprise to writers who have never had the opportunity to see a professionally-formatted manuscript, the temptation to fudge is quite understandable. Especially in a contest entry, in order to fit desired text into a limited number of pages, something that has occurred to so many entrants for so many years that many literary contests simply disqualify any entry that doesn’t follow its formatting rules.

Sadly, the writers pulling off this sort of trick often believe they’re being subtle — or don’t know that fudging in order to include more words per page than other entrants is a knock-you-out-of-finalist-consideration offense. But how could it not be, when the results are so obviously different from a manuscript adhering to standard format? Compare this page 2:

With this:

Really no chance of Millicent’s missing the spacing tricks here, is there? See what I mean about those familiar with standard format’s enjoying a distinct advantage at submission time?

While I’m horrifying you, guess what she’s trained to do with a partial manuscript in which the writer has messed with the margins, font size, or new chapter formatting in order to have a favorite scene fall within the requested page limit? Or, even more commonly, to prevent the break at the bottom of page 50 (or whatever is the last of the requested pages) from occurring in mid-scene, if not mid-sentence?

Uh-huh: “Next!”

Don’t see why? Well, in the first place, it never fails to astonish, amuse, and/or perplex those of us who read for a living that any aspiring writer, no matter how inexperienced, would presume that an agent or editor would ask for a set number of pages, expecting a scene, section, chapter, or even sentence to end precisely at the bottom of it. That virtually never happens naturally.

You’d never know that, though, from how often an agency’s request for the first 50 pages yields either the type of compressed text we saw above or this type of chapter break:

I’d show you a counterexample of a chapter break correctly formatted, but you’ve already seen it, in essence: the opening of Chapter Two should begin on a fresh page — and look precisely like the first page of Chapter One.

Hard to get more practical than that, eh?

Whether you are being surprised and stunned by the rigors of standard format for the first time or working your way though this series as a veteran, it is very much to your advantage to learn these rules, then apply them consistently throughout your manuscript. While it is undoubtedly time-consuming, investing a few days in formatting your manuscript properly will in the long term save you a whole heck of a lot of time.

It’s true, honest. While the applying these rules to a manuscript already in progress may seem like a pain, practice makes habit. After a while, the impulse to conform to the rules of standard format becomes second nature for working writers. The manuscript came into the world correct — which, in turn, saves the writer revision time. On a deadline, those conserved minutes and hours can save the writer’s backside as well.

Oh, you may laugh, but the more successful you are as a writer, the more likely the day will come when you’re not going to have the half an hour it would take to reformat a inconsistent manuscript before your editor calls to demand why you didn’t e-mail those revisions yesterday. Writing a requested new chapter (yes, it happens) in standard format may make the difference between getting it under your agent’s nose before she leaves for the day/weekend/her honeymoon/to deliver that baby and missing the boat. And hands up, every contest entrant who has dashed panting into a post office 32 seconds before it closed, to get that entry postmarked on the last possible day.

Seriously, committing to formatting your pages correctly from the get-go will render you a better professional writer — and definitely a better agency client. Think about it: if you were Millicent’s boss, the agent of your dreams, would you rather be drumming your fingers on her desk for the extra hour it will take your client who prefers to write in some other format to whip the new version of Chapter 7 that editor interested in acquiring the book requested, or would you prefer to receive it as soon as the writer polishes it off?

And if you were lucky enough to be the writer in this situation — hey, acquiring editors don’t ask for changes in manuscripts they don’t like — would you be happier performing that lighthearted little revision changing the protagonist’s sister Wendy into her brother Ted if you did not also have to make the time to alter the formatting, or if you did? You’re going to have enough on your plate, rushing to work those revisions into the plot: s/he is no longer a corporate lawyer, but a longshoreman, and Uncle George dies not of a heart attack, but of 12,000 pounds of under-ripe bananas falling on him from a great height when he goes to the docks to tell Ted that Great-Aunt Mandy is now Great-Uncle Armand. (If only Ted had kept a better eye on that load-bearing winch!)

Stop looking so smug, nonfiction writers: you’re even more likely to end up wanting those saved minutes. Nonfiction contracts often specify delivering the finished manuscript rather quickly, and it’s far from unusual for the acquiring editor to ask for a different running order, or even different chapters, than a proposal laid out. Trust me, at that junctures, the last thing you’ll want to have to worry about is whether your margins are consistent.

And all of that’s the good news, what happens if everything goes right. The more successful you are as a writer — any kind of writer — the more often you will be churning out pages in a hurry. Just ask any author whose agent is breathing down her neck after a deadline has passed. Especially if the writer didn’t know about the deadline until it had already come and gone.

Oh, how I wish I were kidding about that. And don’t even get me started on the phenomenon of one’s agent calling the day after Thanksgiving to announce, “I told the editor that you could have the last third of the book completely reworked by Christmas — that’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

Think you’re going to want to be worrying about your formatting then? Believe me, you’re going to be kissing yourself in retrospect for learning how to handle the rote matters right the first time, so you can concentrate on the hard stuff. (What would many tons of bananas dropped from that height look like in transit, anyway?)

Fortunately, standard format sinks into one’s very bones with use; in practical terms, it honestly is easier than what many aspiring writers are already doing to their pages. I’m constantly encountering writers who tinker endlessly with the settings on their Word programs because they heard somewhere (in the finest tradition of rumor, they are often unsure precisely where) that the default setting for double-spacing is not the precise size agents really want, or hand-constructing quotation marks out of pixels so they will look like the ones in a favorite published book, or painstakingly typing the slug line onto the top of each and every page of a word-processed document, rather than typing the darned thing into the header once and being done with it.

All of these are bits of writerly obsession I’ve seen in person, by the way. I wasn’t kidding about these rules saving you time in the long run.

Still don’t believe that it’s worth your time to learn the rules — and to apply them consistently every single time you sit down to write any prose that might conceivably end up in a book manuscript? Okay, here’s an even stronger motivation: virtually always, an agent, editor, contest judge, or screener’s first reaction to an improperly-formatted manuscript is not to take the writing it contains very seriously.

Why should they? Obviously, this writer is still learning how to play the game; if she’s truly talented and determined, the logic runs, she’ll respond to the bone-crushing depressive effect of rejection by realizing she needs to learn the rules. In the long run, that will make her a better, more productive professional writer. And if by some mysterious chance she does not respond to being told her book isn’t agency-ready by giving up on it, or if she does not possess the psychic skills to derive you should find out what professional manuscripts look like from a form letter blandly stating, this manuscript does not meet our needs at this time, well, Millicent sees too many perfectly-formatted submissions in any given week of screening to fill her boss’ new client spots several times over.

I know: trying. Yet as I believe I may have mentioned once or twice before, I do not run the universe, and thus do not make the rules. Sorry. No matter how much I would like to absolve you from some of them, it is outside my power. Take it up with the fairy godmother who neglected to endow me with that gift at birth, okay?

Until you have successfully made your case with her, I’m going to stick to wielding the skills that she did grant me, acquired through a childhood surrounded by professional writers and editors who made me learn to format pages the right way the first time. Oh, you may chuckle, but my fifth-grade history paper was in standard format; I can still hear my mother blithely dismissing my poor, befuddled teacher’s protests that none of the other kids in the class were typing their papers with, “Well, honestly, if Annie doesn’t get into the habit of including slug lines now, where will she be in twenty years?”

Where, indeed? The strictures of standard format are hardly something that she would have wanted me to pick up on the street, after all.

So let’s start inculcating some lifetime habits, shall we? To recap the rules we’ve studied so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone ready to devote the rest of his or her long, productive creative life doing all of that? If not, this would be a dandy time to pipe up with questions, concerns, and fruitless protests. While you’re formulating ‘em, let’s move on.

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

Right off the bat, here is a way to save some of you conscientious rule-followers some time. Most word-processing programs (Including Word, if left to its own devices) automatically indent .5 inch (12.7 mm, if my junior high school conversion formula is still correct), but as you’ve probably noticed in practice, that’s more than five spaces.

Such is the way of the world. If you set your tabs to .5 inch, you’ll be set.

Why is the number of spaces relevant here? Well, the usual way this rule is expressed is indent every paragraph 5 spaces, a quaint hangover from the days when typewriters reigned supreme. As you may have heard somewhere, however, MS Word, the standard word processing program of the U.S. publishing industry, automatically sets its default first tab at .5 inch. Yet unless you happen to be using an unusually large typeface like Courier, you’ve probably noticed that hitting the space bar five times will not take you to .5 inches away from the left margin; in Times New Roman, it’s more like 8 spaces.

Does this mean all of us should be whipping out our measuring tapes, painstakingly hand-crafting a specialized tab that’s the exact equivalent of five actual characters, down to the last micron? Of course not — but would you be surprised to hear how many aspiring writers do just that?

Their confusion is understandable: this is genuinely one of those things that actually has changed in theory, if not visibly on the page, since the advent of the personal computer. To set the nervous at ease, let’s take a moment to talk about why is standard indentation at .5 inch now, rather than at five characters.

History, my dears, history: back in the days when return bars roamed the earth instead of ENTER keys, there were only two typefaces commonly found on typewriters, Pica and Elite. They yielded different sizes of type (Pica roughly the equivalent of Courier, Elite more or less the size of Times New Roman), but as long as writers set a tab five spaces in, and just kept hitting the tab key, manuscripts were at least internally consistent.

With the advent of the home computer, however, word-processed manuscripts became the norm. The array of possible typefaces exploded. Rather than simply accepting that every font would yield slightly different indentation sizes, the publishing industry (and the manufacturers of Word) simply came to expect that writers everywhere would keep hitting the tab key, rather than hand-spacing five times at the beginning of each paragraph. The result: the amount of space from the left margin became standardized, so that every manuscript, regardless of font choice, would be indented the same amount.

So why pick .5 inch as the standard indentation? Well, Elite was roughly the size of Times New Roman, 12 characters per inch. Pica was about the size of Courier, 10 characters per inch. The automatic tab at .5 inch, therefore, is as close as even the most historical-minded editor could desire to five spaces from the left margin in Pica.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that in this instance, at least, Word’s default settings are the writer’s friend. Keep on hitting that tab key.

Again, no exceptions. If I had my way, no aspiring writer would ever send so much as a Christmas card in block-style business format to anyone working in the publishing industry. It’s fine in an e-mail (and thus an e-mailed query, although not in any pages an agency’s submission guidelines might permit a querier to include in the body of the e-mail), but on the page, it just looks as though the sender is unfamiliar with how words appear in print in American English. Take a gander, if you can bear it:

Wildly different from standard format, isn’t it? And, to those who work with manuscripts and/or published books, it does not look particularly literate.

Why should a savvy writer care about that perception, so long as the writing is good? Well, although literacy has become decreasingly valued in the world at large — picture me weeping copiously — the people who have devoted themselves to bringing excellent writing to publication still tend to take it awfully darned seriously. To folks like your humble correspondent, any document with no indentations, skipping a line between paragraphs, and the whole shebang left-justified carries the stigma of (ugh) business correspondence, not high literature or even stylish letter-writing.

Think of it this way: do you really want the person you’re trying to impress with your literary genius to wonder whether you’ve ever read a published book?

I thought not. And which do you think is going to strike format-minded industry professionals as more literate, a query letter in business format or one in correspondence format (indented paragraphs, date and signature halfway across the page, no skipped line between paragraphs)?

Uh-huh. And don’t you wish that someone had told you that before you sent out your first query letter?

That clattering sound you just heard was the more nervous type of aspiring writer reaching frantically for his mouse, to open up all of his writing files and change them instantly. And frankly, he should: despite the fact that everyone from CEOs to the proverbial little old lady from Pasadena has been known to use block format from time to time (blogs are set up to use nothing else, right?), technically, non-indented paragraphs are not proper for English prose.

Period. That being the case, what do you think Millicent’s first reaction to a non-indented page 1 like our last example is likely to be? Given how many submissions she needs to get through before she can break for lunch, how tempted do you think she would be not to read it at all?

Trust me on this one: indent your paragraphs in any document that’s ever going to pass under the nose of anyone even remotely affiliated with the publishing industry. Make my fairy godmother happy.

Not a good enough reason? Okay, here’s another: adhering to rule #12 carries a fringe benefit — it renders running afoul of rule #13 much less likely, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s not necessary to keep your paragraphs from running together. Let’s make it official:

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

That makes sense, right? Since the entire manuscript should be double-spaced with indented paragraphs, there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break. Which is, in case you were not aware of it, what a skipped line between paragraph means in a single-spaced or non-indented document.

That couldn’t possibly apply to a book manuscript, by definition. There’s a practical reason for that: it’s a comparative pain to edit a single-spaced document, either in hard copy or on a computer screen. The eye skips between lines too easily, and in hard copy, there’s nowhere to scrawl comments like Mr. Dickens, was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could hardly have been both!

That being the case, why do aspiring writers so often blithely send off manuscripts with skipped lines, single-spaced or otherwise? My guess would be for one of two reasons: either they think business format is proper English formatting (which it isn’t) or they’re used to seeing skipped lines in print. Magazine articles, mostly. Or blogs. (The blogging program makes me do it, Millicent, I swear.)

Just don’t do it. Reserve the skipped line for section breaks.

A few hands have been waving urgently in the air since I started this section. “But Anne!” those of you who have seen conflicting advice point out, “I’ve always heard that there are specific markers for section breaks! Shouldn’t I, you know, use them?”

You mean the * * * or # to indicate a section break, right? That’s a throwback to the age of typewriters. Their original purpose was to alert the typesetter that the missing line of text was intentional, the author honestly did mean for the chapter to end there, and the narrative ceased because the story was over, not because the writer had passed out from the effort of banging for years on a keyboard that required considerable force to operate.

These days, though, it’s customary to presume that not only will an agent or editor be swift enough on the uptake to understand that the end of the text means the end of the manuscript, but also that the end of one section and the beginning of another is comprehensible without the addition of hieroglyphics. For book manuscripts and proposals, at least; remember, the rules for short stories are different.

If you are writing a book-length work, unless you’re entering a contest that specifically calls for them, or the agency to which you’re planning to submit mentions a preference for them in its submission requirements, don’t distract Millicent by including these extras. Do check contest rules carefully, though; you’d be amazed at how seldom some long-running literary contests update their rules.

And while we’re speaking of rules that have undergone some transformation over time…

(14) Nothing in a book manuscript should be underlined. Titles of songs and publications mentioned in the text, as well as words in foreign languages and those you wish to emphasize, should be italicized. Titles of poems, however, belong within quotation marks.

That’s fairly straightforward, right? Italics are one of the few concessions manuscript format has made to the computer age — again, for practical reasons: underlining uses more ink than italics in the book production process. Thus, italics are cheaper in than underlining.

So if a character feels really strongly that “The Raven” is a much better example of Edgar Allan Poe’s sensibilities than his first published book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, all Millicent can say is, “Mon ami, I cannot say I agree. Back then, the poor man was still singing Aura Lee with the other cadets.”

In which, of course, she would not be entirely correct. Oh, the formatting’s right — Aura Lee‘s a Civil War song, and Poe left West Point long before that.

Fair warning, though: if you consult an old style manual (or a website that is relying upon an old style manual), you may be urged to underline some or all of the words and phrases mentioned above. As will anyone who learned how to format a manuscript before the home computer became common, for the exceedingly simple reason that the average typewriter doesn’t feature italic keys as well as regular type; underlining used to be the only option. Although I remain fond of typewriters — growing up in a house filled with writers, the sound used to lull me to sleep as a child — the fact is, the publishing industry now assumes that all manuscripts are produced on computers. In Word, even.

I suspect outdated manuals are not the only reason Millicent and her ilk so often receive manuscripts containing underlining, though: as I may have mentioned a few (or a few hundred) times on this site, different fields have different standards. There are some areas of writing endeavor in which underlining is still de rigueur. Unfortunately, it’s really, really common for writing guidelines from all over the place to be posted online as though they are applicable to all writing, anytime, anywhere.

If you are writing a book manuscript or proposal, the only formatting guidelines that should concern you are those specifically applicable to books. Don’t even consider importing rules from, say, short story format; your manuscript will merely come across as confused.

And no wonder, with so much misinformation about italics use floating around the web. To minimize the possibility of any member of the Author! Author! community’s falling prey to this misguided miasma, let’s swiftly review the proper use of italics in a book manuscript.

(a) For foreign-language words appearing in an English-language manuscript, unless the words in question are proper names: people, places. The logic behind this part of the rule is very straightforward: you don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

(b) To emphasize particular words or phrases, as a speaker might do out loud. Since we’ve all seen a million times in print, I shan’t belabor the logic, except to say that typewriter-bound authors used to use underlining for this. So did hand-writers.

(c) Some authors like to use italics to indicate thought, but there is no hard-and-fast rule on this. Remember, though, if thought is italicized in a text, the narrative must be consistent about it. This would be logically redundant such a manuscript:

I’m so cold, Musette thought.

Before you decide whether to italicize thought at all, it’s a good idea to check recently-published books in your chosen book category — not new releases in general, as the practice varies across genres — to see how common it is. Do be aware, too, that many agents and editors actively dislike this style choice. They feel, and with some justification, that a good writer should be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type.

I have to confess, as a reader, I’m with them on that last one, but that’s just my personal preference. I find it distracting, especially if a narrative leans to hard upon it: many aspiring writers seem to labor under the impression that dialogue readers will want to know every single time a character applies more breath to one word than another. Like any literary trick, the more often it appears over a short run of text, the more likely the reader is to tire of it — and thus the less efficacious it is as a device.

There are, however, many agents and editors who don’t have a problem with italics at all. Which means, I’m afraid, there is no fail-safe option here. Sorry. You submit your work, you take your chances.

Whichever route you take, however, do make certain to adhere to it throughout your manuscript — you would be astounded at how many submissions will italicize words in foreign languages for ten pages, then underline them for the next sixty. Or simply don’t appear to have been subject to any overarching guidelines at all.

To a professional reader, an uneven application of the rules of standard format can be a red flag, again for practical reasons. Consistency is the hallmark of a strong authorial voice, after all, and professional writers are expected to read and re-read their own work to refine it. If a manuscript simply bellows that its writer has not only never sat down and read the current draft beginning to end — the only way to catch certain types of plot inconsistencies, by the way — it’s usually a pretty good indication that it could benefit from further revision.

And it’s not as though an agent could submit an inconsistently-formatted manuscript to an editor at a publishing house; it wouldn’t show off the writing to its best advantage. Which is, of course, true when the writer submits the manuscript to an agency or literary contest as well.

As I said, the goal here is practical: you want your writing to shine. At minimum, you’re going to want to rid your manuscript of anything that distracts from it.

Next time, we’ll polish off the rest of the rules, and perhaps talk a little about presentation finesse. Keep up the good work!

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

gumballs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one that looked like this:

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

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

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

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

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

Than like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mini/The Smiling Frowner Bemused/1

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

Montenegro-Copperfield/Smiling Frowner/1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a timely question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet another typo prone to distracting the professional reader’s eye just a trifle

Okay, I’ll confess it: I find writing for an audience as diverse as the Author! Author! community more gratifying than I would addressing a readership more uniformly familiar with the ins and outs of the writing world. I particularly like how differently all of you respond to my discussions of fundamentals; it keeps me coming back to the basics with fresh eyes.

I constantly hear from those new to querying and synopsis-writing, for instance, that the challenge of summarizing a 400-page manuscript in a paragraph — or a page, or five — strikes them as almost as difficult as writing the book they’re describing; from the other direction, those of us who read for a living frequently wonder aloud why someone aiming to become a professional writer would complain about being expected to write something. A post on proofreading might as easily draw a behind-the-scenes peek at a published author’s frustration because the changes she made in her galleys did not make it into her book’s first edition as a straightforward request from a writer new to the challenges of dialogue that I devote a few days to explaining how to punctuate it.

And then there are days like today, when my inbox is crammed to overflowing with suggestions from all across the writing spectrum that I blog about a topic I’ve just covered — and approach it in a completely different way, please. All told, within the last week, I’ve been urged to re-tackle the topic in about thirty mutually-exclusive different ways. In response to this barrage of missives, this evening’s post will be devoted to the imperative task of repairing a rent in the fabric of the writing universe that some of you felt I left flapping in the breeze.

In my appropriately peevish post earlier this week about the importance of proofreading your queries — and, indeed, everything in your query packet — down to the last syllable in order to head off, you guessed it, Millicent the agency screener’s pet peeves in the typo department, my list of examples apparently omitted a doozy or two. Fortunately, my acquaintance amongst Millicents, the Mehitabels who judge writing contests, the Maurys that provide such able assistance to editors, and the fine folks employing all three is sufficiently vast that approximately a dozen literature-loving souls introduced my ribcage to their pointy elbows in the interim, gently reminding me to let you know about another common faux pas that routinely makes them stop reading, clutch their respective pearls, and wonder about the literacy of the writer in question.

And if a small army of publishing types and literature aficionados blackened-and-blued my tender sides with additional suggestions for spelling and grammar problems they would like to see me to address in the very near future, well, that’s a matter between me, them, and my chiropractor, is it not? This evening, I shall be concentrating upon a gaffe that confronts Millicent and her cohorts so often in queries, synopses, book proposals, manuscripts, and contest entries that as a group, they have begun to suspect that English teachers just aren’t covering it in class anymore.

Which, I gather, makes it my problem. Since the mantle of analysis is also evidently mine, let me state up front that I think it’s too easy to blame the English department for the popularity of the more pervasive faux pas. Yes, many writers do miss learning many of the rules governing our beloved language, but that’s been the norm for most of my lifetime. Students have often been expected to pick up their grammar at home. Strange to relate, though, houses like the Mini abode, in which children and adults alike were expected to be able to diagram sentences at the dinner table, have evidently never been as common as this teaching philosophy would imply.

Or so I surmise from my friends’ reactions when I would bring them home to Thanksgiving dinner. Imagine my surprise upon learning that households existed in which it was possible for a diner without a working knowledge of the its/it’s distinction to pour gravy over mashed potatoes, or for someone who couldn’t tell a subject from a predicate to ask for — and, I’m incredulous to hear, receive — a second piece of pumpkin pie. Garnished with whipped cream, even.

So where, one might reasonably wonder, were aspiring writers not taught to climb the grammatical ropes either at home or at school supposed to pick them up? In the street? Ah, the argument used to go, that’s easy: they could simply turn to a book to see the language correctly wielded. Or a newspaper. Or the type of magazine known to print the occasional short story.

An aspiring writer could do that, of course — but now that AP standards have changed so newspaper and magazine articles do not resemble what’s considered acceptable writing within the book publishing world (the former, I tremble to report, capitalizes the first letter after a colon, for instance; the latter typically does not), even the most conscientious reader might be hard-pressed to derive the rules by osmosis. Add in the regrettable reality that newspapers, magazines, and even published books now routinely contain typos, toss in a dash of hastily-constructed e-mails and the wildly inconsistent styles of writing floating about the Internet, and stir.

Voil? ! The aspiring writer seeking patterns to emulate finds herself confronted with a welter of options. The only trouble: while we all see the rules applied inconsistently all the time, the rules themselves have not changed very much.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that, though, if your literary intake weren’t fairly selective. Take, for instance, the radically under-discussed societal decision to throw subject-object agreement in everyday conversation out with both the baby and the bathwater — contrary to popular practice, it should be everyone threw his baby out with the bathwater, not everyone threw their baby out with the bathwater, unless everyone shared collective responsibility for a single baby and hoisted it from its moist settee with a joint effort. This has left many otherwise talented writers with the vague sense that neither the correct usage nor the incorrect look right on the page.

It’s also worth noting that as compound sentences the length of this one have become more common in professional writing, particularly in conversational-voiced first person pieces, the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sees paragraph- or even page-long sentences strung together with seemingly endless series of ands, buts, and/or ors , has skyrocketed, no doubt due to an understandable cognitive dissonance causing some of the aforementioned gifted many to believe, falsely, that the prohibitions against run-on sentences no longer apply — or even, scare bleu, that it’s actually more stylish to cram an entire thought into a single overstuffed sentence than to break it up into a series of shorter sentences that a human gullet might conceivably be able to croak out within a single breath.

May I consider that last point made and move on? Or would you prefer that I continue to ransack my conjunctions closet so I can tack on more clauses? My neighborhood watch group has its shared baby to bathe, people.

It’s my considered opinion that the ubiquity of grammatical errors in queries and submissions to agencies may be attributable to not one cause, but two. Yes, some writers may never have learned the relevant rules, but others’ conceptions of what those rules are may have become blunted by continually seeing them misapplied.

Wait — you’re just going to take my word for that? Really? Have you lovely people become too jaded by the pervasiveness or sweeping generalizations regarding the decline of grammar in English to find damning analysis presented without a shred of corroborative evidence eye-popping? Or to consider lack of adequate explanation of what I’m talking about even a trifle eyebrow-raising?

Welcome to Millicent’s world, my friends. You wouldn’t believe how queries, synopses, and opening pages of manuscripts seem to have been written with the express intention of hiding more information from a screener than they divulge. They also, unfortunately, often contain enough spelling, grammar, and even clarity problems that poor Millie’s left perplexed.

Doubt that? Okay, let’s examine a not-uncommon take on the book description paragraph from a query letter:

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty eight year old out of work pop diva turned hash slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself. Fiercely pursuing her dreams despite a dizzying array of obstacles, she struggles to have it all in a world seemingly determined to take it all away. Can she find her way through her maze of options while still being true to herself?

Excuse me, but if no one minds my asking, what is this book about? You must admit, other than that long string of descriptors in the first sentence, it’s all pretty vague. Where is this story set? What is its central conflict? What is Pandora running from — or towards — and why? And what about this story is better conveyed through hackneyed phrasing — running from her past, true to herself — than could be expressed through original writing?

On the bright side, Millicent might not stick with this query long through enough to identify the clich? use and maddening vagueness as red flags. Chances are, the level of hyphen abuse in that first sentence would cause her to turn pale, draw unflattering conclusions about the punctuation in the manuscript being offered, and murmur, “Next!”

I sense some of you turning pale at the notion that she might read so little of an otherwise well-crafted query, but be honest, please. Are you wondering uneasily how she could possibly make up her mind so fast — or wondering what about that first sentence would strike a professional reader as that off-putting?

If it’s the latter, here’s a hint: she might well have lasted to be irritated by the later ambiguity if the first sentence had been punctuated like this.

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty-eight-year-old out-of-work pop-diva-turned-hash-slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself.

Better, isn’t it? While we’re nit-picking, the TITLE is the story of… is now widely regarded as a rather ungraceful introduction to a query’s descriptive paragraph. Or as an opening for a synopsis, for that matter. Since Millicent and her boss already know that the purpose of both is — wait for it — to describe the book, why waste valuable page space telling them that what is about to appear in the place they expect to see a book description is in fact a book description?

There’s a larger descriptive problem here, though. If the querier had not attempted to shove all of those multi-part descriptive clauses out of the main body of the sentence, the question of whether to add hyphens or not would have been less pressing. Simply moving the title to the query’s opening paragraph, too, would help relieve the opening sentence of its heavy conceptual load. While we’re at it, why not give a stronger indication of the book’s subject matter?

As a great admirer of your client, A. New Author, I am writing in the hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction manuscript, OPAQUE. Like Author’s wonderful debut, ABSTRUSE, my novel follows a powerful, resourceful woman from the public spotlight to obscurity and back again.

By the tender age of twenty-eight, pop sensation Pandora has already become a has-been. Unable to book a single gig, she drives around the back roads of Pennsylvania in disguise until she finds refuge slinging hash in a roadside diner.

Hooray — Millicent’s no longer left to speculate what the book’s about! Now that the generalities and stock phrases have been replaced with specifics and original wording, she can concentrate upon the story being told. Equally important, she can read on without having to wonder uneasily if the manuscript will be stuffed to the proverbial gills with typos, and thus would not be ready for her boss, the agent of your dreams, to circulate to publishing houses.

While I appreciate the refreshing breeze coming from so many heads being shaken simultaneously, I suspect it indicates that not everyone instantly spotted why a professional reader would so vastly prefer the revised versions to the original. “I do like how you’ve unpacked that overburdened first sentence, Anne,” some brave souls volunteer, “but I have to say, the way you have been moving hyphens around puzzles me. Sometimes, I’ve seen similar phrases hyphenated, but sometimes, they’re not. I thought we were striving for consistency here!”

Ah, a common source of confusion: we’re aiming for consistency in applying the rules, not trying, as so many aspiring writers apparently do, to force the same set of words to appear identically on the page every time it is used. The first involves learning the theory so you can use it appropriately across a wide variety of sentences; the second entails an attempt to memorize how certain phrases appear in print, in an attempt to avoid having to learn the theory.

Trust me, learning the rules will be substantially less time-consuming in the long run than guessing. Not to mention more likely to yield consistent results. Oh, and in the case of hyphens, just trying to reproduce how you saw a phrase used elsewhere will often steer you wrong.

Why? Stop me if this sounds familiar: anyone who reads much these days, especially online, routinely sees more than his share of hyphen abuse. Hyphens crop up where they don’t belong; even more frequently, they are omitted where their inclusion would clarify compound phrasing. No wonder writers — who, after all, tend to read quite a bit more than most people, and certainly read with a closer eye for picking up style tips — sometimes become confused.

And frankly, queries, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts reflect that confusion. You’d be amazed at how often aspiring writers will, on a single page, hyphenate a phrase correctly on line 5, yet neglect to add a hyphen to a similar phrase on line 18. Or even, believe it or not, present the same phrase used in precisely the same manner in two different ways.

Which raises an intriguing question, doesn’t it? Based on that page, how could Millicent tell whether a sentence was improperly punctuated because the writer was in a hurry and just didn’t notice a one-time typo in line 18 — or if the writer didn’t know the rule in the first place, but guessed correctly on line 5? The fact is, she can’t.

That’s a shame, really, as this type of typo/rule wobbling/dizzying confusion can distract the reader from the substance and style of the writing. To see how and why, take a gander at a sterling little passage in which this inadvertent eye-attractor abounds.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. ”

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Okay, okay, so Millicent seldom sees so many birds of a feather flocking together (While I’m at it, you look mahvalous, you wild and crazy guy, and that’s hot. And had I mentioned that Millie, like virtually every professional reader, has come to hate clich?s with a passion most people reserve for rattlesnake bites, waiting in line at the D.M.V., and any form of criticism of their writing skills?) In queries and synopses, our gaffe du jour is be spotted traveling solo, often in summary statements like this:

At eight-years-old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Or as its evil twin:

Alphonse was an eight year old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Am I correct in assuming that if either of these sentences appeared before your bloodshot eyes in the course of an ordinary day’s reading, a hefty majority of you would simply shrug and read on? May I further presume that if at least a few of you noticed one or both of these sentences whilst reading your own query IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, as one does, you might either shrug again or not be certain how to revise it?

Do I hear you laughing, or is Tyrone at it again? “I know what the problem is, Anne!” experienced query- and synopsis-writers everywhere shout, chuckling. “Savvy writers everywhere know that in a query’s book description, it’s perfectly acceptable to introduce a character like this:

Alphonse (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk.

“As you will notice, it’s also in the present tense, as the norms of query book descriptions dictate. By the same token, the proper way to alert Millicent that a new character has just cropped up in a synopsis involves presenting his or her name in all capital letters the first time it appears, followed by his or her age in parentheses. While I’m sure you’d like to linger to admire our impeccable subject-object agreement in that last sentence, I’m sure readers new to synopsis-writing would like to see what the technique described in the first sentence of this paragraph would look like in print, so here it is:

ALPHONSE (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk — and now that a tragic Tonka Toy accident has left him temporarily unable to walk or swim, what is he going to do with his time?

I’m impressed at how clearly you’ve managed to indicate what is and is not an example in your verbal statements, experienced ones, but we’re straying from the point a little, are we not? Not using parentheses to show a character’s age in a book description is hardly an instant-rejection offense, and eschewing the ALL CAPS (age) convention is unlikely to derail a well-constructed synopsis at submission time. (Sorry, lovers of absolute pronouncements: both of these are matters of style.)

Those are sophisticated critiques, however; I was hoping you would spot the basic errors here. Basically, the writer immortalizing Alphonse’s triumphs and tribulations has gotten the rule backwards. Those first two examples should have read like this:

At eight years old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Alphonse was an eight-year-old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Does that look right to you? If so, can you tell me why it looks right to you?

And no, Virginia, neither “Because you said it was right, Anne!” nor “I just know correct punctuation when I see it!” would constitute useful responses here. To hyphenate or not to hyphenate, that is the question.

The answer, I hope you will not be astonished to hear, depends upon the role the logically-connected words are playing in an individual sentence. The non-hyphenated version is a simple statement of fact: Alphonse is, we are told, eight years old. Or, to put it another way, in neither that last sentence or our first example does eight years old modify a noun.

In our second example, though, eight-year-old is acting as a compound adjective, modifying boy, right? The hyphens tell the reader that the entire phrase should be taken as a conceptual whole, then applied to the noun. If the writer wanted three distinct and unrelated adjectives to be applied to the noun, he should have separated them with commas.

The small, freckle-faced, and tenacious boy flung himself into the pool, eager to join the fray.

Are you wondering why I hyphenated freckle-faced? Glad you asked. The intended meaning arises from the combination of these two words: freckle-faced is describing the boy here. If I had wanted the reader to apply the two words independently to the noun, I could have separated them by commas, but it would be nonsensical to say the freckle, faced boy, right?

Applying the same set of principles to our old friend Pandora, then, we could legitimately say:

Pandora is an out-of-work diva.

The diva is a has-been; she is out of work.

Out-of-work has-been seeks singing opportunity.

Let’s talk about why. In the first sentence, the hyphens tell the reader that Pandora isn’t an out diva and an of diva and a work diva — she’s an out-of-work diva. In the second sentence, though, out of work does not modify diva; it stands alone. Has-been, however, stands together in Sentence #2: the hyphen transforms the two verbs into a single noun. In the third sentence, that same noun is modified by out-of-work.

Getting the hang of it? Okay, let’s gather our proofreading tools and revisit Tyrone, Hortense, and Ghislaine, a couple of paragraphs at a time.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

Some of that punctuation looked pretty strange to you, I hope. Let’s try applying the rules.

“All of this build-up we’ve talked about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the tabletop build-up of wax at the drive-in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed in on the sign-in sheet. “I know she’s stepped in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick up my backpack and run away through my back door to my back yard. ”

Hortense revved her pick-up truck’s engine, the better to drive through and thence to drive into the parking space. “That’s because Anne built up your hopes in a much-talked-about runaway attempt to back up her argument.”

All of those changes made sense, I hope. Since drive-in is used as a noun — twice, even — it takes a hyphen, but when the same words are operating as a verb plus a preposition (Hortense is driving into a parking space), a hyphen would just be confusing. Similarly, when Tyrone signed in, he’s performing the act of signing upon the sign-in sheet. He and his friends talked about the build-up, but Hortense uses much-talked-about to describe my runaway attempt. Here, back is modifying the nouns door and yard, but if we were talking about a backdoor argument or a backyard fence, the words would combine to form an adjective.

And a forest of hands sprouts out there in the ether. “But Anne, I notice that some of the compound adjectives are hyphenated, but some become single words. Why runaway, backpack, and backyard, but pick-up truck and sign-in sheet?”

Because English is a language of exceptions, that’s why. It’s all part of our rich and wonderful linguistic heritage.

Which is why, speaking of matters people standing on either side of the publishing wall often regard differently, it so often comes as a genuine shock to agents and editors when they meet an aspiring writer who says he doesn’t have time to read. To a writer, this may seem like a simple matter of time management — those of us in favor with the Muses don’t magically gain extra hours in the day, alas — but from the editorial side of the conversation, it sounds like a serious drawback to being a working writer. How on earth, the pros wonder, can a writer hope to become conversant with not only the stylistic norms and storytelling conventions of his chosen book category, but the ins and outs of our wildly diverse language, unless he reads a great deal?

While you’re weighing both sides of that potent issue, I’m going to slip the next set of uncorrected text in front of you. Where would you make changes?

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

Have your edits firmly in mind? Compare them to this:

At her lived-in post at the drive-through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick-up sticks. “Hey, lay off. You mean build-up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head into this head-in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned-out coworker could tune out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the backdoor logic — it’s the runaway pace.”

How did you do? Admittedly, the result is still a bit awkward — and wasn’t it interesting how much more obvious the style shortcomings are now that the punctuation has been cleaned up? That’s the way it is with revision: lift off one layer of the onion, and another waits underneath.

In response to what half of you just thought: yes, polishing all of the relevant layers often does require repeated revision. Contrary to popular myth, most professional writing goes through multiple drafts before it hits print — and professional readers tend to be specifically trained to read for several different types of problem at the same time. So as tempting as it might be to conclude that if Millicent is distracted by offbeat punctuation, she might overlook, say, a characterization issue, it’s unlikely to work out that way in practice.

With that sobering reality in mind, let’s move on to the next section.

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. “

I broke the excerpt there for a reason: did you happen to catch the unwarranted space between the final period and the quotation marks? A trifle hard to spot on a backlit screen, was it not? See why I’m always urging you to read your work IN HARD COPY and IN ITS ENTIRETY before you slip it under Millicent’s notoriously sharp-but-overworked eyes?

And see what I did there? Believe me, once you get into the compound adjectival phrase habit, it’s addictive.

I sense some of you continue to shake off the idea that proofing in hard copy (and preferably by reading your work OUT LOUD) is more productive than scanning it on a computer screen. Okay, doubters: did you notice the partially deleted word in that last excerpt’s second sentence? Did you spot it the first time you went through this scene, when I presented it as an unbroken run of dialogue?

The nit-picky stuff counts, folks. Here’s that passage again, with the small matters resolved. This time, I’m going to tighten the text a bit as well.

“Oh, pick up your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick-up’s back door behind her — a good trick, as she had previously been sitting in the driver’s seat. “We’re due to do over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back-up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste to the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed up! “Just give me time to back out of the room. I have lived in too many places where people walk into built-in walk-in closets, and wham! They’re trapped. “

Still not precisely Shakespeare, but at least the punctuation is no longer screaming at Millicent, “Run away! Run away!” (And in case the three times this advice has already floated through the post today didn’t sink in, when was the last time you backed up your writing files? Do you have a recent back-up stored somewhere other than your home?)

The text is also no longer pointing out — and pretty vehemently, too — that if her boss did take on this manuscript, someone at the agency would have to be assigned to proofread every draft of it. That’s time-consuming, and to be blunt about it, not really the agent’s job. And while it is indeed the copyeditor’s job to catch typos before the book goes to press, generally speaking, agents and editors both routinely expect manuscripts to be thoroughly proofread before they first.

Which once again leads us to different expectations prevailing in each of the concentric circles surrounding publishing. To many, if not most, aspiring writers, the notion that they would be responsible for freeing their manuscripts of typos, checking the spelling, and making sure the grammar is impeccable seems, well, just a trifle crazy. Isn’t that what editors do?

From the professional reader’s side of the equation, though, it’s practically incomprehensible that any good writer would be willing to send out pages — or a query — before ascertaining that it was free of typos. Everyone makes ‘em, so why not set aside time to weed ‘em out? You want your writing to appear to its best advantage, right?

Hey, I’m walking you through this long exercise for a reason. Let’s take another stab at developing those proofreading skills.

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Did you catch the extra space in the last sentence, after the comma? Wouldn’t that have been easier to spot in hard copy?

Admit it: now that you’re concentrating upon it, the hyphen abuse is beginning to annoy you a bit, isn’t it? Congratulations: that means you are starting to read like a professional. You’ll pardon me, then, if I not only correct the punctuation this time around, but clear out some of the conceptual redundancy as well. While I’m at it, I’ll throw a logical follow-up question into the dialogue.

“Can we have a do-over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in line for in-line skates.”

“What do skates have to do with anything?” Tyrone snapped.

“To escape if we run into overtime. At this rate, our boss will walk in with that pasted-on grin, take one look at our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay-off list.”

Hey, just because we’re concentrating on the punctuation layer of the textual onion doesn’t mean we can’t also give a good scrub to some of the lower layers. Let’s keep peeling, shall we?

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Quite a bit to trim there, eh? Notice, please, how my initial desire to be cute by maximizing phrase repetition drags down the pace on subsequent readings. It’s quite common for a writer’s goals for a scene to change from draft to draft; to avoid ending up with a Frankenstein manuscript, inconsistently voiced due to multiple partial revisions, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of rereading every scene — chant it with me now, folks — IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and, ideally, OUT LOUD after each revision.

Here’s how it might read after a switch in authorial agenda — and an increase of faith in the reader’s intelligence. If Hortense is able to walk into the closet and stay there for paragraphs on end, mightn’t the reader be trusted to pick up that it’s a walk-in closet?

Hortense vanished into the closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut-rate social analyst, is the lounge where we lounge in our loungewear? I’d hate to cut through the rules and regulations.”

“Has she gone nuts?” Tyrone whispered.

“That’s what you get,” Ghislaine muttered under her breath, “for complaining about Anne’s advice. She’s only trying to help writers like us identify patterns in our work, you know.”

A button-down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “I don’t think the build-up for Anne’s larger point is our greatest problem at the moment. Right now, I’m worried that she’s trapped us in a scene with a maniac.”

“Don’t forget to button your shirt to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grab you a jacket.”

“Tremendous,” she called back. Scooting close to Tyrone, she added in an undertone, “If Anne doesn’t end the scene soon, we can always lock Hortense in the closet. That would force an abrupt end to the scene.”

“I vote for a more dramatic resolution.” He caught her in his arms. “Run away with me to Timbuktu.”

She kissed him enthusiastically. “Well, I didn’t see that coming in previous drafts”.

The moral, should you care to know it, is that a writer needn’t think of proofreading, much less revision, as a sterile, boring process in revisiting what’s already completely conceived. Every time you reread your own writing, be it in a manuscript draft or query, contest entry or synopsis, provides you with another opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. Rather than clinging stubbornly to your initial vision for the scene, why not let the scene evolve, if it likes?

That’s hard for any part of a manuscript to do, though, if its writer tosses off an initial draft without going back to it from time to time. Particularly in a first book, storylines tend to alter as the writing progresses; narrative voices grow and change. Getting into the habit of proofreading can provide not only protection against the ravages of Millicent’s gimlet eye, but also make it easier to notice if one part of the manuscript to reflect different authorial goals and voice choices than other parts.

How’s the writer to know that if he hasn’t read his own book lately? Or, for that matter, his own query?

This is not, I suspect, the conclusion any of the fine people who suggested I examine hyphen abuse presumed my post would have. But that’s what keeps the conversation interesting: continually revisiting the same topics of common interest from fresh angles. Keep up the good work!

Capturing the distinctive buzz of reality

As Virginia Woolf — whose birthday all right-minded literary types are celebrating today — tells us, “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” Our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, might like to add, however, “Yes, but that does not mean that everything that has ever occurred on the planet Earth would necessarily make a good scene in a novel, or even a plausible one. And that goes double, perversely enough, for memoir.”

Are you wondering just how that is possible, those of you devoted to writing about reality? Feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, long-time readers: just because something actually occurred does not mean that it will ring true on the page. In a book, it’s the writer’s job to make everything that happens seem plausible; within the world of the story, everything has to make sense.

That can be a daunting task for the writer devoted to truth-telling, because, let’s face it, the world as we actually experience it on a day-to-day basis frequently defies understanding. Storylines meander; villains do not receive their well-earned comeuppances; virtue is not always either its own reward or lauded by anyone else.

In fact, when you come right down to it, quotidian life is usually dramatically unsatisfying, and have you ever paused to consider the kinds of characters reality routinely introduces onto its stage? Totally unbelievable; the average reader would laugh ‘em off the page. And let’s not even begin to discuss how some of those characters talk.

All of which means, contrary to apparently popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, that simply jotting down a transcript of a real event and inserting it into a novel may not work particularly well; all too often, a purely factual account will not provide the reader accustomed to fiction’s standards of world-depiction with sufficient information to be able to picture what the writer experienced. Nor does lifting a living, breathing person and inserting him into a novel necessarily create a character that will spring to life on the page, unless the writer fleshes him out as fully as any character dredged up from her imagination.

There’s a reason that perennial cry of the realistic writer — “But it really happened that way!” — doesn’t particularly impress agents, editors, or contest judges, you know. With apologies to Aunt Virginia, no matter how true the facts, it’s the writer’s responsibility to make them seem true to the reader.

By the same token, while reporting accurately what happened in one’s own life is necessary in a memoir, it’s not the only storytelling requirement; it has to sound true as well. More than that, the narrative needs to present the memoirist’s world vividly enough that the reader can, to recycle a metaphor, walk in the protagonist’s shoes. Plausibility on the page is largely dependent upon style. As the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing.

Do I spot some raised hands out there in the ether? “Fair enough, Anne,” writers of the real across the globe admit. “I never conceived myself as a mere recorder of human events. I want to add my unique authorial voice, trenchant analysis, and distinct worldview to the story I’m telling. But now that you’ve got me worried about the difference between factual accuracy and literary plausibility, how about sharing some tips on how to tell the difference on the page?”

A perfectly reasonable request, reality-lovers, but as it does indeed all depend upon the writing (where have I heard that before?), there really are not any one-size-fits-all criteria. Some plausibility faux pas crop up in submissions and contest entries more than others, however. So that you may learn to spot them in the wild, let’s take a gander at a few of them roaming about their natural habitat.

Here, for your Millicent-imitating pleasure, is an honest-to-God, hand-to-heart real event, rendered for the fiction page as professional readers often see it. Does it ring true to you, or could it use a reality overhaul?

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

Excited, Antoinette extended a shapely leg from the covers to test the air. Chilly, but bearable: surely, by the time she got down to work, the room would have risen to a temperature that would not cause her fingers to cramp. Antoinette clambered out of her cot and into her robe and slippers, shuffling to her cabin’s door.

Nothing there but freezing air and a bit of lingering snow on the doorstep. Laughing at her own optimism, Antoinette turned to fill the electric teapot next to her makeshift desk.

Strange that a place that boasted such an endowment would expect her to balance her laptop on a sheet of plywood resting on sawhorses made out of two-by-fours. It did not make Antoinette sanguine about breakfast down at the dining hall; maybe she’d wait for lunch before she ventured out. That would give Antoinette a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended. She was glad she’d had the foresight to slip some Lady Grey tea and a few protein bars into her luggage.

If you immediately cried, “In heaven’s name, why must every other female leg depicted on the printed page be described as shapely? Couldn’t some of them be, say, nicely-formed or well-rounded? Sometimes, I think that there are no other leg-related words in the language,” well, Millicent would agree with you there. She’s seen enough shapely legs trot across the manuscript page to keep the Rockettes fully staffed until the end of the next millennium. And not, as some genre snobs might assume, merely in the kind of hard-boiled mystery in which dames with gams that go all the way down to the floor lure tough guys into the kind of trouble of which film noir is made.

I tremble to report, though, that this description — and this type of description — is fairly common in both memoir and fiction based upon real events, especially if those events happened to occur in the writer’s own life. Any guesses why?

The answer is rather charming, I think: when writers are describing themselves, even fictionally, they tend to focus upon what they consider their best features — or their worst. Our writer friend above may well feel that the leg in question is what would catch a discriminating bystander’s eye first.

Neither Millie nor I have any reason to doubt that, of course. We just wish that the writer would have come up with a means of describing her leg with sufficient clarity that after having read about it, we could recognize it in a crowd of well-constructed torso support systems, if you catch my drift.

Does the sound of two thousand of you shifting uncomfortably in your desk chairs mean that I hadn’t mentioned lately that those of us who read for a living often develop some rather strong negative reactions to clich?s — or phrasing that turns up in submissions and contest entries so often that it might as well be on every set of lips in North America? That’s an inevitable side effect of screening, I’m afraid: after the 7,259th iteration, even a pleasing and apt description can seem a bit, well, overdone.

The moral, should you care to know it: a writer has no control over where a submission or contest entry falls in a screener or judge’s reading queue. It would behoove a savvy writer, then, to make sure that the page is phrased so it will come across as original and stylish if it’s Millie’s first of the day or her 105th. Give those gams a rest, will ya?

Now that I’ve lectured you into feeling good and protective about the text we’re discussing — oh, you thought I was being nit-picky for its own sake? — let me ask: did you notice the red flag that might have prompted Millicent to shout, “Next!” even if she personally can never get tired of the sight of a shapely leg? While you were at it, did you notice the yellow flag that might merely have irritated her a bit?

No? Perhaps it would help to see this excerpt as she would in a submission, on a page. If you’re having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image. And if you really want to replicate the screener experience, read the following fifteen times, walk away for an hour, then return and read it again.

Did one or both leap off the page at you this time? If not, I invite you to try a practical experiment. First, look away from that page for at least fifteen seconds. Then glance back and read the whole thing as quickly as humanly possible.

Notice how much the name repetition grabs the eye when you’re skimming? That’s the yellow flag, and long has it waved over submissions. Why might it bug a tired-eyed screener? Those capital As are visually distracting, so it could feel to someone who has been screening submissions all day as though our writer friend has reminded the reader that the protagonist’s name is Antoinette far more than is strictly necessary for clarity.

Or, as Millicent might put it, “How short an attention span do you think I have, to remind me of this character’s name on every other line?”

A picayune objection? Perhaps, but since fiction and memoir submissions alike tend to name-check their characters over-much — and as writers often love the monikers they’ve given their protagonists most of all — a Millicent can frequently become sensitive to the practice. Especially in a text like this, in which there is only one character, so there is no possibility of the reader’s saying, “Wait — which she are we talking about now?”

Over-naming certainly isn’t limited to writing based upon real-life events, however, any more than the other major red flag here. To get a handle on the second, let me ask you: how much do you remember about the plot of the page you’ve now read twice?

If your answer even remotely resembled, “Um, not much, but then, not much happened on that page,” congratulations; you’re reading like a pro. While you are already meandering in Millicent’s moccasins, then, let me ask you: if you were a screener, would you turn the page and keep reading?”

Oh, don’t look at me that way; most manuscript submissions get rejected on page 1. Yes, even ones like this: properly-formatted, free of typos, and clearly written. Remember, this is not the only manuscript Millie will be screening today; she may well have dozens loading her desktop, or even hundreds. If the story and/or protagonist don’t grab her pretty quickly, she’s likely to move onto the next.

Again, though, slow openings are not endemic only to fact-based fiction and memoir — but that does not prevent some of you who write one or the other from taking umbrage, I notice. “But Anne!” reality-huggers everywhere protest, and who could blame you? “If I — I mean, Antoinette — really did all of these things on the occasion described here, isn’t it a trifle dishonest to pretend that she did something else? Didn’t Aunt Virginia tell us at the top of this post that the more closely I cling to what actually happened, the better I will write about it?”

That’s not quite the central point of this ubiquitous piece of writing advice, contrary to popular belief. Possibly because one so seldom sees Woolf quote in its entirety: “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction — so we are told.”

Part of the art of writing fiction lies in providing sufficiently detailed descriptions and character development that the reader can feel she’s inhabiting the scene along with the protagonist. The same holds true for memoir, right? As we’ve discussed, that’s frequently the problem with transcribing a verbal anecdote directly to the page: the way most people tell their kith and kin about a real event does not contain enough evocative detail or subtle characterization to be equally gripping in print. That’s especially likely to be the case when, as in our example above, the real-world inspiration isn’t all that action-packed.

And don’t roll your eyes and mutter that clearly, Millicent’s never read any Proust. No one could be a greater fan than I of sitting around and remembering things past, but let’s face it, what wowed the literati in 1917 would not necessarily receive a kind reception today. Literary tastes change. And, as half of the publishing industry’s denizens would be only too glad to roll their eyes and tell you, even habitual readers of high literary fiction have more demands upon their time than in days of yore.

Oh, you think you’re immune to the pacing expectations of our age? Okay, let me ask you — by the middle of that first page, you were mentally shouting at Antoinette to do something, already, were you not? You wanted her to nibble on a madeleine, at least, if you happen to be a Proust fan.

Or, as editors like to scrawl in margins, “Get out of her head and into the story, already!”

To be fair, most current readers have a much, much higher tolerance for protagonists’ sitting around and thinking about stuff than your garden-variety Millicent, especially after the story has shown the major character(s) act vigorously. The cool-down-and-reflect scene is a staple of movies and television dramas for a reason: it allows Our Hero(ine) to reflect on what has just happened and decide what to do next. Since the cinematic medium requires a voice-over to convey silent thought, this scene often consists of the protagonist’s providing a recap and analysis for her best friend, his law partner, her boss, somebody’s mother, or a random passerby, more often than not while consuming some form of liquid libation.

Which is why, in case those of you who regularly frequent writers’ conferences and workshops had been wondering, agents and editors who have been at it a while sometimes urge startled attendees to cut any and all scenes in which the protagonist and another character imbibe coffee, tea, milk, hot cocoa, or any other drink conducive to cozy conversing. It’s not that, as a group, people who read for a living are hostile to, say, caffeine. Far from it.

It’s that, like Millicent, they’ve just seen so many plots stop dead in their tracks for pages on end in order to tell the reader what he already knows — what’s just happened — and to preview what’s about to occur that they cringe a little at the first hint of it. And don’t even get me started on how often manuscript submissions open with a conversation in which the protagonist explains what has happened just before the story started, as a shortcut for introducing back-story to the reader.

I see you blushing, writers of narratives that open with the protagonist’s calling her mother/best friend/significant other/beloved dog Trey to tell her/him/it about the awful/wonderful/just so-so thing that’s just happened to her. Yes, people do this all the time in real life, but that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to depict it on the page. Or even that it’s solid storytelling strategy: remember, the more Millicent is confronted with a narrative trick, the less effect it will have on her.

At the risk of going out on an interpretive limb, on the page, repetition often seems redundant. And before anyone suggests it, as writers so often suggest to agents and editors, no, the fact that something was done or said more than once in real life does not matter. Chant it with me now, long-time readers: just because something actually happened does not mean it will work well on the page. Or even be interesting.

Stop reaching for that club to bludgeon me. I’m not talking about writing untruthfully about actual events here; I’m merely suggesting selectivity in narrative. Just because real life is, let’s face it, often so darned repetitious that it ought to be brought up on charges of plot plagiarism, that doesn’t mean that having your narrative faithfully reproduce that already literary quite well documented tendency will not run the risk of boring the reader.

No matter how true a story is, a writer owes the reader an entertaining yarn, right? Antoinette’s creator/alter ego seems to have forgotten that, and I think I can tell you why.

But first — see what I did there? I gave reality a small twist, for narrative effect. If I were married to literalism in storytelling, I couldn’t have said that, right? I write 99% of the examples I use here at Author! Author! — why would I have to guess the motivations of today’s text-producer?

That being said, let’s return to the rhetorical conceit already in progress: like so many aspiring writers of the real, the teller of Antoinette’s tale presumed that readers would be interested in a fairly mundane set of thoughts and activities not only because they actually happened, but also because those thoughts and activities appear in a novel. Or a memoir. In any case, in print.

Or so Millicent and her ilk surmise from the fact that so many submissions contain — and open with — the kinds of scenes that do undoubtedly occur in real life, but neither advance the plot of the book in question nor provide character development. So why, the reader is left to wonder, is that part in the book at all?

Especially if, as in today’s example, it appears on page 1. As a reader, I find it hard to believe that this particular moment is the most interesting of Antoinette’s no doubt fascinating journey across this terrestrial orb. Nor, as an editor, do I accept that this was the only conceivable place to begin the story– or that a page of set-up was necessary to establish a mood before the plot could possibly lurch into motion.

And, frankly, as an intimate of Antoinette’s — we could hardly be closer, even at this very moment — it rather irks me that the fictional version of the original rather scarifying event translated this way to the page. In real life, this was quite the action-fest.

How might I — that is, Antoinette’s amanuensis — have conveyed that better? Perhaps by getting out of the lady’s head and into the plot more quickly. At minimum, let’s lose the tea.

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

No such luck, but she could easily skip breakfast. That would give her a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended.

She was deep into the middle of Chapter Three of her Great American Novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Startled, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? That’s the fault of the original page 1, I’m afraid. By devoting its entirety to the relatively uninteresting details of quotidian life, it would have fooled Millicent into thinking that this is a pretty slow book.

And honestly, did you really miss all of the earlier rumination this time around? Heck, if we really wanted to get things moving, we could skip all of that naming of emotions (Millicent sees too many {Name} was {emotion} statements on any given day of screening, anyway) and simply throw poor Antoinette straight into her dilemma — and, not entirely coincidentally, into the plot.

Antoinette had just finished typing the fifty-third joke of her novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Screaming, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk — or, rather, the bowed and frayed sheet of plywood balanced precariously upon makeshift sawhorses the It Shall Remain Nameless artists’ colony had seen fit to provide writers-in-residence. The second bee landed in her lap, the third atop her sleep-ravaged hair. She fled the cabin, sloshing through the March slush in her bedroom slippers.

Much more exciting, isn’t it? yes, Aunt Virginia, this quite different narrative is every bit as factually accurate as the original version; it’s merely told with an alternative emphasis and swifter pacing. Sticking to the facts need not mean relegating stylistic concerns to the compositional back seat, after all.

Two more common faux pas, and we’ll call it a night. See if you can spot what would raise Millicent’s notoriously easily-levitated hackles as the story moves through its next set of conflicts.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny window — was the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He’s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Did the level of word repetition bug you, so to speak? Again, it might help to see it as Millicent would.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny windowwas the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He‘s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Quite eye-catching, is it not? And entirely for the wrong reasons. For some reason that years of editing and writing experience have left me powerless to explain, word and phrase repetition — up to and including that clich? about the chattering teeth — is notoriously common in both fictional and nonfiction accounts of real events. The prevailing theory (to which I only occasionally subscribe): writers of the real tend to focus more upon recounting the facts accurately than upon how they recount them. In a laudable attempt to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they sometimes forget to show off how well they can write.

I do think that explanation is sometimes applicable to real scenes committed to paper, because all types of writers fall into word repetition patterns at one time or another; when writers are in a hurry to get a good concept down on paper, style often falls by the wayside, at least for the first draft. I suspect, though, that a few other factors frequently nose their heads under the literary fence. The old verbal-anecdote-not-translating-well-to-writing trap, for instance: it’s hard to deny that even the most gifted raconteurs tend to reuse words more than the prevailing standards for professional writing smile upon in these decadent days.

If you still don’t believe that the spoken and the printed word are different, try reading that last sentence out loud. Tumbles awkwardly around the mouth, doesn’t it? Yet most readers would not have perceived it as especially awkward on a first reading. (I would — and did, as soon as I typed it — but hey, I’m a professional reader. Don’t try this at home.)

Writers of fact and fact-based fiction also occasionally fall into this pattern because in their aforementioned laudable effort to tell the truth, the whole…well, you know the rest, they conflate the goal of being factually accurate with a desire to be consistent. If an account is true, they reason, it should sound the same each time it’s told, right? And they’ve been telling it a certain way out loud for years. So telling it any other way can sound not only wrong to them, but actually untrue.

This logic, if you’ll pardon my saying so, drives many of us benighted souls that read for a living nuts. “What do you mean,” they bellow, rending their garments, “there’s only one way to tell this story? You’re a writer — there are a million ways you could tell this story!”

That response, in turn, drives many writers of the real equally nuts, especially if they happen to be writing memoir. “What do you mean,” they wail, bearding heaven with their bootless cries, “I should write about my life in a different way? I’m telling the truth here — so are you asking me to lie about what happened, or are you saying that I should have lived my life in some other way?”

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate realistically. Naturally, a memoir editor wants the writer to present her life story accurately, but if you’ll pardon my repeating myself, it also has to be a good yarn — and well written, too, if the writer can possibly manage it. That means being selective about what real elements to include, as well as exerting narrative authority to ascertain that the story both flows plausibly on the page and entertains the reader.

Oh, holster that throwing knife. Just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will necessarily read as plausible on the page. All that nice professional reader wants you to do is tweak your account so the reader gets yanked out of the story by muttering, “Oh, that would never happen.”

Exercising some finesse can be quite necessary, as I think we can all agree that sometimes, reality can be mighty implausible. As I may have mentioned, the world is often a genuinely lousy writer, distributing punishments and rewards with little sense of dramatic fitness, jumbling together entirely disparate character traits within a single individual, and generally displaying a perverse affection for the trite and predictable. The real world wouldn’t last fifteen minutes in an editor’s chair.

Or a writer’s, for that matter, because to make sure that the written word is appreciably better than reality. That takes both a discerning eye for the actual and an acutely sensitive sense of story.

Sound like a tall order? You may be encouraged to hear — I know I am — that many writers of autobiographical fiction and memoir do exercise both talents in their submissions and contest entries, imposing a very strong authorial point of view onto the story arc. Sometimes, unfortunately, they go a trifle overboard.

How? See if you can catch the subtle narrative bias in the next segment of Antoinette’s story. Why might this factually truthful account rub Millicent the wrong way at the end of a long day’s screening? (Hint: verbal anecdotes are prone to this misstep, too.)

Antoinette felt as though every bee in the world had landed on her back, buzzing and pacing on its tiny legs. “What am I supposed to do until he gets back?”

The administrative assistant rolled her eyes, clearly thinking what a wimp. “Why don’t you try ignoring it?”

“Them,” Antoinette corrected her quietly. “I’m being dive-bombed.”

“Try opening a window.”

Antoinette dragged herself downstairs, hoping to delay her unexpected exterminator duties with some scrambled eggs, but the breakfast servers slammed the dining room door in her face. She couldn’t even snag a lousy cup of coffee. With envious eyes, she watched the well-fed sculptors, painters, and photographers amble back to their beautifully lit and undoubtedly bug-free workshops.

Has the self-pitying tone begun to grate upon you yet? No? Okay, I’ll ramp it up.

She waded back through the ankle-deep slush to her cabin, rolling up a newspaper she had snagged from the dining hall into what she hoped and prayed would be an adequate hornet-smasher. Opening the cabin’s door just enough to peek inside, she recoiled. The plywood desk was polka-dotted with groggy be. Dozens more lazily circled the old-fashioned bowl light fixture on the ceiling.

Terrified to her bones but determined not to lose a half-day’s writing time, she clamped her eyes and mouth shut, clenched her teeth, and ran across the room. Grabbing the nearest window by its sash, she wrestled it open, a worrying buzzing just off her right ear the whole time.

The storm window couldn’t be budged. Swatting wildly in all directions, she ran all the way back to the administration building.

“Back already?” the administrative assistant snorted. She called to workers in other parts of the office, laughing.

“Please,” Antoinette begged, “I don’t know what to do. I think there’s an entire hornet’s nest in the ceiling light. I can’t get to my computer to rescue it.”

Everyone laughed. “Can’t you write in longhand?” someone asked.

She took a deep breath, forcing herself to remain polite. “I don’t mind trying to work someplace else for the rest of the day, but could I borrow an electric fan or something so I can get back into the cabin for some clothes? Or maybe even my laptop?”

More guffaws. “Look,” the administrative assistant snapped, “if you want, you can write a note for Joe.”

I was pretty flabbergasted at this reaction, I must admit; as I said, reality’s not a very subtle writer. Which is why, believe it or not, this narrative seems to lack authenticity: it’s too obvious where the reader’s sympathies should fall. Not only is our saintly heroine — who is, you will note, unflaggingly polite — entirely in the right while her faceless tormenters cold- and warm-blooded alike are entirely in the wrong, but the humans’ reaction doesn’t even make sense.

“Oh, come on,” the reader would have every right to huff. “What kind of retreat’s administrative staff would be this callous to danger to one of its guests? Some people are allergic to beestings, you know. And even if that possibility hadn’t occurred to anyone concerned, wouldn’t they be worried that a massively bee-stung former writer-in-residence might, if she lived to tell the tale, make certain that any writer who might even consider taking up residence there would hear this dreadful epic of woe and uproar?”

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? The purpose of telling this story in writing, though, is presumably not to point a finger at the guilty — or at least not to do it so obviously that the reader perceives a narrative bias — but to beguile the reader with a true-to-life, entertaining yarn. Antoinette’s creator might try, for instance, limiting the dismissive reaction to only one character, the administrative assistant, rather than presenting the rest of the office’s staff and the dining hall’s personnel as uniformly hostile. Some individual character development might be nice. And why not seduce the reader into sharing the protagonist’s horror by giving more of a visceral sense of what it felt, smelled, sounded, and tasted like to be in that room stuffed with bees?

Let me answer that last question myself: I’d rather not relive that nasty moment any more intensely than I already have to write the story so far, thank you very much. If I were writing this scene for a memoir or autobiographical fiction manuscript, however, it would be my job to envision it down to the very last flutter of wings.

The truer the facts, the better the fiction, right? Otherwise, how could the reader possibly gain a true sense of what it was like to be living inside Antoinette’s skin? And wasn’t that what the writer telling her story set out to achieve?

Hey, nobody ever said writing about reality well is easy. Often, it’s not particularly fun, either. But you chose your subject matter because you wanted a writing challenge worthy of your ambitions and talent, didn’t you?

In the interest of factual accuracy, I should add that Joe did eventually turn up — he’d gotten embroiled in a still life — but since the hornet’s nest extended all the way into the cabin’s disused attic, he wasn’t actually able to stop the hailstorm of hornets until well until the middle of the next day. I slept on a crumbling couch between two other writers’ bedrooms. My slippers did not dry out fully until the beginning of Week 5.

P.S., I wrote roughly 200 pages while I was in residence. But I’ve never looked a hornet in its beady little eye again.

Seriously, I could have constructed a far more dramatically satisfying resolution to that storyline, reality. You really do need to work harder on your craft and characterization.

But nice job on all of the shapely legs with which you’ve managed to stock the world. Keep up the good work!