So you’ve pitched successfully — now what? Part III: let’s take it from the topper

I have to admit, campers, that after my last post’s almost purely visual foray into the specifics of professional formatting for book manuscripts and proposals, a single-post summary for which many just-the-facts-ma’am-oriented writers have been clamoring for quite some time, I quite wilted. Not so much from exhaustion (although that was an immense amount of practical how-to to cram into such a short space) as from the sense that, having at long last accomplished something that will please the folks that want to believe that no human enterprise cannot be successfully explained to everyone’s satisfaction in a single post — the searchers, in other words, rather than the habitual blog readers — I may return in good conscience to what I believe this blog does best, demonstrating thoughtfully how to avoid the many complex pitfalls that await the talented writer on the notoriously curvy road to publication.

Why, yes, that it a rather long sentence, now that you mention it. The late Henry James would be so proud.

Given how detail-oriented he was — his characters can scarcely feel an emotion without the reader’s being treated to it from fourteen different levels of analysis — I’m sure he would also be proud that I am once again reverting to lengthy explanation mode about something as seemingly simple as a professionally-formatted title page. Since it’s the first thing an agent, editor, or our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, will see in your manuscript, it’s important to get it right. As the clich?goes — and you’re keeping an eye out for those while you’re reading those pages the pro requested you send IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD, right? Almost everyone that reads for a living twitches at the sight of a clich?– you get only one chance to make a first impression.

Yet, surprisingly often, aspiring writers overlook odd formatting as a possible reason that an otherwise well-written manuscript might have been rejected. Oh, not all by itself, generally speaking, unless the violation was truly egregious by industry standards, something along the lines of submitting unnumbered pages or not indenting paragraphs, for instance, the kind of faux pas that might actually cause Millicent to cast the entire submission aside unread.

Like, say, the kind of major formatting snafu that a quick glance at that handy reference guide in my last post would lead a savvy submitter to avoid.

Yet surprisingly little conference time seems to be devoted to deviations from standard format for manuscripts. Why shouldn’t conference speakers take thirty seconds of their speaking gigs to pointing out, for instance, that the ways in which a professional manuscript does not resemble a published book — ways that are unfortunately quite obvious to an agent, editor, contest judge, etc., from practically the moment their bloodshot eyes light upon a submission?

Why is it so very apparent, you ask? Because much of the time, submitting writers will work overtime to make it apparent.

Seriously, many aspiring writers clearly go out of their way to format their submissions to resemble published books, in the mistaken belief that this will make their work seem more professional. As we’ve already discussed in this series, this effort generally causes Millicent readers to regard a submission as less professional — and often, it’s apparent in her first glance at the first page of a submission.

Yes, really, the vast majority of submissions are rejected not only on page 1, but within the first few lines of page 1. Heck, a harried Millicent may even derive a negative impression of a manuscript even prior to page 1.

Keep taking nice, deep breaths. That dizziness will pass shortly.

Ah, some of you have found your breaths again, haven’t you? “Oh, come on, Anne,” I hear some hard-boiled submission veterans scoff, “she makes up her mind that this isn’t a submission to take seriously before to page 1? How is that even possible?”

Well, the most common trigger is the absence of any title page whatsoever. Many submitters, for reasons best known to themselves, omit the title page altogether — often, I suspect, because they are unaware that a professional manuscript always features a title page.

Why? Long-time readers (or even those that simply paid attention to my last post), pull out your hymnals and sing along with me now: a properly-formatted title page tells an agent precisely how to contact the brilliant author who wrote it — and tells an editor precisely how to contact the agent who represents her.

Was that gargantuan gasp a signal that those of you who have title page-free submissions circulating at the moment are just the teensiest bit worried? If so, relax: forgetting to include a title page almost certainly won’t prevent Millicent from reading your submission at all. She generally reads even the most bizarrely-formatted submissions for at least a line or two (although frequently no more than that). But that initial impression of an author’s lack of professionalism — or, to call it by a kinder name, of a writer’s having a lot to learn about how the publishing industry does and doesn’t work — often translates into a rather jaundiced reading of what comes next.

Are you once again barking, “Ye gods, why?” Well, let’s take a peek through her reading glasses, The first thing Millicent’s work-wearied peepers fall upon when she opens the average requested materials packet is something like this:

As always, I apologize for the fuzziness with which my blogging program reproduces page shots. If you’re having trouble making out the details with Henry James-level specificity, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Have it in focus now? Good. Our Millie might also encounter a first page like this:

Or, heaven help us, like this:

Why might Millicent take one look at these and conclude that the respective submitters of these three first pages could use a good class on manuscript formatting — and thus would be time-consuming clients for her boss to sign? Because, dear friends, both of these examples have failed as both title pages and first page of text.

How? By not including the information that a pro would expect to see on either.

What makes me so sure she would find this discovery disappointing, at best? Because what she — or her boss, the agent to whom you successfully pitched — would have expected to see on top of that pile of paper was this:

good title

This is a standard professional title page for the same book — strikingly different, is it not? Visibly different, in fact, from several paces away, even if Millicent isn’t wearing her reading glasses.

Again, though, submitting the earlier examples rather than that last would not necessarily be instantly and automatically fatal to a manuscript’s chances. However, human nature and agency denizens’ punishing reading schedule being what they are, if Millie has already decided that a submission is flawed, just how charitable an eye do you think she is likely to cast upon that typo in line 13?

To use every screener’s favorite word: next!

To be fair to Millicent, while it may well be uncharitable of her to leap to the conclusion that Faux Pas’ or Ridiculous’ manuscripts are likely to be unpolished because they did not include a proper title page, agencies do have a vested interest in signing writers who present themselves professionally. For one thing, they’re cheaper to represent, in practical terms: the agent doesn’t have to spend as much time working with them, getting their manuscripts ready to submit to editors.

Among other things, then, including a properly-formatted title page tells him right off the bat that — wait for it — he won’t have to teach the writer how to produce a title page. That’s important, as no agent in his right mind would send out a manuscript that didn’t include a standard title page. It serves a number of important — nay, vital — marketing functions.

To understand why, let’s take another look at the professional version. So you don’t have to keep scrolling up and down the page, here it is again:

good title

Did you take a nice, long look? Good. While we’re at it, let’s also take a gander at a proper title page for a book with a subtitle:

Pop quiz: how precisely do Rightly and Collie’s first sheets of paper promote their respective books than Faux Pas or Ridiculous’ first pages?

Well, right off the bat, a good title page tells a prospective agent or editor what kind of book it is, as well as its approximate length. Both of these are pieces of information that will tell Millicent instantly whether the submission in her hand would meet the requirements of the editors to whom her agency tends to sell.

How so? Well, think about it: if Millicent’s boss had decided not to represent Action/Adventure anymore, or if editors at the major houses had started saying that they were only interested in seeing Action/Adventure books longer than 90,000 words, Rightly Stepped would be out of luck.

But then, being a savvy submitter, ol’ Rightly would also want his work to be represented by an agent who just adores very long Action/Adventure novels — and regularly goes to lunch with scads and scads of editors who feel precisely the same way, right?

I sense some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne? I notice you mentioned approximate length. Since my word processing program will tell me precisely how many words are in my manuscript, why should I pretend I’m guessing?”

Your logic would be quite sound, estimate-eschewers, if we were talking about a magazine article or a short story. There, you should use actual word count.

For a book manuscript, however, the convention is to estimate word count. Since manuscripts shrink around 2/3rds in the transition to published book, the number of pages is actually a better measure of how much it will cost to print and bind the thing. A page in standard format in 12-point Times New Roman is assumed to run about 250 words, a page in Courier 200. So the conversion formulae run like this:

# of pages in Times New Roman x 250 words/page = estimated word count

# of pages in Courier x 200 = word count

Fair warning: the result will bear virtually no resemblance to your actual word count; it will usually be far lower. But that’s okay, because when Millie spots a title page indicating that the manuscript it covers is 100,000 words, she’ll instantly think, “Oh, that’s 400 pages.” In other words, well under the 125,000-word threshold at which printing and binding the book abruptly becomes quite a bit more expensive.

So if you are one of the many, many literal-minded writers that believe being absolutely factual will win Brownie points with Millicent — and I constantly meet writers that insist that because Word will provide an exact word count, providing anything else on the title page is tantamount to lying — I invite you to consider this: given that she has experience making this conversion, what do you think her first reaction will be to encountering a title page that proclaims up front that it’s a cool 112,452 words?

That’s right: “Oh, that’s too long for our agency.” Which is a pity, really, as it’s not beyond the bounds of belief that a 400-page manuscript’s actual word count would be 112,452.

Did that just make those of you that grew up on the classic 19th-century novels do a double-take? “Whoa, there!” length-lovers everywhere cry. “I’ve heard all over the place that the maximum word count most agents will consider is between 100,000 and 125,000 words, depending upon the book category, far shorter than many of the great works of literature. This is the first time I’ve ever heard that the actual cost of producing the physical books played a role in coming up with those figures. I just thought that in recent years, agents and editors had just made a collective decision — due, perhaps, to the hugely increased volume of submissions since the advent of the personal computer — not to read as much.”

That’s an interesting theory, length-lovers, and one that might make abundant sense if requested manuscripts were invariably read from beginning to end before being accepted or rejected. As we have discussed, however, the average submission gets rejected on page 1.

The disinclination for the long has much more to do with fact that paper is far more expensive than it was a hundred years ago — and at 500 pages, the binding costs take a remarkable leap. Now, we’ve all seen books that long for sale, but in recent years, they’re usually by already-established authors — i.e., ones with a track record of selling books to readers that might be willing to cough up a slightly higher amount of money for a new book by a favorite author.

But if a manuscript by a first-time author begins to bump up against that limit, publishers know from experience that the extra cost will be a harder sell to readers. Which means, in turn, that a manuscript much over 400 pages will be more difficult for an agent to sell to an editor. And that’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, aspiring writers so often hear the pros say at conferences that they’re not looking for anything over 100,000 words.

“Wait just a nit-picking minute!” those of you clutching lengthy manuscripts cry. “A couple of paragraphs ago, we were talking about 125,000 words (500 pages in Times New Roman x 250 words/page) as the reject-on-sight limit. So where does the 100,000-word (400 pages in Times New Roman x 250 words/page) barrier come from?”

Theories vary on this one, actually. A rather pervasive explanation claims that a prudent agent will want to leave room for revision; a second, almost as common, holds that since writers new to the craft usually have minimal experience in editing their own work, accepting a longer manuscript effectively means signing on to edit extraneous text, redundancy, and the like.

A third theory — and I don’t think you’re going to like it much — is that aspiring writers’ reportage of word count is too often off by quite a bit. Possibly because they’ve heard that old saw about how any submission over 100,000 words is toast. You must admit, that kind of rumor does provide a certain amount of incentive for inaccuracy.

In my experience, though, most first-time submitters are simply unaware of the estimation rules — or that they should estimate. Even with the best intentions, it’s not hard to see how Millicent might have derived this impression: it’s not all that uncommon for submitters to take an actual word count, round it to the nearest big number, and hope for the best.

How might that work in practice? Let’s say for the sake of argument that Bunny McNewatit’s novel was actually 85,487 words the last time she checked, but she’s tinkered with it a bit since. Now, she’s just given a successful pitch, and she’s too eager to get those requested first 50 pages out the door to redo the word count. But it doesn’t matter, she figures: she’s planning on working on the rest of the book while the agent of her dreams is reading the opening.

So, completely innocently, she adds a bit of a cushion to the estimate on the title page: there, she reports that her baby is 86,250 words. Since professional readers expect the font on the title page to be the same as the font in the text, and the title page is in Times New Roman, Millicent just assumes that the manuscript that follow is 345 pages (345 x 250 = 86,250), rather than flipping to the bottom of the stack of papers to check.

That’s fine — but if the title page is in Courier, Bunny’s in a spot of trouble. Doing the mental math, Millie would conclude that the book is 431 pages — and that Bunny’s math skills are not particularly good. In fact, because 86,250 does not divide evenly by 200, she’s going to wonder how our friend Bun came up with that word count. She may even — brace yourself — speculate that Bunny has not yet finished writing the book.

Now, in actual fact, a 400-page manuscript in TNR is usually closer to 115,000 words than 100,000; as any writer who has compared the estimated word count for her book with the total her word processing program so kindly provides, they tend to differ wildly. But word count, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder: a novelist whose title page reported, accurately, that her 400-page novel was 115,000 words might well see it rejected out of hand on the grounds that it was too long.

Why? Well, math may not have been Millicent’s best subject, either (as one might expect, the inmates of agencies tend overwhelmingly to have been English majors), but she can do third-grade multiplication in her head: 115,000 words at 250 words/page would equal a 460-page manuscript. Next!

Boy, those hackles are getting a workout today, aren’t they? “But Anne, why is Millicent estimating at all? If she wants to know how long it is, why doesn’t she just flip to the last page and check the last page number, for heaven’s sake?”?

I could give you a long song and dance about how much her wrists hurt from opening all those query envelopes all day, or how her secret midnight e-mail orgies have rendered pinching a torture, but in practice, the answer is far less personal than practical: because the word count is right there on the title page.

Tell me, oh submitters: why on earth should she doubt its accuracy? Unless, say, the title page were in a non-standard typeface like Helvetica, she’s going to assume that an aspiring writer familiar enough with standard format to include the word count on the title page would also know how to estimate it accurately.

I know, I know: from a writerly perspective, that’s kind of a wacky assumption. But her chair boasts a different view than ours.

Besides, how exactly could she manage to turn to page 400 of a manuscript, when her boss requested that the writer send only the first 50, without resorting to some pretty impressive maneuvering through time and space?

Swiftly averting our eyes from the depressing fact that a number on the title page (or in a query) could potentially harm the manuscript that much, let’s consider how the other information on the page can boost that same manuscript’s chances of getting picked up. How about the undeniable fact that a standard title page also tells Millicent precisely how to contact the author to offer representation?

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: it’s always in an aspiring writer’s interest to make it easy for the fine folks that work at the agency of her dreams to help her. I might be wrong, of course, but I suspect that not forcing Millicent to forage through the mountain of paper on her desk to find a misplaced cover letter with your phone number on it might be a good start toward being easily helpable.

Which is yet another way in which Faux Pas’ first page falls short, professionally speaking. It doesn’t really do anything but announce the title of the book and leap right into the story. That’s one underachieving piece of paper.

But that’s not the only way a title page can fall down on the job. Let’s take a gander at another type of title page Millicent often sees — one that contains the right information, but is so unprofessionally formatted that the care with which the writer followed the content rules gets entirely lost:

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 (the usual rationale for including them at this stage), 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.

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 — or that her contact information should not have been centered. Pin a great big blue ribbon on yourself, too, if you also 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.

I feel a rule coming on: 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.

Otherwise, you may place the title in boldface if you like, but that’s it on the funkiness scale. No matter how cool your title page looks with 24-point type or the picture you would like to see on the book jacket, resist the urge, because Millicent will be able to tell from across the room if you didn’t.

Don’t believe me 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 eye-distracting problems with this title page?

If you said that it included both a slug line (the author’s name and title in the upper right margin of the page) and a page number in the bottom right corner, snag yourself yet another gold star from petty cash. 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 thus should not be formatted as if it were. Nor should title pages 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, either. 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. Perhaps seconded by the many, many pitchers asked to send the standard first 50 pages that just realized my insistence upon professional presentation was not going to cost them a page of text.

I’m hearing some discontented murmuring amongst aesthetes out there in the ether. “But Anne,” visually-oriented aspiring writers murmur under their breath, so as not to attract the wrath of Millicent, “I feel that the rules of standard format for books and book proposals– not to be confused with the formatting norms for short stories, magazine articles, screenplays, or any other kind of writing intended for professional submission — are stepping all over my right to creative expression. If I believe my writing looks best in a special font like Abadi MT Condensed Extra Bold, why shouldn’t I run with it? It’s how I want my words to look in the published book, so why shouldn’t I present my manuscript that way?”

Because, murmuring aesthetes, Millicent will take your writing more seriously if you format it as she expects to see it. While two-inch margins and a cursive typeface may strike a writer as the perfect expressive extension of the spirit of his novel, to someone who reads manuscripts for a living, they’re just puzzling. And, frankly, distracting from the writing.

So yes, Virginia, a choice as small as a typeface honestly can make an astonishingly great difference to how professional your work looks to the pros, even on the title page. That comes as something of a surprise to most aspiring writers — who, it should astonish no one to learn, tend to regard that particular decision as a purely aesthetic one. “Why,” they ask, and not unreasonably, “should it matter? Good writing’s good writing, isn’t it?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, good writing is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. No, insofar as good writing tends to have less impact on the average Millicent when it’s presented in an unusual font.

Yes, really. To see why, let’s take a peek at the same title page in three different typefaces. Here it is in 12-point Times New Roman:

Austen title good

That’s what anyone sitting in Millicent’s seat would expect to see. Now let’s look at exactly the same information, assuming that Aunt Jane had favored 12-point Helvetica so strongly that she just couldn’t resist submitting in it:

Austen title helvetica

The letters are quite a bit bigger, aren’t they? Not enough so to appear to be, say, 14-point font, but large enough to make Millicent wonder whether the word count is accurate. (Lest we forget, word count does vary by typeface: Times New Roman is estimated at 250 words/page, Courier at 200.) And do you really want her speculating about your credibility before she reaches the first page of your manuscript?

Now that we have seated ourselves firmly in Millicent’s office chair, we can see that Aunt Jane’s choice of Helvetica, while not a deal-breaker, does not necessarily present her manuscript to its best advantage. But does the increased volume of disgruntled ethereal muttering mean some of you want to see a typeface that might be a deal-breaker? Happy to oblige.

Austen title brushscript

Can’t really blame Millicent for not wanting to turn the page on that one, can we? Despite containing all of the information that a title page should include, in the right places and in the right order, it’s unprofessional-looking. Not to mention hard to read.

Got Millicent’s perspective firmly imbedded in your mind? Excellent. If you want to switch back to the writer’s point of view, all you have to do is remember that the manuscript that follows even this last title page is SENSE AND SENSIBILITY.

The moral: even the best writing may be placed at a competitive disadvantage by unprofessional presentation. Yes, it’s a pain to implement at first, but in the long run, standard format is the good writer’s friend, not her enemy.

Adopting the norms of standard format and clinging to them like an unusually tenacious leech carries a fringe benefit, too: it will also help you preserve your sanity throughout the often-protracted submission process. Honestly, trying to apply every single one of the expressed (and not always well-informed) opinions floating around out there to your manuscript will drive you 100% nuts. The anecdotal agents’ pet peeves one hears bouncing around the Internet are too often mutually contradictory, for one thing.

But, naturally, if an agent to whom you are submitting asks for something different, for heaven’s sake, give it to her. If, as is almost always the case, you just don’t know, keep the presentation unprovocative and professional so that your writing may shine.

In other words, adhere to the strictures of standard format, rather than assuming, as so many aspiring writers do to their cost, that the writing is the only thing that matters.

Is that deafening clank the sound of a thousand writers’ hackles being raised? I can’t say I’m surprised; the very topic of presentation seems to be emotionally trying for a lot of writers — disproportionately so, from where Millicent is sitting. Tell an aspiring writer that his dialogue is turgid, or his pacing drags, or that he’s left a necessary section out of his book proposal, and most of the time, he’ll be at least curious about why you think so. (If a bit defensive.)

Yet suggest to the same writer that he might be better off reformatting his manuscript to include such niceties as paragraph indentation or moving his page number to the slug line, and a good quarter of the time, he’ll look at you as though you’d just kicked his grandmother. Thrice.

So pardon me if I duck behind a handy large piece of furniture while I reiterate: from the perspective of someone who reads manuscripts for a living, standard format is simply the least distracting way a book can possibly be presented.

Which is, of course, the primary reason to rely upon either Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces, both on the title page and in the manuscript. These are the standards of the industry, and thus the least likely to raise Millicent’s ever-knitted eyebrows.

And that’s going to be true regardless of the quality of the writing. First impressions count.

To see how much of a difference font and typeface can make at first glance, here’s a correctly-formatted page 1 in Times New Roman. Just for giggles, I’m going to use that notorious editor’s nightmare, the opening paragraphs of A TALE OF TWO CITIES:

2 cities page 1 proper

Pretty spiffy, eh? And definitely not how this opening would appear in a published book, right?

Now let’s take a peek at the same page, also correctly formatted, in Courier. Note how many fewer words per page it allows:

2 cities proper Courier

Got both of those firmly imbedded in your brainpan? Good. Now format your first pages that way for the rest of your natural life. My work here is obviously done.

Just kidding — you want to see why it’s a good idea, don’t you? Okay, take a gander at the same first page, not in standard manuscript format. See how many differences you can spot:

Fascinating how just a few small formatting changes can alter the presentation, isn’t it? It’s exactly the same writing, but it just doesn’t look as professional. To Millicent, who reads hundreds of pages per day, the differences between the last three examples could not be clearer.

And yet, if we’re going to be honest about it, there were really very few deviations from standard format in the last example. For those of you playing at home, the typeface is Georgia; the chapter title is in the wrong place, and there isn’t a slug line. Also, the page is numbered in the wrong place — the default setting, incidentally, in many word processing programs.

In all probability, none of these infractions against the rules of standard format are serious enough to cause Millicent to toss a submission aside as soon as she notices them. But when poor formatting is combined with literary experimentation — like, say, that paragraph-long opening sentence ol’ Charles managed to cough up — which do you think she is going to conclude, that Dickens is a writer who took the time to polish his craft, or that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing?

Don’t tempt a professional reader to draw the wrong conclusion about your devotion to your craft. Remember, where a manuscript stands depends upon where the reader sits.

Before any hackles start rocketing skyward again, I hasten to add: where the submitting writer sits often makes a difference to Millicent’s perception, too. Her reception of that last example is very likely to be different before Dickens became a household name or after, although once he was established.

Unless you happen to be famous, I wouldn’t advise taking the risk. And if you do happen to be famous, could I interest you in writing a back jacket blurb?

In fairness to Millicent, though, it’s highly unlikely that it would even occur to our Charles to deviate this markedly from standard format, if he already had experience working with an agent or editor. The longer you remain in the business, the more those little things will strike you as just, well, matters of right and wrong. As, fortunately or not, they do Millicent and her ilk.

Come to think of it, that sense of fitness may well be the reason that discussions of formatting tend to become so vitriol-stained: we all like to be right, and after all, propriety is in the eye of the beholder. After all, each of us is most familiar with the view from her own chair.

Which is why, I suspect, so many aspiring writers become enraged at the very notion that something — anything — but the style of the writing could possibly play a role in a professional assessment of a manuscript’s potential. As Millicent is only too painfully aware, there’s more to working well with an agent or editor than writing like a muse-inspired bard.

There’s being willing and able to take direction, for instance, because working authors often do need to make revisions on very short notice. There’s being willing and able to take criticism without flying into a passion — because, believe me, the pros don’t pull their punches; when everyone’s trying to meet a deadline, it’s a waste of valuable time. And there’s being willing and able to adhere to the standards of the industry one is lobbying so hard to join.

Make it easy to help you do that. And make it apparent that you will be easy to help from the very top of your manuscript.

I can sense some of you recent pitchers getting antsy about sending out those requested materials, so that’s it on the formatting front for the nonce. Next time, I shall be talking about how to construct a professional-sounding cover letter to accompany your submission — and over the weekend, we shall be discussing how to pack up your work and send it off with style.

Keep up the good work!

So you’ve pitched successfully — now what? Part II: what does a professionally-formatted book manuscript look like, anyway?

Hint: not like this

I’m going to try something a little different today, campers. This post is for all of you strong, silent types: instead of explaining at my usual great length how to put together a manuscript for submission to the agent of your dreams, I’m going to show you.

What brought on this change in tactic? Well, last time, I gave those of you that had just pitched your work successfully to an agent — which, contrary to astoundingly pervasive opinion amongst conference-goers, means that the agent asked to see all or part of your manuscript or book proposal, not offered on the spot to represent you — a brief overview of what that agent would expect to see in a submission. I did that not only to aid writers in a whirl about how to get their work out the door, but also to provide advance knowledge to those of you planning upon pitching at a writers’ conference in the months to come and those of you planning to send out queries. In fact, I shall be devoting the rest of the week to this worthy endeavor.

Why devote so much energy to talking about something as seemingly simply straightforward as packing up a manuscript and sending it to someone that has asked to see it? Because knowing what’s expected can both streamline the submission process and render the preparation stage substantially less stressful. Because there’s more to it than meets the eye. And, frankly, because most submitters do some part of it wrong.

How? Oh, in a broad array of ways. Some manuscripts are formatted as if they were published books. Others are mostly correct, but do not apply the rules consistently or present the text in a wacky font. Still others cherry-pick which rules to follow, or combine the rules for short stories and those for book-length works into an unholy mish-mash of styles.

And those are just the manuscripts put together by writers that are aware that some standards for professional presentation exist. Agents see plenty of submissions from those that evidently believe that everything from margin width to typeface is purely an expression of individual style.

Back in the decadent days when being asked to submit a manuscript meant, if not an offer of representation, then at least an explanation of why the agent was passing on the project, rejected writers were often firmly but kindly told to learn the ropes before submitting again. And today, many agencies have been considerate enough to post some indication of their formatting requirements on their websites. But more often than not, submitters whose manuscripts deviated from expectations never find out that unprofessional presentation played any role at all in their rejection.

So how are they to learn how to improve their writing’s chances of pleasing the pros?

This evening, I’m going to be concentrating on the cosmetic expectations for a manuscript. But before my long-term readers roll their eyes — yes, yes, I know, I do talk about standard format quite a bit — let me hasten to add that in this post, I am going to present manuscript pages in a different manner than I ever have before.

You see, I’ve been talking about standard format for manuscripts for almost seven years now at Author! Author!, long enough to notice some trends. First trend: this is one of the few writer-oriented online sources for in-depth explanations of how and why professional manuscripts are formatted in a very specific manner — and are formatted differently than short stories, magazine articles, or published books. As the sharper-eyed among you may have gleaned from the fact that I devote several weeks of every year to discussing standard format and providing visual examples (the latest rendition begins here), I take that responsibility very seriously.

Which is why the second trend troubles me a little: whenever a sponsor a writing contest — and I am offering two this summer, one aimed at adult writers writing for the adult market and a second for writers under voting age and adult YA writers — a good two-thirds of the entries are improperly formatted. Not just in one or two minor respects, either. I’m talking about infractions serious enough that, even if they would not necessarily prompt our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to reject those pages on the spot, they would at least encourage her to take the writing less seriously.

Why might someone that reads submissions for a living respond that drastically? Chant it with me now, long-time readers: because all professional book-length manuscripts handled by US-based agencies and publishing houses look essentially the same, writing presented in any other manner distracts Millicent. So if you want your work to claim her full attention, it’s very much to your advantage to present it as the pros do.

I could encourage you to embrace this excellent strategy in a number of ways. I could, for instance, keep inventing reasons to shoehorn the link to the rules for standard format for book manuscripts. I could also make adhering to the strictures of standard format a requirement for entering a writing contest, and then construct a post in which I list the rules one by one, showing how incorporating each would change how a manuscript aimed at an adult audience appeared on the page. I could even, I suppose, take a theoretical entry to a young writers’ contest, apply the rules to it, and post the results.

All of that would be helpful, I suspect, to the many, many aspiring writers who have never seen a professionally-formatted manuscript in person. Yet I must confess, I worry about writers that learn more easily from visual examples than extensive explanation. Not to mention those that are in just too much of a hurry to read through post after post of careful demonstration of the rules in practice.

Today, then, I am going to present standard format for book manuscripts in the quickest, visually clearest way that I can: I’m going to draw you a map.

Or, to be a trifle more precise about it, this post will provide a guide to the professional manuscript page that will allow those new to it to navigate around it with ease. Let’s start by taking a peek at the first three pages an agent would expect to see in a manuscript, as the agent would expect to see it: the title page, page 1, and page 2.



Pretty innocuous presentation, isn’t it? (If you’re experiencing difficulty seeing the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the images.) As we may see, book manuscripts differ from published books in many important respects. Some respects that might not be obvious above:

Book manuscripts should be typed or printed in black ink on 20-lb or heavier white paper.

I encourage my clients to use bright white 24-lb paper; it doesn’t wilt.

Manuscripts are printed or typed on one side of the page and are unbound in any way.

The preferred typefaces for manuscripts are 12-point Times New Roman or Courier.

No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the entire manuscript in the same font and typeface.

Due to the limitations of blog format, you’re just going to have to take my word for it that all of these things were true of the manuscript pages I am about to show you. I printed them out and labeled their constituent parts, so we could talk about them more easily. Then I slapped the result onto the nearest table, and snapped some glamour shots. The lighting could have been better, but here they are, in all their glory.

I’ll go into the reasoning behind including a title page in a submission (it’s a good idea, even if you’ve been asked to send only the first few pages) in tomorrow’s post, so for now, let’s just note what information it contains and where it appears on the page. A professionally-formatted title page presents:

A professionally-formatted title page should include all of the following: the manuscript’s book category (c), word count (d), author’s intended publication name (e), author’s real name (f), and author’s contact information (b).

Don’t worry; I shall be defining all of these terms in my next post.

The title and author’s pen name should be centered on the page. (h)

The book category, word count, and contact information should all be lined up vertically on the page. (g)

The easiest way to pull this off is to set a tab at 4″ or 4.5″.

Do not use boldface anywhere in the manuscript but on the title page — and even there, it’s optional.

As you may see here, I have elected not to use it. If I did, the only place where it would be appropriate is at (aa), the title.

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

Which is, of course, a nicety that would escape the notice of a submitter that believed that short story format (in which the word count and contact information are presented on page 1) and book manuscript format were identical. By including a title page, you relieve yourself of the necessity to cram all of that information onto the first page of a chapter. As you may see, the result is visually much less cluttered.

Every page in the manuscript should be numbered except the title page. The first page of text is page 1. (5)

In other words, do not include the title page in a page count.

Everyone finding everything with relative ease so far? Excellent. In order to zoom in on (5), let’s take a closer look at the first page of Chapter 1.

Got that firmly in your mind? Now let’s connect the dots.

All manuscripts are double-spaced, with 1-inch margins on all four edges. (1)

Do not even consider trying to fudge either the line spacing or the margin width. Trust me, any Millicent that’s been at it a while will instantly spot any shrinkage or expansion in either. The same holds true of using any font size other than 12 point, by the way.

The text should be left-justified, not block-justified.

This one often confuses writers, because text in newspapers, magazines, and some published books is block-justified: the text is spaced so that every line in the same length. The result is a left margin and a right margin that visually form straight lines running down the page.

But that’s not proper in a book manuscript. As we see here, the left margin should be straight (2), while the right is uneven (3).

Every page of text should feature a standard slug line in the header (4), preferably left-justified.

That’s the bit in the top margin of each page containing the Author’s Last Name/Title/#. As you can see here, the slug line should be in the header — in other words, in the middle of the one-inch top margin — not on the first line of text.

The slug line should appear in the same plain 12-point type as the rest of the manuscript, by the way. No need to shrink it to 10 point or smaller; Millicent’s too used to seeing it to find it visually distracting.

The page number (5) should appear in the slug line and nowhere else on the page.

Another one that often confuses writers new to the biz: word processing programs are not, after all, set up with this format in mind. Remember, though, that the fine people at Microsoft do not work in the publishing industry, and every industry has the right to establish its own standards.

Every page in the manuscript should be numbered. The first page of text is page 1.

Do not scuttle your chances submitting an unpaginated manuscript; 99% of the time, it will be rejected unread. Yes, even if you are submitting it via e-mail. People who read for a living consider unnumbered pages rude.

The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page (6), with the chapter number (7) and/or title (8) centered at the top.

If the chapter does not have a title, just skip line (8).

Is everyone comfortable with what we have covered so far? If not, please ask. While I’m waiting for trenchant questions, I’m going to repost page 2, so we may contemplate its majesty.

Awesomely bland, is it not? Let’s check out the rest of the rules.

The beginning of each paragraph should be indented .5 inch. (9)

Yes, including the first paragraph of each chapter, no matter what you have seen in a published book. The decision not to indent the first paragraph of the chapter rests with the publisher, not the writer; if you have strong preferences on the subject, take it up with the editor after you have sold the book.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the manuscript is not the right place to express those preferences. No formatting choice in the manuscript will necessarily end up in the published book.

That includes, by the way, an authorial preference for business format. If you happen to prefer non-indented paragraphs that force a skipped line between paragraphs, too bad. Which leads us to…

Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs (10), except to indicate a section break. (11)

As we see here, section breaks are formed by skipping one double-spaced line. Do not indicate a section break by # # # or any other marker UNLESS you are writing a short story, article, or entering a contest that requires the inclusion of a specific symbol. (Check the rules.)

Words in foreign languages should be italicized (12), as should emphasized words (13) and titles of copyrighted works like songs (14). Nothing in the text should be underlined.

This one’s pretty self-explanatory, I think, except for the always-burning question of whether to italicize thought (as I’ve done here at a) or not. There is no hard-and-fast rule on this one: some agents like it, some consider it a narrative cop-out. Because its acceptability varies wildly between book categories, your best bet is to check five or ten recent releases similar to yours to see if italicized thought appears there.

If you ultimately decide to embrace the italicized thought convention, you must be 100% consistent in applying it throughout the text. What you should never do, however, is make the common mistake of both saying that a character is thinking something and italicizing it. To an agent or editor, this

I’m so frightened! Irma thought.

is redundant. Pick one means of indicating thought and stick to it.

All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25. (15)

This one is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. As we can see in the text, dates, times, and currency is sometimes expressed as numbers. When a time is specific (16), it is written in number form, but a general time (17) is written out in full. September 4, 1832 is fine, but without the year, the fourth of September is correct. By the same token, a specific amount of money (18) is in numeral form, but a round number (19) is conveyed in words.

Dashes should be doubled (20), with spaces at either end, but hyphens are single, with no spaces. (21)

Why? So a typesetter can tell them apart. (Okay, so that made more sense when manuscripts were produced on typewriters. Humor Millie on this one.)

#22 is not precisely a formatting matter, but manuscript submissions so often misuse them that I wanted to flag it here. In American English (and thus when submitting to a US-based agency), ellipses contain only three periods UNLESS they come at the end of a quote that ends in a period. When an ellipsis indicates a pause in speech, as it does here at (22), there should not be a space between it and the words around it.

And that’s it! Unless an agency’s submission guidelines specify some other formatting preferences, you will not go wrong with these.

I shall now tiptoe quietly away, so you may study them in peace. Tune in tomorrow for more discussion of title pages, and, as always, keep up the good work!

P.S.: there’s a good discussion in the Comments section about formatting quotes and citations in manuscripts and book proposals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1: write it down. Immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did it? Heidi and I discussed that very question.