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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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