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Author! Author!

The joys of originality in humor, or, why your contest entry should not resemble the love child of Jane Austen and Owen Wilson. Or Flip Wilson, for that matter.

June 20th, 2012

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Yes, I’m posting late again — and yes, my tardiness is due in part to the delightful rigors of fine-tuning the rules for the latest installment of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, a writing contest I shall be announcing this coming weekend. Not to pat myself on the back, but I flatter myself that this year’s iteration will please a broader swathe of writers seeking Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy than ever before.

Hint: the judges are going to be rewarding showing, not telling. But perhaps I have already said too much.

Back to the topic at hand. The prim miss sporting the clavicle-concealing garment above is, of course, Jane Austen, and she has come to preside over today’s topic, how to write comedy that ages well.

What’s that you say, potential literary contest entrants? That since writing contests tend to be annual events, any humor contained in your entry would have to seem fresh for only a few months, at most?

I can see why you might think so, but actually, Mehitabel the contest judge is usually as wary of jokes topical enough to have a short shelf life as Millicent the agency screener could possibly be. Why? Well, literary contest organizers hope that the works they reward with prizes, finalist ribbons, and other ECQLC will ultimately go on to be published. In a contest that accepts book-length unpublished writing, all of the Mehitabels will be quite aware that this year’s winners would at best be hitting the shelves a couple of years hence.

So I ask you: how well do you remember the pop culture events of two years ago? I thought not. Neither will Mehitabel.

Some of you have gone quite pale. Were you not aware that it typically takes quite some time for even the best-conceived manuscript to move through the traditional publication process? Even if you signed a book contract tomorrow, you might well not hold the bound book in your hand for a year or two. Sometimes more. And that’s not counting the time your agent might spend shopping the manuscript around to editors — or the time you might invest in landing an agent.

So for any cultural reference gracing your book not to seem dated to the reader of the future, it’s going to need to have at least a five-year expiration date. And if that doesn’t strike you as a trifle intimidating, may I remind you that back in 2007, iPhones were a brand-new phenomenon?

Oh, you don’t remember where you were when the last HARRY POTTER book was released? That’s okay; neither do Mehitabel or Millicent. So why would you expect them to recall, say, who the Secretary General of the U.N. was on January 3 of that year?

Oh, you may laugh (or, if you don’t follow the news, you may be wondering who the Secretary General is now), but you would be amazed at how often Millicent and Mehitabel encounter topical humor in submissions and contest entries. Or how often it’s the topical humor of a couple of years ago.

Don’t believe me? I recently read a scene in which approximately 95% of the hilarity was dependent upon the reader’s being able to recall the individual steps of the Macarena.

Well might you avert your eyes. Or roll them, if you happen to be too young to remember (shudder) a major political party’s candidate doing the Macarena on television. (I’d link to the video, but apparently, it’s so embarrassing that it’s been removed from YouTube.)

“Okay, Anne,” you say, trying desperately to believe that because it was so popular at the time, you could not possibly have looked ridiculous doing the Macarena (but knowing in your heart that was not the case), “I take your point. Before I send off a contest entry or manuscript submission, I should cast my eye over it to check for outdated or soon-to-be-outdated cultural references. But now I’m deeply curious: what makes you think that waving an admittedly rather comely line drawing of a 200-year-old author under my nose will help me remember to do that?”

An excellent question, former Macarena-doers. If you are familiar with Jane Austen’s work only through film adaptations, you might not be in the habit of thinking of her as a comedy writer, but for my money, she’s one of the most talented who ever scrawled English prose on a page. Her timing is impeccable — and, remarkably, her humor has not become less amusing with the passage of time.

Her books remain, as the British used to say, as fresh as paint.

Which is interesting, because the first novel she sold, NORTHANGER ABBEY (published posthumously in 1818, even though Aunt Jane had signed a publication contract more than a decade earlier; yet another reason that she should be the patron saint of modern novelists), was in fact very topical in its day. Quite a lot of its humor relies upon the reader’s familiarity with the most popular novels of the day.

Quick: what were the blockbusters of 1803, when she sold the manuscript for ten pounds? Or of 1798, when she evidently began writing it?

Here’s a hint: in the text, she very self-consciously identifies herself in as the literary descendant of one of the great early comic novelists, Fanny Burney. In fact, the title of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813) is a direct homage to Burney, a massively popular author a generation older than Austen. PRIDE and PREJUDICE — in all caps, no less — is are identified in Burney’s CECILIA (1782) as the main villains of the plot:

The whole of this unfortunate business,” said Dr. Lyster, “has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. Your uncle, the Dean, began it, by his arbitrary will, as if an ordinance of his own could arrest the course of nature! And as if he had the power to keep alive, by the loan of a name, a family in the male branch already extinct. Your father, Mr. Mortimer, continued it with the same self-partiality, preferring the wretched gratification of tickling his ear with a favourite sound, to the solid happiness of his son with a rich and deserving wife. Yet this, however, remember: if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination: for all I could say to Mr. Delvile, either of reasoning or entreaty — and I said all I could suggest, and I suggested all a man need wish to hear — was totally thrown away, till I pointed out to him his own disgrace, in having a daughter-in-law immured in these mean lodgings!…Such, my good young friends, is the MORAL of your calamities.”

I like to bring this up, not only because Burney was a fine comic writer in her own right (EVELINA is, after some rather pompous opening platitudes, arguably the funniest epistolary novel ever written), but also because most of us grew up in English classes that presented female writers as aberrations in an otherwise male-dominated field — or even acted as though Austen were the first worth reading. As a matter of historical fact, there have been prominent female novelists practically since the novel was invented. In the 19th century, it was considered predominantly a women’s art form. Aunt Jane not only grew up reading other women’s writing, but she tells us point-blank that she learned some of her craft from the best.

Which I strongly suspect would come as a surprise to my ninth-grade English teacher, if not yours.

But then, my ninth-grade English teacher was so suggestible that she once caught a cold because she believed that I had placed a hex upon her. Yes, really: she was famous for misplacing her chalk — not infrequently by depositing it upon the shelf just below the blackboard designed for its reception — so her students were forced to endure many, many repetitions of — wait for it — “Who took my chalk?” There are only so many times a humor-minded person can hear a rhetorical question without providing an answer. As I recall, “I used it to stuff a voodoo doll,” was neither my first nor my best riposte, but it was the one that got me sent to the principal’s office.

His response was much funnier: “I know there’s no voodoo doll. Tell her you destroyed it, anyway. Otherwise, she’ll be sneezing for the rest of the year.”

See, that’s a joke that’s likely to age pretty well, at least for the next decade or so: although not all readers (or, brace yourself, all currently-employed Millicents) may remember chalkboards, the voodoo doll and the clueless teacher are likely to be around for a good, long while. If I’d mentioned that I was wearing an English Beat t-shirt at the time, the story would have seemed more dated, wouldn’t it?

While we’re engaging in multi-temporal analysis, why is Austen so much more popular today than Burney, other than those often-humorless film adaptations? Partially, of course, it’s due to the heavy-handed moralizing: hot in the late 1700s, but as dated as last year’s catchphrase today.

Don’t believe me? Do you really want me to force you to shout, “Hey, Macarena!”

Also, Burney’s social satire is very specifically aimed at social problems that no longer trouble English-speaking readers all that much: the trials of an 18th-century maiden raised in retirement, then forced into high society without being aware of its rules, for instance, or the trials of an orphaned heiress in a country where a young woman did not have legal control over her own property would have resonated far more with readers when her books were originally published than now.

Whereas pretty much everyone can identify with an Austen heroine who is in love with someone who doesn’t seem to love her, whilst simultaneously being pursued by someone she can’t stand. Heck, even my ninth-grade English teacher was able to identify with that.

If you want more current evidence of just how badly topical comedy tends to age, look no further than a sketch comedy show like Saturday Night Live or its many imitators. Its satires on current events are seldom amusing even a few months after the show originally airs.

Are you wondering why I am bringing this up within the context of a series on contest entries? For one very simple and seldom-mentioned reason: many contests’ rating forms specifically ask the judge to assess whether the entry is likely to seem dated quickly.

Actually, older agents and editors tend to worry about this, too, out of sheer experience: you don’t have to be in the biz for very long to see how frequently books that appeal to the hip trend of the moment have very short shelf lives. These books become stale all the faster from their perspective, since they know — as we all do now, right? — that a book often takes a year or two to sell to a publisher –and then it’s typically at least another year before that book is available to the public.

So it really isn’t all that unreasonable for a contest judge to want to give higher marks to a book that will still not have readers scratching their heads in a few years, is it? In fact, I think it’s worth stating as an aphorism that what is humor today probably will not be in a decade, and one generation’s humor will not be another’s.

Or, to put it another way: hands up, anyone that still owns a pet rock.

Here’s a radical piece of self-editing advice for would-be comic writers of both fiction and memoir: go through your manuscript and highlight any jokes that you have borrowed from TV, movies, radio shows, other books, or the zeitgeist. Keep a sharp eye out, too, for recycling comic premises from any of the above.

Then go back and examine each in turn: would a reader find it funny five years from now? Or have found it funny five years ago? If not, it probably does not belong in a submission — and it definitely does not belong in a contest entry.

This is especially true of catchphrases or references to characters from movies or sitcoms, which go stale with a rapidity that would make your average loaf of French bread turn pale with dread and contemplate its own mortality. Take a gander, for instance, at these zingers out of context:

From 1968: The devil made me do it!

From 1977: Excu-u-use me!

From 1985: You look mahvelous!

From 2000: I don’t know karate, but I do know cah-razy.

From 2004: Make it work.

Now, most media-following adults in the U.S. probably have some association with at least one of these, right? So much so that I would bet that if you close your eyes and conjure up vivid images of Flip Wilson, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Owen Wilson, and Tim Gunn respectively, saying these lines, these old chestnuts might still elicit the odd chuckle. (Or perhaps some puzzled consideration about why female comedians are so seldom associated with popular catchphrases.)

Go ahead and chuckle your head off, if you are given to atavistic clinging to the popular culture of your past, but please, I implore you, do not make the (unfortunately common) mistake of reusing these kinds of once-popular catchphrases in a contest entry. Leaving aside the ethical problem of these jokes having been written by someone other than you and the fact that such bits seldom funny out of context, including them will almost certainly date your book — and thus potentially cost your entry some serious points.

Yes, even if your book’s target audience is of precisely the right age to harbor fond memories of when those catchphrases were popular. To be absolutely blunt, catchphrases from your heyday will necessarily carry a very different resonance for a judge 20 years older than you are. Or 20 years younger.

Remember, you cannot be sure that the Mehitabel to whom your entry will be assigned will be of the generation you have in mind. People tend to have very strong associations with particular periods in their lives, and for all you know, the reference you choose to use may be the very one most favored in 1978 by your dream agent’s hideously unkind ex, the one who lied in court during the divorce proceedings and hid assets so cleverly that their daughter’s college fund had to be used to pay those unexpected medical bills of Mother’s. Then the car broke down, and all of those checks bounced, and the orthodontist tried to repossess Angelica’s braces…

See what happened? One little pop culture reference, and POW! You’ve lost your judge’s attention entirely.

So even if you are using pop culture references to establish a particular period, do it with care. Be sparing. Even if your teenage son quoted SHANGHAI NOON endlessly for six solid months while the entire family cringed in a Y2K fallout shelter, do be aware that your reader might not have the associations you do with those jokes. There are a myriad of associational possibilities — and almost none of them will make your writing more memorable or seem fresher.

Originality tends to age better than borrowed amusement, anyway. But that’s a topic for tomorrow’s post.

For now, if you aspire to perfecting your comic voice, it might behoove you to take a good, hard look at the careers of Mssrs. Martin, Crystal, and Wilson, all of whom started out as comedy writers, writing material for themselves and others. All became progressively less funny (in my humble opinion, at least) as soon as they started performing comic material written by other people. Ditto for one of the great comedy writers of all time, Mae West; she first came to prominence as a playwright, not a sex symbol.

An accident? I think not. They became less funny because their individual comic voices had gotten lost, replaced by the catchphrases of the moment.

Oh, the people who were writing for them have tried to recapture their quite distinct original voices, but the copy is never as vivid as the original, is it? Why any of them stopped writing their own material is a mystery to me — particularly Mssr. Wilson, who is arguably one of the most talented comedy writers of his (which also happens to be my) generation.

If you doubt this, rent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, please. Not many writers could have pulled off a graphic suicide attempt scene (evidently written years before later events rendered it sadly ironic, I should add, and penned with a writing partner) in the middle of a genuinely funny comedy about misused potential. It’s brilliant, so much so that it’s kept me interested for years in his writing, wondering how he is going to surprise me next. I suspect that it will still seem pretty brilliant when everyone of my generation is old and gray and full of sleep.

Why? Because it isn’t like anything else. And because, like Aunt Jane’s socially frustrated heroines’ woes, it’s not a situation that’s going to be outdated in a decade. It’s a situation with which people are likely to be able to identify for some time to come.

One of the advantages to using humor in your submissions is to demonstrate the originality of your voice — not Jane Austen’s, not Owen Wilson’s, not Steve Martin’s, and certainly not that anonymous person who originated that joke your best friend from college just forwarded to you.

If your individual voice is not inherently humorous, whatever you do, don’t try to force it to be by importing humor from other sources. Lifting material from elsewhere, even if it is genuinely funny, is not the best means of establishing that YOU are funny — or that yours is a book well worth reading. Or, for our purposes today, deserving of a bright blue ribbon — today, tomorrow, and for the next three hundred years.

Make your Aunt Jane happy: be yourself. And if you want to make me happy — I ask so little — keep up the good work!

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

December 22nd, 2010

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

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

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

Who do you thinks gives the good children books?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

academic example

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

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

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

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

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

novel-letter-example1

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

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

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

novel-letter-example2

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

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

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

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

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

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

novel-letter-example-long

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

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

novel-letter-example-long2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

academic diary entry

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

NF diary entry 1

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

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

NF diary entry b

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

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

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

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

diary fiction 1

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

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

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

diary fiction 2

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

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

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

diary chapter 1

diary chapter 2

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

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

Formatpalooza, part VIII: but I see it done constantly in published books!

December 12th, 2010

Seattle mossgin and tonic
oxidized polebeach rock2

As those of you who have been perusing the sage advice underneath the pictures here at Author! Author! for some time may have noticed, I’m a big fan of artists’ looking at ordinary, everyday things and showing us the beauty inherent in them. The coy models in the shots above could not have been more prosaic if they had tried: clockwise from top left, that’s perfectly ordinary moss on a perfectly ordinary concrete wall, photographed during a perfectly ordinary Seattle rainstorm, a genuinely mundane gin-and-tonic (commonplace Bombay Sapphire, instead of my preferred Hendrick’s), a salt-of-the-earth beach rock nice enough to hold still and pose for me, and a regular old municipal light pole attacked by regular old municipal rust.

And while I was clicking away to capture that first shot, a perfectly run-of-the-mill artist-meets-dubious-public moment: while crunching my body sideways in order to get that first shot, a Central Casting mother told her standard-issue wee daughter to veer away from the you-meet-’em-every-day crazy lady. Yet another case of a misunderstood artist — and another a child being warned that if she tries to look at something from an unusual perspective, people are bound to think she’s strange.

And that, my friends, is how budding artists are discouraged from potentially glorious careers: being told that normalcy requires seeing things just like everybody else does.

Perhaps not astonishingly, writers tend to find beauty in found words. An overhead scrap of conversation, perhaps, or a favorite phrase in a book. And often — far too often, from Millicent the agency screener’s perspective — aspiring writers celebrate these words lifted from other places by quoting them at the beginning of their manuscripts.

That’s right, campers: today, I’m going to be talking about proper formatting for that extremely popular opening-of-text decoration, the epigraph. You know, those nifty little quotes from other sources that we writers adore enough to want to reproduce in our own books.

And who can blame us? It’s not as though the publishing industry doesn’t encourage us to think of them this way: in a published book, the epigraph, if any, is almost always presented in a place of honor, either at the top of each chapter or by itself on the page before the text proper starts.

Take, for example, the placement of the well-known epigraph to Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE, an excerpt from Stevie Wonder’s DO LIKE YOU. Even in my cheap, well-worn paperback edition, it scores a page all to itself, right between the copyright information on the flip side of the title page and the opening of Chapter One.

The color purple's epigraph

Okay, so that picture didn’t really do the words justice; not all of my photos can be winners, you know. Let’s try a tighter shot:

epigraph2

Not only is it allocated space; it’s allocated white space, to set it off from the other text. That is quite an honor, in an age when acknowledgments pages are routinely omitted, along with the second spaces after periods and colons, in order to save paper.

Especially since nobody but writers like epigraphs much — but I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I?

We writers-who-read think they’re great, don’t we? Particularly if those pithy little quotes come from obscure sources; they feel so literary. Or deep-in-the-national-psyche, know-your-Everyman populist, if they’re culled from songs. By evoking the echo of another writer’s words, be it an author’s or a songwriter’s, we use them to set the tone for the story to come.

I don’t think conceptual aptness is all there is to the appeal, though. There is something powerfully ritualistic about typing the words of a favorite author at the beginning of our manuscripts; it’s a way that we can not only show that we are literate folk — as opposed to the (ugh!) other kind — but that by writing a book, we are joining some pretty exalted company.

Feeling that way about the little dears, I truly hate to mention this, but here goes: it’s a waste of ink to include them in a manuscript intended for submission to an agency. 99.9998% of the time, they will not be read at all.

Stop glaring at me; it’s not my fault. I don’t stand over Millicent with a bullhorn, admonishing her to treat every syllable of every submission with respect. (Although admittedly, that’s an interesting idea.)

The sad fact is, most Millicents are specifically trained not to read epigraphs in manuscripts; it’s widely considered a waste of time. I’ve literally never met a professional reader who doesn’t simply skip epigraphs in a first read — or (brace yourselves, italics-lovers) any other italicized paragraph or two at the very beginning of a manuscript, even if it was actually part of the text.

Oh, dear — I told you to brace yourselves. “Why on earth,” italics-lovers the world over gasp in aghast unison, “would any literature-loving human do such a thing? Published books open all the time with italicized bits!”

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

In other words, our Millie treats any slanted text at the beginning of a manuscript as if it were an epigraph. It’s kind of hard to blame her, really: she’s there to read your writing, not somebody else’s.

Of course, there’s another, less ego-flattering reason that Millicents tend to skip ‘em: at the submission stage of the game, no one cares who a writer’s favorite authors are. A writer’s reading habits, while undoubtedly influential in developing her personal voice, are properly the subject of post-publication interviews, not manuscript pre-screening considerations.

After all, it’s not as though Millicent can walk into her boss’ office and say, “Look, I think you should read this submission, rather than that one, because the first’s writer has really terrific literary taste — it opens with a quote from William Godwin’s CALEB WILLIAMS, OR THINGS AS THEY ARE,” can she?

For those of you who didn’t howl with laughter at that little history-of-publishing joke, novelist William Godwin was political theorist and novelist Mary Wollstonecraft’s editor around the time of the French Revolution. They also produced another literary marvel together: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, was their daughter. Isn’t it fun being hyper-literate?

Still not rolling in the aisles, are you? That’s how Millicent feels when confronted with a genuinely esoteric quote at the top of a manuscript.

Whichever reason to skip the darned thing most appeals to the Millicent who happens to have your submission lingering on her desk (right next to that too-hot latte she’s always sipping, no doubt), it’s a safe bet that she’s not going to be reading your carefully-chosen epigraph. She feels pretty good about this choice, too.

Why? Well, the official justification for this practice — yes, there is one to which Millicents will admit in public — is not only reasonable, but even noble-sounding. See if it sounds at all familiar: even the busiest person at an agency or publishing house picks up a submission in order to read its author’s writing, not somebody else’s.

Kind of hard to fault them for feeling that way, isn’t it? Given our druthers, I suspect it would be hard to find an aspiring writer who wouldn’t prefer that the pros notice the individual brilliance of her respective styles than marvel over her esoteric reading habits.

Some of you are still clutching your quote books to your heaving chests, aren’t you? Okay, sentiment aside, let’s look at what including an epigraph in a book achieves on a practical level, as well as its strategic liabilities.

Let’s assume for a moment that you have selected the perfect quotation to open your story. Even better than that, it’s gleaned from an author that readers in your chosen book category already know and respect. By picking that quote, you’re announcing from page 1 — or before page 1, if you allocate it its own page in your manuscript — you’re telling Millicent that not only are you well-read in your book category, but you’re ready and able to take your place amongst its best authors.

Sounds plausible from a writerly perspective, doesn’t it? That’s one hard-working little quote.

But what happens when Millicent first claps eyes on your startlingly apt epigraph? Instead of impressing her with your erudition, the epigraph will to prompt her to start skimming before she gets to the first line of your text — and you will have made her wonder if you realized that manuscript format and book format are not the same.

So you tell me: was including it a good idea? Or the worst marketing notion since New Coke?

If that all that hasn’t convinced you, try this on for size: while individual readers are free to transcribe extracts to their hearts’ contents, the issue of reproducing words published elsewhere is significantly more problematic for a publishing house. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, reproduction of published text without the author’s permission is known in the biz by another, less flattering name: copyright infringement.

What does that mean in practice? Well, if the epigraph is from a book that is not in the public domain, the publisher will need to obtain explicit permission to use any quote longer than fifty words. Ditto for any quote from a song that isn’t in the public domain, even if it is just a line or two.

So effectively, most epigraphs in manuscripts might as well be signposts shouting to an editor: “Here is extra work for you, buddy, if you buy this book! You’re welcome!”

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some epigraph-huggers cry,
“the material I’m quoting at the opening of the book is absolutely vital! The book simply isn’t comprehensible without it!”

Before I respond, let me ask a follow-up question: do you mean that it is crucial to the reader’s understanding the story, or that you have your heart set on that particular quote’s opening this book when it’s published?

If it’s the latter, including the epigraph in your manuscript is absolutely the wrong way to go about making that dream come true. Like any other book formatting issue, whether to include an epigraph — or acknowledgements, or a dedication — is up to the editor, not the author.

And besides — chant it with me now, ‘Palooza faithful — a manuscript should not look like a published book.

Consequently, the right time to place your desired epigraph under professional eyes is after the publisher has acquired the book, not before. You may well be able to argue successfully for including that magically appropriate quote, if you broach the subject at the right time. Politely.

Just to set my trouble-borrowing mind at ease: you do know better than to include either acknowledgements or a dedication in your manuscripts at submission time, right? It’s for precisely the same reason: whether they’ll end up in the published book is the editor’s call. (I wouldn’t advise getting your hopes up, though: in these paper-conserving days, the answer is usually no on both counts, at least for a first book.)

Quite a few of you were beaming virtuously throughout those last three paragraphs, though, weren’t you? “I know better than to second-guess an editor,” stalwart souls everywhere announce proudly. “I honestly meant what I said: my opening quote is 100% essential to any reader, including Millicent and her cohorts, understanding my work.”

Okay, if you insist, I’ll run through the right and wrong ways to slip an epigraph into a manuscript — but bear in mind that I can’t promise that even the snazziest presentation will cajole Millicent into doing anything but skipping that quote you love so much.

For starters, do not, under any circumstances, include a quote on the title page as an epigraph. Which is, alas, what submitters are most likely to do. Let’s take a gander at what their title pages tend to look like:

Does that leave you wondering whether Millicent will notice the quote at all, much less find it obnoxious? She will, because this is was what she was expecting to see:

Actually, that was sort of a red herring — that page wasn’t precisely what she expected. Did you catch the vital piece of information Eeyore left off his title page?

If you said that he neglected to include the book category on the second example, award yourself a pile of thistles. (Hey, that’s what he would have given you.) His title page should have looked like this:

Eeyore good title

And yes, I am going to keep showing you properly-formatted title pages until you start seeing them in your sleep; why do you ask? Take a moment to compare the third example with the first: the quote in the first example is going to stand out to Millicent like the nail in a certain critter’s tail, isn’t it?

Other submitters choose to eschew the title page route in order to place an epigraph on the first page of text. The result is immensely cluttered, by anyone’s standards — especially if the submitter has made the very common mistake I mentioned in my discussion of title pages last time, omitting the title page altogether and cramming all of its information onto page 1:

Where did all of our lovely white space go? Into quoting Ambrose Bierce, partially.

Not that I’m against anyone doing that, ever. Except — wait for it — on the top of a manuscript submission.

The third popular but ill-advised way to include an introductory epigraph is to place it on a page all by itself in the manuscript, between the title page and the first page of text. In other words, as it might appear in a published book:

What’s wrong with this, other than the fact that Poe died before our boy D.H. wrote Sons and Lovers? At the risk of repeating myself, a manuscript is not supposed to look just like a published book; it has its own proper format.

At best, Millicent is likely to huffily turn past this page unread. At worst, she’s going to think, “Oh, no, not another writer who doesn’t know how to format a manuscript properly. I’ll bet that when I turn to page one, it’s going to be rife with terrible errors.”

Does either outcome sound especially desirable to you? I thought not.

So what should an epigraph-insistent submitter do? Leave it out of the submission, of course — weren’t you listening before?

But if it is absolutely artistically necessary to include it, Mssr. Poe actually wasn’t all that far off: all he really did wrong here was include a slug line. The best way to include an introductory epigraph is on an unnumbered page PRIOR to page 1. On that unnumbered page, it should begin 12 lines down and be centered. But I’m not going to show you an example of that.

Why? Because I really, truly would advise against including an epigraph at all at the submission stage.

Just in case I hadn’t made that clear. And had I mentioned that manuscripts specifically should not resemble published books?

That doesn’t mean you should abandon your cherished epigraph altogether, however. Squirrel all of those marvelous quotes away until after you’ve sold the book — then wow your editor with your erudition and taste.

“My,” the editor will say, “this writer has spent a whole lot of time scribbling down other authors’ words. He must read quite a bit.”

Or, if you can’t wait that long, land an agent first and wow her with your erudition and taste. But don’t be surprised if she strongly advises you to keep those quotation marks to yourself for the time being. After all, she will want the editor of her dreams to be reading your writing, not anyone else’s, right?

Wait — where have I heard that before?

If you are submitting directly to a small press, do be aware that most publishing houses now place the responsibility for obtaining the necessary rights squarely upon the author. If you include epigraphs, editors at these houses will simply assume that you have already obtained permission to use them. Ditto with self-publishing presses.

This expectation covers, incidentally, quotes from song lyrics, regardless of length.

Yes, really. If you want to use a lyric from a song that is not yet in the public domain, it is generally the author’s responsibility to get permission to use it — and while for other writing, a quote of less than 50 consecutive words is considered fair use, ANY excerpt from an owned song usually requires specific permission, at least in North America. Contact the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) for assistance in making such requests. (For a very funny first-hand view of just what a nightmare this process can be, please see FAAB Joel Derfner’s guest post on the subject.)

Have I talked you out of including an epigraph yet — particularly an excerpt from a copyrighted song, like Alice Walker’s? How about holding off for the creative reason: Millicent sees the same quotes over and over again?

Oh, you were positive that nobody else was a William Godwin fan?

I know that it hurts to cut your favorite quote from your manuscript, but take comfort in the fact that at the submission stage, no cut is permanent. Just because you do not include your beloved quote in your submission does not mean that it cannot be in the published book.

Contrary to what 99% of aspiring writers believe, at the submission stage, even the most polished manuscript is a draft, not a finished work. In actuality, nothing in a manuscript is exempt from alteration until the book is actually printed — and folks in the industry make editing requests accordingly.

That’s going to help all of you sleep better tonight, isn’t it? Actually, it should: just as tight copyright restrictions prevent your favorite authors from having long chunks of their texts excerpted without their permission — or, sacre bleu! entire paragraphs from CALEB WILLIAMS being passed off as somebody else’s work — so will it protect your writing from predatory borrowers.

Just a bit of proverbial food for thought. Keep noticing the beauty in the everyday, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XXVII: and as the sun descends upon this series, we bid a fond farewell to some query faux pas

September 15th, 2010

ominous sunset

The long-anticipated day has finally come, campers: this is, no kidding, honest, and for real, the last Querypalooza post. As of the end of this post, you officially have my blessing to go forth and query your creative little hearts out.

While I would encourage you to continue to shout out any and all query-related comments and questions, this short-in-time-but-long-in-quantity marathon of focused posts will end here. I shall return to my usual rate of blogging only once per day (twice has been killer, thrice insane), and life will return to normal around Author! Author!

At least until Synopsispalooza begins on September 25th; mark your calendars. In the interim, we shall be devoting day after luxurious day to craft, via in-depth textual analysis on the first pages submitted by the winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest..

But before any of that happens, a final post. And then many unbroken hours of glorious snoozing. (I can’t even begin to convey how excited I am at the prospect of sleeping in tomorrow morning, rather than sitting bolt upright in the early morn, crying, “Oh, no! I’ve promised my readers a post by 10 am!” Naturally, I’m excited about critiquing readers’ first pages, but I suspect I won’t actually be logging in to do it until tomorrow afternoon.)

Back to the matter at hand: examples of good and not-so-good queries. Tonight, I thought we would amuse ourselves with a couple of common faux pas before launching into the more serious difficulties of coming up with selling points for a book without an obvious preexisting target audience or credentials at least apparently relevant to the writing of a novel that is purely imaginative.

Yes, those are indeed knotty problems, now that you mention it. All the more reason to kick off with some fun.

As we discussed earlier in this series, both the credentials and target market paragraphs are optional in a query. That’s fortunate, because for most aspiring writers, they are the hardest parts to write. “But I’ve written a book,” hopeful queriers everywhere grumble. “Why should I have to come up with any more proof that I’m a writer than that?”

Good point, hopeful grumblers, but as I’ve noted early and often throughout Querypalooza, the only way Millicent the agency screener can possibly find out what a beautifully-written, grippingly plotted, and/or fascinatingly argued piece of prose you’ve produced is if your query (or pitch) has convinced her to ask to read it. Rather than wasting your energy, however justifiably, upon the tedious necessity of having to query at all, try to think of it as merely a means to an end.

It’s also a learned skill. Which you have now learned, right?

“Yeah, yeah, Anne,” those of you whose eyes lit up a few paragraphs ago at the prospect of some engagingly terrible examples of how to do it wrong. “When do we get to the promised fun?”

Stop drumming your fingers on the table, eager beavers. As in any narrative, a proper set-up is imperative for a joke to work; nothing is less amusing than a joke that has to be explained after it is told.

One of the classic ways that credential-light writers compensate for not having much of a publishing background is by name-dropping. Specifically, by telling Millicent that So-and-So says that the book is X, therefore it is worth her while to read.

Basically, this strategy works (when it does, which is rarely) by rubbing up against someone famous in the hope that the glamour will rub off. When done with restraint — and with a true claim; do be aware that it’s not unheard-of for Millicent to check — the result can be quite eye-catching. See for yourself:

famous name query

Another name-dropping method that tends to work even better — if, again, the claim in the letter is true — is to garner a referral from one of the agent’s current clients. See how easily Dorothy is able to personalize the basic letter she already had on hand with this information:

referral query

As with every other type of personalization, the primary danger inherent to mention a recommendation in a query is that it is invariably DISASTROUS if a writer inadvertently sends that recommendation to the wrong agency. Due to the ease and consequent popularity of copy-and-paste word processing technology, a tired Dorothy is very, very likely to send precisely the letter above to a different agent without noticing. Especially if, as now has come so common, she simply copied the contents of one e-mail into the body of another and pressed SEND.

missent referral query

Dorothy may not notice — and, indeed, may never learn of her error, due to the ubiquity of stock rejections devoid of any explanation of why Millicent chose to pass — but a good screener undoubtedly will. “Next!”

And even if Millicent’s overworked (and usually underpaid as well) eyes did by some divine act of Providence happen to glide past the reference to some other agency’s client, this second query would have gotten rejected in Ms. Volumes’ office, anyway. Any guesses why?

It was the enclosed pages. You’d have to have looked at the two agency’s guidelines to figure that one out: while Ms. Books’ agency’s specify that queriers may include chapters and a synopsis in their query packets, Ms. Volumes’ agency guide listing quite clearly reads query only, please.

“Next!”

Hmm, if only there were a way around this problem…oh, wait, there is: read every syllable of everything you send to every query IN ITS ENTIRETY and OUT LOUD, every time. And if you can print a draft copy to read IN HARD COPY, so much the better.

Why, yes, that would add quite a bit of extra time to the querying process, now that you mention it. But isn’t that vastly preferable to the horrifying alternative?

Just this morning, inveterate commenter Dave chimed in with another good strategy for e-mailing queriers:

Might I suggest that folks querying by e-mail write and perfect the query letter in Word or their favorite word processing program. They can print it out, read it aloud, and make sure it’s perfect. Then when it is time to send the query, merely copy and paste into the e-mail. At this point, before hitting SEND, it might also be a good idea to correct any formatting anomalies that may have occurred during the pasting operation.

I find this excellent, Dave; this strategy also permits greater ease in spell- and grammar-checking. (You were already aware that most Millicents are instructed to become wary at the first typo and stop reading after the second, right?) While it may not completely obviate the possibility of mixing up which personalization should be heading to which agency, merely adding another layer of review renders it less likely.

But let’s get back to name-dropping, shall we?

As I mentioned in passing above, if you mention a famous person or someone the agent might conceivably know, it’s imperative that you not stretch the truth about what they might have said about you or your work, even a little. The more potentially impressive a kudo, the more likely Millicent is to wonder about its veracity — and the more likely her boss is to reach for the phone to double-check.

Speaking as someone whose name has been known to turn up in queries from writers of whom I have never heard (you know who you are, presumptuous readers: my agency doesn’t appreciate it, and neither do I), I have to say, those just-checking calls and e-mails are a trifle unnerving. Like many authors, I meet quite a few aspiring writers in any given year; even though I keep records of whom I refer and where, there’s always the nagging fear that I might have forgotten someone.

Unethical queriers prey on that fear, relying upon poverty of memory and laziness of fact-checking to make their sleight-of-hand pay off. And that’s a pity, because this type of name-dropper makes it harder for people like me to refer aspiring writers whose work I honestly do believe my agent might enjoy.

You’re making everyone look bad, Dorothy. Clean up your act, or at least get a few hours’ sleep between Query #37 and Query #38.

Do be careful, too, about taking comments out of context; if asked, the commenter may well become offended if those nice things he said about your writing were not about the book you’re querying. Not every bon mot that falls from the lips of the famous is fair game to co-opt for promotional purposes, after all.

When I was in graduate school, for instance, I took a seminar with Saul Bellow. At the end of the term, I was delighted to see that he had scrawled on the bottom of my term paper, “Your writing is very likable.”

Now, that awfully nice to see, of course; I don’t know about you, but when a Nobel laureate says something positive about my writing, I sit up and take notice. However, would I have been justified in saying Saul Bellow found said my writing was very likeable in every query letter I sent out for the rest of my natural life?

Of course not. The man was talking about a 30-page seminar paper I had written on the novels of Italo Svevo, for heaven’s sake, not — and this would be the implication, if I had ever included his comment in a query letter — one of my novels. Even now that Professor Bellow has joined the choir celestial and could not possibly contest my taking his statement out of context, I would not dream of using it in a query letter or as a jacket blurb.

It just wouldn’t be ethical, would it? Stop fantasizing about being able to drop Saul Bellow’s name in the first line of your query and answer me: would it?

Ethical name-droppers can — and do — run into other kinds of trouble: all too often, they get carried away with the proper nouns, positively littering the page with them. They forget that the power of celebrity lies in its rarity: if a writer can legitimately cite one famous fan of his own work, that’s impressive, but if he lists several, even if they are all genuine fans, it’s going to come across as overkill at best and a complicated lie at worst.

Reluctant to believe that more isn’t better? Judge for yourself:

name dropping query

A bit over the top, is it not? One of those famous names might have grabbed Millicent, but so many in a row — including a couple of unverifiable-because-dead endorsers — falls flat. And if anyone at Millie’s agency happens to know anyone in that cavalcade of stars, you can bet that they will take great pleasure in dropping them an e-mail to ask, “So how do you know this Eugene Aristocratic? He didn’t mention why you thought he might be a good fit for our agency.”

And what do you think happens if the late William F. Buckley — or, indeed, anyone Eugene chose to cite in this all-star line-up — says something like, “Eugene who?”

That’s right: “NEXT!”

Oh, you laugh, but you would be surprised at how often unscrupulous queriers will fake recommendations like this. Actually, those who do it might also be surprised at how often they get caught in the attempt: although this is a notorious agents’ pet peeve, perjured name-droppers generally receive precisely the same form-letter rejection as everybody else.

So the wonder is not the fact that people like that never learn, but that after all this time, Millicents across New York have not banded together to come up with a checklist of the most egregious insults to their intelligence commonly found in letters. Imagine how helpful it would be to the clueless if a Millicent could simply grab a list from a photocopied stack, circle doubtful references, and tuck it into the SASE along with the form-letter rejection?

Another pet peeve that would well deserve circling: who?. This feedback would be a boon to name-droppers who reference people of whom Millicent has never heard.

who the heck query

“Who the heck is Fortunatus L. Offenbach?” Millicent mutters, reaching for a form letter. “And why should I care about his opinion on anything? While I’m speculating aloud, isn’t this book description rather similar to the one I read just a few minutes ago — and wait, isn’t the second name here the same as the writer on the other query? Who stole whose book idea, I wonder?”

Oh, yes, our Millie’s memory is that good. And you never can tell whose query she will read just before or just after yours, Eugene.

Connections to the glamorous (or, in Perry’s case, the not-so-glamorous) are not the only query statements that occasionally strike Millicent as far-fetched. As long-time reader Adam points out,

Isn’t there a danger of stretching too much about connections of importance (i.e. penchant for linguistics resulting in witty character names, thesis about Jane Austen gives specialization of domestic inertia and idle chatter, etc)? Might this kind of tack be harder with genre fiction (more difficult, not impossible), or only mean said query-candy-makers need to be more creative/selective?

I don’t see any special reason that coming up with credentials should be harder for genre fiction than any other variety, Adam; in general, fiction writers tend to experience more difficulty in figuring out how to query their work. (Since nonfiction writers have to write book proposals, they are less inclined than novelists to try to turn the entire query into a plot summary for the book.)

Then, too, the subject matter of fiction is frequently less conducive to the kind of easily-quantified statement that fits nicely into a target audience paragraph. However, while a statement like one out of eight book-buyers in the U.S. suffers from dyslexia is quite a bit easier to work into a query for a dyslexic’s memoir than a science fiction novel where one of the 18-member space crew happens to be dyslexic, it’s actually not a bad statistic to include with either.

Hey, readers like characters who reflect the realities of their own lives. It’s easier to identify with them.

Which leads me, not entirely coincidentally, to a tip for coming up with convincing selling-points for your novel: rather than just thinking in terms of what might make you, the writer, sound more professional or literary-minded to Millicent, try brainstorming about what aspects of the book might make it appealing to the reader.

For instance, having written one’s thesis on Jane Austen wouldn’t actually be much of a selling point unless you happened to have written an Austen-themed book, right? So that wouldn’t be the strongest thing to mention. (And even if you did want to mention your master’s degree, it would make more sense coming in the platform paragraph than lolling about amongst the book’s selling points.) But if a major character is a passionate bocce player, it might well help pitch your book to find out just how many bocce players there are in this country, and whether they ever have authors come to speak between matches.

Try to stick to selling points that might actually influence a book buyer’s decision-making process (hey, bocce players’ loved ones have to get them something for Christmas, right? Why not a bocce-themed novel?), rather than something that contributed to the writing process. To draw from Adam’s example, why would a reader care how the writer came up with the names before she read the book? That’s the kind of information that belongs in a post-publication interview, not a query.

Besides, it’s always dicey to review one’s own writing in a query; Millicent wants to be shown that you can write, not told. So referring to one’s own name choices as witty probably is not the best strategy for convincing her that you are indeed possessed of wit. Making the query itself shine with wit is a much better bet.

Remember, though, that both the target audience and platform paragraphs are optional. While being able to argue that your book has an easily-identified target audience and/or that you have the perfect background to have written your novel are very helpful to include, don’t force it. If a selling point or credential feels like a stretch to you, it probably will to Millicent as well.

So what’s an honest, ethical writer to do if she genuinely can’t come up with any selling points and has no relevant background to include in her platform paragraph? Omit ‘em.

There’s no law that says a query must be a full page long, you know. Just say as much as you need to say to convince Millicent you’ve written an interesting book in a category her boss represents — and hope for the best.

And that, my friends, is a perfectly lovely stopping-point for Querypalooza. Thank you for following me through this mad dash toward querying comfort; pat yourself on the back for being serious enough about your writing career to have plowed all the way through it. Sleep the sleep of the just, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part VIII: but I see it done in published books all the time!

February 20th, 2010

Seattle moss

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a big fan of artists’ looking at ordinary, everyday things and showing us the beauty of them. Take the photograph above, for instance: that’s perfectly ordinary moss on a perfectly ordinary concrete wall, photographed during a perfectly ordinary Seattle rainstorm. (And while I was clicking away, crunching my body sideways in order to get this particular shot, a perfectly ordinary mother told her perfectly ordinary wee daughter to veer away from the crazy lady. Yet another case of a misunderstood artist — and another a child being warned that if she tries to look at something from an unusual perspective, people are bound to think she’s strange.)

Perhaps not astonishingly, writers tend to find beauty in found words. An overhead scrap of conversation, perhaps, or a favorite phrase in a book. And often — far too often, from Millicent the agency screener’s perspective — aspiring writers celebrate these words lifted from other places by quoting them at the beginning of their manuscripts.

That’s right, campers: today, I’m going to be talking about proper formatting for that extremely common opening-of-text decoration, the epigraph.

You know, those nifty little quotes from other sources that we writers so adore — and it’s not as though the publishing industry doesn’t encourage us to think of them this way: in a published book, the epigraph, if any, is almost always presented in a place of honor, either at the top of each chapter or by itself on the page before the text proper starts. Take, for example, the placement of the well-known epigraph to Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE, an excerpt from Stevie Wonder’s DO LIKE YOU:

The color purple's epigraph

Okay, so that picture didn’t really do the words justice; not all of my photos can be winners, you know. (In case you don’t happen to have a copy of the book handy, the epigraph runs thus: Show me how to do like you/Show me how to do it.) It does, however, show the prominent placement the epigraph affords: even in my cheap, well-worn paperback edition, it scores a page all to itself.

In other words, not only is it allocated space; it’s allocated white space, to set it off from the other text. In an age when acknowledgments pages are routinely omitted, along with the second spaces after periods and colons, in order to save paper, that is quite an honor. Especially since nobody but writers like epigraphs much — of that, more later.

But we writers think they’re great, don’t we? Especially if they’re from obscure sources; they feel so literary, don’t they? Or deep-in-the-national-psyche, know-your-Everyman populist, if they’re from songs. By evoking the echo of another writer’s words, be it an author’s or a songwriter’s, we use them to set the tone for the story to come.

I don’t think conceptual aptness is all there is to the appeal, though. There is something powerfully ritualistic about typing the words of a favorite author at the beginning of our manuscripts; it’s a way that we can not only show that we are literate, but that by writing a book, we are joining some pretty exalted company.

Feeling that way about the little dears, I truly hate to mention this, but here goes: it’s a waste of ink to include them in a submission. 99.9998% of the time, they will not be read at all.

Stop glaring at me; it’s not my fault. I don’t stand over Millicent with a bullhorn, admonishing her to treat every syllable of every submission with respect. (Although admittedly, it’s an interesting idea.)

The sad fact is, most Millicents are specifically trained not to read epigraphs in manuscripts; it’s widely considered a waste of time. I’ve literally never met a professional reader who doesn’t simply skip epigraphs in a first read — or (brace yourselves, italics-lovers) any other italicized paragraph or two at the very beginning of a manuscript, even if it was .

Oh, dear — I told you to brace yourselves. “Why on earth,” italics-lovers the world over gasp in aghast unison, “would any literature-loving human do such a thing? Published books open all the time with italicized bits!”

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

Of course, there’s another reason that they tend to skip ‘em, a lot less fair: at the submission stage of the game, no one cares who a writer’s favorite authors are. A writer’s reading habits, while undoubtedly influential in developing his personal voice, are properly the subject of post-publication interviews, not manuscript pre-screening time. After all, it’s not as though Millicent can walk into her boss’ office and say, “Look, I think you should read this submission, rather than that one, because Writer A has really terrific literary taste,” can she?

Whichever reason most appeals to the Millicent who happens to have your submission lingering on her desk (just under that too-hot latte she’s always sipping, no doubt), she’s just not going to be reading your carefully-chosen epigraph. She feels good about this choice, too.

Why? Well, the official justification for this practice — yes, there is one to which Millicents will admit in public — is not only reasonable, but even noble-sounding: even the busiest person at an agency or publishing house picks up a submission in order to read its author’s writing, not somebody else’s.

Kinda hard to fault them for feeling that way, isn’t it, since we all want them to notice the individual brilliance of our respective work?

Sentiment aside, let’s look at what including an epigraph achieves on a practical level, as well as its strategic liabilities. Assume for a moment that you have selected the perfect quotation to open your story. Even better than that, it’s gleaned from an author that readers in your chosen book category already know and respect. By picking that quote, you’re announcing from page 1 — or before page 1, if you allocate it its own page in your manuscript — you’re telling Millicent that not only are you well-read in your book category, but you’re ready and able to take your place amongst its best authors.

Sounds plausible from a writerly perspective, doesn’t it? That’s one hard-working little quote.

But what happens when Millicent first claps eyes on your epigraph? Instead of startling her with your erudition in picking such a great quote, the epigraph will to prompt her to start skimming before she gets to the first line of your text — AND you will have made her wonder if you realized that manuscript format and book format are not the same.

So you tell me: was including it a good idea? Or the worst marketing notion since New Coke?

If that all that hasn’t convinced you, try this on for size: while individual readers are free to transcribe extracts to their hearts’ contents, the issue of reproducing words published elsewhere is significantly more problematic for a publishing house. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, reproduction of published text without the author’s permission is known in the biz by another, less flattering name: copyright infringement.

What does that mean in practice? Well, if the epigraph is from a book that is not in the public domain, the publisher will need to obtain explicit permission to use any quote longer than fifty words. Ditto for any quote from a song that isn’t in the public domain, even if it is just a line or two.

So effectively, most epigraphs in manuscripts might as well be signposts shouting to an editor: “Here is extra work for you, buddy, if you buy this book! You’re welcome!”

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some epigraph-huggers cry,
“the material I’m quoting at the opening of the book is absolutely vital! The book simply isn’t comprehensible without it!”

Before I respond, let me ask a follow-up question: do you mean that it is crucial to the reader’s understanding the story, or that you have your heart set on that particular quote’s opening this book when it’s published?

If it’s the latter, including the epigraph in your manuscript is absolutely the wrong way to go about making that dream come true. Like any other book formatting issue, whether to include an epigraph — or acknowledgements, or a dedication — is up to the editor, not the author. And besides, a submission manuscript should not look like a published book.

Consequently, the right time to place your desired epigraph under professional eyes is after the publisher has acquired the book, not before. You may well be able to argue successfully for including that magically appropriate quote, if you broach the subject at the right time.

And just to set my trouble-borrowing mind at ease: you do know better than to include either acknowledgements or a dedication in your manuscript submissions, right? It’s for precisely the same reason: whether they’ll end up in the published book is the editor’s call. (I wouldn’t advise getting your hopes up, though: in these paper-conserving days, the answer is usually no on both counts, at least for a first book.)

Quite a few of you were beaming virtuously throughout those last three paragraphs, though, weren’t you? “I know better than to second-guess an editor,” you stalwart souls announce proudly. “I honestly meant what I said: my opening quote is 100% essential to any reader, including Millicent and her cohorts, understanding my work.”

Okay, if you insist, I’ll run through the right and wrong ways to slip an epigraph into a manuscript — but bear in mind that I can’t promise that even the snazziest presentation will cajole Millicent into doing anything but skipping that quote you love so much. Agreed?

For starters, do not, under any circumstances, include a quote on the title page as an epigraph — which is what submitters are most likely to do, alas. Let’s take a gander at what their title pages tend to look like:

Does that leave you wondering Millicent will notice the quote at all, much less find it obnoxious? I’m guessing she will, because this is was what she was expecting to see:

Actually, that was sort of a red herring — that wasn’t precisely what she expected. Pop quiz: did you catch the vital piece of information he left off his title page?

If you said that Eeyore neglected to include the book category on the second example, award yourself a pile of thistles. (Hey, that’s what he would have given you.) His title page should have looked like this:

Eeyore good title

And yes, I am going to keep showing you properly-formatted title pages until you start seeing them in your sleep; why do you ask? Take a moment to compare the third example with the first: the quote in the first example is going to stand out to Millicent like the nail in a certain critter’s tail, isn’t it?

Other submitters choose to eschew the title page route in order to place an epigraph on the first page of text. The result is immensely cluttered, by anyone’s standards — especially if the submitter has made the very common mistake I mentioned in my discussion of title pages last time, omitting the title page altogether and cramming all of its information onto page 1:

Where did all of our lovely white space go? Into quoting, partially.

The last popular but ill-advised way to include an introductory epigraph is to place it on a page all by itself in the manuscript, between the title page and the first page of text. In other words, as it might appear in a published book:

What’s wrong with this, other than the fact that Poe died before our boy D.H. wrote Sons and Lovers? Chant it with me now, everyone: a manuscript is not supposed to look just like a published book; it has its own proper format.

At best, Millicent is likely to huffily turn past this page unread. At worst, she’s going to think, “Oh, no, not another writer who doesn’t know how to format a manuscript properly. I’ll bet that when I turn to page one, it’s going to be rife with terrible errors.” Does either outcome sound especially desirable to you?

I thought not. So what should an epigraph-insistent submitter do?

Leave it out, of course — weren’t you listening before?

But if it is absolutely artistically necessary to include it, our pal Mssr. Poe actually wasn’t all that far off: all he really did wrong here was include a slug line. The best way to include an introductory epigraph is on an unnumbered page PRIOR to page 1. On that unnumbered page, it should begin 12 lines down and be centered. But I’m not going to show you an example of that.

Why? Because I really, truly would advise against including an epigraph at all at the submission stage. Just in case I hadn’t made that clear.

That doesn’t mean you should abandon the idea of epigraphs altogether, however. Squirrel all of those marvelous quotes away until after you’ve sold the book to a publisher — then wow your editor with your erudition and taste. “My,” the editor will say, “this writer has spent a whole lot of time scribbling down other authors’ words.”

Or, if you can’t wait that long, land an agent first and wow her with your erudition and taste. But don’t be surprised if she strongly advises you to keep those quotation marks to yourself for the time being. After all, she will want the editor of her dreams to be reading your writing, not anyone else’s, right?

If you are submitting directly to a small press, do be aware that most publishing houses now place the responsibility for obtaining the necessary rights squarely upon the author. If you include epigraphs, editors at these houses will simply assume that you have already obtained permission to use them. Ditto with self-publishing presses.

This expectation covers, incidentally, quotes from song lyrics, regardless of length.

I’m quite serious about this. If you want to use a lyric from a song that is not yet in the public domain, it is generally the author’s responsibility to get permission to use it — and while for other writing, a quote of less than 50 consecutive words is considered fair use, ANY excerpt from an owned song usually requires specific permission, at least in North America. Contact the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) for assistance in making such requests. (For a very funny first-hand view of just what a nightmare this process can be, please see FAAB Joel Derfner’s guest post on the subject.)

Have I talked you out of including an epigraph yet — particularly an excerpt from a copyrighted song, like Alice Walker’s? I hope so.

I know that it hurts to cut your favorite quote from your manuscript, but take comfort in the fact that at the submission stage, no cut is permanent. Just because you do not include your cherished quotes in your submission does not mean that they cannot be in the book as it is ultimately published.

Contrary to what 99% of aspiring writers believe, a manuscript is a draft, not a finished work. In actuality, nothing in a manuscript is unchangeable until the book is actually printed — and folks in the industry make editing requests accordingly.

In other words, you can always negotiate with your editor after the book is sold about including epigraphs. After you have worked out the permissions issue, of course.

There’s nothing like a good practical example to clarify things, is there? More follow next time. Keep noticing the beauty in the everyday, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part II: the eye of the beholder

February 10th, 2010

Lenten roses

See the nice, pretty Lenten roses? Aren’t they soothing to behold? Don’t they help lower the blood pressure of those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, the ones who tensed up at the very notion of going through the rigors of standard format for manuscripts again?

No? Well, how about those of you hearing about it for the first time? Or those — and I know you’re out there; I heard from one only yesterday — whose chest tighten at the very notion of writers talking about manuscript presentation amongst themselves at all?

I’ll admit it: it’s a stressful topic, enough so that each time I go over it (on average, 2-3 times per year), I ask myself at least thrice why I’m putting myself — and the rest of you — through it. Delving into the nitty-gritty of the logic behind those pesky rules is no fun by anyone’s standards. And every time I have broached the subject formally, those who have heard rumors elsewhere that something has changed leap upon my well-intentioned little gazelles of advice with the ferocity of hungry lions, demanding that I either recant my not at all heretical beliefs or, as I mentioned yesterday, to compel literally every other writing advice-giver in North America to agree to abide by precisely the same rules.

To dispel any illusions up front: neither of those things is going to happen. In my professional experience, the formatting I’m discussing here is indeed important, and not just in theory. I have sold books adhering to these rules; my editing clients have sold books using them. So I feel entirely comfortable in saying that manuscripts formatted in this manner tend to look professional to people who handle manuscripts for a living.

Does that mean every professional reader, everywhere, every time, will want to see your work formatted this way? No, of course not: should you happen to be submitting to an agent, editor, or contest that specifically asks you to do something else, obviously, you should give him, her, or it what he wants to see.

That’s just common sense, right? Not to mention basic courtesy.

In fact, I would actively encourage you not only to check the standard agency guides for expressions of these preferences, but to run an internet search on any individual agent to whom you were planning to submit, to double-check that s/he hasn’t stated loud and clear that, for instance, s/he prefers only a single space after a period or a colon. Admittedly, it requires a bit more effort on the submitter’s part, but hey, it’s worth it.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: if an agent or editor has been kind enough to take the time to tell aspiring writers precisely what s/he wants, a savvy writer should pay attention.

Again, that’s just being both smart and polite, isn’t it?

I spot some timid hands raised out there. “But Anne,” point out some confused by conflicting advice — and who could blame them, given the multiplicity of it? “I’ve been doing my homework, and the vast majority of the guide listings and websites I’m seeing don’t talk about format at all. What should I do then?”

Glad you asked. In my opinion — and it’s just my opinion, mind — the best course is to adhere to the rules of standard format.

That’s why I revisit this topic so often. But to repeat the disclaimer I’ve run every single time I’ve run a series on formatting: these are the rules that I use myself, the ones that my lengthy experience tells me work. There are, however, other rules out there, presented by some very credible sources. If you find other guidelines that make sense to you, use them with my good wishes.

Seriously: as far as I’m concerned, what you do with your manuscript up to you; I’m only trying to be helpful here. That’s why I provide such extensive explanations for each of my suggested guidelines — so my readers may consider the various recommendations out there and form their own opinions.

You’re smart people; I know you’re up to the challenge.

I’m also confident that my readers are savvy enough to understand that paying attention to how a manuscript looks does not imply that how it is written doesn’t make a difference. Of course, writing talent, style, and originality count. Yet in order to notice any of those, a reader has to approach the page with a willingness to be wowed.

That willingness can wilt rapidly in the face of incorrect formatting — which isn’t, in response to what half of you just thought, necessarily the result of mere market-mindedness on the part of the reader. After you’ve read a few hundred or thousand manuscripts, deviations from standard format leap out at you. As do spelling and grammatical errors, phrase repetition, clichés, and all of the writing problems we’ve all heard so much about at writers’ conferences.

They’re distractions from your good writing, in other words. My goal here is to help you minimize the distractions that would catch the eye first.

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

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

One last, quick caveat before I launch back into the list: the standard format restrictions I’m listing here are not intended to be applied to short stories, poetry, journalistic articles, academic articles, or indeed any other form of writing. The guidelines in this series are for BOOK manuscripts and proposals, and thus should not be applied to other kinds of writing. Similarly, the standards applicable to magazine articles, short stories, dissertations, etc. should not be applied to book proposals and manuscripts.

For the guidelines for these, you may — and should — seek elsewhere. (See my earlier disclaimer of omniscience.)

Everyone clear on that and ready to dive back into the matter at hand? Excellent. To recap from yesterday:

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

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way.

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

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

Is everyone happy with those? PLEASE pipe up with questions, if not. In the meantime, let’s move on.

(5) The ENTIRE manuscript should be in the same font and size. Industry standard is 12-point.

No exceptions, please. No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type.

Yes, even on the title page, where almost everyone gets a little wacky the first time out. No pictures or symbols here, either, please. Just the facts. (If you don’t know how to format a title page professionally, please see the TITLE PAGE category on the list at right.)

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a term for title pages with 24-point fonts, fancy typefaces, and illustrations.

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

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere in the manuscript BUT on the title page — and not even there, it’s not mandatory.

Yes, you read that correctly: you may place your title in boldface on the title page, if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be bolded. (Unless it’s a section heading in a nonfiction proposal or manuscript — but don’t worry about that for now; I’ll be showing you how to format both a book proposal and a section break later on in this series, I promise.)

This seems like an odd one, right? Actually, the no-bolding rule is a throwback to the old typewriter days, where only very fancy machines indeed could darken selected type. So historically, using bold in-text is considered a bit tacky for the same reason that wearing white shoes before Memorial Day is in certain circles: it’s a subtle display of wealth.

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

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered — EXCEPT the title page.

This may seem like a little thing, but you’d be surprised how often violating this rule results in instantaneous rejection. Even if you take no other advice from this series, please remember to number your pages.

Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional manuscript reader (including yours truly, if I’m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission or contest entry. It ranks right up there on their rudeness scale with assault, arson, and beginning a query letter with, “Dear Agent.”

Why? Gravity, my friends, gravity. What goes up tends to come down — and if the object in question happens to be an unbound stack of paper…

Did that seem like an abstract metaphor? Not at all. Picture, if you will, two manuscript-bearing interns colliding in an agency hallway.

You may giggle, but anyone who has ever worked with submissions has first-hand experience of this, as well as what comes next: after the blizzard of flying papers dies down, and the two combatants rehash that old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial’s dialogue (“You got romance novel in my literary fiction!” “You got literary fiction in my romance novel!”), what needs to happen?

Yup. Some luckless soul has to put all of those pages back in the proper order. Put yourself in Millicent’s moccasins for a moment: just how much more irksome is that task going to be if the pages are not numbered?

Number your pages. Trust me, it is far, far, FAR easier for Millicent to toss the entire thing into the reject pile than to spend the hours required to guess which bite-sized piece of storyline belongs before which.

FYI, the first page of the text proper is page 1 of the text, not the title page, and should be numbered as such. If your opus has an introduction or preface, the first page of THAT is page 1, not the first page of chapter 1.

Why, you ask? Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: BECAUSE A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD NOT LOOK IDENTICAL TO A PUBLISHED BOOK.

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

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

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

Including the slug line means that every page of the manuscript has the author’s name on it — a great idea, should you, say, want an agent or editor to be able to contact you after s/he’s fallen in love with it. The slug line should appear in the upper left-hand margin (although no one will sue you if you put it in the upper right-hand margin, left is the time-honored location) of every page of the text EXCEPT the title page (which should have nothing in the header or footer at all).

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

Traditionally, the slug line appears all in capital letters, but it’s not strictly necessary. Being something of a traditionalist, the third page of my memoir has a slug line that looks like this:

MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/3

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

Do not, I beg of you, yield like so many aspiring writers to the insidious temptation add little stylistic bells and whistles to the slug line, to tart it up. Page numbers should not have dashes on either side of them, be in italics or bold, or be preceded by the word “page.”

If that news strikes you as a disappointing barrier to your self-expression, remember, professional readers do not regard formatting choices as conveyers of personal style. The point here is not to make your slug line stand out for its innovative style, but for your manuscript’s pages to look exactly like every other professional writer’s.

And yes, I AM going to keep making that point over and over until you are murmuring it in your sleep. Why do you ask?

If you have a subtitle, don’t include it in the slug line — and if you have a very long title, feel free to abbreviate, to keep the slug line from running all the way across the top of the page. The goal here is to identify the manuscript at a glance, not to reproduce the entire book jacket.

Why not? Well, technically, a slug line should be 30 spaces or less, but there’s no need to stress about that in the computer age. (A slug, you see, is the old-fashioned printer’s term for a pre-set chunk of, you guessed it, 30 spaces of type. Aren’t you glad you asked?)

Keep it brief. For instance. my agent is currently circulating a novel of mine entitled THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB — 26 characters, counting spaces. Since my last name is quite short, I could get away with putting it all in the slug line, to look like this:

MINI/THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB/1

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

MONTENEGRO-COPPERFIELD/BUDDHA/1

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

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

That’s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally. Don’t panic if you’re having trouble visualizing this — I’ll be giving concrete examples of what the first page of a chapter should look like later in this series.

The chapter title (or merely “Chapter One”) may appear on the FIRST line of the first page — not on the last line before the text, as so many writers mistakenly do. The chapter title or number should be centered, and it should NOT be in boldface or underlined.

Why shouldn’t the title appear immediately above the text, as one so often sees — and, frankly, as some other writing sites advise? Because that’s where the title of a short story lives, not a book’s.

Very frequently, agents, editors and contest judges are presented with improperly-formatted first pages that include the title of the book, “by Author’s Name,” and/or the writer’s contact information in the space above the text. This is classic rookie mistake. To professional eyes, a manuscript that includes any of this information on the first page of the manuscript (other than in the slug line, of course) seems term paper-ish.

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

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

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

Just don’t do it.

“But wait,” I hear some of you out there murmuring, “I need a title page? Since when?”

Funny you should mention that, because…

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

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

Why, you ask? Because it is genuinely unheard-of for a professional manuscript not to have a title page: literally every manuscript that any agent in North America sends to any editor in hard copy will include one, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s the page that includes the agent’s contact information. Yet, astonishingly, a good 95% of writers submitting to agencies seem to be unaware that including it is industry standard.

On the bright side, this means that if you are industry-savvy enough to include a professionally-formatted title page with your work, your submission automatically looks like a top percentile ranker to professional eyes from the moment it’s pulled out of the envelope. It’s never too early to make a good first impression, right?

If you do not know how to format a proper title page — and yes, Virginia, there IS a special format for it, too — please see the TITLE PAGE category at right. Or wait a few days until I cover it later in this series.

Again, it’s entirely up to you. No pressure here.

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

Bully for them for being so open-minded, but as I point out roughly 127,342 times per year in this forum, how can you be sure that the person deciding whether to pass your submission upstairs or reject it isn’t a stickler for professionalism?

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

Hey, in this business, you learn to take joy in the small victories.

Next time, I’m going to finish going through the guidelines, so we may move on swiftly to concrete examples of what all of this formatting looks like in practice — because, again, I’m not asking you to embrace these guidelines just because I say so. I want you to have enough information on the subject to be able to understand why following them might be a good idea.

I’m funny that way. Keep up the good work!

Vrai et faux amis, or, the debate I would have had with Edith Wharton had she blogged

May 23rd, 2009

view-from-la-muse-library

For those of you who are tuning in late, I’m currently in residence at an almost mind-bogglingly beautiful artists’ retreat in Southwestern France — thus all of the photos of castles and cathedrals, in case any of you have been wondering if I’d suddenly gone mad for stonemasonry. Another major result of my being here, in case you missed my announcement earlier in the week: the new deadline for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence has been extended to midnight on Monday, June 1.

You’re welcome.

Let me tell you, I’ve gotten some great entries, in both the Expressive Excellence and Junior Expressive Excellence categories. I’m really looking forward to running the winners here — and to hearing from more of you!

Okay, back to work. If I seem to be talking an unusual amount about cause and effect these days, blame it on the fact that this is my first retreat in a foreign land — at least in one that is not primarily English-speaking; I have retreated in Canada. I must say, I’ve been fascinated by the enlivening effect on the brain caused by switching languages between my writing time (somewhere between 8 and 12 hours per day, in case you’re curious) and out-and-about time (usually about an hour per day, with the occasional day of shopping and/or sightseeing).

While I must confess that one of the effects has been to unearth from the depths of my psyche the perfect word or phrase for the moment in Italian or Greek, another has been a much heightened awareness of how much people think while they’re speaking, even in their native tongue. It’s definitely affecting the way I write dialogue.

I’ve also become very conscious of what the French call faux amis (false friends), words and phrases that sound the same in another language, but mean something quite different in the one you happen to be speaking at the time. Take, for instance, actuellement — it seems as though it should translate as actually, doesn’t it? En fait (in fact, the phrase one uses when one means actually here), it means currently.

And don’t even get me started on the confusion if one refers to an ad as l’avertissement (warning sign) rather than as la publicité. Or if you speak of the book you’re working on as la nouvelle, which means short story, rather than as le roman, a novel.

Because so many English words are lifted from other languages, it is stuffed to the gills with les faux amis, of course, which is why it’s so difficult a language in which to become fluent. Something else a writer in English might want to take into account whilst constructing dialogue, perhaps?

Enough about false friends for the moment. Let’s move on to talking about true ones.

One of the great things about attending a formal writing retreat (that is, an ongoing one for which you apply) is seeing what other writers are reading. Not just the people who are in residence when you are — at La Muse, as at many retreats, that number is pretty small; actuellement, there are four writers, including myself, and two painters — but what those who have been there in the past were toting around in their bookbags.

The happy result: Boccaccio nestles next to Mary Renault and Somerset Maugham; Stan Nicholls abuts Günter Grass and Arundhati Roy. Gabriel García Márquez’ LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA stands tall next to many volumes of Isaac Bashevis Singer and an apparently misshelved copy of Adam Smith’s THE WEALTH OF NATIONS. Biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Bukowski jostle memoirs by Billie Holiday, Roald Dahl, and INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL, WRITTEN BY HERSELF.

Combine that with what the retreat’s organizers consider essential — here, both the complete works of both Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, as well as many bound volumes of Paris Match, as well as masses of dictionaries in four languages, an extensive array of psychological theory, and mysteriously, a guitar — and you usually find yourself presented with a pretty eclectic collection.

Trust me on this one: you’re going to find something interesting that you have never encountered before. Take a gander at just part of what’s here for the reading:

library-at-la-muse

Yummy, eh?

As a direct and happy result of this kind of ongoing book accumulation, it’s generally well worth your while at an organized writers’ retreat to budget some fairly hefty time for reading. And not just for manuscripts in the library, either — you’re probably going to meet at least one writer with whom you would like to exchange work.

Lovely and rewarding, often, but still, time-consuming. Make sure to allot some time for it.

Truth compels me to mention, however, that actuellement, my opinion on the subject may well be colored by a fellow resident’s just having walked into the library with her thumb drive so I could download her just-this-second completed novel. (And no, this is not the first time I’ve seen someone do this at an artists’ retreat; people like to share. It’s wise to keep your writing schedule flexible enough to make field trips to admire freshly-completed sculptures and canvases upon which the paint is still wet, if you catch my drift.)

At this retreat, all attendees are asked to donate at least two volumes to the library, one that represented the kind of art we would be producing while in residence and one that reflected the part of the world that had produced us. Since I happened to know that a Seattle-based novelist had attended La Muse within the year, bringing with her the works of Garth Stein and Layne Maheu, I opted to dig deeper into my past and tote along VALIS, a largely autobiographical Philip K. Dick novel that happens to contain a scene set at my childhood home, right next to the hutch where my pet rabbits resided.

So if the moppet on the cover at the bottom right looks a trifle familiar, well, there’s a reason for that:

noras-book

Yes, I’m perfectly well aware that this photo is gigantic; I wanted you to notice that glorious volume in the middle. As you may see, my contributions paled in comparison to the absolutely gorgeous hand-made book one of the painters brought, but that’s to be expected, right? (If the book-lovers out there want to see more of Nora Lee McGillivray’s astonishingly beautiful individually crafted volumes, check out her website. It will tell you which museums to visit to see them in person.)

Since I’m currently working on a novel set at my alma mater, Harvard, I also imported (literally; I had to hand-carry it through Customs) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, his paean to Princeton. A fascinating novel, if you’ve never read it, the one that catapulted him to early fame. It’s far less polished than his later work, as first novels so often are; the value of repeated revision is not always apparent to the first-time author.

Which brings me to back to my subject du jour, the writer’s true and false friends, via the small miracle of having discovered in this very library a thin volume of rare nonfiction by Edith Wharton that I had never read before.

The front cover bills THE WRITING OF FICTION as “The Classic Guide to the Art of the Short Story and the Novel,” a contention which, if true, renders it even more surprising that I’d never even heard of it before. However, since the back cover’s incorrectly contends that THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, the novel for which our Edith won the Pulitzer Prize — the first woman to do so, incidentally — was her first, whereas if memory serves, THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY came out a good 7 years before, and the lovely THE HOUSE OF MIRTH 15, perhaps the claim of classicism is exaggeration for marketing purposes, rather than a statement of historical fact.

THE WRITING OF FICTION is very thought-provoking, however; it’s sort of what you would have expected a grande dame of letters to have blogged about the current state of literature in 1924, had blogs existed back then.

Yet quite a lot of what she has to say remains astonishingly applicable to today’s writers. Take, for instance:

The distrust of technique and the fear of being original — both symptoms of a certain lack of creative abundance — are in truth leading to pure anarchy in fiction, and one is almost tempted to say that in certain schools formlessness is now regarded as the first condition of form.

Now, the verbiage might be a bit old-fashioned, but this is a true friend. Not entirely coincidentally, it is also sentiment that agents and editors still express at writers’ conferences all the time. They’re perpetually receiving manuscripts that lack structure, either due either to deliberate authorial choice or a writer’s lack of literary experience.

Apparently structure-less scenes containing dialogue are particularly common. Proponents of slice-of-life fiction — an approach that tends to win great applause in short stories, and thus in writing classes that focus upon short works — will frequently make the mistake of trying to make dialogue in a novel absolutely reflective of how people speak in real life.

Why might that be problematic, you ask? Well, ride a bus or sit in a café sometime and eavesdrop on everyday conversation; it’s generally very dull from a non-participant’s perspective.

More to the point, it’s often deadly on the printed page. Real-life conversation is usually repetitive, cliché-ridden, and frankly, not all that character-revealing. It requires genuine artistry, then, to reproduce it well in manuscript form.

Or, as Aunt Edith might have put it, it takes technique. For some pointers on how to put that technique in action, you might want to check out the DIALOGUE THAT RINGS TRUE and DIALOGUE THE MOVES QUICKLY categories on the archive list at right.

For the moment, I want to return to what Aunt Edith was saying. Because I know that you’re all busy people, I’ll skip her comparison of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (whose WAR AND PEACE, you may be amused to hear, Henry James once called, “a loose baggy monster,” speaking of structure) and move on to the next part that deals with technique:


…the novelist who would create a given group of people or portray special social conditions must be able to identify himself with them; which is a rather long way of saying that an artist must have imagination.

Not so fast there, Edith: this analogy is a false friend. I think you’re conflating empathy with one’s characters with the ability to imagine what it would like to be them, usually related but not identical phenomena. The first involves feeling for one’s characters enough to present them, if not sympathetically, then at least with fairness; the second can be purely a matter of conjecture, without necessarily involving any actual empathy with the characters at all — or, indeed, any information about how such characters in real life might actually feel or think.

Hey, if it’s purely a matter of imagination, why not just project your own feelings and thoughts onto them? Or, to fall back on my earlier example, to a reader who is already steeped in the culture you’re describing, it’s going to make a big difference whether a character within that culture says actuellement when he actually means en fait, right?

Here, imagination could lead a writer into a fairly major mistake. Another common mistake springing from relying too heavily on imagination alone — no, make that two: characters made up out of whole cloth tend to be prone to falling into stereotypes, and if the author doesn’t care about a character enough to empathize with him, why should the reader?

Ponder that last one a moment. I’ll wait.

The stereotyping problem is particularly rampant, and not just in terms of clichés. Think about how villains, or even just plain unlikable characters, tend to be portrayed in fiction — or in memoir and creative nonfiction, for that matter. One sees quite imaginative but essentially unsympathetic approaches to bad guys all the time.

And even to not-so-bad guys. Few writerly attitudes lead so surely to two-dimensional characters as the dismissive assumption that the reader isn’t going to like ‘em, anyway.

As it happens, I have a GREAT example right at my fingertips. Not long ago, a friend from my home town alerted me to the fact that a recent bestselling account of the rise and fall of a Napa Valley wine dynasty contained a rather odd reference to my late father, Norman Mini. Not all that surprising; he was, among other things, quite a well-respected winemaker descended from centuries of winemakers; it would have been rather difficult to write about enology in Northern California without at least passing reference to someone in my family.

Yet when I looked up the actual reference, it was quite apparent that his winemaking acumen had nothing to do with why the author had mentioned him: on the page, he comes across as that paragon of writerly false friends, the straw man who is mentioned only to be knocked down.

Speaking of phrases that wouldn’t translate all that well into other languages.

The funny thing is, enough of the facts in the story she tells are correct that you might actually have had to meet the man (or interview someone who had, as her website claimed she had done in some 500 instances) in order to realize just how far from the truth the book’s account is. How is that possible, you cry? Well, although the bulk of the anecdote about him is more or less as it happened, barring some easily-corrected factual errors (which is why I am not mentioning the book or the author’s name here, in order to allow her time to correct them in the next edition), the purport of the anecdote as folks in my former neck of the woods have habitually told it for the last 30 years showed him in quite a positive light, even a charming one.

As the anecdote is re-told in this book, however, he comes across as a quite sinister character.

I’m sensing some disbelief out there. “Just a moment, Anne,” come the incredulous murmurs. “Again, how is that possible, since the book in question is nonfiction? Isn’t the whole point of objective reporting to avoid this sort of contretemps? Just the facts, ma’am.”

Well, not having written the pages in question myself, I naturally cannot be absolutely sure how an ostensibly true story ended up untrue on the printed page, but my guess would be that the author relied on a false friend or two. A lack of authorial empathy, perhaps, combined with an incomplete set of facts, with the holes filled in by imagination.

What did that look like in practice? Actually, the misrepresentation was quite skillfully done: the author simply opened the anecdote by describing my father as a Napoleonic 5’4″ of bowl haircut aspiring to be taller, thereby establishing him as self-deluded. From there, all it took was some generalities about how his outspokenness rubbed a few people the wrong way to convey the impression of an abrasive, in-your-face lecturer. (Quoth my learned and soft-spoken father: “Never trust someone whom everybody likes. He’s got to be lying to someone.”) The author then went on to bolster the impression of thwarted power selective quotes from another source, something Henry Miller wrote about my father in BIG SUR AND THE ORANGES OF HIERONYMUS BOSCH.

Et violà! After such a set-up, what reader wouldn’t look upon the anecdote that followed with a jaundiced eye?

While I can think of any number of problems with this approach — up to and including the fact that I know from long extended-family experience that once a biographical untruth appears in print, it will be repeated elsewhere; lies are far more durable than truths, evidently — here are the three least contestable:

(1) my father was fully 6 feet tall;

(2) his hair was so curly that he could not possibly have achieved the haircut she described as integral to his character, and

(3) a full reading of even the page from which she had cherry-picked Miller quotes would have demonstrated clearly that the man I knew as Uncle Henry intended the passage she cited to create exactly the opposite impression in his book from what she was trying to convey in hers.

Since Edith Wharton was notoriously careful about checking factual details, I can’t believe that she would have approved, despite her quip above. Since neither my father nor our Edith are, alas, still around to defend their points of view, I naturally tracked down the author’s website and e-mailed her to point out — politely, I thought, given the provocation — that her book contained a few inaccuracies.

Her response was, at best, huffy. Her research for the book had been extensive, she explained to me so it was unlikely that she had made a mistake. In making her case that perhaps I was at fault, she cited by name three people known to me in my early childhood as The Nice Man Who Gave Me a Puppy, Mr. Bob, and That Woman Who Broke Up Mr. Bob’s Marriage as the most likely sources of, say, a misidentified photo, if indeed any misidentification had occurred. Although she was willing to believe that I hadn’t contacted her just to insult her, I really should have checked her book’s 800 notes before even considering contacting her, because any photo would probably (her word) have been cited there.

Yeah, I know — I seriously considered posting her answer in its entirety as the centerpiece about how NOT to respond to a question from a reader, ever. Simply thanking me for my note and telling me that she would look into it would have served precisely the same purpose — getting me off her back, me with my annoying propensity to regard things like height and incidents that occurred within my memory as matters upon which I have a right to express myself — without leaving me with an anecdote that any professional author would have expected me to pass along to at least a couple of other people.

The general rule of thumb for avoiding insulting one’s readers, in case you’re wondering, is that an author should ALWAYS be polite to anyone who approaches her about her book, even if she feels that the yahoo currently in front of her is being rude. Even if the author is in the right, bad word of mouth tends to spread much, much faster than “Gee, I met this author, and she was so nice.”

Human nature, I’m afraid. Just as an untruth in one biography tends to spawn repetitions in the next ten, a rebuffed reader can tell fifty potential book-buyers to stay away from that jerk — or 5,000, if he chooses to share the anecdote online. The rise of the Internet has made bad reputations much, much easier to establish.

In fairness to my rebuffer, I probably should have contacted her publisher directly about the quite easily verifiable factual errors, The extent of her research was something she also boasted about on her website, which should have placed me on guard that she might conceivably be touchy about it: as experienced nonfiction writers tend to assume that thoroughness is the minimum requirement for the job, not an additional selling point, it’s rare for the author of a nonfiction book on a not particularly contentious topic actually to list the number of interviews she conducted. In the bio on her website, no less.

All that being said, it would be easy just to write this situation off as poor research — I suspect what actually happened here is that she mistook someone else for my father in a photograph, and just didn’t bother to double-check. (There I go again, fact-hugging.) But let’s think about the writing strategy involved in producing the questionable impression on the page:

a) An author had a real-life character she wanted to use for a specific purpose in her book. In order to make that character come to life, she uses her imagination. I suspect all of us can identify with that, right?

b) Because that specific purpose was negative, she chose her descriptions (and, in this case, quotes) in order to bolster that effect — again, something most writers do.

c) In a search for telling details that would convey the desired impression — which, lest we forget, was necessarily a product of the writerly imagination, since the author never actually met the man she was describing — and because she was not approaching the character with empathy, she selected bits that conformed to her preconceived notion of the character. Again, this is a fairly standard writing practice.

d) Unfortunately, the research that provided those bits was insufficient, and she ran into trouble.

Obviously, this was an instance that annoyed me, as did her reaction to my pointing out the factual errors in this part of her book. (If I understood her correctly — and her response contained enough spelling and grammatical errors that I’m not sure that I did — she was trying to argue that my recollections of my father’s height were more likely to be mistaken than her research.)

But did you notice the narrative trick I employed in telling you this real-life story — one that I used to comic effect even in the last paragraph?

No? Let me be brutally honest about my writerly motivations: I was writing an anecdote about a person I have some legitimate reason to dislike, so I don’t have a lot of incentive to present her with empathy, do I? So while the facts in the anecdote are all true, my telling of them clearly reflected that dislike — and in order to make you, dear readers, dislike her, too, I used my imagination in order to create motivations for her.

Oh, all of the actions I described did in fact occur. But there is no such thing as a story that creates its own tone or word choices, is there?

Starting to get the picture?

If those of you who write memoir are shaking in your booties, you probably are. The fact is, for all of the blather about the desirability of objective distance from one’s subject, if a writer is trying to create an emotional response in the reader, objectivity is often not possible. Nor, especially in memoir, is it always desirable.

However, an ostensible just-the-facts presentation is sometimes a false friend to the reader — and to the writer as well. Yes, even in fiction: if a writer tries to scare up some empathy for even the characters the reader isn’t supposed to like, the result is usually more complex characters and better character development.

In other words, it’s a better means of creating three-dimensional characters.

Case in point: in the anecdote I told above, the characters were pretty black-and-white — the maligned late father, the unsympathetic writer. Yet had I exercised a bit more empathy toward the latter, I could have told factually the same story, yet conveyed the impression of a more well-rounded — and consequently more interesting, from the reader’s perspective — villain. Lookee:

An old friend pointed out to me that a bestselling book contained some rather odd assertions about my father. I checked, and it was true: the anecdote about him was told unsympathetically, and the physical description was so off-base that she could only have been describing someone else. She specifically said that he was eight inches shorter than he actually had been, for instance, with straight hair fashioned into a haircut that had not been fashionable since ancient Rome.

Puzzled, I contacted her and asked: was it possible that someone had misidentified a photo for her? Would she be open to correcting the factual errors in a future edition?

She responded so quickly that she must have received the message on her Blackberry. She was on a research trip for her next book, she said, and thus could not possibly check her notes to see if I was correct until she got back to her office; if my story did turn out to have merit, she would of course take steps to correct the minor errors in future editions. However, if I had troubled to check through the book’s 800 notes about her 500 interviews — a number that would have represented approximately 20% of my home town’s population at the time, incidentally — the photograph in question was doubtless referenced, so she doubted that she had any errors. She was quite sure, she concluded, that I hadn’t intended to impugn her journalistic credibility by implying that she hadn’t done her homework properly.

I was entirely mistaken about my father’s height, in other words; presumably, she had a source that had said so. Clearly, I owed her an apology for having brought any of it up at all, especially when, as the author of a single book that sold well, she is so important to the literary world that her research trips are times of well-advertised mourning in bookstores everywhere. At the very least, I should have waited until she got back.

Quite a different story, isn’t it? Yet in some ways, she’s a more effective villain in the second version than the first: by allowing some of her good points some page space, she comes across as having more complex motivations. (I also think this version is funnier, because it presents more of her response from her perspective, rather than mine.)

“Philosophy is not insensitivity,” as brilliant novelist, nonfiction writer, and inveterate fact-checker Mme. de Staël tells us. An authorial inability — or outright unwillingness — to empathize with her characters’ points of view does not always equal an admirable objectivity. Sometimes, it’s the result of a failure of imagination, rather than a surfeit of it.

But in order to create well-rounded, plausible characters, whether from scratch out of one’s imagination or lifted from real life, a good writer needs both empathy and imagination.

Okay, so maybe I wanted to tell this particular story — which, as you may be able to tell by how miffed I am about it, just transpired about a week ago — more than I wanted to engage in banter with Edith Wharton. As a writer, that’s certainly my prerogative: I have the power to focus my narrative in the direction that I find the most satisfying. And as a blogger, I also have the power to return to the debate with Edith in a future post. There honestly is a lot to talk about there.

Hey, the lady had some great insights into true and false friends.

Which brings me back to some semblance of my original point — believe it or not, I did have one throughout this long, wide-ranging post. First, it always behooves a writer to read widely, whether in doing manuscript research (cough, cough) or just to see how others have done what you’re trying so hard to do well. If you don’t have access to a thoughtfully-constructed, inspirational library like La Muse’s, start asking writers you respect for recommendations.

Most writers are book-lovers, after all. It’s a question that seldom fails to elicit a smile at a book signing, even from the most retiring author.

Second — and you’ve heard this one from me before — just because someone’s won a Nobel prize in literature (or has 800 notes in her bestseller) doesn’t automatically mean that everything she says in print is true. Use your own judgment, especially about writing advice.

Don’t be afraid to examine a gift horse’s dental hygiene before accepting it as your own, if you catch my drift.

Third, if you’re writing about real people, the false friend of ostensible objectivity is no excuse not to treat them with the empathy with which a good writer habitually approaches her fictional characters. Quadruple-check your facts before committing them to the printed page, and try to present even the characters you don’t like as well-rounded, plausible characters. You may even find that they work better as villains that way.

You also never know whose daughter is likely to blog about you, right?

Keep up the good work!

How to format a book manuscript properly, part X: I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter/and make believe it came from you…

May 6th, 2009

gaudi-door

What? No Fats Waller fans out there?

I would bet a nickel that those of you who have been reading this blog for a year or more have been thinking for the last couple of weeks, My, but Anne revisits the topic of standard format frequently. She must really feel passionate about a properly put-together manuscript! And I hope that the more charitable among you at least considered adding mentally, Although that might not be an altogether common passion, I consistently find Anne’s rather peculiar taste in subject matter interesting/helpful/not very annoying yet.

I am passionate about it — as I am about any skill that helps good aspiring writers get their work the positive attention it deserves. Also, I don’t want any of you to feel that I didn’t prepare you properly for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, a competition for which adherence to standard format is the sina qua non of success.

Not to nag you, but were you aware that the deadline is Monday, May 18 (at midnight wherever you are), and that there are fabulous prizes involved, not to mention undying glory and a semi-permanent place in my good graces? For another gander at the rules (or your first, if you haven’t yet begun to contemplate your entry), please click here.

To be completely honest, though, I have had an ulterior motive for indulging this particular passion over this particular period, the best possible ulterior motive for a writer: to finagle myself some extra time to immerse myself in my current novel.

That’s right, boys and girls: it’s writing retreat time again.

And this time around, it’s somewhere pretty incredible: a tiny, magical artists’ space in a medieval village in the Montaigne Noir of southwestern France. Four writers, two painters, one nice dog, a whole lot of quiet — just what I need to plunge into a flurry of revision. So while you fine folks have been reading in daily installments about the joys of standard format and hearing weekly from guest posters, I have been wending my way up Spain’s Costa Brava on my way to the Langedoc.

I know — even I get jealous when I think about it.

So I’ll be signing off for the next few weeks. Best of luck on your submissions, and I’ll post again when I get back!

May I kid myself that at least a small handful of you believed that for a few consecutive seconds? Enough of you, say, to form an intramural softball league where the Credulous could pitch to the Easily Duped?

No? How about enough to play on a single team? Or to pull off a really good game of chess?

Okay, so my reputation for posting early, often, and long is evidently well-established. Besides, we still have some formatting business on our collective plate, a series on subtle censorship to pursue, and a contest to run here, people.

Not to mention the fact that I have scores of nifty pictures that I’m just dying to post. (That’s a side view of Gaudì’s cathedral door, in case you were wondering.)

I also have a sneaking suspicion that at least enough of you to form a truly sizzling mah johnng tournament are curious enough about how a hardcore, write-your-way-in artists’ retreat works that blogging about it while I’m actually here would be a worthwhile experiment. So in the weeks to come, I shall be talking about how a formal, intensive, artists colony-type retreat works, how to apply for such a thing (fellowships and/or work exchanges are often be available if one knows in advance that they exist), and how one prepares to go into hiding with one’s work, never fear.

Step one, in my case: hit up interesting authors to write guest posts. (We’ve got a lulu coming up on Friday, incidentally, so don’t forget to tune in this weekend to check it out.) Step two: spend a month revising posts on a well-beloved topic so I may post them later, while I’m on the road.

Because, let’s face it, I’m probably not going to be in the mood to think seriously about manuscript formatting just after staring at a street musician in Carcassonne reproduce Me and Bobby McGee phonetically, am I? (Freedom’s just another word for napping in Toulouse, apparently.)

Step three: steal a few spare moments whilst on the road to address some excellent questions from readers that honestly do deserve posts of their own — or, in this case, a shared post written while I was waiting in a train station in Figueres for an car rental clerk whose advertised 30-minute lunch break lasted a good two and a half hours.

So if what follows seems a trifle giddy at times, blame the train fumes and the concept of the siesta.

Instead of fuming, let’s turn our attention to a great formatting question inveterate commenter Dave posted some time back:

While I have your attention, it seems that some time ago you were going to mention something about manuscript format. To be exact, I think you were going to tell us how to format longer passages that a character is voicing or reading, those that in published form are often printed with wider margins, in italics, or even with a different font. As a more concrete example, I’m thinking of a letter the protagonist might receive that is presented to the reader in its entirety. To be direct, do you intend to post anything about that in the near future?

As I told Dave when he first asked this, sometime back in the Paleolithic era before I knew that I would be going on retreat, I did indeed intend to post something on the subject. In fact, I’ve been intending it for quite some time. (Hey, my to-blog list is of epic length — I get scads of provocative questions.) The time will never be riper than now, however, to address this particular question, because we’re already talking about formatting issues.

The short answer is, as it so often is in this game, it depends.

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

Why on earth would it make a difference whether a professor — or someone else who aspired to that level of expertise — wrote the darned thing? Sure that you really want to know?

Okay, you asked for it: because a university press would expect any quotation longer than 3 lines of text to be offset, devoid of quotation marks, and single-spaced, PROVIDED that the quote in question is not longer than a page; quotes less than three full lines long are simply placed within quotation marks. Offsetting, for the benefit of those intrepid readers who did not automatically skip the rest of this paragraph immediately after the words university press, is achieved by skipping a line, then indenting the quoted material five spaces (or half an inch, in Word) on both the left and right margins. After the quote comes another blank line, then the text resumes normally.

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

academic-sample2

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

“That’s all very well and good,” enough of you to get together and raise a barn are probably muttering, “but this doesn’t really address Dave’s question, does it? Or are we to conclude that a letter in a novel manuscript should be treated like a quote one academic lifted from another and stuffed wholesale into her dissertation?

Not exactly — but again, it depends.

If the letter in question is short (or the excerpt being reproduced in the narrative is), there’s no need to treat it as anything BUT a quote:

novel-letter-example1

Perfectly obvious what’s going on here, isn’t it?

Some writers prefer to use italics for short letters (probably because, as Dave pointed out, they’ve seen them used that way in books), but frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it; it implies an ignorance of the fact that the editor, not the author, is ALWAYS the one who makes decisions about how text will appear in a published version. However, since some of you are undoubtedly not going to listen to me on this one, here is how to use italics properly in this context:
novel-letter-example2

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

I had a feeling I would be hearing from you folks: there’s no shortage of writers who feel very strongly that every single syllable of every note passed between characters MUST be reproduced faithfully in the text, as if the reader had never seen a letter before and thus could not even begin to imagine what one might look like. Frankly, it’s seldom actually necessary to a plot to include the parts of a letter that would be hard to squeeze within the strictures of standard format: the letterhead, if any; the date; the salutation; the signature.

But you head-shakers are not convinced by that, are you? And I’m not going to be able to convince you that the 15-page letter starting on pg. 82 might work better simply broken off into its own chapter entitled The Letter, am I?

Okay, here are the two acceptable ways of formatting a letter like a letter in a manuscript — which, not entirely coincidentally, will also work beautifully for letters that go on for pages and pages. First, unsurprisingly, it may be presented like dialogue, within quotes:
novel-letter-example-long

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

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

novel-letter-example-long2

Although this last format does work well for long quotes, I’m not a huge fan for letters. Frankly, I don’t think it’s as distinctive, and there’s always the off chance that a rapidly-skimming reader (like, say, Millicent) might not realize that the salutation is the opening of an offset section.

But it’s really up to you. Do bear in mind, though, that the goal here is not to reproduce the letter exactly as it appeared in the story, or as you would like to see it in the published book — it’s to make it absolutely clear when the text is an excerpt from a letter and when it is not.

Like academic publishers, Millicents don’t like to leave such things open for interpretation. Don’t make her guess where a letter — or any other long quote — begins or ends.

The tardy car clerk did eventually return, you’ll be happy to hear, but she was not able to handle the necessary paperwork to exchange the faulty GPS system. Her supervisor, she said, would be able to handle that when he came back from lunch.

Keep up the good work!

How to format a book manuscript properly, part VI: quotation is not necessarily the sincerest form of flattery

April 29th, 2009

daffodils-and-rose-thorns
For the last week or so I’ve been talking about how to format a manuscript professionally, and I’m beginning to fear that in my eagerness and vim, I may have scared some of you a little. Or a whole lot.

My vehemence is kindly-motivated, I assure you: contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, how a submission is presented can indeed make a very great difference in how it’s received.

Yes, yes, I hear you, those of you who have been running around to writers’ conferences in recent years: you can hardly throw a piece of bread at an agent or editor’s forum without hitting a pro saying, “It all depends upon the writing.” They tend to spout this aphorism for a very good reason — it is in fact true.

But as we discussed last time, that doesn’t mean that the quality of the writing is the ONLY criterion agents, editors, contest judges, or any of the rest of us who read manuscripts for a living use when deciding whether to read beyond the first page of a submission. Professional presentation weighs in, as do marketability, a story’s probability of appealing to its target audience (not exactly the same thing), what happens to be the surprise bestseller of the moment — and yes, that whole slew of intangibles that make up personal taste.

There is, in short, no such thing as a foolproof formula for producing the perfect manuscript for submission.

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

This is most emphatically not the same thing, though, as rejecting such pages on the spot because, say, an aspiring writer underlined a foreign-language word on page 1 instead of italicizing it. (Sacre bleu!)

Much as a reader with impeccable grammar will not necessarily throw down a book that misuses semicolons, most professional readers will not instantly reject an improperly-formatted submission without SOME further provocation. But believe me, the writer in both cases is going to have to work a whole lot harder to impress the reader as literate.

Unfortunately, the prevailing standards for printed books — which, as we have seen, differ in many significant respects from manuscripts — often lead innocent writers astray. Case in point: including a table of contents in a manuscript.

That seems as if it would be helpful, doesn’t it? In fiction, including it would enable an agent to go back and re-read the submission easily; in nonfiction, it would permit an editor to skip ahead to a chapter of particular interest.

And heck, if the manuscript fell upon the floor in the kind of you got chocolate in my peanut butter!/you got peanut butter in my chocolate! we witnessed with horror last week, a well-organized table of contents might render it a trifle easier to reassemble, right?

Wrong: this is a notorious rookie mistake. In a published book, a table of contents, like an index, is a courtesy to bookstore browsers trying to get a feel for the contents and buyers who do not necessarily want to read the entire book. Why, runs the industry’s logic, would an agent or editor be interested in acquiring a book if he doesn’t like it well enough to read it in its entirety?

So really, a table of contents in a manuscript is just a wasted page. Do not include it in a manuscript submission, any more than you would include an index or those boxes around text that magazines are so fond of printing. To professional eyes, it looks unprofessional, especially in fiction.

It’s also an inconvenience — and it’s never a good idea to fritter away the energies of people you want to do you great big favors like offering to represent your book, is it?

Why inconvenient? Well, think about our time-strapped friend Millicent the agency screener for a moment: when she turns over the title page, she expects to find the first page of text there waiting for her, all ready to be judged in a flash. If instead she finds a table of contents, something she would only find helpful if she were to read the entire manuscript, she may well be a trifle miffed. Given that she tends to reject submissions somewhere between paragraph 1 and page 5, the information that Chapter 8 begins on page 112 will most likely strike her as at best gratuitous — and at worst presumptuous.

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

‘Nuff said, I think.

Or maybe not — do I hear some aspiring nonfiction writers clamoring for my attention? “But Anne,” these excellent souls point out, “a book proposal is supposed to include a table of contents for the planned book!”

Ah, I’m glad that you brought this up, because this is a very common misconception amongst first-time proposers, who tend to cram precisely the table of contents they expect to see in their eventually-published books into their proposals. They look a little something like this:

See any problems with this as a marketing document?

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

Spot any other problems?

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

But that’s not the information nonfiction agents and editors want to see in the book proposal. The information they do want to see in the annotated table of contents is a brief description of the CONTENTS of each chapter.

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

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

See the difference? I assure you, Millicent will. From ten paces away.

I don’t feel I may leave this topic without addressing the other EXTREMELY common opening-of-text decoration: epigraphs, those nifty little quotes from other sources that we writers so adore.

Nobody else likes them much, but we writers think they’re great, don’t we? There is something powerfully ritualistic about typing the words of a favorite author at the beginning of our manuscripts; it’s a way that we can not only show that we are literate, but that by writing a book, we are joining some pretty exalted company.

Feeling that way about the little dears, I truly hate to mention this, but here goes: it’s a waste of ink to include them in a submission. 99.9998% of the time, they will not be read at all.

Stop glaring at me that way; it’s not my fault. I don’t stand over Millicent with a riding crop, forcing her to treat each submission with respect (although admittedly, it’s an interesting idea).

It’s true, alas: I’ve literally never met a professional reader who doesn’t just skip epigraphs in a first read — or (brace yourselves, italics-lovers) any other italicized paragraph or two at the very beginning of a manuscript.

They just assume, often not entirely without justification, that if it’s in italics, it doesn’t really have much to do with the story at hand, which (they conclude, not always wrongly) begins with the first line of plain text. And there’s another reason that they tend to skip ‘em: the sad fact is, at the submission stage of the game, no one cares who a writer’s favorite authors are.

The official justification for this — yes, there is one — is quite interesting: even the busiest person at an agency or publishing house picks up a manuscript in order to read ITS author’s writing, not someone else’s.

Kinda hard to fault them for feeling that way, isn’t it, since we all want them to notice the individual brilliance of our respective work?

Sentiment aside, let’s look at what including an epigraph achieves on a practical level. Instead of startling Millicent with your erudition in picking such a great quote, the epigraph will to prompt her to start skimming BEFORE she gets to the first line of your text — AND you will have made her wonder if you realized that manuscript format and book format are not the same.

Good idea? Or the worst marketing idea since New Coke?

If that all that hasn’t convinced you, try this on for size: while individual readers are free to transcribe extracts to their hearts’ contents, the issue of reproducing words published elsewhere is significantly more problematic for a publishing house. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, reproduction of published text without the author’s permission is known in the biz by another, less flattering name: copyright infringement.

If the quote is from a book that is not in the public domain, the publisher will need to obtain explicit permission to use any quote longer than fifty words. Ditto for ANY quote from a song that isn’t in the public domain, even if it is just a line or two.

So effectively, most epigraphs in manuscripts are signposts shouting to an editor: “Here is extra work for you, buddy, if you buy this book! You’re welcome!”

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some epigraph-huggers cry,
“the material I’m quoting at the opening of the book is absolutely vital to include! The book simply isn’t comprehensible without it!”

Okay, if you insist, I’ll run through the right and wrong ways to slip an epigraph into a manuscript — but bear in mind that I can’t promise that even the snazziest presentation will cajole Millicent into doing anything but skipping that quote you love so much. Agreed?

Regardless of while title page format you choose, do not, under any circumstances, include a quote on the title page as an epigraph — which is what submitters are most likely to do, alas. Let’s take a gander at what their title pages tend to look like:

How likely is Millicent to notice the quote at all? Well, this was what she was expecting to see:

Actually, that wasn’t precisely what she expected — did you catch the vital piece of information he left off his title page?

If you said that Eeyore neglected to include the book category on the second example, give yourself a pile of thistles. (Hey, that’s what he would have given you.) My point is, the quote in the first example is going to stand out to Millicent like the nail in a certain critter’s tail.

Other submitters choose to eschew the title page route in order to place an epigraph on the first page of text. The result is immensely cluttered, by anyone’s standards — especially if the submitter has made the very common mistake I mentioned in my discussion of title pages last time, omitting the title page altogether and cramming all of its information onto page 1:

Where did all of our lovely white space from yesterday and the day before go? Into quoting, partially.

The last popular but ill-advised way to include an introductory epigraph is to place it on a page all by itself, as it might appear in a published book:

What’s wrong with this, other than the fact that Poe died before our author wrote Sons and Lovers? Chant it with me now, everyone: A MANUSCRIPT IS NOT SUPPOSED TO RESEMBLE A PUBLISHED BOOK.

At best, Millicent is likely to huffily turn past this page unread. At worst, she’s going to think, “Oh, no, not another writer who doesn’t know how to format a manuscript properly. I’ll bet that when I turn to page one, it’s going to be rife with terrible errors.”

Does either outcome sound desirable to you? I thought not.

So what SHOULD an epigraph-insistent submitter do? Leave it out, of course — weren’t you listening before?

But if it is absolutely artistically necessary to include it, our pal Mssr. Poe actually wasn’t all that far off: all he really did wrong here was include a slug line. The best way to include an introductory epigraph is on an unnumbered page PRIOR to page 1. On that unnumbered page, it should begin 12 lines down and be centered.

But I’m not going to show you an example of that. Why? Because I really, truly don’t think you should be including an epigraph at all at the submission stage.

Just in case I hadn’t made that clear.

That doesn’t mean you should abandon the idea of epigraphs altogether, however. Squirrel all of those marvelous quotes away until after you’ve sold the book to a publisher — then wow your editor with your erudition and taste. “My,” the editor will say, “this writer has spent a whole lot of time scribbling down other authors’ words.”

Or, if you can’t wait that long, land an agent first and wow her with your erudition and taste. But don’t be surprised if she strongly advises you to keep those quotation marks to yourself for the time being.

If you are submitting directly to a publisher, do be aware that most publishing houses now place the responsibility for obtaining the necessary rights squarely upon the author. If you include epigraphs, many editors at these houses will simply assume that you have ALREADY obtained permission to use them. Ditto with self-publishing presses.

This expectation covers, incidentally, quotes from song lyrics, regardless of length.

I’m quite serious about this. If you want to use a lyric from a song that is not yet in the public domain, it is generally the author’s responsibility to get permission to use it — and while for other writing, a quote of less than 50 consecutive words is considered fair use, ANY excerpt from an owned song usually requires specific permission, at least in North America. Contact the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) for assistance in making such requests. (For a very funny first-hand view of just what a nightmare this process can be, please see FAAB Joel Derfner’s guest post on the subject.)

Have I talked you out of including an epigraph yet? I hope so.

Remember, just because you do not include your cherished quotes in your submission does not mean that they cannot be in the book as it is ultimately published. Contrary to what 99% of aspiring writers believe, a manuscript is a DRAFT, not a finished work. In actuality, nothing in a manuscript is unchangeable until the book is actually printed — and folks in the industry make editing requests accordingly.

In other words, you can always negotiate with your editor after the book is sold about including epigraphs. After you have worked out the permissions issue, of course.

There’s nothing like a good practical example to clarify things, is there? More follow next time. Keep up the good work!

The president-elect’s passive protagonist, fair use of other people’s words, and a change in my long-standing strategic advice

November 6th, 2008

Happy the one whom the muses love,
the one from whose lips language flows sweet.

— Hesiod

I thought about you the other night, readers, while I was listening with what I will admit was great pleasure to a certain acceptance speech…

Okay, before I go on, I should stop and say: I am not bringing this up to invite political debate. In the interests of making this site as accessible to as broad a range of writers as possible, I have a general policy of discouraging two types of discourse here at Author! Author! — I remove any language that would not be appropriate for the family hour, if you catch my drift, and I avoid discussion of political beliefs, mine or other people’s. However, I’m going to make an exception today.

Why? Well, the speechwriters made me do it: did you catch the narrative problem in the president-elect’s speech, a classic storytelling no-no, one we have discussed at some length here in the past? Say, in its primary illustrative anecdote?

Yes, decades of editing manuscripts does warp how one hears things. Why do you ask?

I refer, of course, to the anecdote about 106-year-old Georgia voter Ann Nixon Cooper. An inspirational story, undoubtedly, and an apt one for the occasion — which is precisely why it bugged me that it was not presented in a more effective manner. More importantly for our purposes here, its narrative problem is one to which submitted manuscripts are notoriously prey.

So let’s take an instructive walk through the text of the anecdote, shall we? (Word to the wise: ignore the misused semicolons; they’re not the biggest problem here.)

“She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin. And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America…At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot…When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose…When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved…She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.”…A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.”

Did you notice the narrative problem, one that substantially weakened the hearer’s (or, in this case, reader’s) sense of the protagonist? Anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would have. But admittedly, not all of us are blessed with Millicent’s ability to leap to conclusions about protagonists’ characters (big hint) from the word choices in the narratives they inhabit.

To see what this text would look like from a professional reader’s perspective, let’s highlight all of the verbs for which the admirable Ann was the subject:

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin. And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America…At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot…When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose…When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved…She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.”…A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.”

Did you catch it that time? No? Okay, let’s isolate all of those verb phrases — what do they tell you about the protagonist of this story?

She was born
she was a woman
she’s seen
she lived to see
she saw
she was there to witness
She was there
she touched her finger to a screen
she cast her vote
she knows

If you said, “Hey, wait a minute — these verb choices make our Ann seem like an awfully passive protagonist; the verb choices imply that she didn’t actually do anything until she cast her vote this year, as if she were merely an observer of the events of her time, rather than a participant in them,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Any professional reader would have derived this impression, too, simply from the word choices.

Fascinating, isn’t it, how much something as simple as the selection of verbs can affect a reader’s perception of a character? Especially, as in this case, when the verb choices are repetitive, conceptually as well as literally.

I’m going to be honest with you: this particular type of stultifying verb choice is so common in submissions that as an editor, I found myself thinking by the time the president-elect uttered the second passive verb in this anecdote, “Oh, please tell me that the first active thing she does in this story ISN’T going to be voting for him…”

Seriously, I did. Ask anyone who was sharing a room with me at the time.

Passive verb choices don’t only affect the pros’ perception of a protagonist, however. As a reader (okay, originally a hearer), I would have found Ann’s story substantially more engaging had it depicted the protagonist doing more than just sitting around and observing. I would bet a nickel that a more active telling would be more factually accurate, too: wouldn’t you tend to assume that someone who has lived through such exciting times would have done some pretty darned interesting things over the course of 106 years?

That nagging feeling that the narrator is concealing interesting material is precisely why a novel, memoir, or NF piece with passive protagonist tends to grab Millicent and her fellow agency screeners far less readily than a telling of the same story that presents the protagonist as actively engaged in the depicted events.

Gripping protagonists DO, not just observe. Yes, even in NF anecdotes — and no, an exciting story does not necessarily an active protagonist make.

Do I sense some shifting in chairs out there, at least amongst copyright-huggers? “Um, Anne?” I hear some of you pointing out, and rightly. “I appreciate seeing a concrete example of a passive protagonist in action — if that’s not a contradiction in terms — but didn’t you use a pretty hefty chunk of someone else’s writing to illustrate your point? Is that kosher?”

Well caught, chair-shifters: a writer should always exercise caution in quoting the work of others.

I’m not a lawyer, so do run off and consult one who specializes in copyright law if you are a quotation addict, but US-based authors observe some basic rules of thumb that help the inclined-to-excerpt stay out of trouble. It’s generally accepted, for instance, that political speeches are fair game for excerpts — they are, after all, usually read aloud, so one could arguably quote from that, rather than the printed version — but with published writing not yet in the public domain, anything beyond 50 consecutive words pushes the boundaries of fair use.

Beyond that, you will need to request permission from the copyright holder. As in formally, in writing, and often in exchange for payment.

And yes, authors are usually responsible for obtaining copyright permission, not publishers — and these days, the former are almost always the ones who end up paying for the rights, too. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

Oh, and if you wish to use an excerpt of ANY length from a song’s lyrics, you will need to obtain formal permission. (For an interesting and amusing description of just how difficult that can be, please see FAAB Joel Derfner’s guest blog on the subject.)

While we’re talking about copyright protection — aren’t you glad that you brought it up? — this seems like a good time to announce that I have decided to reverse my long-standing position on whether NF writers should register the copyright for their book proposals and sample chapters before submitting them to agents and publishing houses. In the past, I have not pushed it; it seemed like an unnecessary expense added to a promotional process that can be quite expensive for the writer.

I am reversing that position, in light of recent events: I now believe that it is in a US-based NF writer’s best interest to register the copyright for a book proposal, sample chapter, and related promotional materials prior to submission, if s/he can possibly afford it.

Don’t worry, though: the last time I checked, it cost a grand total of $35 if you register your work online. Even if you elect to register via mail, it merely involves filling out a one-page form.

More of you are shifting in your chairs anyway, though, aren’t you? “But Anne,” some long-term Author! Author! readers point out, and who can blame them? “The last time you went over copyright issues — recognizing that you’re a lawyer, of course, but were only expressing opinions based upon your personal experience in the series of posts beginning here — I derived the impression that a writer owns the copyright to his work as soon as he writes it; the registration process is merely the legal confirmation of that fact. Is that not true anymore?”

Well, those of you who are worried about it would do well to consult an attorney well-versed in this area, but as far as I know, copyright does inherently rest with the author. Registration is the best way to enforce that.

For many types of manuscripts, enforcement is virtually never necessary. For novels and other books where the writing, rather than the subject matter per se, is the primary selling point, or for memoirs, where the author is the only person on the planet who can tell that particular story from that perspective, it’s unlikely that authorship would ever be a matter of debate.

NF proposals are a rather different kettle of fish, however: while a proposal’s writer obviously owns her own writing — synopsis, sample chapter, the annotated table of contents that sets out the planned book’s structure, etc. — it would not be technically impossible for another writer to co-opt a topic after a proposal is written. It’s not beyond imagining, for instance, that someone who reads a fabulous book proposal could try to run off with a beautifully fleshed-out concept, passing it off as her own. Or, heaven help us, for an agent to say, “Hey, that’s a great book concept!” and hand it to a better-established author.

If your heart just stopped, shouldn’t you be calling 911, instead of reading on?

I’m not saying that this happens often — thank goodness, it seems to be exceedingly rare, even in these ethics-trying tough economic times — but frankly, the authorial grapevine has been buzzing with some pretty astonishing stories these days. In some of them, I can’t help but notice that writers who were active protagonists, guarding their own interests zealously, seem to be enjoying happier endings than the passive ones who merely sat around observing changing conditions around them.

Again, I’m the last person that anyone should ask for legal advice, of course. I’m just saying that when I hear these stories, I’m very glad that I have been an active protagonist in my NF books’ storylines.

Watch those verb choices, everyone, and keep up the good work!

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