A double-take to reexamine title pages — and a brief detour into why WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW still isn’t a bad idea

Before I launch into the intro to today’s topic — and yes, I’m aware that a preamble to a prologue intended to introduce a re-run post is a tad confusing on the temporal front, especially in a medium as couched in the now as a blog — I can’t resist doing something that I very rarely do here: reviewing a movie. Since presumably you, dear readers, presumably visit this blog (and, I hope, revisit often) to peruse my observations on writing, submission, and the author’s life, I tend to assume, perhaps wrongly, that you’re not necessarily interested in my opinions of, say, every movie I see or play I attend. And even if you did, it’s seldom that I feel compelled to comment on a first-release movie, even if, as in this case, I saw in a film festival a couple of months prior to its release.

Bottle Shock, however, happens to be set in the Napa Valley, where I grew up — to be precise, it’s set about ten miles from the Zinfandel vineyard that surrounded my house. It’s about winemaking, my father’s profession. Heck, it’s largely set in a winery where he used to work, and ostensibly, at least, about people who used to cheer at my 4th-grade softball games.

So I don’t feel entirely unqualified to point out that this may well be the least-accurate story ever made about winemaking, from a technical perspective — including, believe it or not, the episode of Falcon Crest featured winery owners rushing out into the vineyards in $200 designer jeans to pick grapes (which leave permanent stains). Or the howls of laughter at A Walk in the Clouds, where winery owners rushed out into the vineyards to waft warm air onto grapes that were almost ready to pick, exclaiming that the crop would be ruined. (As it might have, if the frost in the film had occurred two seasons before, when the vines were in bud.)

So why, in the face of such robust competition, does Bottle Shock win my vote for worst of all time? Well, let me put it this way: the gaffes in the other stories were merely improbable; characters did things in Bottle Shock that would not only have ruined the wine that (spoiler alert) was destined to make the winery in question famous — they broke laws that would have brought the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms running into the cellar, warrants a-blazing.

Seriously, the filmmakers seemed to be unaware that wine is ever aged in bottles, or that grapes need to ripen before being harvested. Neither, to the best of my knowledge, are state secrets, even in California.

As it that weren’t enough, someone had apparently told most of the actors that the purpose of tasting wine was to have it in one’s mouth for as short a time as humanly possible and never smell it at all — which made the always-excellent Alan Rickman and genuinely talented Freddie Rodriguez, who evidently took the time to learn how the experts they’re playing actually DO taste wine, just look ridiculous. Poor Mssr. Rodriguez (whose casting is, as nearly as I can tell, the film’s sole acknowledgment that most of the actual physical labor involved in winemaking is not done by blonds) is even at one point forced to syphon a bottle’s worth of red wine from a barrel STORED IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT (as opposed to the deep, dark, cool cellars those in the trade favor) directly into an ALREADY-LABELED BOTTLE that already has a capsule on it, carry it about 20 paces away, and pour it into a pair of glasses, as if he had no idea what a cork is for.

And he’s supposed to be the film’s GOOD winemaker. I sincerely hope your next role treats you better, sir.

Actually, I think that novelists who set their books in glamorous-but-unfamiliar settings can learn quite a lot from this movie — and not merely that the old saw write what you know is darned good advice.

Technical gaffes like this are NOTORIOUSLY common in submissions: accountants don’t seem to know much about tax law; policemen parrot the Miranda warnings then proceed to violate them by interrogating suspects who have invoked their rights to remain silent and/or speak to an attorney; senators and presidents don’t even have an eighth-grader’s understanding of how the Constitution defines their offices.

I’m not saying that only working surgeons or nurses should write books set in hospitals, of course. But if you’re writing about a profession with which you are unfamiliar, your manuscript is much, much less likely to provoke bad laughter if you do a spot of research before you write.

People who work in wineries tend to be friendly, you know; they’d probably answer a question or two, if a screenwriter or director asked politely.

Another good rule of thumb, as often violated on the page as on the screen, is to make sure that your characters honor the rules of the profession and environment in which you’ve placed them — especially if you’re going to have a character or the narrative tell the reader what those rules are.

Seriously, storytellers violate this precept all the time. In Bottle Shock — to pick an example out of thin air — the viewer is told frequently (and correctly) that it will harm fine wine to shake it, but that doesn’t seem to stop several of the characters from doing it. In fact, in a scene during which the reliably talented Mssr. Rickman gives an impassioned speech to a crowd of onlookers about the vital importance of handling bottles gently, another character who AGREES with him makes his point while, you guessed it, waving a bottle of wine destined for competitive tasting wildly in the air while he pleads.

I swear that I’m not making that up.

Inconsistencies like this can cost a storyline more than the occasional guffaw from an expert — they can knock the reader out of the story. “Wait just a second,” Millicent is likely to say, hastily flipping back fifteen pages, “didn’t Horatio mention in the last chapter that the building would explode if he did what I’ve just seen him do without consequence on page 45?”

Sounds like another great reason to READ YOUR ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, doesn’t it?

Okay, I think I’ve hammered on the consistency anvil enough for one day. Let’s move on to the topic at hand.

For the last couple of days, I have been showing examples of title pages, as part of my ongoing series on standard format for manuscripts. After I posted yesterdays exemplars, I realized that it had been quite a few months since I had explained the logic behind the professional title page. It seemed, then, like a good time to run through it again.

Don’t worry — this doesn’t mean that I’ve abandoned the What Does Standard Format Look Like, Anyway? series; it will be back a few days hence, I assure you.

In the meantime, enjoy!

I want to spend today talking about the very first thing an agent or editor will see IN your submission: the title page.

Yes, Virginia, EVERY submission needs one, as does every contest entry. Even if you are sending chapters 2-38 after an agent has pronounced herself delighted with chapter 1, you should send a title page with every hunk of writing you submit.

I know, I know: pretty much nobody ASKS you to include one (although contests sometimes include it explicitly in the rules), but a manuscript, even a partial one, that is not topped by one looks undressed to folks in the publishing industry. So much so that it would be completely out of the question for an agent to submit a book to a publishing house without one.

Why? Because, contrary to popular belief amongst writers, it is not just a billboard for your book’s title and your chosen pen name. It’s the only page of the manuscript that contains your contact information, book category, and word count.

In words, it is both the proper place to announce how you may best be reached and a fairly sure indicator of how much experience you have dealing with the publishing industry.

Why the latter? Because aspiring writers so often either omit it entirely or include the wrong information on it. You, however, are going to do it right — and that is going to make your submission look very good by comparison.

You’re welcome.

There is information that should be on the title page, and information that shouldn’t; speaking with my professional editing hat on for a moment, virtually every manuscript I see has a non-standard title page, so it is literally the first thing I, or any editor, will correct in a manuscript.

I find this trend sad, because for every ms. I can correct before they are sent to agents and editors, there must be hundreds of thousands that make similar mistakes. Even sadder, the writers who make mistakes are their title pages are very seldom TOLD what those mistakes are. Their manuscripts are merely rejected on the grounds of unprofessionalism, usually without any comment at all.

I do not consider this fair to aspiring writers — but once again, I do not, alas, run the universe, nor do I make the rules that I report to you. If I set up the industry’s norms, I would decree that every improperly-formatted title page would be greeted with a very kind letter, explaining precisely what was done wrong, saying that it just doesn’t count this time, and inviting the writer to revise and resubmit.

Perhaps, in the worst cases, the letter could be sent along with a coupon for free ice cream. Chances are, the poor writer is going to be shocked to learn that the title page of which he is so proud is incorrectly formatted.

But I digress.

The single most common mistake: a title page that is not in the same font and point size as the rest of the manuscript.

Since the rise of the personal computer and decent, inexpensive home printers, it has become VERY common for writers to use immense type and fancy typefaces for title pages, or even photographs, designs, or other visually appealing whatsits.

From a creative point of view, the tendency is completely understandable: if you have 50 or 100 fonts at your disposal, why not use the prettiest? And while you’re at it, why not use a typeface that’s visible from five feet away?

For one extremely simple reason: professional title pages are noteworthy for only two things, their visual spareness and the consequent ease of finding information upon them.

It’s rare, in fact, that any major US agency would allow its clients to send out a title page in anything BUT 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier for a submission, since these are the standards for the industry.

Why these fonts? The logic is complicated here, but in essence, it boils down to an affection for the bygone days of the typewriter: Times is the equivalent of the old elite typeface; Courier is pica. (I know, I know: there are other explanations floating around the Internet, but as this is what people in the industry have actually said when asked about it for the last 25 years, I’m going to continue to report it here.)

More to the point, agents and editors are used to estimating word counts as 250 words/page for the Times family and 200/page for the Courier family. When a submitting writer uses other fonts, it throws off calculations considerably.

Mind you, in almost every instance, an actual word count will reveal that these estimates are woefully inaccurate, sometimes resulting in discrepancies of tens of thousands of words over the course of a manuscript. But if you check the stated word counts of published books from the major houses, you’ll almost always find that the publisher has relied upon the estimated word count, not the actual.

Unless an agency or publishing house SPECIFICALLY states a preference for actual word count, then, you’re usually better off sticking to estimation. Trust me, everyone concerned is already aware that the estimates are a reflection of length on the page, rather than the total you would have reached had you been making a hash mark every time you typed a word.

I wish that this were more often made clear at literary conferences; it would save masses of writerly chagrin. When an agent or editor at conference makes everyone in the room groan by announcing that she would have a hard time selling a novel longer than 100,000 words, she is generally referring not to a book precisely 100,012 words long, but a 400-page manuscript.

Is that hoopla I hear out there the rejoicing of those of you who tend to run a mite long? Or perhaps those who just realized that unless an edit cuts or adds an entire page to the manuscript, it isn’t going to affect the estimated word count? These are not insignificant benefits for following industry norms, are they?

So let’s take it as given that your title page should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. All of it, even the title. No exceptions — and no pictures, designs, or other bits of whimsy. You may place the title in boldface, if you like, or in all capitals, but that’s as elaborate as it is safe to get.

DEFINITELY do not make the title larger than the rest of the text. It may look cool to you, but to professional eyes — I hate to tell you this, but better you find out from me — it looks rather like a child’s picture book.

Do I hear disgruntled voices out there? “Oh, come on,” I hear some of you saying, “the FONT matters that much? What about the content of the book? What about my platform? What about my brilliant writing? Surely, the typeface choice pales in comparison to these crucial elements?”

You’re right, of course — it does, PROVIDED you can get an agent or editor to sit down and read your entire submission.

Which happens far less often than aspiring writers tend to think. Ask any agent — it’s not at all uncommon for a submission to be rejected on page 1. So isn’t it better if the submission hasn’t already struck the screener as unprofessional prior to page 1?

Unfortunately, this is a business of snap decisions, especially in the early stages of the road to publication, where impressions are often formed, well, within seconds. If the cosmetic elements of your manuscript imply a lack of knowledge of industry norms, your manuscript is entering its first professional once-over with one strike against it.

It seem be silly — in fact, I would go so far as to say that it IS silly — but it’s true, nevertheless.

Even queries in the proper typefaces tend to be better received. If you are feeling adventurous, go ahead and experiment, sending out one set of queries in Times New Roman and one in Helvetica, and see which gets a better response.

As any agency screener will tell you after you have bought him a few drinks (hey, I try to leave no stone left unturned in my quest to find out what these people want to see in submissions, so I may pass it along to you), the Times New Roman queries are more likely to strike agents (and agents’ assistants, once they sober up again) as coming from a well-prepared writer, one who will not need to be walked through every nuance of the publication process to come.

Yes, I know — it seems shallow. But think of conforming to title page requirements in the same light as following a restaurant’s dress code. No one, not even the snottiest maitre d’, seriously believes that forcing a leather-clad punk to don a dinner jacket or a tie will fundamentally alter the disposition of the wearer for the duration of the meal. But it does guarantee a certain visual predictability to the dining room, at least insofar as one overlooks facial piercings, tattoos, and other non-sartorial statements of individuality.

And, frankly, setting such standards gives the maitre d’ an easy excuse to refuse entry on an impartial basis, rather than by such mushy standards as his gut instinct that the lady in the polyester pantsuit may be consorting with demons in her off time. Much less confrontational to ask her to put on a skirt or leave.

Sending your submission into an agency or publishing house properly dressed minimizes the chances of a similar knee-jerk negative reaction. It’s not common that a submission is rejected on its title page alone (although I have heard of its happening), but an unprofessional title page — or none at all — does automatically lower expectations.

Or, to put it another way, Millicent the screener is going to be watching the guy with the tie a whole lot less critically than the guy with the studded leather dog collar and 27 visible piercings, and is far less likely to dun the former for using the wrong fork for his salad.

Tomorrow, I am going to go over the two most common formats for a professional title page — and, if my newly-learned computer trick works, give you some concrete examples. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

What does standard format look like, anyway? Part II, or, ’tis a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before

Hello, campers —

Still coughing up a storm on my end, so I’m going to keep today’s intro short, if not precisely sweet: here, for your comparing pleasure, are examples of properly-formatted title and first pages of manuscripts. Please take a good, hard look at ‘em, so you may gain a sense of just how obvious the differences are to Millicent (of whom more follows below) and her submission-scanning cronies.

Why am I showing both, rather than merely positive examples? Because until a writer has seen many, many professionally-formatted book manuscripts, he may not grasp how something as small and seemingly insignificant as a font choice might make a HUGE cosmetic difference. What may seem like a miniscule deviation from standard format to you honestly will leap off the page at Millicent.

Allow me to repeat that, because it’s important: because professional book manuscripts all look the same way, Millicent is not going to have to strain at all to pick up on ways in which the submission in front of her differs. She can spot formatting problems from several paces away.

Don’t believe me? Read on.

Yesterday, I began a compare-and-contrast exercise, showing common examples of the first pages of submissions and fine-tuning your binoculars so you might see how our old friend Millicent the Agency Screener might view them. As I sincerely hope those of you who read the post can attest, it was pretty obvious that the professionally-formatted title page won the beauty contest hands-down.

Yet after I posted it late last night, I heard wee pixie voices bearding me. “But Anne,” I heard these winsome creatures pipe, “aren’t you assuming that Millicent’s pretty shallow? Whenever I’ve heard agents and editors asked at conferences or on their websites about whether cosmetic issues can get a manuscript rejected, they always disclaim the notion with scorn. Isn’t it the writing that matters, ultimately?”

Well, yes and no, querying sprites. Naturally, the writing matters MOST — but it is not, as many aspiring writers assume, the ONLY issue in how a professional reader will perceive the polish of a manuscript.

It is, however, generally the one that colors a first reading most. Although one does hear of cases where a kind, literature-loving agent has looked past bizarre formatting in order to see a potential client’s, well, potential, one also hears of isolated cases where a manuscript rife with spelling and grammatical errors gets picked up, or one that has relatively little chance of selling well in the current market. The age of miracles has not entirely passed.

But — and this is a BIG but — these cases are talked about because they are exceptions, and rare ones at that. 999 times out of 1000, any of these problems will result in, if not instantaneous rejection, then rejection upon Millicent’s lighting upon the next manuscript problem.

So why don’t aspiring writers hear that more often at conferences?

I suspect that’s not just because a sane, sensible individual with a reputation to protect is unlikely to stand up in front of 500 eager potential submitters and say, “Look, if you’re planning to submit a grimy photocopy of your book, or insist upon presenting it in 10-point type, or not indenting your paragraphs, just don’t bother to query me.” Instantly, 500 pens would scrawl on 500 programs, DO NOT QUERY THIS ONE; SHE’S MEAN.

Which would rather defeat the agent’s purpose in coming to the conference to recruit new clients, wouldn’t it?

There’s another reason that they tend be careful: an agent or editor doesn’t have to speak at many conferences (or blog for very long) before recognizing that anything they about submissions is likely to be repeated with the éclat of a proverb for years to come amongst the writing community. I’ve heard offhand comments made from the dais, or even jokes, being debated for hours in conference hallways, and some of Miss Snark’s pronouncements have been more commented upon than St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

Okay, so that last is a slight exaggeration. My point is, such speakers are in extreme danger of having everything they say quoted back to them as an inflexible rule.

Which is why, I have to say, I don’t feel too many qualms about presenting the rules of standard format as inflexible rules. We are talking, after all, about an industry that both values creativity and considers submitting a book proposal in anything but a black folder dangerously radical.

Presentation issues definitely do matter — which is, again, not to say that the quality of the writing doesn’t. But — and this is a BIG but — rejection decisions are often made on page 1 of a manuscript. Sometimes even within the course of the first paragraph. If the manuscript is hard to read, due to a funky typeface or odd spacing or just plain poor print quality, it may not be read at all.

While these facts are indisputable, the person who announced them this baldly from the dais at a literary conference would be covered head to foot with flung tomatoes in twenty seconds flat.

Again, to the eye of someone who reads manuscripts for a living, professional formatting is simply the least distracting way a book can possibly be presented. Perversely, adhering to the industry’s cosmetic expectations renders it MORE likely that an agent or editor will concentrate upon the beauty of the writing, not less.

So instead of thinking of the rigors of standard format as a series of unimportant (or even silly) superficial choices, try regarding them as translating your calling card, a means of catching Millicent’s tired eye and informing her that this is a manuscript that should be taken seriously.

Because she can’t fall in love with your good writing until she reads it, can she?

Last time, I showed how the first page of text does not, from a professional perspective, make an adequate substitute for a title page. Instead of being a replica of a hoped-for book cover, as many submitters produce, or a shouted-out declaration of the book’s title and who wrote it, the properly-formatted title page is a quiet, practical piece of paper, containing a specific set of marketing information. It should look, in case you missed it, like this:

Like everything else in the manuscript, the title page should be entirely in 12-point type, unless an agent or contest SPECIFICALLY requests otherwise. I’m quite serious about this. No matter how cool your title page looks with 24-point type, resist the urge, because Millicent will be able to tell from across the room if you didn’t:

Take a look at the first example again, then the second. Notice any other dissimilarities?

If you said that Mssr. Smith’s title page included both a slug line (the author’s name and title in the upper right margin of the page) and a page number in the bottom right corner, give yourself a gold star for the day. Add whipped cream and walnut clusters if you mentally added the reason that those additions are incorrect: because the title page is not the first page of text. Technically, it should not be numbered.

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

On both the title page and elsewhere, I would highly recommend using either Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces, both here and in the manuscript as well, as these are the standards of the industry.

I know, I know: another cosmetic weirdness. But like some of the other strictures of standard format, there’s a pretty good reason for this one: word count estimation is predicated upon these typefaces. The Times family is estimated at 250 words/page; Courier at 200. So a 400-page manuscript in Times New Roman is assumed to be roughly 100,000 words. (To make the math clear, 400 x 250 = 100,000; for further explanation, please see the WORD COUNT category on this list at right.)

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

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

That’s quite a bit longer than editors tend to expect first novels in most genres to be. In other words, next!

“But Anne,” I hear you cry, “why is Millicent estimating at all? If she wants to know how long it is, why doesn’t she just flip to the last page and check the page number?”

I could give you a long song and dance about how much her wrists hurt from opening all those query envelopes all day, or how her secret midnight e-mail orgies have rendered pinching a torture, but in practice, the answer is far less personal: because the industry doesn’t work that way.

Also, how exactly could she manage to turn to page 400 of a manuscript, when her boss requested that the writer send only the first 50?

Let’s turn to the first page of the submission, to see how much of a difference font and typeface make at first glance. Here’s a correctly-formatted page 1 in Times New Roman:

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

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

Got both of those firmly imbedded in your brainpan? Good. Now format your first pages that way for the rest of your natural life.

Well, my work here is obviously done.

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

Interesting how just a few small formatting changes can alter the presentation, isn’t it? It’s exactly the same WRITING — but it just doesn’t look as professional.

To Millicent, who reads hundreds of pages per day, the differences between the three could not be clearer.

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

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

Yup. Don’t tempt her to draw the wrong conclusion.

Of course, there is the occasional exception — if you answered that it all depends upon whether Millicent reading it before Dickens is a household name or after, give yourself a gold star for the day. Unless you happen to be famous, I wouldn’t advise taking the risk.

And that, my friends, is why you should pay attention to the little details. The longer you remain in the business, the more those little things will strike you as just, well, matters of right and wrong. As, fortunately or not, they do Millicent and her ilk.

More show-and-tell follows tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

So what does standard format look like, anyway?

Hello, campers –

Has everyone recovered from this weekend’s inoculation of professional formatting? It may have left a bit of a sore place, but much better a quick sting than engendering years of rejection without knowing why, I always say. Once you’ve gotten exposed to the correct way to format a book manuscript, chances are that you’ll be immune to formatting problems in the future.

In fact, once you get used to how a professional manuscript looks, any other formatting is going to look downright strange to you.

Stop laughing — I’m quite serious about this. And to prove it to you, I’m going to spend the next few days re-running a series of posts designed to let you see precisely HOW different standard format appears to the pros.

The usual caveats: if the agent of your dreams (or the agent with whom you are currently signed, if they don’t happen to be the same person) has expressed a strong preference for his clients formatting in a manner opposed to what you see here, run with that — but only for submission to that particular agent. Yes, deviations from this format are uncommon, but you’re not going to get anywhere telling an established agent that no one else’s clients are using 18-point Copperplate Gothic Bold, I assure you, and part of working with an agent entails trusting that he knows more about marketing books than you do.

If he doesn’t, you wouldn’t WANT to be working with him, right?

And before my last statement sends anyone out there into that time-honored I’ve-just-signed-but-what-if-I-chose-the-wrong-one? panic, remember this: if you’ve done your homework before you signed, and thus are certain that he has a solid recent track record selling books in your category, you have every reason to have faith in your representative.

The other caveat — and it’s a big one — is that the format I am showing here is for BOOK manuscripts, not articles or short stories. All too often, advice-givers to aspiring writers will conflate the format for one with the other, resulting in a first page that will look incorrect to either. (Although, generally speaking, such guidelines tend to stick closer to the short story format than to the book.)

Let’s hear it for visual aids! Enjoy!

As you may have noticed, I’ve been quiet for the last few days, having recently returned from giving a completely different talk: a species of my favorite class to teach to writers, a blow-by-blow on how VERY different a professional manuscript looks from, well, any other stack of paper an agent or editor might receive in the mail. I love teaching it.

Admittedly, it’s a trifle depressing to watch the inevitable cloud of gloom descend upon my students as they begin to realize just how many small mistakes there are that can result in a manuscript’s getting rejected — but it’s a pure joy to watch those brows unfurrow and those shoulders unclench as their owners learn that there is something they can DO about improving their books’ chances of success.

Over the next few days, I am going to attempt a similar trick at a distance and, like the Flying Wallendas, without a safety net. Drum roll, please: in the spirit of that old chestnut, SHOW, DON’T TELL, I shall demonstrate just how different a manuscript that follows the rules looks from one that doesn’t.

Hold on tight.

Writers often overlook odd formatting as a reason that a manuscript might have been rejected. Certainly, other reasons get a lot more airplay, particularly at writers’ conferences. If you want to take a long, hard look at some of the better-discussed reasons, I would urge you to gird your loins and plunge into the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE category at right. For those of you who missed it, last autumn, I went over list of instant-response rejection reasons given by a group of agents going over a stack of actual submissions at a conference, one by painful one.

Yet surprisingly little conference time seems to be devoted to the most common mistakes of them all, deviations from standard format for manuscripts.

Not to be confused with what is correct for published books.

In answer to all of the cries of “Huh?” that elicited from readers new to this site, a professional manuscript SHOULD differ from the published version of the same book in a number of subtle but important ways. All too few aspiring writers realize this, a fact that is unfortunately quite obvious to an agent, editor, contest judge, etc., from practically the moment their eyes light upon a submission.

Why is it so very apparent? Because much of the time, writers new to the business clearly go out of their way to format their submissions to resemble published books, in the mistaken belief that this will make their work seem more professional.

The opposite is generally true — and often, it’s apparent in a professional reader’s first glance at the first page of a submission.

(If the implications of that last assertion made you dizzy — if, for instance, you found yourself picturing our old pal Millicent the agency screener pulling a submitted manuscript out of its envelope, casting a critical eye over the first page, hooting, and stuffing the whole thing into the handy SASE — try placing your head between your knees and breathing deeply. I’ll wait until you recover.)

And then follow up with a hard truth: the VAST majority of submissions are rejected not only on page 1, but within the first few lines of page 1. Clearly, Millicent arrives at her conclusions rather quickly.

How can she? Because, unfortunately, aspiring writers so often render rejection very, very easy by submitting manuscripts that simply scream out, “Here’s someone who would benefit from a better knowledge of how publishing works.”

The most common initial signal is the absence of any title page whatsoever. Many submitters, for reasons best known to themselves, omit the title page altogether — often, I suspect, because they are unaware that a professional book-length manuscript ALWAYS has a title page.

For one very, very simple reason: a properly-formatted title page tells an agent PRECISELY how to contact the brilliant author who wrote it — and tells an editor PRECISELY how to contact the agent who represents her. But of that, more below.

To set your minds at ease, forgetting to include a title page almost certainly won’t prevent Millicent from reading your submission at all; she tends to read even the most bizarrely-formatted submissions for at least a line or two. But that initial impression of an author’s lack of professionalism — or, to call it by a kinder name, of having a lot to learn about how the publishing industry works — does often translate into a rather jaundiced reading eye for what comes next.

Why? Well, let’s take a peek through her reading glasses, shall we? The first thing Millicent sees when she opens the average requested materials package is something like this:

Or like this:

Or, heaven help us, like this:

So tell me: why might Millicent take one look at these and conclude that their respective submitters could use a good class on manuscript formatting?

I see all of you long-term blog readers out there with your hands in the air, jumping up and down, eager to tell everyone what’s wrong with this as a first page of text — and you’re absolutely right, of course. We’re going to be talking about precisely those points in the days to come.

For now, however, I want you to concentrate upon how this example has failed as both a title page and a first page of text: by not including the information that Millicent would expect to see on either.

What makes me so sure she would find this discovery, at best, disappointing? Because what she (or her boss agent, or an editor, or a contest judge) would have expected to see on top of that pile of paper was this:

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

Again, submitting the first example rather than the second would not necessarily be instantly and automatically fatal to a manuscript’s chances, of course. Most of the time, Millicent will go ahead and plunge into that first paragraph of text anyway.

However, human nature and her blistering reading schedule being what they are (for those of you new to this screener’s always-rushed ways, she has a stack of manuscripts up to her chin to screen — and that’s at the end of a long day of screening queries; manuscript submission is in addition to that), if she has already decided that a submission is flawed, just how charitable an eye do you think she is likely to cast upon the NEXT problem on the page?

Uh-huh. To use her favorite word: next!

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

And no agent in his right mind would send out a manuscript that didn’t include a standard title page. It serves a number of important — nay, vital — marketing functions.

Let’s take another look at the professional version, shall we? So you don’t have to keep scrolling up and down the page, here it is again:

How is this sheet of paper a better piece of marketing material than Faux Pas or Ridiculous’ first page?

Well, right off the bat, it tells a prospective agent or editor what kind of book it is, as well as its approximate length. (If you do not know how to estimate the number of words in a manuscript, or why you should use an estimate rather than relying upon your word processor’s count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) Both of these are pieces of information that will tell Millicent instantly whether the submission in her hand would meet the requirements of the editors to whom her agency tends to sell.

For instance, if her boss had decided not to represent Action/Adventure anymore, or if editors at the major houses had started saying that they were only interested in seeing Action/Adventure books longer than 90,000 words, Rightly Stepped would be out of luck.

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

The standard title page also tells Millicent precisely how to contact the author to offer representation — and that’s a very, very good thing for everyone concerned. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: it’s ALWAYS in an aspiring writer’s interest to make it easy for an agent to help her.

I might be wrong, of course, but I suspect that NOT forcing Millicent to forage through the mountain of paper on her desk to find a misplaced cover letter with your phone number on it MIGHT be a good start.

By contrast, Faux Pas’ first page doesn’t really do anything but announce the title of the book and leap right into the story. That’s one underachieving piece of paper.

Some writers attempt to consolidate the proper functions of the title page and first page of text into a single sheet of paper. This format is particularly common for contest entries, for some reason. Let’s take another look at Ridiculous and Faux Pas’ submissions:

While such a top page does indeed include the requisite information Millicent or her boss would need to contact the author (although Faux Pas’ does it better, by including more means of contact), cramming it onto the first page of text doesn’t really achieve anything but saving a piece of paper. It doesn’t even shorten the manuscript or contest entry, technically speaking: the title page is never included in a page count; that’s why pagination begins on the first page of text.

I shall go into what DOES belong on the first page of text tomorrow, with accompanying visual aids. For today, let’s keep it simple: all I ask is that you would look at the proper title and the unprofessional examples side by side.

Got all of those images firmly in your mind? Good. Now weigh the probability that someone who reads as many manuscripts per day as Millicent — or her boss, or the editor to whom her boss likes to sell books — would NOT notice a fairly substantial difference in the presentation. Assess the probability of that perception’s coloring any subsequent reading of the manuscript in question.

Kind of obvious, once you know the difference, isn’t it?

Before I sign off for today, and while you’ve got R.Q. Snafu’ sexample still in the front of your mind, let me briefly address the still surprisingly common writerly belief that the industry will automatically take a submission by a woman more seriously if the author submits it under her initials, rather than under her given first name. J.K. Rowling aside, this just isn’t true, at least in fiction circles.

So unless you have always hated your parents for christening you Susan, you won’t really gain anything professionally by using initials in your nom de plume instead. And even if you did, why not publish under a name you actually like instead?

That’ll show your Susan-loving parents.

I just ruffled a few feathers out there, didn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear an initialed purist exclaim, “I don’t want to be judged as a FEMALE writer — I want to be judged as a WRITER. What’s wrong with removing gender markers altogether?”

Well, there’s nothing wrong with it per se, Susan, except that these days, it almost invariably results in Millicent’s seeing such initials and thinking, “Oh, this is a female writer who doesn’t want to be identified as one,” rather than “Gee, I wonder who this mystery person without a first name is. I’m just going to leap right into this manuscript with no gender-based expectations at all.”

Why will Millie have this reaction, you ask? Because female writers — and only female writers — have been submitting this way for a couple of hundred years now. It’s not all that hard a code to crack.

Also, it’s logic that historically, male authors have virtually never used — except, of course, that hugely prolific and apparently immortal author, Anonymous. Even during periods when the most popular and respected novelists have been women (and there have been quite a few in the history of English prose, contrary to what your high school English textbook probably implied), when someone named Stanley Smith wrote a novel, the title page has generally said so.

Because, you see, even back then, readers would have assumed S. Smith the novelist was a nice lady named Susan.

Something else for initial-favoring fiction writers to consider: in North America, women buy the overwhelming majority of novels — and not just women’s fiction, either. Literary fiction readers (and agents, and editors) tend to have two X chromosomes — and some of them have been known to prefer reading books by Susans rather than Roberts. I just mention.

All that being said, the choice to initial or not is entirely up to you — or, more accurately, to you and your agent. Some sets of initials look cool in print, just as some names look better than others on book jackets. Or so claimed my father, the intrepid fellow who demanded that the maternity ward nurse convey him to a typewriter to see how my name looked in print before committing to filling out my birth certificate. (And yes, for those of you who have wondered Anne Mini IS in fact my given name; it just happens to look great in print, thanks to a little forethought.)

Keep up the good work!

Standard format, part III: RIP, Aleksandr Isaevich.

Hello, campers –

Yes, I’m still dictating my posts — or, to be precise, my commentaries on my posts — and my poor, loyal volunteer typist du jour has been listening to me complain about the press coverage of Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s recent death. My primary criticism: if you weren’t already familiar with his work, I don’t think most of the obituaries out there would give you much incentive to start reading him. Which honestly is a shame; he was an intriguing writer.

Think I’m over-reacting? Okay, here’s a test: read, watch, or listen to any of the standard obits out today, and tell me if they give you enough information to answer the truly basic question Did this man write fiction or nonfiction?

Actually, this issue has dogged his work since THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO first came out: it’s a novel, clearly billed as such, yet reviewers, readers, and even academic Sovietologists have a fascinating tendency to respond to the book as if it were a memoir.

Fascinating, considering how much ACTUAL nonfiction he published on the subject.

Think I’m over-reacting again? Check out all of those obituaries that simply describe this truly remarkable book as the story of Solzhenitsyn’s struggle to stay alive during his eight years in a prison camp. Which it is based upon, of course — but if memory serves, a heck of a lot of the novel follows other characters, often on the other side of a rather large country.

So how are we to account for all of those academic articles and books that cite THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO as the NONFICTION source of, say, private conversations between Stalin and his cronies, chats that historically took place (if they took place) when the author was by all accounts firmly locked up over a thousand miles away?

As both a memoirist and a novelist, it fascinates me how frequently readers seem to want to believe that books written as fiction are in fact true stories and books written as memoir are false — a desire that historically dates back practically to the advent of the novel as an art form. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, for instance, was ROUTINELY asked after the publication of FRANKENSTEIN whether her late husband and Lord Byron REALLY raised a corpse from the dead, and one has only to look at the current hyper-critical memoir market to see the great suspicion with which real-life accounts are treated in the post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES world.

How much of Solzhenitsyn’s novels were autobiographical? Only he can answer that, of course, and now, he’s probably past caring much about his press. But now that we can’t ask him directly, shouldn’t we respect the labels that he placed upon his own work, rather than simply overruling him now that he’s not around to defend his choices?

Enough social criticism. Back to practicalities.

I’ve been revisiting the strictures of standard format for manuscripts, and like many visits from old cronies from childhood, it’s been going on BIT too long. Oh, yes, I said childhood: picture me as a ten-year-old, saying, “But WHY do I have to type my book report when no one else does? And who cares if the margins are precisely 1-inch?” Or as a junior high schooler, shaking my head over a short story upon which my teacher had simply written “Good!” but whose margins were now filled with professional advice from kith and kin how to render it publishable in The New Yorker.

Years of therapy, of course, but I do I ever know how to format a manuscript!

Because I love you people, I’m not going to share just how young I was when my father started urging me to read THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO. Years of therapy, indeed.

After a while, the impulse to conform to the rules of standard format becomes second nature, you’ll be happy to hear, a learned instinct quite useful once one begins writing on deadline. To a writer for whom proper formatting has become second nature, there is no last-minute scramble to change the text. It came into the world correct – which, in turn, saves time.

Believe me, there will be times in your career when you don’t have the time to proofread as closely as you would like, when that half an hour it would take to reformat is the difference between making and missing your deadline. The more successful you are as a writer – ANY kind of writer — the more often you will be in a hurry, generally speaking. No one has more last-minute deadlines than a writer with a book contract.

The down side, though, is that once people — like, say, the average agent, editor, or Millicent — have spent enough time staring at professionally-formatted manuscripts, anything else starts to look, well, unprofessional. From that view, it’s a short hop to the industry’s pervasive belief that heck, every writer knows that printed books and manuscripts are supposed to look different.

Although how an aspiring writer who reads a lot but has never seen a professional manuscript is supposed to find that out, I do not know.

So back to the rules. To recap from the last two days:

(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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone clear on all that? Good. Let’s move on.

(12) The beginning of EVERY paragraph should be indented five spaces. No exceptions, EVER.

To put it another way: NOTHING you send to anyone in the industry should EVER be in block-style business format. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if you have been submitting manuscripts with block-formatted paragraphs, they probably have been being rejected unread.

I know: maddening. I also know that I mentioned this in passing a couple of days ago, so I suspect that you’re not entirely shocked by this development. Here’s a bit more explanation of this odd phenomenon.

To publishing types, any document with no indentations, skipping a line between paragraphs, and the whole shebang left-justified carries the stigma of (ugh) business correspondence — and that’s definitely not good. Despite the fact that everyone from CEOs to the proverbial little old lady from Pasadena have been known to use block format from time to time(and blogs are set up to use nothing else), technically, non-indented paragraphs are not proper for English prose.

Do you really want the person you’re trying to impress with your literary genius to wonder about your literacy? I thought not.

And which do you think is going to strike format-minded industry professionals as more literate, a query letter in business format or one in correspondence format (indented paragraphs, date and signature halfway across the page, no skipped line between paragraphs)?

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

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

Including the first paragraph of every chapter. Yes, published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. But again, that lack of indentation was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying it in a submission, no matter to whom it is intended as an homage, might get your work knocked out of consideration.

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

The ONLY exception: you may skip an extra line to indicate a section break in the text. The * * * section break is more or less obsolete; no one will fault you for using it, but still, it’s no longer necessary in a submission to an agency or publishing house. (But do check contest rules carefully, because many competitions still require them.)

Really, this rule is just common sense — so it’s a continual surprise to professional readers how often we see manuscripts that are single-spaced with a line skipped between paragraphs (much like blog format, seen here).

Why surprising? Well, since the entire manuscript should be double-spaced with indented paragraphs, there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break. (Which is, in case you were not aware of it, what a skipped line between paragraph means in a single-spaced or non-indented document.) In a double-spaced document, a skipped line means a section break, period.

Also — and this is far from insignificant, from a professional reader’s point of view — it’s COMPLETELY impossible to edit a single-spaced document, either in hard copy or on screen. The eye skips between lines too easily, and in hard copy, there’s nowhere to scrawl comments like Mr. Dickens, was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could hardly have been both!

So why do aspiring writers so often blithely send off manuscripts with skipped lines, single-spaced or otherwise? My guess would be for one of two reasons: either they think business format is proper English formatting (which it isn’t) or they’re used to seeing skipped lines in print. Magazine articles, mostly.

But — feel free to shout it along with me now; you know the words — A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD NOT RESEMBLE A PUBLISHED PIECE OF WRITING.

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

Fair warning: if you consult an old style manual (or a website that is relying upon an old style manual), you may be urged to underline these words. And just so you know, anyone who follows AP style will tell you to underline these. DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE TEMPTERS: AP style is for journalism, not book publishing. They are different fields, and have different standards.

Again, DO NOT BE TEMPTED. In a submission for the book industry, NOTHING should be underlined.

Professional readers are AMAZED at how often otherwise perfectly-formatted manuscripts get this backwards — seriously, we’ve been known to sit around and talk about it at the bar that’s never more than 100 years from any writers’ conference in North America. An aspiring writer would have to be consulting a very, very outdated list of formatting restrictions to believe that underlining is ever acceptable.

At this point in submission history, it just isn’t for book submissions. Since your future agent is going to make you change all of that underlining to italics anyway, you might as well get out of the habit of underlining now.

Italics are one of the few concessions manuscript format has made to the computer age – again, for practical reasons: underlining uses more ink than italics in the book production process. Thus, italics are cheaper.

The logic behind italicizing foreign words is very straightforward: you don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

Some authors like to use italics to indicate thought, and others for emphasis. There is no hard-and-fast rule on this, but do be aware that many agents and editors dislike this practice. (Their logic: a good writer should be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type.)

However, there are many other agents and editors who think it is perfectly fine – but you are unlikely to learn which is which until after you have sent in your manuscript, alas. You submit your work, you take your chances.

There is no fail-safe for this choice. Sorry.

(15) All numbers (except for dates) under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25. But numbers over 100 should be written as numbers: 1,243, not one thousand, two hundred and forty-three.

I’m surprised how often otherwise industry-savvy writers are unaware of this one, but the instinct to correct it in a submission is universal in professional readers.

Translation: not doing it will not help you win friends and influence people at agencies and publishing houses.

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

Again, be warned, those of you who have been taught by teachers who adhere in the AP style: they will tell you to write out only numbers under 10.

Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG in a manuscript.

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

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

Yes, I know: your word-processing program probably changes this automatically, but change it back. Any agent would make you do this before agreeing to submit your manuscript to an editor, so you might as well get into this salutary habit as soon as possible.

Microsoft may actually have a point here: doubling the dashes is a monumental pain (thanks in large part to their auto formatter’s preferences), and the practice IS archaic. Books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy; many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them. An AP-trained teacher will tell you to use the longer emdash, as will the Chicago Manual of Style.

In this, however, they are wrong, at least as far as manuscripts are concerned. Standard format is invariable upon this point. And yes, it is a common enough pet peeve that the pros will complain to one another about how often submitters do it.

And heck, MS Word’s grammar checker has more than once told me to replace the correct form of there, their, or they’re with an incorrect one, and it won’t commit to whether to capitalize the first word after a colon (as journalists now do) or not (as book writers do, with the notable exception of JK Rowling).

So who are you gonna believe, me or Bill Gates?

(17) Adhere to the standard rules of punctuation, not what it being done in newspapers, magazines, books, or on the Internet. Especially the rule calling for TWO spaces after every period and colon.

In other words, do as Strunk & White say, not what others do.

I haven’t mentioned this one before, but in recent months, I’ve seen enough deviations from standard punctuation (I’m looking at YOU, JKR!) to believe this rule deserves inclusion on the list.

The primary deviation I’ve been seeing in the last couple of years is leaving only one space, rather than the standard two, after a period. Yes, printed books often do this, to save paper (the fewer the spaces on a page, the more words can be crammed onto it, right?). A number of writing-advice websites, I notice, and even some writing teachers have been telling people that this is the wave of the future — and that adhering to the two-space norm makes a manuscript look obsolete.

At the risk of sounding harsh (and, apparently, contradicting Miss Snark), poppycock.

There is a very, very practical reason to preserve that extra space after each sentence: ease of reading and thus editing. As anyone who has ever edited a long piece of writing can tell you, the white space on the page is where the comments — grammatical changes, pointing out flow problems, asking, “Does the brother really need to die here?” — go. Less white space, less room to comment.

Translation: until everyone in the industry makes the transition editing in soft copy — which is, as I have noted before, both harder and less efficient — the two-space rule is highly unlikely to change.

There you have it: the rules. Practice them until they are imbedded into your very bones, my friends: literally every page of text you submit to an agent, editor, or literary contest (yes, including the synopsis) for the rest of your professional life should be in standard format.

Oh, and it’s a good idea to make sure everything is spelled correctly, too, and turn off the widow/orphan control; it makes pages be an uneven number of lines. Keep up the good work!

PS: if you’re having trouble visualizing how some of these rules might look on the printed page, don’t worry — I’m going to be giving you visual aids in my next few posts.