Informed opinion — and some wisdom on screenplays

News travels fast! I have already been contacted by a couple of readers who found yesterday’s posting about standard typefaces rather upsetting. “Are you seriously suggesting,” one of them demanded, “that any submission that ISN’T in Times or Courier is automatically rejected by agents and disqualified from contests?”

No, that was not what I was suggesting. Contests seldom actually specify typefaces, and naturally, there are agents out there who are open-minded enough (or train their query screeners to be so) that they will consider submissions that are in alternate fonts. Actually, I would be quite surprised to hear any agent or editor ADMITTING IN PUBLIC that initial decisions are made primarily upon cosmetic criteria, however willing they may be to say it in private.

However — and this is an important thing for an aspiring writer to know — just as in a contest, the writer who is submitting to an agency or small publishing house does not know who will be reading her work. If you happen to hit a manuscript screener’s pet peeve — or the pet peeve of the screener’s boss, or of his favorite high school English teacher — the chances of your work progressing further through the contest, agency, or publishing house are basically nil.

Long-time readers of this blog will recognize this as a derivative of the grapefruit rule: an agent’s reaction to your submission may be dictated by what she ate for breakfast and whether it agreed with her or not. Certain factors affecting the judgment of any given reader — be it contest judge, agent, or editor — will always be beyond your control. If a contest judge has received bad news just before reading your entry, or an agent’s screener has just burned her lip on an over-hot latte, or an editor has just had a fight with his boyfriend, they’re not going to be in the best frame of mind to be open to your talent. This you must just accept, or you will drive yourself crazy trying to second-guess the personal likes and dislikes of those you must impress to promote your work.

However, by being industry-savvy, you CAN make your work less likely to fall prey to an already annoyed reader’s rejection response. If you use standard format in both contest and submission situations, you will substantially reduce the probability that your work will rub a touchy screener the wrong way.

And since there are SUCH strong typeface preferences amongst people who work in the industry, you can’t ever go wrong if you use the typefaces they prefer. To my mind, using Times or Courier instead of, say, Helvetica or Georgia (perfectly dandy fonts, from an aesthetic perspective) is the equivalent of wearing a conservative dark-blue suit to an interview with a bigwig you have never met, rather than a striking designer creation. The designer gown may well be more memorable, but you run the twin risks of (a) your interviewer’s disliking it, and thus you and/or (b) the gown’s being what your interviewer remembers, rather than you.

Stick with standard format and a frankly dull typeface, and let your writing speak for itself.

It is only fair to tell you that not all professional writers would agree with this advice. Because I hold such strong views on the subject, I was gearing up to ask a few of the best writers I know to weigh in, when one of them spontaneously (honest!) posted a comment on the blog, so I am including them here. What follows next are the words of the spectacularly talented Cindy Willis, whose brilliant literary novel, THE LONG THIRST, will stick in your brain forever. You could SING her first chapter — seriously, it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of prose I have ever read, and let me tell you, my eyes have covered a lot of pages in their time. Given how VERY gifted a prose stylist she is, I had rather expected her to come down on the opposite side of the formatting issue, but here is what she posted:

“Bravo! Heed these words well, oh writers! I was awarded the 2004 Zola award for fiction, opposite Anne, and signed with an agent shortly after (though my book has yet to land a publisher.) So many times I have offered similar advice to other writers, to pay attention to the physical details of their submissions. I remember their eyes glassing over–Yeah, yeah, whatever. MY writing will shine through.

“Sadly, they may have a hard lesson to learn. An agent once told me she does her initial weeding of submissions on a purely surface level: clean, neatly printed, white envelope; proper margins; crisp, quality white paper; requested format and materials; absolutely no mistakes – misspellings, etc. – on the first page or into the round file it goes. Since she receives in excess of 20,000 submissions a year, she doesn’t worry too much about letting a “potentially” brilliant writer slip past.

“The message? If you make your submission (whatever kind of submission it may be) a perfect vision of professionalism, you have already vastly increased your chances. This is one area of the process you CAN control. Make sure they get the opportunity to see that brilliant writing!”

Back to me again, so I can say I told you so. (As I just did.) Proper format is king — or at any rate, the key that opens the front door in literary circles.

Before I got too into patting myself on the back, I thought I should ask a screenwriter about formatting as well. I don’t write screenplays myself, so my information on the subject comes from people who do, their agents, directors, and producers.

So I asked the genuinely gifted Kathy Dunnehoff, also a former winner of top novel honors in the PNWA contest, who has recently turned her substantial talents to screenwriting. Kathy has an impeccable eye, a seemingly effortless but tightly-crafted narrative voice, and an absolutely peerless sense of comic timing. Even more importantly for our purposes here, she is a veteran of both the cut-throat mainstream novel market and the notoriously mercurial screenplay market. She has been to the wars, and can give us the skinny on them. Quoth Kathy:

“With screenplays the easy answer is you don’t have to worry about font
because your screenwriting software takes care of it. And you must possess
software or your life will be an indent nightmare!

The software everyone uses is Final Draft. I don’t, though. I’m a frugal writer, and for a mere $39 I bought Hollywood Screenwriter. I managed to write two screenplays, sign with an agent in L.A. and get really great rejections from several production companies and a director I’d actually heard of. No one
apparently cares how much you spend on your writer’s gear.

“That leads me to the hard answer about font. It’s not the font. It’s never
the font. It’s the story. In screenwriting I think this plays out in
writers struggling with the structure of the screenplay. We worry that our
story couldn’t possibly fit into 120 pages because it really needs to be a
four-hour movie. We fight in cutting dialogue because we want to tell
things instead of show them.

“But really we don’t trust our own story to not only find its way in the structure given to us but bloom because of it. For example, in my garden (the actual one. I know how writers assume metaphor) I grow sweet peas. They will start out just fine snaking out along the ground, but you’ll get no flowers. They need a trellis. If you train them to a structure of some kind, they’ll bloom like crazy. Sure, they are in ways limited by what they have to grow on, but what they gain is far greater.

“Trust your trellis, trust your font, trust your cheap
software, and really, truly, deeply trust your story.”

Anne here again: great advice, Kathy, and I think you bring up a HUGELY important issue that writers tend not to discuss much: as a group, we’re not big fans of restrictions. We’re all about expressing ourselves, right? So who the hell are contest judges and agents and editors to tell us that we can only express ourselves within certain rigid confines?

It’s a valid question — but ultimately, Kathy is absolutely right. You can quibble until you’re blue in the face about the need to conform to the strictures of standard formatting; if you are very brave (and have lots of time to devote to the experiment), you can spend years submitting work in wild typefaces, challenging the very notion of a standard format. Be my guest, if that is the way you want to expend your energy. Just be aware that you have made a choice to fight the system, and appreciate your own efforts accordingly.

However, what is important to most writers is talent and story. If you accept from the first minute that you sit down to write a book that it needs to comply with certain cosmetic restrictions, you can free yourself from the necessity of fighting. You can free yourself from worrying about that grapefruit your dream agent’s screener may or may not have had for breakfast on the morning that your work falls upon her desk. You can free yourself from wondering about whether your work has gotten rejected, as even the best writers’ work does, for superficial reasons, rather than because of your writing itself. You can worry instead about how best to express your talent, convey your voice, and tell your story.

You can, in short, place the bulk of your attention where it belongs, on the writing, not on the format. And that, for a good writer, is a much more comfortable way to live a rich, full creative life.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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