First things first: Boston-area readers, mark your calendars, because next month, I’m going to be giving a talk, The Multiple Myths of Philip K. Dick, at Harvard next month. Saturday, January 26th, to be precise, from 10 am to noon. I shall be joined by the excellent David Gill of Total DickHead fame. Advance registration is strongly encouraged, and I would love to see some of you there!
And in answer to that huge question mark hanging in the air above the heads of those of you who have been following my memoir’s saga faithfully for the last 2+ years: yes, I shall be speaking on precisely what you think I couldn’t possibly be. Not all the beans will be spilled, naturally, but I anticipate a fair number escaping the sack.
It’s all part of the festivities at Vericon, the Harvard/Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual convention. I am especially pleased by the invitation to speak, for back in the dim days of antiquity, I was one of the founding members of HRSFA — where, if memory serves, I was known there as “the girl,” to give you a rough indication of how many of us there were. It seems odd in retrospect, but then, nice Ivy Leaguers pretended that they didn’t read SF, by and large; we had a hard time getting Harvard even to recognize the association. Now, it’s one of the largest clubs on campus.
As Kurt Vonnegut would have told us all: and some people say there’s no such thing as progress.
Back to work. 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 knee-jerk rejection reasons given by a group of agents going over a stack of actual submissions at a conference, one by painful one. Because so many of the reasons caused writerly blood to boil and learned eyebrows to hit ceilings, I was sorely tempted to re-run that series while I was ill this fall, but in 2006, it took up more than three weeks’ worth of posts to cover the topic. Of late, I have had other proverbial fish to fry.
As we are heading into the long, dark days of winter, however, while agents and editors are cuddled up all snug in their offices, reading the manuscripts they hadn’t gotten to over the previous eleven months, it seemed like a good time to revisit 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 as early as the title page.
(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.)
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.
To set your minds at ease, forgetting to include a title page almost certainly won’t prevent Millicent from reading your manuscript; 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:
(Note to those of you Windows users who have been having problems viewing posted pictures: helpful reader Chris wrote in to say that you can view them in Windows Picture Viewer by right-clicking on the images and saving them to your hard disk. Thanks, Chris!)
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), 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’ manuscript is likely to be unpolished because he 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’ 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.
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:
While such a top page does indeed include the requisite information Millicent or her boss would need to contact the author, 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 exercises. 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 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. And 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? Keep up the good work!