Many thanks to all of you sweet souls who forwarded me links to the many literary and SF sites out there that commemorated what would have been my good old friend Philip K. Dick’s 79th birthday. This was the first year that I received a whole boatload of these messages, so it was great fun — rather like receiving a flotilla of birthday cards in the mail.
I needed the cheering up, I’m afraid, as usually, I throw a little dinner party on this particular day. Not only out of respect for my first serious writing teacher, but also as a birthday shindig for some of the other great artists born today: Beethoven, Sir Noël Coward, Sir Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001 and CHILDHOOD’S END fame), and of course, Author! Author!’s own beloved, wise auntie, Jane Austen.
You could do worse than to raise a glass to that crowd. But this year, I’ve just been too wiped out to allow anyone but the postman to drop by — and some days, I’m not even up to seeing him.
Thus, no dinner party this year, more’s the pity. I did a little too much last week, so this weekend, all I did was sleep and make groggy suggestions about how to maneuver the Christmas tree in order to make it stand up straight. (Which actually is necessary in our household: due to a truly spectacular bracken-and-cat interaction a few years back, we now tie the top of the tree to a ring firmly attached to the ceiling, so the tree does not need to be completely vertical in order to keep from toppling over.)
But enough about me; let’s talk about you.
While I was incapacitated, a group of my wonderful readers was holding down the fort here, trading tips on how to deal with that pesky problem, how to add a second space between sentences if a writer had mistakenly typed the whole thing thinking there should only be one. If you have even a passing interest in this topic, I implore you, check out the comments on the last two days’ posts; it’s well worth it.
We have only few rules of standard format left to cover in this series, so my first instinct was to use the text of one of Philip’s short stories for the examples. (Seemed appropriate, given that he used to mark deviations from standard format on stories I wrote for school and send them back to me for correction. What 11-year-old girl wouldn’t have loved THAT?) But since fair use permits only 50 consecutive words in a quote without explicit permission from the copyright holder, and the copyright holders in his case have a nasty habit of waving $2 million lawsuits in my general direction (and my quondam publisher’s) every time I so much as breathe his name, that didn’t seem entirely wise.
So I thought, in honor of the day, I would use a little something that I am undoubtedly entitled to reproduce here. Here is the first page of Chapter Six of my memoir:
Every chapter should begin like this: on a fresh page, 12 single lines (or 6 double-spaced) from the top. As with the first page of text, the only reference to the author’s name or the title should appear in the slug line, located in the upper left-hand margin. (And in answer to reader Janet’s intelligent question: the slug line should appear .5 inches from the top of the paper, floating within the 1-inch-deep top margin. I can’t believe I never mentioned that before.) The page number belongs within it, rather than anywhere else on the page.
The slug line confuses a lot of aspiring writers; until you have seen piles and piles of professional manuscripts, it looks kind of funny, doesn’t it? And when you’ve been told over and over again that a manuscript should have a 1-inch margin on all sides, it can seem counterintuitive to add a line of text, even such a short one, IN that margin.
But I assure you, it’s always been done that way. And why? Followers of this series, chant it with me now: BECAUSE IT LOOKS RIGHT.
Yes, that logic IS tautological, now that you mention it. If you have a problem with that, I would suggest taking it up with the powers that rule the universe. I, as I believe the reference above to my memoir’s troubled path makes abundantly clear, apparently do not rule the universe.
If I did, today would be a holiday for every writer on the planet. Especially the ones who are having trouble getting their work published, like, oh, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jane Austen all did at the beginning of their fiction careers. (I just mention.)
Back to business. Placing the slug line in the header (located in Word under the VIEW menu) also enables the writer to take advantage of one of the true boons of the advent of word processing, pages that number themselves. Every so often, I will receive a manuscript where the author has, with obviously monumental effort, HAND-numbered each page, so it looks like this:
See how pulling the slug line down into the text messes with the spacing of the page? An entire line of text is sacrificed to it — and let me tell you, that line is not going to go quietly.
Why not? Well, what’s going to happen if new writing is inserted on a page formatted this way? That’s right — the author is going to have to go back and move each and every one of those slug lines to match the NEW pagination.
I’d show you a picture of this, but it’s just too ugly to contemplate. Trust me, it would be a heck of a lot of work.
See any other problems with this page? How about the fact that the slug line includes the word PAGE? Shouldn’t be there; just the numbers will suffice.
Did I just hear some huffs of indignation out there? “But Anne,” I hear the formatting-ambitious cry, “it’s kind of stylish to include PAGE before the page number, isn’t it? It’s just a matter of personal style — who could be hurt by including it, if I like the way it looks?”
Well, you, for starters. And why? (Chanters, ready your lungs.) BECAUSE IT JUST WOULD NOT LOOK RIGHT TO A PROFESSIONAL READER.
I’m quite serious about this; I’ve seen screeners get quite huffy about this one. :Does this writer think I’m STUPID?” Millicent is prone to huff. (Don’t answer that first question; it’s rhetorical.) “Does she think I DON’T know that the numeral that appears on every page refers to the number of pages? Does she think I’m going to go nuts and suddenly decide that it is a statistic, or part of the title?”
Don’t bait her. Do it the standard way.
Okay, do you spot any other problems? What about the fact that the first paragraph of the chapter is not indented, and the first character is in a different typeface?
The odd typeface for the first letter, in imitation of the illuminated texts hand-written by monks in the Middle Ages, doesn’t turn up all that often in manuscripts other than fantasy and YA, for one simple reason: books in that category are more likely to feature this it’s-a-new-chapter signal than others. But once again, what an editor may decide, rightly or wrongly, is appropriate for a published book has no bearing upon what Millicent expects to see in a manuscript.
Save the bells and whistles for someone who will appreciate them. Hop in your time machine and track down a medieval monk to admire your handiwork, if you like, but in this timeframe, keep the entire manuscript in the same typeface and size.
The non-indented first paragraph of a chapter is fairly common in mystery submissions, I have noticed; I’ve been told by many mystery writers that this is an homage to the great early writers in the genre, an echo of their style.
But you know what? Almost without exception, in Edgar Allan Poe’s time all the way down to our own, the EDITOR has determined the formatting that appeared on any given printed page, not the author. To professional eyes, especially peevish ones like Millicent’s, a manuscript that implicitly appropriates this sort of decision as authorial might as well be the first step to the writer’s marching into Random House, yanking off a well-worn riding glove, and striking the editor-in-chief with it.
Yes, you read that correctly: it’s sometimes seen as a challenge to editorial authority. And while we could speculate for the next week about the level of insecurity that would prompt regarding a minor formatting choice as a harbinger of incipient insurrection, is the manuscript of your first book REALLY the right place to engender that discussion?
If you want to make Millicent and her bosses happy — or, at any rate, to keep them reading calmly — indent every paragraph of the text should the expected five spaces. It just looks right that way.
While we’re at it, how about the bolded chapter number and title? Nothing in a manuscript should be in boldface. Nothing, I tell you. Uh-uh. Not ever.
Well, you could get away with the title itself on the tile page, but frankly, I wouldn’t chance it.
Nor should anything be underlined — not even names of books or song titles. Instead, they should be italicized, as should words in foreign tongues that are not proper nouns.
I heard that gigantic intake of breath out there from those of you who remember constructing manuscripts on typewriters: yes, Virginia, back in the day, underlining WAS the norm, for the simple reason that most typewriters did not have italic keys.
If you consult an older list of formatting restrictions, you might conceivably be told that publications, song titles, and/or foreign words (sacre bleu!) should be underlined. But trust me on this one: any agent would tell you to get rid of the underlining, pronto.
And why? All together now: because IT JUST DOESN’T LOOK RIGHT THAT WAY.
All right, campers, do you feel ready to solo? Here are two pages of text, studded with standard format violations for your ferreting-out pleasure. (I wrote these pages, too, in case anyone is worried about copyright violation or is thinking about suing me over it. Hey, stranger things have happened.)
How did you do? Are those problems just leaping off the page at you now? To reward you for so much hard work, here are a couple of correctly-formatted pages, to soothe your tired eyes:
Whenever you start finding yourself chafing at the rules of standard format, come back and take a side-by-side gander at these last sets of examples — because, I assure you, after a professional reader like Millicent has been at it even a fairly short time, every time she sees the bad example, mentally, she’s picturing the good example right next to it.
And you know what? Manuscripts that look right get taken more seriously than those that don’t. And regardless of how you may feel about Millicent’s literary tastes, isn’t a serious read from her what you want for your book?
Keep up the good work!