What does standard format look like, anyway? Part VIII: taking your fate into your own hands, or, you go, princess!

Hello, campers —

Well, I am feeling a bit better after my weekend off, due in part to taking a break to go see Seattle Opera’s surprisingly powerful production of AIDA. I may have an odd sense of humor, but few things cheer me up like observing a character bellowing her deepest secrets at the top of her (well-developed) lungs for minutes at a time, only to have her antagonist, who is standing all of three feet away, observe to the audience, “Aha! Her reaction has betrayed her!” as if all the the soprano had done was frown fleetingly.

Why was I surprised by the production, you ask? From an editor’s point of view, the story of Aida is kind of a nightmare — predictable, repetitious, and quite, quite downbeat. The protagonist is almost completely passive (unless you count the aforementioned secret-bellowing); her love interest is quite possibly the least ethically flexible human being ever to have trod the planet, and the moment that the latter changes his mind even a little, Aida’s father pops out from behind a 30-foot statue of Anubis or somebody and tells Dumbo that he’s just betrayed his country.

ANY editor would have told Verdi to have the father use the information to set up the ambush of the Pharaoh’s army FIRST and gloat about it later. That’s just a basic application of the old Show, don’t tellrule.

This production violated this precept even more than most by moving the big trial scene in Act II offstage entirely, so the audience only hears it. Actually, this turned out to be quite a clever way of staging it, since all the audience had to watch throughout was the reaction of Stephanie Blythe, the perfectly marvelous mezzo playing Aida’s rival, Amneris, instead of the usual 50+ supernumeraries wearing King Tut headdresses. In fact, switching the perspective here and in a number of small ways throughout might have made an audience member new to the storyline wonder why the opera was called AIDA, not AMNERIS.

I’m bringing this up not only because I enjoyed the production, of course: this isn’t a bad strategy for perking up a story centered around a passive protagonist.

A I’ve mentioned before, readers tend to lose interest in passive protagonists’ dilemmas rather quickly, and with good reason: characters who sit around and think about their problems, or let events happen all around them without at least trying to change the status quo, become predictable after the third or fourth scene. A character who surprises the reader by taking the occasional risk is inherently suspense-generating — what, the reader wonders, will that feisty protagonist do next?

Now, to be fair, Aida has some pretty great excuses for being passive: she’s Amneris’ slave; she’s in love with Amneris’ fiancé, who also happens to be the commander of the army fighting with her own father’s troops; pretty much everyone she loves has been or is about to be slaughtered, and Amneris is a savvy enough expression-watcher that she’s understood those shouted asides about how deeply Aida and the general are in love. About all she can manage to do is determine the method of her own death — which is, you guessed it, slow and passive.

Hey, it’s an opera: you expected it NOT to be tragic?

Emphasizing Amneris’ perspective was a great choice — not only is she far, far more active in the story than Aida (whose best aria is about not the storyline per se, but how much she misses her homeland), but she experiences genuine moral dilemmas, a broad range of easily shouted-about emotions, AND has both the courage and the resources to act upon her decisions. While Aida stands around and suffers tunefully, Amneris gets to do cool things like have her boyfriend dragged off by guards, offer him his life in exchange for renouncing his love, and curse the priests who bury him alive.

As we editors like to say, she experiences a growth curve throughout the narrative. Since Aida is primarily an observer of her own tragedy, her mindset doesn’t change a whole lot.

Not that I blame her. I wouldn’t like to be walled up in a tomb, either.

Which is not to say that a narrative always benefits by concentrating on the more powerful players — anyone with a decently-stocked fiction collection could point out many novels that prove quite the opposite.

However, concentrating on a character who fights against fate, growing and changing in the process, rather than one who merely suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, usually produces a more sympathetic protagonist. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it, that the pure victim might excite less empathy than her feistier foe?

None of which, I notice, has a great deal to do with the post I am re-running today. Except this: presentation choices do affect the emotional impact of art. Even, as in today’s examples, when those choices are purely cosmetic.


I was all set to clamber onto my moral high horse again and dispense more of yesterday’s philosophy, honest — but then sharp-eyed long-time reader Janet caught, as is her wont, the missing puzzle piece in my illustrated romp through standard format. So I’m sliding elevated ethical questions onto the back burner for the nonce and diving right back into practicalities.

As Janet so rightly pointed out, I had completely skipped over one of the more common first-page-of-chapter controversies (and yes, in my world, there are indeed many from which to choose), whether to place the title and/or chapter designation at the top of the page, or just above the text.

To place the options before you, should the first page of a chapter look like this:

Or like this?

Now, I had been under the impression that I had waxed long and eloquent about the side I took in this burning debate, and that quite recently, but apparently, my eloquence has been confined to posts more than a year old, exchanges in the comments (which are not, alas, searchable, but still very worth reading), and my own fevered brain.

So let me clear up my position on the matter: the first version is in standard format; the second is not. No way, no how. And why might a professional reader prefer the first?

Chant it with me now: BECAUSE IT LOOKS RIGHT TO THEM.

Yet, if anything, agents and contest judges see more examples of version #2 than #1. Many, many more.

Admittedly, anyone who screens manuscripts is likely to notice that a much higher percentage of them are incorrectly formatted than presented properly, this particular formatting oddity often appears in otherwise perfectly presented manuscripts.

And that fact sets Millicent the agency screener’s little head in a spin. As, I must admit, it does mine and virtually every other professional reader’s. Because at least in my case — and I don’t THINK I’m revealing a trade secret here — I have literally never seen an agent submit a manuscript to a publishing house with format #2. And I have literally never even heard of an agent, editor, or anyone else in the publishing industry’s ASKING for a chapter heading to be moved from the top of the page to just above the text.

Oh, I’ve heard some pretty strange requests from agents and editors in my time, believe me; I’m not easily shocked anymore. But to hear a pro insist upon placing the chapter heading where you have to skip down a third of a page to read it…well, that would have me reaching for my smelling salts. (Do they even make those anymore?)

But clearly, somebody out there is preaching otherwise, because agents, editors, and contest judges are simply inundated with examples of this formatting anomaly. We see bushels of ‘em. Hordes of aspiring writers are apparently absolutely convinced that the sky will fall in if that chapter heading is located anywhere but immediately above the text.

In fact, it’s not all that uncommon for an editor to find that after she has left a couple of subtle hints that the writer should change the formatting…

…the subsequent drafts remain unchanged. The writer will have simply ignored the advice.

(Off the record: editors HATE it when their advice is ignored. So do agents. Contest judges probably wouldn’t be all that fond of it, either, but blind submissions mean that a writer must submit the same chapter two years running to the same contest, have the entry land in the same judge’s pile — in itself rather rare — AND the judge would have to remember having given that feedback.)

This may seem like a rather silly controversy — after all, why should it matter if the white space is above or below the title? — but sheer repetition and writerly tenacity in clinging to version #2 have turned it from a difference of opinion into a vitriol-stained professional reader pet peeve. (See earlier comment about how we tend to react to our advice being ignored; it isn’t pretty.)

Which, unfortunately, tends to mean that in discussions of the issue at conferences degenerate into writing-teacher-says-X, editor-at-Random-House-says-Y: lots of passion demonstrated, but very little rationale beyond each side’s insisting that the other’s way just looks wrong.

However, there is a pretty good reason that moving the chapter heading information to just above the text looks wrong to someone who edits book manuscripts for a living: it’s a formatting tidbit borrowed from short stories, whose first pages look quite different:

There, as you may see for yourself, is a mighty fine reason to list the title just above the text: a heck of a lot of information has to come first. But that would not be proper in a book-length manuscript, would it?

Let’s see what Noël’s editor has to say, viewing his submission as the first page of a book:

Ouch. (That last bit would have been funnier if the entire page were readable, by the way, but my camera batteries were running low.) But as Millicent and that angry mob of pitchfork-wielding ignored editors would be only too happy to tell you, short stories don’t HAVE chapters, so who on earth are they to be telling those of us in the book world how to format our manuscripts?

Stick with version #1.

Which is not to say, of course, that this particular small deviation will automatically and invariably result in instantaneous rejection. Chances are it won’t, even in the latté-stained hands of the most format-sensitive Millicent. (See, she spilled coffee on her hands after she took a sip while it was still too hot — and if you didn’t get that joke, you probably haven’t been reading this blog for very long.) If a submission is beautifully written AND technically correct in every other respect, she might only shake her head over the location of the chapter heading, making a mental note to tell you to change it between when her boss, the agent, signs the writer and when they will be submitting the manuscript to editors at publishing houses.

But if you don’t mind my saying so, that’s a mighty hefty set of ifs.

While I’ve got the camera all warmed up, this would probably be a good time to show another ubiquitous agent and editor pet peeve, the bound manuscript – and this one IS generally an automatic-rejection offense. As with other ploys to make a manuscript appear identical to a published book, binding the loose pages of a manuscript for submission will NOT win you friends in the publishing world.

Why? Not only does this not look right (I spared you the chanting this time), but it seems so wrong that Millicent will be positively flabbergasted to see a submitter to do it.

Seriously, this is one of those things that is so engrained in the professional reader’s mind that it seldom even occurs to authors, agents, or editors to mention it as a no-no at writers’ conferences. Heck, I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned it once within the last six months — and by anyone’s standards, I’m unusually communicative about how manuscripts should be presented.

So pay attention, because you’re not going to hear this very often: by definition, manuscripts should NEVER be bound in any way.

Not staples, not spiral binding, not perfect binding. There’s an exceedingly simple reason for this: binding renders it impossible (or at least a major pain in the fingertips) to pull out a chapter, stuff it in one’s bag, and read it on the subway.

Hey, paper is heavy. Would YOU want to lug home ten manuscripts every night on the off chance you’ll read them?

In practice, I’m sorry to report, a bound manuscript will seldom survive long enough in the screening process for the chapter-separation dilemma to arise, because — and it pains me to be the one to break this to those of you who’ve been submitting bound manuscripts, but if I don’t tell you, who will? — those pretty covers tend never to be opened.

Remember that immense pile of submissions Millicent has to screen before going home for the day — and it’s already 6:30? Well, when she slits open an envelope that reads REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside, she fully expects to see something like this lurking between the cover letter and the SASE tucked underneath:

But in the case of the bound manuscript, she instead sees something like this:

Kind of hard to miss the difference, isn’t it? And unfortunately, nine times out of ten, the next sound a bystander would hear would be all of that nice, expensive binding grating against the inside of the SASE.

Honestly, it’s not that she is too lazy to flip open the cover; she just doesn’t see why she should. Her logic may not be fair or open-minded, but it’s a fairly common argument throughout the industry: if this submitter does not know this very basic rule of manuscripts, how likely is she to know the rules of standard format?

And if she does not know either, how likely is she to be producing polished prose?

Yes, this logic often does not hold water when it comes down to an individual case. But from her perspective, that matters less than we writers would like — because, as unpleasant as it is for aspiring writers to realize, her agency is going to see enough technically perfect submissions this week to afford to be able to leap to unwarranted conclusions about this one.

Don’t waste your money on binding.

Now that I have depressed you all into a stupor, let me add a final note about learning to conform to these seemingly arbitrary preconditions for getting your book read: any game has rules.

If you saw a batter smack a baseball, then dash for third base instead of first on his way around the diamond, would you expect his home run to count? Would an archer who hit the bulls-eye in her neighbor’s target instead of her own win the grand prize? If you refused to pay the rent on Park Place because you didn’t like the color on the board, would you win the Monopoly game?

I can go on like this for days, you know.

My point is, submitting art to the marketplace has rules, too, and while your fourth-grade P.E. teacher probably did not impart them to you (as, if I ran the universe, s/he would have), you’re still going to be a whole lot better at playing the game if you embrace those rules, rather than fight them.

You’ll also, in the long run, enjoy playing the game more.

And remember, you’re playing this game by choice: you could, after all, make your own rules and publish your book yourself. Weigh the possibilities, and keep up the good work!

10 Replies to “What does standard format look like, anyway? Part VIII: taking your fate into your own hands, or, you go, princess!”

  1. Ah, I LOVED Aida when I saw it way back when. Got to wear my finest opera attire and mingle with the uninformed goers who wore jeans to the event.

    I’m glad you’re feeling a bit better.

    Which brings me to my question: If one has previously sent a Millicent-unfriendly bomb, and that one has not received a reply in one’s kindly-enclosed SASE, would one consider re-submitting a properly-formatted submission pretending that the former never occurred?

    Just wondering.

    1. Ooh, tough call, Auburn — I’d say it really depends upon how much time has passed. If it’s been less than a couple of weeks, I would say no — the original is probably still in the to-read pile, and a second submission would come across as pushy. If it’s been longer than that, I suppose a cagey writer COULD conceivably send a cleaned-up copy ostentatiously labeled with package tracking, along with a cover letter saying that the first one might have been lost.

      Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. Given how many submissions Millicent reads in a week, she often has a surprisingly good memory.

  2. My favorite story about AIDA is that in 1958 when Leontyne Price was invited to make her Met debut in the title role, the head of NBC-Opera forbad her to do so. Somebody asked him why, and he said, “Leontyne is to be a great artist. When she makes her debut at the Met, she must do it as a lady, not a slave.”

    She made her Met debut three years later in IL TROVATORE as Leonora–a noblewoman.

    1. How fascinating, Dr. F. Three years is a long time to wait — especially when Ms. Price had so much stage presence that I can only imagine the more chains one draped around her, the less degraded she would have looked. Quite a phenomenon.

  3. Thanks for the great series about manuscript formatting.

    I’m having trouble finding a credible source which discusses how to format when there are location headings at the start of sections within a chapter.

    In a published book, they’d be left-justified with a blank line between it and the start of the text. After a section, there would be two or three blank lines, then the next left justified heading.

    How do I do this in a manuscript? Left-justified chapter heading, then a # for the blank line, then start the section. At the end of the section, one # for the blank line, then the heading, etc?

    I don’t like the # between the heading and the text it heads because when the manuscript is double spaced, it tends to float all alone.

    I put the headings directly above the text and just used one blank line with a # between the end of one block and the next. It gets the idea across and I’m consistent with it throughout the manuscript, but I’d love to know how to do it right.

    Thanks in advance.

    1. You’re welcome, Odin — and as it happens, I’m just about to run another series on manuscript formatting. I’ll make a note to include a concrete example of a section heading.

      In the meantime, I’ll give you the short version: skip one double-spaced line after the text in the previous section, left-justify the section heading in boldface, then start the text of the section on the next double-spaced line. That’s it — no #s at all; they’re not required in book manuscripts.

      I hope this helps!

      1. That makes a lot of sense, and it was almost what I was doing. It’s good to know that the intuitive solution was the right one.

        Though, I thought boldface wasn’t appropriate anywhere in a manuscript. And everything I’ve read says that something (# or * or multiples or either) to mark the intentionally blank line is necessary.

        Can you recommend a book as a manuscript formatting reference? I’d like to add it to my shelf in case I need an answer outside of the bare bones again.

        Thank you very much.

        1. Boldface shouldn’t be used for emphasis, but it’s okay to use in a section heading; some agents actively prefer it, as did my memoir’s publisher.

          If you don’t mind my saying so, if ALL the sources you’ve been consulting are telling you to mark skipped lines with # or *, you haven’t been consulting sources conversant with the current book market. The # is used for short stories and articles, not book manuscripts, and I’ve never seen a professional manuscript (as opposed to a contest entry) use *.

          As I explained at length in this post, the formatting for each type of writing is specifically different, but almost no sources out there bother to tell aspiring writers that. The sources out there disagree for the very simple reason that they’re talking about different things Aspiring writers often assume (as do a surprisingly high percentage of advice-givers) that all writing should be formatted identically, regardless of where it will be submitted, but that’s just not true.

          Which is why, incidentally, that unless you’re willing to invest hundreds of dollars in a Chicago Manual of Style, you’re not going to be able to find a 100% authoritative guide on how to format a manuscript. Since standards do vary — AP style and standard format for manuscripts differ widely, for instance — any authoritative source would have to be a 1000 pages long to include specific sections on each type.

          That’s another reason why, I suspect, that writing advice on the web is so often internally conflictual: because such a high percentage of the aspiring writers’ market wants easy answers, preferably in the form of a single-page list of rules universally applicable to every writing venue, a short list of rules is quite likely to run afoul of some established standard somewhere.

          But don’t take my word for it — if you prefer to take advice other than mine, go ahead. But I can tell you now that virtually any US-based agent would make you take the # out, because short story formatting would imply to an editor that both the author and the agent are inexperienced in dealing with book manuscripts. In a submission process where tiny details often make an immense difference, that’s a chance that few agents will be willing to take. However, it’s up to you.

          I’m sorry if that all sounds a bit peevish, but believe me, no one would love it more than I would if there were a single, easy-to-use source to which I could refer aspiring writers for formatting directions.

          1. Thank you again for your prompt reply.

            It doesn’t sound peevish. It sounds authoritative about current standards.

            I think what happens online is that people quote from others online, without having first-hand experience. Or they quote from older books which still assume typewriters and #s.

            Since this is my first novel, I want it to stand on its own when agents read it. I don’t want to get wrong any of those tiny details which might cause them to chuck it out on the cover sheet or the first heading, before even getting to the first page of prose.

            Your site and posts fill a hole for people like me. Thank you

          2. That’s absolutely the right attitude, Odin! You don’t want anything to distract from your good writing.

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